I have just finished Final Fantasy IX. As anybody who has played the game all the way through can imagine, I’m full of emotion over its conclusion. Wow. To be honest, the penultimate 3-4 hours of the game left me wanting. Zidane’s dialogue seemed to continually become more shallow, Vivi’s role had all but concluded, and the Terra story was surely quite a bit more compacted than the earlier arcs.
However, the final disputes with Garland, Kuja, the Necron, and the collisions memory and death were masterful.
Yet, I am finding as a I reflect that the strongest impression of all is the incredible growth of Steiner from a stodgy, militant, somewhat ignorant pawn to a realized, humble, gracious knight. It’s as if he were promoted on a chess board in one of those rare games where it makes more sense to ask for a knight than a queen. The queen has enormous raw power and lasting ability to control the board. The knight offers something different: a creative mathematical solution to an otherwise intractable jam of pieces. It’s a benefit that is only rarely the most tactically advantageous: just 1.8% of promotions are to a knight.
And to a degree, that’s the sense that the player gets as Steiner’s character plays out.
He’s right not to trust Zidane at first, of course. However, even after it becomes abundantly clear to everyone – not just the player, but the entire party – that Queen Brahne is the real source of danger, Steiner has a huge struggle in letting go of his loyalty to her because it is the core of his identity. This struggle defines his growth for the next 30-40 hours of the game, culminating in a realization that his loyalty was never to the Queen, but to Alexandria, and more importantly, to the peace.
One of the clear theses of Final Fantasy IX is that a government that is handed enormous power will abuse it. Brahne, and ultimately Kuja, are villains with whom the player is forced to feel an enormous level of compassion. The blame for Queen Brahne’s warmongering is laid unambiguously at the doorstep of Kuja’s arms dealing. In turn, Kuja is very successfully painted as the scorpion to Zidane and Dagger’s tortoise – there was simply no way for Kuja to subvert his nature until his very end. In this way, he’s less dissimilar to Final Fantasy VII’s Sephiroth than he seems at first.
Steiner, though, is the one who has to sort through this mess, because he is the one most aligned with Brahne and has the most to lose if Alexandria falls. I know – you’re thinking that surely Dagger has a greater investment, but my sense was that Dagger’s identity crisis was continually bringing her further back in time to her biological roots. To test this, ask yourself: of the two razings that she had to witness, which came to define her more in the end, that of Alexandria or that of Madain Siri? Even though the former left her more shocked, I attest that the latter came to define her. Her vision at Memoria wasn’t of being cared for as a Princess, it was being evacuated as one of the last surviving members of a species.
Thus, if Steiner is really the character bearing the brunt of the political upheaval following the Queen’s death – and I submit that he is – then he is left with some powerful decisions to make. For starters, he had every reason and right to stay put when the party returns to Alexandria. He claims to leave out of a desire to protect Dagger, but it’s clear that he’s torn between joining Beatrix in beginning to rebuild and seeing through his commitment to Zidane’s need to right the deeper wrong in the world.
Following this decision, Steiner becomes increasingly transparent about his desire to be a meaningful part of the team. His loyalty becomes connected more to his friendships and less to his politics. He makes a similar decision to board the Hilda Guarde instead of staying in Lindblum. And again, when he decides to pursue Garland and vows not to return until he does.
At the biting moment when Zidane decides to save Kuja, Steiner may think he’s nuts, but I got the sense that Steiner, more than any other party member, wanted to join Zidane – wanted to be a fully realized comrade. What a contrast from disc 1!
Steiner’s true moment, though, without a doubt, is in the final cutscene. His joy at Dagger’s joy over seeing Zidane is true realization for him. Full circle. I shed a tear. In fact, the egregiously cheesy circumstances of his rendezvous with Beatrix (ie, Eiko’s letter) actually seemed charming in light of this new Steiner.
While Vivi is surely the most obvious (and yes, most refined) story of personal growth, I think that Steiner is the true embodiment of the transformational identity that makes Final Fantasy IX the game that it is.