For a world of kingdoms, peoples, politics and cultures, Gaia lacks depth.
Whereas Final Fantasy VII had the global conglomerate Shin-Ra, and Final Fantasy VIII had PMCs (in the form of Gardens), to its fault Final Fantasy IX references distinct principalities and hinges conflict on the believability of war between them. Kuja, the big bad, seduces Queen Brahne of Alexandria to devastate and conquer its neighbouring kingdoms, Lindblum, Burmecia and Cleyra. These four form the majority of life on the Mist Continent, which in turn claims priority over the other three continents, each named with respect to culture on the Mist.
Contrast between the two quartets raises curiosity. Technology on Gaia is limited to what can be used as fuel — airships on the Mist Continent are powered by the atmosphere of mist hugging the landmass. On the worldmap airships bustle through the skies, representing the population’s reliance on mist and granting an impression of activity.
Since the mist ends at the continent’s shores, travel overseas is inhibited. The Outer Continent, home to Kuja’s super secret baddie base, is accessible to the Mist by boat, although only really from Alexandria (perhaps contributing to its becoming his outlet for strife). To the west is the Forgotten Continent, whose impenetrable cliffs deny entry from the ocean. Perpetual twilight bathes this land in a not-so-subtle metaphor. Lastly in the northwest and farthest away from the Mist lies the snow-covered Lost Continent. Whereas the islands of the Forgotten house a scholar’s paradise, the Lost Continent’s only village is settled for holy pilgrimages.
Here, sensibility ends.
It’s more than a disc until protagonist Zidane and co venture outward from the Mist and just over two discs before Kuja’s pretence as an arms dealer is dropped completely, so it is vital for the player to believe in the legitimacy of a war between Alexandria and its neighbours. For this, at a very basic level, we need to believe in each nation conceptually.
Geographically the division fits: the four cities are separated from one another by a wide expanse of mountains. Simply by walking around the worldmap the player is faced with these natural borders. Secluded Cleyra boasts a perpetual, ‘impassable’ sandstorm as its castle walls, presenting as insular but self-sufficient. The other three claim long-held (and largely withheld) histories of communication and treaties; the presence of border-controls establishes the lands within them as realms.
And yet, despite the impressive expanse of each capital city, the kingdoms are otherwise deserted. For Lindblum, its enormous city walls and quartered districts encompass the entirety of its domain. Burmecia is similarly solitary, although Gizamaluke’s Grotto could be considered part of the parish if you’re feeling generous. Alexandria has only itself and tiny Dali, a formerly agrarian village serving from the game’s outset as a front for black mage production.
Above the mist is inhabitable land void of towns and villages, contrary to each nation’s supposed grandeur. Unknown to themselves, these are kingdoms without peoples operating on non-existent economies – there are no farms or crops, no trade settlements, no exterior impact from the war-torn capitals. When the mist then dissipates, grounding airships and halting trade routes, nobody notices but the bored pilots. If the Mist Continent houses the brunt of this world’s civilization, Gaia is empty.
Nevertheless, with the implementation of two features Final Fantasy IX fools the player into believing its pseudo-political yarn.
The first is the forgettable yet inspired Active Time Event. At particular intervals the game alerts the player to events occurring elsewhere in the world that can be viewed if desired. What constitutes the ATE is an unobtrusive pop-up at such an occasion, the pressing of select to consent, perhaps a menu to choose an event if multiple are available, and a short cutscene, usually no more than a minute long.
The ingenuity of the ATE feature is how it endears the world to the player. On entering a new location, Zidane’s party disperses to accommodate each member’s taste. ATE then allows the player to experience the adventures, introspections and developments of whichever character sparks his/her fancy. Not interested in Quina’s hunt for local cuisine? Pick the event corresponding to Vivi’s existential crisis. Or perhaps you might feel Freya has seen too little of the spotlight lately. Event names only allude to their narrative so whether the sequence relates to your character of preference is a gamble — albeit a safe one had you been paying attention to the plot.