A very common trope in stories, and particularly JRPGs, is the concept of “friendship saves the world”. How many times have you seen the hero struggling against his final nemesis, barely able to muster the strength to land any blow at all, left alone the final one, until, suddenly, his (inevitably “his”) friends all rally, send their best wishes, and now protagonist has the power to strike down evil and save the world? This trope has rung hollow for ages for some key reasons:
- Reality doesn’t work like that. It never works like that. I, personally, have some amazing friends, but it takes multiple spousal permission slips and a three day waiting period just to move a couch. I’d really like to help you with this final boss and save the universe, Goggle Bob, but I’ve got a presentation at 9 AM tomorrow morning.
- The moral is friendship. Really? I understand there are some deeply lonely people out there, but does anyone really need to be told that friends are important? Oh, that’s what I’ve been doing wrong all this time? I need to actually talk to other people? Oh, thanks for the tip, shonen manga!
- Nine times out of ten, it’s just an excuse to revisit the cast and key story beats of any given tale. Edbard the Spoony died like twenty hours ago, but, wasn’t that part cool? Here’s his ghost to help out and cheer you on! … Wait, he’s not dead?
This all rings hollow…er in your average Final Fantasy game. Yes, it’s nice when, during the finale, the entire playable cast pipes up and waxes poetic about how the quest has changed them and they’re all like one, single gauntlet holding the sword together or some such nonsense, but, in the end, a Final Fantasy game isn’t about a group of misfits coming together to conquer the unconquerable, it’s about you, one person, holding the controller and guiding these whackos through a world filled to the brim with lethal fauna. Yes, Cyan, it’s very nice that you learned something important about yourself on this quest where I stuck you on bench duty from the moment we met, now get back to being the absolute last character I want to see used in this battle.
Final Fantasy, the franchise, went to this well in the finale of four games prior to Final Fantasy 8 (five if you include Ben and his buddies in Final Fantasy Gaijin), and while it always made a special point about how all the members of your party are super best buddies and Cecil and Kain have a special bro bond that can never be broken, or Setzer has some fabulous fashion advice for Gau, the games always fell short of portraying convincing friendships between these characters. Keep in mind that these are people that will and sometimes literally do die for each other. Hell, General Leo went to the grave thinking Sabin René Figaro had the same name as a TV show from the 70s.
Final Fantasy 8, finally, made friendship worthwhile, and is only one of two stories in all of fiction that I have ever encountered where the end moral (friendship is important, can triumph over anything) is supported by the character’s actions from beginning to end, as opposed to simply some finale lip service. To illustrate this clearly, I’m going to take a look at all of the important components involved in this story from absolutely most worthless to most important.
Irvine Kinneas is first on the hit list. If FF8 is trying to deconstruct tropes anywhere, it’s with Irvine, who is a seventeen year old boy, and is somehow in the running for greatest sniper on the planet. Come to think of it, he might be the only sniper on the planet. Regardless, Irvine’s main character trait is how he watched way too much X-Men The Animated Series as a kid, and seems to believe he’s the reincarnation of That Scumbag Gambit. Or, at least, that’s the veneer he projects: in truth, he’s a little shell shocked by apparently being a phenomenal murderer well before he’s old enough to know not to wear a cowboy hat with that many ear accessories, and uses the “badass” personality to repeatedly fail with the ladies. Irvine’s most important moment in the game is during the infamous ending of disc 1, when Super Sniper fumbles the one task he was specifically hired to perform, and can’t bring himself to shoot his adopted mother in the face. Way to not man-up, bro. To completely over psychoanalyze the polygonal fellow, we’re looking at a guy who drastically overcompensates for his own perceived masculine failings (that he’s not an unstoppable terminator) via an overinflated and garish libido. While he never grows completely out of this behavior (his final scene involves hitting on Quistis… not that I can blame him), it’s clear throughout the game that his friends and Selphie specifically grow to accept the “real” Irvine, and he seems to gradually forsake the pickup artist nonsense over time. Either that or the writers forgot he existed after the second disc. Lord knows I did.
If you’re an appropriate age, you probably met Zell Dincht in college. He lives on campus, but his home is like five minutes away. He’s really anxious to show off his family, everybody knows his mom as a mom, and she’s very accommodating to all those hungry students running in and out of the house. He actually likes the cafeteria food, because, when you get right down to it, he has a choice (he can go home for a meal, afterall), so everything hasn’t turned to sand in his mouth after the first month like everybody else. He’s joyful and manic, because, in the end, he doesn’t need your approval or anyone else’s, he can head home to the hug-o-zone, where Ma Dincht will tell him he just needs warm milk and another face tattoo. Zell wants to be a soldier not because of his own drive, but because he adores his grandfather, and wants to follow in his footsteps. Over time, he gradually matures, not because of any focused effort, but because he gets further and further away from Hometown, and actually learns about the world and his place in it. By the end of the journey, he’s not a completely changed person, but he is a better person, because he learned how to properly work with and rely on his own peer group, and not the previous generation and all its damn contemptible unconditional love.
Quistis Trepe is a lie given flesh. Quistis is defined by her early career accomplishments (achieving SeeD rank at age 15, and then a teaching position at 18), and falls fast and hard into the trap of believing her own hype. At Balamb Garden she is stuck in an endless cycle of simultaneously trying to live her life and live up to the accomplishments she seemingly accidentally accomplished three years earlier. She’s not a good teacher, but everyone expects her to be, so she not only MUST be a good teacher, but she has her own fan club. By the time FF8 begins, Quistis can’t even properly acknowledge what she wants (dudes with sweet scars) without believing she is betraying herself, a person she ultimately doesn’t even seem to like. Like exactly zero people who run headfirst into the Peter Principle, she is eventually fired from teaching, and sent off to play with Squall and company. More than anything else, in an often unseen moral in videogames, Quistis learns to fail, first in her firing, then again during the Edea assassination attempt, and then from being exposed to the master of failing himself, Laguna Loire, a man who failed so badly at being a slave, he became president. Quistis learns to stop caring so much about other’s expectations and simply enjoy the role she sets out for herself, which is “big sister” to a group of overpowered army brats.
Oh, and on that note, the idea that Quistis only liked Squall because of misplaced, forgotten big sisterly feelings? Bullshit. Girl has it bad for ol’ Lionheart, but she’s smart enough to know when she’s beat, so best just to play up that platonic role, and “Big Sister Quistis” will be right there with a sympathetic shoulder when that hussy Rinoa inevitably screws up her perfect relationship with that bushy haired hunk of man meat. The game completely supports this theory, as you may have noticed; Quistis’s main skill is learning techniques from complete monsters.
Almost by default, I now have to mention Selphie Tilmitt, whom, on a personal note, I loathed with the fury of a thousand suns when I played the game in high school, and now, as an adult, unapologetically love. Why? Girl has a blog! Seriously, somehow, two months before even Livejournal (never forget what communism has taken from us) was founded, Final Fantasy 8 accurately predicted the teenager that loves producing content for an unseen audience that is totally going to give a thumbs up to that link she posted to a magazine article from a couple decades from before she was born. Selphie is the most despicable of all creatures on this Earth: a post whore.
Unrelated, but please feel free to respond to this complicated essay on the themes of a fifteen year old children’s game with accolades and encouragement. I do accept Mr. Game & Watch Amiibos, if anyone wants to send gifts.
Back to Selphie, that filthy, rotten female that only posts on the internet for adoration: this behavior follows her IRL, where she’s super energetic and… bouncy because she has to be. Guys, I don’t know if you know this, but there’s a festival coming up, here’s a flyer, please pass it on, and I’ve been planning it for a while, and it’s important, because I’ve been planning it for a while, and if it doesn’t go well, I am going to cry right here on the front steps of the school, and you wouldn’t want that, would you? She’s aggressive because she knows nothing is going to get done if she isn’t, and it’s through her friends that she mellows, finds the support she craves, and becomes a better person. She’s still Selphie, but her more… obviously annoying traits seem taped down. Also, she gets to pilot a friggen space ship.
Also consider: her limit break is a slot machine. See the connection? It’s fueled by sheer optimism. Come on, guys, give it another pull, I’m sure this time we’ll get a result that’s super lucky!
Cid & Edea Kramer get a mention here. Note that I’m talking about Edea-Edea, and not the possessed lunatic that seems to get more screentime throughout the game. SeeD and the Gardens, the absolute origin and base for the events of Final Fantasy 8, are started by Cid because of an act of absolute, pure love. Cid just wants what is best for the love of his life, which is clearly starting an elite mercenary brigade of teenage soldiers armed to the teeth and trained to murder her. …I’m sure it made sense at the time. Couldn’t just build a panic room? No? Going the “entire army” route? Alright. No matter, seems both Cid and Edea were on board with this plan, marking yet another example of a relationship between people giving way to something amazing when simply one person would fail. Not surprisingly, when Cid becomes estranged from his (currently insane) wife and prime investor NORG, ol’ sweatervest gives up the reigns of his empire to the next generation, and never attempts to take them back.
I’m going to mention Xu here because nobody ever remembers Xu. Admit it, right now you’re trying to figure out if I’m making up a character, or talking about some enormous, deadly bird. She was in the ending, people! Anyway, she’s not really all that important, but I just wanted to note somewhere that SeeD has plenty of people not in the immediate party but still actively supporting the cause, which is a rarity for the franchise, where, say, Cecil originally commands an unrivaled air force, but ends up having to tackle an entire celestial body during the finale with only four companions. Most games don’t have a Xu and crew, and I speak from experience when I say it’s not easy to successfully crash a flying college into another, also flying college. Without a Xu in your corner, it’s damn near impossible.
Argh, who am I kidding? I’m just trying to delay talking about Rinoa Heartilly. Wait. The two chief protagonists in a love story have the last names Leonhart and Heartilly? Mrgrgr. I’m going to be pissed off for the whole rest of this paragraph now. I feel like I don’t need to delve too deeply into what Rinoa is. I mean, they spell it out in her first real appearance, right? She’s the princess. Likely due to her Disney-esque origins of losing her mother at a young age and her father assuming the role of General Triton, Rinoa is a spoiled little brat that doesn’t know how good she has it, and seems to suck hapless males into her gravity so they can orbit around whatever ridiculous plans she’s developed. Was she really planning on kidnapping a president? Is she seriously dragging her dog into battle after reading a few pet magazines? Has her plan adapted to joining a group of elite, highly trained mercenaries with her friggen combat Frisbee?
What I’m saying is that Rinoa obviously has the brain problems.
Someone who isn’t still pissed off about this whole heart thing would probably be generous enough to point out that Rinoa and Squall bond because they’re both (somewhat inexplicably) young leaders that feel isolation in their similar positions, and maybe, just maybe, their love develops not because of some plot-based mandate, but because these are two hormonal teenagers that genuinely improve each other’s lives through mutual sacrifice (Squall is willing to risk his life, over and over again, to help Rinoa; Rinoa is willing to wear Griever themed jewelry, which doesn’t go with her kicky cyan duster at all, but she perseveres) and, yes, a love that brings them together through the murky roads of time.
One central theme that you may have noticed at this point, mainly because I keep hammering it like a witch, is that people who need people are the luckiest people in the world. But what of people that spurn other people? Meet Seifer Almasy. Seifer loves himself some power. He’s the leader of the SeeD Disciplinary Committee, and uses that position of power not to do anything important, but mostly push around Zell. When Seifer, due to his own actions, fails his test to become a SeeD (and thus gain more power), he goes with the only other game in town, and joins Team Ultimecia. Ultimecia very deliberately keeps Seifer at arm’s length, and forces Seifer into the kind of abusive relationship where the poor blonde is completely alone even when he’s standing next to his charge. Seifer eventually goes completely insane, likely because of his mistress’s inability to properly pronounce the letter C. In what is completely canon and I will not hear any dissent on this matter, Seifer is eventually defeated by a former villainous general who once decimated an entire army in the name of evil, but eventually turned around and saw the light of friendship and not being kicked around by the end boss all the damn time. In the end, Seifer forsakes omnipotent power, and, while he doesn’t make friends with Team Squall, he does find friendship with his toadies, Fujin and Raijin, whom he vows to treat as equals until the very moment that becomes inconvenient. Oh, wow, did somebody just improve their life through friendship? Booyaka, Final Fantasy 8.
Seifer has a toxic relationship with Squall Leonhart, the most misunderstood character in gaming since the previous Final Fantasy protagonist. While I love to mock the guy, he’s not emo (even though you totally know he writes poetry about how sad he is all the time), he’s not goth (even though he dresses in mostly black with custom made jewelry you can totally buy at Hot Topic), he’s not even all that complicated; he’s just a teenager. He has problems expressing himself, he wants to do good, but has a hard time identifying the “right” path, and has general issues with leading others. It’s an odd trick, but if the player accepts Squall’s faults as opposed to immediately chastising them, one may find that Squall is much more the fabled “everyman” than the average wholly silent, tabula rasa JRPG protagonist. He just has the unfortunate handicap of being an actual teenager.
At this point, I’m sure you’re getting the picture, and Squall is the most obviously “wow other people are making a difference in my life” character in the game, because that’s the damn theme of the game, and Squall is the main character. In lieu of recapping the entire plot of FF8, I’ll just point out something else interesting about Squall: nearly every other Final Fantasy protagonist, before and since, has some sort of crazy origin that has to be triumphed over and/or accepted to showcase growth. Cecil is a half moon-man with a nefarious moon-bro, Bartz is the son of a legendary pan-dimensional warrior and destined to live up to the legacy, Terra is half magic and exploited for it, Cloud’s origin is so stupidly convoluted even he can’t remember it most of the time, Zidane is a secret world destroying monkey from the planet Vegeta, Tidus is the dream of a moron, the list goes on and on. Now consider Squall. What’s his great secret origin that has to be triumphed over to show character growth? He’s kind of an anti-social dick. By the end of the game, as the result of his adventures, he’s not. This hero’s journey amounts to, in the end, “stop being a damn teenager”.
You can’t look at a story without analyzing its villain, so kan we start Ultimecia time? It has been said that Ultimecia is one of the thinnest characters in Final Fantasy lore, completely devoid of motivation beyond being eeeeeevil. I posit that that is only half right. Ultimecia is a completely shallow character, but that’s because she’s supposed to be; infact, she’s not even supposed to be a character at all, she is a primal force, like a hurricane or Black Friday: Ultimecia is loneliness. In a game that is all about people and their connections to other people, Ultimecia is the ultimate loneliness, the void that is not having anyone. You will note that Ultimecia’s only real, willing ally is Seifer, a character that is A. crazy, B. self-destructive, and C. quits the minute he accepts friendship. Beyond that, Ultimecia is alone: she does not have generals or companions in her castle, she just has hordes of monsters of varying size and rank. Her castle, one of the largest single structures in the game, is devoid of any soul other than Ultimecia. And her goal? She seeks ultimate power, yes, but not to the traditional end of ruling the world or becoming a true, omnipotent god, no, she wants to create Time Kompression, a vaguely defined concept that culminates with her being the only thing in existence, not ruling like a deity, but wallowing in her own eternal loneliness. Everything Ultimecia does is to facilitate this crazy goal. Obviously, it’s ridiculous, but Ultimecia is meant to be a ridiculous, living metaphor of a character. Final Fantasy 8, at its core, is a modern fairy tale, Squall is prince charming, Rinoa the princess to be rescued, and Ultimecia the evil queen that is less a person and more a pure, malevolent concept. Maleficent and Ultimecia basically went to the same finishing school.
Up to this point, I have only discussed the characters of Final Fantasy 8, which is fair if I were to claim that FF8 is only a story about friendship, but, no, this is a game about friendship-saves-the-world, so how is that implemented in the game portion? GFs or Guardian Friends. While I’m still a little confused on what exactly GFs physically are (Brothers, Ifrit, and Bahamut are all active physical entities, Shiva and Quetzalcoatl are downloaded from a computer terminal, Leviathan and Eden are “drawn” from opponents, and nevermind how a gigantic cactus creature is “equipped”), it is clear that, from the mechanics of the game, GFs are the only real way to facilitate power in the FF8 cast. Anyone that knows the mechanics of FF8 can tell you that a “naked” Level 100 Squall has a worse chance of defeating Ultimecia than a Level 1 Squall loaded to the bear with multiple Guardian Friends. Even if they do eat your memories in exchange (I’ll admit it, I had a number of friends when I was a teenager that actively made me dumber), the message is clear: you will not succeed without relying on a power that is not your own. This is also an extreme rarity for the Final Fantasy franchise, as the method that makes your party stronger is usually completely contrary to the plot itself. Let’s see here, which Final Fantasy haven’t I picked on yet? Oh yes, Final Fantasy 12, where you command a band of noted outlaws, some that have been opposing the ruling monarchy for decades, who all must take a timeout between battles and make sure they have the proper “licenses” to use the life saving weapons and spells they find randomly in abandoned treasure pots. Remember the start of The Dark Knight, where the Joker finally passes that test and acquires his Commercial Driver License so he can successfully and legally drive a school bus from that bank robbery? Good times.
So, yes, friendship saves the world in Final Fantasy 8. Loneliness is defeated by affection and companionship, and these themes are reinforced every time you rearrange your magic loadout. There’s also a million little nods to the theme throughout the game that I haven’t even begun to mention (Balamb Garden gains the ability to friggen fly only after all of its residents learn to live in harmony, the Ragnarok is infested with “pairs” of monsters that must be eliminated accordingly, Adel rules alone and is almost pure evil, and her later solitary confinement causes problems for the whole world as she tries desperately to reach someone, anybody with her cries for help, etc), but I think I’m running low on words at this point. To be precise, Final Fantasy 8 is the most fully realized video game about teenagers exploring the social links between themselves and others, and using the assistance of mythological creatures to defeat a malevolent allegorical force. It’s a shame the Final Fantasy franchise has never been that focused since, as these themes and ideas really seem like fertile ground for perhaps an entire franchise all its own. Whatever.
FGC #26 Final Fantasy 8
- System: Playstation, and then again on the Playstation 3 & Vita. Has this one been ported to phones yet?
Number of Players: 1… but you can have a friend watch!
- Feel like you’re forgetting something? Oh, look, I didn’t even get into the details of Laguna and company, and how they so obviously work into this friendship theme. Why would I neglect such a thing? Maybe it’s because Laguna Loire is the best character in the entire franchise, and writing about a writer seems gauche. Okay, maybe I can try it now. Let’s see here… ow… crap… my right leg just cramped up… ugh… I’ll tackle this another time… gotta retreat…
- Care to embarrass yourself? Alright, fine. Apropos of nothing, back in the day, I was so enthralled by this game that I taped the ending and showed it to my girlfriend. Like, this is the most romantic thing I’ve ever seen, oh my gosh look at this.
- You’re not getting off that easy: Fine! I showed it to my girlfriend immediately after the prom. Mere hours later, I would be getting stitches at the ER. Technically, these two events are only related in a karmatic sense.
- Favorite Guardian Friend? Tonberry, now and forever. “Doink”? Gets me every time.
- Final Fantasy 8 HD: I really hope Final Fantasy 7 HD does well and leads to a complete remake of Final Fantasy 8. I realize that Final Fantasy 7 success has never lead to Final Fantasy 8 success, but at this point, I’d just settle for a Final Fantasy 8 Advance with a new dungeon or two. It’s kind of weird that with the “Advance” remakes up to six, a complete remake of 7, and HD, “international enhanced” remakes of 10, 10-2, and probably 12, Final Fantasy 8 and Final Fantasy 9 might wind up a sort of “lost generation”.
- What about the Final Fantasy MMORPGs? I don’t understand that combination of words.
- Did you know? I somehow got through a 4,000 word post on Final Fantasy 8 without mentioning Triple Triad.
- Would I play again? I played through the entirety of FF8 around this time last year, so it’s going to be a while before I do it again. That should give SE enough time to put together a few new features…
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Sega Superstars Tennis for the Wii. Oh boy, I think Ulala is in that one. Please look forward to it!