When I began this cluster of essays, I noted that the realism of Final Fantasy VIII struck me as much as the intentionally elusive aspects of its creation myth. In contrast to preceding installments, the characters are designed to have incredibly realistic proportions; though it's a magical world, the plot and possibilities of the game are driven as much by sorceresses as by scientific inventions and national greed. Much of the technology is consistent with pre-millennium infrastructure, trains, planes, automobiles — and that which isn’t turns out to be connected to magicality in some way, either modelled after it, or as the remainders of an ancient civilization. The mobile Garden structures, for instance, turn out to be Centra leftovers, co-opted by Headmaster Cid Kramer — something which strikes me as fantastic not simply because we are given no information about whether the structure is magical or not, but because the recovery of ancient artifacts to employ in a conflict between good and evil is a well-trod plot in fantasy.

And yet, the fact that these are not scientific marvels from recent history is concealed, a trend in FFVIII’s treatment of any kind of origin. On the global scale, the frequency of Lunar Cries disrupts both the continuity of culture and the continuity of scientific inquiry. After all, if nations are not uncommonly destroyed on this sparsely populated world, whatever knowledge that culture has accumulated is lost unless there are steady transfers between nations, something the game does not offer much confidence in given the limited relations between states observed in the plot. Great Hyne is a mystery, but so is the culture of Centra, and the impression of those bygone entities is so faint that you needn’t really hear of their existence at all.

That sort of communal loss of origin plays out on an individual scale with our liberi fatali, the ‘fated children’ that comprise the party. Though every member, sans Rinoa Heartilly, shares a childhood in an orphanage on Centra cared for by Edea and Cid Kramer, their usage of Guardian Forces obliterates this fact because of how that usage erodes long-term memory. Even the connection between Squall Leonhart and Rinoa Heartilly is excavated only through the guidance of Ellone’s careful manipulation of the past, revealing that they are each the result of secondary romances when his father and her mother failed to reunite. Beyond Squall’s good fortune, none of the other orphans discover what lead to their deposit on Edea’s door step in the ruins of the world. They have no backstory, no origin — totally tabula rasa.

That recovery of lost information pairs with the shifts in a player’s sense of the game’s genre. Despite the ‘fantasy’ in the game’s title, as I said, the early game in particular seems to strive for a kind of militaristic normalcy. Yes, there’s magic, yes, there’s monsters, but largely you encounter these in ordinary ecological biomes aided by familiar technology, with no great departures in either architectural or sartorial style. With some creative zoological additions, this could be earth. However, as the plot progresses, the motivations for why the world has the features it does alter the player’s sense of the ‘normalcy’ involved — motivations importantly tagged to individuals. SeeD exists due to the concerns of Cid and Edea Kramer, a couple mundane except for the latter’s sorcerous nature; that same nature is the source of their concern that Edea may one day need to be struck down. The nation of Esthar withdrew from the rest of the world because Laguna Loire thought that its technological advances were beyond the coping abilities of the other governments. The hungry militarism of Galbadia is largely the desire of its president, Vinzer Deiling, just as the Sorceress Adel’s machinations were the source of the power-mongering of Esthar. And Adel’s defeat is also chalked up to Laguna’s heroism, combined with Doctor Odine’s rare scientific ingenuity — despite that coups (and scientific discoveries) usually predicated on the work of others. The final villainess is a single woman named Ultimecia, who would not be able to meddle at all in the affairs of the game were it not for a machine based on the singular mind of Ellone, able to throw her consciousness back in time.

Fantasy often foregrounds the power of individuals, but that theme alone isn’t what shifts the sense of the word of FFVIII; rather, it’s how these individuals react to and reveal the power of magic on the course of politics in the world that reveals we are not in a place where gunblades are on par with blizzara, but that much of the history of the world has been a precarious balance between obliterating rains of magic-wielding monsters and the reigns of magic-wielding women. Galbadia’s president aligns with Sorceress Edea as a bid for more power. Adel rules Esthar, plotting to use Lunar Cries against the world until her pet scientist cooperates with a resistance movement; because of how she manipulated both magic and scientific progress to serve her conquering aspirations, the next president, Laguna Loire, insists that the nation recede from the world. Edea fears that she will go mad with power, and so creates an organization designed to overcome her. And the entire premise of the game would not be possible if a sorceress, prophesied to die at the hands of a legendary SeeD, hadn’t meddled with the fabric of time in order to recreate the world, producing the very circumstances that lead to her death. The further that Squall Leonhart steps from his Garden, the more he learns about how magic has had a fist around the heart of the world.

And even so, the game is rather spotty on how all that magic works.

You could imagine the game being thematically organized around a conflict between the terrible power of magic and the possibilities of technology, but to its credit, the game is not that neat. It’s true that Squall’s greatest enemy is a sorceress, but so is Matron, his only recollected mother-figure, as is the young woman he falls in love with - he even thwarts her containment when the Estharian government attempts to cryogenically freeze her as a preventative measure. And that all-star scientist of the FFVIII universe, Doctor Odine, worked unapologetically as Adel’s henchman when it best served his research, even if that research eventually served to uproot her and created the junction system. If there’s a lesson in the story about the moral tendency of these seeming opposites, it’s that technology and magic can be used for good or bad reasons.

Excepting one peculiar regularity: sorceresses are exclusively women; and the broad tendency is for these woman to become increasingly self-interested as time goes on, which goes on and on for them.

In Final Fantasy games, there is a connection between magic, the nonhuman, and femininity. This is also the case in Final Fantasy VI, whose story is centered around the intertwined quests of its two protagonists, Terra and Celes.

MAGIC AND GENDER IN FFVI

katheryn hemmann

Final Fantasy abounds in magical women, to varying effect. Here that natural magicality is shared only by the monsters of the world, which come in two broad types: your garden variety monster, hostile, invariably so; and Guardian Forces, which can become allies, though never as an expression of benevolence. Ifrit agrees to accompany you only after you defeat him - a trait shared by all those Guardian forces not acquired through wit, knowing where to be and what to bring, and the latter are exceedingly rare. They are your allies because you are stronger than them. And the remaining monsters of the world are all too happy to hurl magic at you until you bleed, without even a conditional alliance.

Magic appears useful, but not trustworthy.

That lack of trust isn’t limited to the world that approaches sorceresses with trepidation; even the sorceresses worry that they will become corrupted over time. They do not trust themselves. Remember that to become a sorceress, a woman needs only to have the right mysterious potential and to be near a mortally wounded predecessor — it’s not a transition that asks for consent. Like technology versus magic, FFVIII is not simply a story that views powerful women as strange, twisted, in need of slaying or rescue, the damsel or the dragon and nothing in between; it’s also a story about how power could be a position inflicted upon women, about how they could become unrecognizable to themselves, about how their self-interest is permissible only when balanced against their ability to serve it. The longer they are allowed to live, the more power they accumulate, if Adel and Ultimecia serve as examples. And the only thing we know for sure about the history of sorceresses is that they must have all been killed, because we know they cannot die otherwise. That combination of features in the life of a sorceress makes their place in FFVIII tense. Is it a good thing that women are uniquely able to obtain power in this game? Is it a bad thing that their potential for power also makes them uniquely subject to violence?

SQUALL: (Rinoa... Even if you end up as the world's enemy, I'll... I'll be your knight.)
RINOA: If I fall under Ultimecia's control again... SeeD will come kill me, right? And the leader of SeeD is you, Squall... Squall's sword will pierce my heart... I guess it's ok if it's you, Squall. Nobody else.

It is lovely that Squall Leonhart falls in love with a sorceress. Much less so that she finds it mitigating that he be the one to cause her death.

But this is not a story at the end of their romance, however bloody that will be. This is about how they emerge, together, from adolescence, and the game’s refusal to precisely pair its dichotomies with morals is consistent with that first lesson of adulthood. If a child becomes an adolescent when they realize that things could be good or bad, an adolescent becomes an adult when they realize that few things possess intrinsic goodness or badness. Context, baby.