This post is part of the Final Fantasy Crystal Compendium, a project co-ordinated by myself and the Well-Red Mage. You can read a hub article explaining the whole thing on his blog here – and while you’re at it, why not take a look at the Zelda project that inspired this ginormous work?
Okay, here’s the thing. I’m well aware that Final Fantasy X has some… mixed views directed its way, and to be perfectly honest, I feel like enough people have covered that ground enough times that I don’t really want to do anything approaching a ‘review’ of this game. (If that’s what you’re looking for, one of my favourite YouTube content creators, EmceeProphit, did a great two-parter about the good and the not so good of FFX, the first part of which you can find here.) Let me just say that I really like its take on the standard FF battle formula, and I also happen to think that the world and story of X hold up with the best of the series, even if a couple of its characters occasionally fall a little flat. But this project that we’ve put together isn’t about just reviewing every game; it’s about each person providing their own little insight on what that game means to them, whether that be in the form of a straightforward recap or a thematic discussion or, heck, I’d have been happy if someone wanted to just write a limerick. (There once was a woman called Yuna/ Whose favourite fish was a tuna/ She was quite up-and-coming/ In the world of summoning/ She’s saving the world, hallelujah.)
So here’s my own little story about how playing a video game changed my life. My first Final Fantasy was actually X-2, if you can believe it, but I’ll be doing a separate article on that. Suffice to say for now that playing X-2 made me really want to play X, and so the tale of Tidus and co. was the second game in the series that I ever owned. I figured it would probably be a fun little adventure; I’d go kill some fiends, save the world, make some new friends and all that sort of stuff – and the OST would probably be half-decent, if X-2 was any indication. What I didn’t realise was that simply switching the game on and loading up the home menu screen would set me off on two hobbies that would stick with me for the rest of my life (well, they have so far, anyway). One, of course, was gaming.
The other was music.
Pretty much the first thing you’ll hear upon starting up FFX is a track that’s become almost a standard for any musician who covers game tracks: ‘Zanarkand’, or ‘To Zanarkand’ if you prefer. If you haven’t heard it… go and listen. I’ll wait.
Done? Okay, now listen to the orchestral version.
There are a ton of other versions out there, and I’m not going to link all of them – heck, even within FFX itself, variations on the theme crop up in various formats throughout the entirety of the soundtrack – but the original solo piano version is probably the one that’s most important to me. See, when I was… hang on, let me work this out. X-2 came out in the UK in 2004, when I was ten, so I probably played X when I was about… thirteen or fourteen, in 2007, 2008-ish?. Yeah, that sounds about right. Between the ages of seven and twelve I’d been playing clarinet (I wanted to play saxophone, but they said my arms weren’t long enough, a claim I fully believe was an effort by my parents to prevent me from forcing them to purchase an expensive sax), but I kind of just stopped at some point in high school; I’m not sure why. I’d enjoyed it, but I think it was just getting to the point where I’d done what I wanted to do with it and I felt it was time to… not be playing clarinet any more. Around the same time, my sister (three years younger) decided that she might like to learn keyboard, so she got a crappy little thing that, in hindsight, sounded so atrociously MIDI-ish that I can barely even bear to think about it. She, however, wasn’t too excited to get musical, so I started plonking around with her keyboard. I learned a couple of real basics from beginner books (since I knew how to read music from my days as a clarinetist or clarineter or clarinetlord or whatever the term is): Chopsticks and Three Blind Mice and that sort of thing. Eventually the keyboard just kind of became mine through what might be termed stealing but what I prefer to think of as natural osmosis from my sister’s possession to mine.
Anyway, the moment I heard ‘Zanarkand’, some weird little voice inside me said ‘I know I don’t really know how to play piano at all, but I have to learn how to play that’. So… I set about learning it. I probably didn’t even get around to actually playing FFX for a while; I must have just got as far as hearing the track, sat mesmerised listening to it, then turned it off and headed down to the computer we had in the house, a big square white thing with dial-up internet. (Yeah, my household was a bit behind technologically.) I headed over to YouTube, a pretty new thing at the time where I knew there were some videos of people doing parkour and stuff, and looked up the track, and I stumbled across this video. I’m frankly amazed I managed to find it again, something like ten years later, but there it is: a video in which a guy named Ryan explains how to play ‘Zanarkand’ on piano. So I spent the next couple of weeks watching a few seconds of the video at a time, then running upstairs to the keyboard to practice that little segment, and eventually I could put the whole thing together. I didn’t know how to play any scales or piano standards; I just watched a guy playing the tune and copied what his hands were doing until I could play ‘Zanarkand’ all the way through on my tiny, crappy, MIDI-sounding keyboard that I
stole osmosed from my sister.
Then I played FFX. Good game, I thought.
I wasn’t done there, though. See, FFX might have been my first Final Fantasy, but I’d already played the first Kingdom Hearts, and I knew I rather liked the music from that game, so I looked up how to play tracks from that too. I discovered a whole world of people playing amazing versions of music from video games, something I’d never really thought people seriously did. Then I learned some of the big tunes from FFVII, even though I hadn’t ever played a minute of the game at the time. Then I went back to Ryan’s channel, learned a few of the pop songs he’d made tutorials for; after that, I discovered a few ‘proper piano’ pieces – Einaudi, Mozart, some of Chopin’s simpler stuff – and learned them too. Before too long I had a pretty decent repertoire of stuff that I could play on piano, even though I’d never had a lesson; eventually, I did actually have a couple of lessons, but I decided I didn’t really like the structure and preferred to just learn the pieces I wanted to learn. I did get a few valuable nuggets of wisdom about proper finger positioning and music theory and that sort of thing, though, so it wasn’t time wasted.
These days, I’m sadly unable to spend a lot of time practicing piano, but I honestly believe that the love I have for music, especially game music, is derived almost entirely from just booting up Final Fantasy X and hearing ‘Zanarkand’. I didn’t even realise what a profound impact that one piece had made on my life and my interests until one day in uni a couple of years ago, when a housemate busted out his PS2 and started up FFX. I was hanging out making noodles or something in the kitchen, next to where the TV with the console was, and to my surprise and confusion I found that I was practically crying. I hadn’t even realised what the piece of music I was hearing in the background was until I registered the emotional reaction I was having to it. I’m still a sucker for solo piano tunes – the piano collection albums for Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts tug on my hearstrings, I’m telling ya – but even when it comes to the other stuff I like to listen to these days, ranging from industrial metal to classical-electronic fusion to Mongolian throat-singing-rock-hybrid weirdness, I always think that I wouldn’t be so open to loving so much music if ‘Zanarkand’ hadn’t hit me the way it had and made me realise that there was a whole world of music out there that I needed to be open to experiencing. I probably wouldn’t have got into learning more about how music’s put together, and I wouldn’t be doing my Musical Mayhem tracks. I don’t even think I’d be so very into analysing games and writing about them – I probably wouldn’t be doing this blog, for that matter – if I hadn’t started out by writing a couple of essays for school about the music of Final Fantasy. I learned from that experience that I could take gaming, something I loved but thought people wouldn’t appreciate, and write about different aspects of it in a way that would make people realise that it was just as valid a thing to love as any other art form (and yes, I do think games can be art, and no, I’m not going to go into that today, but maybe some other time).
Final Fantasy X, whatever it might have meant to me as a gamer, and as someone just getting into the FF series, shaped an interest in me that’s lasted years and that I can’t imagine is going to go away for the rest of my life. That’s pretty cool.
This post was part of the Final Fantasy Crystal Compendium, a community event orchestrated by the Well-Red Mage. A bunch of awesome people got together to write articles on every main FF game, and you can read all about it here!