Save Point: Final Fantasy X

This month, I was going to write about Albert Odyssey, a 1997 RPG for the Sega Saturn. It was the first game I requested—the first game I asked for after seeing an ad in a magazine for it when I was in sixth grade, and the first RPG my dad and I played together. It was the initial adventure that set us on course to navigate lots of dungeons together, share strange worlds, and absorb lots of narratives and memories along the way. This is my last Save Point, so I wanted to reflect on my first RPG as a kind of bookend, an honoring of endings and beginnings.

I’m thinking instead about Final Fantasy X, which does this in a different way. The first thing I wrote for Cartridge Lit was an essay on FFX. It’s in my top three favorite games, so I always feel like I have more to say about it. I’ve considered it plenty through a personal lens. This month, I’m contemplating it on a larger scale.

I’m wondering to what extent games can prepare us for crises—for crossroads with stakes that stretch beyond ourselves. I remember learning in middle school that Ulysses S. Grant wanted to be a math teacher before the Civil War started, and being really surprised by that, being really startled by it. I think this is because it made me realize that we all have multiple potential paths within us, and which one unfolds isn’t just up to us. We’re swayed and shaped and sometimes pushed by politics and global affairs and sometimes armed conflict. That sometimes our path is chosen for us. Later in life, I talked to a woman on a plane who said she wanted to write fantasy novels, but that she was studying political science instead because she thought she could do more tangible good that way. She said she couldn’t turn away from the problems of the world, and that she wanted to make a direct impact. Similarly, I met another woman who said she wanted to be a yoga teacher, but that she was studying environmental law instead. Obviously, there are lots of different ways to make a positive impact on the world. There are lots of ways to do good, big and small. Cultural and legislative. Publicly recognized and private and unsung. I don’t want to draw a false dichotomy here. What’s interesting to me is this moment when people see something they can’t tolerate and that overrides certain other paths. This moment when they feel called to something.

We see this in games all the time, and the games often make it look easy. Thoughtless, really. Those involved are just involved—there’s no deliberation. In Final Fantasy X, we don’t get to see Yuna, one of the main characters, make her decision to become a Summoner—in other words, to take up the power necessary to fight against an oncoming evil named Sin. When we meet her, she has already become a Summoner. Her father was a Summoner before her, and we don’t get to know if she grappled with the decision to follow in his footsteps or whether she always assumed this is what she would do. Yuna isn’t the narrator of this story, so though we see her struggle with the burdens that come along with the path she has chosen, we never know exactly how she arrived at it or what sparked her conviction. It’s a sad path at times, and a hard path. But she knows she can’t turn away from people’s homes being destroyed, from lives being senselessly lost.

I’m interested in this idea of what we would do if the world were a utopia versus what we choose to do in the flawed world we have. Games sometimes touch on this. After the big conflict is over, after the final battle is won, in the end credits, sometimes we see some kind of montage revealing what the cast of heroes does in utopian peacetime. Sometimes they get married, have children, become teachers, run businesses, travel, create inventions, make art, go back to school, or retreat from society in cabins in the woods. It’s framed as, “Now that the conflict is over, they can be their utopian selves.” But the world we have doesn’t work like this. There is never an end to the conflict. There is never a shortage of things we might do to try to make things a little less awful for somebody somewhere, even just one person. So sometimes, that reality numbs people. Makes them throw their hands up. And sometimes it makes them commit to a path where they can engage with what they see wrong. Again, these things aren’t easy dichotomies. Lots of people do both. Our stats aren’t set.

Because FFX is among my favorite games—because it’s been with me since such a formative age—I find myself looking at the world we have and asking, self-consciously, but also sincerely, “What would Yuna do?” Because our world isn’t tidy. It’s not so simple as, “Go into the cloister and prove yourself and then defeat the thing that everyone agrees is a problem. Use force and win and that’s it.” A group of plucky misfits can do a lot, but they can’t single-handedly save the world in a way that invites immediate utopia for everyone everywhere. And so many games wrap up on this plot point, and maybe that’s part of what makes them so appealing, but also what prospectively limits them. Given the flawed and complicated and red-tape-filled and often corrupt and bitterly divided world we have, what would Yuna do? How would she apply her good intentions? What path would she choose, were she not all-powerful? Were she just a regular citizen, one of billions?

I don’t say this to condemn games. Or epic narratives. Or hero stories. I think they help us dream and articulate our ideals. Dr. Rudine Simms Bishop famously states that stories—particularly books, but all kinds of stories—can be both windows and mirrors. They show us ourselves and show us each other. They show a version of the world. What we do next with that information is not prescribed; it is left up to us. Stories help open up questions.

Games aren’t always stories, but my favorites are. The ones I’ve written about here, in this column, for the past year and a half, mostly are. Maybe part of what I like so much about these games is, in fact, that they force me to face these questions. To ask, “What would your heroes make of our world, and what does that mean for how you should act?” A mirror and a window.

I started out in political science my first year of college and ended up in literature and creative writing. A direct inversion of the woman I spoke to on the plane. I hope that this is (and was) the right thing to do. That this is a meaningful path. I do believe writing has incredible power—the power to help spread ideas. Ideas are what motivate and justify actions, or help call them into question. The world we have is built on ideas. They shouldn’t be underestimated.

I don’t know what Yuna would do if she were here, and I hope that even if in just some tiny way, I can help make the world better, through teaching, through writing, through small interactions in the day-to-day. I do think these stories we love so much prompt us not to be complacent—to keep asking what we would do if we could make a difference. Because in the end, we can.