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 firstname.lastname@example.org!
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.