Wednesday, April 2, 2014

On Black Waltzes and Foreshadowing

The Black Waltzes as Foreshadowing in Final Fantasy IX

I’ve been replaying Final Fantasy IX as of late and had some thoughts on the Black Waltz setpieces, number 3 in particular. Black Waltzes have stuck in people’s minds as one of the more memorable parts of Final Fantasy IX, and Square has produced two statues of Black Waltz 3 in honor of his popularity. In theory, his reputation doesn’t make a lot of sense. Each of the Black Waltz fights are relatively easy boss fights that occur early on in FFIX and carry little relevance to the story as it goes on. Black Waltz 3 reappears later in the story, but not much is made of the event. 

            That would be the conventional wisdom, but upon closer inspection, each of the Black Waltz encounters have enough distinguishing characteristics to make them continuously memorable both as gameplay challenges and story events. The Black Waltzes, and Black Waltz 3 in particular, are all attached to important plot points in the game, and they each allude to important reoccurring motifs and thematic discussions that make FFIX so particularly memorable.

To start with, each Black Waltz fight is a fun and unique gameplay challenge. The first puts Zidane up against two formidable enemies, the first Waltz and the Sealion, by himself with clearly defined roles such that the strategy for beating him is self-explanatory: the Waltz will heal the Sealion with Ice spells, so it behooves the player to take out the Waltz first and then confront the Sealion.

The second asks if the player can handle the onslaught of damage handed out by Black Waltz 2 (who will use second level magic only a few hours into the game), as long as he won't hurt Dagger, the party healer.

The third modifies this scenario to see if the player can handle the same aggressiveness in Black Waltz 3 without the assistance of a white mage, relying only on their stock of healing items, and taking away the immediate option of Vivi, who given his need to spend MP to cause damage, would be the obvious option. Instead, Vivi does a Patented FFIX Plot Trance and for the first few turns of the battle becomes the most damaging character in your party.[1] In addition, #3 will also in phases take flight, during which time he will use second-level magic against the entire party for lots of damage, and he becomes impervious to physical attacks. Gameplay challenges with restricted party member selections will go on to make up a big part of FFIX’s design, due to the game’s constantly perspective-switching narrative.

            The appearance of the Black Waltzes is well-timed foreshadowing as well. Until the first Black Waltz shows up, Vivi is the only Black Mage we’ve seen. The appearance of Black Waltz 1 shows us that Vivi is not the only Black Mage. His appearance being previewed by an appearance from Zorn and Thorn shows us that the Waltzes were artificially created, which suggests what we learn shortly thereafter: that all of the Black Mages are artificial creations. The fact that Zorn and Thorn, minor villains, are the creators of the Black Waltzes, unique varieties of Black Mages, also acts as foreshadowing towards the fact that the original creator of the Black Mages, (including Vivi,) is Kuja.

Black Waltz 2’s focus on killing the other party members, including Steiner, so he can capture Dagger gets us asking why the situation might be so desperate that Alexandria is willing to treat the Captain of the Knights of Pluto, the Princess’ personal guard, as collateral damage. That foreshadows Black Waltz 3’s even higher disregard for the lives of the innocent, and also foreshadows the revelation of their involvement with Kuja and his corruption of Queen Brahne’s rule.

The encounter with Black Waltz 3 is particularly loaded with important narrative notes. When he first shows up, he seems to have the singular objective, like the other Waltzes, of capturing Dagger and returning her to Alexandria, attacking Vivi. However, when provoked by the Black Mages banding together to protect Vivi, he unleashes powerful thunder magic that damages the ship and, shockingly, kills most of the black mages onboard. This causes Vivi to go into an untamed rage, choosing to confront #3 even before Steiner or Zidane have come to his aid, and at the beginning of the battle, he goes into Trance. When the party has defeated #3, he gets desperate, commandeering Zorn and Thorn’s ship and gives chase to the cargo chip the party is driving to Lindblum, but he ends up damaging the engine on the airship and thus seemingly dying with it when he crashes into the closing South Gate, which causes major damage to the gate.

            Just for the sake of structure, let’s arrange of all the allusion and foreshadowing in there into dot notes:

·         The Black Mages banding together to protect Vivi suggests early on that they have their own sentience and are aware of each other as a community of similar beings, previewing the conscious Black Mages we will meet later in the game.
·         #3’ abuse of untamed power such that he kills innocent Black Mages (who in theory are on his side,) causes the destruction of a major landmark, and brings about his own downfall previews the pattern of massive destruction and unbiased death that will become recurring motifs, and it foreshadows Kuja’s own inability to control his own power.[2]
·         Vivi’s early encounters with the lifeless Black Mages just before causes him to question his own creation, and the validity of his existence.
·         His encounters with the living Black Mages onboard the cargo ship cause him to question his sense of community both as a Black Mage and within his group of friends in Zidane, Steiner, and Dagger.
·         His encounters with #2 and #3 who “exist only to kill” causes him to doubt whether his increasingly adept command of powerful magic means the he is also only meant to cause death and destruction.

Each of these events affects Vivi directly and deeply, helping to build his profile from “cute sidekick” to a character whose struggle with his sense of identity and with his own mortality, and his place among the Black Mages that he is so similar to, but differing from, places him effectively within FFIX’s cast characters (each of whom struggle with similar crises) and makes his presence an integral part of the story.

            All of that allusion and foreshadowing is really tight: I may have played the game god-knows how many times and I may not have a grind-heavy playstyle, but Vivi is introduced about 10 minutes into the game, and by about 3 hours in, I’ve already reached Lindblum. This bypasses the need for the game to keep foreshadowing certain plot points and making it obvious whilst taking hours upon hours to reveal it, or conversely only foreshadowing early on such that when the revelation comes, the player has already forgotten the question. It also establishes the game’s points of thematic discussion early on, previewing much of what is in store for us in the rest of Final Fantasy IX. As always, thanks for reading.

-          Austin C. Hower, Maryland, 2014

[1] Each of these fights also has the tension of making the player choose whether they want Zidane to steal from the boss or attack, but I honestly think the bosses holding good equipment is one of FFIX’s weakest design choices. It’s a discussion for another time.
[2] His reappearance later arguably previews Kuja’s non-death at the end of the game.

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