I will not defend the amnesia orphanage twist but it’s better than that Zack shit

I’ll say it: I do not care for the orphanage plotline in Final Fantasy VIII. It comes out of nowhere with very little foreshadowing, and it’s just too much of a giant coincidence. Every main character except Rinoa secretly grew up together on an orphanage and got amnesia? Are you fucking kidding?

Some, including my co-editor AL, are willing to defend it because the game does leave some clues, but come on. The twist is that using Guardian Forces can lead to memory loss, which is why everyone forgot each other, but there is BARELY anything in the game setting up this twist. Almost all the foreshadowing about memory loss is kept to some optional flavor text in the Balamb Garden classroom, or a handful of vague references to Squall forgetting things. That is not nearly enough to set up the gigantic game-changing twist that everyone grew up together in an orphanage.

Here’s a screenshot compilation I found on Google Image Search that somebody put together of all the times they mention the GF memory loss stuff. That’s it! A handful of optional NPCs and some deep lore in an in-game encyclopedia.

A handful of examples of Final Fantasy VIII referencing the fact that Guardian Forces cause memory loss.

My biggest problem is that the memory loss isn’t reinforced by the fact that you actually use GFs in-game! There’s nothing to suggest that junctioning GFs and using them in-battle affects your characters’ memory. It’s implied that Squall has never used GF prior to his pre-exam training with Quistis, so he shouldn’t have accumulated any long-term memory loss. Why does he not remember Quistis then? Why do they never talk about losing their memories again? Why is the entire cast not experiencing rapid, obvious memory loss through the entire game? Wouldn’t that make the GF part of the twist more impactful?

I don’t want this to turn into one of those Cinema Sins-style rants nitpicking plotholes, especially because I think there’s so much of FF8 that works better on an emotional level rather than a literal level, but the point is, I disagree that the game does a meaningful job setting up the plot twist. It does come out of nowhere, and the game doesn’t deal with the ramifications of GFs in a meaningful way.

And yet, it is better than whatever the fuck was going on with Cloud and Zack in Final Fantasy VII.

When I first played Final Fantasy VII, I was confused what was going on with the Cloud and Zack plot. I assumed Cloud had Talented Mr. Ripley’d Zack’s identity. It would add some moral ambiguity to Cloud’s character: He was a nobody who co-opted the experiences of his more talented and successful friend, but then learned to assert his real personality. Good character arc!

Only years later did I learn that what actually happened was some kind of bizarre, poorly explained trauma-and-Jenova-induced brain transference. I can suspend disbelief pretty well for a game with magic beads and giant dragon-golem robot monsters, but “Somehow he swapped places with Zack in his memories” is one step too far for me. Having the whole third act of the game hinge on that twist is baffling. Was it really worth upending the story to reveal that, actually, your memories were fake the whole time because alien magic?

There’s already enough happening with Cloud’s story. He was a failed experiment, like the other Sephiroth clones. He learns not just to accept but embrace his past. Being an abandoned but useful puppet is one of the most interesting parts of Cloud’s character. What does the wacky memory distortion twist add to that? It’s not even like they’re false memories implanted by the Jenova scientists to control him. They just… happened. It’s less like character development and more like an arbitrary lore deus ex machina. FF7 gets held up now as a sacrosanct story, but I cannot believe this is something that actually happens in it.

(Let’s also not gloss over the fact that part of this revelation is kept in an optional cutscene! What the hell!)

I think there’s something powerful about Cloud overcoming his past and reasserting himself as an individual. I love the melodramatic cutscene where he hurls Sephiroth into the reactor. But having it so he accidentally absorbed his friend’s memories, somehow? That’s a step too far, and it arrives too late into the story to do anything with. At the end of all this, Cloud still cares about his friends and wants to save the world. His conflict with Sephiroth is still just as personal. His relationship with Tifa is still roughly where it was before. I don’t think it does anything for the characters or the story, and the game would’ve been stronger without it.

So yeah, 90s Squaresoft had a problem with inexplicable twists. I think the important part, though, is that what these games do with the twist after it’s established. Does it guide the characters? Does it affect the story?

This is what I think 8 does better than 7. The orphanage twist does come out of nowhere, but it arrives early enough that it permanently changes these characters’ relationships with each other. Edea is no longer a faceless villain they’re trying to kill; she’s Matron, who deserves to be saved. Our heroes, who were previously sticking together because they were on an assignment, have a personal reason to keep fighting for each other (except Rinoa, sorry Rinoa). And most importantly, it helps set up and explain Squall’s loneliness and why he keeps people at arm’s length. It establishes a place that he can grow from, rather than pulling the rug out from under everything we know about the character.

I will not defend the execution of the orphanage twist. I especially won’t defend the GF memory stuff, which is not foreshadowed nearly as well as they wanted it to be and gets dropped instantly. But after it’s revealed, the game does something with it on an emotional, character-driven level. It’s not lore for the sake of lore, and I think that gives it a leg up compared to other Final Fantasy plot twists.

Don’t even get me started on fucking Necron.