The problem of player choice and character development in Final Fantasy VIII (spoilers obviously)

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There’s no doubt Final Fantasy VIII draws opposing reactions from gamers. Some declare it nothing other than the greatest role-playing game ever made with a bold leveling system and realistic characters, while just as many would tell you it’s a horrible mess with terrible game play and a messy story populated with unlikeable characters.

Playing through it for the first time, I’m enjoying Final Fantasy VIII a great deal, though I am not oblivious to its problems, the most obvious being the game’s illusion of choice when it comes to the player’s impact upon the narrative.

What do I mean?

When you comb through the time traveling sorceresses and worldwide conflict, FFVIII is at its heart a coming-of-age narrative, a character study of an anti-social teenager who learns the importance of camaraderie and love. Squall Leonhart has a solid character arc and, in my opinion, the best character development in the series. The problem comes in when the game gives you dialogue options. These happen in seemingly minor scenes and are usually there to increase or decrease your SeeD rank, but there’s such a quantity of them that they do have an effect on how you view Squall and his development. The point of the story is Squall’s becoming more emotionally open and forming bonds with the other party members; these little scenes are meant to show us the cracks in his icy facade, his slow opening up to others.

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Unfortunately, the game gives you options. In dealing with your friends and love interest, you can choose to be friendly and thoughtful or cold and dismissive. If you consistently pick the former, then Squall’s dramatic character development is subtle and well set up. If you choose to be an icy jerk whose reply to every situation is “whatever,” then it’s jarring when Squall suddenly starts caring for his comrades and freaking out when he almost loses Rinoa in Disc 3. It feels like bad writing, but it only seems that way because you were given options and the game did not follow through with them. They give you the illusion of choice when the game’s story is linear and fixed.

I don’t think FFVIII is close to contending for the title of “greatest RPG ever,” but the story does have great things in it. A remake with the narrative kinks ironed out would be interesting, though I doubt that would ever happen. Nevertheless, when character development is so vital to a narrative working and the story has already been fixed ahead of time, then it’s best to eradicate player choice when it comes to the dialogue.

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