"Jesters of the Moon"
There are a lot of very good video games in the world, but it takes some luck and circumstance outside of a game's control for one to reach me at just the right time(s) and place(s) in my life that it has a tangible impact on who I am -- who I want to be. One that carves out a space for itself in my soul that will never be removed or replaced.
I've just finished playing Final Fantasy IX for the first time, and there's no doubt in my mind that such is the case here.
I drew this art last year, when I was mourning my attachment to an old favorite game that I just don't feel the same way about anymore: Majora's Mask. I wanted to draw something that captured my feelings about it, because sometimes art is the best way to talk about something when the words don't want to come.
Why is "Jesters of the Moon," the name of a random song in the Final Fantasy IX soundtrack, plastered in the middle of this Majora's Mask fanart? Especially considering I hadn't even played Final Fantasy IX yet when I drew this?
The reason is exactly that "luck and circumstance" that allowed me to fall so uniquely in love with the game.
In 2008, someone on YouTube uploaded a Majora's Mask parody-slash-let's-play series called "Majora's Mask: The Things Which Were Taken Out." The series has since become unlisted and won't be linked here out of respect for the creator who probably doesn't want things they said and made in 2008 being spread all over the internet, but because of Unregistered Hypercam 2 reasons, the series inserted other background music over the video and didn't record the actual game audio.
I didn't recognize any of the music, but I watched these parody videos on repeat because in addition to being funny (...at the time, in my mind, at least), I really really loved the music. It got to the point where I would sometimes be playing Majora's Mask and get disappointed when I approached Goht and the Mt. Gulug theme wasn't playing in the background.
I had forgotten about these videos for a really long time in the interim, but I remembered them at some point when I was thinking about Majora's Mask and I found them again. The creator had cited the Final Fantasy IX soundtrack for virtually all of the background music used in the videos, and I realized that despite knowing literally nothing about the game, I had become really fond of - and weirdly nostalgic for - the songs from it that I now recognized.
So I looked up "Jesters of the Moon" and played it on repeat while I drew out my feelings in colored marker. A few months later, I realized that my backwards compatible PS3 can also play PS1 games, and eBay had FFIX for PS1 at a good price. I had nothing to lose by ordering it and seeing what the source of all that fantastic music was like.
"Vamo Alla Flamenco"
I started my playthrough knowing nothing about what to expect from the game. I'd never played a Final Fantasy game before and my overall JRPG experience has been mostly limited to Tales of, Persona, and more recently, mainline Shin Megami Tensei. The only things I knew about Final Fantasy were a) the Tidus laughing scene, and b) Sephiroth. IX seemed like it had vibes I would enjoy, but beyond that I knew nothing about what the experience would be. So I approached it with a "let's have fun and see how it goes" attitude, naming my party members the first silly thing that came to mind, ending up with "Swaggy," "OwO," "Bitchin," "Gunz," and "SWOOORD" to start with.
(For the record I do not regret those names whatsoever.)
I was immediately struck by how differently the game uses music in comparison to all of my previous JRPG experiences. This was not a game where the composer was given a list of theme songs that were slapped on top of a mostly completed game-- this was a game constructed with the soundtrack in mind as a part of the writing process.
The opening act plays almost like an opera (side note, yes I know one of the other FF's has a literal opera, I haven't played that one): you traverse the same locations from different perspectives as different characters, introducing the cast with lighthearted humor and dramatic irony out the wazoo. While you traverse the city as OwO, OwO's theme is playing in the background, coloring your perspective of the city and the narrative. When you switch to Gunz patrolling around the castle, Gunz's theme accompanies your movement and informs his character and mission. I am so accustomed to "location themes" being the norm in virtually all video games that experiencing character and/or narrative themes as BGM instead while I bumble around town changed my entire perspective on what music in games can do and be.
The operatic feeling is definitely intentional, because the game uses a play-within-a-game narrative device to hit you over the head with its themes in a way that is somehow poignant and artful while also being extremely blatant. That is a hard balance to strike, but it manages. The whole game is like that: it is completely straightforward and tells you exactly what it's about at heart, but it does it beautifully.
At any rate, I was enamored with this intro and had a very fun time, but I wasn't obsessed or anything and ended up putting it down. I spent several months on the first half of disk 1 with weeks passing between play sessions. I liked the game plenty, but life stuff happened and I decided to get obsessed with Dai Gyakuten Saiban and Ghost Trick for a while. No regrettis.
It was already clear, though, that FFIX was going to be special to me. My compositions for my team's game in the Global Game Jam in 2021 were directly inspired by FFIX's opera-like intro. I wrote two character themes for our game that would serve as background music when you play as the two protagonists, coloring your journey differently even when moving in the same spaces. I was intentionally trying to mimic the way music is used in FFIX as an exercise. The themes I wrote are definitely some of my strongest work so far.
"Melodies of Life"
Music caused me to pick up FFIX the first time, and music caused me to return to it. After months of not touching or really thinking about it, just earlier this week I was inspired to play it again, because - again - I listened to the right song at the right time.
I was again mourning the loss of something, in this case a friendship, for reasons I'm not going to share here. I had already heard the song "Melodies of Life" because it came up when I was looking up FFIX songs to reblog on Tumblr a few months ago, and I decided to listen to it again. Even without knowing the game context, the song itself really spoke to me in that moment: "a voice from the past, joining yours and mine, adding up the layers of harmony" - it kind of made me feel at peace with the fact that I had a lot of positive memories of that friendship and I could keep those at heart while also moving on in the present. ...I'm also a sucker for music metaphors, so there is that.
I was really moved by this song, cheesy as it is, and I was also definitely in the mood for a distraction. Picking up FFIX again felt like the best move.
It was, and my life is forever changed.
The game never stopped being beautiful and funny and touching, and the soundtrack never ceased to amaze. I recognized concepts I've seen in other games but never had I seen them used so artfully. I adored the fantasy world and non-human cast, I found myself enticed by random encounter for the first time because it made me feel like I had to struggle to survive a difficult journey. Music, gameplay, visuals, and story felt like one cohesive work of art for the entire duration.