Final Fantasy VIII’s Opening Hour
So I’ve started up Final Fantasy VIII. It’s the first time I’ve played this game for anything for than 10 minutes since 1999. I remember really, really liking most of it. As I go, I’ll write a few notes and put them here, under the tag you see on this post.
Notes on the first few minutes:
The intro is super flashy, but it’s also a highlight reel of moments from later in the game. It’s a huge contrast from VII (I’ll probably do a lot of comparisons between the two), and I feel it actually does a worse job of drawing you into the world. VII’s intro is so good because it slowly zooms in on the present moment while not really revealing much. VIII’s first few minutes are a mishmash of character composites staring at something while “Final Fantasy VIII” typography seizure-flashes around.
I like how the actual game starts, though. Instead of a brazen hero about to save something, you’re an injured student healing from a training wound. It’s immediately clear that you’re in some kind of military school (albiet a fancy futuristic-style one), you’re a broody punk, you have a rival who is a douche bag, and your teacher has a crush on you. You learn this all within three minutes, but nothing is actually stated. It’s all shown.
There’s a woman in the infirmary who says “so we meet again,” even though you have no idea who she is. I never liked this part even after I found out about it all, because I’ve already been dropped into an unfamiliar universe with strange characters and unknown motivations. I don’t even know who I am yet, and I already have to keep track of mysterious women? Again, compare that to FFVII, where the only thing you needed to know was that you were an environmental terrorist (something easy to pick up on from real life), and the planet was dying (relatable), and you didn’t really trust the people around you (because you, the player, knew the characters as little as Cloud, the protagonist). In FFVIII, everyone is already familial, and you’re left playing catch-up.
What’s nice about it, though, is that if you’re going to drop a player into a world where the protagonist is already part of a mesh of characters, you should give them some non-crisis time to walk around and get their bearings. FFVIII does this really well, as nothing critical happens in the plot for a few hours. By then, you’ve met everyone, wasted time getting lost in the giant school, probably already played some cards (more on that later), and acclimatizing yourself to the feel of the game.
FFVIII holds up 13 years later way better than FFVII. The character models look dated and rough, but the pre-rendered backgrounds still look super sharp. And because the characters aren’t drawn all blocky like VII, it’s easier to imagine them looking nicer.
Drawing is still super boring, but it honestly isn’t as bad as typical Final Fantasy grinding. Instead of running around in a circle for three hours fighting sixty random battles until your party is ready to fight that meaningless mini boss, you instead run in a circle for three hours fighting four random battles, spending a ton of time letting bad guys slowly bite away at your HP until you’ve got 100 sleeps for each character.
If you’re playing this game without a guide, you figure you leave Balamb Garden, walk straight into the fire dungeon, walk right up to the boss, and kill him within the 10 minute time limit. And while you absolutely can, guides will tell you that you can wander the open landscape for a while, stocking up tons of Blizzards and Cures, and walk in there like a boss, bowling over everyone and getting out of there in a cool 5 minutes.
Because in Final Fantasy games, the smart player will blow an hour grinding to save 5 minutes in a dungeon.
There are a whole whack of RPGs that begin with a hero waking up in their bed. In Final Fantasy VIII, you go to your room to change. This happens twice. There’s no other reason to come into this room, and because there’s so sense of day or night in this game (it’s relative to where you are in the world, not when), one could make an argument that Squall has never slept here.
The first few chapters of Final Fantasy VIII are strange. Seifer, the nemesis for our hero, is set up as a bit of a bully but also an idiot. He’s failed the upcoming exam twice, and almost no authority figure takes him seriously. Within a few minutes, he becomes a playable character and, though he boats superior abilities, actually comes with none. He’s around the same level, and you have to give him a GF and magic and all that.
I know Seifer isn’t the main villain of the game, but a similar thing happens in VII with Sephiroth. A few hours into the game, you play as him for a little while, and he has all the magic and armour that will take your party 30 hours to collect. It’s both intimidating and awesome foreshadowing. It says “hey, if you keep playing, you’ll eventually get this strong.” In VIII, you play as Seifer and he’s just another guy.
That shows up later on in the game when you actually fight Seifer, and he’s just not that intimidating as a villain. But then, who is actually intimidating in this game? The fact is, VIII isn’t a story about good vs evil, and no bad guy in the game feels like anything but a small obstacle.
Word. Driving. Controls. Ever.
There’s a moment here, during the video before the exam, was when I first remember really getting into this game. The soundtrack was militant and exciting. The characters were all pumped. And here, they zoom in on Squall, and he squints a little, watching a city explode. He looks focused and ready, and wants some action. That’s a character I want to play.
I think almost every bit of Final Fantasy VIII is meant to feel bigger than its predecessor, and the town you visit during the exam is huge compared to almost any town in VII. It does work, for the most part, because you do get the sense that the town is larger than the areas you’re allowed to explore. It also makes sense that you can only explore certain parts, because the town is under attack.
I also don’t think it’s an accident that the towns in VIII all feel like old European cities, full of café’s, bridges, hills, cobblestone, and sweeping, beautiful vistas. It feels like the kind of world where every youth is busy studying in a school, while soldiers pine for singers.
The Dollett exam is the first example that you, the player, are not necessarily playing a hero. There are a few times throughout the mission where you are not necessarily greeted as a hero. It also doesn’t do a great job of vilifying the soldiers you plow through. The rest of the game expands on this through various speeches about the difference between the decisions of right and wrong and the decisions of picking a side. It threads through the overall theme of love, because love is rarely a question of right and wrong.
I mentioned earlier that Seifer doesn’t get any cool toys to play with for the few minutes you get to control him, and that’s true. But he does have a limit break. Let the enemies damage him enough, and you get to use this pretty cool flame strike thing. It doesn’t have any interactivity, but it’s at least a thoughtful inclusion (and a nice bit of foreshadowing).
In Final Fantasy VIII, love is the overall theme. It’s a love story, but it’s also about how different people love different things, and a lot of characters in FFVIII simply love service. Seifer is in love with the idea of being a great soldier, but he doesn’t want to join an army to do it, because he doesn’t want to fight other people’s wars. Obviously, that leads to a little power hunger.
Finally, as the giant robot spider thing chases the party, we see a) Squall run and jump and seemingly impossibly get away, b) Selphie just friggin stand there, and c) Quistis blow the thing to bits with a machine gun.
So…why isn’t she the hero of this story?