After the screen blacked out, we found ourselves in control of three different characters in Galbadian soldier’s uniforms. As this went on, spoken dialogue was presented as normal, but additional translucent boxes appeared alongside the regular boxes. It didn’t take long to realize that these translucent boxes conveyed the familiar voices of our original party members, apparently aware of the scene but unable to interact with it (again: credit to the localization for making each voice so distinctive!). Our strange new party was made up of a man named Laguna, who was in charge but had gotten the party lost, and his buddies Kiros and Ward. Laguna fought with a submachine gun, Kiros with a giant harpoon the size of a ship’s anchor, and Kiros with two arm blades. Kiros is also a black man, and he’s about as far away from Barret’s “angry black man” stereotypes as you could be, being something of a ultra-calm monk instead.
Laguna is the only one of these three to get a mocap credit (Ed. Ward and Kiros do show up in a later CG, but aren’t moving). He’s played by Akihiko Kikuma, who would stick with Final Fantasy mocap as Wakka in FFX, Baralai in X-2, Sazh in the original FFXIII (and presumably the sequels, though as I understand it from my spoiler-minimizing research, the sequels don’t credit anyone in the role). He also did mocap in an unspecified role in Advent Children.
Once in battle, it became immediately apparent how the game was going to handle the stats of our new characters: they were based on our original party. This became obvious the moment we entered combat and saw that Ward had Selphie’s Curaga-boosted, skyscraper-esque HP numbers. The three men technically had their own stats, but as far as I can tell from observation (still trying to avoid spoilers over here), those stats were nevertheless based on the party’s level, GFs, Junctions and magic pool, and indeed they could summon the same GFs as the party even though the game tries to imply that these events took place without any connection to your party. I later learned that since they have the same item pool, they could even summon Diablos with the Magical Lamp and earn it for the party! In fact, since enemies in the area had new spells, I burned off a lot of time gathering spells for the original party using this new one!
After a few screens (including a weird trigger where the original party voices their confusion with a screen-full of question marks, a whole two rooms after their initial confusion? It came off like they were more confused by the stream we had just crossed than the situation at large), Ward asked why the three of them weren’t off fighting the Timber army. I should also note that this scene took place in a forest, even though we had previously learned that Timber had been ironically deforested during the decades of Galbadian occupation. That told me that this entire scene as a flashback, set around eighteen years in the past. I do not think I was supposed to work that out so early and easily.
Laguna told the others that they were going back home to Deling City, the imperial capital, but he did so in such a poorly phrased way that it sounded like they were going AWOL. I can’t imagine they were really going AWOL and then running straight into the heart of the empire, but Laguna kept acting awkward and confused during this whole sequence. Now, as we’re going to learn, Laguna isn’t all that sharp a tack, but I imagine his superiors in the army probably are! There are only two ways I can think of to read this scene: either something suspicious is going on but the game hasn’t mentioned the suspicious elements even several hours since (i.e. at the time I’m writing this, at the end of our second play session), or Square doesn’t understand a lick of military procedure and thinks that soldiers can just drive back home whenever the fuck they want, to chase the slightest whim. And given the developers’ dubious understanding of the business model of mercenaries, I think I know where I want to place my chips.
The party arrived in Deling with a great visual gag where the party parked their vehicle in the middle of the street, saying no one would mind, only for the game to introduce a traffic jam as they tried to leave! Better still, it happens almost off-camera, which underlines that Laguna just isn’t thinking about the car any more and shows a lot of comedic talent.
After that, we were set loose in Deling, Laguna saying he wanted to take the others drinking. While we could wander off quite a bit, including getting into a fight with weak enemies in a dead-ended sewer, there ultimately wasn’t much to do except to go to a hotel in town to visit the bar. There (besides Selphie’s voice-over noting that Laguna was cute, bear this in mind for later), we discovered that Laguna was really here to gawk at the bar’s pianist, Julia. His buddies told him to talk to her today after a long time admiring her from afar, but Laguna protested. We were probably supposed to see this as him being too awkward to talk to her, but like the scene with Squall and Quistis in the Bone Zone, I couldn’t help but see the other person’s point of view. Namely, Laguna points out that Julia is working right now, so he shouldn’t interrupt her. Yes, she is working right now, and no, you shouldn’t interrupt her! Thank you, Laguna! What the fuck do Kiros and Ward expect? That she’s going to stop playing in the middle of her set to talk to this guy? I can’t help but get the impression that that’s exactly what FFVIII expects, and I shouldn’t be surprised because – reminder! – these three are off without leave because they just fucking wanted to. In the world of FFVIII, there’s no such thing as an eight-hour shift.
Laguna gets up to talk to Julia, but it turns out he Laguna gets leg cramps whenever he’s nervous (which I imagine doesn’t help his work as a soldier very much!). Luckily for Laguna, this Daffy Duck bouncing around caught Julia’s attention and she comes over to flirt with him. Well, I say “flirt,” but after a single question about his leg, Julia straight-up asked Laguna up to her room! Whoa! She knows what she wants and she goes for it! Of course, she “only wanted to talk,” and Laguna made a mental note to not talk about himself and be “all ears” for Julia. Laguna, I’m not sure she’s interested in your ears. Unfortunately for Laguna’s plans, after she had plied him with a little wine, his nervousness disappeared and he apparently babbled on about himself for the rest of the evening, and nothing else happened as a consequence of both his insensitivity and his motor-mouth. This is one of those scenes where the proxy embarrassment is a little hard to take, let me tell you. From this splurge (which was montaged), we learned that Laguna wanted to be a travelling journalist.
In what must have been the dwindling minutes of the night before sunrise, Laguna finally remembered to ask Julia about herself, and she told us that she wanted to be a singer, and not necessarily a pianist. Unfortunately, she had trouble coming up with lyrics, but in spite of what the game itself had been casting as an embarrassing cock-up of a “date,” Julia was now presented as being so fascinated with Laguna that she strongly implied her next song would be about him? Umm… game, either you or Julia is up to something, but I don’t know which it is, and the way you’re going about it is once again making me uncomfortable.
Unfortunately for our dubious lovers, apparently the hotel doesn’t just give out room numbers when a guest asks them to do so (like they did for Julia), but to fucking anybody who asks, and there’s a knock at the door. In fact, it seems the hotel will even direct you to guests of guests, because someone knocked at the door and shouted that Laguna had orders to “meet by the presidential residence.” No one in the scene realized anything was alarmingly wrong about this hotel procedure, so I’m just going to have to chalk this up as another example of FFVIII not being aware of facts about… uh… the entire world around it?
In any event, this was the end of the flashback, and we found ourselves back with the original party, Squall waking up just as the train was pulling into Timber. The game didn’t make a big deal about why Squall woke up last, though thinking about it in hindsight, it may be because Squall’s stats were transposed onto Laguna, so maybe Selphie and Zell woke up once Kiros and Ward were no longer “relevant” to the flashback? If that’s the case, that says some curious things about how this flashback operated in-universe, as though it was intended to be seen by a single person, i.e. not so much Squall but someone like, the party as a whole, or maybe… the player. Since I’m not finished the game, I can’t decide if that’s a remarkable clue, or if it’s just FFVIII’s writing messing up in a remarkable, postmodern fashion?
Speaking of postmodernism: the flashback can actually change based on what you do beforehand, but the connection is really strange! In the waking world, there are a number of magazines called “Timber Maniacs,” which include articles written by Laguna (somehow, no one connects the dots re: the fact that they’re a decade old). If you read a certain issue before this flashback, the flashback will change! But here’s the weird thing (or rather, the first weird thing): while Squall reads the magazine, the player doesn’t! The only insight you get into its contents is stuff added to Selphie’s blog after the fact. Indeed – get this – the change to the flashback seems to come in response to the contents of Selphie’s blog, since she concludes that Laguna might be a “lightweight” when it comes to drinking, and that… changes… the past? Specifically, it causes Laguna to fall unconscious when sharing some wine with Julia, and they only end up talking when he recovers. Does Selphie being in Laguna’s head when he’s drinking cause him to change his alcohol tolerance? But Selphie isn’t in Laguna’s head – Squall is! Did Squall read it too? And come to the same conclusions? In that case, why didn’t the player see it? The extra-confusing part is that Selphie doesn’t start uploading her blog post until she first “meets” Laguna via this flashback! So while you can learn she wrote that after the fact, you can’t connect Laguna collapsing with her blog post after all? To summarize: the only way to learn that Selphie did change the past is to learn that this scene differs by replaying the game and lucking into the alternate scene, or by checking the internet! I’m even more confused with this information than I was without it!
To make things even more confusing: the magazine in question actually shows up in two locations, but only one causes the flashback to change. That footnote is probably just a programming error, but only makes the change harder to pick up on without outside help.
The party initially assumed that they had been gassed by some kind of SeeD-hating person who must, in their imagination, just have wanted to inconvenience them instead of hurt them when they were unconscious? True, you could interpret the strange foley from earlier as implying a gas attack, but it must have been a really inefficient gas attack. At best they broke Squall’s nose, given that he fell straight to the floor, but other than that. Soon, the party is discussing their dreams (including the killer line from Squall: “I dreamt I was a moron”) and realize they had the same one, or at least a similar one. The party decides the party decides to put the whole “common dream about being other people” thing on the back-burner, which is honestly understandable, since they have literally no way of explaining it. The least anyone could hypothetically do is to search the train, and I don’t believe they have that authority. They promise to report it to the headmaster. They have yet to do so at the time of writing, though as you’ll see, there’s been a good dozen reasons to put it off.
In any event, I want to say that while the party’s initial reaction to the gassing/flashback makes sense, after a while (read: later flashbacks) it starts to come off as the writing trick it really is: they’re not discussing the confusing, mysterious element because it would be either boring to the player or inconvenient to the author (I can’t say which without knowing the actual explanation for the flashback). What I’m saying is that they’re acting realistically or even ideally… but I’m still aware that I’m being conned by the devs, just a little bit.