On reaching Trabia Garden, it’s clear that it has taken some heavy damage from the missile attack, but it’s not completely destroyed, and several survivors can still be found making sense of the mess. There’s also a sombre graveyard to visit, though the emotional impact of this scene is hindered somewhat by finding and reading a Timber Maniacs magazine, and then drawing the spell Zombie from one of the tombstones.
Selphie urges Squall to wait for her at the basketball court while she checks in with her friends. At the court, the group splits up and takes stock of the situation, pondering who the sorceress is, and why she wants Ellone. Once you’re done chatting to everyone, Selphie arrives, and she requests to join in when they go after the sorceress. Sorry, Selphie – unless there’s a plot-mandated character absence, I play Zell and Rinoa.
Rinoa jumps in at this point with her own request. She’s been doing some thinking, and she wants to find a way to resolve the conflict without violence. During all their battles, she explains, she feels left behind, like they’ll forget about her and she’ll have no one. Squall asks what happened to her since Timber, while Irvine says he understands her feelings. However, he says, some battles cannot be avoided, and the sorceress cannot be reasoned with. This clarified, everyone leaves Trabia Garden and that’s the end of this sequence.
…Alright, that’s not true. Irvine does actually say he understands her feelings, but then he launches into a ramble that nobody asked for about his childhood at an orphanage. One of the few parts about this sequence that I like is that Irvine clarifies that all these orphans were left behind after the Sorceress War. I think this is a great bit of scene-setting, as you spend so much time in flashy fights during this game that it’s easy to forget the actual cost of war. My problem with this sequence doesn’t lie in how everyone here’s a Sorceress War orphan – it absolutely makes sense to me that a specific generation of lost children were drawn to join a military academy for safety, and as an exploration of the conflict that stole their parents from them.
What I can’t bear is that Irvine goes on to explain that every single one of the protagonists (except for Rinoa) used to go to the same orphanage. When he mentions liking a particular other person at the orphanage, Selphie gets stirrings of memory, and Quistis jumps in at the mention of an old stone house overlooking the ocean. Irvine confirms this, and Selphie and Quistis are both outraged that he never mentioned this before.
This was bad enough, but then Zell appears in Irvine’s recollection, and then Squall, and even Seifer gets in on the convenience pile-up. Squall starts remembering a whole bunch of details, and realises that Ellone was at the orphanage as well. Since they’ve clarified that Ellone was part of their “orphanage gang”, Zell gets fired up about helping her with whatever it is she’s been trying to do in sending them to the past.
Selphie says the only reasonable line in this entire sequence – “You didn’t even remember who she was”. Yes, precisely.
So this discussion goes on for a bit, with people remembering scraps of their lives here and there. We clarify that Squall was deeply attached to Ellone, or Sis as he called her, and that her disappearance from the orphanage was likely the trauma that made him so anti-social in the present.
Quistis, meanwhile, tries to resolve her feelings for Squall. She’d apparently thought she was in love with Squall during her time as Instructor, when she wouldn’t allow herself to act on it, but now she writes it off as sisterly affection. She also notes that she gave up on Squall once Rinoa appeared, though I’m not sure why – it’s not like Squall ever showed any affection towards her either.
At this point, they try to work out why they all forgot these details, and Irvine suggests that it’s probably because of the side effects of using Guardian Forces. He only recently started, while the others, as long-term Balamb Garden students, have been using them for a while. Selphie, who only recently transferred to Balamb Garden, explains that she “found” a Guardian Force during a training mission, and made use of it for a while before.
They touch on what they should do now that they know, but Squall instantly dismisses it. The entire Junction system, he explains, is needed for fights to be anything more than just spamming Attack, so he’s not willing to give up his Guardian Forces. Well, okay, that’s not quite how he puts it, but the necessity of Guardian Forces for their combat strength is indeed the basis of what he says.
Selphie suggests keeping a diary as a solution to this issue, while Zell says he’s fine with forgetting a childhood of being bullied by Seifer. Quistis, however, not satisfied with the “plot twists” so far, decides to raise the subject of Matron. Everyone instantly remembers what Matron looked like, and SURPRISE, she is Sorceress Edea.
Irvine confirms their suspicions, and when they try to work out why this kindly orphanage owner would become a violent military leader, Irvine dismisses it with the whole “we wouldn’t understand it even if we tried” line that keeps cropping up throughout the game. The writer is saving the answers to these questions for later, but doesn’t want players to have time to consider or work it out, so they just try to rush the discussions on instead, which feels a bit wonky to me (and makes the characters look silly).
One thing Squall briefly considers is that Matron set up SeeD and Garden, but Edea had Seifer question Squall over the purpose of SeeD, which seems like a contradiction. This is a hint at the fact that Edea isn’t quite who she seems, but at the same time Ultimecia, as I mentioned before, basically knows all she needs to about SeeD’s true purpose anyway, so the questioning was pointless.
Irvine gives a slightly off speech about how he’s had very little choice in his path here, but he values his choices. I guess maybe he’s making the best of a bad deal? Either way, he wanted to let everyone know that they were going to have to face Matron, and give them a chance to think over the big decision ahead of them. Do they fight Matron or not?
The group decides that they do indeed want to continue onwards, and they resolve to visit the orphanage one more time. Rinoa, who’s been left out of this entire discussion, right after saying she often feels left out, resigns herself to the fact that nobody was interested in her request to find a peaceful solution.
There’s another theory bobbing about that suggests that Rinoa might eventually become Ultimecia. I believe this has been dismissed by the game’s creators, but I feel like this sequence is probably a good foundation for Rinoa’s feelings of isolation, both in that they completely ignore her, and also that they don’t even consider talking to the sorceress behind everything.
Anyway, we’ve been through the whole dreaded basketball court orphanage sequence, but let’s get into why I really hate this part and feel that it both spoils the game so far and signals the decline in quality from here on out.
There’s no questioning that FFVIII is a bit patchy in terms of plot. More and more, I’ve encountered conversations that seem to make no sense, and character motivations that don’t really hold out. The first Disc’s story is fairly grounded, following a military student’s first engagement in open conflict, before being assigned to a resistance group, hijacking a train, and attempting an assassination (let’s ignore any ethical questions about the presentation of these themes for now/ever). There’s a strong focus on Galbadia’s growth into a superpower, and the tales that led both to that and the current situation years later.
Disc 2 gets a bit more wacky. You start out in an unusual drill prison filled with cutesie lion creatures, find that Garden’s under attack from its own staff setting monsters on everyone, the Garden Master is a giant monstrous creature from a race of beings who’ve not shown up or been mentioned before, Garden itself can fly, Raijin and Fujin casually walk into the Galbadian army and grab leadership roles, and then you get this weird set of backstories out of apparently nowhere.
Now, I say “out of nowhere”, but that’s not entirely true. The theme of Guardian Forces affecting memory has come up on a handful of occasions, though largely in side content. Additionally, the idea of memories was explored when Squall became disturbed by Seifer’s reduction to “past tense” when everyone thought he’d been executed.
However, none of the characters have ever expressed any concerns about huge dark spots in their past that they don’t recall. They’re all able to remember a variety of details about life at the orphanage when Irvine reminds them that they lived there, but their constant time spent around each other doesn’t trigger anything at all.
Irvine states that he never mentioned it until now because he felt upset and left out because nobody seemed to recognise him. Let’s remind ourselves of his entry into the plot again – he’s introduced by Headmaster Martine, and opens with “looks like I’m with you rubes from Balamb”. There’s no hint at all that he recognises anyone and his interactions are largely being short with people, or attempting to flirt with anyone female. He does at least put some effort into getting the concert going, though that seems more like an excuse to get points with Selphie than out of fond memories of their childhood together.
Quistis got a lot of screentime earlier in the game, with her probable attraction to Squall despite his poor treatment of her, but it’s easy to have forgotten about that by the time she thinks it over in this sequence. Again, for all its flaws, FFXIII does a much superior job of presenting character arcs over the course of the game, mixing up who you play with, and ensuring that each character gets a chance to go through their tale.
(Octopath Traveler, while a decent game, doesn’t manage this quite so effectively, but does give its protagonists their time in the limelight.)
When you’re putting in a plot twist, there are a few things to consider. There’s no one way to write a story – certain popular writers, after all, made their name by defying all such tropes (though in some cases, I’d argue that delivering a series of disappointments and non sequiturs isn’t an improvement over predictability). However, I think it’s important, when devising a plot twist, to make sure that it feels like it was “always there”, and that it has a pay-off.
We’ve been over how the orphanage twist calls back to earlier parts of the story, but what’s the actual pay-off? How does this twist affect our understanding of the plot, and where it’s going?
The basic feature of this sequence is that Squall and the others share a bond because they knew each other since childhood, and that drives them onwards for the rest of the story. However, not only do I feel that it’s a ham-fisted way of trying to give them a shared purpose, but it’s not even necessary. Squall’s rivalry with Seifer didn’t need a deeper background than what we already have – Seifer sees himself as a misunderstood hero who’s willing to break from authority to get things done, and doesn’t understand the consequences of his cruelty.
Quistis’s unrequited affection for Squall didn’t need an awkward backstory about mistaken sisterly feelings. She served as his instructor, came to understand him and (most of) how his mind works, and wanted him to understand her as well. Sharing his earliest memories doesn’t improve this or add any depth, beyond adding a slightly incestuous vibe to proceedings.
Beyond that, they’re all orphans, and this is crucial to the characters in exploring how they both fight against and adopt the theatre of war. However, there’s no benefit to having them all orphans from the same place – and for that matter, Zell didn’t even need to be an orphan himself. His adoptive grandfather was a military veteran who Zell aspired to be like, despite their differences in temperament. The simple fact that they lost their parents or loved ones to war is good enough by itself as a driving force behind their shared paths in joining military academies.
Aside from their shared backgrounds as orphans, the other purpose of this sequence is to underline the cost of using Guardian Forces. Well, the Guardian Force memory issue enters and leaves the main story at this one point, so it’s not much of a pay-off either. At no point later in the tale do they find a way to wage war without Guardian Forces, nor is it ever a goal to them – when Squall says it’s an acceptable price to pay, everyone agrees, and that’s it.
The sequences with Time Compression are more about their own sense of self than their memories, and while memory is a factor in understanding oneself, it’s not crucial to how the scene plays out. The issue that prevents Squall from joining up with the others is that he hasn’t resolved his personal problems with trusting in and relying on other people, and the internal conflict between his frightened need for isolation versus his developing affections for Rinoa and companionship with the others. His memory issues caused by the Guardian Forces don’t really come into play.
As such, the Guardian Force memory crisis really just comes across as a convenient excuse for why all these characters don’t remember being friends from childhood, but there’s no real benefit to setting things up like this anyway. The bonds they develop naturally over the course of the game are much more engaging, whether it’s Zell’s breakdown over giving away Garden’s involvement, Selphie’s drive to stop the missile launch, or Quistis’s unrequited affection for Squall, and her acceptance that it won’t work out.
And now, last of all, let’s talk about Matron.
Matron. That word still invokes irritation in me as easily as it did nearly nineteen years ago. Sorceress Edea is a frightening villain, with unnerving animations, a fashion sense that combines religious iconography with haunted houses, and a distinct lack of humanity. While one can question her way of trying to attain her goals, it’s undeniable that she takes control of the story’s villainy once she enters the tale, spoken of with awe and fear by anyone you talk to, whether students, townsfolk, or even her own soldiers.
However, at this stage of the story, the group has a new conflict introduced, whereby she was effectively their mother, and now they’re suddenly afraid to consider fighting her. A lot of focus is put on this theme, with all of them expressing their hesitation. Worse yet, Seifer’s apparently been told about this plot development, as when you finally encounter him in the end-of-disc confrontation, he immediately tries to taunt them about fighting “Matron”.
It’s just so… artless. From the characters’ perspectives, they’ve barely known about her, and now suddenly they have to care about this conflict in goals. As for the player, there’s been no build-up to this development, beyond Cid inferring that Edea used to be a nice person, so they cannot share in the party’s trepidation. Along with all the other plot twists thrown into this sequence, it really just feels like it was there in a clumsy attempt to add depth to proceedings, but this is not the way to go about that.
Sure, the villain in FFXIII didn’t exactly ooze depth, but at least he didn’t suddenly turn out to be Lightning’s uncle or something.
It completely changes your perspective on Edea, but not in a good way. At best, this is the writer’s way of trying to disconnect you from seeing Edea as an enemy ahead of the twist that Edea isn’t the real villain. You have to be very careful about connecting too many characters so conveniently, and there are better ways of doing that. Look at President Vinzer Deling – Rinoa hated him, but she didn’t have a personal conflict with him beyond what he’d done to Timber. It was Zone and Watts whose fathers’ corpses were desecrated by Deling.
Edea was already Cid’s wife, and Cid set up Garden with her after she warned him about needing to oppose “the sorceress”. That Squall and the others, disaffected orphans and rebels, would end up in contact with the Garden made sense and didn’t need this extra link. It’s easy to accept that students of the Garden would be recruited to face the sorceress. It’s easy to accept that Seifer, during a holiday, had a romance that led to him introducing Rinoa to Cid.
What is harder to accept is that Squall, Irvine, Selphie, Quistis, Zell, and Seifer knew each other before Garden when they all lived at an orphanage for their formative years, met Ellone there, regarded Edea as their mother, then all went off to different Gardens where most of them proceeded to lose their memories, before being called together through a variety of circumstances in a world-spanning crisis, failed to recognise each other, were all supported by Ellone who never contacted them directly, and fought against the sorceress Edea, who chose to make Seifer her chief minion, and finally all recognised each other and remembered their past the moment one of them brought it up.
That’s not to mention all of the issues with what they do and don’t remember, or when their memories actually cut off.
It’s just a mess, and none of it was needed. If we’re expected to care about Edea as their adoptive mother, then feature her as a character they remember (and lost) earlier in the story under a different name, and then eventually reveal to us that the sorceress and the kindly Matron are one and the same. Without that build-up, it’s impossible to care that these poor students are going to have to face off against their “beloved” Matron.
What I did like in this scene was when Irvine summarised how they’d all gone on their separate paths and been forced to grow up in this conflict-driven world. Surrounded by the ruined basketball court, it was a particularly poignant moment. It’s just a shame that everything around it was such a let-down.
Now that I’ve finally voiced all of that, let’s forget it ever happened (blame the GFs) and get back to the stuff that really matters next time.