Final Fantasy VIII and Setup and Payoff
StoryScan: Weak Point
StoryScan: Weak Point highlights specific aspects of a individual game narratives that don’t live up to audience expectations. In this essay, we’re covering Final Fantasy VIII (Square-Enix, 1999), the second entry of the series developed for the Sony Playstation. This essay will cover content from the entire plot of Final Fantasy VIII. Players who have not completed this game may want to set this article aside until later, as it contains substantial spoilers for the main storyline.
In 1999, Square-Enix (then known as Squaresoft) released Final Fantasy VIII, a role-playing game for the original Sony Playstation. As the follow-up to the wildly successful Final Fantasy VII, VIII continued its predecessor’s more modern aesthetic to deliver a unique story where teenagers serve as mercenaries in a war against powerful magic-wielders known as sorceresses. By contracting with power spirits known as Guardian Forces (referred to throughout the story as GFs), the teen mercenaries are able to hold their own against the sorceresses, giving humanity a fighting chance.
While the game was largely well-received, it had several glaring issues, including a disjointed narrative that has been dubbed as: “slow, bloated, and unnecessarily confusing.”1 One of the most frequently criticized story elements is the infamous ‘orphanage’ twist, in which it’s revealed more than halfway through the game that the majority of the game’s playable characters were all raised together in the same orphanage. There are multiple reasons why this twist may be remembered so negatively, but they all tie back to one thing: a failure of setup and payoff.
The Premise and the Twist
To understand why the orphanage twist didn’t have the intended impact, the first thing to establish is the narrative premise. In Final Fantasy VIII, players control Squall Leonhart, a sullen teenager at the Balamb Garden military academy. Like the other students in the Garden, Squall is training to defeat the powerful sorceress currently threatening the global order, Edea. His chief allies are his fellow Garden residents: his classmate, Zell; his instructor, Quistis; the transfer student, Selphie; and the exchange student, Irvine. Using the power of the GFs, the team of teens works together to overcome the sorceress, their growing relationship becomes one of the main narrative through-lines. That relationship is challenged when Irvine reveals a shocking secret: all five of them were raised together in the same orphanage by Edea, and Irvine is the only one who remembers because the GFs have been tampering with everyone else’s memories.
Irvine’s revelation is a major bombshell for three specific reasons. First, it (theoretically) changes the pre-established relationship between the core cast of characters. Until that point, they assumed they had become friends organically at the Garden. In truth, they were drawn together because they recognized each other as children. Second, the reveal changes the team’s relationship with the antagonist because the woman they previously swore to kill is someone who once cared for them. Third, the GFs they’ve previously relied on to help them have also been hurting them, and the costs of using them may outweigh the benefits. Any one of these issues should represent a pivotal moment for the cast, yet the reveal carries little weight because of how it is—or isn’t—established and how it changes things moving forward.
Setting it Up
The orphanage twist has several issues, but the biggest is the total lack of setup for the individual parts. While some aspects of the twists were foreshadowed better than others, none were established well enough for a reasonable player to predict the outcome. Author K.M. Weiland explains why this is a problem, writing: “Readers expect us to play fair, which means any so-called unexpected twists have to be built of existing story elements that make sense within the context of the plot…Nothing is worse than reaching the end of a story, chewing your nails, wondering how the author is going to make all these pieces fit together—only to have him trick you by pulling out a brand spanking new piece you’ve never even heard of before.” Though the orphanage twist does not occur at the end of the story, Weiland’s analysis still applies. Whether audiences are reading a book or playing a game, they expect story events to build on known information. This is where Final Fantasy VIII’s big twist falters.
Since the twist has three components, there are three pieces of information that should have been set up earlier in the story. Unfortunately, none of them are. The memory loss component is meant to excuse the lack of setup for the other two, but memory loss isn’t established as a consequence of using GFs until that very scene. As a result, the explanation feels like a cheat. It’s also an ineffective explanation because Irvine never lost his memories (due to never using GFs as a child), which means he’s been withholding critical information from the rest of the cast. When two party members ask him to explain this, his reply is as follows: “Cause you two seemed to have forgotten! It just kinda sucked that was the only one who remembered…” It’s the only explanation the story provides for why Irvine would hold this information back, and there are no scenes to support it. From Irvine’s first scene, he shows absolutely no signs that he recognizes his friends, nor that they should recognize him. For all the good this explanation does, it could have been deleted from the script with no loss.
Irvine’s unwillingness to drop hints about his past is not only a failure of setup, but a missed opportunity for character growth. His ambivalence about being united with friends who have forgotten him could have been a compelling character moment, but instead, it’s treated as throwaway lines that doesn’t impact his character. His reluctance to shoot Edea earlier on does make more sense in this context, granted, but his unexplained hesitation isn’t sufficient setup on its own. For setup to be effective, it has to be targeted enough that audiences can draw a connection between it and the payoff. When Irvine’s struggle to shoot is the only setup, no reasonable player would assume it’s due to such a specific shared history with the target. If this scene had been fleshed out or referenced later, it could have added depth to his character while setting up the twist. Instead, it accomplishes neither, and a great opportunity is lost.
Paying it off
A good twist should do two things to work: it should draw upon past events, and it should influence future events. Final Fantasy VIII’s orphanage twist not only fails to draw upon past events, but also has little impact on future events. The relationship between the party members hasn’t changed, as they’re already friends working towards a common goal. The relationship the party members have with the GFs also isn’t changed because they decide in that same scene that the power GFs provide is worth the cost of their memories, and that cost is never seriously referred to again.
The only aspect of the twist that impacts the plot is the party members’ relationship with Edea, the sorceress they’ve been trying to defeat. While none of the characters struggle with their duty for very long, they put far more thought into their changed relationship with their target than they do their relationships with each other or their missing memories. Ultimately, they’re still willing to fight Edea, but they’re less sanguine about the prospect than they were initially. This reluctance has its own payoff when they finally confront Edea, and her relationship with the cast plays an integral part in the rest of the story. It’s the one aspect of the twist that elevates the story, because it’s the one aspect that actually has an impact.
With no setup and limited payoff, Final Fantasy VIII’s orphanage twist is rightly remembered as one of the weakest aspects of the narrative. The missed opportunities are especially disappointing, as the conceit had the potential for character conflict and resulting growth. Had the central components been developed and expanded upon, it could have elevated the narrative. Instead, the twist is remembered as a uniquely unfortunate aspect of an otherwise successful game.
1 Kalata, Kurt. “A Japanese Primer: The Essential 20.” Gamasutra, 2008.
2 Weiland, K.M.. Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story (Helping Writers Become Authors Book 3) (p. 126). PenForASword Publishing. Kindle Edition.
* Reference Footage: Primalliquid. Final Fantasy VIII Remastered 100% Playthrough. YouTube, 2019.
** Reference Script. Shotgunnova / P. Summers. Final Fantasy VIII – Game Script. GameFAQs, 2007.