“This is my story!” Tidus shouts in the last battle of Final Fantasy X, but that’s only half of it. Final Fantasy X is also his game. The minigames and some aspects of the battle system, as I mentioned in the last post, tie back to his athletic personality, but the game goes further than that. The level design of Final Fantasy X is a mirror to Tidus’ experience.
In their classic form, JRPGs, including the previous Final Fantasy games, have a large zoomed-out overworld that essentially mimics walking across a map, studded with dungeons and towns that have greater detail and more traditional level design. Final Fantasy X marked a complete break from that style for the series, tightening the whole world into smaller, designed levels that often had extremely narrow and restrictive paths. This pattern was repeated almost verbatim in Final Fantasy XIII, but it is even evident in Final Fantasy XII, where the overworld zones are not mechanically or graphically distinct from the dungeons or even (in some cases) the towns.
The downside of this change is that FFX can feel very restrictive, subject to the same “series of tubes” objections that were made against FFXIII’s design. On the other hand, it’s not a bad way to tell a story about a religious pilgrimage steeped in ritual. The Summoner Yuna’s journey to defeat the monstrous Sin must take her to certain places, and Tidus, understanding nothing of Spira, must follow her lead.
That’s certainly how things seem to be going at the start. Following a relatively brief prologue, Tidus emerges at Besaid Island. Although Besaid has what appears to be a split path, one branch must be traversed on his first visit to the island and can never be traveled again. Functionally, the island has two one-way streets. At this point Tidus is entirely passive. He is following Wakka to Besaid village, and once he meets her, he is following Yuna away. The one-way character of Besaid’s paths matches the situation: he is doing whatever other people tell him to do.
The action then moves to Kilika Island. Tidus and friends arrive just after an attack by the monstrous Sin has devastated the town. Yuna performs a funeral rite, and Tidus gains an inkling that this pilgrimage she’s on might be more complex than just a straightforward journey to fight a monster. Tidus begins to change his mind about what he wants. He still wants to return to his Zanarkand, but he also becomes invested–through Yuna–in Spira itself: “I wished there would never be a next time. No more people being killed by Sin. No more sendings for Yuna.” The growing nuances of his experience are reflected in the next area, which is a light grid with multiple pathways through it and an optional boss. Tidus has a slightly more complex relationship to the world, which reacts by becoming somewhat more complex itself.
Big deal, one might say. This is arguably just the game progressively showing off more elaborate areas. But FFX’s levels don’t actually continue to become more complex. In fact, they become less so.
Following a story event in the town of Luca, Tidus encounters his old mentor Auron again. After an argument, Auron tells Tidus that he can choose whether to come along on Yuna’s journey or not. Tidus’ reply is instructive – “You tell me it’s my decision, but I don’t really have a choice, do I?” Tidus knows his only hope to understand what has happened to him and what is happening in Spira is to follow Yuna and Auron. The area that follows is the Mi’ihen Highroad, and it has one striking difference from every other level in the game.
Everywhere else, FFX takes pains to show physical boundaries that constrain the party’s path. Most zones have cliffs on both sides, or are narrow causeways suspended in the air. In some places bodies of water or dense vegetation block the way, and in the desert giant sand dunes hem Tidus in. The Mi’ihen Highroad has nothing. At its edge are only low shrubs and small ruins – obstacles that couldn’t possibly stop an athlete like Tidus. In this one place the visual design of the area nakedly displays the restraining hand of the designer. Tidus doesn’t stick to the road here because something prevents him from leaving it; he sticks to the road because he has no other choice. The rhetoric of level design reinforces the rhetoric of the story.
The levels continue in this single-pathway vein for some time. The path through Mushroom Rock Road winds a bit but is essentially a tube; the same is true of the roads from there to Djose and from Djose to the Guadosalam. That city is notable for its twisting and interconnected nature. Although it is small, it’s a bit disorienting. Here, too, a story complication crops up, as the character Seymour proposes marriage to Yuna. Her immediate thought is that she will continue her pilgrimage, and so the party continues out onto the Thunder plains, which is somewhat more open than the preceding areas but still essentially a straight path.
At the end of the Thunder Plains, Yuna announces that she will instead marry Seymour. Her reasoning for doing this is wrong-headed, but her resolve is solid. I mention that because it helps to establish that the levels are telling Tidus’ story, not hers. Yuna knows what she is doing, but Tidus is confused. And what follows is one of the most confusing and knotty areas of the game – Macalania Woods.
The road that Tidus is meant to follow through the forest on this first visit is singular and unbranched, but it coils and doubles back on itself to such a degree that it is possible to forget, if one has walked away from the game for a few minutes, which direction along its path will actually take him to the exit. It also soon becomes clear that Macalania, unlike any other area of the game, has a complete secondary route overlaying the main one, as well as multiple exits. By the end of the game, Tidus can leave the woods in four different directions – to the Thunder Plains, Bevelle, the Calm Lands, and Lake Macalania – and will have experienced significant events in two large side areas of the forest itself. Macalania is a nexus of the game, geographically its most complex level, and not coincidentally is entered at a moment where, after a long period of confidence, Tidus has lost his understanding of Yuna’s actions and intentions. Tidus is confused, and the game reinforces his emotions with a confusing level.
Lake Macalania supplies a brief moment of clear purpose: Tidus first means to catch up to Yuna, and then to escape with her from the attack of the Guado. That clarity is destroyed by Sin, who carries the party to an unknown land. Here the game supplies one of its more open levels. Although there is a straight path out of the oasis, it opens into two screens of fairly broad, low-feature desert. Tidus is physically lost, and no longer has Yuna’s guidance.
An intense, story-heavy sequence follows, in which Tidus learns that Yuna’s pilgrimage must end in her death. As the sequence progresses, Yuna learns that the religion she has devoted her life to has rotted from within. She briefly wavers in her commitment to her journey, a moment reflected in the rather simple maze of the Via Purifico–the only part of the game that completely lacks Tidus, and thus concerns itself with telling Yuna’s story. Soon the whole party is reunited and moved on to the Calm Lands, at which point Yuna’s confidence is back. “I’ve always known where to go,” she says when Auron warns her that summoners often “lose their way” in this place.
Yuna knows where to go, but Tidus is now emotionally lost. To have any hope of returning to his home, he must continue with Yuna, but each step he takes brings her closer to death. Tidus doesn’t know what to do, so the game opens out into the vast plain of the Calm Lands, a huge area which entirely lacks the tunnel-like character that informs the remainder of the game. This area has more freedom of action within it than any other point in the game. Yet even this area narrows down to a single exit. Tidus must eventually follow Yuna forward on her quest.
The remainder of the pilgrimage feels very tightly constrained. Mt. Gagazet is a little confusing, but ultimately consists of only a single forward path, and the same is true of Zanarkand. The only moment of confusion comes when Tidus encounters the fayth of Zanarkand and learns that his home is nothing more than their collective dream. His shock on learning this is perhaps reflected in the slight complexity of the Gagazet caves.
The remaining non-optional area of the game is the interior of Sin itself, consisting of two areas. The first is a branching, maze-like structure that, of all the locations in the game, is closest in structure to a traditional Final Fantasy dungeon. The second is more of a straight line, but one where strange and surprising obstructions appear. Walls pop up out of the ground, and the floor falls away beneath Tidus’ feet. Both areas have an additional unique feature: unlike the rest of the game, their minimap starts as a blank that can only be filled in through exploration. These features seem to reflect the complex and adversarial relationship between Tidus and the father he never understood, who has become Sin.
Final Fantasy X differs significantly in its construction from previous entries in the series. Although previous Final Fantasies frequently obstructed the player’s movement or forced em down a set path, they had never employed the tube-like levels that constitute almost all of X. This particular design may reflect the limitations of the hardware or the developers, but the particular design of the levels also reinforces the narrative. This approach would be reused for similar ends in FFXIII, as Simon Ferrari has pointed out. There, the narrowness of the world emphasizes how the characters are bound by fate. In Final Fantasy X, however, the constriction and expansion of the areas reflects Tidus’ emotional state as his story develops. Simple and unbranched when confidence or resignation confine Tidus to a single way forward, coiled and confused when his view of the world becomes complicated, open and pathless when he loses his way, the levels of Final Fantasy X make Spira his world, just as the game is his story.