'Final Fantasy VIII' Was Too Honest and Unsettling to be Beloved
Despite its contemporary success, 'FFVIII' has never had the popular legacy it deserved. But why?
Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
Spoilers for Final Fantasy VIII.
Final Fantasy VIII remains the outlier of the Final Fantasies. Released between the PS1 jump of Final Fantasy VII and the theatrical throwback nostalgia of Final Fantasy IX, this game about teen feelings and the end of the world has always felt like a middle child. Despite being a success by all the metrics that we generally measure, like high sales and good reviews, the game isn’t exalted in the same way that its peers are. Celebrating its 20 year anniversary this last week, the game still hasn’t been ported to every platform on earth like the rest of its brethren. And I think that might have to do with what it’s about.
VIII follows the same pattern that every other Final Fantasy does. Some people meet each other, get involved in some events, and then realize what they thought was a problem only for them or their region is, in fact, a problem for the entire planet. Then they have to save the world. The story of Squall Leonhart is that of an orphan who can’t quite find his place, and his social circumstances don’t help much either. I’m not exaggerating when I say that Squall is raised as a child soldier, and his passage into adulthood is bound up in his being leased, along with his buddy Zell, his teacher Quistis, and his frienemy Seifer, by various nation states to intervene in global politics.
This is not a universal story. Final Fantasy VIII resists the clarion call of “universal themes” at most moments, and that means that it is a specific and tragic story. Squall isn’t some guy waking up to his mother asking him if he’s ready to go on his big adventure. He’s a haunted kid, barely an adult, who literally cannot remember his past, the people he grew up with, or any of his life before he entered the military boarding school where we first meet him. Later we’ll learn that this lack of memory is a form of brain damage that a person experiences when they bond with Guardian Forces, the powerful summonable creatures that allow a person to bolster their abilities with magic. The Guardian Forces set up shop in your head, and they push everything out. The past gets annihilated.
And that’s tragedy. Squall and his companions are weapons of war, deployable around the globe, and they are honed into that shape through magical means that strip them of their own history. There’s no coming back from that. These kids are going to carry this for the rest of their lives.
Yet that isn’t what the game is “about,” at least not on a plot level. The terrestrial wars of their planet are really just a symptom of a larger problem: the political rise to power of the Sorceress Edea, who has brought the country of Galbadia under her influence and is beginning to conquer the world. Squall and his friends attempt to assassinate her, then fight her, then foil the power of her state, and on and on in a rising spiral of action that constantly raises the stakes until you realize that what you’ve been fighting this entire time has very little to do with geopolitics and much more to do with the structure of time and space.
This is what Final Fantasy VIII is “about”: a group of orphans are collected and formed to act like an arrow that shoots through time and destroys a time-traveling sorceress named Ultimecia. She lives in the far future, and she is constantly working to destroy time itself, and so the lives of these children who eventually become Squall and the rest of the protagonists are weapons against her accrual of power.
Ultimecia desires “time kompression,” which is stylized to give it an accent, but is so powerful because of that stylization that the very phrase itself becomes elevated to something different. It’s not time compression, it’s Time Kompression, and accomplishing it means the utter destruction of how human beings experience their lives and the universe that supports them.
Every moment of extreme pain and every moment of exaltant bliss in every moment. A flowing river collapsed into an eternal whirlpool, Time Kompression is the eradication of the space between us and the time that separates us. Squall’s childhood wouldn’t be buried behind layers of trauma and brain damage. It would be now, this moment, always. Time Kompression is that weird feeling you get while watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind forever, except that “forever” doesn’t exist because everything would be Kompressed into an eternal present of maximal grief and happiness. And this should be ok, right? All the happiness you ever experienced happening all the time, forever?
The game gets to this point through several segments that involve time travel, each of which are tinged with nostalgia and loss. When we look into the past, we’re seeing Squall losing his sister. We’re seeing Laguna Loire lead his friends into a death trap, maiming them and destroying their spirit. We’re watching the moments where people smash into tragic circumstances.
Final Fantasy VIII tells us that the opportunity of the future is the only thing that makes those struggles worth living through. The fact that time keeps going, that some good could replace the bad that you experienced before, justifies the whole project. There’s a horizon, and over that horizon in the utopia of friendship, love, and the world beyond us. We just need to get there. Time Kompression definitionally prevents that from occurring. No redemption. No world to save.
And because there’s no time to come in a world where Time Kompression happens, Final Fantasy VIII has to present it as the ultimate evil. Time Kompression is the complete collapse of history, and the history of the game is violence and trauma and tragedy. Hope and good times are potential and always deferred (at least until the final boss is defeated).
Final Fantasy VIII asks what happens if the future ends, and all the hoped-for good times never happen. Then it pits its characters against this reality as hard as it can, and the answers it reveals are too much to bear. The linear progress of time might not be going anywhere, and the tragedies of the past might be all the experiences that exist for us. The time after the final boss might not be possible at all, and Time Kompression would let that all collapse into a math problem that is based on pure hope: Does all the good in history outweigh the bad?
If everything happened all at once, would it be heaven or hell?
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