“I’ve just had an urge to play FFVIII,” Kyle said to me one day during our FFT playthrough. “I know that’s weird.”
“That is weird,” I replied, “because you’ve been talking the game down for the last twenty years.”
Kyle went on to explain that after all this time, he didn’t really remember the game all that well and wanted to see it over again. For my part, I was only familiar with a few details, since Kyle’s complaints over the past two decades were mostly concerned with the game’s mechanics, and even those I only knew second-hand. We finally settled in to give the game a play before even clearing FFT, since we were in more of an RPG mood, and Kyle’s change in attitude towards FFVIII had me curious. Better yet, Kyle had dug up his old strategy guides for VIII, IX and X, reasoning there was no sense in leaving them to go to waste! To spare me any narrative spoilers, Kyle handled the guides almost exclusively.
Our screenshots in this series come from our own recordings. We had a lot of recording errors for FFVIII, so bad that I’ll have to talk about them as we go! Hell, we can start right now: we accidentally cropped off a big part of the screen for this first session!
Continuing my new policy from FFT: I’m going to be writing these journals as soon after playing as possible. That means I may make mistakes and my conclusions will be based on incomplete information, but it gets an improved “first timer” perspective. As part of this setup, I’m going to be saying where we were in the game when I wrote the current batch of Journals. This first session we played covered all gameplay from the start of FFVIII until just after the Raid on Dollet.
FFVIII gets started with an opening cutscene that’s so abstract that I was surprised when the game declared that some of its events were actually canon, and not dreams or metaphors! Normally this kind of stylized, abstract, music video-esque opening is just a bunch of foreshadowing, like is often the case in Kingdom Hearts, you know? And Final Fantasy VIII does a lot more cuts from scene to scene than Kingdom Hearts.
Since FFVIII’s opening is so abstract, there’s not much I can say about it. I’m still so early in the game that I can’t decode the shots that are metaphors, and there are so many cuts from scene to scene that it would be overwhelming to describe every visual as they come, with no idea of what’s important. It’s no fault of the game, and totally a weakness of the Journal format. Instead, I think I’ll just give a quick umbrella summary: the opening shows two young men having a duel, and frequently cuts away to two women (in separate locations) who are intercut with the men in a manner implying some sort of metaphorical connection or connections between all four. There’s a lot going on here, and not much I’m able to say about it at the moment – maybe watch it online, instead?
Long story short, the only thing you need to learn to understand the plot is that the two men eventually slash at each other’s faces.
The game proper picks up inside a doctor’s office, where we were in control of the dark-haired man from the opening cinematic. The doctor asked him to say his name, and we gave him the default of Squall, aka Squall Leonhart, our hero. Funnily enough, at the time I’m writing this (at the end of our first play session) he’s been the only traditional party member we’ve been able to name, despite the fact that this game predates the voice acting and could have easily allowed us to rename everyone. Oh, and while we’re on the subject of names: fun theory! It appears that Squall’s last name may have come from Leon from FFII, whose Japanese name was actually “Leonhart” or possibly “Lionheart.” Kingdom Hearts, where Squall calls himself “Leon,” seems to clinch the connection. But it’s still only a theory – keep in mind the infamous Japanese to English L/R ambiguity, and the FFII character’s name might have been intended to be “Rhinehart.” Oh well. Whatever the origin, Squall’s name is definitely supposed to be “Leonhart” with an active association with the English term “lion-hearted,” and Squall is often associated with the symbol of a lion.
By the way, FFVIII is the first game in the series to use motion capture, although only during full-rendered CGI videos, like the intro cutscene we were just discussing. Many characters have two actors doing the mocap, one for regular scenes and another, called an “Action Actor,” who I presume did stunts or martial arts. I’m going to try to credit actors once their characters are properly introduced in-game, but be aware that a lot of these actors are hard to track down, and it’s hard to dig up their other appearances. If you’ve read other articles on this blog, you know that I normally say, “Character ABC was played by Actor XYZ, who also appeared in 1, 2, and 3!” But when it comes to the FFVIII mocap actors, I might not be able to dig up other appearances! It was the early days of motion capture, and I suspect that some of the actors and stunt performers may have not even been full-time! One of these days, I’m going to have to learn just enough Japanese to search JMDb. For the time being, I’ve done the best that I can. Hopefully, you’ll still find it interesting.
Squall’s regular mocap actor is Toshiharu Amao, and unfortunately, I can’t find any more credits for him, right from the off! Squall’s “action actor” is Masato Nakamura, who apparently also worked as a composer and sound guy for Sonic Team at SEGA. It’s possible that the internet has two separate people confused here, but if not, what an interesting career!
After setting Squall’s name, the game immediately addresses one of my concerns by explaining that Squall and his opponent from the intro were actually in a training match that went too far, and not (initially) a real duel. It then immediately introduces a new complaint by explaining how, despite the presence of futuristic medicine and healing magic, both competitors will be left with scars. What was that thing I said in FFVII again? “[H]ealing doesn’t really work, minor enemies do not genuinely exist, levelling up is an artifice, and gameplay is an unrelated fee you play to watch additional plot developments.” Grand, it’s always nice to see a product lead with its mission statement.
Squall tells us about his opponent in the duel, Seifer, full name Seifer Almasy. As he does so, we learn that despite Seifer getting a new scar, he’s apparently already waltzed out of the infirmary without a care in the world! We learn that Squall and Seifer have a lot of cliché masculinity issues that keep getting them to clash. The doctor hears about all this and then decides it’s time for Squall to leave. I guess she figures that if Squall’s just going to embrace this culture of toxic masculinity, she might as well just let him self-destruct? Eh, what are you gonna do. You’re only an authority figure and role model!
Seifer’s mocap actor is Tomohide Sanada, and his action actor is Tetusin Muratah, aka Tesshin Murata. Murata actually has a fairly well-documented career in Final Fantasy, having gone on to appear as Ashley Riot, the lead of Vagrant Story, Kimahri from FFX, and unspecified roles in FFIX and Advent Children.
The doctor calls for Squall’s instructor, Quistis Trepe, but she’s outside of shouting range so the doctor goes to fetch her. This leads to a clever but also deliberately confusing moment where a different woman shows up at the window, leading the player to naturally assume that this woman is Quistis. But moments later, Quistis herself appears and the mystery woman vanishes! Furthermore, the mystery woman is not seen again for a while, which makes things even more confounding! I haven’t made up my mind as to whether or not this is well or poorly done, it’s very close to the line. Before she disappears, the mystery woman says that she and Squall are meeting “again,” but that’s all you see before Quistis arrives on scene!
So, Quistis Trepe. Again, Quistis is your instructor at, uh… wherever we are, and whatever we’re doing here. One bit of worldbuilding at a time! Quistis is your teacher, and believe it or not, she’s only a year older than you. I’m not going to ask why she has the job, because I heard the real-world reason years ago and it can’t be topped. Apparently Tetsuya Nomura designed Quistis to look in her late 20s, only for the rest of the dev staff to decide that “foreign women normally look older” and so naturally she had to be eighteen! I’m not even going to address the ridiculousness of that statement, or even the ridiculousness of Square employees acting like this even though their “17-year old” lead character, Squall, was modelled after 23-year old River Phoenix. Instead, I’ll simply point out that the FFVIII staff would rather create a laughably unrealistic educational institution and undermine a major aspect of their setting than dare have a character look a little young for her age, in their eyes.
Quistis’ regular mocap actor is Natsuko Motoyama. IMDb lists a Natsuko Motoyama appearing in the otherwise poorly-documented anime, Sagishi Ippei 7, and that’s about all I can dig up about her! Quistis is the first of several characters to not require an action actor for their CGs.
Returning to the matter of Quistis’ age, I want to note that most of the FFVIII cast are seventeen and, in my opinion, actually do look it! Oh, definitely not Quistis, she totally looks late twenties, early thirties to me. But the others do a pretty good job! They’ve got a certain lanky appearance, like some of them are still growing into their adult builds. Maybe I’m the only one who feels this way, but I do, and getting teens that look like teens is rare enough for Square and media in general that I think I’m going to give them a quick clap for pulling it off.
Better yet, as I said during the FFVII Journal, FFVIII brings the human-proportioned battle models of FFVII into the overworld, and it feels like a vast improvement, and is certainly more internally consistent! Since typing that, I have heard some fans say that the larger models aren’t as expressive as the chibi models from FFVII, but so far I haven’t seen that as a problem, and as a matter of fact, I’ve been feeling quite the opposite?
Speaking of FFVII, I find that FFVIII’s maps are a great improvement over VII’s, and I can usually tell where I am and what I’m doing at any given second. Sadly, there have been a few dozen exceptions that make me wish they had kept FFVII’s button that would reveal all the maps’ hotspots and exits (which originated in FFVII’s international releases), but it’s usually not necessary, and so I don’t mind its absence overall. We’re doing good!
Quistis says that today is the day of the field exam, and she and Squall head off to some other location. Along the way, Quistis introduced her habit of finishing Squall’s sentences because she thinks he’s an incredibly predictable person. She dares him to prove her wrong and he, just as she predicted, does nothing of the sort. As these little character moments were going by, we get a good look at our location: Balamb Garden, a school for soldiers and mercenaries. And wow, it is presented in the strangest way. Full disclosure right from the off: I’ve never attended a military school, and certainly not a Japanese military school like, say, the National Defence Academy. That said, I don’t get the impression that real military schools influenced the design of Balamb Garden outside of coincidence. Rather, FFVIII’s dev staff appears to have created Balamb by taking a non-military Japanese school (seemingly high schools, though pardon me if it better resembles a Japanese junior college, college, or otherwise) and accounted for the military experience by changing the high school formula in… exactly zero ways.
Okay, okay, I take it back, there are changes, but they are entirely walled off from the seemingly unmodified elements that came wholesale from Japanese high schools. For example, this building has an entire wing stuffed with dangerous monsters not a very considerable walk away from the cafeteria. It’s… it’s nothing but silliness, and never comes off as anything other than silliness either, which is a pretty pathetic thing to have to say about the opening’s central premise. There’s a school festival and club events completely split off from the slaughtering, the uniforms that look sort of like militarized versions of high school uniforms… honestly, I can imagine a modern-day parody anime with characters in unmodified high school uniforms and plot elements following FFVIII beat for beat, the only difference being that the parody show would come from a more post-modern 2018, and that the parody show would be actually self-aware with pauses for laughter, whereas FFVIII is going into this foolish, naïve and bursting with tonally inappropriate drama. It’s not the worst thing I’ve ever seen, but every time the high school stuff trips over the mercenary stuff or vice versa, I was laughing, and a little harder than I think they intended. In any event, welcome to Persona Final Fantasy. I guess I’m trying to say that it’s been done, and would be done again, and both more naturally than this. In fact, Persona 2 Innocent Sin was released within weeks of FFVIII! What a weird little vogue.
Squall and Quistis arrive at a classroom where several classmates, including Seifer, are already waiting. It’s homeroom, and Quistis announces that the rumours are true: the super-important field exam is today. …Wait, hold on, the field exam is a surprise? I mean, I guess there’s something to be said for this, and we later get a justification for it being this way, but hold your horses, there’s still time for FFVIII to dig itself into a hole. We learn that the field test is only open to those who have passed a written test, which Squall has completed, but as the scene goes on we also learn that they have to go through an initial trial in a nearby cave, which they have to do without knowing when their field exam will be. Naturally, Squall hasn’t done this step, but says it’s because of his injury. The injury he took this morning. It’s not clear if this is just a garbage academic system that springs surprise final exams on people without actually giving them time to prepare, or if Squall is just a garbage student who passed on doing the trial for god knows how long, or some silly combination of the two?
Quistis dismisses homeroom and asks to talk to Squall to tell him about his missing the trial, and to encourage him to do it right away with her supervision. During this scene, we were also introduced to Quistis’ many groupies, the “Trepies,” one of which (not necessarily the ones in the class at the moment, this line comes from a digital message board), actually identifies as a groupie? Oh, by the way, did I mention that Quistis uses whips in combat? Whips, sex magnet, supposed to be an older woman who takes a special interest in a much younger man… just pulled that one out of a cliché barrel, didn’t you Nomura? I’d call this a bit of a plunge from the characterization of FFVII, but FFVII is already in my personal pit thanks to Cait Sith and Cait Sith alone, so FFVIII is still in the lead for the time being.
At this point, we went to our desk computer to check up on various notes. This is the “in-universe artefact” method of worldbuilding, where you only really get to know the specifics of a world if you’re willing to put in a pile of reading right at moment one, ala The Elder Scrolls. That’s fine for trifles, or for background colour, but I’m never particularly fond of this approach for essential information. You know: “you won’t understand the plot unless you read this” type of information. It’s not awful, but the issue is that, despite of the level of immersion, it turns the opening of the game into a huge slog of early reading, and the illusion that it’s optional is often just that, with certain games ready to dump you into the sea if you haven’t read Backstory Page 53 by Game Hour 2. I could say a few things about Kingdom Hearts here, but it would be getting off-topic. Game devs seem to recognize they’re wasting a player’s time if the infodumping appears in a mandatory format, and adjust accordingly, but if you give them a supposedly “optional” vector, devs seem to just drop everything to write a fucking book. Nevertheless, I play along with this style of worldbuilding even if it runs the risk of boredom (and they frequently do), so Kyle and I went into FFVIII ready to force down whatever it had to offer!
Unfortunately, all this info-dumping means we’re almost at the end of my FF word limit. This is partially the game’s fault, as it’s been infodumping all this time and is going to keep infodumping for the foreseeable future. But it’s also partially partially my fault, what with the addition of mocap credits, plus a whole pile of personal observations that stem from having a full recording of our playthrough (like with FFT but with a full-sized jRPG!). Plus, you can sort of expect that there’ll be more to say about the opening hours of these games as they get bigger with time. FFVII only sidestepped the problem by (politely) starting with a tutorial mission.
For all these reasons, I’m going to revive a tradition from the Retrospectives by starting off a new series with two posts instead of just one. You don’t have to read it right away, but it’ll be there when you’re ready. Onward!