Vivi, a squat magical golem without a face, isn’t the protagonist of Final Fantasy IX. Even so, he’s the soul of what many consider one of the best Final Fantasy games.
Thrust into a chaotic world caught in the grip of a magical war, Vivi is an awkward, bumbling child in a patchwork outfit and pointy hat when the game begins. Over the course of the adventure, he discovers the truth about his puzzling existence as a prototype creature designed to wage war. He harnesses the power he’s been given, becomes one of the series’ all-time greatest badasses, and spends the duration of his very short life protecting the people he comes to call friends.
Even when there are magic and monsters, FF9 remains so deeply relatable and beloved on its 20-year anniversary because of how every single character in the game grapples with some kind of identity crisis. None of these misfits understands who or what they are — most of them aren’t even human. In several glaring cases, it’s more than a coming of age or a mid-life crisis we’re dealing with.
FF9 urges its characters — and its players — to unburden themselves of society’s expectations about one’s identity. For Vivi, it’s about realizing that you might not even be a “real” person. What if you died without ever having truly lived?
Themes of existentialism are everywhere in this game: with the hero Zidane, a humble but sleazy do-gooder with a monkey tail who eventually learns he was artificially created; with Garnet, the heir to the Alexandrian throne who belongs to an ancient race of Summoners; and best of all there’s Vivi, a sentient husk who just wants to exist. Vivi’s entire body is just a black void with two bright yellow orbs for eyes. It’s a heavy-handed but charming design choice that calls back to the pixel art of the very first Final Fantasy from 1987, while also perfectly reflecting the game’s heady themes.
“How do you prove that you exist…?” Vivi says in an oft-quoted line from the opening cinematic. “Maybe we don’t exist…” This oversimplified translation was the perfect inane profundity for my 11-year-old brain when I played the original title in 2000. All these years later, analyzing a different translation proves fruitful: “If you can't show proof that you're living/alive, it might as well be the same thing as being dead.”
The war at the backdrop of Final Fantasy IX is between Queen Brahne of Alexandria and the neighboring countries of Lindblum and Burmecia. A man called Kuja, unknown to most, manipulated the queen into harnessing the magical Mist that covers much of the continent to create black mages, these man-sized magician dolls. Most of the black mages are little more than obedient husks without any emotions, but they do respond intelligently to stimuli. And in rare but prevalent cases, they become fully self-aware.
For a long stretch of the game, the only other beings like himself Vivi encounters are brainless golems or vicious, high-end weapons. And it ravages his sense of self. It’s made all the more dire when our heroes learn that most black mages only live for about a year. If he was built for destruction, what does his consciousness mean? If he’s just a freak accident, then is there any meaning to his life at all?
These questions first strike him rather early in the game at the town where he discovers an assembly line for creating other black mages. Later, he tries to speak to black mages that the group finds, but they’re little more than mute cannon fodder.
The ultimate point of Vivi’s journey — and that of Final Fantasy IX as a whole — is rooted in our capacity to define our existence from within rather than derive meaning from some external force. None of these characters play the cards they were dealt in life. Instead, they choose to do and be better for the sake of their friends. In the end, it’s that kind of selfless resolve that saves not one, but two worlds.