Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Final Fantasy VIII: A Story Retrospective

[If you're wondering what this blog post series is about, read the introductionThe first section of this article deals with the opening of the game; the second is marked as containing spoilers for the rest of the game.]

The difference between the way I approached Final Fantasy VII and  Final Fantasy VIII.was similar to the difference between FFIV and FFVI.  I stumbled into the former games and anticipated the latter.

Except in the time between FFVI and FFVIII, a revolution had started picking up steam: the Internet.  I no longer stared at print ads in torn gaming magazines.  Instead I downloaded grainy videos (no YouTube yet!) and stared at screenshots from Japanese websites searched up through Alta Vista.  Information was free but not yet easy to find, and that made every new tidbit all the more enticing.

And when release day finally came - oh, the excitement!

The Opening

As much as it pains me to admit, I have to be honest here: FFVIII's introductory movie has not aged well.


Start with overwrought choral music and continue with some meaningless blather in white text over a field of flowers.  Add in dramatic shots of characters we have no reason to care about (that woman in the blue dress, she sure does like to turn around a lot) rendered in badly dated CG.  At least the sword fight is cool.  Well, kind of cool.

I'll repeat: this introduction does not hold up well.  But it's important to put it into context, and the truth is that this opening was amazing for its time.  Compare this movie to FFVII's introduction, and the advances are stark: increased environmental detail, realistic human figures, naturalistic movement.  One might celebrate FFVIII for its graphical advances, if nothing else.

But the truth is technology progresses and is soon taken for granted, and whatever qualities are needed to make a lasting impression, well... FFVIII's opening doesn't have them.

The Rest of the Story


The main plot of Final Fantasy VIII has something to do with sorceresses, 'time kompression', and, uh, flying gardening schools (I think I have that right).  Okay, sure, it's nonsensical, but that's not what the game is really about.  Check out the logo:

That's right, Final Fantasy VIII is really a love story!  Sure, roll your eyes all you want (and mine may half-roll in sympathy), but the shy and introverted twenty one year old version of me was still much enamored by notions of romance and true love, and perhaps present-day me wants to believe in those ideals more than he'd like to admit.

Ahem.  Anyway... given how badly the opening aged, it's surprising how well some of the romance between Squall (the moody hero) and Rinoa (the plucky heroine) holds up.  For example, here's their first meeting:

If you don't fall a little bit in love with Rinoa at 1:05, when she makes that face at the couple that they've bumped into, then you're... probably normal.   Still, it's amazing how well the game captures so much about Squall and Rinoa in such a short amount of time.  There's no voices, so all the viewer has to go on is body language and facial expressions, and that's more than enough.

From a purely storytelling perspective, that's where Final Fantasy VIII really succeeds.  In truth the characters are pretty forgettable... but while playing the game, one can't help but be drawn into their world because their mannerisms and movements and little tics all seem real and, well, human.

To emphasize my point, let me name the four other playable characters in the game and a few of their personality quirks:
  • Quistis: quiet, reserved
  • Zell: senseless, energetic
  • Irvine: extroverted, over-confident
  • Selphie: friendly, temperamental
Now watch the ending - no, not the whole thing, just the bit from 9:50 to 12:40 - and see if you can pick out who those four characters are.

It's not that hard, is it?

In the end, for all of the game's many, many, many flaws, I can't help but applaud it for being the first to be able to successfully communicate so much with so little.  Final Fantasy VIII paved the way for increasingly complex and subtle characterizations in future games in the series.

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