Final Fantasy VIII is a mess. All of the games in the series are, to some degree, and their haphazardly welded-together clunkiness is responsible for a significant part of their charm. Its predecessor, Final Fantasy VII, is probably one of the most widely beloved games of all time, and it’s riddled with goofy writing and goofy minigames; 7’s triumph is that, despite all the times it gets sidetracked into goofs and nonsense, its main themes of identity and ecological catastrophe still manage to shine through in a coherent and compelling way. (Arguably, the fact that it makes room for levity and fun in the midst of disaster is exactly what makes it work.) 7’s immediate successor is, I think, just as compelling, but – at first glance, anyway – it would be difficult to call it coherent.
I’m certainly not setting out to provide the definitive FF8 explainer, and it’s one of those stories that, like Cultist Simulator, draw me in because they fight your attempts to make sense of them. Nonetheless, I want to take a closer look at some of its thematic elements, which are very often, and I believe unfairly, written off as nonsensical or ridiculous.
The main conceit that most people who’ve heard of FF8 will be familiar with is that your party is a group of teen mercenaries, and that there exists a network of prestigious schools (“Gardens”) around the world that trains child soldiers and hires them out to the highest bidder. The age of admission, we are told very early on in an easily missed line, is between five and fifteen. The famous setpiece sequence at Dollet, in which Squall and his classmates storm an occupied town (and the whole battle plan goes to shit in a matter of minutes), is simultaneously a merc contract and their graduation exam.
Ostensibly, FF8 is very matter-of-fact about all this. Getting sent off to fight in wars they have no stake in or understanding of is just what teenagers do in this world, and outside of that, they’re just regular high school kids with hobbies and crushes and insecurities. The carefree and idyllic tone of the initial couple of hours, and Balamb Garden’s generally sunny and upbeat atmosphere, strongly impress on you that the warfare could just as well be replaced with sports, or theatre, or debate club, and many of the events and character development beats would proceed in much the same way. Even as the plot starts picking up steam, there’s still the graduation dance, the school festival, the card game that everyone’s into, and Zell’s perpetually thwarted quest to make it to the school cafeteria before they’re out of hot dogs.
I think the fact that people “miss” this theme – or, really, assume the tonal mismatch is unintended and a writing mistake – is to some degree a measure of the story’s success, because the characters are missing it as well. For the most part, FF8 doesn’t sit you down and explain to you that war is hell, because it assumes you’re coming in with that knowledge already. Instead, it backgrounds many of the darker aspects, or hints at them, or shows them through characters’ mental states rather than on-screen events. Additionally, the way in which war is normalized for the characters draws our attention – if we let it – to how “normal” elements of school life that many of us are familiar with, like uniform, discipline, chain of command, being graded on following orders rather than values, are things that school and the army have in common.
Still, it’s somewhat frustrating that many players don’t believe a game can be aware of its own themes unless it’s constantly pointing towards them and winking. It betrays a very low opinion of the hundreds of people who contribute to the creation of any one game – we are to believe that somehow, every single one of them completely missed the meaningful content of the thing they were working on for several years. Generally, good interpretive faith is only extended towards projects headed by one of those rockstar devs who love the spotlight, the sound of their own voice, and the word “design”, like Kojima, Levine, Blow and so on. This creates a silly situation where people are more eager to believe that one guy who announces himself to be a genius really is one, than that dozens of people can work towards a common idea of art and storytelling.
Speaking of Kojima, FF8 came out in 1999, two years before Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty; that’s close enough proximity in time for me to feel confident that there was some mutual influencing going on, especially with both games being so preoccupied with child soldiers. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to compare the two, and despite MGS2 being more firmly rooted in specific real-world concerns rather than metaphor and fantasy, I don’t think FF8 fares poorly in this comparison at all.
Of course, before long the supposed political neutrality of FF8’s Gardens is forgotten completely, as the party is drawn into coups, assassination plots and global conflict. What I love about the game, however, is the way in which personal and geopolitical stakes are interwoven, and neither are made out to be the “actually important” ones (another point of comparison with MGS). The bumbling revolutionaries of Timber and their goofy, overwrought kidnapping plot are driven by the real and personal horror of military occupation, as well as Rinoa’s defiance of her dad, a general of the occupying force.
Perhaps the most important facet of this is the party’s relationship with Edea, once supposedly kindly matron of the orphanage they grew up in, now supposedly evil sorceress bent on world domination. Importantly, almost none of them remember the orphanage at all, and while the game attributes these memory problems to the powerful creatures they summon feeding on their memories, there is also a thread of metaphor here that, to my knowledge, has not been the focus of much attention. Memory problems – along with identity problems, something all the party members struggle with to some extent, but Squall most of all – are a frequent consequence of traumatic experiences, and in particular, many popular anti-war narratives, like Catch-22 and Jacob’s Ladder, show memory issues as a symptom of PTSD.
The game depicts the orphanage as nice enough, if undercut with sadness, although we only have Squall’s fragmentary recollections to go on, and it’s possible that the other kids remember it very differently. Certainly it bears consideration how the kind and motherly Edea ends up “possessed by a witch”, if anything like that had happened when everyone was little, and whether this story that has already signalled to us so much about trauma is trying to suggest anything more. But either way, an orphanage is not a place they’d end up in without something terrible happening, and of those particular traumas, we learn nothing. With war permeating every other aspect of the story, it’s safe to assume their parents or caretakers were probably killed in some kind of military action. The original incident isn’t remembered, not so much because it’s unimportant, as because its absence gives the impression of a cycle without beginning or end – children orphaned in war go on to become soldiers, Edea succumbs to the curse of the sorceress and sets out to rule the world, and her husband Cid starts his own Garden to train small children to murder her.
Cid’s shitty in this game, but he’s shitty in the quotidian way of a deadbeat dad, constantly lying and running from responsibility and expecting the kids to deal with it. Edea, in contrast, is a great and intimidating force, a metaphysical threat, even if it turns out that she’s being controlled by a witch from the future. It’s an echo of the theme of motherhood from FF7, where Jenova is a dreaded calamity from outer space, a threat to the planet, a smothering and subsuming presence. We see this again in 9 with Queen Brahne – this era of Final Fantasy just has a lot of kinda awful mothers (although perfectly nice ones, like Zell’s mom, are also present; they just don’t become major plot characters and antagonists). Honestly, I don’t think that’s a point against 8; I’m much more disappointed with the depiction of Hope’s mom in 13, a perfect saint who exists for all of ten minutes, only to sacrifice herself and provide her son with motivating angst. It’s certainly interesting that so much plot-time is spent on building up the menace and mystery of Edea, but in the end, she just turns out to be one woman fallen victim to a greater force that reaches through time and space; if anything, it humanizes but does not excuse her.
Frankly, I’m nowhere near done talking about FF8, and next time, I’d love to take a closer look at the character of Squall himself, at the women and especially the sorceresses, and at Seifer’s arc, in the context of chivalry, heroism and prescriptive narratives. Unless I get stuck playing Triple Triad for eight hours again.