Eyes on Final Fantasy VIII

Crystal Kay’s performance of the Final Fantasy VIII theme, “Eyes on Me,” started making the rounds on the internet recently. More accurately, the performance in London was uploaded back in November, but it didn’t start making the rounds on the J-pop blogs I read until recently (presumably leading up to the release of the studio version). I don’t even like “Eyes on Me,” and Crystal Kay’s cover doesn’t do the song any favors. At the same time, the melody always hits the right nostalgia buttons–to which, it turns out, I am exceptionally susceptible. And thus, instead of making any headway into my backlog, I’ve started replaying Final Fantasy VIII.This is my first time playing Final Fantasy VIII in at least a decade. Originally, it was my first proper Final Fantasy game (I first tried Tactics to disastrous effect). It was actually one of the first non-movie-licence games my parents deemed appropriate. I restarted the game at least a dozen times before I finally finished it, and I loved every single attempt. I had a save before each of my favorite cut scenes (especially the dance); I had the Bandai action figures; I may or may not have had a page from the manual taped to a page in my diary. More than anything, though, it was a gateway to the rest of the series I would go on to love much more and replay far more often than I ever did Final Fantasy VIII. Thanks to Squaresoft’s then-hubristic-now-desperate fascination with its former glory, I was able to go back and play not only its immediate predecessor, but the Final Fantasys of distant past. Final Fantasy VII eventually claimed my heart, as would VI before I went on to fall for a pair of dashing sky pirates in XII.  By the time I came to hold the former three up as examples of games and narrative done right, VIII was swept into the ghetto of “childhood.”

As it turns out, Final Fantasy VIII isn’t as childish as I thought (to which there is a resounding “duh” from my imaginary audience). Coming to Final Fantasy VIII for the first time as an adult has changed my perspective on much of the game world. Some things are the same as I remember them. The barely intelligible plot twists–like Exposition Orphanage and the alien living under the Garden (or something)–are all there. I still like Laguna and Zell the best out of all the characters; I still could not explain the Junction combat system to save my life.  Other things, however, I’m noticing for the first time.

So far, the most surprising part of revisiting Final Fantasy VIII is discovering how much I like the game’s heroine, Rinoa. Where hero Squall’s restless adolescence manifests in the form of aloof bitterness, Rinoa pours hers into more altruistic causes. When it comes to helping the people her influential father oppresses, she is enthusiastic and compassionate. Unfortunately, her inexperience does more harm than good when challenging the major political players in the first act, but it wouldn’t be much of a coming-of-age story if it didn’t. In hindsight, a lot of my initial disdain for Rinoa stemmed from my own internalized misogyny as a teenager, of which I’ve since become aware through the Magic of Feminism. When I first played FFVIII, I’d had my share of princesses in other media; I didn’t want princesses anymore. I wanted to beat monsters with swords that were also guns. Now, I understand the value of the classically feminine traits Rinoa exhibits. I also understand that liking her femininity doesn’t conflict with my desire to beat monsters with gunblades. All things considered, I think a lot of my newfound appreciation for Rinoa stems from viewing the story of Squall and Rinoa as teenagers through the lens of an adult, rather than as almost-adults to the eyes of someone who is barely a teenager.

When I first played FFVIII, the characters seemed so much more mature to me. Now that I have a decade on most of the main cast, many of the plot points that I took for granted as incomprehensibly grown-up (love! war!) come across as sad. Squall’s sulking reads as genuinely adolescent; it’s occasionally silly and hyperbolic (as adolescent angst usually is), but it’s earned. His background as a kid from a broken home looking for acceptance is much clearer to me this time around. As a result, there’s now something inherently unsettling about the idea that he finds acceptance at Balamb Garden, the boarding school in which the game begins. Although the Garden appears as–and sounds like, thanks to that beautiful theme–a peaceful, safe base of operations for students like Squall, its role as a training ground for would-be mercenaries is always lurking in the shadows. This time around, the Garden speaks to the precarious political climate and war-torn history of its world.

I still haven’t finished my playthrough; while I suspect some of the goofier plot twists I remember won’t hold up–certainly not the Exposition Orphanage–I’m interested to see how the rest of the game has aged. In the meantime, I received Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch in the mail recently and am anxious to start playing it in ernest. Hopefully I’ll be able to come back to VIII after the barrage of new releases this spring. Or maybe it will take another ten years.

In the meantime, here’s Crystal Kay singing “Eyes on Me.” And here’s a link to her US iTunes page, because I enjoy her original music far more than I enjoy this cover.

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