Journal: Can Games Do Theme Over Story? (I don’t answer, but I spend a lot of time rambling)

Semi-academic half-asleep ramblings on Final Fantasy 8 beneath. You’ve been warned.

So, as a way to be nice to myself as stress looms ever more frequent on the horizon, I decided to scratch my nostalgia itch and downloaded Final Fantasy VIII.

One of the subjects I discuss a lot with my friends is the concept of theme over story – Jessica Jones is a particularly egregious example of this. But it wasn’t until replaying FFVIII after finishing my BA and (most) of my BAHons that I realized why FFVIII’s story is so unusual for a Final Fantasy game: it’s (to the best of my knowledge) the first to put theme ahead of story.

Because, let’s be honest here, speaking as someone who loves FFVIII, the story is kind of batshit.

Final Fantasy’s frequently periodically put theme ahead of story: their last boss battles are usually metaphors for the entire main theme of the story as a whole. Cloud’s one-on-one with Sephiroth in FFVII serves no story purpose; it’s there to metaphorically represent Cloud removing Sephiroth from his head. The fight against Necron in FFIX is there (partially) as a shout out to previous Final Fantasies, but mostly to emphasize the theme of FFIX: the choice to live even against all odds. And FFX’s final battle, where you literally cannot lose, is about the strength of life breaking a spiral of pain and death – it is metaphorically important in FFX’s final battle that none of your characters die.

Doesn’t stop the boss battle being boring as shit, but metaphorically, you know, you can understand the relevance.

And what of Final Fantasy VIII, the game where theme overcomes story?

As I said, the story is batshit, so I won’t linger on it long. Suffice to say, if you’ve played it, you know what I mean. But the metaphorical implications of some of the characters are important. For instance, almost every character is designed in some way as a foil to Squall.

Laguna, his father, is a foil in that he is a competent soldier and a competent human being (we can presume he had a happy upbringing). Zell functions in this foil role in much the same way: where Squall has difficulties expressing his thoughts and feelings, if Zell is in your party, he will always tell you exactly what he is thinking or feeling at any given time. Which, you know, in a normal seventeen year old is kinda healthy and expected.

Rinoa acts as foil in being a charismatic and determined human being, but somewhat childish and cutesy (for the First Disc at least). In fact, the push-pull of childhood and adulthood is the main theme of the game. Consider the two major powerhouses of the game: Ellone, with her ability to send people’s consciousness back into the past, and Ultimecia, whose goal is Time Compression, compressing past, present and future into one moment. Ellone’s power is the power of nostalgia, the power of reliving one’s childhood experiences; Ultimecia’s goal, ultimately, is that of nostalgia. The ways in which both Rinoa and Squall are forced to either grow up or accept their childhoods mimic a bildungsroman, or coming of age novel.

Finally, the most important foil Squall has is probably that of Seifer. I often ponder the idea of writing a fanfic from Seifer’s perspective, because Seifer probably has the most interesting things to say about his situation: like Squall, he is perceived as one of the best, but unlike Squall, lacks the ability to be a proper soldier. In many ways, Seifer is the traditional Final Fantasy hero (following in the legacy of such great heroes as Cecil the Dark Knight and, to a certain extent, Cloud), here remade as a villain (and, in FFXIII, remade as a Persona 3 ripoff). Squall and Seifer are both visually opposed and opposed personality wise – Seifer is loud and outgoing with a devoted ‘posse’, while Squall is introverted, quiet and unable to voice his own emotions, even as he becomes more and more devoted to his crew. While Seifer becomes a Sorceress’ Knight out of a childish desire to fulfill his ‘romantic dream’, Squall does so simply out of love.

Returning to the themes of childhood, this is part of why it’s so important that the characters (but Irvine and Rinoa) forget their childhoods: these are a crucial part of what form our identities and our psyche. They help us form narratives as to why we are the way we are, and as narratorial beings, we are, as both Pratchett and Doctor Who noted, always telling stories about ourselves. Lacking these key components, the characters are incomplete until Irvine provides the final puzzle piece; when he does, they are able to find both their Matron (their mother figure, and the one they must kill, starting something of an Electra Complex), and, eventually Ellone.


Okay, I think I have exhausted Deep and Meaningful Thoughts, especially given I haven’t even finished my first cup of coffee. Apologies for that being literally ALL OVER THE PLACE.

I’m gonna go write my EOI now.

Love and kisses.


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