Today marks the 20th anniversary of Final Fantasy X, a game which ushered in a whole new generation of RPG fans and greatly defined what the leap to the 2000s looked like for gaming. As a teenager, FFX became important to me because of its emotional content. But in the last few years, I’ve begun viewing it as a sharp critique of institutional religion, anti-intellectualism, and conservative ideals.
Let’s get the sentimental bit out of the way: Final Fantasy X demonstrably changed my life. My first experience with the game was on Christmas Day 2001, when my much older brother received it alongside a PlayStation 2. That night, I watched him and my 20-something uncle start the game. FFX dazzled me from the jump; the cover, which featured the game’s protagonist Tidus emerging from the beach much like one of the eurodance stars I’d seen in music videos on MTV, brimmed with airy possibility. FFX begins in Zanarkand, a futuristic city obsessed with a water sport named Blitzball. My uncle was a popular DJ at the time, so the ways in which Tidus and the other denizens of Zanarkand are dressed didn’t ring as strange to me—the dyed hair, the diamond stud earrings, the strange and uneven cuts of all the clothes—but it was the first time I realized how cool and hypermodern this youth culture look was meant to seem.
My brother and uncle weren’t so convinced. They giggled as they renamed Tidus “Jackass” and whispered about how gay he looked. I felt intensely ashamed for being so enraptured by everything I had seen so far—it all felt so eye-opening, so unlike anything I’d encountered before. I was only six years old, and I’d soon grow to reject typical adventuresome media other six year old boys enjoyed like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. I was wholly consumed by the images I’d seen in FFX even though I couldn’t remember the game’s name after my brother returned it that very week. His interest faded in little under 2 hours, and so this chapter of my time with FFX closed before Tidus even made it to Besaid. I’d find my way back after forcing a friend’s mom to let me buy FFX-2 with my birthday money one year (my own parents wouldn’t have let me use it on a T-rated game).
At the time, it was bizarre to me that FFX could have been released in December. Even as a kid, I remember thinking “this is such a summer game.” Little did I know that FFX had been out for several months in Japan by then. This wedges the events of 9/11 quite precariously between its two release dates, which is a lens that’s impossible not to view the game through.
FFX closely resembles Final Fantasy VII in its attempt to frame very real, human-led organizations as enemies to the planet, but chooses instead to leverage its commentary on autocratic, theological government. In Spira, there is no separation of church and state—the church is the state, and priests are its leaders. The Yevon faith rose to prominence after the coming of Sin, an aquatic beast that cyclically returns to the world after its defeat to enact serious, cataclysmic damage on society and the environment.
Yevon’s rise came as a way of peddling doctrine about Sin’s purpose. The people of Spira are taught that Sin is a divine measure sent as a means to punish the world for hyper-indulgence and relying too heavily on sacreligious technology. The people of Spira believe this teaching wholeheartedly, mostly because they have no other choice but to believe it. Whenever something calamitously tragic happens in Spira, people pray before acting, before crying, before mourning. They pray that their suffering will reach a swift end, and that Sin will one day leave the world after its people have atoned properly.
You can apply this idea to any institutional religion you want, but FFX is much more interested in how these structures are maintained than slapping the religious on the hand for simply believing. Yevon is, in many ways, a necessity for Spirans. Though its origins are dark, the people of Spira above all need hope; they need assurance that all of their terrible suffering isn’t meaningless. No character better represents this than Yuna, the game’s female protagonist. Yuna is a young summoner, something of a nun that undergoes a grand pilgrimage to acquire spectral beasts named “aeons” to quell Sin for a decade or so. Yuna is the platonic ideal of true devout—she became a summoner to follow in the footsteps of her father, who once defeated Sin, but also because she wanted to make as many people as possible happy. Yuna is a truly good person. Her central flaw is her naivete in the faith she serves, as well as her tendency to put the needs of others so above her own that it verges on the self-destructive.
Yuna is an interesting examination of how women are viewed in religious structures. She’s treated as such a saintly figure that she fears showing doubt or uncertainty in her quest. She is so content to be a symbol that she even considers marrying a man she just met because “it would make people happy.” FFX goes out of its way to use Yuna as a sort of subversion of the role Messianic female characters play in RPGs. She is nothing but just, for sure—but the central plot of FFX involves unraveling the specific structure within the game’s world that destines her to die for a greater good.
The game largely accomplishes this through her romantic interest (and, in many ways, her foil) Tidus. Tidus is an outsider; since the game’s release, many people have proposed that Yuna is the true protagonist of FFX with Tidus being more of an audience surrogate meant to comment on and observe the workings and traditions of Spira that might otherwise be too complex to understand. Tidus constantly questions customs that players may consider bizarre or even ridiculous—things that other characters may also think but are too afraid to say.
FFX is, first and foremost, a love story. Yuna and Tidus’s relationship receives as much attention as Yuna’s pilgrimage. Their relationship reigns as the best in the series because of how they differ, and the ways in which they challenge each other’s world views. They’re two people following the paths laid by their fathers, but for completely different reasons. Through Tidus, Yuna learns the value of her own wants and needs, how they’re a prerequisite to ushering the kind of far-reaching change she wants to bring to Spira. He also encourages Yuna to act outside the system even if it makes people unhappy. Yuna shows Tidus the power of selflessness, and guides him to the liberation he desires from his dad’s legacy. And, naturally, they do what any good couple would do: they dismantle the church.
If Final Fantasy VII is about a fantasy world modernizing so rapidly that they’re approaching an inevitable extinction event, Final Fantasy X is about one falling into Luddism and rejecting progress. This manifests in many ways, but notably in extreme racism leveraged against a race of technologically-minded salvagers called the Al Bhed. The Al Bhed are not only interested in Spira’s forgotten history but actively salvage the machines the Yevonites forbid. Yevon holds specific laws barring the Al Bhed from certain positions in society and occasionally sanction violence against their dwellings. Whether intentional or not, the way the Al Bhed are treated greatly mirrors post-9/11 Islamophobia, or at least the rejection of multiculturalism that gripped the West after 9/11. The Al Bhed are deemed terrorists and heretics because they use the machines Yevon believes caused Sin’s first appearance, but also because they are an easy target for all of Spira’s problems.
FFX explores how this kind of rhetoric proliferates through Wakka, the first person Tidus meets after arriving in Spira. Wakka is an exceedingly generous man, and a shining example of the sort of way in which community benefits us in times of tragedy—he houses Tidus without question and is actively dedicated to helping him integrate into society. At the same time, Wakka holds deep-seated prejudice against the Al Bhed. His fealty to Yevon becomes inseparable from the trauma of losing his brother in a Yevon-authorized attack on Sin using machines. Yevon framed this failing on the Al Bhed, which only fostered more ire for them globally. Despite being an otherwise decent man, Wakka falls victim to harmful ideology.
Of course if Wakka thought a little harder about his brother’s death he’d realize the culprit is Yevon’s own approval of pointless war efforts. Yevon is inherently hypocritical—they approve the use of certain machines (ones that benefit them directly, obviously) and forbid others arbitrarily. It’s a typical tactic used by fundamentalists to separate their followers into an “us vs. them” mentality. It’s also a way to effectively erase history and create narratives based in lies. Not to fall into cliche, but the fascistic nature of the Trump administration used this sort of violently ignorant strategy to radicalize Americans into reactionary pawns. By framing certain demographics of people or human creations as inherently obscene, history can be suppressed as falsehood. And when this is galvanized by widespread panic caused by, say, a giant, rampaging sea monster or a global pandemic, history may cease being recorded all together.
Despite all the sadness, FFX is a lot more hopeful than our current climate. Spira manages to escape the terrible cycle binding it—we’re still chasing out bigotry and fascism. We may never escape it. But FFX still comforts me like it did as a kid; it allows me to dream of a grand revolution, a day where we can rebuild and make new dreams. I hope we achieve the Eternal Calm ushered in by Yuna and her friends. FFX allows me to believe in transformative change.
Austin Jones is a writer with eclectic media interests. You can chat with him about horror games, electronic music, Joanna Newsom and ‘80s-‘90s anime on Twitter @belfryfire