Annotation: The Art of Final Fantasy IX

I love beauty. I think it is a crying shame that the word has become so tied to a fairly vapid, superficial definition for so much of society, since the notion of beauty when boiled down to its most basic principle, is simply a method to name and identify that which draws us to a person, place, thing, or even abstract thought. It is with this in mind that I say I love beauty, and it is this idea that colors everything I strive for in my life. I suppose that is one reason why I tend to prefer the fantastic in art: more often than not, fantasy grows out of taking the beautiful from the mundane. The Art of Final Fantasy IX is an excellent example of this concept, creating an entire world that is beautiful and fantastic.

The Art of Final Fantasy IX is a companion book that was published when the game Final Fantasy IX was originally released, back in 2000. I bought the book at that point, and promptly lost it in a move. It resurfaced at my brother’s apartment this past April, as I was preparing for this semester, and I am extremely grateful for it. With my desire to learn the process of creating a world and characters such as (but not like) this, being able to see the actual original concept art that the game was built upon is invaluable. The majority of the art is by Hiroyuki Ito, Hideo Minaba, Akira Fujii, and Shin Kajitani, with a smattering of Yoshitaka Amano’s work on the lead characters. There is very little in the way of written work on it, though what there is was done by Dan Birlew, hence why the Library of Congress calls him the technical “author”. Interestingly, back when I thought the book was gone, I looked into buying a new copy… it has been out of print for several years now, and used copies are selling for over $85 (it was originally $20). I only wish they would turn this collection into a series, and release the art from some of the other games made by Squaresoft (makers of the Final Fantasy series, of which there are currently eleven released and another two in development. They also developed Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross, as well as the Mana series of games, and Xenogears, all of which were visually stunning in their own right), but I don’t think it made enough money in sales to merit it.

One of the interesting design choices they made for this this game was the use of caricatures, taking character traits of the individual to an extreme to create unique flavor to the environment (for instance, a gluttonous individual looks like a hippo, a set of pompous nobles have horns for noses so that they can “toot their own horn”, et cetera). It all ties into the underlying theatrical theme of the story, because in theater, things are also often exaggerated for the purposes of creating a robust atmosphere out of what could have been a very dull stage.

There are some images that I find particularly appealing or informative that I’d like to mention. Right off the bat, I’d say some of the most fascinating work is the work on the town of Final Fantasy IX. There are three primary cities, each with a very unique flavor: Alexandria, Lindblum, and Burmecia. Alexandria is largely influenced by pre-industrial European, with heavy emphasis on ornate religious symbolism, thatched roofing, and towering castle spires. The central design element of the city is a large (easily over 100 meters tall) crystal obelisk that crowns the center of the castle, which ends up playing a central role in a particularly magnificent scene later in the game.

Lindblum could easily considered a “sister city” to Alexandria, remaining strongly influenced by European architecture, but with a greater emphasis on technology and industry. The entire city is filled with clock towers and massive gates to allow airships to pass through (airships are a central aspect of all the Final Fantasy games… they are a recurring theme). Despite the fact that you are actually only able to explore a portion of the city, the designers do an excellent job of depicting a massive city citadel that has built upward rather than outward, with the entire city contained inside the gargantuan castle walls. (If pressed to choose between the two in preference, I would say I prefer the atmosphere generated in Lindblum, but appreciate the beauty and grandeur of Alexandria more.)

The third major city in Final Fantasy IX is an entirely different culture, and is called Burmecia, the City of Eternal Rain. It has VERY strong Indonesian cultural references, and I would argue that it is the most interesting of all three cities. We never get a chance to explore Burmecia in an undamaged state (it is invaded and decimated very early in the story), but even the ruins are truly beautiful and epic. Giant stone statues guard the gates to the castle, with lesser statues lining the streets. There are three themes to the landscape of Burmecia: that of battle (many warrior statues), that of music (in particular, harmonies and bells), and that of spirituality (especially revering one’s ancestors). It paints a remarkable backdrop for a fascinating culture, without even needing to say a word about it.?
A lesser town but still worth noting is the city of Treno, which is mostly drawn from Victorian era design. The city is mostly stone manors, and is circular, with the nobility living on the lower, inner ring of the town. What really makes this town notable is the overwhelming references to games. Several of the walkways take the form of large playing cards, and the nobles each take their name from chess pieces, playing cards, and the tarot (“King of Wands”, “Bishop of Coins”, “Queen of Hearts”, et cetera). The overall mood created by this design choice is really quite unique in the game. I think it may be my favorite town in the game, at least partially because of the juxtaposition they create in it: it is a two-tiered system. There is no middle class, you are either wealthy, or dirt poor. There is a certain amount of irony in binary socioeconomic classes that is interesting to observe, even in a fictional setting.

I’m going to address the section on the monsters they designed separately, because I would like to accompany my writing with some attempts of my own based on their work. Suffice it to say, they are well crafted and interesting, doing an excellent job of reasonably depicting what various beasts of legend should look like. Instead, I’m going to close this annotation by talking about airships.

Airships are a central, recurring theme in every Final Fantasy game, one of a very few recurring things. (Others include “chocobos”, large chicken-like birds that you can ride like a horse, and some character in the game named “Cid”.) It should be noted that no two Final Fantasy games take place in the same world… the theory goes that each Final Fantasy is the final world-affecting story of a given story universe. Airships have been in every single Final Fantasy game since the very first back in 1987 on the original Nintendo Entertainment System. That said, they have never been as ornate, detailed, or well thought out as they are in Final Fantasy IX (that includes games after IX).

Put simply, the airships in Final Fantasy IX are beautiful. They are massive and ponderous, and take on attributes of both sailing ships and fish (but not airplanes). In particular, the “Prima Vista”, a theater ship. It is called a theater ship because it in fact houses a stage on the aft of the ship. It is ornate and festive, designed with the need to house (and hide) the band and the various props and set pieces that might be needed during a performance. It is a delight to look at, pure and simple, physics of such a contraption be damned.

Truly, this book is a real treat for anyone interested in the art that goes into game design. The artwork itself is delightful, and the amount of information that can be gleaned from it is remarkable. While I would certainly not suggest purchasing it for the $85 a used edition is currently going for, I would definitely recommend finding a copy to borrow from somewhere to anyone interested in such a field. I said it earlier in this piece, and I’ll say it again: I would LOVE to see them turn this into a series of art collections, for the rest of the Final Fantasy series and other games as well.

Birlew, Dan. The Art of Final Fantasy IX. Indianapolis: Brady Publishing, 2000.