Welcome, budding researchers, to the second part of our exploration into the weird and wonderful and weird world of Final Fantasy VIII’s Guardian Forces. Last time we looked into the first half-dozen summons from the game, which are—all things considered—relatively normal. Even if they do represent how nightmarishly close the citizens of this universe are to total annihilation at any given moment. I suppose if you accept that sometimes monsters explode out of the moon and rain down on the planet like a thunderstorm of death, teenagers unleashing the wrath of the gods to kill caterpillars isn’t going to ruffle your jaded feathers. But now the roster starts to get a little unhinged; now these reality-bending spirits of unknown origin are beginning to paint a particularly worrying picture of a world gone horribly wrong.
I’ve been studying up on the GF ’cause I know I’ll be using more of it now that I’m a SeeD. Am I going to lose my memories?
So far we’ve established that the GFs are spirits that can bond with objects, places, memories, general mythological concepts and actual human brains. They seem to be sapient beings, capable of making their own decisions and of having opinions about the world around them. And humanity, as a whole, has decided to enslave these creatures and force them to participate in politically-charged conflicts fronted by angry babies. It’s just a thing we do. But how much of a role do they actually play in the form and function of the world? Are they a recent phenomena, or have they existed long enough to play a part in how the universe works? Six more GFs are waiting to be picked apart and understood, which means there are six more chances to work out exactly what they say about Final Fantasy VIII.
If someone handed you a box and told you the actual Devil was inside, you’d probably be very wary of both the box and the motives of this generous psychopath. Nevertheless, the heroes of Final Fantasy VIII are characteristically unfazed when their school principal stops them before a mission (to aid domestic terrorists) and hands them a magic lamp. “It’s a cursed item,” he says, assuring the party that it will be “of great help” if you have the power to use it. He does not, one notes, clarify what help it will be, or what he means by power, or anything about the curse. Oh, okay sir, thanks for the curse. We’ll just be off to Timber so we can destabilise a world government.
Before we try to unpack all of that, what’s actually in the lamp? It’s Satan.
Diablos comes from the Greek word “diabolos” which means devil, and most often refers specifically to the Christian Devil. When you encounter Diablos in game—by rubbing the lamp, naturally—it does appear as a sinister red and black creature with horns, wings and a spiked tail. Rather than offering to teach you to play the guitar in exchange for your eternal soul, it mainly murders you while complaining about being sleepy. The summon’s design vacillates between sinister devil-figure and something more akin to a jinn, sans any desire to grant the player wishes. The demon uses gravity magic, which is magic that uses the power of… squishing people? It’s unclear what the exact mechanics of this element are, they just hurt. Diablos’ control over the very force that demonstrates the universal constraints of spacetime imply it does damage as a percentage of HP, of course, which means that demon boy is a big fan of maths and that hit points canonically exist inside the Final Fantasy VIII universe. God does not play dice, but Lucifer is a huge nerd.
Given that gravity is a result of the curvature of space and time, we can reasonably assume that Diablos is able to control the flow of time. Perhaps Ultimecia, who spent her life working to achieve the goal of time compression, stumbled across Diablos in her research and was actually responsible for its imprisonment inside the lamp. It fits with her character that she would see any other creature with the power to travel through time as a threat. This is supported by no evidence, which, in FFVIII terms, makes it extremely likely.
In other time-related news, Diablos is the only summon which can be fought and obtained not just by Squall’s party but by Laguna. In the past. Using the lamp while time-junctioned to Laguna’s timeline will still initiate combat and still give Squall access to the summon in the future, further cementing the idea that Diablos is not tethered to anything resembling linear time. But it gets weirder when you realise that not just the magical lamp but all of Squall’s inventory make the jump backwards. Laguna is surprisingly well-adjusted for someone who spent much of their early 20s being plagued by the angsty thoughts of his future son and having his pockets randomly fill up with cursed lamps and feathers.
This is a tiny green rat with a precious gem embedded in its rat head. Carbuncle is a support summon, the least interesting kind of summon, and helps the party by casting reflect on everyone. You’ll only get a few looks at this cute rodent before you consign it forever to the bench in favour of more exciting Guardian Forces. Carbuncle is the second summon you can draw from a boss monster, and can be found living inside one of the Iguions in Deling City. These half-lizard, half-lions were statues brought to life by Sorceress Edea specifically to kill Rinoa, a job she could have easily done herself except it would have made her hands dirty. Was the Carbuncle spirit already living inside the rocks, on the off chance that it could escape and be drawn into a human host? Or did the very act of giving these creatures life somehow attract the attention of a wandering spirit?
The name comes from a small, mythological creature reportedly sighted by Spanish Conquistadors in 16th century Latin America. Jorge Luis Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings (1957) states it had a mirror or jewel in the forehead. Carbuncle is also an archaic term for any kind of red jewel, such as the one embedded in the head of the GF. Carbuncles appear in many medieval texts as stones with magical properties, specifically ones with the ability to bring light to otherwise dark interiors. This seems to fit with the idea of the summon as a bringer of light and hope. Too bad nobody cares about this weird underground mole rat.
Destroyer of worlds and flooder of maps. Leviathan is a giant serpent creature with absolute control over water and earth, making it the perfect choice for a loosely affiliated collection of unsupervised child soldiers. When summoned, Leviathan exudes from a small tear in the fabric of reality, looking like a cut shot from James Cameron’s The Abyss. This wet noodle coalesces into its dragon form and rips the ground to shreds, crafting its own titanic cliff of rock from which to judge humanity. Rather than summoning water, Leviathan concentrates and disassembles itself into a tidal wave of death that pours down and wipes the enemy from the battlefield. There is absolutely no way anyone should use this in a battle, mainly because they would also die in the following ecological disaster. Leviathan can be drawn from NORG, the blobby venture capitalist who lives under Balamb Garden with his vast, mysterious reserves of cash and… funds the school?
Did you know NORG runs the Garden on the proviso that the students are hired out as mercenaries, therefore providing a constant profit to the organisation and him directly? This has nothing to do with summoning, it’s just very strange. Capitalism is the real enemy and NORG probably bought Leviathan with stolen wages.
In the Hebrew Bible, Leviathan is a female sea monster (the male equivalent being Behemoth, another Final Fantasy staple) that may or may not have been able to breath fire. Certain accounts suggest that God slew the monster because it was so powerful he refused to let two of them ever get together and have sex, since their snake monster babies would quickly overrun the Earth. The writings also state their flesh would be served as a banquet for the righteous, while tents would be made from their skin. Sadly, this version of Leviathan is far more sedate, with more in common with some later eras interpretations of standard sea monsters.
There is no way that any player is prepared for what comes next. No human mind can comprehend the unspeakable nightmare that awaits an innocent world. One moment, the universe makes sense; sure, there are demons and monsters and politically-savvy witches, but these things can be explained. Mostly. Then you draw something named Pandemona. Reality shudders. The scales fall from your eyes and your eyes fall from their sockets. A distant screaming is heard and will always be heard, lamenting the coming of the end times. Infinity gags on the foul stench of What Should Not Be.
Pandemona is a wind-based GF which can be drawn from Fujin, the intense female offsider to your favourite rival Seifer. To attack, it sucks the entire battlefield into a big sack on its back and spits them out into a tornado. It looks like this:
You might be thinking that this is pretty horrible, that it looks like a set of deep sea creatures fell into a woodchipper and got stuck, that its hands are too wide, and it has more than the allowable number of tubes. Consider for a moment, however, what it would look like if they hadn’t used the rainbow colour scheme. Think about exactly how terrifying this monster would be if it were rendered as anything organic, its empty chest orifices pulsing with anticipatory menace. There isn’t a single part of this thing that isn’t unsettling. The arms are like clawed stingrays, the face is just a series of eyes, its shoulder is a melted lump of purple flesh that lies uselessly on top of the expandable hose enemies will soon find themselves travelling inside. If I had to describe this summon simply and efficiently to another person I would simply scream at them for one whole minute.
Gone are the days of beautiful ice ladies, large cats, and cute, furry animals, your playthrough has now been cursed by the existence of whatever Pandemona is supposed to be. Its quivering back sack hungers. Pandemonium (which is the summon’s name in debug menus, sans character limit) is Lucifer’s castle in the centre of Hell, according to John Milton in Paradise Lost. It is a place of nightmares and chaos, which Final Fantasy VIII chooses to personify as a flesh-coated mistake pile. When I go to sleep at night, surrendering to the dark world, it is the voiceless breath of Pandemona I hear grinding in my ears.
Anyway here’s a three-headed dog. Cerberus is, as you might imagine, based on Cerberus, the dog that guards the gates of the underworld in Greek mythology. And by ‘based on’ we obviously mean stolen wholesale. This version isn’t even guarding anything, just sort of standing in the middle of a big room where you can easily avoid him entirely.
Cerberus is found lollygagging in the main room of Galbadia Garden during the Battle of the Gardens, which is the part of the game where two schools turn into airship and then smash into one another. If you do decide to poke the dog, a battle immediately begins. Irvine—a former student of Galbadia Garden—is surprised they had this thing just lying around, which is strange when you consider that this school also has an ice hockey team composed entirely of monsters wearing sporting equipment. Nevertheless, Squall excitedly says they should “take it,” revealing exactly how much SeeD see GFs as the world’s hottest battle convenience accessory. Zell, if you have him in the party, will ask if the Galbadians even know about Guardian Forces, alluding to the fact that Balamb is the only Garden dumb enough to regularly use these brain-melting WMDs. Cerberus speaks—this is one of the only GFs to directly talk to the player—and states that they are “PRETTY CONFIDENT.” It then asks them to show it what they’ve got.
Here we see that GFs can indeed be rude, shouting for no reason in a public place; but we also see a strange desire in the spirit for the thrill of battle. A chance to prove itself in combat with the first teenagers it sees. After its inevitable defeat, this audaciously cowardly creature becomes a support summon, casting Double and Triple on the party to allow them to cast multiple spells per round. Cerberus’ summon animation melts the screen away to reveal the actual gates of hell, with the ravenous demon dog drooling hellfire and eager to burst through. The gates open, it runs toward the camera… and then casts a support spell. Look, I’m just not sure they spent any time with this one at all. Let’s move on.
It has previously been established that Guardian Forces are powerful spirits that are drawn to objects, creatures or simply places of battle. Alexander is a giant robot castle on stilts that shoots lasers from its shoulders. Whatever died to leave behind the spirit of a mechanised anti-aircraft fortress must have been a sight to behold. Alexander’s summon sees the city-sized GF appear in the distance from across a vast mountain range, suggesting some sort of foreign invasion is at work. After a moment, it launches a barrage of holy beams on the enemy from afar, like the wet dream third act of a Metal Gear Solid title. This things is frightening, unstoppable and has no allegiances to existing political groups, and I would be taking my concerns to the world government if there were anything resembling a cohesive government in this universe.
Alexander resides in the body of Sorceress Edea, which may be some sort of commentary about outside powers interfering in local affairs, but probably isn’t. It is curious, however, that Edea doesn’t have Alexander the first time you fight her in Deling City. Which means she either picked up a new GF and decided not to use it (because, as we said, only Balamb Garden children are allowed to do that), or the robot spirit of Alexander was drawn to the power she represents. Edea is also possessed by the time travelling spirit of Ultimecia at this point, meaning it’s a little crowded in there. Could one, with appropriate knowledge, draw Ultimecia during battle? It certainly seems like a more plausible plan than the one the heroes eventually try to pull off: let the villain win and then hit her with big sticks until it all goes back to normal.
Half of the way through this Guardian Force analysis, what else have we learned? GFs like to pick fights and they are capable of either controlling the flow of time or existing outside of it. They can be robots. They could easily destroy us all without even giving it a second thought, and yet they follow our orders for some reason. GF movements throughout the world of Final Fantasy VIII are difficult to determine, as at different points they seem to exist or not exist inside specific objects or people.
In particular, the existence of Diablos—a Satan-coded creature who can bend time and space, and was locked away for unknown reasons—and Pandemona—an eldritch horror of distorted flesh and organic machinery indifferent to our petty human minds—create a troubling picture of this universe, and suggest it is bigger than we could possibly imagine. In the bad way. The GFs being discovered now slot in nicely with how off-the-rails the main story begins to go at this point, with time machines, flying schools and (everyone’s favourite) the casual reveal that monster get spat from the surface of the moon sometimes, because that’s where monsters come from. What happens next? A haunted space train, obviously.
This article was made possible by my generous patrons Dillon, Elise Kumar, Jewelsmith, Maggie McFee, Kim Wincen and Shannon. If you want to support my work you can pledge to my Patreon for as little as a dollar per article! It makes you a cool person.