High Scores: Hymn of the Fayth

Like many blessed gamers, I remember Christmases by the games I was gifted. Christmas 2001 was Final Fantasy X, fresh off the Squaresoft presses. The local Best Buy clerk said they had enough copies to supply a small island nation. My father bought me one such copy with concern furrowed into his brow. The titular Fantasy and the box art with Tidus’s effervescing sword and Dream Zanarkand looming in the background were more than enough to set off his hair-trigger Satanic Panic alarm. Reluctantly, he bought me the game, which I played at my mom’s house for twelve-hour sessions the majority of my junior-year winter break, soaking up Spira’s lore like an Ice Flan soaks up Blizzaga.

If my father’s fears of video games’ influence on my faith were ever justified, this was the time. FFX’s narrative was sharply critical of organized religion, in ways that felt joyfully vindicating to a lapsed evangelical teenager. It incorporated the language of Christianity—sin, hymn, faith—and used it to question orthodoxy. Spira was a world in the thrall of Yevon, a hypocritical theocracy that kept its citizen-parishioners in a never-ending spiral of false hope, asceticism, and team sports. The first of the FF series to fully incorporate voice acting, FFX aspired to film; its gameplay was far more linear than previous installments, and this forwardness of storytelling made the religious critique feel all the more forceful. My time in Spira was a powerful antidote to the maudlin ritual of the candlelight service and the numbing tribalism of college football.

The music of FFX was, in typical Nobuo Uematsu fashion, gorgeous and thoughtful, full of skillfully developed leitmotifs and sensitivity to character, story, and environment. But the vast majority of the music in the game is non-diegetic: audible to the player but not the characters. The only diegetic music in the game’s universe is “The Hymn of the Fayth,” a Dorian-mode praise-and-worship number the whole world loves. The Hymn appears in the game dozens of times, in numerous arrangements. At various points, it is voiced in soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, and bass; in chorus and solo; in harmony and monophony; by believers and nonbelievers. It’s the only song the Spirans get, and they are obsessed with it. By limiting the diegetic music in Spira to a single song while making the game’s non-diegetic music rich and varied, Uematsu succeeded in conveying the bleak monotony of Spiran life while still evoking a complexity of emotions in the player.

Diegetic music in videogames has a long, rich history. As early as the original 1986 Legend of Zelda, characters in video games have listened to and played music to get around their worlds or simply get their kicks. Diegetic music can also turn into non-diegetic music, and vice versa. Donkey Kong Country begins with Cranky Kong playing the original Donkey Kong theme (a non-diegetic track in that game) on a diegetic victrola, which DK smashes with a very ’90s boombox that cranks the new-and-improved DKC remix, showing how diegetic music can be a way for videogame characters to comment on their own evolving fictions, their cultural and artistic legacies. In an opposite movement to the DKC intro, the opening of 1998’s Ocarina of Time takes the diegetic Recorder theme from the original LoZ and weaves it into a non-diegetic overture. Play between diegetic and non-diegetic music is instrumental to the complex world-building within a single game and between games in a series.

The late ’90s and early Aughts were an era when diegetic videogame music flourished through rhythm-based games like 1996’s PaRappa the Rapper, 1997’s Beatmania, and 1998’s Bust a Groove. These games made diegetic music central to gameplay, an innovation that had a noticeable bleed-over effect into established series. By the time of FFX, the FF series had already enthusiastically participated in the rhythm-game trend. FFVI (1994) forecasts the rise of rhythm-based games with the opera minigame, an extremely famous example of interactive diegetic videogame music. FFVII (1997) is full of rhythm-influenced minigames and sidequests: the Junon military parade, for instance, or the piano code for Tifa’s final limit break. FFVIII has the Garden Festival minigame; FFIX has the I Want to Be Your Canary sword fight, not unlike PaRappa in its time-based inputs. In this sense, FFX is something of a departure in how little the player interacts with the game’s music. There is never a challenge to see how well Tidus can remember the lyrics to “The Hymn of the Fayth,” for instance. The Hymn is central to the game’s story but not to its gameplay. It’s not turned into a cheesy minigame or gimmicky puzzle, which lends the song all the more gravity.

However, the lyrics of the Hymn were intended as a sort of puzzle, a prototype for what would become the Al Bhed cypher:

ieyui nobomeno

renmiri yojuyogo

hasatekanae kutamae.

If these syllables are rearranged, they form Japanese words with game-specific meanings.

Inore yo Ebonju (Pray, Yu Yevon)

Yumemi yo inorigo (Dream, Fayth)

Hatenaku sakaetamae (Prosper boundlessly)

I can easily imagine a version of the game with the characters discovering this hidden meaning, probably with the help of the player, though how it would work in an English translation I can’t guess. But I’m glad this hidden meaning stays hidden, an artifact of a design aesthetic that equates music and puzzles. In the world of FFX, “The Hymn of the Fayth” is many things: a protest anthem, a dream song, a monster lure, a bit of appropriated religious canon. But it is not a puzzle. The song is played often, but it is not played with. It asks the player to take it as seriously as the characters do by keeping us at a distance.

Taking the Hymn seriously is a hard ask when it’s being sung by a choir of burly Ronsos. One reason the hymn plays such a dominant role in FFX is to show off the PS2’s ability to render the human voice throughout the game, not just in one or two FMVs. As with the rest of the voice acting in FFX, the incorporation of the Hymn is a bit ham-fisted at times. But the game gets a lot right with the Hymn and its backstory. Maechen, an exposition-dumping NPC, informs the party that the hymn was once “sung in defiance of Bevelle,” the Yevonite equivalent of Vatican City. Eventually, the song became so popular that “Yevon could do nothing but capitulate … they took the song and made it scripture.” My experience with music and the church has followed a similar dynamic. My childhood megachurch prided itself in hosting a weekly rock concert through its hourlong praise-and-worship sessions, complete with electric guitars and DJ turntables. Christian music has long been adept at appropriating and sanitizing secular genres. FFX turns the tables by appropriating religious music for secular purposes. By blurring the line between diegetic and non-diegetic music, the Hymn mirrors other permeable boundaries in FFX: between dream and reality, past and present, holy and profane.