Volumes could be written about the political themes of Final Fantasy Tactics. Here’s this instead…
People who know me very well know that my favorite game of all time is Final Fantasy Tactics. I would never claim that it’s the best game of all time but it is definitely my favorite. Over the course of my many, many, many playthroughs I’ve had a lot of time to gain insight into some of the deeper aspects of the game.
For those who haven’t played Final Fantasy Tactics. Go play Final Fantasy Tactics! It’s on a bunch of Sony platforms, except the one you’re likely to own, it only costs $10 and only takes about eighty hours. So go play it, this article will still be here when you’re done.
Seriously though, the game is important for a lot of reasons. Final Fantasy Tactics revitalized turn based strategy in the PS 1 era of gaming and adapted the genre to consoles more successfully than previous games like Tactics Ogre on the SNES. Final Fantasy Tactics introduced the Ivalice fantasy setting which Square revisited in both Final Fantasy XII and Final Fantasy XIV. Final Fantasy Tactics also reintroduced the “job” system of character progression to the franchise paving the way for its advantageous re-use in Final Fantasy XIV. This last aspect of the game is probably the most historically important aspect of Final Fantasy Tactics but something that gets overlooked about this game is its story.
The plot and characterization in Final Fantasy Tactics aren’t anything to write home about, especially in the original PS1 version which suffered from some localization issues. The underlying political themes the game’s characters represent, however, make the game a truly fascinating subject for examination.
Final Fantasy Tactics tells the story of events leading up to and during a civil war, known as ‘The War of the Lions’, which takes place in the kingdom of Ivalice. The player controls Ramza Beoulve, a young knight who becomes entangled with an underlying conspiracy to manipulate events surrounding the war. The plot of the game is fairly sprawling, so some events will be omitted for the sake of space.
Ramza is not exactly heroic in the classical sense, which can be said of many other main characters in the Final Fantasy series. Ramza initially opposes the war and the underlying conspiracy out of naiveté and later out of self interest. This makes Ramza a good point of view character, politically speaking, since this character arc mirrors a lot of people’s life experiences with politics. What ultimately sets him apart from some of the other characters in the game, and what makes him a heroic figure, is that he tends to care about the people he meets directly. Rather than manipulate or extort other characters, as most of the villains in Final Fantasy Tactics do, Ramza often compromises and goes out of his way to support others. As a character, Ramza builds power by gathering other characters to his cause as opposed to the seizure of political titles or magical power. He is an egalitarian, democratic hero living in a feudal world.
The second most important character in Final Fantasy Tactics is Delita Heiral. Delita is a commoner and the childhood friend of Ramza who, over the course of the game’s prologue, becomes disillusioned and cynical about the political realities of Ivalice. Delita is motivated by revenge against the aristocracy who he blames for the needless death of his younger sister. He spends the remainder of the game manipulating events of the war to place himself at the seat of ultimate political power in Ivalice. If Ramza is an example of populism and democracy then Delita is his equal opposite. Delita is constantly manipulating and discrediting other characters to serve his goal. He is the character for whom the ends ultimately justify the means, an example of the authoritarian mindset in its most distilled form.
The framing conflict of Final Fantasy Tactics is known as the ‘War of the Lions’ which is a reference to Dukes Larg and Goltana who’s heraldic sigils are a white and black lion, respectively. The dukes and their courts can be seen as representing political gridlock. They oppose one another over truly pointless justifications even though they have much in common. Victory or defeat for one over the other would not really affect the people of Ivalice much. Dukes Larg and Goltana are the epitome of the pointless infighting and lack of statesmanship often displayed by modern political leaders.
The ultimate villains of Final Fantasy Tactics are the Zodiac Stone Conspiracy, a shadowy cabal bent on capitalizing on the chaos created by the ‘War of the Lions’ in order to collect magical objects known as Zodiac stones. What’s important about them is that they represent a source of power outside of normally recognized political structures. The analogy to the type of power in the real world is the use of violence to advance a political agenda. The motivation of the members of the conspiracy is somewhat varied but one thing they are all united in their desire to cause destruction, often with little concern over who or what is being destroyed. In the fiction of Final Fantasy Tactics violence is a part of life so its use as a political tool is normalized. In such a world, magic artifacts of immense power are a reasonable stand in for the way violent political action works in the in the real world. Also notable, the members of the conspiracy come from various backgrounds and have different and sometimes conflicting motivations. In the same way, unfortunately, the type of despicable human being who is willing to do violence to another person over politics can come from anywhere.
Finally we come to Cidolfus Orlandeau, alternately Thunder God Cid or T.G. Cid for short. In a lot of ways T.G. Cid is the most heroic character in the game. He does his duty to his leader, Duke Goltana, while doing his best to argue against the war and reduce its impact on the people of Ivalice. When he becomes aware of the activities of the Zodiac Stone Conspiracy he immediately rallies to Ramza’s cause and opposes them directly. While all this is true, at the start of the game Cid is undeniably on the opposing side of the conflict from the player, and this is the most interesting aspect of his character in the end. T.G. Cid exists as a character to show that the opposition is not monotonically evil.
This is really just scratching the surface of the political themes of Final Fantasy Tactics but they are the most essential to the game. Fundamentally the world of Final Fantasy Tactics is one where doing the right thing is incredibly difficult and is opposed by a variety of forces some of which actually have their hearts in the right place. Sound familiar?