While I tend to give most titles at least two playthroughs, very few actually make it beyond this point—let alone become games that I play for years to come. But for the ones I continue to go back to, to the point where I can’t foresee ever not wanting to play it, they become a crucial part of who I am in a way that many other mediums of art often don’t. Final Fantasy VIII has, in its 15 years of life, proven to me to be a shining example of the ability for games to leave lasting impressions on their players that keeps them coming back to relive an experience that can stimulate thought, discussion, and new perspectives. As a coming of age story, filled with characters whose bonds are forged through a journey that puts them against the world, Final Fantasy VIII casts the player into a world that has a inherent confidence and believability. The period in which this game was made has a considerable amount to do with this. Were the game to be made today, I’m not terribly sure it would have the exact same effect it has had on me—and not to the point where I need to revisit it countless times.
Released in 1999, Final Fantasy VIII lacks many aspects we see as commonplace in gaming, and particularly in RPGs. Unlike modern games, and this is true of the two other main Final Fantasy games during the 5th Generation of consoles, VIII lacks any type of “journal” or “quest log” to track the game’s progress and tell the player what exactly has to be done next. And while the presence of such things has made gaming certainly more convenient in today’s world, not having these in a way cements the world of the game a little differently into the mind of the player. The same is true of the absence of any trophies or achievements. Especially looking at it from the perspective of being used to these facets in gaming, the world of Final Fantasy VIII appears quite differently.
Without something that tracks your every move and reminds you of what your next task is, or gives you a list of everything achievable in the game, Final Fantasy VIII almost creates the illusion of an open-world game. You know what you have to do by paying attention to NPCs as if they were real people and come to learn what you can do in the game by going out and exploring. It’s not a spoon fed experience for the player. Again, the same is true of both VII and IX. The world exists on its own, not filling in pages of a journal for you. The game’s menu only tells you your inventory, and gives you the option of playing with stats. It is up to you to pay attention to what is going on in the world and what you’re supposed to do. While there are a handful of times where you may be able to revisit an NPC to check up on what’s expected of you, the game hands over the responsibility to you. And especially with a game like VIII, it allows for a more artistic perspective and some ambiguity in the plot. Few things will remind you that you’re just playing a game more than a box to tick off labeled “Kill the Sorceress” or “Rescue Rinoa.”
Perhaps one of the strongest reasons I come back to Final Fantasy VIII time and time again is to revisit the characters and the world they live in. The distinctive quality of each character’s personality, combined with the bonds they form and the passion of saving their world and each other is something that sets this game apart from many others—and I would argue, from other Final Fantasy entries.
While Squall’s moodiness might deter some gamers, it is balanced well with more upbeat characters like Zell and Selphie in the mix as well as others that share much of Squall’s introversion but deal with it differently (as arguably Quistis and possibly Rinoa do). But given that Final Fantasy VIII is a coming of age story, the experience of this game is one that has evolved over the years for me. Having played the game when I was younger than Squall, the same age, and now older, different perspectives have formed.
Back when the game came out, and for quite a few years after, gaming was in a very different place. I can confidently say that it wasn’t until the 7th Generation of consoles (the Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii) that I saw gaming become something more popular, something society accepted with more grace. Many people who found themselves drawn to gaming, and games that demanded the time and passion that the early Final Fantasy games did, were themselves people who could relate to Squall. Often, these were introverted types who found the actions of adults and society around them to be confusing and often frustrating. Squall is a very different character to a lot of people than someone like Cloud Strife is in Final Fantasy VII; he’s perhaps a more realistic and certainly a more relatable one. Yes, the fact that Squall is in a school that trains mercenaries to use summoned eidolons is something quite fantastical, but he represents someone very different from the average video game character today—which is far too often a kind of faceless soldier. As a younger person, Squall’s consistent stress over what it means to grow up, what it means to assume responsibility, and what role other people are to play in your life is something that connected very much with the person I was growing up. And now that I’m older, playing this game is a strange portal to the past and prompts me to question what it is that I am to do with my own life going forward now that I’ve reached that point that Squall spent so much time trying to unravel the mysteries of.
While I’ve had many profound experiences from some games, it’s not often that one has had such a sustaining resonance like this one.
Final Fantasy VIII is about more than an elite mercenary force having to fight of the threat of a powerful sorceress, its a contemplation on how one fits into life and how a journey like the one Squall and his comrades embark on can shape them both individually and as a group. For this reason, it has been a part of my gaming experience for over a decade and will continue to probably be for decades to come.