A Reappraisal of Final Fantasy VIII
In late 1997, Square started work on their next entry in the Final Fantasy franchise. Its importance should not be underestimated — the first entry had saved the company, and its seventh put the developer on the map in international markets, creating a JRPG boom. Several paths were open. With their next entry, Final Fantasy VIII, they took the one least travelled.
In the public’s hands
The public eventually got their hands on Final Fantasy VIII in 1999. Many bought it because they enjoyed Cloud’s adventures in the previous game, or heard about all the excitement surrounding the franchise, but what they got defied all expectations. This new game was nothing like what came before.
The player doesn’t buy weapons, but upgrades them. Instead of monsters dropping money, you get paid a salary. Characters acquire spells through drawing them out of enemies and then storing them as expendable items. These pilfered spells can then be equipped to characters, to improve their stats, through the Junction system, but with the caveat that spending them during battle will weaken stats. Some found this new complex system too tedious. The director Yoshinori Kitase of Final Fantasy VIII gives the reason for the radical departure (Juba 2019):
But up until then, all RPGs had pretty much been “Defeat the monster, you get some money, you get some experience points, and you level up.” It was just a continuation over and over again. Within those letters and opinions we saw [about Final Fantasy VII], there were a number of people saying, “Isn’t it time for something new? We’d like a new system.” So rather than something we felt unsure about or cautious about, we just really wanted to try something new and give it a go.
The Junction system rewards experimentation. It also creates an interesting dynamic, in which the player has to think strategically about what to equip. Ultimately, one’s experience with it largely depends on a person’s limit of patience.
Stories of a different ilk
Changes also took place in the story department. Final Fantasy VIII’s protagonist was no longer a seasoned hero, but a high-school kid on the cusp of adulthood. Squall Leonhart, a 17-year-old member of the SeeD mercenary force, was everything one would expect of someone still trying to find themselves in a dangerous world — standoffish, introverted, insecure, and dejected. To some, this looked like insufferable moodiness.
Squall’s running inner monologue shows the player, through text, what the hero was thinking, creating a vivid depiction of his deep introspection. The game shows every insecurity real time, which is as about divisive as any other part of the game: it’s a barrage of self-absorption to some, and a liberating portrayal of inhibition to others. Despite the divided opinions, it is quite a realistic expression of the struggles of being a teenager. This readiness to tackle Squall’s emotions made an impact on some people, such as video game journalist Ashley Oh (Oh 2019):
Even in the face of praise from his comrades and superiors, he questions his validity and shoots down every compliment he gets. Key childhood flashbacks and glimpses into scenes of abandonment, bullying, and loneliness resonated strongly with me. Not only were those things I could relate to, they were also some of the first times I saw a character in a video game tackle these kinds of issues.
Squall grows through his interactions with his fellow party members: Rinoa, Zell, Quistis, Selphie and Irvine. Addressing coming-age through fantasy was an increasingly popular topic in the zeitgeist, with other works such as Harry Potter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer becoming popular because they addressed these issues. The approach made it possible to communicate adolescent pain through a more palliative fantastical world.
Final Fantasy VIII’s world is something of an Art Nouveau industrial/fantasy fever dream. A lot of care was taken to make it feel alive; students loiter in the school’s hallway, rooms change as time passes, and Balamb Garden intranet system provides insightful commentary on events. Leisure is also a vital part of existence, reflected in the game’s own card game — Triple Triad. Yoshinori Kitase talked about how this added flavor to the world (Juba 2019):
This time around, I wanted to make a minigame that was persistent throughout the entire world and could be played anywhere. At the time, Magic: The Gathering had just come out and was very popular, so we thought, “Rather than add a card game as a minigame, what if we added in a card game that all of the people in the world played? Some sort of tradition or cultural element that had been carried on from years past?” And we thought by adding that, it would add to the development of the world.
Triple Triad was the first mini-game in the series to span an entire game, and with the opportunity to play against a myriad of NPCs, it created the impression of a breathing world. The cards themselves also referenced the world, further deepening this link. This type of world building device would become a prevalent in later RPGs, such as The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Red Dead Redemption.
A different game for a different time
Final Fantasy VIII was a significant departure from what came before. After Final Fantasy VII, one of their greatest successes, Square still swung for the fences, showing remarkable creative ambition. Unlike many RPGs with a focus on overarching disasters, it is in essence a character study of a loner who learns how to rely on people. The blending of styles — a deeply personal story told in an eccentric manner — and the tectonic changes in the game itself, made it a divisive entry, but also memorable one. It dared to be weird enough to be loved or hated.
Bailey, K. 2019. “Final Fantasy 8 Was Always Good” on USgamer.
Flores, N. 2019. “Final Fantasy VIII Is What the Series Needed Then and What It Needs Now” on Paste Magazine.
Juba, J. 2019. “Back To School: The Stories Behind Final Fantasy VIII” on Game Informer.
Kunzelman, C. 2019. “Final Fantasy VIII Was Too Honest and Unsettling to be Beloved” on Vice.
Oh, A. 2019. “Why I’m still thinking about Final Fantasy 8, 20 years later” on Polygon.
Rodgers, J.P. 2009. “Remembering the Orphan: Final Fantasy VIII” on PopMatters.
Schreier, J. 2017. “Final Fantasy VIII Retrospective: The Greatest Love Story” on Kotaku.
Vincent, B. 2019. “Final Fantasy VIII Was Always Weird. But That’s What Made It Great” on Esquire.