Sunday, February 23, 2014

FFVIII Fan Theories

After I did my piece about authorial intent after Katuscon, I got to thinking about all the weird fan theories out there about Final Fantasy VIII, and how they relate to the games characters and themes when taken “as is”, and before I knew it, 3400 words. 

“Whatever.”

To start, I want to try and give a brief analysis of Squall’s character arc in Final Fantasy VIII in relation to the game’s overall themes.

FFVIII is without question a dark videogame, but it doesn’t pose as a sad one. It is not without the feeling of adventure and heroism that is requisite to its genre. Indeed, in FFVIII the characters discover their inner strength and save the world, which is reflected in game with some of the most severely broken battle mechanics in the entire series.[1]

SQUALL
(An enemy that is pure evil? Right and wrong are not what separates us and our enemies. It’s different standpoints, our perspectives, that separate us. There’s no good or bad side, just two sides holding different views.)

Cameron Kunzleman, in a brief article, demonstrated how the game creates a world that lacks clear moral authority for the player or the player characters, a world filled with choices that are either meaningless, or already made for us. Instead of spending more time on the game’s worldview, I’ll simply ask you to read that first.

In FFVIII’s case, finding the strength to fight the outside world means coming to terms with harsh truths, not denying or resisting them.

SQUALL
(Someday you're bound to lose everything. Everybody around you will be gone. Then what are you left with? Nothing. Nobody... It's so miserable. And inevitable. It's so hard to recover from something like that. I never want to deal with that again. I can't. Even if it means being alone...)

Final Fantasy VIII is filled with little bits of existential musing by Squall. And the game refuses to prove him wrong except in the case of social interaction. People care about Squall, and he refuses to care about them in return, perhaps because he simply doesn’t feel the affection others have for him as a result of his own unnamed depression. The game means to prove a point by demonstrating that by selfishly refusing to interact with the people around him, the loneliness he personally feels is basically the same as that which he instills in others.

On Disc 1
SQUALL
Are you done yet . . .? I don’t want to talk about it. What am I supposed to say about other people’s problems?

QUISTIS
I’m not asking you to say anything, I just want you to listen.

SQUALL
Then go talk to a wall.
On Disc 2
QUISTIS
Why don’t you to talk to me? Might make you feel better. Or do you want to go talk to a wall? What do you want to do?
On Disc 3
SQUALL
(Rinoa . . . you feel so cold. Are you going to be like this forever?) Isn’t there anything I can do?! You were so full of life. Now you don’t even make a sound. (This is like talking to a wall.) Rinoa . . . Call my name.

What FFVIII focuses on is not that Squall is totally wrong in his despair, but rather that he has the wrong reaction to his observations. It is true that “everyone leaves and everything dies” but that in the meantime, shutting yourself off and attempting to disengage yourself from the world around you is neither a personally healthy, nor socially helpful response. Squall’s rejection of his duty, his potential, and the people that care about him is as much him bringing more suffering unto himself as it is him failing to accept the responsibility foisted on him to save the world from the sorceress menace (and therefore bringing suffering to others.)

RINOA
You’re still a teenager, why don’t you act like one, for a change?

He does all this because he sees it as a kind of "maturity." Again, however, he only reluctantly accepts the duty that’s been laid out for him, and he only grasps the reigns of authority as a necessity for survival that also demonstrates a latent altruism that, while true to himself, contradicts his public persona.

SQUALL
God, Rinoa is gonna die! . . . I can’t take it. Ellone, please, I’ve never felt this way in my life.

It takes a very scary and very real display of what he could lose to make him realize what he has, and what he could have. As a result, he becomes more open, at least towards Rinoa, about his feelings for her, and he more confidently assumes the leadership role that was previously a burden. And by the end of the game, he’s still quiet, but he has learned how to smile.

Thus, FFVIII posits that we live in a world filled with despair, but that we can ease our suffering by finding our purpose and making connections with the people around us who, after all, are suffering just as much as we do. It adds up if we take the game more or less as is, especially in the context of FFVII before it and FFIX and FFX after it.

But of course, as is always the case with FFVIII, that’s not the only viable reading.

For example, going back to Kunzleman’s article, he gives sympathy to the villain Ultemecia (who schemes to compress time into a single moment during which all possible events are happening simultaneously, a la the aliens in Slaughter House Five) and supposes that, left to her devices we might at least be able to numb our pain in a pointless existence. There's a lot of legitimacy to that view, though I scoff when he suggests that FFVIII wanted to be a movie.

            Presented here are three popular fan theories, as well as one of my own, about
Final Fantasy VIII and how they relate to what I see as the themes and motifs of the game taken at face value.

I’ll start with a theory that’s been knocking around in my head for a while now that I haven’t seen gain much traction elsewhere:

Squall is Suicidal

As a corollary statement, Squall is also without question mentally ill. He may be clinically depressed, though his occasional outbursts reveal what might be bipolar. I’m not a psychologist.

What is inarguable is that Squall absolutely has a death wish. It’s pretty self-explanatory why Squall would become depressed. It’s also easy to read some of the things he does as classically heroic, but make no mistake:

·         He spars with Seifer, someone who he respects but viciously dislikes. The game opens with the two injuring each other, and that’s not likely to be the first time that’s happened. Seifer being Squall’s mirror in a lot of ways, it’s probably how his mind works too.
·         He works as a mercenary for SeeD, even though he admits that he doesn’t actually like it.
·         During the Galbadian Desert Prison escape, he jumps down multiple stories to save Zell.
·         When Rinoa loses consciousness and the party attempts to visit Esthar to seek help from Dr. Odine, Squall, very quickly, becomes so distraught over the thought of losing her that he picks her up himself and begins walking (again, alone, it must be restated) across a bridge that, to scale, covers a body of water the size of the Atlantic ocean, and he walks over something like half of it.

He may be willing to do what it takes, but to put it simply, he’s far too willing for their not to be something else going on there.

Squall and Rinoa Aren’t Actually “In Love”

This is a pretty popular reading among detractors of the game, which is part of the reason it bothers me. This theory actually adds a fair bit of depth to the game, especially when we’re willing to see the game subtly playing both sides of the field.

Arguments For: In theory, the relationship that Squall and Rinoa have isn’t very healthy. He’s openly dismissive towards her, ignores her when he can, she pushes him into doing things he doesn’t want to do and doesn’t make strong attempts to walk in his shoes, etc.

There’s also various instances of the game cutting away from the couple during the moments where they should be having intimate moments that we would want to be in on that I would say add to this reading: what they’re doing while the Ragnarok is landing, and the kiss they share at the end of the credits. In key instances the game refuses to show these two showing their love for each other.

Arguments Against: Well to start, Squall and Rinoa aren’t actually together for most of the game. This presents its own problems and leads into interesting discussions on the narrow focus of what videogames tend to be about (why do so many games have people falling in love, but so few people in established relationships?), but FFVIII is partially about this couple trying to work past their own individual baggage to some degree and falling in love with each other, not the story of their actual relationship.

This is tangential, but there’s the problem of dismissing the love that adolescent teenagers have for one another “just because we were in our teens.” Love doesn’t necessarily imply a healthy relationship, love is a building block for a healthy relationship. To dismiss the feelings of love that teenagers can have for each other we have to dismiss both the intensity of the feelings of attracting, and the depth of the relationship, which is asinine.

And make no mistake, Squall and Rinoa have a deep relationship, and not in spite of lacking things in common. The depth of the relationship is revealed through the subtext because of what we don’t have on from the surface. The relationship that they have is Freudian and works off of problematic understandings of gender, but it still functions under its own rules nonetheless.

Rinoa is a rebellious teenager who’s growing distant from her father, and Squall’s coldness, distance, and position of authority[2] make him something like the perfect person to pour her affection (that she can’t show her father) into. Squall is desperate for sister and mother figures, and the persona he presents means that he has no outlet for the latent positive emotions within him. Rinoa is both gorgeous, and someone he actually respects (for assuming a leadership position in the Timber resistance and taking action), and she goads him on in maternal ways.

None of this is to say that the relationship works, but contrary to popular opinion there are a thousand ways that it makes sense.

But, say we accept this reading. In particular, it gives a window into how desperate these characters actually are that when they feel something that at least resembles a genuine emotional connection, they absolutely jump at it. Because what else do they have? These two have no sense of family or home, and their lives could very well end at any point in this story given the danger of the situations they regularly find themselves in. Maybe they don’t “love” each other, but they do desperately need each other.

Personally, the more I play FFVIII the more I see the game getting at both angles here. The game ends precisely at the point when these two characters no longer need each other, so we have no way of telling whether what was born of loneliness and desperation can survive when both of these people have time to grow and take better care of themselves. I can’t say for sure whether that’s the point, but the ambiguity it adds to the situation is very fitting for the game.

Squall is Dead

Probably the most popular fan interpretation of the game. The basic thrust of this argument is that Squall, upon being impaled by Edea’s shards of ice at the end of disc 1, dies, and we see the rest of the game as a vision he has as life fades.

Arguments For: Would be consistent with FFVII’s villainous display of power by Sephiroth that the main villain can cause permadeath, even with a wound that simply impales. In addition, proponents of this theory offer the game’s increasing un-reality as the game plays out as evidence: the Garden suddenly becoming a functioning boat/hovercraft, the sudden appearance of fuzzy animals as a form of slave labor. Most importantly, the end is seen as Squall finally losing control, and the scenes that take place during the credits as a final vision.

Arguments Against: Put simply? Too many wasted resources. I’ll be damned if I use intent as an argument, but if we’re accepting this we’re accepting the idea that the game pulled a Mulholland Drive in reverse and spent more than 75% of its play time depicting a death dream. That’s just a hell of a stretch really, though honestly I’d be interested in seeing a game actually try to pull this off.

In addition, proponents of this theory tend to use the game’s decreasing realism over time, which is usually stated as something along the lines of “the game doesn’t make sense unless it’s literally a place where anything can happen, ie, a dream,” which is a weak as shit argument considering this isn’t even the first game in the series to have a stationary building turn into a method of transportation.

What makes this theory interesting though is that you get the same story, just colored by the tragedy of all the personal growth and heroic achievement not actually happening. Instead of the story of a guy trying to figure out his place in the world, it’s a guy realizing what he could have had, but now it’s too late. It doesn’t so much add to the game as just allows us to see it from a different perspective.

Rinoa is Ultemecia

This is definitely the weirdest one I’ve seen. There are a ton of variations, including the idea that Ultemecia is a descendant of Squall and Rinoa from the future, that Ultemecia is Rinoa from a different timeline, etc, but most of them are unimportant. The thrust of it is this: at the end of the game Squall and Rinoa are implied to be happily ever after, but at the time the theory was born it was believed that sorceresses in FFVIII’s universe lived enormous lifespans longer than that of any human. Rinoa, having acquired the powers of a sorceress will eventually outlive Squall and be go crazy with grief, and come up with time compression as a way that they might be together again.

Arguments For: The idea is that if Ultemecia is Rinoa, then all of a sudden Ultemecia gains all sorts of motivation that she never had before. I guess it can also add the appeal of making the ending somewhat bittersweet,[3] because it means that Squall has to kill the woman he loves.

Arguments Against: The level of emotional/thematic depth this reading adds to the game can be accurately stated as “Dem feels.”

To start with, the Ultimania guide published in 1999 (the same year the game came out) states pretty clearly that sorceress’ live normal lifespans, so that already kills that dead, but that’s not even the strongest argument.[4]

On top of that, it spoils something that’s important to how the game presents its worldview. SeeD and Squall are, entirely, victims of circumstance, and their actions are justifiable as acts of survival. Squall was born an orphan, and thus placed in an orphanage. He had no choice in this. His sister was taken away from him. He had no choice in this. He was not adopted. He had no choice in this. Zell was adopted. He had no choice in that. Everyone, through a series of events ended up at the Gardens where they would train to become SeeD, because there were no other choices.

The game presents us with choices in dialogue, but those choices ultimately lead to the same things happening. The game presents us with choices of how to customize our character, but it does not change who they are, or what their role is in this world and in this story.

That pattern is applicable to most characters and events in FFVIII. But in a possible future where Rinoa becomes the sorceress Ultemecia, and cooks up time compression? That has to be a choice. That has to be a decision that is made freely. This might be a more legitimate reading if it was somehow either not a choice, or the only choice for Rinoa in the future to do something like this, except it’s not, and doing something so crazy would go exactly against one of the game’s crucial lessons.

ELLONE
You can’t change the past. I just found that out.

The real problem with it, however, is that it shows a deficit of insight into Ultemecia herself. No, the game does not easily provide us with a motivation or a backstory for Ultemecia, but if we’re looking we can still see an interesting relationship between her and the game’s themes.

Squall consistently implies that living alone and accepting a sort of dull pain as the basic nature of existence is less painful than attempting to lead a life where he would meaningfully interact with other people and contribute the world around him, only for the people he loves to leave, or die, or be taken away from him for some other inexplicable reason. This is an attitude that he grows away from over the course of the game. Even without a meaningful character arc, (which Squall has,) this would be inevitable. Life may be “mere palliation,” as Kunzleman writes, but at some point that does mean attempting to comfort yourself.

Now realize again that Ultemecia’s backstory is ultimately circular because of the game’s stable time loop. Before the game even begins, she has already placed her sorceress powers inside Edea and thus begun a plot that will allow her to take revenge for herself when she is born in the future. Because of what is known about what she will do, SeeD begins planning for her arrival on the scene. Like Squall, she becomes a victim of circumstance from the moment she is born. Like Squall, she decides that living alone would be better than the subjugation and oppression she would be put through (don't forget time compression supposedly means that only Ultemecia would be allowed to exist), and again, like Squall, she perpetuates her own suffering through her actions. But this is the only choice she has. All of this was decided somewhere along this wheel of fate, and there is no indication that it may ever be altered. So then what does that mean for the conflict between Squall, SeeD, and Ultemecia mean to us?

That this deterministic cycle cannot be broken, and that it is better to find comfort and accept your purpose within it than the desperately struggle against the pain it may bring. That you should never give up. That life, even at it’s lowest, darkest points, is better seen through to an inevitable end, rather than a premature one. As with the other great games in the series, it’s making a big statement that isn’t easily articulated about ideas that aren’t easily articulated. Shadows may be the canvass FFVIII is painted on, but that helps it’s points of light to stand out.

Of course, that's not the only way of looking at it.

Notes

The inspiration to write this article came partly from a long conversation with Eric Swain about deep reads of video games. So shoutouts to that guy, (@The Game Critique)

Final Fantasy VIII is one of the few games in the series where the game uses text boxes to create inner monologue, doing so by changing the game’s typical grey text box into a translucent clear text box. For ease, I chose to represent the selected quotes from these monlogues in parentheses.

The script I used is here on GameFAQs. I didn’t take the time to check it against an LP or anything like that, but all of the lines I cited are ones I remember from the game almost word-by-word anyway.

Thanks for reading.


- Austin C. Howe, Maryland, 2014





[1] High level Final Fantasy VIII gameplay means hitting for 9999 damage with every physical attack and using a well of Aura spells to incite Limit Breaks that will hit for 9999 damage with every hit of a multiple-hitting attack.
[2] If that reads like the “Alternative Character Interpretation” part of the YMMVpage for FFVIII on TV Tropes, that’s because I wrote that, a few years ago actually.
[3] Spoiler alert: it’s already a bittersweet ending.
[4] Actually it’s the weakest argument. Canon is important, but the work itself is supreme. Among the interpretations that would be killed if extra-textual canon was considered into interpretation: Cloud actually turning out to be a clone after all in FFVII, and the entirety of MGS2 being a VR simulation. (Or Twin Snakes for that matter.)

2 comments:

  1. I think the whole Ultimecia Rinoa cames from the fact, Ultimecia is made in some way to mirror Rinoa.
    Rinoa shows she is as depressive as Squall and show she wants to live happy forever, even if that means stop time.
    The whole Ragnarok scene is the best examples.
    Since Ultimecia and Rinoa mirror each other and both want to control time.
    Its obvious some people would belive they are the same character.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't think there's really anything in the text to support the idea that Ultemecia is supposed to "reflect" Rinoa though, or that Rinoa would be with Squall at any cost. Ultemecia doesn't want to be with someone, she wants to be alone. We have to read way past the ending of the game to make this theory work. And again, I just don't think it's that interesting.

      Thanks for coming by and reading though!

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