The Psychology of Final Fantasy (VI thru XIII)
Welcome to this special Wisecrack Edition on The Psychology of Final Fantasy, where we dive into the deeper meaning of the beloved video game series. 1) Psychological Phantasy (Freud & Lacan); 2) The Death Drive, and 3) The World as Standing Reserve
Written by: Matt Reichle
Directed & Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Ryan Hailey
Assistant Editor: Yukako Shimada
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Additional Artwork by: Jacob Salamon
The Psychology of Final Fantasy
Playing final fantasy is an exercise of love—but even the most ardent fans can agree: the plotsarefullof what in academiawe call‘what the fuck’type moments: Are all Cloud’s memories fake? Is that reallyhow inter-dimensional time travel works? People might wonder: why is Sarah a crystal now?And my personal favorite…how is Tidus a dream? Not that he is dreaming, Tidus literally IS a dream…You know how many people have played a Final Fantasy game? A lot. You know how many can accurately recount the plot of one of these games? Very few.
Despiteneedlessly convoluted storytelling, the thing that fans latch on to is the wonderfully complex characters and their personal struggles.Even thougheach installment introduces a new cast, there’s a significant amount of thematic overlap that ties these characters together and keeps thefans coming back for more.
At its core, Final Fantasy is a series of games that explores the intricacies of dreams, desires,spiritual environmentalismandwell…phantasy.
I’m Jared, and this is final fantasy and psychology.
On one level, Final fantasy is an exploration of the unconscious—it’s a jaunt into the world of dreams. There’s a difference between fantasy and the psychoanalytic concept of phantasy with a (ph).
What we traditionally think of as fantasy is something like daydreams, wishes, or desires.Such as Vaan’s dreams of being a sky pirate in FF12 – or Cid dreaming of being an astronaut in FF7, or Terra dreaming of her past in FF6.
Phantasy(with a ph)is the unconscious drives behind our actions that we are unaware ofand throughout the series we often see physical manifestations of the unconscious.
Tidus is always dreaming about how much he hates his alcoholic father, and in the same game Seymore makes the comment that he can smell the Farplane on Auron. I wonder if the Farplane smells like updog?
The Farplane is a sort of literary allusion to the underworld or the dream world.
In final fantasy six they literally visit the dream world, the land of the Espers, and fight the dream stooges: Larry, Curly, and Moe—who [beyond the three stooges reference] are sort of ironicstand ins for the id, ego, and superego. In Final Fantasy seven when Tifa and Cloud fall into the lifestream they enter clouds unconscious memories.
In traditional psychoanalysisthe analyst talks the patient through the process of naming theirunconsciousphantasiesand attaching language to them so that they can work through their maladies and traumas.
Encountering and working through trauma is one of the defining themes of the Final Fantasy games. FF characters always have a ton of psychological baggage.
Cyan is tasked with seeing his family on the phantom train that carries the dead to the other side.
Cloud goes through a whole wreck of trauma, between the loss of his friend, the burning of his hometown, and Hojo’s experiments messing with his memories, Cloud is basically broken…
And his initial reaction to trauma isn’t the greatest.
Zidanecracks when he finds out he is a genome—a “manufactured soulless being”…you know, he finds out he is secretly a Kardashian…I know it’s low hanging fruit but they do it to themselves.
In final fantasy ten spirits become vengeful if they can’t overcome the trauma of their death and Rex (from Final Fantasy twelve) is so shaken by surviving the murder of his family that he is institutionalized.
Then there is the sorry case of Vivi, the saddest little scarecrow in blackface, in the history of gaming.
His loss is not just the mourning of a friend or loved one—it is something akin toFreud’s discussion ofmelancholia, of a self directed sadness beyond object loss—what Vivi has lost can never be regained, the innocence of youth, of the belief in immortality.
Vivi finds out that he is just a mass produced war doll with a shelf life of about a year.
He just sort of wakes up to consciousness—is thrown into the world like Frankenstein’s monster—disconnected from his creator and radically without purpose.
This existential quagmire is a microcosm for the human condition, as finite beings we all grapple with the question: “what does it mean to be a being that will one day die?”How is he supposed to go on with this knowledge seems to be his central character arch and the hint is there, the name Vivi, is literally Italian for life: so the answer—find a way to live.
One reaction to Trauma is also one of the best parts of Soap Operas: amnesia. The way soap operas write characters that they have killed back onto the show is pretty hilarious: no, your favorite soap hunk isn’t really dead, he has amnesia, or he is really his evil twin.
I wish that Final Fantasy were different…I really wish that it was, going back over these games the most frequent plot hole fix: is of course, amnesia…
In final Fantasy six, Terra can’t remember being an Esper and Rachel falls off of a bridge and loses her memories, in seven Cloud has all sorts of false memories, in Final Fantasy eight Selphie, Quistis, Seipher, Ellone, Zell, and Squallwere all somehow suppressing a memory of living in an orphanage together.
In Final Fantasy nine Fratley is suffering from amnesia, Garnett forgot a giant eye in the sky that destroyed her city (which incidentally is the lost city of summoners), and Fang has amnesia in final fantasy thirteen.
But none of this compares to Tidus, yeah we are going there again, what the fuck? Tidus doesn’t just have amnesia, he has forgotten that he isn’t a real boy, he is actually…a dream. I’m sorry, I just can’t get over this. Is this for real?
When people think of the “Fantasy”element of Final Fantasy”they often think of something like LAARPING and the magic that gives it the fantasyfeel.But lest we forget that some are decidedly sci-fi, the real phantasy that binds these games is a struggle with trauma.
Some react totrauma, to the apparent painful reality that everything is random and meaningless,by asserting ever and more ways to find answers—they search for answersin organizing principles, in conspiracy theories; they search for the man behind the curtain that is manipulating everything.
The reality that there is a sort of maniacal mastermind behind everything is easier tocope with than the reality of a fractured and incoherent world.
This is what famed psychologist Jacques Lacan referred to as the Big Other, orthe“subject that is supposed to know”. It can be a religion, a creed, a leader, or an ideology—its what coordinates events and makes things happen behind the scenes.Final Fantasy has no shortage of Big Other’s. As a matter of fact most every game has a person behind the personbehind the curtain.
In Final Fantasy six Gestahl appears to be the main antagonist in control but the player soon finds out that Kefka is really “the Big Other”, is actually the one manipulating events from afar.
In Final Fantasy nine, it’s not the Queen Brahne, it’s not Kuja, but Garland- the man living in a giant eye in the sky- and then it becomes Kuja again.
In thirteen Primarch Daisley (already situated as the Big Other given his religious position) is actually the Fal’C Barthandalus, an even more powerful Big Other because he is not just a religious leader he is actually a god.
In Final Fantasy twelve it seems that Cid is the real baddie but nope- turns out that Gabranth was the person that framed Bosch for the murder of his family, and the real person behind the person behind the scenes (that was intentional) is Vane, who is being controlled by Vanat…who is really a giant airship??? That makes giant Airship Vanat the man behind the person, behind the person, behind the person that is pulling all of the strings…
While each big boss has an interesting justification for their actions—theyall most act as a response to trauma. Looking for a way to explain the motivation of soldiers returning from world war I, afflicted with motivation that was inexplicable using his drives based on Eros or sexuality—Freud coined the term: the Death Driveor Death Instinct…sometimes called Thanatos.
The death drive is an instinct or a drive towards self destruction—it’s a desire to return to inorganic chemistry—where all desires are satisfied—it is a desire to be free of conflict or suffering. Kind of like curling up on a couch with some ice cream and Sherlock forever.This manifests in a desire either for self annihilation or apotheosis (a desire to transforminto a god), and much like Prometheus, Phaethon, or Icarus—cutting corners on a path to divinity doesn’t usually end well.
In Final Fantasy nine Kuja’s response to his finitude and inevitable impending deathis:destroy all lifewith him, in one blaze of glory.
In Final Fantasy eight Ultimeciagrew up as a feared sorceress and was subject to pretty terrible treatment—so she grew up with a bunch of hate and developedsome strange time travel plan that is supposed to make her a god.
In Final Fantasy seven Sephioroth is an abandoned and lonely soul that attempts to gain ultimate power by harnessing the lifestream of the planet by hitting it with a giant meteor.
Many of these antagonists justify their actions from the perspective of negative utilitarianism. Unlike traditional utilitarianism that attempts to maximize happiness, negative utilitarianism is about minimizing suffering.
And the surest way to insure that there is net less suffering forever is to quickly snuff out all life so that it can never suffer again.
In Final Fantasy thirteen the Fal’C want to eliminate all disharmony and suffering by bringing back the maker to reestablish order and peace.
In Final Fantasy ten, Seymour grew up with all of the suffering, taunting, and harassment (otherwise called racism) of being a half-breed. —His solution? Help Sin destroy all of Spira to end all suffering on the planet.
With all of the crystals in the final fantasy series, overlooking the new age spirituality would be a mistake, exemplified by shops that sell incense, wind chimes, Australian Didgeridoos, polished rocks, and lots of crystals (and the occasional dank bit of that OG Kush…what?), the new age movement gained traction in the 1970’s and is an amalgam of spiritual beliefs (lifted from pagan and indigenous communities) that stressed holistic divinity and the interconnectedness of all life.
While not necessarily related to New Age spirituality, The Gaia Hypothesis is similar in that it asserts that the earth is one harmonious living system—and disrupting that system has serious implications for everyone living on the Earth.
Final Fantasy seems to take a lot of inspiration from the Gaia hypothesis. In Final Fantasy seven all life goes back to the planet as lifestream, in Final Fantasy twelve, nine, and seven the planet is aptly named Gaia. Whether it’s an evil corporation or a megalomaniac moving crystals or statues around—the games focus on balance with the environment. And as such, is full of environmentalist undertones.
In seven Cloud is in cahoots with an environmental terrorist group that challenges the exploitative Shinra corporation. The Al Behd in final fantasy ten are the last users of machina(a type of technology)…most of the world is anti technology. Sin is sort of like a mix between the giant Unabomber and the Sea Shepard…if they were a giant whale beast…thing.,It’sSin’spurpose for existence it to punish people for using technology.But to focus juston technology misses out on the root of the problem.
Something more is going on than your usual captain planet, tree hugger affair. Final Fantasy seven tips it’s hat, with the introduction of a minor character: Heidegger.
That’s right, The Notorious Martin, himself, the master of being and time makes an appearance as the head of public safety for the Shinra corporation.
In his work “The Question of Technology? Martin Heidegger asks: what is the essence of Technology? Heidegger’s answer: nothing technological-rather the drive to technology is based not in machines but in a particular type of thinking and seeing called enframing.
Enframing renders the totality of the field of vision, or the earth, to bestand-or standing reserve, as matter simply waiting to be exploited for us.
The way the Shinra Corporationmerely sees lifestream as a means to make the profitable substance mako, or how Draklor laboratories artificially create nethicite, how the fal’C are enslaved to power the citiesof Cocoon or extracting magic from Espersare all examples of enframing.
It stems from an in-authentic need to master and control the world—to settle the wilderness—to pacify the precocity of life by making everything needed ready at hand. However, —the urge to mastery doesn’t just end at objects.
When humanity views life from the perspective of instrumentality, human beings themselves are seen as standing reserve—as materials, as a means to an end: it’s a form of objectification and subjugation.
Throughout the entirety of the series there are odd parallels between the worlds and politics of Final Fantasy and the fascist, genocidal regimes of earth.
A couple of shared elements might be a coincidence but Final fantasy four’s murderousantagonist is named Golbez, which bears a striking resemblance to the minister of propaganda for the Nazi Reich: Paul Joseph Goebbels.
Jewish imagery is interspersed throughout the games: Sephiroth is close to Sephirot, the ten attributes of god.
Final fantasy thirteen takes place under the backdrop of the relocation and mass execution of the l’cie called the purge…l’cie are a branded people chosenby Fal’c gods and final fantasy seven takes place under the guise that they will return to the promise land…complete with a Joseph Mengele like character in the maniacal Hojo. (Mengele, of course, was one of the Nazi doctors responsible for selecting people for the gas chambers and human experimentation in Auschwitz.)
Experimentation and objectification is a constant theme in final fantasy. In 8, Edea is possessed by Ultimecia to help advance her mastetr plan to posses people in several time lines. Celeste is created through genetic engineering in final fantasy six. In final fantasy thirteen Cocoon is a giant production facility to create human thralls for the Fal’C and just like prison sex, Kuja does what is done to him, creating a production facility of black mage dolls as weapons that reflect his own empty puppet like existence as a genome.
The genocide of Native American’s is also hinted at…in Final Fantasy nine Eiko is thelast surviving member of her tribe.
In Final Fantasy Seven, Red thirteen (or Nanaki) is the surviving remnant of a genocide of a warrior people.
He even goes so far as to monologue about making his ancestors proud—and the statue of his father is so honored that it weeps a single tear—the quintessential image of the 1980’s environmental movement: a solemn native American shedding a solitary tear over the treatment of the environment.
American shedding a solitary tear over the treatment of the environment.
Also- trains. Final Fantasy six has the phantom train, final Fantasy seven has several trains, final Fantasy eight has the timber train, Final Fantasy nine has an air cab that is a sort of monorail, Final Fantasy twelve has abandoned railroad tracks everywhere and in Final Fantasy thirteen trains transport l’cie to their mass extermination.
The role of railroads are significant given the history of their use for the acceleration of the mass exodus and elimination of people in Nazi Germany – and through facilitating the extermination of the native people of North America through the expansion of the western border into indigenous lands.
Trainshave always been symbol of technological advancement—they stand as the archetype of the industrial revolution and manifest destiny.
Most every time a train shows up in the games something bad happens, group sleep, trips to the underworld, or facilitating terrorism. As a sort of bad omen trains are a reminder of the power of technology and the responsibility that comes with wielding immense power.
Whether it be medieval times orspace epics, in Final Fantasy, magic is treated pretty similar to technology and in some instances they are used interchangeably.
It isn’t a question of technology or magic being bad in and of itself—the responsibility lies in hands that use the tools or cast the spells.
Final Fantasy, in the end,is about the unbreakable human spirit, about overcoming impossible odds, of persevering when success seems like a pipe dream or fantasy—it’s about the power of friendship, love, and the transformative potential of hope…
Zidane affirms life because of the love of his friends. No one decides to sacrifice their lives in Final Fantasy ten—they all choose to accept a world of death, suffering, and pain. All the party members in Final Fantasy seven find a reason to fight for the planet, in Final Fantasy nine the party fights against Necron and asserts a will to live.
Even angst filled Vivi finds the will to make little Vivi babies.
In Final Fantasy six they respond to Kefka’s nihilism with “it’s the day to day concerns, personal victories, and the celebration of life and love…that matters.”