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Previously on “The Gamer’s Guide to Writing,” we looked at the title screen animation and character portraits of Final Fantasy IX.  Today, we’re pushing start and getting into the game itself with two contrasting views of Alexandria, and a heist about to unfold. As ever, spoilers ahead.
Like many games of its cycle, Final Fantasy IX begins with a video cutscene.  Much like the opening scene of a film, credits are superimposed above the action.  We start with a little boat in a storm.  Two figures struggle to keep afloat as waves toss and spin the vessel.  The camera zooms in on one of the figures, a small girl, and then the scene abruptly changes to Princess Garnet, who has fallen asleep in a chair.  She goes to an open window, and we pan to a wide shot of the Kingdom of Alexandria as white birds fly over the city in the light of a setting sun.
The camera follows the birds as they fly towards a massive airship.  It focuses on shots of the figurehead, a mermaid, and the propellers, which appear as stylized towers, before giving an establishing shot of the entire vessel.  This is the Prima Vista.  Onboard the ship, the camera follows Zidane down a ladder and through a door, then puts the player in control.
Zidane is there for a meeting of Tantalus, a group of thieves posing as a theatrical troupe.  As the gang gathers to plan their upcoming heist, they are suddenly attacked by a dragon-headed figure, who turns out to be Tantalus’s leader Baku in a costume.  After Baku cries uncle, the five thieves meet in a side room to go over the plan.
Tantalus is traveling to Alexandria ostensibly to perform the popular play “I want to be Your Canary” for Queen Brahne and Princess Garnet.  Their real objective is to kidnap the princess while everyone in the castle is distracted by the performance.
This establishing scene does a lot of good work world-building and establishing plot.  It also establishes gameplay, letting the player interact a bit with the environment, explore, and fight a brief battle.  The important thing about this scene is that it uses a light touch.  It is mostly exposition-free.  We don’t get a monologue about Baku’s long friendship with King Cid, or Alexandria and Lindblum’s long history.  We get exactly what we need to know that a heist is about to go down, and Zidane is a major part of it.
There is another cutscene of someone watching the airship dock at Alexandria castle.  As the airship glides majestically over the city to the castle, we see it reflected in a huge, mirrored crystal that stands atop the castle, and the credits end with the logo for Final Fantasy IX.
Now, we’re following the little black mage Vivi.  If we previously got a birds-eye view, now we are on the ground with Vivi as he attempts to wind his way through the huge city.  He somehow has a ticket to the performance, but is clearly overwhelmed by Alexandria.  He makes his way to the ticket booth, interacting with street urchins and working-class Alexandrians as he goes.  He even has the opportunity to play a few mini-games.  When he gets to the castle, though, he discovers his ticket is a fake!  If he wants to see the show, he’ll have to find another way in to the castle.
That’s when Vivi meets Puck, a rat-faced street urchin that can get him in, as long as he promises to be his slave.  Vivi, who is completely lacking in street wisdom, agrees, and the pair steal a ladder to make a daring rooftop entrance to the castle.  They sneak inside just as the play is about to start.
Vivi’s journey through Alexandria is first-rate game storytelling.  The player doesn’t get to fight anything, but there is plenty to explore, and doing so in the shoes of earnest and inexperienced Vivi is an excellent method.  As with the Prima Vista, we get dialog that serves both as world-building and character development as he makes his way through the Victorian city.  While the game is not quite so stark as Dickens’ London, we are introduced to a world of struggling shop owners, harried housekeepers, and thieving orphans, even if most of them are willing to stop and play a game of cards.
While the opening cutscene focused largely on the grandeur and majesty of the world, with a fantastic castle and a high-flying airship, the game contrasts this by starting off in a cramped cabin and following some of the least powerful Alexandrians.  This contrast between Nobility and the Working Class, between white marble and sooty cobblestones, is a theme that is established early and continues through the rest of the game in a variety of ways.
Next time: Tantalus puts on a play and the line between the actors and the audience blurs when their kidnapping heist doesn’t go as planned!

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