The JRPG genre has always had strong thematic connections to adolescence and growing up. The standard opening of such games, where a young kid from a nowhere, backwater burg stretches their legs, finds they’ve grown too big for the life they knew, and goes off to confront the world goes beyond cliche to become almost a requirement. The average JRPG protagonist ends up defining a new family based on the friends they meet on their journey and, through the actions of a few (again, almost always young) individuals who refuse to fit into the NPC template, end up taking down tyrannical establishments and redefining the world. There’s a reason the genre was a very hard sell in the West until the mid-90s, when what, at the time, was the largest generation of console game players were reaching their teens. But even in a genre so awash in symbolism for youthful rebellion, Final Fantasy X stands out as perhaps the most “up yours old man, the kids are alright!” game of its era.
Final Fantasy X is not a subtle game. The story takes place on a world called Spira, and makes constant note about how this world is caught in a “spiral of death.” The world is threatened by a leviathan named Sin, and it turns out this monster has a direct connection to the largest governing and religious body in the world, the Church of Yu Yevon. Almost every main character is defined by an absent parent, either through death, abuse or neglect. So to recap: the world of Spira(l) is constantly under threat of a monster named Sin representing the literal sins of the both the previous generations and the most powerful cultural institution, and can only be defeated for good when the next generation ignores everything they’ve been instructed to do, find a way to overcome their neglect and redefine everything they were taught about the world. Believe it or not, it gets even less subtle as it goes on.
But that’s ok. Final Fantasy X is not trying to be subtle, and considering the whole point of the story is to provide a JRPG anthem for trusting the future generation to do what is right, it doesn’t need to be. Youthful rebellion has never been subtle, no matter what we tell ourselves after we are no longer the youth. Youthful rebellion is loud, bold, sometimes stupid, sometimes unfair, and no matter how effective or evocative it is, the previous generation seems to find some way of taking it as a threat to its very reality that must be opposed. How else can you explain a generation of radicals and hippies becoming so incensed at the very idea that “millennials” are now trying to take up the torch? How else can you reconcile older activists with weekly columns and constant media appearances claiming that students criticizing them is “no platforming” while they simultaneously try to bar said students from participation? How else can you reconcile a generation that utterly destroyed any hope the current generation will have of economic potential or even environmental stability getting so consistently irritated that the generation they robbed is “lazy” and “weak”? Sometimes there is a time for subtlety and sometimes there’s just a time to say “hey, fuck you baby boomer, maybe let someone who DIDN’T murder the world take a turn!” No, it’s not always fair, it’s not always polite, but fuck if sometimes the previous generation doesn’t need to hear it. That’s why all those previous generations said it to their own predecessors (as much as they may want to pretend otherwise now).
Spira, like Earth, is not in a sustainable situation. The best that Church of Yu Yevon could do was develope a fail safe to keep Sin’s actions in check for a short time. It’s not enough to save the world, but it’s enough to give the world some time to breath and rebuild a little. Then Sin returns, murders millions, and the Yevonnites call upon the strongest and most powerful of the next generation to sacrifice themselves to restore the calm. Not only does the Church actively oppose any other method of combating Sin, but they label it as heresy and are willing to commit genocide, both in overt and subtle forms, to prevent anyone from suggesting it.
Enter Tidus, one of the two main characters. Tidus is a young man from Spira’s far distant past, before Sin even existed. When we first meet him, Tidus’ life seems pretty great. He’s a celebrity with adoring fans and he gets to do what he loves (play a really stupid sport called Blitzball) for a living. Tidus has no reason to complain about anything, so he appears a cheerful, brash, maybe even spoiled kid. As it turns out, he is largely faking said positivity to avoid confronting his feelings regarding his father. His father, Jecht, was a negligent alcoholic who had no way of dealing with his own fears and failures other than lashing out at his son with emotional abuse. But his father is gone, and now his life is perfect, how can he let down the people who expect him to be just as perfect? The cracks in Tidus’ facade only break when Sin first appears, destroying his home and presumably sending him to another world (later revealed to be the distant future… Kind of, I’ll leave SOME spoilers alone for brevity).
At first, Tidus seems able to cope with the same optimism and impudent energy we saw from our short time with him earlier. Then he learns this bombshell: the reason his father disappeared was because he too was sent to this world, and on this future version of Spira, his father is beloved as a hero who overcame his demons and gave his life to help produce Spira’s current “Calm” from Sin. Tidus learns that Jecht did for all these strangers what he never could do for his own son: be present.
Enter Yuna, the second main character. A summoner on the pilgrimage to prepare for fighting Sin, Yuna seems resigned to her fate as a sacrifice. What are her needs and desires in the face of temporary relief from Sin? How could she face the world if they found out she wasn’t willing to give up her life for them? Like Tidus, it is a facade, and it is this realization that each other are pretty much the only people who “get it” that pushes them together. While it is easy to read the story as one where Tidus SHOWS Yuna that the preceding system is corrupt and that she is free, I prefer the reading where Tidus’ relationship gives Yuna the opportunity to play with ideas she’s already had and suppressed.
Yuna also mirrors Tidus in that she is defined by an absent father. Her father, Braska, became the high summoner who, along with Jecht, gave his life to calm Sin. Unlike Jecht, Yuna’s father was very loving and not negligent at all, but he still chose to give his life and leave his daughter alone. But even so, how can you resent a father leaving if it meant he gave the world hope? Yuna, like Tidus, is caught with conflicting feelings that this world refuses to give an outlet to.
The other characters are also defined either by absent parents or absent authority figures. Waka and Lulu, the “big brother” and “big sister” of the group, both lost their parents to Sin. Perhaps because their parents death was no a choice, they do not have the same initial resentment towards the system that Tidus and (secretly) Yuna do. Waka, in fact, is the biggest booster of Yevon, rationalizing everything horrible he sees, up until he is confronted by literal genocide of the “heretic” Al Bhed tribe. Rikku has more living family than the others, but is still marked by an absent mother. Even Kihmari, the largely silent, lion-like demihuman, is defined by his ousting from his tribe by bullies tormenting him “for his own good.” Only Auron is different, being an older figure and contemporary of both Jecht and Braska. But Auron is marked by the neglect of the previous system too, and his attempts to atone for his generation’s collective sins while trying to serve as a new father-figure for this neglected generation.
As the story progresses, it seems clear that there must be some method to defeat Sin other than the standard, temporary relief espoused by the Yevonites. But it also becomes clear that the Church of Yevon is not merely a well-meaning but regressive entity, but rather is intrinsically linked to the suffering of this world. The Calm that proceeds the sacrifice of the High Summoner becomes the catalyst that returns Sin to the world after a few short years. The Church heads are not merely ineffectual or out of touch, but are revealed to be LITERAL undead ghouls, willing to sacrifice the lives of countless young people, to send the best and brightest of each generation to their death and rebirth as the very monster they opposed, all to avoid losing their physical grip on a dying world.
One of the most thematically important moments of the game’s narrative comes after the party defeats Yunalesca, one of the holy figures of the Yevonites and the vehicle for summoner a to temporarily calm Sin (and, in another extremely unsubtle moment, is whom Yuna was named after). After hours of game time trying to justify the need for her sacrifice, and the greater good that will come from putting up the bullshit rules of this broken world, Yuna refuses. Yunalesca cannot even conceive of the possibility that someone would refuse her call, and rather than a sensible “ok, you’re free to choose, there are literally hundreds of other summoners right behind you who are willing” she snaps and demands the death of the heretics so she can “end their suffering.” It is not enough that the next generation sacrifice themselves for her and her fellow living corpses, they must be punished and destroyed for even suggesting otherwise. Their very defiance is a threat to existence as Yevon knows it. So, without any other course of action, the party defeats Yunalesca, sending the undead goddess into oblivion and ending the only known way of placating Sin. When Yuna and company return to the Church, they bring a new plan to defeat Sin forever, but the living corpses who run the Church are so terrified by the idea of trusting the next generation to try that they voluntarily release their physical hold on the world and allow themselves to fade into oblivion. Their fear of the future is so great they cannot conceive of a way to trust the next generation without losing their reality, and so take a coward’s way out.
I’ve now gone 11 paragraphs talking about Final Fantasy X and I haven’t even talked about the character who could be seen as the main villain. In truth, Final Fantasy X doesn’t really have a single villain beyond abstract ideas like “institutional apathy” or “contempt for the future.” The main villain is not exactly the Yevonites, or Sin, or Jecht, or even Yevon himself, finally revealed to be a bloated, tick-like parasite existing at the heart of Sin. However, most players will probably assume, at least at first, that the true villain is Seymour Guado. Seymour resembles all the other Nomura-designed villains of the previous Final Fantasy games. Seymour is handsome and slightly androgynous. His fashion and hair are even more outlandish than the hero (no small feat for this game!). His weapon of choice is a giant summoned monster that resembles an anglerfish version of the Virgin Mary. More to the point, there is not a single action he takes or thing he says in his syrupy voice that doesn’t immediately make the player thing “ok, this guy is a creep and evil.” Even when the game tries to present him as affable, he sets off every JRPG player’s “final boss” alarms.
Seymour is essentially a sociopathic narcissist. People exist only for his direct pleasure, and if they can’t be manipulated they will be taken by force. He is disconnected from reality, unable to see or care about what the results of his actions may be. He wields the guilt taught to each generation by the Yevonnites like a scalpel, playing on every insecurity Yuna has and every “for the greater good” argument she has heard to try and force her into his possession. He also knows that his people will cover and protect him, no matter what. Seymour is, like the game, completely unsubtle at first glance. For all the player will end up wanting to see his smug face smashed by their characters, Seymour does not seem to have much going on other than being a generic irredeemable bad guy. In the end, he doesn’t even rank as final boss. The party defeats him the final time before they launch their final assault on Sin.
However, a player who takes the time to do every side quest, speak to every NPC, read every note, and dive into the lore of Spira will learn more about Seymour. The basics of this story can be learned by obtaining the optional summon Anima, but more details are sprinkled across the vast optional lore of Spira. It turns out that Seymour is marked by the same tragedy and fear that Tidus and Yuna are. While you would not know this is you just played the game as fast and linearly as possible, Seymour’s father was also absent and quite abusive. The leader of the mysterious Guado people, Seymour’s father was “trapped” by Guado traditions and “forced” to banish his half-breed son and his human mother. Seymour’s father would not even acknowledge their existence. It was then that Seymour’s mother had an idea to give her son a new life. She would help him become the next high summoner, bringing Spira the calm it needed and restoring her honor and that of her child in the eyes of even the Guados. Seymour went on the journey with her, watched her sacrifice and the horrifying pain it inflected on her. She became Anima, the monster he summons, but rather than use this new power to sacrifice himself and calm Sin, he fled. He remained alone and furious at the stupidity of the world until he was 18. It turned out that eventually his mother’s plan would work. As an adult, Seymour was welcomed back to Guadosalam and his father finally acknowledged him again.
Like Tidus and Yuna, Seymour could never speak about his fears and resentments towards his parents. Was he not welcomed back and given such lavish honors and titles? Did his mother not perform her duty and give up herself to try and subdue Sin? How could he be so selfish as to be UPSET about that? Not only that, but he presumably had to constantly hear from the Guado, the same people that abandoned him until adulthood, about how her sacrifice proved she was one of “the good humans.” Her death was the only reason they would talk about her. That’s a fucked up thing for a PSTD’d 18 year old who until recently was considered dead to his community to deal with. Then the other shoe drops, and Seymour as an adult learns that his father knew his mother’s plan and encouraged it. He was willing to force her to her death, and while you could charitably suggest he did so only so he could get his son back, you could just as easily suggest he did so only to restore any remaining lost “honor” among his people. Also, remember that Seymour’s mom’s original plan would have led to Seymour’s death too, and he still waited a full decade after she died to “welcome” him back. Seymour snapped, killed his father, used his connections as a member of the Church to cover it up, and to his perverse joy found that the Guado would rather live under the rule of a murderer than risk the outside world learning anything that could be used “against” them.
Again, none of this backstory is immediately clear from the required interactions with Seymour. Rather than being part of the narrative, it is all relegated to “background lore.” The discussion of how to deal with narrative vs lore in interactive fiction is a long one that we don’t need to get into here, but suffice to say the fact that it is lore means that you cannot count on a player learning it. The idea that Seymour has a direct connection to Tidus and Yuna, that he might even have a reason for his obsession with Yuna beyond “pretty girl, I want own,” that he represents a path not taken by either character where resentment turns toxic, is all subtext that players will possibly never learn. Like Tidus, his father was abusive and absent. Like Yuna, when the system tried to use him, he denied it. But instead of then finding the strength and a new family of friends to move on, he descended into a desperate nihilism. Would he have gone the same path if he had made a new family like Yuna? Would Tidus have replaced his fake optimism with toxic nihilism if he had wound up in a different part of Spira that fateful day? Why not focus on this duality between Seymour and Tidus/Yuna? Why is Seymour relegated to stock “almost” main JRPG villain and not given more of a focus beyond being someone to dislike and fight?
For awhile I considered this to be a misstep by the game’s creators. Seymour was never terribly interesting, and developing this subtext might have made him more memorable. However, focusing on that subtext may have come at the cost of the rest of the story. As noted, Final Fantasy X has no real “main” villain. Rather the villain is the system that allows all this corruption, fear, and sacrifice to take place. As a nuanced character, Seymour might have threatened to take the focus away from that. Putting Seymour’s pathos at the forefront would transform the conflict from an intra-generational one to an inter-generational one. As a sympathetic mirror, Seymour takes away from the “youth culture forever, you can’t take my rock music and cell phones! I mean my hymn of the fayth and machina!” vibe. However, as an unsubtle cackling villain, Seymour strengthens the player’s understanding of how corrupt the ruling forces of Spira have become. The Church of Yevon would rather allow a sociopath free reign than risk losing any of their power. Even when that sociopath turns against them, and threatens the world at large, the Church will fight to protect him and punish anyone who speaks out. When one takes into account what happens after Yunalesca’s defeat, this means that the Yevonite leaders are then notably more terrified of trusting Yuna’s generation (to the point where they will willingly fade into oblivion) than they are of dealing with Seymour actively ruining lives in their name.
In this view, Seymour is merely another example of how the true villain, the toxic system of sacrificing the future to save a selfish elite, is so unsustainable. The real villain isn’t the cackling jerk bag, it’s the system that would create and protect those jerk bags! This is a surprisingly mature direction for a game I just spent so long describing as “unsubtle” to take, and one that very few video games go for. It’s generally much harder to punch a system than an evil wizard or psycho clown. At the same time, relegating Seymour’s full backstory to lore gives players already familiar with the main themes, perhaps on a second play through, an opportunity to dive deeper into more specific parts of those themes. Seymour’s deeper thematic connection to Tidus and Yuna is more evocative when it is learned after seeing and recognizing the larger corrupt system in action.
To be fair, even Final Fantasy X struggles with knowing exactly how to wrap up its story in traditional JRPG fashion. Seymour is dealt with early-enough on, even in his required JRPG villain “final form.” The Church of Yevon lets itself die rather than risk being exposed to reality, leaving no one there to beat up. Jecht’s final confrontation/reunion with Tidus is emotionally satisfying but not exactly boss-punchingly satisfying. The addition of a basically unloseable boss fight against a gauntlet of “dark” summons and Yevon himself seems almost an acknowledgement of “yeah, we know we need a big Final Fantasy-style finish. Get punching already.” It is a testament to the game designers that the ending manages to stick the landing despite this. In the end, a world is free to choose its own fate, and the two main characters, who seemingly more than anyone should have earned the right to choose their future together, have to accept the only part of this new world they can’t change, the absence of each other from their lives… or deaths… or dreams? Look I’m at the end of this post I’m not going to get in to trying to figure out the specific metaphysical details of Tidus being the living-dream of a mummified version of his past-city who was temporarily allowed to wear the souls of the dead as a method of entering the physical world and… see why I wanted to focus on the unsubtle parts of this game?