Let’s talk about my major bugbear with Final Fantasy VIII, tone.
Tone is important. Without a clearly defined tone, a story rapidly grows boring, and when the tone shifts too much, the story can feel sloppily put together, like about seventy different writers decided to do a round robin, and one of them was a George R.R. Martin enthusiast and another a children’s writer from Utah.
VIII has a tone problem, and by that, I mean that it often juxtaposes two totally opposite tonal styles with very limited success. Take the Timber section of the game: Three child mercenaries have been sent to assist a resistance movement in kidnapping the leader of a sovereign nation - that’s some pretty heavy stuff right there. Already you have ethical questions being raised: Is it right to be sending what are essentially children out to do this job? Is the entire garden system inherently corrupt and immoral? Is the resistance movement correct in its goals? What are the political and ethical implications of kidnapping a world leader?
There’s a lot of potential there.
Except then you reach your mission, and with the force of a speeding train, the tone has shifted: Because this is a wacky resistance movement (a wacky resistance movement where two of its members have had their fathers executed in front of them - there’s that tone clash again), where the leader will yell at her hired killers that they’re ‘meanies’, and insists that this entire convoluted kidnapping plan is just ‘so she can talk’.
It’s jarring. The two tones are completely at odds with each other, and it’s painfully obvious why: The writers wanted child mercenaries going around doing mercenary things, but they also wanted them and their employer (Nina, in this case) to be absolutely morally correct, instead of occupying a grey area. They want the wacky anime-ish humour because playful and virtuous heroes, and they also want ‘badass trained from childhood killers’. But those two things do not work together.
Another example of this is when Zog and Nina arrive on the Ragnarok. They are adrift in space, everyone nearby is dead, and they have just unleashed monsters onto the planet. Marvel as this gets brought up approximately never, and instead we get hijinks with Nina floating into Zog’s lap. Because the writers wanted a romantic moment, and they needed both the ‘moon monsters’ plot point and a conveniently empty spaceship.
There’s nothing wrong with any of these extremes, incidentally. Totally virtuous heroes are fine. Anime-style wacky hijinks are fine. Playful romantic subplots are great. Child mercenaries are fine. Spaceships full of corpses are good. Monster tides, sure. But when you mash them together in such close proximity, they become very offputting.
Especially as this doesn’t have to be a problem. Take Final Fantasy X, a game which combines ‘the inevitable cycle of death’ with ‘underwater football hijinks’. These should jar horribly. They don’t, because the writers knew how to tie those two things together realistically, in a way that made sense for the characters: Because when Tidus is rambling about underwater football in his ridiculous asymmetrical shorts, he’s doing so in a manner that rings true as the reaction of a teenage athlete thrown suddenly into a horrible world. When Yuna is listening to him, it rings true as the realistic reaction of a young woman who has never really had a chance to live but knows she has to die.
Not to mention, they know the time and the place for it: When Yuna is sending the spirits of the dead, Tidus doesn’t chime in with how he bets dead people would make great blitzball players, and when Tidus is about to play blitzball, Yuna doesn’t wander into the locker room and remark upon the inevitability of death. There’s a constant awareness in the script of how each side of the plot affects the tone, and how to balance out each extreme so that you don’t have massive tonal shifts.
It doesn’t ring true in VIII, though. There is no balance there, no sense of appropriate timing. Those extremes are thrown together sloppily and juxtaposed lazily, and worst, the more light-hearted end of the tonal scale is used to try to mitigate the darker end, to try to squeeze out the ‘cool’ elements of it while drowning out the actual darkness.
It doesn’t work.
So here’s my suggestion: Let’s just not bother. We’ve made our child mercenary beds, let’s sleep in them.
That means Nina has to act like someone who’s aware that she’s hired mercenaries, rather than acting like a child given three playmates - and whether that awareness means horror, distaste, reluctance with kindness, or just a businesslike neutrality, it can go either way. It means she needs a plan for Deling that doesn’t involve just chatting with him. At least plan to ransom him, for god’s sake. It means that when Zog and Nina arrive on the mechanical dragon stuffed with cadavers, they might need to mention a few times that dozens or hundreds of people have died and that they might be next.
But that doesn’t mean there can’t be humour. Soldiers still make jokes, after all, even ones from magical garden schools. Resistance leaders can still be flirty and coy. Hijinks can still result from characters doing ridiculous things.
It just means that that humour can’t be used to try and make the audience forget that there are some dark implications to what they’re seeing. Own it. Own the fact that Cid Kramer is basically pure evil. Relish it.