Every Final Fantasy game starts with a Guy. Sometimes the game names him, but usually, you do. You assume that, like you, he’s just an ordinary Guy, but it turns out he’s imbued with extraordinary magical powers and is destined to save the world. Your Guy meets some other people along the way—the cunning thief, the solemn “muscle,” a white mage-cum-romantic interest that specializes in healing spells—and eventually saves the world from a powerful demon. Usually, he succeeds and—again, usually—everyone lives happily ever after.
Admittedly, this does not accurately, holistically describe every Final Fantasy game—the 11th and 14th entries are massive multiplayer online games that aren’t fettered to this linear narrative track. Final Fantasy XIII’s protagonist is not a guy at all, but a woman named Lightning. Similarly, Final Fantasy VI tells a more complicated story from multiple perspectives, and it remains a fan favorite for this reason—it rejects the oft-gendered power fantasy that is part and parcel of the Japanese role-playing game experience.
The plot to 2001’s Final Fantasy X—which was the first game in the series on the PlayStation 2, and the first Final Fantasy game to feature full voice-acting—falls somewhere in the middle, between novel and banal. It feels confined to its time in a way few other entries in this series do. This was the era when all video games had to double as a third rate film, and when developer Square, in particular, felt compelled to flaunt their computer-generated prowess. As a result, Final Fantasy X takes a long time to start cooking. My friend, who is playing through the Nintendo Switch HD remaster with me, aptly described the game’s first few hours as “cutscene hell.”
Final Fantasy X opens in Zanarkand, a partially suspended metropolis that looks like it was scraped off the Lucasfilm cutting room floor. The main character—who is nameable, but whose canonical name is Tidus—is a star “Blitzball” athlete, a type of soccer that occurs in a massive, floating sphere of water which couldn’t be less in accordance with the laws of physics or the logic of actual soccer. Tidus’ deceased father—Jecht—was also a star Blitzball player, and his celebrity is ubiquitous; he’s on billboards, despite being dead for years, and he remains an idol to Zanarkand’s athletes and featureless NPCs alike.
This tension between Tidus and Jecht—or more specifically, the tension between Tidus and his father’s legacy—is one of Final Fantasy X’s few thrilling narrative beats. It becomes clear very early on in the game that Tidus has daddy issues. On his way to a Blitzball match during the game’s intro, Tidus glances up at a billboard of a grimacing, eerily lifelike Jecht and mumbles to himself: “What are you smiling at, old man?”
Midway through the Blitzball match, Zanarkand is completely eviscerated by an entity called Sin—a massive, amorphous, iridescent blob. After being sucked up by Sin, Tidus is transported to Spira, Zanarkand’s parallel universe. Tidus realizes that Sin exists in this new reality, too, and through a series of plot twists discovers that he has merely traveled in time—1000 years in the future, to be precise. Since Zanarkand was initially destroyed by Sin back in Tidus’ timeline, the monster has terrorized the world for generations, interrupted by brief, ten year respites that the denizens of Spira refer to as “the Calm.”
In Spira, Sin takes the form of a whale-like kaiju. This was the first Final Fantasy game where the tech finally caught up to the series’ aesthetic vision, and some of its monsters are truly repulsive behemoths. Sin’s indiscriminate destruction of entire villages—which could be read as both an allegory for climate disaster and the atomic bomb—remain some of the most disturbing moments in all of gaming.
Sin’s motives are never clearly illustrated, which makes sense—Final Fantasy X is, first and foremost, a visceral exercise undaunted by logic. It wants to bowl you over with its gorgeous but illogically constructed worlds, its all-star cast of voice actors (John DiMaggio, the voice of Bender from Futurama and Jake the Dog from Adventure Time gets two massive acting credits here), and its exciting battle and character customization systems. The teachings of Yevon—the prevailing, cultish religion in Spira—suggests that Sin exists to “punish” humanity for their transgressions, and will not fully disappear until mankind sufficiently atones. Spira enters a Calm, and Sin temporarily recedes, when a summoner embarks on a holy pilgrimage, culminating in a religious sacrifice.
By happenstance, Tidus meets Yuna, the summoner poised to bring about the world’s next Calm, shortly after arriving in Spira. He joins her ragtag gang of “guardians”—which at first include a huge, blue anthropomorphic lion named Kimhari, a sultry black mage named Lulu, and a meathead Blitzball coach named Wakka with an artificial patois so sketchy and gag-inducing it makes Adrian Brody introducing Sean Paul on SNL seem like an elegant tribute.
Tidus quickly realizes that things aren’t as they seem. People in Spira speak of someone named Jecht in hushed tones—and, as is the case in our world, Jecht isn’t a very common name. It turns out that Jecht didn’t actually die at all—he, like Tidus, was transported to Spira from Zanarkand, and was the guardian to Yuna’s father and previous Calm initiator, Lord Braska. Even more disturbing is the discovery that Sin is Jecht—that Jecht was absorbed into Sin when he defeated a previous incarnation of the creature. The symbolism is heavy: At the start of the game, in Zanarkand, Tidus is mocked by a billboard, the very embodiment of his father’s resilient and unrepeatable celebrity. In Spira, Sin literally looms over Tidus, serving as a constant reminder of his relative powerlessness. In either reality, Jecht’s shadow is inescapable.
It’s implied that Tidus was brought to Spira by Sin, because Jecht believed Tidus was the only one who could defeat him. Tidus literally goes inside Sin to confront his dad, and finds a vacant, illusory world that bears an eerie resemblance to Zanarkand. For all the flashbacks and talk of Jecht this, Zanarkand that, it’s easy to forget that this is the first time Tidus and his dad—who he thought was dead until presumably a few days before the events of the game—confront each other in the present. The intensity of this moment—Tidus’ slow crawl to his dad’s stronghold—is expertly underscored by the music that plays during this part of the game. “Twilight” is among the handful of songs in Final Fantasy X not composed by series veteran Nobuo Uematsu—it was instead written by newcomer Junya Nakano—and it’s one of the game’s most compelling and gut-wrenching compositions. It’s a string of slow, crescendoing chords played on a wavy synthesizer. Nakano oscillates between conventional chords that might sound consonant in a different musical context and bizarre, off-kilter voicings. “Twilight” has no clear harmonic center, and no dominant key signature to speak of—the result is far more disorienting than anything archetypically spooky.
When Tidus and Jecht finally confront each other, it’s about as emotionally charged as video games get, despite X‘s uneven English localization. Jecht has been terrorizing Tidus and his allies for the entire game, but there’s a certain softness when he finally turns around and acknowledges his son. “Hey,” he says, casually. “You’ve really grown.” It’s a side of Jecht the player hasn’t seen, and it’s a side of Jecht that Tidus probably hasn’t seen, either—in flashbacks we see Jecht constantly ragging on his son, denigrating his athletic performance, sadistically reinforcing his insecurities.
“Dad?” Tidus says, as he and his allies assume a fighting stance. “I hate you.”
Tidus is, by far, the most punchable protagonist in the history of Final Fantasy. He lacks the magnetic soft boi intensity of series favorites Cloud Strife or Squall Leonhart from Final Fantasies VII and VIII, respectively, and he possesses none of the impish charm of his predecessor, Final Fantasy IX’s monkey-tailed Zidane Tribal. Tidus is instead a composite caricature of all these characters’ worst qualities: He’s immature but brooding, naive but obnoxiously vindictive. He complains when there’s nothing to complain about, and eagerly rushes into battle when there might be an alternative strategy worth considering. His overrated romance with Yuna is about as deep as a kiddie pool, and about as nuanced as a car bomb.
This wasn’t my first Final Fantasy X play-through, and while I’m certainly no completionist, I dove headfirst into the game’s “sphere grid” character customization feature this time around. Instead of character attributes and move-sets expanding automatically as they do in some of the other Final Fantasy games, the sphere grid lets you carve out your own path for each character’s development. At its worst, this is one of the most tedious aspects of the game, yet it’s also a callback to the beloved “class” system from classic Final Fantasy titles. In the game’s default setting, you’re more or less “guided” along a set path of the grid, until you reach a certain point in the game and all of the characters’ waypoints inevitably overlap. But if you’re a seasoned player, you can break off from the recommended grid pretty early on, giving players move-sets and attributes they shouldn’t have. I tried to make Tidus a black mage like Lulu, teaching him a number of offensive spells as soon I could. But I didn’t spend enough time grinding for this to work out, so I ended up with a Tidus that was under-leveled as both a “warrior” and magic user. In other words, he became a liability to my party, which just so happens to be a terrific reflection of his scripted identity.
Right before I graduated high school, my dad, who I didn’t have a relationship with at the time, started calling my house and leaving volatile messages on my landline answering machine. At one point he accused me of “stealing his identity.” My dad, like me, is a musician, and this was around the time I started taking my own music seriously and promoting it publicly.
A parent—if they’re cruel—is able to identify and exploit their kid’s most private hangups. For a long time, music to me was synonymous with my dad, and playing it was my form of engaging with my memory of him. Separated by stateliness and years of silence, it was our only unassailable connection. And it required no uncomfortable, external upkeep: I inherited my dad’s good ear and vocal cords, and that could never change no matter what.
This dynamic is both a blessing and a curse, and it can elicit an alloy of complex emotions: Awe, fear, indignation. You are inspired by and indebted to the person who gave you your gift—but you resent the fatalism of it all, you fear their judgment, and you’re haunted by the gnawing feeling that you’ll never be any better than second best.
There is a point pretty early on in Final Fantasy X where you can approach a lone Blitzball and attempt the “Jecht Shot”—Tidus’ father’s signature move. No matter how many times I’ve played this game, and no matter what console I play it on, I cannot for the life of me figure out how to perform a Jecht Shot. In order to pull it off, you have to input a specific sequence of buttons in time with Tidus’ memories of Jecht’s negging, which appear as text on-screen (“I’m the best,” “You’re out of your league,” etc.) I feel like playing Blitzball in real life would be easier than following these prompts.
This part of the game is intended as a goofy distraction from the main quest—but for me, it’s the emotional centerpiece. I’m familiar with this toxic inner voice—when I’m struggling to record vocals, I hear my dad, the objectively better singer, telling me he could “really teach me how to sing.” It’s a terrible and unshakable feeling. If you’re constantly moving the goalposts in your head, you’ll always fumble the ball.
This likely says more about pernicious social conditioning than any individual fathers, fictional or otherwise. In this specific way, however, I can empathize with Tidus more than any other protagonist in the Final Fantasy series—and viewed through this lens, Tidus’ myriad character flaws are slightly less actionable. When Tidus finally defeats Sin, he faces off against Yu Yevon, the demiurge responsible for Sin’s eternal rebirth. When Tidus succeeds, he seemingly dies as well, evaporating into the ether with his nemesis.
There is a barely comprehensible, in-game explanation for this, but the subtext is where it counts: The part of Tidus’ identity that is moored in his father’s—the vacuous, resentful, desperate, overly comparative part—can’t exist without Jecht, just like a shadow can’t exist without the figure it belongs to. A post-credits scene reveals Tidus isn’t actually dead at all. When he comes to, he realizes he’s in the middle of the ocean, and as he swims to the surface the camera fades to white. Tidus has been born again, only this time as himself. The cycle can finally end.