I Am Al Bhed - Race, Religion, & Representation in Final Fantasy X

 




It is difficult to talk about the reality of living through a pandemic without making reference to the ways in which many of us, young and old, are attempting to escape this reality. We are escaping reality in a variety of ways: many Nintendo Switch owners have flung themselves en masse into the serene island-scape of Animal Crossing: New Horizons; meanwhile, many Netflix subscribers have strapped themselves into the trainwreck of Tiger King

When we experience anxiety on a global scale, one of the tried and true methods of dealing with that anxiety (healthily or otherwise) is by delving into the consumption and creation of media. The genre of media we choose for our escape destination rarely has much rhyme or reason, but the genres that usually serve as a site for us to explore, problem solve, and strategize around our anxious wonderings are somewhat finite. When we want to draw attention to something more people should be concerned about, we use horror (see: environmental disaster movies like The Day After Tomorrow, socially critical or satirical stories such as Get Out). 

Although some people have argued that fantasy is a genre in which the urbane concerns of our world can be eschewed in favor of the superficially spectacular, I believe fantasy is better equipped to deal with the real by coupling it with the unreal and the imaginary.

However, when our anxieties are more personal, we can, in an attempt to be more solution oriented, turn to the realm of fantasy. Although some people have argued that fantasy is a genre in which the urbane concerns of our world can be eschewed in favor of the superficially spectacular, I believe fantasy is better equipped to deal with the real by coupling it with the unreal and the imaginary. People talk about how fantasy should be the genre in which race can be imagined more abstractly, in which racial tensions of our world can be alternately examined more closely or cast aside toward a more utopian aim. When they talk about fantasy in this way, they often talk about the realms of film, literature and, in the case of Disney’s Zootopia, animation. 

When I think about fantasy, my home genre of narrative, and when I think about how race and racial tensions play out in fantasy, I think of one video game in particular: Final Fantasy X. The story of Final Fantasy X is one of the tensions between spirituality and religious orthodoxy, of the carnal tensions between man and monsters, and the extended metaphorical tensions between dreams and reality. But it is also a story that explores very powerfully a tension we deal with in our world. Namely, it examines the conflict between dominant theologies and religious orders, and the spiritual and ideological values of the oppressed. 

The story of Final Fantasy X is more literally about a young man, Tidus, who has been flung through time and space to a world that feels entirely different from his own--except for the fact that the sport he used to play, a watery contact sport called Blitzball, exists here, too, and his hometown of Zanarkand—which he witnessed being torn apart by extra-dimensional forces—was destroyed a thousand years ago. This world is foreign to him, and the game’s story pushes him against its culture and conflicts at every turn. 

The world of Final Fantasy X, Spira, is a world that has been regularly torn apart by a fearsome being called Sin. Hundreds of years of fighting against Sin have left much of Spira’s history in ruin, and the only hope the people of this world have for salvation lies in subscription to religious belief in Yevon, and the support of a sacrificial pilgrimage undertaken by summoners--a role that is a cross between a shaman and a martyr, a role that is almost exclusively undertaken by women. 

When Tidus meets his first group of humans on Spira, he finds in them a mix of comradery and suspicion. This group of humans is Al Bhed, an oppressed racial group known for their skill with machina—machines, living and non—and their seeming rejection of the tenets of Yevon religion. Most Al Bhed are fair skinned, but some have tan and darker skin tones. The distinctive Al Bhed physical trait is a spiral visible in their irises, something most Al Bhed take pains to conceal. The Al Bhed speak and write in a language that is a letter-shifted version of the English alphabet, with the result being that they sound vaguely Mediterranean and vaguely Muslim. Tidus later learns why the Al Bhed have been marginalized—the unchecked use of machina is cited as the cause for Sin’s creation, and the Al Bhed heretically persist in using machina to support and distinguish themselves in a world distinguished by total technological ruin. When the world is destroyed every generation by Sin, the Al Bhed persist by clinging to artifice and Yevonites persist by clinging to tradition. Both groups have a common enemy—Sin—but they harbor strong prejudicial relationships toward each other. The Al Bhed are not, in fact, against Yevon. They express their faith in Yevon’s teachings, existence and impact differently. They are not anti-spiritual, even though they seem to place emphasis on machines and lifeless automatons; however, in Spira’s theocratic, Yevon-dominated society, they lack an installed voice to advocate for them, and are thus at the mercy of public perception. 

Final Fantasy X’s core racial and religious conflict is between Yevonites and Al Bhed, but it is not a binary conflict. They are joined by the Guado—a small, culturally insular people with deep ties to the Farplane, a visible and visitable realm that is Spira’s equivalent of the afterlife—and the Ronso—a beastly people accused of savagery, whose numbers have been ravaged by war with Sin but are currently under the wing of Yevon. The world of Spira is made richer by the game’s story’s engagement with themes of race, religion, spirituality and above all, tension. 

The tension that resonated most strongly with me as a player was the tension between the Al Bhed and the rest of Spira, as it most closely resembles anti-Islamist tensions in our world. As an American Jew, and as a reform Jew, I have been taught openly about racial justice and cultural solidarity, and I have engaged in discussions about the pain that is wrought by a failure to acknowledge that the shared struggle of Jews and Muslims comes from the same core hurt: we are people who are striving for home in a world who would rather us kill each other. 

An all too common theme in Jewish diaspora and Muslim eradication is the unholy alliance between claims of religious orthodoxy and exerted power. 

I won’t explain Israeli-Palestinian conflict away as purely emotional, but whether you label the conflict in the Middle East as geopolitical or economic in nature, it inarguably connects with core desires and fears that all humans have: we want a place where we feel safe, but we are constantly on guard against people who would seek to harm us and that place of safety. Jews and Muslims bear that emotional and cultural burden uniquely because of our shared history. Jews were scattered to the winds by our Diaspora, and they collected in cultural pockets all across the world. Muslims were eradicated by the Spanish Inquisition from medieval Spain, the one place where they had found home and community with their Jewish neighbors. 

An all too common theme in Jewish diaspora and Muslim eradication is the unholy alliance between claims of religious orthodoxy and exerted power. It seems that wherever Christian hegemony in either its Catholic or Protestant manifestations has taken root, anti-semitism and anti-Islamist sentiments have taken root also. Eventually, neither group could live fully apart from its spirituality or religion. Any who tried were racially distinguished and racially discriminated against. It comes down to our shared history, our shared generational trauma and our shared desire for home, community and stability. We want it for ourselves. We need it for us. 

The tensions in Final Fantasy X are built to explosive heights, and released in a few key story moments, but a path toward resolving religious, cultural and racial tensions lies in the relationship and kinship between Yuna, the sacrificial summoner and bastion of hope for Yevonite society, and Rikku, her Al-Bhed cousin. Rikku breaks from Al Bhed policy and joins Yuna’s summoner pilgrimage as a guardian. She claims that the Al Bhed are not against Yevon--they are against Sin, and they are against the centuries-old tradition of sacrificing summoners to Sin’s wrath to appease Yevon. However, being against Yevon’s teachings is different than being against Yuna’s mission, and taking a third option, taking an unsuspected alternative path proves to be Spira’s salvation. In Rikku and Yuna’s kinship and collaboration, Spira is saved. 

The core hurt of Spira’s world, the core problem that must be solved and literally fought against by Final Fantasy X’s heroes, is not the belief in Yevon, or even the religion of Yevon—it is the parasitic and needlessly punitive nature of Yu Yevon, the physical manifestation of Spira’s G-d itself. Yu Yevon is the reason why Sin always returns to destroy the world, over and over. 

The orthodox patrons of the religion of Yevon seek to perpetuate this cycle and perpetuate Yu Yevon and Sin’s existence, and they are able to do so not only because many of them are willfully immortal—the dead do not pass on unless they are ‘sent’ by a summoner to the Farplane—but because their eulogizing directs and justifies the brunt of Sin’s wrath against the Al Bhed people.

This story is a fantasy, sure, but it also speaks very powerfully about the world-destructive power of hegemony and the cultural violence waged by racist people for apparently religious causes. It imagines that the root of human evil—and the concept of original sin—lies not within us, but beyond us. It is exerted upon us and thrust upon us like a responsibility that we have to uphold. If we don’t believe we are sinful, then we have no reason to believe in God. So it goes. 

Judaism did not originate or perpetuate the concept of original sin. Judaism did first imagine the world as monotheistic, but it did so without imagining the world’s people as spiritually homogenous. It understands that all people will express and explore their devotion to higher power(s) in different ways. That’s why Jews have never been missionaries, and they never will be. The world is not ours to control or dominate. It is our home, and we want to protect and repair it. Tikkun Olam is the project of the Jewish people, and it is the project of the people of Spira in the wake of Sin’s destruction. It is why Final Fantasy X is my favorite game of all time. 

Final Fantasy X touches on almost every part of me, and I love it dearly. I want the rest of the world to know it, and learn from it. I am an American Jew, a product of an interfaith marriage between a Catholic woman and a Jewish man. In Final Fantasy X, I find myself in Rikku, the hope of the Al Bhed who reaches a hand of peace and love across lines of difference. I find myself in Yuna, the hope of Yevon who is willing to sacrifice everything—life, limb, love—but, crucially, unwilling and unable to do it alone. I find myself in the very fabric of Spira, watery and swirling with life—and in that finding, I am filled with empathy for many people unlike myself. 

The world is not ours to control or dominate. It is our home, and we want to protect and repair it. Tikkun Olam is the project of the Jewish people, and it is the project of the people of Spira in the wake of Sin's destruction. It is why Final Fantasy X is my favorite game of all time.

In Wakka, I see a brother I never had, and a friend I certainly did have; someone raised to be suspicious of the unknown, but compassionate toward those close to him. In Lulu, I see a sister and a mentor, a guardian of the fiercest and most supportive variety, who seems stand-offish and stoic, but is, in fact, a steadfast and loving person. In Kimahri, I see the heart of a child in the body of a man, made to feel small and silent by those in his past, but who emerges as a quietly powerful presence in the ensemble of his found family. Auron represents the past that has lingered only to help the present chart a new course for the future; Tidus represents memories of the past that can see beyond present prejudices, who fervently fight for a future they may never see. They are my family, refractions of myself and my relationships. 

At the end of the day, when I think about how I am represented in Final Fantasy X, I am led to one conclusion: I am Al Bhed. I am part of a disenfranchised peoplehood who sees the world through a different lens than most. I am a part of an un-unifiable society of thinkers, inquirers and soldiers, seeking to find answers to life’s great, and sometimes terrible questions: How can peace be achieved? In what ways are we the same, and what differences between us, if any, are significant and meaningful? What is our responsibility to each other, as humans? 

Without quite dipping into allegory, it casts a mirror's gaze upon earthly humanity and challenges us to be more compassionate and open-minded, more discerning in our view of systems of power and particularly of the regiments of religious orthodoxy.

Rikku has the strength of self to not only ask these questions, but to join others in solidarity in answering these questions. It is that strength of self that I strive to cultivate every day, seeking my own set of answers. I know that the answers for us are full of complexity and compassion, and they challenge mankind to set aside petty squabbles and band together in opposition of the abstract concepts of xenophobia, ignorance, and hatred. Yuna and her guardians fight not for personal glory or for the heroic grace of martyrdom—but for the world they love and the people they hold dear. I know that is what those of us who are fighting, those of us who care, must do. 

Final Fantasy X uses the medium of the modern video game to stage an epic, romantic and thematically rich story experience about a myriad of intersecting themes. It is an exceptional work of fantasy fiction because of the ways that its various elements--setting, character, plot, conflict--come together to make something meaningful and, yes, representative. In its characters, players can see themselves, and in its various cultures, a world can truly be said to have been built. What makes Final Fantasy X a world of wonder isn’t the powerful Aeons the summoner’s pray to or the gorgeous vistas you visit along Yuna’s pilgrimage, but the ways in which Spira’s supernatural and multicultural conflicts parallel conflicts we experience in our world. Without quite dipping into allegory, it casts a mirror’s gaze upon earthly humanity and challenges us to be more compassionate and open-minded, more discerning in our view of systems of power and particularly of the regiments of religious orthodoxy. 

I believe Final Fantasy X advocates and represents the mission of Judaism, through the methodology of Reform movement; a methodology of inquiry and broad acceptance over orthodoxy and tradition.

The ways in which race and religion are represented in Final Fantasy X lends itself to a nuanced and deep set of readings. As an American Jew, reverent of eastern mythology but subscribing to largely Western divine understandings, I see this game as being powerfully engaged with Jewish cultural values alongside a rich intersection of mythic and spiritual traditions. The heroes seek not to postpone the inevitability of Sin’s Old Testament flood, but to mitigate and cleanse the cultural violence of Yevon’s corrupt religious hierarchy and fear-mongering by striking it at its source: not in the hearts of man but in the core of a great and terrible monster. The story the game tells is at turns exhilarating and heartbreaking, full of love, sadness and dark, retreating hatred--and in its narrative and thematic ambitions, it triumphs. 

I believe Final Fantasy X advocates and represents the mission of Judaism, through the methodology of the Reform movement; a methodology of inquiry and broad acceptance over orthodoxy and tradition. Reform Judaism is the only faith on earth that embraces the intersection of all of my identities, but it is not the only faith on Earth that has the tools to save the world. It will take all of us, Yevonites, Al Bhed, Ronso—even Guado—to bring our planet back from the brink. It will take all of us to make this world a true home to all, and bring about an Eternal Calm. —Sam Heyman

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