Thanks to WonderWaseda for the inspiration!
Ok, so the two biggest complaints I hear about the plot of FFVIII:
…(all together now) That stupid orphanage is so convenient! How lame that all of the main characters just happen to have lived together in childhood and now they don’t remember!
And the second criticism (which I will quote from [/u/BlueHighwindz], as it is a good and well-written example):
FFVIII’s time travel mumbo-jumbo is irrelevant to the story and the characters. Ultimecia is just a big evil thing that needs to get defeated, she has no character. Inflating it with time travel and succession of sorceresses and whatever bullshit is pointless smoke and mirrors to make the plot seem more interesting than it actually is.
First of all, let’s tackle the second, broader question. Is the time travel stuff extraneous and lame? Does it suddenly appear at the end, crammed into the plot?
I want to identify two elements here, because people don’t conflate them enough. When we say “time travel…”; which time travel aspect are we referring to? Probably the most successful and well-regarded sequences in this game are the Laguna flashbacks. From the point of view of the characters, these are bizarre dreams that they share together. They are a rare fantastical element in the more realistic half of the game, Disc 1 through 2.
From the perspective of the characters, they are dreams. However, from the perspective of the player, they are time travel. Ellone’s ability is an accurate recreation of the past (as far as I am aware) and Squall and co. are reliving real events in their dreams. For the player then (and for the characters unwittingly) time travel is an important element in the plot from the beginning. I will always remember the beginning of disc 2, the transition from Squall impaled on an icicle to calming Winhill music, that overhead camera angle with the room obscured by the beams of the roof, the save point, the Curaga drawpoint to show that you are into the real adult spells now… The Laguna flashbacks are time travel.
So, time travel is not shoehorned in at the end. However, it wouldn’t be a Final Fantasy game if a lot of complicated mystical shit weren’t shoehorned in at the end of the game. The question is, is it consistent with the plot and does it inform the plot.
For anyone who hates the character of Ultimecia, or hates the R=U theory, consider one thing. What the hell is up with the boss Griever? Now, don’t tell me the standard explanation that Ulty brings it out of Squall’s mind or whatever. We have a situation here where the player named a pendant on the main character, already a weird and unprecedented thing in a FF game (as far as I know), and then you fight this as part of the final boss fight? Why does everyone ignore how weird this is? Why is this in the game? Why can you name the second form of the final boss? Unprecedented.
Yes, what does it all mean? Why do the game developers want you to fight something that’s close to Squall? We may name it something silly, but we still name it. This does seem unprecedented.
That place where you name Griever (with the Aura draw point I love it) is after an intense moment with only Squall and Rinoa. I have covered this in other posts, but I want to repeat it until it gets the attention it deserves. In FFVIII you can only name Squall and Rinoa, the GFs, and…. Griever. Why can’t I name Zell? The main two characters are for a love story maybe, but intentionally denying the player the ability to name the characters comical vulgar names is something I noticed right away.
Think about this from a postmodern perspective. What does this moment mean for the real player, outside of the game? When the player names Griever, the player is reacting to Squall finally opening up to Rinoa, to him revealing thoughts about himself. Let’s all forget about the guide, forget that we know what will happen. This is a tender moment. Why is this moment reflected back at the player in the final boss fight? Why is the final boss mocking, not Squall the character, but mocking the real player, in reality, who chose the name of Griever?
Sidenote: In the context of postmodernism, play means changing the framework which connects ideas, and thus allows the troping, or turning, of a metaphor or word from one context to another, or from one frame of reference to another. The “text” is a series of “markings” whose meaning is imputed by the reader, and not by the author. This “play” is the means by which the reader constructs or interprets the text. It’s also the means by which the author gains a presence in the reader’s mind. Play involves invoking words in a manner which undermines their authority. Play mocks their assumptions or style, or by layers of misdirection as to the intention of the author.
The rundown is this: it isn’t bad writing that the characters all happened to be in an orphanage. It is the same type of mocking the player that the writers are doing with Griever. What are the chances the characters wouldn’t remember? Why are we following these characters as a player? Whose decisions have placed these characters together?