One of my favourite games of all time is oft-neglected Final Fantasy IX. Of the many reasons to love this game, one is that it contains my favourite character ever cooked-up by Square-Enix: Vivi.
Released at the height of SE’s metaphysical zeitgeist (ca. 1994-2001), FFIX (2000) probes the question of existence from multiple angles. Right from the start, the game evokes Shakespeare’s great metaphysical claim, “All the world’s a stage,” by framing the entire game between two stage plays penned by a Lord Avon. If you didn’t get that wink at the Bard, the game also opens with a bewildered Vivi being led onto the stage that initiates this adventure by a rascally rat-boy named Puck (hello, A Midsummer Night’s Dream).
Life, Love, and Existence
From the Jonathan Taylor Thomas-wannabe, Zidane’s, discovery of his not-so-human descent, to the truth about Princess Garnet’s birth, metaphysical and existential uncertainty is at the heart of this tale. Pretty much every character in the game is on a search for identity (and almost all of them have mysterious pasts that “change everything”). But it is Vivi who steals the show.
There are a million reasons to love Vivi. From his big eyes to his oversized clothes, he is exceedingly endearing. Add to this that he is SE’s first characterization of the series’ archetypal black mage; that he is freaking powerful; and he manages to probe the meaning of his own existence without giving in to emo excesses, and it is not hard to see why this little dude is so easy to love.
Vivi’s very name suggests vitality and life (the fact that the Latin, vi, is twice repeated emphasizes this). Yet, he knows almost nothing of his own origins and, on his journey he finds that he has been manufactured by Alexandria as a weapon of war.
Sorrow. How do you prove that you exist? Maybe we don’t exist.
(Vivi, Final Fantasy IX)
[Warning: Mild Spoilers Below] Ultimately, Vivi finds no “proof” that he exists. The game is deliberately vague about this—maybe he doesn’t exist. But in the end, he ceases to care about that. Along with other Final Fantasy characters from this era (most notably, Tidus in FFX), Vivi finds that existence trumps essence (hello, Sartre). In the final tally, it does not matter who Vivi was born to be, what matters, for him, is who he chooses to be and, in the final analysis, Vivi chooses that he will be a friend.
Devotion. Someday I will be queen. But I will always be myself.
(Princess Garnet, Final Fantasy IX)
It seems that we so often look to find existential experience and meaning in romantic love. Many of the best Final Fantasy games depict this, as do a host of great tests. Last night I saw Water for Elephants, and was struck by how that film depicts love giving meaning to a young man who had lost his way. But the film’s finale was bitter–with nothing but romantic love to give him meaning, Jake becomes a sad, lonely old man.
This is a side to the story that few films show—romantic love is wonderful, and life affirming; but, it is not enough. Final Fantasy IX demonstrates this in a way that few other games in the series manage. Yes, there is a deeply meaningful love story here; however, the game derives much deeper meaning from the fact that the love story is just one of many love relationships that support and give meaning to the game’s cast. Vivi, more than any other character, demonstrates this. He learns to love deeply, and widely and, because of this, he finds a meaning that no tragedy can negate. As his name suggests, he is doubly a source of life for, whether he “exists” or not, he leanrs not only to find love, but also to make it (fitting, considering he, himself, was made).
Did Vivi’s life have meaning and value before he chose to make it so? While a textbook existentialism would suggest not; happily, Final Fantasy IX suggests otherwise. It is Vivi himself (and him alone), who makes this statement. While the other black mages made in the same fashion as him are depicted as mindless automaton weapons to be killed without thought, Vivi alone expresses sorrow at their destruction. They are beings who (as Vivi’s story demonstrates) have the potential to love and be loved, and it is this virtue that grants them meaning–even if many in-game characters fail to see it this way.
This is why I love Vivi. He loves and he is loved, and because of this he lives.