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A serious study of FFVIII summons, Part IV: Red string on a conspiracy board

The price we pay for using the GF. This article contains major spoilers for Final Fantasy VIII. You can forget reading this and return home by clicking here.

Time passes. And with the passing of time, comes the end. In Final Fantasy VIII’s world, the end means the compression of all time and space, so the end is also the beginning. Are we any closer to finding out what exactly Guardian Forces are and how they work, after all this? They’re pretty much everywhere, for one thing, and they eat your thoughts; they can control the flow of time and space with their god-like powers even though they seem eternally trapped; and they’ve been subjected to endless experimentation that nobody really wants to talk about. It’s tempting to cast them off at this point as a sort of unknowable anomaly in Squall and friends’ universe, but at the same time their ubiquity suggests they must play some vital role in how things work. At the end of the official GF list, there’s even a strong indication that they are involved in the shaping of reality itself, with their forms and powers far outstripping anything other entities are capable of, apart from Ultimecia.

“GF gives us strength. The stronger the GF, the stronger we become.”

There are no more Guardian Forces to pick apart, though, right? The list is complete, the endgame approaches. Actually, it turns out there are a few optional, pseudo-GFs floating around the game that are surprisingly relevant to the discussion. And, despite FFVIII’s reputation for a scattered and unfinished narrative, one of them might be the key to figuring out what the whole game is supposed to be about. That’s right, it’s been at least two discs since summons had any visible role in the plot, but maybe it’s about to turn around. Which would be particularly nice given the effort the game puts into making them seem like a big, scary, mind-eating problem at the beginning, all the while jamming them indiscriminately into the heads of children.

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Odin

Deep in the Centra Ruins, beyond the tonberry infestation and past the giant metal diamond, a god lurks with a challenge. Get to a specific room in the ruins within a 20 minute time limit and you are confronted by a huge masked figure on horseback who demands you to demonstrate your strength. This is Odin—named after the Norse god of war, death, and a dozen other minor concerns—and he will become your companion if you can slap him enough times before the clock hits zero. Curiously, Odin doesn’t fight back in this battle, but if the timer runs out at any point he unleashes his signature attack, Zantetsuken, which instantly kills the party and ends the game. Beating him doesn’t add him as a controllable force, but actually gives the player a 12.9% chance of Odin appearing to Zantetsuken enemies in any battle (excepting bosses, tonberries and cactuars), granting an instant win. When he appears, the sky darkens, he rides in on his trusty white steed, and his sword literally cuts the 3D models in half.

What’s interesting isn’t so much Odin himself, but the place in which he appears. Centra was a civilisation said to be extremely advanced and doing very well for itself right up to the point where monsters exploded from the surface of the moon and reduced the entire population to a dusty memory. Yes, in case you had somehow forgotten, monsters in the FFVIII universe come from the moon, and periodically get space-blasted down to the planet’s surface. With a little research, I discovered the reason this happens is because of gravity; when all the moon monsters gather on one side of the moon they all just get dragged off into space in an event very poetically referred to as the Lunar Cry. This had been going on for tens of thousands of years, but part of the reason it destroyed Centra was that it brought down a massive pillar of crystal with it, obliterating almost every sign of the world’s largest civilisation. The only pieces left are the Centra Ruins, Sorceress Edea’s orphanage, and the mobile shelters that eventually became the Gardens. Keeping up? Don’t worry, none of us are.

Centran architecture is a strange mix of Roman styles and futuristic technology, and the ruins provide plenty of both. Odin’s room houses a giant throne and is decorated on the outside with gargoyles, but pipes and wires run inside every wall and piece of flooring. Entering the final area requires moving gemstones and then putting a security code into an ancient device. It’s seemingly impossible to discern what these ruins were designed to be before the Lunar Cry, in much the same way that details about the Centrans is basically non-existent.

But hold on, that throne is bothering me. It’s huge, and it’s clearly part of the ruin, which means it was built to specifically be that size. That could mean Odin was around and functioning as some sort of Guardian Force before the calamity. However, the huge chair does fit with one theory that Centra was a society of very large people. Giants, even. This is based on a lot of conjecture, of course, and bits of evidence that might not really connect, but stick to the path for a moment. Adel, the other evil sorceress in this game, is demonstrably giant, towering over every other person in the game. Her size is never explained, and sets her far apart from the other characters in the game in terms of physical form. It’s conceivable, given the diaspora of the surviving Centran population, that she descended from Centran stock, and her size—combined with her sorceress abilities—allowed her to gain power in Esthar. Centra was also, incidentally, very into the whole idea of sorceresses, which would mean Adel having power passed down to her through living in that magic-friendly society makes a lot of sense.

With that in mind, Odin’s throne perhaps isn’t a seat of power for some outrageously-proportioned god, but a throne for a normally-sized Centran. Without knowing the purpose of the ruins before the pillar, it’s hard to extrapolate much more. But, given that GFs can clearly be shaped by environment, thoughts, and events, perhaps Odin is a reflection of what happened to Centra. It could be that all that death, all those lost souls, coalesced into one masked figure of vengeance that was doomed to seek out the strength that could have saved its people. And like the chaos of a moon-based apocalypse, he can only even manifest that cursed power at random. The wire-filled room where you find Odin also continues a theme throughout FFVIII of melding technology with magic, and perhaps hints at the idea Odin was partly created through those memories and souls continuing to exist in a digital form.

Gilgamesh

If the player collects Odin before boarding the Lunatic Pandora to find Adel, they will be confronted by Seifer and Odin will automatically be summoned. In this case, Seifer will use Zantetsuken Reverse to turn the tables on the GF and slice him in half, permanently killing him. Odin’s sword will then cut a hole in the fabric of spacetime and another entity, Gilgamesh, will retrieve the sword. If the battle lasts long enough, or if Seifer’s HP is depleted, Gilgamesh will appear to cut Seifer down and join the party. Gilgamesh also appears at random, with a 3.5% chance, but has four swords to choose from. One is Odin’s, and acts the same as it would for him; Excalibur and Masamune do heavy damage to the enemy, while Excalipoor does exactly one damage to foes.

All of this is very exciting, and Gilgamesh’s design is pretty neat, but as a Guardian Force he is essentially a collection of Final Fantasy references wrapped in a nod to an Akkadian poem. As such, there’s not much he can tell us about the world of Final Fantasy VIII, save for affirming its obsession with random events.

Boko, MiniMog and Moomba

Hold on, do you remember the PocketStation? It was basically a memory card that doubled as a Nintendo Game & Watch, it ran various software connected to different PlayStation games, and it was very hard to ever see one outside of Japan. If you did somehow have one, you could have used it to play something called Chocobo World and in turn used that experience to level up a Chocobo in FFVIII called Boko. This tiny chocobo can be summoned into battle using a specific item, and may put “being murdered by a baby chicken” at the top of the list of most embarrassing ways to die in the game. If you play even more of PocketStation classic Chocobo World, you can even unlock a moogle called MiniMog, who can heal GFs, and a Moomba.

All of this is nonsense, and not even the good kind of Final Fantasy VIII nonsense with time travel and secret parents. However, let me just say that Moombas are fascinating because they are actually one of the final evolutionary stages for the Shumi, and melty slug people who turn into tiny lions is exactly the right kind of nonsense. Shame it doesn’t tell us anything about Guardian Forces.

Griever

Speaking of lions, Final Fantasy VIII, in its very quirky and unhinged way, actually decides to drop the wildest and most telling piece of Guardian Force lore into the very final battle of the game, with the nonchalance of a smoker flicking a cigarette butt into the gutter. During the fight with Ultimecia—the reality-bending witch from the future—reaches into Squall Leonhart’s mind and plucks out a Guardian Force. Screaming about it being “the most powerful GF,” the sorceress casts into the floor, and an anthropomorphic purple lion with bat wings crawls out of the abyss to ruin your day. In the Japanese version, Ultimecia states that she is summoning the entity Squall sees as the most powerful, and when Griever lets loose with his big-time attack, Shockwave Pulsar, Ultimecia describes it as the GF’s true power. Shockwave Pulsar transports the party to a featureless energy field, where a beam of energy whites out the entire universe. Yikes. Griever takes on whatever name the player decided to give to their lion ring during the Battle of the Gardens, cementing the idea that this creature is a pure manifestation of Squall’s thoughts.

Okay, wait a minute, now we have definitive proof that Guardian Forces can be formed from nothing more than the anxious thoughts of a deeply-traumatised teenager. Griever didn’t exist, and then Ultimecia just brought him to life so he could slap the hell out of the party. This is moderately terrifying information, as it suggests that there exists the power inside any individual in the Final Fantasy VIII universe to create a literal god from nothing. Think hard enough and suddenly something infinitely worse than Doomtrain is setting off a nuclear magic bomb in the main street. Yes, it required history’s most powerful sorceress, but Odin appeared out of nowhere, Diablos exists outside of time, Pandemona crawled out of the abyss unprompted, Eden was a failed experiment, and Cactuar is literally just a cactus that got angry. FFVIII presents us with a world where the gods are as fickle as the ancient Greek pantheon, but can also spring from nothing like the worst Stephen King horror story. It is a nightmare universe.

Then you beat Griever, maybe, and the nightmare is over. Except that Ultimecia junctions herself to the GF, melding their bodies and powers together in an unholy mass of flesh. And that reminds us immediately of another case where this happens: on Lunatic Pandora, Adel increases her own power by junctioning herself to Rinoa. Body horror aside, this is upsetting news for the delicate barrier between reality and the chaos beyond the curtain. There is no functional difference between a Guardian Force and a normal human being; on a practical level, they occupy the same mechanical space. But we’ve just learned that GFs are also pure thought transformed into reality, which means that every character in FFVIII is half a step away from being nothing but a thought. Nobody really exists, outside of the fact that other people think about them existing. And then we remember that Centra is a nearly forgotten civilisation, that people are encouraged to erase their memories by junctioning GFs, that the central villain wants to remove all perspective from reality and exist in a single point. All of this runs through your mind as a mad witch climbs inside the physical manifestation of your own anxieties right in front of you. Griever is the single most existentially terrifying moment in this game, and, I remind you, he turns up as a final battle afterthought, 60 hours into the story.

Simply losing our minds

This series started with a simple question: what are Guardian Forces? Four articles later, the answer appears to be that they are everything. No part of the Final Fantasy VIII universe escapes their grasp, from the advances of technology, to the psychological effects of war, to the deaths of millions, to the workings of reality itself. At certain points it appears they were created by humanity to serve a purpose, but many of them simply seem to exist, or were brought into being by accident. They represent our greatest fears, our conflicting values, the desire to protect and destroy; they serve humanity, but this seems like a voluntary position that could very easily be reversed at a whim.

Ultimately, GFs seem to be an attempt by the game to represent the collective unconscious, which is an interpretation that fits nicely with this Final Fantasy’s more holistic approach to worldbuilding. Nothing in FFVIII makes sense in isolation, yet everything is connected in the end. Centra’s destruction, the creation of the Gardens to fight the sorceresses, a lost father who becomes the head of a secret civilisation, these are all utterly bonkers elements that end up fitting together conceptually, if not literally. The GFs are much the same; each of them represents something about the world of FFVIII without necessarily fitting into it. It’s easy to imagine a different story about this universe, where the role of these vastly-powerful thought monsters is scrutinised thoroughly. But maybe that’s what happened to the scientists at the undersea research base, they looked into the abyss and it looked right back at them.

What’s wild is these summons could have easily just been big monsters that appear when you want to hit things. Yet they exist as this kind of commentary on the tenuous relationship people have with reality. Every time the main characters summon a GF, a little piece of their identity is devoured to make room. Each time they fight, the world they fight for slips away a bit more. Whether you view them as a commentary on the damaging effects of war, the nature of reality, or a dozen other plausible ideas, Guardian Forces are a pervasive energy in Final Fantasy VIII. And much like the game, they seem to resist understanding by design.

This article was made possible by my generous patrons Katie Benson, Corey Leigh, Simplicus, Stef Peacock, Lauren, Harley Bird, Kim Wincen, Elise Kumar and Dillon. 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.

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A serious study of FFVIII summons, Part III: Everything is fine and normal

The price we pay for using the GF. This article contains major spoilers for Final Fantasy VIII. You can forget reading this and return home by clicking here.

Hello for the first time, whoever you are, and welcome to this exploration of the messed-up monster pantheon that is Final Fantasy VIII’s summoning system. What’s that? You say we’ve done this twice already? Oh, right; once to go over the normal, brain-devouring god-beings that live in all manner of creature and classroom computer, and again to discuss whether they represent the undoing of all reality and the eternal suffering of all who live inside. Sorry, my memory gets a little foggy sometimes. It’s been firmly established that these spirit beings can bend time and space to their will, but also that you can trap them with enough science, and that—all things considered—the fact that they definitely eat the brains of people who use them is actually a mercy in comparison with their true power. Also some of them are cute.

“So if we keep relying on the GF, we won’t be able to remember a lot of things?”

Right on time for a story that began in a school and is about to go into space—because space is where they keep the giant magic dictator lady shrink wrapped for everyone’s protection, even though her mad thoughts still infect all TV and radio transmissions, yes that’s extremely messed up—the way you find summons, and the summons themselves, begin to lose cohesion. At the beginning it was clear that these were powerful spirits which lent their power to those seen as worthy, but lately it’s beginning to look more like they might be manifestations of will not tethered to any particular ideology.

Do GFs even exist outside of the user’s mind? When we went to the Fire Cavern on the first disc, were we simply bringing Ifrit to life by thinking hard enough? That would certainly explain how every student is supposed to catch him to pass their exams, even though only one Ifrit exists. I need to centre myself if I’m going to unravel these mysteries. Let’s calm down and look at the next GF.

Doomtrain

Okay, it’s a train with a skeleton for a head. Doomtrain is a mile-long, fully functional steam train that also happens to be entirely organic and situated in the cold depths of space. When summoned, a track made from magical fire stretches into the heavens and the cursed locomotive rockets through the void before slamming into the enemy at full speed. Doomtrain causes minor poison damage, but its main reason for being is inflicting every status effect in the game, all at once. Think of it as a giant, skin-covered STD carrier with a screaming humanoid face on the front. Yes, the bulk of this summon is actually constructed of bone and skin, presumably from the bodies of its many victims. Then again, it’s hard to ignore the fact that it also has a tail, meaning it must be a whole creature of some kind. Why the Doomtrain exists in space is unclear, but it can’t be a coincidence that the most likely time to pick it up is when the characters themselves are journeying into orbit.

Perhaps it exists as yet another reminder that the universe is vast and terrifying, filled with unknowable entities who care nothing for the petty squabbles of man. Maybe there are worse things out there than an angry sorceress who wants to make a time sandwich, and some of those things are trains.

Accessing the Doomtrain summon is only possible by obtaining an item called Solomon’s Ring and a collection of strange objects. All this information is found in a magazine called Occult Fan, which documents strange occurrences in the style of a trashy “aliens are real” tabloid. The four issues detail the existence of the ring, and obliquely refer to three types of item: tentacles from a Marlboro, an upgraded remedy, and steel pipes. Players need to grab six of each—yes, that makes 666, the number of the beast—and use the ring, which is definitely how you set up a satanic ritual and should not have been allowed. Nobody is supervising these children and so far they have absolutely brought at least four actual nightmare demons into the world.

Doomtrain is part of a long tradition of ghost trains in legends and folklore, and a similar tradition in Final Fantasy games. FFVIII in particular is full of trains, has a train heist minigame, puts you on several trains as part of the plot, situates an entire rebel force on a train, and has one of the main characters dangerously obsessed with riding on trains. So perhaps it isn’t the most left-field thing to suddenly have a demonic train, rife with disease, rattling down from the cosmos to enact judgement on the enemies of the cause.

Bahamut

Let’s step back from the precipice of madness for a moment, shaken as we are by the spectre of an organic death train, and look at something a little more grounded. By Final Fantasy VIII’s standards. Late in the game, after you have your own personal spaceship, you can discover a hidden location out in the middle of FFVIII’s vast ocean. Landing here reveals it to be a Deep Sea Research Center, a mobile facility designed to research draw points and replicate or improve existing para-magic technology. If none of that made sense to you, don’t worry, half of this information isn’t even available unless Zell is in your party when you land, because this game hates to just give you anything. Apparently, the researchers travelled all over the world looking for the largest magic draw point on the planet, and found it here. At some point it was a abandoned, and, given the researchers are still around, it’s safe to say they left on purpose.

Side note: what is it about mobile buildings in this universe? Both Galbadia and Balamb Gardens were “coincidentally” built on flying research stations, and now there’s this research center. Also the largest concentration of scientists in the present day live in space. I guess when the world is full of moon-spewed monsters, the idea of not having to walk around is very appealing.

Anyway, inside the station you can find a large glowing core that spits out an astonishing amount of random encounters. Approaching it will trigger a dialogue in which you must answer questions-three. After the first two correct answer you need to fight Ruby Dragons, and after picking the third invisible option (yes, that’s right) you are thrust into battle with Bahamut. This dragon is blue, with red wings, and honestly fits fairly solidly into what one might expect from a fantasy dragon—except that it shoots energy beams from its mouth. Like Ifrit and a scant few others, Bahamut also speaks directly to the party; the aforementioned quiz confirms the creature as the archetypal “only those worthy may challenge me” sort of big bad. At the beginning of battle, Squall refers to it as “the great GF,” which means this is a summon at least those trained at Brain Spirits University have already heard about, and that it’s considered to be one of the more powerful examples. Further information about the Research Center, as well as the fact that Bahamut is there at all, suggests the researchers were studying Guardian Forces there, and seeking to harness their power to aid their probably-sinister cause. Bahamut’s response to this is to be surprised by the use of the term “GF,” and the realisation that they are there to suck him non-consensually into their minds causes him to reveal his fear of humans. This is strong proof for the idea that the people of this world are basically keeping summons as powerful slave workers, drip-feeding them experience and pet food in exchange for indentured servitude.

Phoenix

Before we move on to something else very weird, we should briefly mention the Phoenix, an avian Guardian Force that can be obtained by using a Phoenix Pinion in battle. A pinion is a round gear used in drivetrain mechanical systems; it’s also a word used to describe part of a bird’s wing. There’s no way to tell which meaning the item name refers to.

Phoenix, after being summoned the first time, will appear in 65/256 cases when the party has been killed or petrified, reviving dead party members. It does not cure petrify, because Final Fantasy VIII actually hates you and wants you to suffer. Outside of Final Fantasy, a phoenix is a mythological bird which is either reborn from its own ashes or is born from the ashes of a dead phoenix, depending on who you ask. It seems thematically appropriate to have this creature constantly immolate itself to save the lives of teenagers thrust into the fires of war by adults who could not care less for their safety.

Cactuar

There’s a cactus wandering around the world map that is so gigantic it can be seen from space. Nobody wants to talk about it, but it’s out there, waiting, shooting needles across national borders, twirling its Dick Dastardly moustache. It lives on the aptly named Cactuar Island, which we can assume is an island so uniformly populated by Cactuar that humanity decided to let the terrifying, dead-eyed plants hold sovereignty over the entire landmass. If you land on Cactuar Island and approach the giant cactus, you get to fight the Jumbo Cactuar, which looks exactly like the other enemies here except for the moustache. And it’s flipping huge. Defeating the big boy will automatically give you one of the small boys as a GF, perhaps as an offering from the Cactuar Nation in exchange for leaving them alone.

The line between Guardian Force and Just Some Monster We Keep in a Box gets a little blurry here, since the Cactuar GF is basically just a Cactuar that has to do your bidding. By now though, you should already be desensitised to the suffering of other living creatures so it doesn’t matter too much. Anyway, did you know the Cactuar is called Sabotendā in Japanese? Which roughly translates to “cactus pretender.” Whereas Cactuar translates to “cactus you are” or something. I made that up because Cactuar is meaningless.

Tonberry King

Continuing the theme of ordinary monsters becoming summon magic, Tonberry is another GF which requires wading through a bunch of normal enemies, then fighting a giant version. Unlike the Jumbo Cactuar—which appears instantly on the map—the Tonberry King only makes an entrance after you kill at least 20 regular Tonberry in the Centra Ruins. Basically, once you are considered a Tonberry-themed serial killer in the eyes of these tiny green creatures, their leader and most powerful hero steps in to save their society. And you murder him too. Tonberry, when summoned, emerges from a sort of portal in the floor, slowly walks across the screen and stabs the enemy with a really big knife. That sounds truly awful, but it’s actually okay and even good, because the victim has a little cute sweat drop first and the knife makes a funny DOINK! sound effect that appears in a cartoon speech bubble. Funniest stabbing I’ve seen for ages.

There is an interesting rumour surrounding Tonberry which posits it might be the GF that Selphie junctioned when she was younger. When the party all realise they grew up in the same orphanage and just forgot because of the Ghost Brain Worms, Selphie admits to once junctioning a GF while training one day, but laments not remembering its name. Tonberry does have a quite high starting affinity with Selphie, and it is conceivable that her Garden sent her to train near the Centra Ruins because it’s a dangerous and stupid place to train literal children. Like most FFVIII theories, this is all unprovable and probably wrong.

Eden

Throughout this entire exploration, you’ve no doubt been thinking that these summons are not nearly bonkers enough; that their animations aren’t as outrageously long as they could be; that there’s room for so much more haphazard religious referencing and unhinged art design. Good news: we’re going to talk about Eden.

At the bottom of the Deep Sea Research Center, where you may have already captured Bahamut, there is a vast dungeon. Reach the bottom of this dungeon and you get to fight Ultima Weapon, one of Final Fantasy’s recurring challenge bosses, put in many games just so players can show off how much grinding they’ve done. Inside this weapon, you can find the Eden GF, which is a big disc that has wings and the body of some form of angelic torso on the underside. While the other summons, apart from Pandemona, have some sort of recognisable design which allows the human mind to comprehend their form, Eden is a nightmare of runes, body parts, allusions to technology, and vague shapes and colours. Its name is a twofold reference, calling to mind the Christian Bible’s Garden of Eden, where humans first learned to hate their bodies, as well as Final Fantasy VIII’s use of Gardens as a PR-friendly name for harsh military schools. Is Eden a failed attempt by the research teams to merge a Garden with a Guardian Force? Did a GF that resembles the Gardens manifest itself after the Garden schools rose to prominence? Are all Gardens a psychic memory of Eden, filtering through into the design ideas of the Garden architects?

Eden’s attack is called Eternal Breath, and it is frankly a little difficult to put into words. First, the screen fizzes with electronic static as Eden’s face (or face-like object) appears; Eden drops down into a digital grid, overlaid with satellite images and video screens of blueprints. The grid extends to encompass the enemy, then the unfortunate creature is dragged across the field of view until it lines up with the large blue gem on top of Eden’s disc. A strange symbol appears under the enemy, and we zoom out further to reveal that the entire planet displays the same symbol, and it transforms the celestial body into an impossibly huge magical egg timer. The symbols activate, firing the enemy out from inside the planet and into the void of space. The beam of energy carrying what must surely be the most unfortunate monster in the game continues into the centre of a nearby galaxy, which detonates violently and becomes a supermassive black hole. Nobody should ever summon this horrible thing, lest we all disappear, screaming and inside-out, ejected from reality forevermore.

Watching each individual moment of the Eden summon is upsetting, and trying to piece it all together is a fool’s errand. Parts of the summon suggest the entire world of Final Fantasy VIII exists within a simulation controlled by Eden, and that all concerns of sorceresses and teenage soldiers are petty squabbling conducted by worthless ants. If this is what the researchers pulled out right before shutting their work down, you can understand what made them run. If Pandemona and Doomtrain are harbingers of the cosmic end, Eden is the apocalypse of horror knocking on the front door.

And that’s it. No more summons to look at, and the world of Final Fantasy VIII is eternally doomed by its inability to perceive the vast scope of nightmares that exist just beyond the veil of reality. May the gods have mercy on them all. Actually, no, hold that thought, because there are just a few more Guardian Force-related issues to discuss. Next time we delve into the most unsettling, forbidden place of all: the mind of a teenage boy.

This article was made possible by my generous patrons Dillon, Elise Kumar, Harley Bird, Simplicus, Maggie McFee, Kim Wincen, Stef Peacock, and Lauren. 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.

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