Change or Live: Final Fantasy X as Catholic Dystopia 2


This month, the Ontological Geek has a theme: reli­gion and/or the­ol­o­gy in games. We have a great bunch of arti­cles lined up, from the very per­son­al to the deeply the­o­ret­i­cal, from both reg­u­lar OntoGeek con­trib­u­tors and sev­er­al guest writ­ers. We’d love to hear from you with your thoughts on speci­fic arti­cles and the month as a whole – com­ment freely and e-mail us at editor@ontologicalgeek.com!

Spoilers Abound.

Dystopia, in the sim­plest of terms, is a sub­ver­sion of the ideal. It’s an argu­ment again­st utopi­an think­ing — it’s a voice call­ing for dis­cus­sion and rea­son­able thought. Dystopian nar­ra­tives often imag­ine a hor­ri­fic sce­nar­io and run it even fur­ther to the ground, as well as present glob­al ram­i­fi­ca­tions of grand ideas taken too far. However, they con­cen­trate around a per­son­al night­mare of an indi­vid­u­al trapped in this dis­as­trous future built upon the foun­da­tion of seem­ing­ly beau­ti­ful words spo­ken by its lead­ers.

And I believe it’s a great prism through which one can view Final Fantasy X. The most pop­u­lar read­ings of the 2001 game are based around its theme of anti-religion in the orga­ni­za­tion­al sense. Like in many games, the vil­lains are reli­gious lead­ers who have cor­rupt­ed them­selves and every­thing around them to achieve some mad objec­tive. But there’s a lot more to this par­tic­u­lar story. It trav­els fur­ther and sees more. I would argue that one can eas­i­ly read Final Fantasy X not as an attack on insti­tu­tion­al reli­gion as a whole but as a con­cerned voice shar­ing many of the same val­ues.

My inter­pre­ta­tion is dri­ven by a belief that art can and maybe even should be appro­pri­at­ed by var­i­ous reli­gions. Why reject it when it can be of value? The choice of Catholicism stems from the fact that I’ve been brought up in it, and thus it col­ors my out­look on the world and by extent on reli­gion as a whole. Also, I believe there is a cer­tain dual­i­ty to the world of Final Fantasy X because I do not find the world pre­sent­ed in the game to be worse than the one we live in. Visually, it is pre­sent­ed as a beau­ti­ful green space. There doesn’t seem to be any kind of dis­ease, you can speak your mind freely and live rel­a­tive­ly peace­ful­ly while the reli­gion stays an impor­tant aspect of life. Taking that into account, one can build an argu­ment that this is a suc­cess­ful utopi­an cre­ation.

Final Fantasy X takes place in Spira. It’s a world full of lush veg­e­ta­tion, magic and an occa­sion­al mon­ster here and there. There is only one reli­gion: a lud­dite group called the Church of Yevon. Technology and magic are inter­change­able in Spira – both can serve the same pur­pos­es and improve var­i­ous aspects of life — trans­porta­tion, pro­duc­tion, com­mu­ni­ca­tion, even med­i­cine. Therefore, their rejec­tion of advanced tech­nol­o­gy isn’t as dras­tic or rad­i­cal as it would be in our real­i­ty and the choice to out­law machin­ery stems from the fact it’s not real­ly need­ed. Moreover,the tech­nol­o­gy ban is explained by his­tor­i­cal expe­ri­ence of this soci­ety with large-scale war­fare between the sup­port­ers of sci­ence and mag­i­cal users. In this way, they intend to dis­tance them­selves from the vio­lent past.

It works extreme­ly well too — the Church has man­aged to avoid anoth­er war for thou­sands of years and to unite the var­i­ous races and tribes of the land. Only one, the Al Bhed, still stay out­side of the influ­ence of Yevon and use tech­nol­o­gy, but they reside on the out­skirts of Spira and rarely inter­fere or inter­act with the rest of the world. In other words, the pre­sent­ed soci­ety has to deal with almost absolute reli­gious dom­i­nance. This is a cen­tral piece of the con­flict. The con­flict that seem­ing­ly doesn’t exist, but is actu­al­ly mul­ti­lay­ered and inter­twined through the whole nar­ra­tive.

The moment the play­er enters Spira, he meets the Al Bhed in an unpleas­ant and rough encoun­ter that seems to be pre­sent­ing them as vil­lains of the game. That sus­pi­cion is only strength­ened after you get sep­a­rat­ed and land in a small idyl­lic vil­lage by the sea. There, the atmos­phere is com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent. It’s sunny and green, and peo­ple are delight­ful. You are also pre­sent­ed with the cul­ture and tra­di­tion of the Church of Yevon. It’s strange, it’s strict and it’s dif­fer­ent, but see­ing peo­ple pray­ing in a tem­ple some­how makes it easy to accept it on the spot. It feels famil­iar and seems to pos­i­tive­ly affect every­one, as if every­thing is all right with the world.

But noth­ing can be this sim­ple. The wrench in the works of the utopi­an con­cept of Spira is named Sin. It’s a gigan­tic mon­ster trav­el­ing the oceans and destroy­ing cities. It is like a nat­u­ral dis­as­ter strik­ing unex­pect­ed­ly and ruin­ing lives of nor­mal cit­i­zens. Consequently, the destruc­tion of Sin is your main objec­tive as a play­er, and you quick­ly find out that it’s also what the Church of Yevon strives to achieve. You share this com­mon goal and hap­pi­ly join a num­ber of denizens of Spira on a pil­grim­age to defeat this impu­ri­ty.

You and your newly found friends are proud and eager to do what must be done, but as the nar­ra­tive unfolds, the sit­u­a­tion becomes increas­ing­ly more com­pli­cat­ed. You are sup­posed to die while defeat­ing Sin. You didn’t know that. The mon­ster will only dis­ap­pear for a num­ber of years and then return. No one told you. If there was a per­cep­tion of Spira as utopia in the player’s mind, it falls apart the fur­ther the road takes us. Moreover, the dis­man­tling of this sim­ple world with a peace­ful reli­gion is extreme­ly thor­ough.

By the time you reach the end, you find the awful truth — unbe­known­st to all, Sin is the armor of Yevon him­self. The hero, the prophet of the reli­gion, cre­at­ed the mon­ster to save his peo­ple in the time of war, but in the process his mind was destroyed and Sin has roamed the world ever since. So Sin is the destruc­tion of a dream – com­plete cor­rup­tion of some­thing that was sup­posed to be pos­i­tive.

Sin is a metaphor for mis­use of tra­di­tion. It has been in exis­tence for thou­sands of years, and cit­i­zens of Spira have never real­ly known what it is or why it exists. The reli­gion was cre­at­ed around the idea that Sin is a form of pun­ish­ment for wag­ing war with tech­nol­o­gy. It’s an appro­pri­a­tion gone hor­ri­bly wrong. Yunalesca, the daugh­ter of Yevon and cre­ator of his Church, cre­at­ed the frame­work of the reli­gion around Sin. She devised a scheme to weak­en the mon­ster for a few years, thus tem­porar­i­ly elim­i­nat­ing the threat — two peo­ple need to die every ten years or so after com­plet­ing a spir­i­tu­al journey/pilgrimage. They need to sac­ri­fice them­selves to bring peace and hap­pi­ness to the peo­ple.

What the Church of Yevon is attempt­ing is theod­i­cy for the sake of theod­i­cy. They jus­ti­fy the suf­fer­ing and death caused by Sin as god-given and attempt to slap a band-aid on the result­ing wound every so often instead of offer­ing a real solu­tion. But here in the land where magic is a real­i­ty and the effects of sac­ri­fice are plain­ly vis­i­ble, that’s not on people’s minds — the tra­di­tion stands above all. Change isn’t a viable idea because they aren’t used to it. They can­not imag­ine it, because weak­en­ing Sin is vis­i­bly only pos­si­ble with the help of the Church.

In effect, there is almost no sec­u­lar­iza­tion in Spira. How can it be? There is only one reli­gion, which rejects tech­no­log­i­cal pro­gress and embraces rit­u­al, magic and mys­ti­cism. The rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the only other cul­ture, which seems to be the com­plete oppo­site of the Yevon peo­ple, stay out of the world’s affairs. It’s an opti­mal sit­u­a­tion for this reli­gion because it has immense power and influ­ence, and it has to care only about the orga­ni­za­tion­al aspect of its func­tion­ing. To the unaware cit­i­zens and to a new play­er, Spira may seem to be a utopia. Only after study­ing its his­to­ry and dis­cov­er­ing its secrets do we find out its true nature – its reli­gious sys­tem is based on lies and cyn­i­cal deci­sions hid­den under the shell of pow­er­ful magic and thriv­ing nature. It is a frame­work devised to keep peo­ple happy and con­tent through an illu­sion of god. It’s mis­un­der­stand­ing of human con­di­tion.

While the nar­ra­tive of Final Fantasy X is based around a young man named Tidus, the two most impor­tant indi­vid­u­als in the tale of Spira are Yuna and Seymour. Yuna is a sum­mon­er, a per­son sent on a pil­grim­age to dif­fer­ent tem­ples of Yevon in order to pre­pare for the sac­ri­fice which will allow her to tem­porar­i­ly defeat Sin. And Seymour is a maester of Yevon – a high level priest who has a slight­ly dif­fer­ent vision of the role of the Church. Both char­ac­ters were raised in this par­tic­u­lar reli­gion but man­aged to out­grow it in two very dif­fer­ent ways.

Moreover, if Church of Yevon were read as a metaphor for Christianity it would be a dystopia too. A reli­gion based on a lie that com­plete­ly rejects pro­gress isn’t real­ly a valid stand-in for Christianity. But the dis­tinc­tion between the two is best vis­i­ble through Seymour and Yuna. In con­text of Yevon, Seymour is a schol­ar, under­stand­ing the reli­gion more than any­one else, and Yuna is a blas­phe­mer.

However, in my Christian inter­pre­ta­tion, Seymour plays the role of an antichrist – he wants every­one dead, he believes mercy-killing the pop­u­la­tion of Spira is the log­i­cal con­clu­sion to his reli­gion. It might be easy to per­ceive Seymour as yet anoth­er point­less­ly mega­lo­ma­ni­a­cal vil­lain, but there’s much more to him than that. Death works very dif­fer­ent­ly in Spira. After you die, you often do not sim­ply leave for the plains of after­life. In order to do that, the rit­u­al of send­ing has to be per­formed. This con­cept is real­ly quite sim­i­lar to the Catholic last rites per­formed after the person’s death – it’s the require­ment for the soul to rest. However, as men­tioned ear­lier, Yevon’s reli­gion is very lit­er­al and mag­i­cal. So if the dead aren’t “sent,” they walk the earth – the strong-willed in their cor­po­re­al form, the oth­ers changed into the monster-like “fiends” that pop­u­late the world.

This is one part of life in soci­ety where reli­gion plays an essen­tial role. Separation of life and death is essen­tial to make them both. But Seymour, when con­front­ed with this truth can’t accept it. Thus, the idea was born to end life com­plete­ly. By this act he means to achieve a greater good, but he’s too young and too rash – mis­guid­ed. Lost. To me, Seymour is a satan­ic fig­ure because his idea of sav­ing the world is in direct oppo­si­tion to those preached by Jesus. Instead of sac­ri­ficing him­self, he wants to sac­ri­fice us. His inten­tions seem right­eous yet the effects of his action may be down­right dev­il­ish. He could be the sav­ior and he believes he is love yet in real­i­ty he is the anti-thesis of both – Seymour is the har­bin­ger of death.

In this way Yuna is extreme­ly sim­i­lar to him. After find­ing the truth about Sin, she too needs to make a big deci­sion: Follow her sense of duty and do what is expect­ed of her as a summoner/living sac­ri­fice or try to break the cycle. Unsurprisingly, she choos­es change. Luckily for Spira her con­cep­tion of the greater good and of break­ing the cycle varies from Seymour’s. Yuna decides to take action and go again­st the tra­di­tion – to try the impos­si­ble and defeat Sin com­plete­ly. Her actions aren’t meant to change the cit­i­zens of Spira but to elim­i­nate an obsta­cle that makes their life more dif­fi­cult. She wants them to live.

In the end, she suc­ceeds and Seymour fails, but they were arguably just two sides of the same coin. They both rep­re­sent­ed change and reform, and a break from the tra­di­tion that was harm­ful to the soci­ety. To me, this story depicts the endgame of reli­gion – a utopi­an moment of unity in the same belief. The soci­ety and the Church itself believed that they had arrived to the con­clu­sion of their reli­gious jour­ney. All is known, the peo­ple are as happy as they are ever going to be. That’s why they avoid change and pro­gress. After all, change may be dif­fi­cult and prob­lem­at­ic, maybe even poten­tial­ly dan­ger­ous.

This is sim­i­lar to the Catholic strug­gles between tra­di­tion and sci­ence but it also takes on the clas­si­cal dystopi­an theme of “change or die.” Final Fantasy X cre­ates a utopia-like world where sci­ence isn’t real­ly need­ed any­more and in this way tips the scale in favor of tra­di­tion, nature and reli­gion. The sta­tus quo is accept­able. The prob­lem is that the ori­gins of Spira are clear­ly and absolute­ly dystopi­an – many books in the genre start in this way – after the war, a lie was con­ceived to make the peo­ple happy and an enemy was cre­at­ed to make them con­cen­trate on the out­side issues.

Thus, Yevon as well as Seymour rep­re­sent death and lack of change. They are the rea­son why the world and the soci­ety and trapped in a reli­gious dystopia. Christianity func­tions com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent – it accepts that life is a spir­i­tu­al jour­ney full of strug­gle. It is a process requir­ing you to look to the inside to engage with God to pro­gress. Therefore, life and change are relat­ed to each other and reject­ing any of them is a mis­take. The game’s nar­ra­tive affirms the same val­ues. Yuna is a Christ-like fig­ure because she leads the way to the game’s con­clu­sion through suf­fer­ing, friend­ship and love. And the final mes­sage of the game seems to be live hap­pi­ly, dream and change.


Tobe Cooper

About Tobe Cooper

Tobe is a PC gamer. He's got an MA in Cultural Studies, his field of specialization is audiovisual culture of the US. The degree allows him to overthink various aspects of gaming to unprecedented levels. Tobe is known to play indie games for their interesting ideas, and big-budget games for their graphics. He's well-versed in comic books too.

  • real­ly great read! I’m cur­rent­ly writ­ing an essay about hege­mony and reli­gion in video games and this was pret­ty insight­ful. :)

  • Great arti­cle! Being raised Catholic myself, and the events in the game mir­ror­ing my own frus­tra­tions with the church, I had always assumed that the sto­ry­line of FFX was basi­cal­ly a thin­ly veiled metaphor for the cre­ators’ own per­son­al show­down with God. From what you point­ed out here, I can see that the mes­sage they were try­ing to get across was much more ground­ed and con­struc­tive.