It’s one of the most controversial entries in the long-running series, but on its 20th anniversary Sam Brooks is standing behind Final Fantasy 8 as the best one of them all.
I have two lingering memories of Final Fantasy 8.
The first is being stuck right at the end of the first disc. I’d just watched the Sorceress’ Parade scene, still one of the crowning artistic achievements of the full motion video era, back when games had completely separate graphics for cinematic cutscenes and actual gameplay. Remember hand-drawn pre-rendered backgrounds and how beautiful they were? Sigh.
Anyway, after the Sorceress’ Parade, what’s required of you is that you, Squall Leonhart, the 18 year old with a sword-gun hybrid and a Harry Potter type scar marring your face, must join cowboy sniper Irvine Kinneas to stop Rinoa Heartily, the activist daughter of the government’s military leader, risking her life trying to seal the powers of Sorceress Edea, who has recently taken control of the government. Got that?
Once you rescue Rinoa, after Sorceress Edea phases through the wall in a similarly amazing cutscene, you have to crawl through the hatch. If this was 2019, then this hatch would be cleanly outlined, there’d be a mini-map, there’d be a goddamned indicator telling me where the hatch is, you stupid fool.
But because this was 20 years ago, finding the hatch was a pixel-hunt. I spent, no joke, about two weeks of playing this game for about an hour every night trying to find the hatch. This involved me wandering around mashing ‘X’ a bunch of times. Eventually, I moved back to Final Fantasy 7. I even started the game right from the very beginning again, thinking that maybe I’d encountered some sort of glitch, and eventually, finally, I mashed X in the right spot.
The other memory is a moment even earlier in the game, and it’s to do with the writing.
Final Fantasy 8 gets a lot of shit for its writing, namely the fact that the plot goes off the rails around halfway through the second disc. Skip the rest of this paragraph if you don’t want spoilers for a 20 year old game that sold nearly nine million copies, but what happens is that everyone finds out that they all grew up in an orphanage together – but they’ve forgotten it, because since living in that orphanage, they’ve been using Guardian Forces, and the price of using these Guardian Forces is that they take up space in their brain where their memories used to be.
Also, the sorceress they’ve been chasing all this time was the owner of this orphanage and basically raised them all.
It’s a huge plot twist, and I’d argue it’s one that the game foreshadows more than adequately. Not only that, but it ties into the themes of the game incredibly well; no game captures the experience of being a teenager, with its attendant traumas and losses, better than Final Fantasy 8. That it does so on an epic, time-travelling, fantasy-science blend of a canvas, is an incredible feat.
But the moment that sticks out to me, and is emblematic of how well this game not only writes teenagers but gets teenagers, comes in the first few hours of the game. The two characters we’ve spent the most time with at this point are Squall, our aforementioned young bescarred protagonist, and his instructor Quistis Trepe who is barely a year older than him.
Quistis accompanies Squall on his mission to qualify as a SeeD, a teenage mercenary who will travel around the world completing ad-hoc missions for Garden, the organisation that finds it appropriate to train children to be mercenaries. Squall qualifies with ease. At his graduation dance he dances an impressively choreographed waltz with his later love interest, activist/terrorist Rinoa Heartily. Directly after this Quistis, who has a distressingly casual relationship with Squall, asks him to come to ‘The Secret Place’, leading off the conversation with:
You know, a totally appropriate thing for a teacher to say to a student.
Squall’s characterisation is important here – the game, effectively and quickly, sets him up as a loner who is more interested in his internal monologue than he is in interacting with other people. In his scant interactions with other people, he is polite but terse, preferring instead to shut down conversation with a mildly witty joke than engage any further. So you know, your average angsty 18 year old who you’d find trying to get into any club on the Viaduct.
And then the killer:
“It’s kind of awkward when you don’t say anything.”
It’s a burn of a line – unintentionally so on his part. It’s the kind of thing a completely unaware person – you know, a teenager – says to someone whose actions they don’t understand. At this point, it is entirely clear to the player that Quistis has a crush on Squall.
It is one hundred percent unclear to Squall. So when Quistis asks him to come to the ‘Secret Area’, which is where students go to make out after curfew, rather than say, “Nope! I am not interested in this because I’m not interested in you, good day, my teacher!”, he says:
He’s clueless, as is appropriate.
This part of the game continues (it is never addressed why the Secret Area is only accessible by going through a part of the Garden – the place where all these highly damaged teenagers live – that is populated by massive dinosaurs and sentient acid-spitting plants) and ends with Quistis awkwardly confessing that she’s been demoted from instructor, when what she really wants to say is that she loves him. His response?
Ice. Cold. And honestly, pretty brilliant character writing.
Moments like this are peppered throughout the game – the characters generally act like their age and demographic, in a way that isn’t necessarily likeable but feels authentic. Selphie is overemotional and hyperactive, but this is balanced out by a melancholy in the few moments she gets alone. Irvine is a cocky, brash womaniser, but is ultimately deeply insecure and lonely. Zell is hotheaded, highly emotional, and prone to outbursts. Rinoa is an activist-slash-terorrist who manages to hijack a train and nearly assassinates the zombie president, but she’s tremendously naive and unclear about her actual goals. Sorceress Edea looks like Madonna circa ’Frozen’.
This, along with the aforementioned incoherence, is probably why Final Fantasy 8 isn’t as widely or as fondly remembered as Final Fantasy 7, generally regarded as the high point of the series. People don’t want to see authentic representations of teenagers, because nobody likes thinking about what they were like as a teenager.
The other reason is that Final Fantasy 8 changed up pretty much everything in the series – and in doing so, set in motion everything from about Final Fantasy 10 on (seeing as 9 was an intentional throwback and tribute to the older games in the series). The battle system was totally revamped – gone were the Materia, gradually charged up limit breaks, and even characters with unique actions and states – and in their place was an incredibly complex junction system.
Even more importantly, the graphics had changed from the deformed style of Final Fantasy 7 to the super-realistic style that would later come to define the series. Since Final Fantasy 8, the series has been on the forefront of video game graphics, both in terms of their artistry and their competence, and you can spot the start of that trend here with the tremendous opening video.
When I returned to the game a few years ago, it was the writing that struck me once more, and honestly, the wildly derided dialogue felt less like incoherence and more like a well-directed right turn into a narrative that was defined by theme rather than plot. Final Fantasy 8 is a game about a group of seven teenagers accepting their trauma and moving on with it, rather than rejecting it. At the end of the game – when Squall completes a time loop that will eventually lead to him being sent to an orphanage, losing touch with his adoptive sister, and attending a military academy – he accepts his trauma, and he moves on. It’s a beautiful ending for a game that has literally sent you into space to save the love of your life,who has been turned into a sorceress.
Some people have Final Fantasy 7, a game about environmental terrorists fighting a one-boobed alien from space. Some people have Final Fantasy 9, a game about a genetically engineered boy with a monkey tail who rescues a princess who has the magical ability equivalent to a nuclear bomb. Some people have Final Fantasy 10, a game about a water polo player who follows a girl on her suicide pilgrimage to save the world. I have Final Fantasy 8, a game about a group of traumatic, amnesiac teenagers who kill a witch who only wants to compress time so that nobody will bully her anymore.
It is, for me, the Final Fantasy that achieved what it set out to do better than any other. And it did so while exploring the weird, dark, and frankly unflattering psychology that lies under every teenager muttering, “Whatever.”
And no, Rinoa is not Ultimecia, Squall didn’t die at the end of the first disc and Triple Triad is a game that I would spend my entire paycheck on if it actually existed.
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