The Spiral of Death: Final Fantasy X as Allegory of Religions

Art imitates life.

In the world of fantasy games, an expansive imagination is necessary. However, world-building is not easy, so for the most part, creatives take inspiration from real life to write their stories.

The Final Fantasy series is no exception. This JRPG pioneer started with your typical good vs. evil, “save-the-world” stories, with the first three games in particular barely registering any plot. However, with the advent of technological development, developers got more physical storage to code more information. They were thus able to write more complex stories and employ more detailed characterization in their games. Indeed, the 16-bit Super Nintendo System supported the highly acclaimed Final Fantasy VI, long praised for its exceptional villain, Kefka. Final Fantasies VII, VIII, and IX followed on Playstation to even more acclaim for their aesthetic and storylines, all of which were highly distinct. These three games are legendary and complete essays can be written about them. But in my opinion, their successor, Final Fantasy X, featured the pinnacle of the series’ storytelling.

Even with all the usual trappings of third-generation JRPGs, Final Fantasy X told an existential and philosophical tale; the layered storytelling bore cross-generational appeal: with the younger market appreciating its gameplay, and my generation who enjoyed its plot, even if we’re only able to understand its religious allegories well into adulthood.

The World is a Sphere

Final Fantasy X is set in the world called “Spira,” roughly an equivalent of Earth. The story is told from the perspective of Tidus, a teenager from the city of Zanarkand. This city was portrayed as a technologically advanced edifice built over the ocean. As with other Final Fantasy games, magic is an integral part of the story, and thus it is not uncommon to see elements entirely outside the realm of real-life physics (for instance, central to the plot is a football-like game called blitzball, which is played entirely underwater in its entire duration).

The decision to make the protagonist someone who does not know anything about his immediate world made for an interesting parallel for someone who is being inducted into a religion. No one in the real world is born with beliefs; Although at the same time, many ceremonies correspond to religious kinship, including the baptism of newborns, religion is in itself a product of continuous socialization as one grows up. Tidus represents the newborn in this scenario, and through his unbaptized eyes, we see the world bereft of religious dogma and indoctrination.

“Praise Be to Yevon”

Tidus arrived in Spira from Zanarkand on the back of a monster called Sin; The aptly named antagonistic force is central to the plot of Final Fantasy X, as the entire religion and everyday way of life of Spirans is not only influenced by but is also directly a result of the destruction Sin brings.

As Tidus learned from the inhabitants of Spira, Sin appeared one thousand years ago after the great war between Bevelle and Zanarkand. The summoners of Zanarkand used magic, while Bevelle used new technology, called “machina,” to turn the tide of war in their favor. The war eventually ended in a draw when Yu Yevon, leader of the Zanarkand summoners, created Sin with the only intention of destroying all machina cities as a form of revenge.

A cult of the personality eventually emerged from Yu Yevon’s creation of Sin, and thus the religion of Yevon was born. Its teachings revolve around the events of the excellent machina war. After one thousand years, they were reduced to two things: people should stop using forbidden machina as they are “evil,” and that people should repent banishing Sin forever. The religion of Yevon postulates that the use of machina rendered humans slothful and materialistic – both undesirable traits to modern Spirans.

The game portrayed Spirans as primarily unaware of the origins of the Yevon religion and that of Sin. Instead, they are so engrossed in the fact that Sin exists to punish them and that atonement for the past mistakes of using forbidden machina will somehow make it stop. This lack of questioning is something that is heavily reflected in modern religions. Indeed, even if people are unaware of the ills of the papacy in the middle ages, the death of innocents in the Crusade or the Inquisition, or the fact the sword spread Islamword, people who believe in religion still keep their faith as they think it is the only way to gain salvation.

It is also interesting to see the parallels with how Spirans worship Yevon. They think they need to atone for past mistakes made by their ancestors and the “original sin” concept in Catholicism. Just as Eve doomed humanity when she partook of the forbidden fruit of the tree of life, ancient Spirans doomed their descendants by supposedly using forbidden machina. This resulted in the gross simplification of how Spirans lived ever since: a devolution of society.

This devolution is presented most strongly with machina cities one thousand years before the game’s setting. Dream Zanarkand, for instance, was filled with high-rise buildings and bright lights, perhaps a nod to the modern global cities we have today. In present-day Spira, most cities are more aptly called settlements because of their small population and poor infrastructure. Present-day Spirans also most relied on subsistence activities like fishing and trading, and their modes of transportation still used beasts of burden (e.g., chocobos, shoopuffs). With the Temples of Yevon being the center of people’s lives and machinas and innovation frowned upon, it is a dead parallel to how the middle ages in the real world interfered with the age of enlightenment. The cult of Yevon and its leaders preyed on the fear of the people, much like how the great religions of the time, like Christianity, kept humanity backward by making faith the priority of people’s lives.

The Heretics and the Sorrow of Spira

Unlike the real world, Spira is dominated by the Temple of Yevon. Mostly it is because of the fear of Sin, so people follow the teaching. However, it is also because everyone who veers away from the instructions is branded as heretics and is ostracized.

A particular group of people called the “Al Bhed” are the targets of this ostracization. The Al Bhed are a separate race from the Yevonites; they all have blonde hair and green eyes with a distinct spiral pattern. More than their physical characteristics, however, their way of life and their beliefs make them incompatible with the cult. For one, it is the Al Bhed who made machinas in the first place, having made the weapons that made Bevelle a formidable city. The Al Bhed never stopped using machina even in present Spira and do not believe in the tenets of Yevon.

This obstinate belief in machina made the stubborn Yevonite faithful hate the Al Bhed. To them, the Al Bhed are heretics who impede them from achieving the goal of getting rid of Sin once and for all. Because the Al Bhed continues to use machina, Yevonites believe that Sin will continue to respawn, and it is only through fate and penance that they will attain peace.

“Othering” is a phenomenon in sociology that directly corresponds to how the world of Spira singled out the Al Bhed people. It is a phenomenon wherein some individuals or groups are defined and labeled as not fitting in within the norms of a social group. It influences how people perceive and treat those who are viewed as part of the in-group versus those seen as part of the out-group. In addition, it also involves attributing negative characteristics to people or groups that differentiate them from the perceived normative social group. It is clear from the Al Bhed example that the people of Spira had been othering the Al Bhed for a thousand years simply because they don’t share the same beliefs. Interestingly, they continue trading with the Al Bhed, further proving the hypocrisy of religion. Yevonites forgot that the Al Bhed are heretics as soon as there is economic need.

This sort of discrimination is nothing new in the real world. For example, religious killings were present when Christianity and Islam were spread, and even now, honor killings in the name of religion are practiced. In addition, theocracies treat people of other faiths as second-class citizens, and there is always an economic and social disadvantage in any place for those in the religious minority.

That being said, the cult of Yevon earned their hegemony, no matter how unjust and puritanical they might seem. Final Fantasy X also touched upon the concept of racism in the game, with other fictional races being maligned in some way (for instance, the Guados were described as odd-looking with their long hands and faces, and the anthropomorphic Ronsos were described as savages by some). However, the Temple of Yevon was able to do the unthinkable and unite these races through faith. This symbolic unity of races was symbolized by the four “Maesters,” the high priests of the Temple of Yevon, with one of them being a Guado-human hybrid and one being a Ronso.  This is a deliberate tactic of the cult to subvert potential rebellions from the minority races.

The Summoner as False Messiah

However, the Temple of Yevon did not get all the support simply by mere politicking. They have had some success in stopping Sin, the source of all the sorrow in Spira, by using the power of summoning. In particular, a summoner would need to call on the strength of supernatural beings called aeons to defeat entities called “fiends,” who are physical beings manifested by the hateful memories of dead people still attached to Spira. A summoner’s calling is to go on a pilgrimage throughout Spira, calling the power of the aeons in each temple, until she arrives at the ruins of Zanarkand, where she can summon the ultimate authority: the Final Summoning.

However, calling on the Final Aeon will result in the death of the summoner and one of their guardians whose souls will become the eon. In addition, defeating Sin with the Final Aeon is a reprieve as it will merge with the Final Aeon and be reborn, causing only a brief time of peace called the Calm. Thus, Sin couldn’t truly be defeated.

While summoners are aware that they will need to die to “defeat” Sin, the fact that Sin will continue to be reborn was a secret kept by the highest orders in the Temple of Yevon. The reason is to give the Spira people “hope,” as knowing that Sin will never go away and will always come back will result in the people’s sorrow. In the story, the deuteragonist and summoner Yuna and her guardians eventually found out the truth about the false religion and were able to defeat Sin in the end truly. Not so much in real life.

The archetype of “The Chosen One,” the one who will save and liberate us all, is not a unique concept in modern religions. Jesus Christ is the most prominent example; like Yuna and the summoners, Christ was sacrificed and is promised to come back to bring salvation to the world. Like the Temple of Yevon, modern religions also rely on the faith of their followers to control them. Judeo-Christian religions warn us about the fires of hell when we stray away from the teachings. The Temple of Yevon’s warning is more immediate: the death from Sin and dying an unclean death will render one’s post-human life as a fiend: one of the worst fates possible.

Overcoming Religion: The Victory of the Self

The climax of Fantasy X is a significant symbolism of destroying religious institutions in favor of the self. The character of Yuna, whose whole life revolved around the faith of Yevon but eventually coming to denounce its ills, represents a significant character development. This corresponds to the countless people indoctrinated since birth in their families’ religions but finally overcame its teachings after realizing how incompatible they were with their values. Not only was Yuna able to discover the falsehood in her beliefs, but she was also able to defeat Sin without the help of her faith.

Religion is one of the ways that people find meaning. It is a set of codes that provide a clear path for people to live their lives. But as has already been proven before, the only way for religions to stay relevant is through evolution. Rules formulated through religious edicts by people we don’t know thousands of years back don’t necessarily mean that they are still compatible with today’s daily lives. Nevertheless, Yuna proved that through individual creative thinking, she could solve the mystery of Sin and succeed in her pilgrimage, albeit not in the way her religion intended.

Final Fantasy X reaffirmed that the power to write our stories is in our own hands. Religions usually teach us to be good people, but only in the ways they allow. But being good, and living a life with meaning, doesn’t need the blessing of some god if we choose to. Auron, one of Yuna’s guardians, put it best in his iconic speech:

“Now! This is it! Now is the time to choose! Die and be free of pain, or live and fight your sorrow! Now is the time to shape your stories! Your fate is in your hands!”

Ultimately, the faith in ourselves, not the divine, will save us after all.

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