Religion and video games don’t tend to make the best of bedfellows. Religious and mythical figures pop in and out of games frequently enough, but rarely to invoke a sense of the spiritual or to illustrate an existential point. Most often, video games use religious figures because devils in flaming cloaks, three-headed guard dogs, and winged warriors are just so awesome. Still, every once in a while a game will use religion for the same purpose that real-world people do: as a way of viewing the universe and the people in it. Final Fantasy Tactics is one of the few games that directly and unapologetically places God and religion at its centre.
By God, I do not mean a pantheon, a named deity with a tangible presence on earth or a fantasy abstraction of a real-world idol: characters in Final Fantasy Tactics are talking about the capital “G” God. God in FFT’s world of Ivalice is most akin to the God of Christian theology*. The people of Ivalice believe that God created the world, that He created people in His image, that He gave them free will and that He sent an ambassador to earth to right His flock’s path when they abused their gift free will. There is not a lot of room for ambiguity: in this world, there are many, many people that believe in God. Perhaps naturally, there is also a church to organize the celebration and worship of God. And though many members of the church are antagonists, religion is not just a figure of villainy for villainy’s sake. The villains of Final Fantasy Tactics are villains because they’re misrepresenting God.
FFT’s conflicting but undetermined narrators wrestle for authorial control of the text. The game completely changes depending on whether it’s read with the assumption that the “true” narrator is the player-character Ramza; his eventual ally Orlan; Alazlam, a scholar in the distant future or a third-person omniscient and objective one. It is a game about controlling narrative and therefore power. the church maintains the status quo with a selective story about God and his will. Delita—the eventual victor of the Lions War—earns the support of the revolting populace by telling them a story of himself as a downtrodden revolutionary looking to modernize a backwards country. Delita’s deception is boundless, but he has so many versions of himself available that people are willing to believe him. The Lion’s War is won by one man’s storytelling.
The game paints the politically manipulative church as evil which—let’s be honest—is not very original and somewhat myopic. Still, even though FFT is so virulent toward a church with political ambitions, it is not anti-religious. Every character is a believer. Even though it’s a game where magic is a quantifiable reality and the player is engaged in a shadow war with literal demons, there’s an abstract spirituality in most denizens of Ivalice. The game opens with a prayer, friends pray for one another upon departing and praise God upon reuniting. Characters put themselves in the invisible hands of a bodiless God. In other words, they have faith and they wrestle with what that faith means. Popular champions fall from grace, scoundrel sell-swords have moral crises, enemies face off and argue over who is better representing God’s will. People’s faith matters to them and faith is an important variable in how characters treat their allies and enemies. As important as earthly politics are, FFT’s central conflict is living by God’s example in a world filled with short-sighted, greedy people.
FFT’s most damning criticism is reserved for clergymen abusing their positions of influence. But though there may be a number of villains associated with the church, all of them are administrators gaming a corrupt system for personal gain. Pastors associated with smaller communities are indisputably a force for good; they are the “good” shepherds that stand opposite the long line of villains associated with the clergy. For instance, Simon and his pupils, Alma and Ovelia, are all closely tied to God even while the church persecutes them. They are, each in their own way, trying to flee the church and their greedy communities by getting closer to God.
Long before the game’s events, Simon was an official in the church’s upper ranks—among those that would eventually try to overthrow and take the country. He walks away when he first detects the corruption in the church and ruling class. After leaving his post, he takes in students and keeps religious documents in a rural church. Simon leaves the material security of his position to do what he and his polluted colleagues should have been doing all along: preaching and studying the word of God for people that need access to it. At great personal risk, Simon abandons the church because it had been seduced by material and sociopolitical power. He becomes a priest for a small community in the prairies. Simon illustrates how far the church in Final Fantasy Tactics has fallen; that people like him are the exception, not the rule of a religious order shows the player the extent of the church’s rot. While Simon has little company as an effective and benevolent clergyman, his influence on others is profound.
Among Simon’s students are two of the game’s most important supporting characters: Ovelia, one of the last survivors of the royal family and a woman who’s been manipulated by nobles all her life, and Alma, Ramza’s sister. Both Ovelia and Alma are mired in betrayal and suffering; they are continually targeted by a mysterious supernatural force. In their lives before and during the several-year-long campaign, the two have very few friends outside one another—this is particularly true of Ovelia, whose suffering is greater and more tragic. The point is that these kindred spirits were only able to find one another through their religion. It is also their devotion that guides them through the major challenge that faces them: Alma resists possession from Ultima at the end of the game where Ovelia consents to Delita’s plan to take the throne and create a people’s republic. The important difference being that Alma is overcoming a threat where Ovelia is falling for Delita’s deception; but it is still their faith that leads them to their respective decisions. Alma’s faith is too powerful for the demon to control and Ovelia’s faith leads her to want the best for her people, to the point that it blinds her to Delita’s conspiracy. Ovelia and Alma’s faith is also reflected in how they assist the player in their guest appearances in battle.
Both Ovelia and Alma have unique command of “holy magicks,” that an AI controls for them when they briefly join the player’s party. Holy magicks include unique defensive abilities of unparalleled effectiveness. They learned their abilities through a lifetime of study at a monastery. It was through Simon’s tutelage that they gained the utilitarian ability to protect themselves and others. Moreover, the way each of these nuns uses their skills provides further insight into their who they are and the impact that religion has on them.
Ovelia’s AI has her prioritize herself as the target of her powerful protection spells: as the last heir to the throne, her close relatives were either imprisoning her to protect their place in the monarchy or trying to assassinate her to improve it. Her whole life is marked by others trying to use her because of her social rank. It’s monumental that her only means to protect herself comes from her studies at a monastery, the only place she ever felt safe. Ovelia is able to defend herself from those that try to recapture her in her adulthood. Contrarily, Alma had a much gentler and privileged upbringing. As a result, it makes sense that the AI that controls her in battle has her prioritize others over herself. She uses her magic to protect those she loves at greater personal risk. In either case, these characters are closely associated with a healthier, nonviolent religion. The holiness of their “holy magicks” comes from their belief in God and it gives them the ability to ward off the evil people that would harm them or their loved ones. But the positive effects of faith and spirituality do not just exist in main characters, they are seen even in the randomly generated characters that support Ramza in his quest.
In the original Playstation version of FFT, the healing mages—the class that is called “white mage” in almost every other Final Fantasy title—are called priests. The priest class, especially early in the game, is vital to the player’s survival. In a game that’s notorious for its difficulty, healing magic is an absolute necessity. Priests keep people alive. In fact, until much more advanced classes are unlocked, they’re the only ones that can. In Final Fantasy Tactics, any character is capable of being a “priest,” and priests are the only characters with a skill set focused entirely on helping others. This suggests not just that that faith is responsible for healing the hurt, but that faith is ubiquitous, that anyone can become a priest and fulfill the priestly duty of helping others. The ability to use God’s power is not reserved for those of higher birth, the ability to heal others as a priest is open to anyone with the will to do so. The priest class is a constant reminder that the top officials of the world’s church aren’t the final authority: religion’s biggest influence is in how the every day, common person uses their faith for the benefit of others.
Of course, faith takes on a concrete meaning in a discussion on Final Fantasy Tactics. Not just in how it champions the common, “honest” believers, but in a very literal sense. Faith is, in FFT, a statistic that characters have in a set quantity. In fact, it’s only one of two—the other being bravery— that distinguishes one character from another. All the regular RPG stats—attack, defense, HP, et al.—are determined by a characters class, level and equipment and are therefore have the same base value (special characters have a higher base value, but most of Ramza’s squad is composed of hired swords without characterization). The only differentiating factors between characters are their bravery and their faith.
Faith functions as a combination of magic attack and magic defence. However, magic attack and defense are negatively related to faith: higher faith means higher magic attack but lower magic defence and lower faith means lower magic attack but higher magic defence. A character with high faith casts more powerful spells but is in turn receives a greater affect from magic. This goes for both offensive and healing spells. A character with high faith has a higher capacity to harm or heal while being more susceptible to injury and more able to recover. Conversely, a character with low faith is able to do less harm and is less open to damage at the cost of being less able to heal their comrades and themselves. Faithful characters are constantly more vulnerable to the world around them, but they’re also easiest to restore, the most apt at shrugging off the injuries the world causes them and the most able to cause or mend injury.
The faith mechanic is directly parallel to the game’s plot. The evil church is using their faith to harm other people, Simon uses it to help others, Ovelia is made vulnerable because of it, and Alma recovers from injury because of her abundance of it. Faith is powerful and it is burdensome. We see characters constantly misusing the power of faith and folding under the weight of it. However, the game does not simply resolve that faith is a gamble not worth taking.
Orlan is an astrologer and a noble who meets and befriends Ramza about halfway through the adventure. Though he only participates in one battle (like Ovelia and Alma, he is controlled by an AI), he’s the only other person that fully understands the shifting allegiances in the “War of Lions.” It’s his written document that the player is playing through. He is an astrologist and historian, remotely documenting and observing without being able to participate in the conflicts of his world. Though Orlan believes in God and has a reasonably high amount of the faith statistic, he is the character that best represents the faithless. When he learns about the church’s plot, he abandons it. Orlan is branded a heretic and, in the epilogue, is executed many years after he records the game’s events. And just like a mechanically faithless character, he is incapable of fighting back and he is resistant to any attacks against him. However, any harm done to him is, by virtue of his lack of faith, permanent.
Orlan’s magic disables all of the enemies on the field. None are able to approach or harm him because he keeps them immobile. However, he is also unable to attack them directly, he cannot win a fight alone because he can’t damage his opponents just as he cannot defeat the church alone and so relies on Ramza to do it for him. Moreover, he is also unable to heal himself, making any damage he takes constant (unless someone comes to his aid). In FFT faith is as necessary as it is dangerous, it’s absence hardens one to the world’s evils while making their impact absolute. We see in Orlan what a lack of faith means, he may be cynically prepared for any injury that the world deals him, but he lacks the capacity to recover from it.
Finally, a character with a maximized faith statistic abandons Ramza’s quest and adopts a pacifist’s life. Ramza’s goal as commander is to ensure his team is faithful enough to be useful in his army, but that they are agnostic enough to justify committing violence in their own minds. A character with a strong enough belief in God will no longer be capable of participating in the war, they’ll leave behind the war, the church and all the corrupt worldly institutes that misrepresent God.
This reflects the theme at the heart of Final Fantasy Tactics: that faith is incredibly powerful. The misuse of faith is capable of incredible destruction—demonstrated by the church’s campaign for the throne—and that those most compelled to believe—such as Ovelia—are first to suffer. Characters that truly believe can recover from anything—as Alma does—and those without faith, though initially resilient, are doomed when their injuries set in—as Orlan is. Lastly, those with true, unbreakable faith, like Simon, are the few with the resolve and understanding to walk away from conflict entirely.
Final Fantasy Tactics explores the consequences of believing in a higher existence but living in a lower one. There are powerful people who are corrupt, good people who lose their way and never find it again and there are moral people able . All these people have a different relationship with God and His offices on earth. Religion has a massive influence in history; an influence used by the vainglorious and the benevolent with a wide range of results. Final Fantasy Tactics attempts to show the ways in which our belief and our churches can conflict, how faith can be abusive or empowering, how it protects and exposes us. Where most games treat myth and faith as an ocean of creative-common content to model their baddies after, it’s refreshing when a game actually understands the issues at the heart of religion. Faith is a complicated thing: even within the religious texts that were written to explain what it means. Everyone is touched by religion and by the questions and answers it poses. Games like FFT prove that it’s possible for the medium to approach spirituality in ways beyond character modelling.
* Technically the people of Ivalice are polytheistic but most of that gets lost in the translation of the original Playstation release. Even so, prayer and religious practice mimes Christian conventions. (Cunningham, Michael A. “Inside Gaming – Interview with Former Square Enix Translator Tom Slattery.” RPGamer.)