We are stuck in 2007

Unless you’re deep in the film world, you’ve probably never had to read Raising Kane, an explosively controversial essay by film critic Pauline Kael, alleging that Citizen Kane was not written by Orson Welles, and that Welles was not the principal creative force behind the movie. Though the essay has been repeatedly discredited in the years since it was published, its influence on the film’s reputation is still unavoidable fifty years later. Take David Fincher’s 2020 film Mank, which is about the co-writer of Citizen Kane; it is inextricably tied to Kael’s essay without ever directly mentioning it. If you want to talk about the production of Citizen Kane, you HAVE to engage with Raising Kane. To point to a quote I just now saw on Wikipedia from Welles biographer Barton Whaley, “the damage was immense and permanent.”

An influential piece of criticism can shape how we think about a cultural work so strongly that they will always have to exist in conversation—if not by name, than at least its ideas.

This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately in terms of video game history. In my job as a game history librarian, I’ve been going through a lot of video game books and magazines, and it is shocking to see ideas that were first expressed in these pages that are still being debated today. The myth that E.T. and Pac-Man for the Atari 2600 single-handedly destroyed the game industry? It likely originated in Steven L. Kent’s The Ultimate History of Video Games from 2001 (first edition, p.239-240), one of the first big books on game history, which, based on its reputation within the game history community for establishing a narrative that’s still being repeated and contested over its inaccuracies, may be the Raising Kane of video games.

Or the idea that the Nintendo 64 didn’t have enough good games? There were plenty of great games during the system’s five-year lifespan; the list of top-selling N64 games is a murderer’s row of all-time classics. There were certainly more games and more variety on the PlayStation, but if you were only buying or renting a handful of games a year—as I imagine most people were—the relatively fewer titles on the N64 probably wouldn’t phase you.

However, if you were an editor at Next Generation, an influential magazine that was extremely plugged into the game industry and was one of the main eggers-on of the console wars tech arms race, you’d write an entire cover story about how “There simply aren’t enough quality games” for the N64, less than a year into the console’s lifespan, because you were playing every single game for the system as they came out! You can trace a direct line from NextGen‘s dramatic “Is Nintendo 64 Breaking Up?” article from May 1997 to the continued dismissal of the N64 library in certain corners today.

A magazine cover showing Mario obscured by a shattered pane of glass. The cover story is titled "Something is wrong with Nintendo 64."

If you got in early enough and said it with authority, you could set the starting terms of the discourse. I know this from experience: on my main hobby blog, I write about obscure games that haven’t gotten a lot of attention, and it’s fascinating to see, years later once those games started getting more attention, some of the same ideas I wrote about being echoed by people who have never even heard of my blog before. (Or in rare cases, having people quote them back at me!)

It’s incredible to see how ideas spread organically over the years like that, but it’s also a reminder that there’s a responsibility behind critical and historical writing. If you have a chance to set the tone for things to follow, you have an obligation to engage in good faith, to try to understand something as best you can and share it in a way that others can build on, to leave room for people to have their own perspectives and experiences.

The worst thing you could do, I think, is to introduce people to something for the sake of writing it off, because all it will be from that point on is a punchline (I’ve even gone back and removed a handful of early articles on my main blog for that reason). The critical rehabilitation of the Zelda CD-i games has been something of a miracle: over three decades, they’ve gone from easy punching bags for cynical writers, to YouTube memes, to genuinely appreciated gems, so much so that there are now new games being made in their image. Not every game gets to make a second impression.

This ends the portion of the article where I talk about the long afterimage of criticism. Maybe you read that part even if you don’t care about Final Fantasy VIII! This is a quick break so you can leave this post if you’re not interested in the FFVIII portion of this essay. Or stick around for the hopeful message at the end. Either way, thanks for reading!

Okay we’re good, only the sickos are left now. Let’s talk about what this has to do with Final Fantasy VIII.

I’ve always been struck by the gulf in opinion between FFVIII when it first came out and what people think about it today. Some of the early glowing reviews were certainly because of the hype, but it’s tough to dismiss the glowing reviews it received at the time. There was, I’m sure, some backlash within the fan community because it was not Final Fantasy VII, but that doesn’t explain how we got from one of the big hardcore gamer magazines of the 90s declaring that VIII makes more sense than VII and has a better story to the general opinion that VII is a sacred text and VIII is incomprehensible garbage. What happened?

(In fairness here, I don’t usually leap at the chance to defend GameFan, which could be a little suspect sometimes. If you haven’t heard of this mag before, search for “gamefan cybermorph coffee” and see what I’m talking about. But since they were one of the magazines that was most invested in covering RPGs and Japanese games, their perspective from the fans’ point of view seems relevant here.)

Whereas FFVII had a convoluted story which didn’t really make sense, FFVIII is a straight shooter. […] Although it develops a little slowly, the story in VIII is better than VII.

George Ngo for GameFan, Volume 7, Issue 9 (September 1999), p.28

When you’re the first one to declare your thoughts, you get to set the tone for everything that follows. And in the mid-2000s, the tone-setting was happening less in magazines and more on the internet—specifically the rise of the video essay. The first wave of YouTubers established the template for a new type of internet personality that combined media criticism and entertainment, a new format somewhere between a skit and a review that was often more about the person hamming it up for the camera than the thing they were talking about.

Within the gaming community, these early reviewers had a tremendous influence on the games they talked about. Just as an example, almost every game the Angry Video Game Nerd reviewed in his first few years has developed a bad reputation as a result of his jokey in-character videos. I’m not here to defend Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for the NES, but nobody would consider it an all-time bad game, let alone think about it at all, if it wasn’t for the Angry Video Game Nerd’s video.

You can probably see where this is going. There was an early Final Fantasy VIII video review, and I believe it is the single thing most responsible for the shift in opinion around FFVIII.

The nearly three-hour video review series was uploaded in 2007—less than two years into the life of YouTube—by a YouTuber going by Spoony. I am not interested in calling out this particular guy or any drama surrounding him or his YouTube network (sounds like there was some misogyny, though!), only to note that from what I’ve seen of his work, there’s a lot of screaming and whining and playing up his anger in a way that hack internet personalities have long resorted to in lieu of having anything to say. But he was very popular for a while, and so was his Final Fantasy VIII video series, which has about 1 million views today.

I’ve embedded a fan re-upload of the complete video below, if you must watch it.

(Please note there is some objectionable and NSFW content in this video. We’ll be discussing some of that through the rest of this post.)

I’ve skipped around the video, and it’s basically exactly what you’d expect from a knee-jerk dismissal of Final Fantasy VIII. The Junction system is confusing. The story doesn’t make sense. Squall is annoying. Quistis is hot. He screams “I HATE THIS GAME!” Boo, get better material, etc.

I can see how, in the pre-lolcats era of the internet, this kind of video could have been funny for young, edgy, chronically online men whose entire world was video games. To a degree, I get it, because as a dumb teenage boy, I loved being mean about stuff I was passingly familiar with and wanted to feel smug about. Watching the video in 2024, it is truly awful and has nothing to offer, and I’m not saying that as just a FFVIII fan. A video like this today would either be ignored or ridiculed off its platform.

But looking through the comments on that re-upload, there are folks who love it! It seems to be people who are nostalgic for it from when they watched it as, presumably, teenagers. A lot of people saw this and were probably influenced by it, the same way people internalized the Angry Video Game Nerd and whoever else.

One of the defenses I hear most often about these skit-heavy YouTubers is that they are playing a character. They do not actually believe what they’re saying, I am told, and they’re playing it up for laughs. I’m not a fan of the Angry Video Game Nerd for the reasons I touched on earlier, and the defense I’ve frequently heard is that he’s a character that’s mocking angry nerds! Get it? I don’t really buy that you can put your oeuvre in ironic air quotes; it has a flavor of the “I was just joking!” excuse for saying something offensive. But at least AVGN is clearly a gimmick.

There is no such divide for the guy who made the FFVIII video. He just seems to have been a popular, influential YouTuber who made sex jokes in-between screaming at a game he didn’t like in order to get internet cred. That’s the extent of the depth on display here.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that this video landed smack in the middle of a time when Final Fantasy VIII was effectively unavailable. For a microgeneration, this very well could have been their first exposure to Final Fantasy VIII since the 90s, if they had played it at all. If your first impression of a game in many years was an internet funnyman hollering at it and telling you, authoritatively, that it’s stupid, you might take away that it’s stupid too!

The net impact of videos like this—especially the early, influential ones—is that they make it easier to dismiss things or accept that they’re a joke. If you were a fan of this type of YouTube content and then went to try those things yourself, you’d probably be predisposed to hate them because of that one funny video that said it was bad. Too many times, I have seen discussions of Final Fantasy VIII in certain circles (elder millennials, generally) that ended up mentioning “the Spoony video,” as if the game is forced to stay in conversation forever with this guy calling Rinoa a whore and pretending to masturbate to Quistis. Somewhere, it is still 2007.

As a salve for what we just went through, I’ll link to another video essay that was posted this January, titled “Final Fantasy VIII Was Deeper Than You Remember.” It’s already at over 100,000 views, and the comments seem to be full of people who said they appreciated the game more after growing up and replaying it. Obviously the people commenting on this video are a self-selecting audience, but it’s nice to see them engaging with the game without needing to respond to the vandalism that’s been attached to its reputation for two decades.

It’s been 17 years since that other video. Even though the stink of those early bad-faith YouTube videos is still lingering, it sounds like that particular creator’s cachet among the gaming community has waned. I was struck by this thread on GameFAQs from 2019 with people debating whether “you still agree with Spoony.” Half the comments say “I don’t know who that is, who cares,” and the other half try to explain how he used to be a big deal. I hope this is a sign that we’re moving past the era where this is what people think of first when they think about Final Fantasy VIII. And more broadly, I have a positive feeling that the gaming community’s tastes are at least lightly shifting in the direction of re-appreciation, new perspectives, and infectious enthusiasm.

but he wasn’t a youtuber. He was just a ‘video game reviewer’ and one of the more popular ones despite how awful he was at video games. So a lot of people at the time REPEATED what spoony said. […] It’s that butt hole that really hurt FF8’s reputation when it came out to people who were on the fence about the Final fantasy franchise. He may not matter NOW, but at the time, he sure did.

Azuredoragon on GameFAQs, December 15, 2019

I want to end this essay on an inspirational note: it is worth revisiting things and second-guessing how you felt about them! It is worth being curious about things, trying to see them in a new light, and not being beholden to perspectives that became entrenched before who you are today. People grow and change, and so should our relationship with media.

I’ll own up to this with a personal example. In middle school, I played through all the Super Nintendo Final Fantasy games for the first time. I liked IV. I loved V. And I haaaaaaated VI. I know this is an extremely controversial opinion because it’s often considered one of the best games in the series. The thing is, I don’t hold myself to that opinion anymore! I was 13. I was inclined to make fun of things and avoid engaging with feelings. I guarantee that if and when I replay Final Fantasy VI, I will have a new perspective, and I’ll try to shake my lingering resentment towards the game and engage with it sincerely, on its own terms. And if you’ve felt dicey about FFVIII because of its reputation, I hope you consider revisiting it too.

If you were someone who watched or read (or wrote!) a lot of angry criticism, there is still always a chance to revisit those games or movies or books or music and give them a chance in a new light. It’s worth learning how old perspectives were formed—and then giving yourself a chance to break free from them.