Very few fictional worlds approach demonstrably bad ideas with more whimsy than the Final Fantasy VIII universe.
Everywhere you look, someone in a position of power is sticking their greasy finger into an electrical socket or buying poorly-made fireworks. Undefined political and existential threats dotted all over the globe? Train a collection of teenagers and dispatch them as diplomats and mercenaries even though they can barely settle disputes about hot dogs. Found a mysterious and potentially dangerous underground research facility? Instead of checking what it might have been for, build a school on top. Discover a woman with the strange ability project backwards through time? Invent a device that replicates that power and hand it over to the government. Monsters come from the moon? Construct a skyscraper-sized magnet designed to suck creatures out of space and flood the surface of the planet.
And, most importantly, if you discover a collection of godlike energy beings with terrifying powers and the ability to merge with the psyche of mortals, immediately begin attaching them to children.
“Be sure to ignore all the GF criticism you hear from other Gardens or military forces.”
Like most other things in the game, FFVIII spends almost no time explicitly discussing the logic, purpose or backstory of Guardian Forces. GFs are this instalment’s summon magic, allowing characters to not only call forth ridiculous creatures but also serving as the justification for normal human characters being able to temporarily use magic. Beyond that, there’s very little to know about Guardian Forces: there are rumours that using them causes memory loss (because they live inside your brain, of course); they can be found in objects, people, or manifesting physically as themselves; and they are, according to translations of Final Fantasy Ultimania, best described as “mighty autonomous energy bodies.” Which could mean anything, really.
Even once you get beyond the conceptual oddness of a creature that lives inside the mind of a teenager, has thoughts and feelings, provides access to amazing magical abilities and eats memories, there’s something breathtakingly weird about these summons. And the more that you collect, the more confusing they become. But that’s sort of how Final Fantasy VIII works; it drops breadcrumbs that lead to large piles of breadcrumbs.
So, in an ill-advised attempt to piece together yet another section of Squall’s world, I’m going to step through all of the GFs, more or less in the order you might encounter them in-game, starting with the first five.
This is one of the two GFs you pick up at the beginning of the game, the other being Shiva. First of all, you get them from inside your classroom computer, which means right from the start we’re treated to the information that Guardian Forces can be digitised and stored in folders like Spongebob reaction pictures. It’s not clear at this point whether every student gets to download their own GF, or whether everyone gets their own Quezacotl. Can you copy a GF? Is it considered software piracy to backup your magic weapons of mass destruction?
Quezacotl is a giant ethereal seagull which appears in the midst of a storm either from a lightning bolt or from beneath the earth, depending on your interpretation. It erects a large dome of electricity around the enemy by using its featureless face as a Tesla coil and zaps everything inside.
The name comes from the Mesoamerican deity Quetzalcoatl, although character limits on the PSX mangled that reference; the true name of the god translates to “feathered serpent,” whereas the name of the GF translates to “word my teenage self could not pronounce.” If you have a keen eye, you might have noticed that Quezacotl does not even slightly resemble a serpent, looking more like the silhouette of an eagle or common magpie. It also, ironically, has almost no feathers on its weirdly smooth body. It does have a beard, though. On top of all these lies, the namesake deity is actually a god of wind, air and learning, not shooting lightning bolts out of its beak.
Previous Final Fantasy games have used Ramuh, an old man who carries a big stick, as an electricity-themed summon; but a comment online from Tetsuya Nomura that has no citation and can’t be verified suggests there was a desire to have more bestial and less human forms for VIII‘s summon magic, so we get this Slenderman-looking bird.
Since we have no idea where Quezacotl originally came from, what it wants, its thought processes or how it goes to the bathroom, I’m forced to conclude it is an eldritch, unknowable thing from the darkest cosmic void, and if we look too deeply into the smooth triangle where its eyes should be we would surely go mad.
It’s a sexy lady, decked out in what science fiction and fantasy both agree is the sexiest skin colour: blue. Shiva has been a mainstay of Final Fantasy games for a long time, and always shows up as a rather elegant, barely-dressed woman who can hurl chunks of ice at people. Brace yourselves, people, this is as normal as things get around here.
Shiva’s sleek design, elongated head adornments and whimsical animations bring to mind fairy creatures like sprites and dryads, making it all the more confusing that her name comes from Hindu mythology. Now, obviously we have the same problem here as above; Shiva is a god who primarily “creates, protects and transforms” the universe, and is also a man, whereas Shiva is a being of pure energy who shoots ice out of her lady hands.
Please pay attention.
Obviously the main thing this brings into question is whether or not Guardian Forces are coincidentally sometimes similar in form to humans, or if this is simply the shape Shiva uses because she has been tethered to a 17-year-old boy who has almost certainly had impure, teenage thoughts about the nearly-nude mind-goddess.
Here things begin to get a little more knotty. You recruit Ifrit by completing the Fire Cavern exam prerequisite. Yes, Balamb Garden requires that you enter a cave full of lava and monsters, then challenge a demigod to a duel, before they will allow you to take your final exams. The whole thing is on a timer, and the final exam is a civil war.
This whole experience raises a lot of questions with regard to how the whole GF system functions. For example, does everyone have to do this test? If so, surely the creature would have already been tamed and put into the GF folder on the school PC servers, between the files for Finances and Hell, Island Of. Why is this creature hanging out in a cave not more than a few miles from a busy school? If the GF looks up too quickly do the horns stab it in the back? Ifrit seems surprised when Shiva is used during the battle, and aware of her position as a summon. Does that mean GFs can communicate, have relationships and form opinions about their role in the universe? Is Ifrit aware that it’s become part of an academic exercise designed to evaluate child soldiers?
Answers to all of these questions and less await when you defeat the well-muscled cat demon and he says a few derogatory things about humans, implying that GFs have a similar relationship with people that robots do right before they rise up and kill us all.
In a shocking twist, Ifrit is actually a type of fire demon (or jinn) lifted from the pages of Arabian mythology. In certain texts they are said to take the form of a recently deceased person, which means it is now canon that a cat died in the fire cavern. They are also reportedly destroyed with prayer, and not shards of magical ice or a sword that shoots bullets.
Drawn from the belly of a demonic bat wasp, Siren is the second and final entry in the scantily-clad, conventionally-attractive lady category of Guardian Forces.
She strums a magical harp and has feathers instead of hair. Also her clothes are feathers. There are functioning wings sprouting from the sides of her head meaning she definitely has hollow bones and a very well-muscled skull. When you summon Siren, the entire field of battle is flooded with ghostly, sparkling water, and the horizon becomes a dreamy sunset.
This is the first summon which completely transforms the world around it, rather than simply appearing; the implication is that either GFs are capable of transporting their foes to some other dimension, or people in Final Fantasy VIII‘s universe are constantly cleaning magical glitter out of their houses, streets and hockey rinks.
Siren is named after the creatures in Greek myth whose singing was so beautiful and enchanting that men would fling themselves from the decks of their ships and die in an attempt to reach them. In this instance FFVIII is again rather accurate regarding its translation from myth to game design: sirens were said to be half-woman, half-bird creatures with feathers, wings and clawed feet; they did carry instruments which included harps; they hung out on rocks and caused problems for people. Oh, but wait, this Siren doesn’t sing, it shoots wavy glitter lasers out of its harp, and the lasers inflict silence on enemies without ever once enticing them toward a watery grave.
From the fourth century AD, sirens began to transform in the public consciousness from literal creatures into thinly-veiled allegories for loose and ‘dangerous’ women. Singers in particular were seen as potential temptations for pious men. Even the visual representations of sirens in art and fiction slowly moved away from bird-centaurs and toward figures who appeared to be nothing but beautiful—and frequently damp—women.
There is some unintended irony in the idea that a summon based on a corrupting caricature of womanhood inflicts a status effect that reduces the productivity and usefulness of the enemy. The humiliating distillation of your skills down to the basics of hitting things with your stick.
Just as Ifrit is the first summon players encounter ‘in the wild,’ Siren is the first to be drawn out of the environment, having apparently been content to live in the guts of a tornado-producing creature that resides at the top of an abandoned tower. The Dollet Communications Tower, in fact, does resemble a lighthouse, perched as it is at the top of a hill and overlooking the coast. Given the connection between sirens and the sea, the placement of this GF near a beach, inside a dormant building designed to relay helpful information across the ocean, seems very deliberate. Do these energy beings seek out places that suit their natures, or does the environment control their form?
Speaking of completely inexplicable places to find powerful monsters, the Brothers GF lives inside a royal tomb and it’s actually two people. Beings. Energy beings. But it’s still just one summon.
The main story of Final Fantasy VIII eventually leads players to the Tomb of the Unknown King, a very faint reference to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Squall et al must head to this ruined tomb and find evidence of a lost student so they’re allowed to get into an old guy’s house and murder the woman who ran their orphanage. The student is probably dead, but nobody seems particularly concerned, which isn’t strange if you consider how little anyone cares about the well-being of children in this universe. Players who head deeper into the tomb, however, will discover a minotaur and his brother, a minotaur.
Despite this being the cursed resting place of a dead emperor and all-but-confirmed to have been the cause of death for at least one teenager recently, everything that happens in here is inexplicably hilarious. One of the minotaurs—named Minotaur—is tiny even though he’s the big brother to the other one, Sacred. They speak like members of a college fraternity for some reason. The party members explicitly and canonically make fun of them.
Sacred and Minotaur’s attack is called Brotherly Love and begins with a chunk of the battlefield being verneshot into the stratosphere by the big cow boy. Before he can continue his rampage, his tiny cow brother appears and challenges him to a Rock, Paper, Scissors battle, and it is illegal to walk away from these in the Final Fantasy VIII universe. Sacred loses and cries like a big cow baby while his brother launches him head-first into the rock shelf. What do we learn from this? Not a damn thing, except that apparently some GFs don’t take their roles as seriously as others.
The confusing cavalcade of mythological chimeras comes close to peaking with Brothers. Their design and naming convention derives from the Greek myth of the Minotaur, a creature with the head of a bull and the body of a man found stalking the confusing halls of an inescapable labyrinth before being killed by some hero. The Minotaur was a result of a woman named Pasiphaë tricking a bull into having sex with her by hiding inside a cow-shaped wooden sex robot. That isn’t relevant to the investigation, it’s just fun to know. The Brothers GF is found in a tomb, not a maze, although they try to pretend it’s a maze by just having all the rooms look the same. At least they nailed the part of the ancient myth where the Minotaur’s brother turns up and he does a big comedy double-take before headbutting a sentient cactus.
Interestingly, Sacred and Minotaur in FFVIII are references to the bosses Sekhmet and Minotaur from FFV. Sekhmet is an Egyptian goddess with the head of a lioness and the body of a woman, in case you were curious about how interested Final Fantasy designers are in cohesive references.
What we’ve learned
After examining five (six?) of these mystical brain creatures, what do we know? They can live inside computers and monsters, wander indefinitely in caves and idle for no reason inside other people’s graves. They can potentially transform their environment to suit their purposes, and their purposes are almost always causing massive amounts of physical harm to other creatures. Their corporeal form is possibly controlled by the conditions surrounding them, sometimes they team up to play beer pong, they eat your thoughts, and nobody really knows what to do with them other than to use them as nightmare batteries for armed conflicts. Given how many summons there are still to be dissected, who knows what other secrets we can learn from the Guardian Forces and how they relate to the world. It feels like we’re close to a breakthrough that will help all of this make perfect sense.
Anyway, next time we summon the literal devil for no good reason, maybe shattering space and time in the process.