[ Game Theory ] Final Fantasy VIII: The Little Game That Could

Ah, Final Fantasy VIII:  I decided to install this game after discussing its characters with a good friend of mine and while I’ve vocalized my utter disgust for the game in years past I’ve never really taken the time to discuss it openly. After the epic – and, in some ways, disappointment, in retrospect –  that was Final Fantasy VII, the next game in the franchise had some seriously big shoes to fill: in spite of its glaring flaws and obviously rough edges, VII’s writing and characters stood out and carried the game, even though the translation was murderous. From the moment you start VIII up, I get a feeling that this game would be even more epic and dramatic than the last; it starts to become more than a feeling when you start a new game and you get treated to one of the greatest opening cinematics in the entire franchise, even if it looks dated by today’s graphical standards.

That’s where the wonder and amazement start to fade off. You get thrown into a the Final Fantasy equivalent of a high-school drama that no one, apparently, seems to give a shit about, getting ready for an exam that, in spite of its seriousness, everyone also doesn’t take very seriously. Also putting the brakes to the epic feeling set out by the introduction is a slew of tutorials, making the game feel like a chore before you even get into it, seriously. Most of these tutorials cannot be skipped and just feel awkward for veteran or revisiting players. This is but the beginning and a strong indication of how the rest of the game will go…

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The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Let me start this off by saying that this game is great, for what it is: the production values were incredible for the time it was released. All of the renderings, the art direction, the music, the menus, the sound; everything from top to bottom feels polished. This game was extremely ambitious: it took a simple battle system that worked and was perfected in VI and VII and added a completely new layer to the process: “Junctioning.” Like II and III before it, VIII added a whole new dynamic to battling with this system that made every playthrough feel different and customized: what GFs and Junctions did was make it so your strategy going into battle was entirely dependent on your activities in and out of battle. Enemies leveled up with you, as well, meaning that you couldn’t simply grind your way out of a challenge; you had to utilize the junction system in order to get the most out of the game, engaging players in a way that hadn’t often been seen before.

One thing I could never get past, though, is the fact that this game just suffered the opposite problem VII did: whereas VII was an unpolished game that didn’t challenge gamers too much so that way it could tell an excellent and enchanting story, VIII feels like an extremely ambitious game that sought to do too much and suffered, as a result, from a derivative story with bland characters and a miserable excuse for a script. This game would feel like more of a pleasure if it felt more like a Final Fantasy game and less like your stereotypical anime. While that might be fine for some people, that wasn’t exactly mainstream at the time of the game’s release, it wasn’t really called for, I didn’t care for it then and I most certainly don’t care for it now. Most of the characters are two-dimensional, have simple motives, and most of the motivation behind the story is either “kill the sorceresses” or love. It’s uninspired and if it wasn’t for the fact that they were doing a lot of new things with certain plot themes for the series – that doesn’t necessarily make them all good, by the way – I would have probably dropped this game, permanently, from the moment Squall and Rinoa had their moment on the Ragnarok.

In spite of all this ambition and effort they put into the game, what you get is a really nice looking, nice sounding, extremely polished mess. It feels as though the game could have been delayed for only a short time and if that time was spent tinkering with the game a little, it would have been many, many times better than it is. You have a battle system that’s meant to reward customization and strategy but it only rewards the player greatly when they exploit it, which becomes extremely easy later on in the game, once you know how to do it. Every battle becomes a breeze once you do this and since the game forces you to rely on this system to succeed, the motivation to exploit this becomes quite great. This completely turns the enemy leveling system into a novelty, which aggravates me because it’s an incredibly great idea. The junction system goes one step further to try and increase customization by introducing the draw ability, which forces you to drain magic from the environment and the enemies you encounter, which turns into a chore really quickly and feels like a stapled on feature to make sure that players can’t exploit the hell out of junctioning magic early on in the game. This game feels like it tried to do way too much with way too little focus and even the graphics kind of show it – whereas VII was ugly because of its Lego-block looking characters and antiquated spell effects, never did they look unrefined for what they set out to be; the characters and environments in the game are technically great to think about in terms of numbers and definitions but just doesn’t look great. Also, jaggies drive me up the fucking wall. They are all over the fucking place in this game compared to VII and there’s just no excuse for that… at least not at the rate it happens in this game. I know it’s a PlayStation One game but come on… when the previous game didn’t have this much, the next one on shouldn’t, either.

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First Impressions

I’m a certain type of person – with the right kind of motivation, I’ll trek through something that I hate under the belief that maybe my efforts will be worth it. I received this game as an early birthday present from my stepmother and I had been talking about it nonstop since I got through Final Fantasy VII. I could not wait for the next entry in the franchise and once I finally got to it, I was riveted: the opening and the introduction had me hooked. For the time, everything looked and felt amazing so I was able to overlook a lot of the initial flaws in the game and make it about halfway through before the annoyances got to be too much to bear. I think it was around the time the fucking Gardens picked up off the ground and started flying at one another that I just put down the game for a short time, threw my arms up in the air, and walked away. It didn’t take me long to get back to the game; with the encouragement of a friend of mine we were both able to get through the game and with him around it was actually much easier to overlook the game’s annoyances and distractions as we would make fun of them and have a good laugh, sometimes, at the game’s expense.

Looking back on those times, I’m actually glad I had someone to play this game with and take turns with playing and critiquing it: it allowed me to actually motivate myself to go Completionist-mode with it and actually give me some insight as to the plot and its characters. Given, my opinions regarding this game were still pretty generally negative, it still was an experience I was glad to have because it generally taught me a lot of things about how to objectively look at a game, even if I hated it.

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Revisiting the Game

I cannot fucking digest this game to save my life – I couldn’t even start the first couple of hours of this game without pulling hair out of my head. This game loves throwing tutorials at you that you can’t, mostly, skip, and the ones that you do will tease you because they will make sure you can’t proceed easily without information being shoved in your face. It took me nearly a half an hour to find the dormitories in the first part of the game because I didn’t realize there was a map near the entrance that would just take me there or at least show me the way. I shouldn’t have to look that information up or be forced to go through walls of text in order to find something out so simple. Hell, why couldn’t you just do it for me, anyway, since it’s not really integral to the plot or the game?

That’s been most of the game up to the point of writing this article: just waiting and watching and hoping that this game gets to the point where things get good – at least mostly. Those points are few and far between, for me, and it isn’t until these points does the rest of the game become worth it. It should be noted, though, that I know this game pretty thoroughly and, thanks to this, I’m not sure if I want to plod through most of the game just to get to these few key moments. Thankfully, one of these moments is fairly early on in the game – the mission on Dollet, that is – allows for me to jump in the game and maybe build up a little steam and motivation to get through it.

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 What I Would Have Done Better: Refinement

I may complain about this game a lot but most of my complaints come from disappointment: they come from the fact that this game could have been so much more than it was and it falls flat in a large number of areas. I’ve made that pretty clear, though. One of the biggest things that could have made this game twenty times better is just a little more attention to detail. Junctioning could have been worlds better – as seen in Final Fantasy entries VI and IX – and the system for gathering magic could have been a lot less tedious, as well. In my ideal setting, you would have seen a system where you only had to Draw a magic once to add it to your arsenal and then strengthened its Junction potency by using it over the course of the game, giving each spell a kind of Final Fantasy II style experience system that keeps people from exploiting Junctioning too easily. It literally would have saved battling for me – grinding is one thing but entering into incredibly easy battles just to sit there for twenty minutes and use the Draw command for each character to stock a magic while, literally, nothing else happens is a chore. It feels more like you earned it as opposed to just jumping through hoops.

Another thing I would have refined would have been the leveling system for monsters – the initial idea that monsters would be at the same level you are is pretty novel idea but monster stats don’t scale the same way you do so this only feels like a tactic to ensure that the level of challenge for the player in a given battle isn’t immediately ruled out by grinding levels out, which feels like a kick in the kidneys for people who play that way. What I would have done was created a kind of system where field monsters – your regular cannon fodder, the enemies you encounter between story driven content – have a set level that scales as you do, much like the system that’s already in place, but the boss battles, story-driven battles, scripted battles, and the like will all be scaled on level depending on how much experience you’ve gained and how long you’ve taken or how many steps you’ve taken in getting to said battle. Math gets a little heavy here but bear with me: basically you would break down how much experience you’ve gained in total and how long a certain period of time was or how many steps you’ve taken in said period of time and turned it into a EXP/second or EXP/step formula and then applied that to a leveling system for each battle that’s unique to the battle. For battles like those with Seifer or other recurring characters, the scaling system remains the same and you get to experience them, for all intents and purposes, growing with you. It feels like a challenge AND it could add to the story. In the case of Edea, when you get her, you gain all the benefits of her leveling with you and battling against you instead of acquiring her at a set level, with a set amount of abilities. My reasoning for this is the fact that easy battles are still easy no matter what level you’re at and that just really makes the whole leveling system kind of a moot point.

One last thing I would probably refine is the whole Guardian Force Boost ability. I hate button mashing. It pisses me off to no end and I’d like to avoid it if at all possible. When that button mashing needs to be timed – in such a way that if you tap that button even once when you’re not supposed to, you pretty much make all that mashing you did worthless – it becomes annoying and infuriating at times. Funny thing is, too, is on the other side of that coin you have Squall’s Limit Break, the Renzokuken, a skill-based empowering of your ability that doesn’t piss you off. If it did, it was because you weren’t good enough. If anything, I would have just made GF Boosts more like the Renzokuken and I don’t even know why they made it a button-mashing marathon. That was just stupid.

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What I Would Have Done Better: Rewrite

This is where I’m likely going to catch the most shit because, honestly, the story is one of the biggest contentions I have with this game and there are a large number of people who would be in direct opposition. I would practically rewrite almost every large scenario in the game. I’m serious about that. A lot of elements in the story are great but they often get overlooked for one reason and one reason only: the damned love story. Yes, we get it: Rinoa and Squall love one another. Yes, we get it: Squall would go to the ends of the Earth and then some for Rinoa. Yes, we get it: other people are falling in love, too, and it’s a large motivation for a lot of characters in the game. Even platonic, familial, and friendship-based love is explored, too, and while I’m not against this: when it’s used as a plot device and it causes some of the dumbest scenarios I’ve seen from a game with this production level, it infuriates me, as a writer. You could have spent an entire disc talking about how time compression works and maybe flesh it out a little more than “the raison d’etre for the last dungeon” or talking about what the hell happened between Edea impaling Squall after that battle in the parade or talking about the whole “succession of witches” thing but, instead, we get the equivalent of “OMFG THEY’RE IN LOVE DEAL WITH IT” and it comes off very childish and Twilight-like.

If I would have changed anything, largely, Squall and Rinoa would not have fallen in love at all. The biggest we would have seen in terms of love would have been between Selphie and Irvine and, maybe, beyond that, expand on Laguna’s “love lost” background, because that was pretty integral to his character, as cheesy as it was. As a matter of fact, I would have run a little more with a theory that’s floating out there on the internet regarding the outcome of that battle at the parade: that Squall actually dies. I would have turned the whole time compression thing on its ass by turning that point in the story into a kind of Chrono Cross scenario where multiple universes exist but the story would focus on two, primarily: one where Squall lives after the parade battle and one where he died. You get a little background in addition because, after that, you see Squall in a world of denial, at first: you see Squall pretty much lose his shit and end up in some kind of third world for a while – a world of delusion, where the story as we know it now takes place. Right about when Ultimecia pops up and starts doing crazy sorceress stuff does Squall begin to realize things aren’t making sense anymore and it reverts back to reality. From that point forward, you create an interpersonal struggle for Squall because the one that progresses from that point is the one that lives but due to Ultimecia screwing with time and space he fades between the version of reality where he died and he lived; this also allows for a lot of character development and also allows the player to explore many, many, many possibilities. Now, he’s not fighting because he loves Rinoa: he’s fighting to discover himself, which is what he should have been doing to begin with. When Squall finally comes to a point where he has finally come to terms with himself and what happened, Ultimecia pops up, compressions all time and space into one moment, says the equivalent of “you wasted your time chasing ghosts” or something cryptic like that, and beckons the newly driven Squall to chase Ultimecia down and wrap things up, once and for all. Because all reality is compressed into a single moment, that means that killing Ultimecia rids the universe of all versions of her, undoes the compression, actually explaining the damn ending – all realities are separating and returning to their proper structure, which would produce results similar to the current ending we have, which I can imagine would be horrific and torturous – and leaves us with a nice reality where Ultimecia never existed, which would explain the credits portion of the ending, as well. Then you can have Rinoa and Squall get all kissy-faced, if you want, because through all that, Rinoa would realize what kind of man Squall really is and actually develop a real feeling for one another instead of that fan-fiction drivel that exists in the game now. That actually helps clear up the fact that Ultimecia seems like nothing more than a plot device that conveniently allows the writers to lazily wrap up the game’s story and provide a final dungeon. She could taunt Squall through the whole ordeal in an attempt to make him give up hope; this could allow for some segments, if chosen, where Squall and Ultimecia would verbally conflict, allowing for some development of Ultimecia as a character.

That was literally me just brainstorming that out. Imagine what I could come up with if I’d given it some time. I know love stories are great for some people. I know stories about high school drama are great for some people. I know your typical Gurren Lagen style is great for some people. However, when you blend all of those things together, and turn the “just because” that continually allows the characters to bend the rules and win over everything in existence into “love”, you get a tragedy of writing. I’m actually glad that, at least, the script wasn’t entirely horrid, because if this story was done with the kind of editorial quality found in the Final Fantasy VII localization, I don’t think I would have ever made it through the game for any reason whatsoever.

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Conclusion

I guess I just really wanted Final Fantasy VIII to be something more than it ended up being and it’s stuck with me since then for two reasons: I was on the hype train in a bad way for this game and I just saw so much potential in this game that was squandered for stupid reasons. If this game ever gets the remake treatment it needs to be completely redone: this game and its fans deserve so much more. I want and I expect more from this game and I wish everyone would stop clamoring for the Final Fantasy VII remake that’s never going to happen before I die and give some attention to a classic that could have been so much more.

 

 

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4 thoughts on “[ Game Theory ] Final Fantasy VIII: The Little Game That Could

  1. The love story is actually a lot more important and deep then you give it credit. While at first it may seem to just be stuck in there as a poor coming of age story for the main character there is a lot more to it. Firstly that “love lost” story of Laguna’s actually did go into a lot more detail then most people realise. Laguna was in love with Julia- granted from afar but still- and they have that one magical (and inspirational for Julia) night together. Laguna then gets “lost at war” and is thrown to winhill where he eventually meets Raine. Now, when Kiros visits we find out that after Laguna was lost Julia wrote her song (eyes on me, about Laguna naturally) and ended up marrying “some general” who was comforting to her. Laguna was just happy to hear she was okay- if a little bitter- but this did not matter since he had already managed to fall for Raine (thanks in no small part to his fatherly feelings for ellone no doubt). It is strongly implied that the general which Julia ended up with was General Carroway- Rinoa’s father… So Rinoa is almost certainly Julia’s daughter. Meanwhile, Raine and Laguna marry and Ellone is kidnapped by esthar for the sorceress due to her amazing power- Now what Laguna didn’t ever know was that before he left Raine fell pregnant. So Laguna saves Ellone, overthrows the sorceress, and is made defacto leader of ester. Ellone is sent back to winhill where she will be safe and she finds out about the child. Raine later dies without Laguna ever actually knowing he even had a son. So the son and ellone are sent to the orphanage ran by Edea… So Squall is Laguna’s son- all good.The reason Ellone sends squall back is because she wanted to change the past so that Laguna would have been there when Raine was dying and in doing so would have met his son- hell- maybe Raine wouldn’t have died if she wasn’t alone? Who knows.

    So what I find most beautiful about the game (and the love story) is the fact that we aren’t just getting a love crammed in our face but we are seeing something amazing happen. We are seeing Laguna and Julia’s lost love be rekindled in their children. Against all odds the long lost love gets reunited and I for one find that sentiment beautiful. So you see- Laguna’s story didn’t need any more detail to it since all the detail was already there. The solution was already there.

    Now, this last part is more of a personal theory of mine then it is actual fact- but. A lot of people comment on how hazy the story seems to get during the end. So few people are able to fully understand the Ultimecia/time travel storyline because during the end the whole thing seems to just… Fall apart? I hypothesize that this was on purpose. At the start of the game everything you do is clear cut- it is all long drawn out objectives and perfectly constructed plans which still manage to go a little off course. Overall however the story stays clear and simple to understand. This in my mind is due to the fact that squall starts the game very jaded- to the point- and caring more about the mission then people. As the game progresses and he slowly starts to fall in love with Rinoa his objectives shift. The mission is still going on in the background same as before but his personal focus has shifted. Since he IS the main character and the storyteller we see more and more focus put on the love story and less on the sorceress/SEED story- I feel this was an intentional shift to represent the change in squall as a person. By the very end everything is about her- that is all he cares about. He doesn’t care if he loses himself or loses other people- he just doesn’t want to lose her. Which is good- because if it wasn’t for that focus he may have gotten lost entirely in time.

    • I’ll say that your theory is a possibility but it still exposes that annoyance of mine, that love is the great raison d’etre for the game and it’s just terrible as a constantly used plot device. It’s almost like love is a damned McGuffin for the game and I don’t quite like that.
      Also, it’s pretty obvious the last quarter of the game happened the way it did for the same reason translation of the endgame of FFVII was also sloppy; pressure from Square Enix to finish on time. FFVIII could have used so much more time and polish.

  2. The tutorials can be skipped. Just press triangle… or whatever the pc version equivalent of that is.

    • No version I’ve played lets you skip anything prior to the first GF trial. You may get an option once it takes you to the menu systems and demonstrates but you cannot skip the endless dialogue about it before and after. It’s annoying.

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