The “David and Goliath” motif
“David and Goliath” refers to one of human history’s oldest mythological and literary motifs. It comes from the biblical tale of David and his triumph over the giant Philistine champion, Goliath. In 1 Samuel 17 – 54 of the Holy Bible, Goliath challenges the Israelite army to send a champion to face him in single combat. David, a young shepherd (and the future king of the Israelites), steps forward to meet the giant with the reluctant acceptance of King Saul of Israel. When Goliath curses David for being put forth as Saul’s chosen, the youth responds with a prayer, proclaiming that the Lord [God] will help him strike down the giant and shatter the Philistine army. With his sling, David throws a stone that strikes Goliath on his forehead, killing him instantly. David then cuts Goliath’s head off and presents it to the Philistine army, who begin to scatter in awe and fear of the Israelites.
A Classic Underdog Story
The biblical figure of David the shepherd has become the archetypal example of an underdog — a seemingly weak character charged with conquering a greater, more advantaged opponent. The underdog may also be portrayed as an individual who must prove to themselves and others that they are worthy of respect and recognition by completing an impossible task. David is molded after the first definition, while a perfect example of the second exists in the story of The Little Engine That Could. In this tale, a small steam engine is asked to pull a train car over difficult terrain — a large mountain — and succeeds by constantly repeating the mantra, “I think I can, I think I can.”[i]
In opposition to the underdog stands what is commonly referred to as the “top dog.” This trope is usually understood as the entity or challenge that needs to be overcome. In the story of David and Goliath, the young shepherd takes the underdog role, while the towering champion is the “top dog.” Similarly, in The Little Engine That Could, the mountain terrain represents the “top-dog,” while the titular character stands as the underdog.
History, too, is riddled with events that we might classify as underdog stories. For example, the moon landing by Apollo 11 in 1969 has been immortalized as the achievement of underdogs (i.e., the entire human race) thanks to Neil Armstrong’s famous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” In fact, it is impossible to read or hear the cadence of those words and interpret them as anything else. The phrase has become so world-renown that variations exist across multimedia storytelling, either in homage or as a parody.
But it does not start and end with the moon landing. The American Revolution, which led to the birth of the United States as a nation, is a critical factor in the identity of Americans and is commonly taught in schools as an underdog story. Similarly, military campaigns where one army is vastly outnumbered or unequipped are often tapped as underdog stories by modern storytellers in books, films, and television. One such example is the somewhat erroneous portrayal of the Spartan and Persian armies in the movie 300, which depicted the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC. So, it is clear that the “David and Goliath” motif has existed for time immemorial. As such, it should be no surprise that the motif has found its way into video game storytelling and has since become a core element of the Final Fantasy franchise.
The Great Empire
In fantasy literature and storytelling, there is often a terrible superpower that plots to control or destroy the world, be it a kingdom, empire, religious cult, military force, or even an extraterrestrial entity — what may be identified as the “Goliath” to a hero’s “David.” In The Lord of the Rings, the Dark Lord Sauron and his army of evil men, orcs, and foul beasts try to conquer Middle-Earth. In the Harry Potter series, there is Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters, who usurp the British Ministry of Magic in a coup to subjugate non-magical and non-human creatures. Doctor Who has the Dalek and Cybermen Empires; Avatar: The Last Airbender has the Fire Nation; Lovecraftian Horror has a menagerie of extraterrestrial and extradimensional beings vying to conquer all existence, and so on and so forth. Final Fantasy has taken this concept and reimagined it countless times, adapting each iteration of “Goliath” to match its game’s setting and plot.
The classic era of Final Fantasy (1987 – 1994) set the precedence for the diversity of ways that the “Goliath” archetype would be portrayed. Final Fantasy [I] featured the Four Fiends, powerful monsters that stole the light of the crystals to corrupt the world, all under the command of the demonic Chaos. A year later, Final Fantasy II would introduce the Palamacian Empire and its cruel yet cunning Emperor Mateus, who used his powerful military and arcane arts to subjugate the world’s nations. Every subsequent title of this era took these concepts — the evil demon/sorcerer and great empire — and remolded them to fit their own narratives. Final Fantasy IV, for example, featured the Kingdom of Baron, a once prosperous monarchy corrupted by the Warlock Golbez, who commanded four powerful demon lieutenants called the Four Archfiends. Later, the steampunk-themed Final Fantasy VI introduced the Gestahlian Empire, a powerful magitek nation usurped by the megalomaniacal mage, Kefka Palazzo.[ii]
The modern era (1996 – 2008) reimagined the defining features of the protagonists and antagonists, along with redefining the look and feel of the franchise. Instead of the monsters and monarchies found in the classic era, which were heavily inspired by the high fantasy genre, Final Fantasy VII – XII featured more diverse factions that better reflected their own cyberpunk-ish, dystopian, or otherwise swashbuckling settings. The most well-known and arguably unique of these is the Shinra Electric Power Co. from Final Fantasy VII, the era’s debut title.
FFVII was set in a pseudo-cyberpunk, pseudo- “dying planet” world where Shinra controlled and produced nearly all of the planet’s military, scientific, and industrial advancements.
Using a public police force, an intelligence agency called “the Turks,” and an elite military unit known as “SOLDIER,” Shinra slowly monopolized the planet while inadvertently catalyzing a worldwide environmental crisis. And while many of the company’s leaders are amoral and sycophantic, Shinra and its agents are not the game’s true villains — instead, they are an ever-present danger the heroes must contend with before facing their true nemesis.
Other examples from the modern era include Final Fantasy X’s Yevon faith. This religious cult perpetuates a cycle of death and rebirth that keeps the people of Spira forever trapped. Final Fantasy XII’s Archadian Empire is a Romanesque empire that seeks to establish its law and rule over all of Ivalice. Neither the Yevon faith nor the Archadian Empire is evil in the traditional sense, but they pose as the primary antagonists through their respective games.
Thus far, the HD era of Final Fantasy (2009 – present) has been rather eclectic in its storytelling, taking inspiration from within and without the franchise. Final Fantasy XIII featured a pantheon of biomechanical gods that created a vibrant world full of life with the intention of destroying it solely to discover what awaits life after death. Throughout the “Lightning Trilogy,” their disregard for and toying with humanity is almost Lovecraftian. Aside from taking numerous concepts from earlier titles to fuel its ever-growing campaign, a significant entity in Final Fantasy XIV is the Garlean Empire, an amalgamation of FFVI’s Gestahlian Empire and the aforementioned Archadian Empire. The Gestahlian and Archardia Empires were also inspirational in the creation of Final Fantasy XV’s Niflheim Empire, with Adryn Izunia, the empire’s Chancellor, being partially reminiscent of Emperor Mateus from FFII.[iii]
It would appear that the franchise excels at creating great and powerful forces that must be overcome. So, with half the equation defined, it is time to examine the “David” to Final Fantasy’s “Goliath.”
A Motley Crew
In contemporary storytelling, it has become commonplace for the role of the “David” archetype (i.e., the underdog) to be depicted not as a single individual but as a group of unlikely allies striving towards similar goals. By setting aside their differences and understanding one another, the group members learn to compensate for each other’s strengths and weaknesses, allowing them to join as a team. This calls to mind the unorthodox troop of Dorothy Gale from L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), who venture to the Emerald City hoping to find the Wizard: the aforementioned young girl and her terrier-dog, Toto; the witless Scarecrow; the Cowardly Lion; and the heartless Tin Woodman. Final Fantasy has taken a similar approach in storytelling, with each title introducing a new cast of characters to tell an engaging story with sympathetic heroes from various backgrounds and experiences.
Due to the classic era’s high fantasy and medieval nature, many games centered around a small party or rebellion attempting to topple a growing superpower. In doing so, FFII became the first title to introduce named characters with well-developed histories, distinct character designs, and professions rarely seen in fantasy storytelling. The game’s two main protagonists, Firion and Maria, were orphans who joined the Wild Rose Rebellion after their home city was sacked by the Palamacian Empire. The main cast of FFIV consisted of twelve travelers on a journey to stop Golbez from gathering the eight crystals. The party was composed of several princes (and one princess), a handful of magicians, a mechanic, and even an air knight. The Returners of FFVI, an insurgency group staving off the growth of the Gestahlian Empire, then took this diverse casting one step further by featuring a party that included, among other roles, a womanizing gambler, a mercenary-ninja, a yeti-like party member, and a talking Moogle.
Non-human or non-humanoid/anthropomorphized party members became a recurring feature of the modern era. Many of these characters represented races and species who suffered some degree of oppression or misfortune that they wished to reverse. For example, in FFVII, the lion Red XIII was captured and experimented on by the Shinra scientist Hojo before being released by AVALANCHE and joining their mission to protect Aerith. Similarly, Kimahri Ronso from FFX was exiled by his tribe, eventually becoming one of Lady Yuna’s Guardians in her journey to break the cycle caused by the cult of Yu Yevon.
Perhaps no cast epitomizes the “David and Goliath” motif better than the characters from Final Fantasy XII. Jokingly referred to as the “Star Wars [A New Hope]” of the Final Fantasy franchise, this game centers on a small band of freedom fighters attempting to liberate the Kingdom of Dalmasca from the clutches of the oppressive Archadian Empire and re-establish the monarchy. The cast features a princess-in-disguise, a disgraced royal soldier, a pair of [sky] pirates, and two childhood friends — roles that find clear analogs in Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia Organa, Han Solo, Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2-D2, and even Darth Vader. Further parallels can be made between FFXII and Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 film The Hidden Fortress — a story about two peasants who unknowingly help a princess-in-disguise and her retainer cross enemy territory into the safety of her clansmen.[iv] Given the reception of FFXII, its similarities with those two films solidify how ingrained the “David and Goliath” motif is into the narrative.
The Warriors of Light
One of the oldest concepts in the Final Fantasy franchise is that of the “warriors of light” — prophesied heroes, chosen by the crystals, who save the world and banish the darkness. The idea was a defining characteristic of the classic era, appearing as a central element in Final Fantasy I, Final Fantasy III, and Final Fantasy V.
The phrase originated in the opening crawl of the first game, describing the four unnamed heroes who had come to save the kingdom of Cornelia. The term eventually became a shorthand to refer to the then-nameless heroes of the classic era. FFIII developed the concept further by introducing the idea of the “warriors of darkness” — heroes who lived in a parallel dimension and once prevented light from consuming their world, just as their counterparts were striving to hold back the darkness. As the “warriors of light” were anointed by the four elemental crystals, so were the “warriors of darkness” blessed by the dark crystals of their dimension. FFV later reimagined the idea of the “warriors of light” as heroic spirits that would be born whenever the worlds were in peril. Before the start of the game, four heroes remembered as the “warriors of dawn” defeated and sealed away the warlock Exdeath before it could devastate the worlds using the Void.
The concept of the “warriors of light” fell out of favor during the modern era, although it was revitalized in 2008 with the release of Dissidia Final Fantasy. This spin-off series began as a celebration of the franchise’s 20th anniversary and featured two characters from the FFI through FFX — one hero and one villain. Among the cast, the hero chosen to represent the original game was given the name “Warrior of Light,” with a design based on the concept art of the knight class by Yoshitaka Amano. Furthermore, the story revolved around a never-ending cycle of conflict between the “Warriors of Cosmos,” the Goddess of harmony, and the “Warriors of Chaos,” the god of discord. Its sequel, Dissidia Final Fantasy NT (2015), evolved the story to focus on a joint effort by the gods Materia and Spiritus to destroy the god dragon, Shinryu, the entity that sparked the cycle of conflict. To achieve this goal, each deity (reincarnations of Cosmos and Chaos, respectively) summoned combatants who would become the “Warriors of Materia” and “Warriors of Spiritus” — contemporary iterations of the “warriors of light” and “warriors of darkness.”
Today, the “warriors of light” is a rare, if not archaic, element in the franchise. In the HD era, the phrase is kept alive by Final Fantasy XIV, alongside the recently re-introduced “warriors of darkness,” albeit conceptualized differently for the MMORPG. Nor does the term appear in Final Fantasy XV, despite the game’s central focus on light as a gift from the gods and life-giving energy. However, one might rightly interpret the Kings of Lucis, the dynasty blessed with power and authority by the Crystal of Lucis, as analogous to the “warriors of light.”[v]
Coincidently, the world in which FFXV is set is called Eos, named for the ancient Greek goddess of the dawn. It is the duty of Prince Noctis Lucis Caelum, proclaimed by the gods as “the True King” and “King of Light,” to dispel the cloaking darkness around Eos and restore light to the world.
Very little is known of Final Fantasy XVI (set to release in summer 2023), but it’s safe to assume the game will bring a new reimagining of the “David and Goliath” motif. From what has been released, the narrative will follow the swordsman Clive Rosfield as he travels the land of Valinsthea amidst the growing threat of war due to a dangerous blight spreading throughout the globe. With much yet to be revealed, only time will tell how a lone Clive will fit into the greater conflict developing in Valisthea among its six great nations and their power Dominants.
[i] The Little Engine’s mantra has become synonymous with the mentality of an underdog character.
[ii] Magitek is a portmanteau of “magic” and “technology”. In Final Fantasy, the term refers to any advancement of technology that blends magical elements with machinery and bioengineering.
[iii] Kefka and Ardyn both posed as royal advisors, before killing (or allowing to be killed, in Ardyn’s case) their respective emperors. Similarly, as Emperor Mateus summoned demons from Hell to assist in his conquest, so too did Ardyn ensure the perpetuation of the “star-scourge,” a cosmic blight that blocked out the sun and turned humans into monstrous daemons.
[iv] Akira Kurasawa and The Hidden Fortress, along with series like Flash Gordon, were huge influences on George Lucas when he was writing Star Wars, and parallels to those stories may also be found in Final Fantasy XII.
[v] Lucis is the genitive form of “lux”, meaning “of light” in Latin. The Kings of Lucis may be understood as the “kings of light.”
- da Carpi, Ugo. David and Goliath. ca. 1520 – 27. Metropolitan Museum of Art, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/632712.
- New International Version. Bible Study Tools, https://www.biblestudytools.com/1-samuel/17.html. Accessed 24 Jul. 2022.
- Square Enix. DissidiaFinal Fantasy. Playstation Portable. 2008.
- ––––––. Dissidia Final Fantasy NT. Playstation 4. 2015.
- ––––––. Final Fantasy. Famicom (NES). 1987.
- ––––––. Final Fantasy II. Famicom (NES). 1988.
- ––––––. Final Fantasy III. Famicom (NES). 1990.
- ––––––. Final Fantasy IV. Super Famicom (SNES). 1991.
- ––––––. Final Fantasy V. Super Famicom (SNES). 1992.
- ––––––. Final Fantasy VI. Super Famicom (SNES). 1994.
- ––––––. Final Fantasy VII. PlayStation. 1997.
- ––––––. Final Fantasy VIII. PlayStation. 1999.
- ––––––. Final Fantasy IX. PlayStation. 2000.
- ––––––. Final Fantasy Type-0. PlayStation Portable. 2011.
- ––––––. Final Fantasy: War of the Lions. PlayStation Portable. 2007.
- ––––––. Final Fantasy X. PlayStation 2. 2001.
- ––––––. Final Fantasy XI. PlayStation 2. 2002.
- ––––––. Final Fantasy XII. PlayStation 2. 2006.
- ––––––. Final Fantasy XIII. PlayStation 3/Xbox 360. 2009.
- ––––––. Final Fantasy XIV. PC. 2010.
- ––––––. Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. PC. 2013.
- ––––––. Final Fantasy XV. PlayStation 4. 2016.
- ––––––. Final Fantasy XVI. PlayStation 5. TBD.
Categories: Writings & Errata