A classic is the term given to any book which comes to represent the whole universe, a book on a par with ancient talismans.

'Your' classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation or even in opposition to it...

Why Read the Classics?

italo calvino

Replace 'book' with 'game': Final Fantasy VIII is a classic in my personal canon, lodged inextricably in my heart with Dinotopia and The Last Unicorn where the parts of art that make me a person go. Technically I played Final Fantasy IX first, a much more fantastic offering, but the disc skipped within thirty minutes, and there was something decidedly less internal about stepping into IX's protagonist Zidane Tribal than into VIII's Squall Leonhart. That makes writing an introduction difficult to do. In effect, it would be an introduction to something I cannot imagine as an outsider, because it became part of me. Not because I skillfully mastered it, or because it so deeply redefines the genre that one has to become acquainted with the prior gaming landscape before its shadow fellow across it, but because ...

I suppose this site is an attempt to fill that ellipsis.

Final Fantasy VIII came out in 1999, the same year as 10 Things I Hate About You, and like that film it always strikes me as five-years-off the mark, surely a mid-nineties game, and not almost a new millennium game. The characters are constructed of polygons with a realistic proportions; note that realism doesn't always make something pretty. In this case, it paired well with the setting. A traditional pixel-sprite would have felt off-the-mark of the setting: yes, there's magic, but your encounters with it are strictly militaristic, and always a matter of negotiated costs. That militarism is part of the very plot: Squall Leonhart, the protagonist, begins the game as a hopeful SeeD, a member of an intergovernmental organization of mercenaries, and attends school for combat preparation in a large circular facility called Balamb Garden. The first scenes of the game feature a fight between Squall and his rival, Seifer Almasy, spliced with an atemporal mishmash of idyllic scenery, his eventual love interest, and currently out-of-context allusions to a promise to meet once more. Seifer is cocky, animated, grinning while he hurls a fistful of magical fire, while Squall's emotional range hobbles between involuntary flickers of fear and pain and chilled rage. Squall is struck across the face with a sword, so that a red slat of blood falls on the ground. He grimaces, gets up, and cuts right back.

These are the major motifs of FFVIII.

So much of the game involves trying to make sense of the past as a context for why the present world is the way that it is, and that project of making sense is largely a literal investigation into the minds of others in the past, who were they connected to, how were they separated, why did they fail to meet again? In a less temporal sense, it is also a game about how others structure both our identities and our sense of what is real. The promise, "to be waiting, here, so that if you come here, you'll find me," is enticing on its own, and though it is a piece of in-game dialogue between Squall Leonhart and Rinoa Heartilly, this is a game about trying to find those we love, and what happens if we do not, or if we find them when one of us has changed. The player forgets about that promise for a time - likewise a theme of the game. At critical moments, Squall and his companions are forcibly inserted into the past in ways that they can influence without deeply changing the outcomes. Your first such encounter involves going upstairs with a beautiful woman; you can get too drunk, or you can talk too much. There is no option that permits successful seduction. "I dreamt I was a moron," Squall says of the experience. As these odd experiences accrue, they reveal greater connections with the current state of affairs, but they play like a game-within-a-game - Squall makes the most of limited options with limited consequences within the bowdlerized context of these 'dreams,' just as you are doing with the controller in your hands.

Squall's own memories are revealed to be redacted. Turns out that he and his companions all share a common past, unrecalled by any of them due to their usage of Guardian Forces, powerful beings who attack your enemies when summoned. You do not explicitly bargain your memories away for a powerful pact with a magical force, but enduring a connection with such power over time erodes your memories. Like Squall's intrusions into the past, the game doesn't allow the option of forgoing that power in favor of greater psychological access. You made your choice.

To return to the significance of the opening scene, the sparring between those two boys on the small stage of a training room floor plays out the way that magic does on the scale of the world: it is a zero-sum game of power; it cuts you, and you cut back. Whatever you gain is balanced against a loss - memory, for a Guardian force. Certainly Seifer is not the most magical member of your group, but that whole scene, the goddamned latin chanting, smacks of symbolism, and he's one wielding magical flame with mad glint in his eye. Fire, for life, for power, for being consumed. Magic in one hand, sword in the other. Seifer and Squall scar mirrored diagonals on one another, and their stories strike me as similarly mirrored. They even love the same girl.

At age eleven, I was a little in love with Squall Leonhart. (I remember buying two belts from the retailer Hot Topic® specifically to rock his cross-belt look.) Those homely but realistic polygons couldn't sustain my attention, but shaded as they are with Squall's interior life, I felt the stakes of his world deeply. I remember using him as a tool to discover, literally, 'how men think.' (Ha!) Funnily, the character this shrine is devoted to, Quistis Trepe, found Squall impenetrable. Not for lack of trying certainly - the early game is dotted with her attempts to make a connection, all of which are rebuffed, most memorably when Squall tells her to talk to a wall. In the same scene where the characters discover that their memories have been eroded by Guardian Forces, Quistis confesses that her feelings for Squall were a misplacement of déjà vu. "A misunderstood love," she explains, then falls silent on the subject.

I think about that when I think about what this game means to me. I can't introduce you to the FFVIII I played in 1999, saving up for a Playstation One on Walmart layaway. You are, of course, not me - and I am not the girl squatting on the living room in two black belts, who is not Squall, who is not the man he dreams, in at least two senses. And yet when I play it, I am struck, but not with one particular insight. It is a process of trying to understand what made me love this game so much, and feeling that each attempt is a misunderstanding, a mismatch towards what it meant to me at ten and what I bring to the game now. A misunderstood love. A connection prone to misinterpretation, even if I cannot resist trying to interpret it anew. Something can be part of you, even if you no longer have access to it, even if you can't change it.

Like Squall's dreams of the past: instead of getting too drunk, now I've talked too much.

As a critic, I recognize the significant flaws, I do, but The Hunger Games was not a movie I am able to watch as a critic. The story means too much to me.


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