The Formula of Final Fantasy: Crystals

On the Nature of the Crystals

Crystals are the symbol of the Final Fantasy franchise. Regardless of plot, form, or setting, crystals have made an appearance in almost every game in the franchise, mainline or spin-off, since the conception of Final Fantasy.

In the real world, crystals and gemstones have often been associated with monarchies or upper-class families as a way to display their wealth and power. In the past, monarchies and aristocrats believed themselves to have been ordained as greater than other people by God and owned a jewel that represented that idea. We still see a similar practice in the modern world with the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom which contains several thousands of cut stones and diamonds—and let us not forget that, as the sovereign, the King or Queen of the United Kingdom is also the supreme governor (head) of the Church of England. The Hope Diamond, perhaps the most famous jewel in the world, has had a storied history as well, beginning in India in 1666, becoming part of France’s crown jewels for about a hundred years, and was eventually given to the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History in 1958.

On the other hand, crystals and gemstones have also been used greatly in pseudoscientific medical treatments and spiritual practices. Crystals were bought and sold by healers and apothecaries who purported those crystals could protect against illnesses and aging, even death. Amulets and talismans were also crafted, with embedded jewels, to ward off evil or pacify the souls of the dead. In the modern age, crystals are still used in soothsaying practices and fortune-telling, often coupled with tarot card readings or interpretations of astrology. Despite advances in modern medicine, there are still cultures that hold to old-world healing practices involving uncut gemstones, although crystals are sometimes used in modern practices like meditation and yoga. Thus, when looking briefly at the applications of crystals throughout human history, one might begin to understand why these items were selected to represent the Final Fantasy franchise.

In most Final Fantasy titles, the heroes (and by extension the player) must find a set of crystals to acquire some power needed to achieve their goal or protect them from those who would corrupt and use them for malicious purposes. During the franchise’s classic era (1987 – 1994), crystals were immensely important to a game’s narrative, with them slowly being incorporated into the gameplay as the series evolved. Throughout the modern era (1996 – 2008), the roles of crystals diversified. While they did not maintain as much centralizing importance to a game’s plot as in the previous era, they instead were used to provide depth to world-building, character backgrounds, set design, and general gameplay mechanics. Thus far, the titles of the HD (high-definition) era (2008 – present) have had a renewed focus on crystals as core elements of both plot and gameplay, retooling and reimagining aspects from earlier Final Fantasy titles.

From a thematic standpoint, depending on the game, a crystal or set of crystals may even be linked to one or more recurring elements of Final Fantasy (to be discussed in later essays). For example, Aerith Gainsborough, the Princess figure of Final Fantasy VII, protects the White Materia, a crystal orb that can cast Holy magic, which is said to be the counterpart to the Black Materia, the Meteor-casting orb. Similarly, in Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions, the auracites are gemstones that house the disembodied spirits of the Lucavi, thirteen demonic espers, who had been sealed away during Ivalice’s forgotten history.

Furthermore, crystals have been featured heavily in promotional artwork and concept designs for the series. They have even been depicted on a handful of logos (see my previous post The Formula of Final Fantasy: Logos). If there remained any doubt about the importance of crystals in Final Fantasy, one need only boot up a game to realize how intrinsic they are in representing the series.

Music of the Crystals

The Prelude” is one of the oldest musical motifs in the franchise and was composed by Nobuo Uematsu for the original Final Fantasy game as a last-minute addition. Otherwise known as “The Crystal Theme”, the motif has been described as arpeggiated chords – a series of ascending and descending notes – that continue on ad infinitum. The endless string of light chords in B flat major conveys a sense of serenity and timelessness, almost as if Final Fantasy is a timeless myth. As the franchise evolved, Uematsu tweaked and rearranged the motif to match the tone or setting of subsequent titles, thus solidifying its place as the signature musical theme of Final Fantasy.

In the original game, “The Prelude” played during the opening crawl (seen on the left), which introduced several key points of the narrative, including four “ORB[s]”. Throughout the classic era of the franchise, this motif would play during a game’s title or main screen. Notably, in Final Fantasy IV, the motif also plays whenever Cecil and his party enter a crystal room – that is, a room that houses one or more crystals. When the modern era arrived, and the titles began to take on more individualistic identities, with highly unique musical scores, “The Prelude” usually played either alongside the opening credits or during a game over screen.

In the HD era, this motif has been sampled or rearranged into numerous new musical tracks, although its core identity and usage have remained the same throughout Final Fantasy XIV. The main theme of Final Fantasy XIII, “Final Fantasy XIII – The Promise”, is a variation of “The Prelude” that plays during the title screen, and has several arrangements that play throughout the game, including “Serah’s Theme” and “The Sunleth Waterscape”, both of which include lyrics. “Fabula Nova Crystallis”, another arrangement, plays during the final cutscenes of the game.

Similar to its predecessor, Final Fantasy XV also had a few variations of “The Prelude”. First used to showcase environments of the game before its release, the vocal version of “Prelude (for World of Wonder)” plays during the final credits of the game. When the player enters their menu, they will hear “Crystalline Chill”, a slightly upbeat remix of “The Prelude”. A more direct rendition of “The Prelude”, titled “In the Light of the Crystal”, plays near the end of the game when Noctis is near the Crystal of Lucis.

Regardless of form or arrangement, every iteration of “The Prelude” still recalls that first time it was played, detailing to the player a prophecy that four crystal-bearing warriors would arrive to rescue the world from darkness.

And is that not the essence, the central myth, of Final Fantasy?

The Four Elemental Crystals

In the classic era of Final Fantasy, in which most titles were set in medieval high fantasy worlds, there were often one or more sets of crystals that maintained the natural order of the universe. These sets came in fours and were usually based on the Japanese philosophy of the godai, or the five elements. This philosophy, originating from Buddhist and traditional Chinese medical doctrine that traveled throughout eastern Asia and Japan, suggests that there are five key elements of existence: earth, fire, water, air, and void (energy). Each of the godai has its attributes or virtues that affect an individual in specific ways, while also being represented by matter in the natural world and within the human body.

When Final Fantasy, often referred to as Final Fantasy I by fans, was released in 1987, its story was centered around four heroes who were on a quest to save the world by locating four crystals. With shards of the crystals in hand, the heroes confronted four fiends who had stolen and hoarded the crystals’ powers. These names and powers of these fiends corresponded to their respectively stolen crystals – Kraken, the Fiend of Water; Lich, the Fiend of Earth; Marilith, the Fiend of Fire; and Tiamat, the Fiend of Wind. The four fiends had seized the crystals and drained their powers to revive their master, Chaos, who existed in a time loop between past and present. The heroes eventually defeated the fiends and restored the powers of the crystals. Then, channeling the power of the four into a fifth “Dark Crystal”, they traveled back into the past and destroyed Chaos (having already defeated his present-day incarnation, Garland).

Among precedents set by FF was the concept of crystals as forces of nature, powering the world with their light and energy, and how the sapping of that power could lead to ruin. For example, the Lufenians used the power of the Wind Crystal to create airships and sky fortresses so their nation could prosper, only for their country to fall when Tiamat claimed its power. Similarly, Kraken’s assault on the Water Crystal temple led to the collapse of an ocean-based civilization, and Lich’s corruption of the Earth Crystal caused lands around Melmond to rapidly decay. It is also possible that, given how it is used in-game, the “Dark Crystal” could represent the element of Void, but a more definitive representation appears in a later title.

In Final Fantasy III (1990) the number of crystals was expanded from four to eight, four elemental crystals from the World of Light and four from the World of Darkness. Together, these two sets of crystals maintained the balance between light and darkness throughout the universe. When a powerful wizard sought to create an imbalance by draining the crystals from the World of Light, four youths were chosen to be the Warriors of Light. In the World of Darkness, a similar event was taking place as an evil entity claimed the power of the dark crystals to force both worlds into oblivion. As the worlds converged, the four youths confronted Cloud of Darkness, the entity wishing for ultimate destruction, and were swiftly defeated. With aid from their counterparts, however, the Warriors of Darkness, the heroes managed to reclaim the crystals, defeat Cloud of Darkness, and restore the balance between the worlds.

The four heroes standing within a crystal room (Final Fantasy III)

Like its predecessor, FFIII set many precedents that became recurring traits of crystals in the franchise. First and foremost, there were two sets of corresponding crystals that kept the worlds in balance, a practiced that continued (and grew) in the following two titles. Second, the crystals of FFIII had some level of sentience and self-awareness, sensing peril and selecting four individuals from each world to be their respective champions. In the Final Fantasy III 3D remake (2006), a cutscene was added where the Wind Crystal speaks to Luneth and tasks him with finding the other Warriors of Light and to go forth restoring the balance between the worlds. Third, FFIII was the first game to introduce the concept of acquiring new job classes by coming in contact with a crystal. In FF, the player started with a set number of jobs that could be upgraded by completing side quests. FFIII took that idea and expanded it, implementing it into the narrative which allowed the player to unlock stronger, more advanced job classes by interacting with crystals within certain chapters of the game.

Final Fantasy IV (1991) increased the number of crystals yet again. The story revolved around the gathering of four sets of crystals, sixteen in total, any eight of which had the power to summon a gigantic war machine built by the people of the Red Moon – the Lunarians. The four sentient crystals of the Moon had once sealed away Zemus, a Lunarian who wished the destroy Earth with the Giant of Babil. Using mind control, Zemus manipulated another young Lunarian into gathering the eight crystals of Earth to summon the Giant and transport it to the Red Moon, where it might be used to free him from his imprisonment. Despite his efforts, Zemus was defeated by the combined efforts of Cecil Harvey and his party, Golbez, having been freed from mind control, and the Lunarian Fusoya, who had been charged with protecting the people and crystals of the Red Moon.

FFIV took a lot of inspiration from FF and FFIII regarding the characteristics of crystals yet did very little to implement more innovated uses of them beyond what was already seen. While the number of crystals doubled, there were very few distinguishable features besides how they were named and where they were located. Like FFI, there were four elemental crystals of the “overworld” that were guarded by four kingdoms — the Crystal of Water was in Mysidia, the Crystal of Fire in Damcyan, the Crystal of Wind in Fabul, and the Crystal of Earth in Troia. There were also four “Dark Crystals” that reside in the Underworld, the subterranean lands ruled and protected by the Dwarves. Neither set of crystals had any unique properties, however, nor showed signs of alignment with the elements. The eight crystals of the Red Moon, at least, were known to be sentient. As an homage to the original game, Golbez even had four archfiend lieutenants – otherwise known as the Four Fiends of the Elements – who assisted him in gathering the crystals on Earth.

Two crystals in the Lunarian crystal palace (Final Fantasy IV)

Curiously, there was a seventeenth crystal that appeared in the Lunar Whale, an airship used to bring the party from Earth to the Red Moon. In the Final Fantasy IV 3D remake (2007), there was dialogue added to suggest that the Lunar Whale could fly thanks to the power of the crystals, but it is unclear which of the seventeen crystals were its source.

Final Fantasy V (1992) would be the last time that the classic attributes of the crystals would be used in the franchise. It would also be the last time that crystals held as centralizing a role in a game’s narrative and overall identity until 2009. The game’s plot centered on four pairs of elemental crystals that once powered a single world, later torn asunder. When the world split in two, each part received a set of crystals to give it life and goodness. An evil warlock, Exdeath, sought to shatter these crystals to remerge the worlds back into one and then, using the power of the Void, a dimension between the worlds, destroy all creation. Bartz and his party learned the truth of the world and acting as the Warriors of Light for their world, along with the Warriors of Dawn from the other world, used their powers to recreate the crystals destroyed by Exdeath. As the worlds rejoined to become whole, the Warriors of Light elected to remain the protectors of the crystals and ensure no harm might come to them.

As in FF, the elemental crystals of FFV had natural effects on the world. When the Wind Crystal shattered at the beginning of the game, all the winds throughout the world ceased to move. There were more similarities, however, that could be made with FFIII. For starters, both titles have villains with like-minded goals – to unite the worlds into one scape and destroy them utterly. The branding of Bartz’s party as the Warriors of Light by the Wind Crystal is comparable to Luneth and his friends being ordained as the Warriors of Light, also by a Wind Crystal. From a gameplay perspective, the player gains access to new job classes each time Bartz and his party would find the shattered remains of crystals, just like in FFIII.

FFV did introduce a couple of key innovations that would be replicated in later titles. First, each member of Bartz’s party was spiritually imbued with the essence of one of the four crystals – Bartz with Wind, Faris with Fire, Galuf with Earth, and Lenna with Water. Next, the eight crystals had been born out of the Void between dimensions. In FFV, the Void is as much a power source as it is a space of existence. Recall what was mentioned previously about a more definitive connection between the void (aether) element and crystals in the series. Be it western or eastern philosophy, void, the fifth element of the godai, is commonly associated with energy and heaven – that is to say, a higher plane of existence.

Magic Gems and Rare Stones

One title that was noticeably absent from the previous discussion was Final Fantasy II (1988). While the majority of games in the classic era had narratives that were heavily focused on crystals, taking from the precedence set by the original game, its immediate sequel set precedents of its own. Crystals hardly had any role or presence in the game’s story, other than the locating of the “Crystal Rod” which was needed to enter the Mysidian Tower dungeon. More influential to future titles was the added trait of crystals increasing character stats upon interaction. Atop the Mysidian Tower were four blue crystals, each attributed to a single stat type – Power, Strength, Intelligence, and Agility. As a result, FFII became the first time that crystals had any direct effect on a player’s gameplay experience. So, near the conclusion of the classic era, the franchise began to move away from longstanding tradition and developed into something new and different, taking many ideas from Final Fantasy II.

From Final Fantasy VI onwards, the franchise had a very different look and feel from the standard high fantasy setting of FF – FFV, and crystals took a general “backseat” where storytelling was concerned, no longer being the linchpin of a game’s plot. Throughout the modern era, especially, crystals were used to enhance world-building and contributed heavily to fledgling gameplay mechanics. Sometimes crystals were even used as part of a game’s set design to great effect, as in Final Fantasy VIII and IX, but they never again held the same weight as those of the classic era. Final Fantasy VI, VII, and XII each had stories that involved crystals, to a degree, but their roles were as plot devices to help drive the narrative or motivate the characters.

Generally speaking, however, the crystals of FFVI and the modern era were far more focused on gameplay mechanics, oftentimes attributed to a party member’s ability to use magic or boost their stats. FFVI popularized the term “magicite”, having originated in FFII, crystals or gems that were commonly infused with magical powers. In Final Fantasy VI (1994), magicite was born from the crystallized remains of espers and granted the party access to spells, stat buffs, and the ability to summon espers into battle. In Final Fantasy XI (2002), however, magicite was used to help explain the history and nature of Vana’diel, the world the game is set in. Final Fantasy XII (2006), which took inspiration from several of its predecessors, had three types of magicite, each of which were as involved in the lore and world-building of Ivalice, as they were in the gameplay. There was regular magicite that could store and emit magic, the more potent and volatile nethicite, and the auracite gems that could summon demonic espers.

Ashe, Princess of Dalmasca, holding the Dawn Shard, a royal heirloom and shard of nethicite (Final Fantasy XII)

The titles in between FFVI and FFXI each had their own spin on crystals and crystal lore. Final Fantasy VII (1997) introduced “materia”, the crystallized energy of the lifestream, the spiritual energy that flowed around and throughout the Planet, giving life to the world. With regards to gameplay, Materia acted similarly to magicite did in FFVI, but two specific materia were quite important to the plot near the latter half of the narrative: the white materia that could invoke Holy to protect the planet and the black materia that could manifest Meteor to destroy it.

In Final Fantasy VIII (1999), the crystal pillar was a structure that fell to Earth from the moon and could summon monsters to the planet, sparking the calamitous Lunar Cry event. The crystal pillar may have been inspired by either the “crystal tower” of FFIII or the “crystal palace” of FFIV.

Final Fantasy IX (2000) took heavy inspiration from the classic era and had many similar concepts to the lifestream. In this title, there was a single crystal that birthed the entire universe, creating life and ensuring the continued cycle of life and death, and resided in the Crystal World in another dimension. Each planet in the universe had its own crystal that was the heart of that world, and they were each protected by eidolon guardians. As a direct callback to the original Final Fantasy, one of the main antagonists (and instigator of the game’s plot) is named “Garland”, and Zidane’s party must battle a version of each of the Four Fiends towards the latter half of the story.

Lastly, there was Final Fantasy X (2001) with its “spheres”, orbs made from crystallized pyreflies, or the spirits of the deceased. Spheres mainly served one of two functions. From an in-universe perspective, spheres were commonly used as recording tools; from a player perspective, they were used in the Sphere Grid – the game’s job and leveling system. Despite similarities to materia in their creation and substance, spheres lack any significant role in the narrative of FFX.

Fabula Nova Crystallis

Towards the end of the modern era, Square Enix wanted to create a series of games that would return the focus of the franchise to its trademark symbol – the crystal. To that effect, they began working on the Fabula Nova Crystallis: Final Fantasy (FNC), an anthology of titles that had shared or similar themes, mythologies, and narrative beats, yet were interpreted differently from game to game. This project would be similar to Ivalice Alliance and the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII. As the “new tale of the crystals”, however, the Fabula Nova Crystallis was significantly more ambitious in both scope and scale, with each game in the series sporting its own highly detailed, crystal-focused mythology and cosmology, as well as unique interpretations of the anthology’s core themes: life and death, free will v. predestination, and the interference of gods in the lives of Man.

Final Fantasy XIII (2008), the first game in the HD era, was the flagship title for the Fabula Nova Crystallis. The game and its sequels, collectively known as the “Lightning Saga”, established many key elements of the FNC, many of which were recycled in the spin-off game Final Fantasy Type-0 (2011). In the “Lightning Saga” and Type-0, Bhunivelze, the highest god and a living crystal, created three lesser crystal-gods to enact his will – Lindzei, Pulse, and Etro, the former two shedding their crystal bodies to become biomechanical or metallic humanoids. Lindzei and Pulse would create fal’Cie, immortal demigod servants, and they, in turn, would brand humans with a sacred mark that would turn them into l’Cie, willing or unwilling servants of the gods. If a l’Cie followed god’s will and achieved their “Focus”, they would be rewarded by entering “crystal stasis”, their body crystallizing until they become an eternal statue. Should they reject their “Focus”, they are turned into Cieth, mindless crystal monsters.

The main cast in crystal stasis with the crystallized remains of Cocoon in the background (Final Fantasy XIII)

There were, of course, notable differences between the representation of crystals in “Lightning Saga” and Type-0. For one thing, there were far more gameplay aspects in FFXII (and FFXIII-2) with nomenclature in some way related to crystals. The leveling/job system of the games was called the “Crystarium”, which was similar to the sphere grid in FFX. Eidolons were summoned by an eidolith, crystals that housed an eidolon’s spirit and grew out of a l’Cie’s branding. In FFXIII-2, monsters defeated will be crystallized so that they might be summoned to assist in combat at a later time. Etro’s Gate, which appears in FFXIII and XIII-2, was designed as a large eye with a crystal at its center. The crystal pillar that formed from the collision of Ragnorak and Cocoon became the logo art for FFXIII. And at the end of the saga, after the Apocalypse, a new world is birthed from the shattering of a single of great, solemn crystal.

In contrast, the crystals in Type-0 were more closely embedded in the game’s narrative and general symbolism. In the world of Orience, there were four crystals based on the four symbols in Chinese mythology and astronomy: the Azure Dragon of the East, the Vermilion Bird of the South, the White Tiger of the West, and the Black Tortoise of the North. Each of these crystals, fal’Cie in truth, possessed a specific virtue and could bless people or countries with unique abilities. The Four Crystals sought to induce the birth of the Agito, a messianic figure.

Final Fantasy XV, while bearing little resemblance to the FNC, still shares several main ideas. Originally titled “Final Fantasy Versus XIII“, the game was intended to be much darker in setting and tone, in addition to focusing more on the goddess Etro as opposed to Bhunivelze, Lindzei, and Pulse. As development continued, however, and the game grew from a spin-off into a mainline title, the mythology and cosmology shifted greatly from the established ideas of fal’Cie, l’Cie, and the rest. With the world of Eos suffering from an unknown plague that threatens to shroud everything in darkness, the gods bestowed a holy crystal onto a royal family who would protect it until a savior-king was born. This king would use all the power of the crystal to eradicate the plague and darkness forever.

Yet, the narrative was far deeper than this simple summary. The Crystal housed within it “the beyond”, the plane of the gods and the dead, wherein which the previously mentioned “In the Light of the Crystal” musical track played. The Kings of Lucis possessed the Ring of the Lucii, a small jewel-studded ring that housed the souls of past kings and could channel the power of the Crystal. When members of the royal household fought, their weapons would manifest out of thin air in brilliant crystals. Even the souls of past kings, when summoned to fight alongside the current King of Lucis, manifest as warriors clad in crystal armor.

Here I Am — Armiger Unleashed Dynastic Stance
Noctis summoning the royal arms of the House of Lucis (Final Fantasy XV)

Noctis Lucis Caelum, the game’s protagonist, was chosen by the Crystal to be the savior-king, while his ancestor, the once-Jesus-like Ardyn Lucis Caelum, was rejected for becoming plague-ridden and would come to spread the “Starscourge”. Interestingly enough, Final Fantasy XV and Final Fantasy XV: The Dawn of the Future, a novel released in 2019, left it unclear as to whether the gods, during a civil war, had caused a crystalline meteorite to impact Eos, bringing with it the plague that spread across the planet and, thus, defining the destinies of Noctis and Ardyn.

The Mothercrystal

The term “Mothercrystal” originated in FFXI and refers to the original shards of a great crystal that created the gods who inhabited Vana’diel. As the only other MMORPG (Massive-Multiplayer Online Role-playing Game) in the franchise, Final Fantasy XIV, later rebranded as FFXIV: A Realm Reborn, released in 2010 and 2013, respectively, took a great amount of inspiration in its world-building, set design, and gameplay mechanics from its 2006 predecessor.

There are numerous types of crystals throughout the region of Eorzea, the primary setting for FFXIV. Most are made from Aether, the mist-like energy that surrounds the planet Hydaelyn, making them very similar to materia. This is also a clear tie back to the fifth element in the godai – the element of Aether/Void – and these crystals contribute greatly to the gameplay experience of FFXIV. The two most important crystals where the narrative is concerned, however, are the Mothercrystal and her counterpart. These crystals are both primals, or gods, of the planet and act as sources of life in the universe. Hydaelyn, otherwise known as the Mothercrystal, is the light crystal and shares her name with the planet, while Zodiark is the dark crystal that opposes her. As sentient beings, Hydaelyn and Zodiark can communicate with the inhabitants of Eorzea and have been known to select adventurers to be their champions, much like the crystals in FFIII and FFV. As the story of FFXIV has yet to conclude, it remains unknown what will happen to Hydaelyn and Zodiark in future expansions.

Oriflamme, the capital city of the Holy Empire of Sanbreque, built around a Mothercrystal, “the Drake’s Head” (Final Fantasy XVI)

At last, we can talk briefly about the next mainline title in the franchise – Final Fantasy XVI (release date TBD). Almost in opposition to the Fabula Nova Crystallis, the tagline that accompanied the premiere trailer for FFXVI states, “The legacy of the crystals has shaped our history for long enough.” From what little is known of the setting, FFXVI takes place in the land of Valisthea, a massive continent where nations are built beside gigantic crystalline mountains known as Mothercrystals. These nations gain power from the Mothercrystals – each of which is named after the body part of a dragon – and greedily protect them from neighboring kingdoms. In foreshadowing the game’s plot, the official website describes a blight that is spreading throughout Valisthea which threatens to destroy all the lands and nations vying for control of the Mothercrystals. Without a doubt, we can already see that crystals will have a major role in the game’s narrative, and it will be wonderful to witness another interpretation of crystal lore in Final Fantasy XVI when it releases in the future.


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