I have taken a lot of flak for my lifelong obsession with Final Fantasy VIII. I have played the game perhaps seven times (as my husband points out, the "perhaps," that guesswork, already means I've racked up too many playthroughs) and am working on an eighth. I'll admit off the bat that part of my obsession is based in nostalgia. FF8 was my first RPG, and the first game I bought with my own money. It was also very closely associated for me with an online community I was a member of at the time, a group of people I held closer in some ways than my friends in reality. But I think there was, and is, more to FF8 that justifies its appeal to me. I was just starting to write at the time, and as I've studied and practiced writing more, I've come to recognize in FF8 several lessons in good writing.
Other gamers are laughing, because they know that this is not a game held up for much of anything--its gameplay, its story, its battle system, its characters--and certainly not its writing. The only thing it ever was really praised for was its design, its animation. It was a pretty impressive-looking game for its time. The opening FMV is, I think, still incredible held up against anything in FF7, and anything else at the time. The character design doesn't age too poorly, either, if only because the characters don't exist in a netherworld between super-deformed hexagon men and leggy outerwear models; you don't have to work too hard to reconcile Squall from the world map with Squall in the battle screen with Squall in a cut scene. 8's characters are basically human, basically proportional, basically functional when they gesture and walk. If you can block out some hallmarks of the time, like Rinoa's stationary hairdo and a few stiff necks and moony eyes, you can still play the game. I'd argue that 7's sharp angles and bulbous shapes, among other things, render it unrewatchable.
What endears me to replaying 8, though, is not that its design one-upped 7's so soundly. It's actually the places where the designers seem to have worked harder than the engine could accommodate. 8 is too detailed for its own good. The colors are too nuanced, the shapes are too complicated. The faces are jumpy, overwrought. The movements are shaky. Where is Selphie facing when she stands on top of the junked car in the Galbadian desert? There's so many arid yellows, all competing in a busy background; her shoes, legs, and dress melt into the surroundings. The result of compositions like these is that often in 8 I am not sure quite where I need to be to approach another character, to avoid an ottoman, to mount a stairway, to exit through a door.
But how compellingly staged this scene is. Selphie's standing alone on top of a melted car in the middle of a desert, about to watch missiles go by on their way to the school she just left, Trabia Garden. The character design may be too beige, too thin, too pixeled to really register against the background; it doesn't quite work, but the effect of such staging is lovely, and to my mind, so much preferable to 7's bulbous character cartoons against those dark industrial backdrops, or 9's garish colors and over-fanciful environments. Subtlety of style, expression, and setting wasn't in the cards at the time, but 8 tried for it, and the result is often really engaging. The feeling, for me, is that the characters are actually in most of their settings, and not that those settings have been washed or muted to accommodate the characters.
What this means from a writing perspective is that the settings don't exist for the characters; they don't compromise their own integrity as pre-existing places to enhance our view of the characters. The characters feel forced to inhabit this inconvenient world, rather than simply being backdropped by it. This creates a conflict between characters and setting. By working at odds with the characters and rendering them less visible, the settings pose a implicit threat: a world that is vaster than they and strangely (for a video game) independent of their story, their needs.
In a similar way, the (over)attention to detail in the settings suggests conflict between and among the game's different historical and geographical entities. In this same scene, the car's coloring simulates rust and an ugly, ravaged paint job, which hardly distinguishes it from the boulder behind. Its shape, too, is unclear. Is it the back half? The front? The top? Was it a car or a van? A military vehicle? It's not the same as the military vehicle parked beside it. Nor are the two military vehicles in the scene at all similar to each other. They are both boxy, tanklike, as are most vehicles in the game. But the similarities end here. Are we to assume they're from different branches of the military? Different countries? Different time periods? Is the yellow one fresh off the line while the green is a remainder from Laguna's time? The dissonances between such details create conflict that, again, works in the background--the conflicts of population, history, money, or class that would have to exist within Galbadia (and in fact do--notice how often the Galbadian soldiers worry about having enough money for food, for family, for themselves). Such conflict between details might also show conflict between a seedy city like Galbadia and a seaside village like Balamb. Could physically manifest the political conflicts that we see in towns like Timber.
The game does not insist on these details, nor does it narrate them to the player, as many do. I will never comprehend, for instance, the convoluted history that's supposed to underlie Final Fantasy Tactics. FF7 indulges in such reveals, too--and while I have no problem with, say, a secret Vincent backstory hidden in a waterfall cave, the purpose of such information is almost universally to help make the plot make sense where it would otherwise have huge holes. In FF7 you don't understand the whole tangled web of what's going on unless you discover and defeat everything, which wouldn't even be a problem if you weren't made to feel as if it were very important that you do understand. Defeating Sephiroth is a compelling enough story, but that's never all the story is. The story is not only complicated, but intertwined in bizarre and implausible ways. The characters you know about are the only ones that have ever played central parts in the story. They are the only ones who matter. No pathetic Vinzer Delings, who despite being around for only one act, clearly played a role in getting Galbadia to its current point. No Timber Resistance leaders and their children providing refuge in their houses. No Doc Odine, whose fame and fortune proves he exists beyond the present needs of the characters and the present sorceress situation. FF7 is populated only by the characters who matter or have mattered to the immediate plot; everyone else is there to sell you potions, to lament their status in the Midgard underclass, to see a man in a black cape passing this way. Insufficient attention to detail on the level of setting adds up to insufficient attention to character down the road--to the role of supporting characters in building and maintaining a believable and interesting world.
The conflicts in FF8 are not limited to (and by) its characters. The conflicts are present in its images, its cities. You know when you see Galbadia's train station what kind of place it is. This impression is not merely confirmed by additional details, as with the Midgard slums--the information given us by the opulent train station is matched in some details (the hotel, reminiscent of the Waldorf Astoria; the city gates, reminiscent of Berlin) and altered, or rather augmented, in others (the seedy neon-lit car rental, the gaudy and club-like Presidential Mansion). The images build the world rather than pinning it down. Galbadia is an amalgamation of four-star class, imparted by an apparently long-standing culture (you don't build a bronze arch overnight), and commercial excess, derived from a relatively recent amassing of power as the world's leading nation. This is all suggested through image, and gains credibility through a thoughtful juxtaposition of related details rather than a heavy-handed accrual of identical details.
This is the way to world-build. Such details, in small but potent ways, do with images what too many lesser RPGs do with bad dialogue, menu tutorials, and conveniently placed scholars/monks/tour guides. FF8's images imply histories, cultures, and relationships between people and nations that deepen the overall experience rather than instructing the viewer in how this all fits together. The details run over at the edges while making a coherent and recognizable whole, the way a good world does. It's interesting, for instance, to note how the materials, colors, and patterns on the Presidential Residence echo those of the various Gardens. We don't require a Hojo, a prime mover, to explain these patterns. They just quietly exist as proof that this is one universe, despite the disparate nature of its parts.
I don't suggest that these effects were necessarily planned out from start to finish, but I do argue that they are present and that they are an important example of what the game is good at, and of how writers can better create environments--environments that dwarf the problems of the characters rather than simply mirroring them.