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Remembering the Orphan: Final Fantasy VIII

Warts and all, the ambitious push to expand video game storytelling found in Final Fantasy VIII deserves a closer look at this too-often neglected franchise entry.

Publisher: Square Electronic Arts
Genres: Action RPG, Multimedia
Multimedia: Final Fantasy VIII
Platforms: Playstation
ESRB rating: Teen
Developer: Square
US release date: 1999-09-07
Developer website

Is there any videogame out there that’s more in need of a critical reevaluation than Final Fantasy VIII? Despite strong sales when it first released in 1999, the game is considered only a minor entry on both sides of the Pacific. Most reviews in the US were only mildly positive and bemoaned that the iconic characters of Final Fantasy VII had been replaced with a group of sensitive teenagers, while a 2006 poll in Japanese gaming bible Famitsu revealed that Final Fantasy VIII was only the sixth most popular installment of the series. More grudgingly liked than truly loved, it’s the red-headed stepchild of the franchise. And that’s a shame, because upon closer inspection, the game is an excellent work of entertainment that occasionally aspires to becoming art.

A little history is in order. The Final Fantasy series began in 1987 when the first installment was released in Japan (its ironic title is a reference to the near-bankruptcy of its developer, which assumed the game would be their last project). Its creators hit on a winning formula to make role-playing games more palatable to the masses: they dumped the complexity of Dungeon and Dragons in favor of more streamlined gameplay, allowing players to spend less time improving their characters and more time immersed in the story. Of course, for a game on the 8-bit Nintendo system, a complex story consisted of little more than stock fantasy clichés -- a princess in peril, an evil warlord, a quest to save the world, etc. -- but at a time when most console videogames had the entirety of their plot explained in the instruction manual, it was almost revolutionary.

The franchise continued to crank out sequels as its storylines grew more complicated, although not necessarily any deeper (thankfully each game had its own self-contained story and a new cast of characters, which kept the series from becoming any more convoluted). When Final Fantasy IV was released in 1991 for the Super Nintendo system, the plot felt like The Lord of the Rings as hastily rewritten by Charles Dickens. The games were still relying on the same generic fantasy elements, but they were now in the service of a storyline filled with shameless amounts of melodrama, personal betrayals, and unexpected connections between the main characters.

The series made another quantum leap in 1997 with the release of Final Fantasy VII, the first entry to become a best-seller in the US. That game took full advantage of the hardware of the Sony Playstation, using 3D graphics to create a more fully realized world, and the larger storage capacity of CDs to tell a Byzantine storyline that spanned over 50 hours long. Yet for all its progress forward, the game still seemed like a hodgepodge of different styles that never amounted to a satisfying whole. Its aesthetics were a blend of Tolkien-esque swords and sorcery with Japanese anime and cyberpunk dystopia, while its storyline was now half melodrama, half plot-heavy comic book with the occasional stab at social commentary -- the game contained references to genetic engineering and corporate corruption, but it never really went anywhere with these topics.

By contrast, Final Fantasy VIII knew exactly what it was trying to be: a coming-of-age story built on the metaphor that growing up is a long, dangerous journey. What's even more interesting than the game's attempts at plausible character development and thematic depth is the fact that it's part of a larger trend. Final Fantasy VIII was released only two years after Buffy the Vampire Slayer debuted on television and the first Harry Potter novel was published in England. What all three works have in common is their use of fantasy as a rich, multi-layered allegory for adolescent pain. Their success paved the way for other genre crossbreeds like Pan's Labyrinth (childhood fears as nightmarish creatures), Battle Royale (high-school rivalries as ultraviolence), and Veronica Mars (high-school backstabbing as film noir), but while Buffy and Harry Potter have been frequently championed, Final Fantasy VIII has been mostly forgotten.

As the game opens, the protagonists are students at Balamb Garden, a sort of cross between Hogwarts and a military academy. And while the storyline quickly leaves Balamb Garden behind for a globetrotting journey, the school feels like a fully realized place rather than just a starting point thanks to a number of lived-in details. It has its own intranet, which contains information on school policy and a blog (updated throughout the game) that chronicles the personal life of one of your traveling companions. Talk to several of the students and you'll find that they've formed a fan club honoring the Garden's hottest female professor. And the school includes several areas -- a student hangout, a cafeteria, a library -- that have little use in terms of gameplay, but exist to show that the designers spent the time to make you want to explore the place.

The first time you enter the school’s courtyard, the action slows down and the camera glides past the main characters to show a dozen students chatting and walking to their next classes. It’s that kind of detail that makes Balamb Garden, like Hogwarts, feel both exciting and oddly cozy. It's a place that feels like you could actually visit -- and more importantly, would want to.

There's also the matter of the game's distinctive visual style. The first five installments of Final Fantasy borrowed freely from the medieval fantasy epics of Tolkien and his imitators, creating a landscape of fortified kingdoms, bucolic villages, and monster-infested dungeons. The next two games mostly followed this template, but added their own touches: the world of Final Fantasy VI seemed more pre-Industrial than medieval, while Final Fantasy VII added a dismal metropolis straight out of Blade Runner. The series clearly wanted to establish its own look rather than resorting to pastiches of other works, but it wasn’t until Final Fantasy VIII that it managed to get it right.

Balamb Garden is the epitome of the game’s unique style: a massive, colorful building shaped like a mountain, with an illuminated halo-like structure hovering above it. It’s a marvel of futuristic design that apes neither the bland sterility of Star Trek or Minority Report, nor the towering, baroque architecture of Blade Runner or Metropolis. The Garden looks almost organic, something both man-made and a part of the natural environment. The rest of the game’s cities and locations might not be equally as memorable, but they’re all inspired by a mix of imagination and different architectural styles from throughout history. Consider Deling City, which contains Parisian landmarks (it has a structure that bears a curious similarity to the Arc de Triomphe), an Asian-style shopping arcade, and an Edwardian mansion, and is host to a Madri Gras-like parade organized by the city’s fascist government in honor of their new leader.

If Final Fantasy VIII were merely a triumph of aesthetic design, it would make for an atmospheric videogame but a thin storyline. Instead, the game subverts the usual fantasy narrative: it starts off as an epic adventure and slowly reveals itself to be a character study.

Like so many RPGs, a devastating war casts a long shadow over the characters of Final Fantasy VIII and puts much of the plot in motion. But rather than a centuries-old conflict that has become the stuff of legend, the world war of this game ended little over a decade ago, and the game touches on the volatile politics and human toll that have been left in its wake.

Horrified by the devastation they’ve witnessed, a kind-hearted couple decides to establish a home for children orphaned by the violence. One of these children is Squall, the game’s protagonist, who is never adopted and instead moves directly from the orphanage to Balamb Garden, which trains young men and women to join an international peacekeeping force that works to prevent future bloodshed. Squall’s abandonment -- first by his parents, and then by his friends who leave the orphanage one by one -- teaches him not to trust or rely on other people.

Melodramatic? On the surface, sure. But Squall’s introversion is vividly depicted through a number of small, believable details. The game provides a running voice-over (if you can call it a voice-over, since it’s in text bubbles) of Squall’s thoughts, and the disconnect between what he says and his internal confusion over what people want from him is revealing.

Squall’s frustration at dealing with others comes to a head in an extraordinary scene early on in the game. He and several other graduates of Balamb Garden have been assigned to help a resistance cell fighting against a dictatorship. As they plan their next move, they receive word that Seifer, one of their former classmates, has been executed. Stunned by the news, the group takes turns trying their best to remember Seifer as a decent person. Quistis says she doesn’t have “any good memories of him,” then insists “he wasn’t really a bad guy.” Zell swears revenge despite having been tormented by Seifer, and Rinoa, lost in her romantic memories of their time together, seems to be imagining a different person entirely. Only Squall is heartless enough to realize the truth: Seifer was a bully who made their lives miserable and his death was largely the result of his own recklessness.

Intentionally imagining someone to be a good person because they’re now dead is, of course, a complete lie -- a very human failing, but also a necessary one that protects us from our own feelings of despair and nihilism. It’s a defense mechanism that takes some of the power away from death, even at the expense of what we know to be true. Squall’s inability to participate in this group fantasy shows just how much he has hardened his emotions. He is too critical to accept these lies and too disparaging of Seifer to think of him in a positive light. His ability to keep both other people and his own feelings at an arm’s length might make him stronger, but it also makes him seem coldly inhuman.

The game twists the knife further when Squall realizes that if he were to die tomorrow, everyone would eulogize him as a cheerful, likeable guy, cementing the fact that they don’t know him at all. Upon understanding this, he storms out of the room, while the rest of the group is puzzled as to what’s come over him. Too cynical to join their group fantasy, yet still dependent on the opinions of others in order to determine his self-worth, Squall is trapped in the singular hell of feeling alone in a crowd.

Moments like this illustrate Squall’s troubled mindset, but the game also manages to capture some more universal emotions. In the world of Final Fantasy VIII, people are able to cast magic spells by utilizing mythical beasts called Guardian Forces, although it’s rumored that doing so can damage one’s memories. At one point, Squall’s party reaches the site of a recent battle, and one of his traveling companions casually drops a bombshell on everyone else: they’re all orphans of the previous world war and grew up at the same orphanage, but their memories of their time together have been erased by the Guardian Forces. The childhood friends that Squall can only dimly recall are in fact his new companions for this mission.

It’s a terrific, resonant metaphor: the experience of warfare stole their childhood innocence and is slowly turning them into soldiers who have no purpose except the next battle. More than that, it’s a commentary on how the responsibilities and pressures of adulthood can cause us to forget who we once were. Anyone who has ever rediscovered a childhood memento and found old memories flooding back can sympathize with characters who are amazed at how much they’ve forgotten.

This plotline reminds me of some of the best work of Buffy the Vampire Slayer-creator Joss Whedon, who proved himself a master of using fantasy as an allegory for real-life pain (consider the unforgettable episode in which Buffy sleeps with her boyfriend and accidentally transforms him into a soulless monster). Indeed, Whedon suggested that he might be a fan of the game in a 2007 interview with The Onion’s AV Club in which he stated that his new favorite musical genre was YouTube music videos of Final Fantasy VIII. Frustratingly, the interviewer failed to follow up on this, but it’s not hard to imagine Whedon being a fan of a story about a group of teenagers dealing with life and love while battling monsters.

Another fascinating subplot involves a series of strange dreams that Squall and the others keep having about a man named Laguna Loire, a journalist-turned-soldier who fought in the earlier war. Squall watches with somewhat amused detachment as Laguna flirts with a torch singer during shore leave, gets injured and recuperates in a small town, and is eventually captured by the enemy. When the two meet face to face in the present, Squall learns that Laguna is his father, who disappeared after the war ended in order to become a political leader in a distant country. Unlike most RPGs, which pump every event and strange happening full of cosmic importance, Final Fantasy VIII keeps its focus deeply personal: in the end, the cryptic dreams are revealed to be nothing more than a son’s attempts to understand his absent father.

All of this character development and emotional texture might sound great, but the game does admittedly suffer from two giant flaws. Final Fantasy VIII is considered the black sheep of the series largely due to an idiosyncratic battle system that forces the player to steal spells from enemies and then junction them to the characters’ stats in order to make them more powerful. In layman’s terms, the game asks you to spend a lot of time robbing enemies before attacking them and punishes you for casting magic spells (usually the quickest and easiest way to win fights) by gradually making your characters weaker after each usage. I think the Junction system probably takes less time than traditional level-building, but I can understand why it struck most gamers as incredibly tedious.

The game’s other shortcoming is harder to dismiss: the English translation is passable at best, terribly awkward at worst. Given the sheer volume of text in a 50-hour storyline, it’s probably too much to hope for something that feels more literary (like Alexander O. Smith’s superb translation for Vagrant Story in 2000), but some conversations border on nonsensical. When a character suddenly starts laughing even when nothing funny is happening, it’s clear that some of the details are getting lost in translation. The dialogue still makes it possible to follow the plot, but it’s difficult not to wonder if the original Japanese script had a little life or poetry to it.

It’s telling, then, that the single best part of the storyline is purely visual and doesn’t involve any dialogue or text whatsoever. The game’s ending consists of a 15-minute computer-animated sequence that pushes its melodrama to operatic heights and blends it with an avant-garde surrealism -- and it works beautifully. Final Fantasy VIII sets up this conclusion by explaining that its protagonists must travel to a dimension outside of space and time in order to confront the game’s true villain, and that the only way to return to the real world afterwards is to focus on a reassuring place from one’s memories.

For Squall this proves incredibly difficult. He wants to imagine a vast field of flowers where he promised Rinoa they would meet after the final battle, but he finds it impossible to remember what she looks like. He recalls scenes from earlier in the game, but every time her face appears blurry and indistinct. As Squall becomes increasingly desperate to remember the woman he loves, the montage of prior scenes begins moving faster and faster, the clips rushing by at a frantic pace. He finally thinks back to a moment in which Rinoa almost died, and for the first time her face is completely visible. Squall’s body fades away into the light.

What’s remarkable about this sequence is that it doesn’t bother to explain exactly what’s going on. Gamers will hopefully understand that this rapid-fire montage represents Squall’s fevered imagination and that the shock of almost losing Rinoa causes him to snap out of his delirium, but the game doesn’t spell this out in any way. If a mainstream Hollywood movie trusted its audience to handle a wordless, four-and-half minute segment like this, it would have been hailed as an extraordinary achievement. But since Final Fantasy VIII was merely a video game, nobody noticed.

The ending continues on for another ten minutes, and while it’s more conventional in its style, its substance focuses on everyday character moments over plot twists or explosions: Laguna Loire visits the tombstone of his wife and remembers proposing to her. The students of Balamb Garden hold a celebratory party. The world was briefly faced with total destruction, but life goes on.

Is Final Fantasy VIII, then, proof that videogames can reach the level of high art? Unfortunately, no. Its storyline is simultaneously convoluted and formulaic, and most of its 50-hour quest is spent on repetitive battles and puzzle-solving rather than character development. But it’s fascinating to see how even a well-worn formula can allow for strange, beautiful environments, thrilling scenes, and even flashes of insight into human nature. Final Fantasy VIII might have sold itself to gamers as just another epic adventure to save the world, but its depictions of loneliness and love still linger long after the memories of flashier games have faded.

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