‘What’s Past is Prologue…’—FF8 as Shakespeare’s The Tempest

The Two Works’ Magic, Spirit, and Villains

From the military academies of Final Fantasy VIII to The Tempest’s island of Prospero, these two works explore themes of loss, isolation, and family, while positing on the nature of magic and what makes a villain.


Final Fantasy VIII had its work cut out for it, following as it did the most popular game in the franchise to date while simultaneously pushing the limits of the PlayStation console, both in its cutscenes as well as its gameplay scenes, which featured full-motion backgrounds. It’s no surprise, then, that writer Kazushige Nojima chose to dip into the most widely appreciated source for his inspiration: the Bard himself, William Shakespeare. There are numerous thematic similarities to The Tempest in Final Fantasy VIII, particularly in how it deals with magic, spirits, and how it presents its villains.

Toward the end of his career, William Shakespeare started to move away from his usual tragedies and comedies, and into a genre that has been dubbed by critics as an early form of romance, of which The Tempest is often considered his greatest, and possibly latest, as it’s believed that it was among the last plays that Shakespeare penned [ 1 ].

Ellone’s ability to transfer her consciousness through time, and how it’s used in the narrative is not unlike Prospero’s conspiracy to trap his brother Antonio.

Final Fantasy VIII is also part of a genre shift in the franchise; after five entries set firmly in the swords and sorcery sub-genre of fantasy, Final Fantasy VI introduced technology into the games. This was followed by Final Fantasy VII, which was set in a futuristic cyberpunk world, and Final Fantasy VIII followed that trend as well, swinging back toward the magic vs. tech theme of the sixth game, but aligning the main characters with the tech side as teenage students at a military academy fighting against an evil sorceress.

After these departures from the classic setting, the franchise was turned back to its roots for the subsequent games. However, to this day FF8 is still regarded as one of the most beloved games in this series among western audiences, with its main character, Squall Leonhart, filling a main role in the Kingdom Hearts series and serving as the leader of the Dissidia spin-off. Both the play and the game steep themselves in political intrigue—Sebastian’s attempt on Alonso’s life, the Galbadian army’s advancement across the game’s world—but these end up taking a back seat to the more thematic and personal struggle between the main characters and the primary antagonist.

The game is often overshadowed by other franchise entries, such as Final Fantasy VII and X, and as such it can be compared to The Tempest’s place in Shakespeare’s career, where, while highly regarded, it is still often overlooked in favor of Shakespeare’s other works like Hamlet, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet. In spite of this, further analysis shows that FF8, like The Tempest, is worthy of its place in the canon.

‘Now I will believe that there are unicorns …’

—William Shakespeare, The Tempest

When Shakespeare wrote The Tempest, England was heavily under Protestant Christian influence. Because of that, magic was largely considered taboo, as per biblical references defining it as the work of the devil. In spite of this, there was an exception for what the British considered “rational” magic. This was described by Henricus Cornelius Agrippa, a German philosopher and author of De Occulta Philosophia, as “divine” magic [ 2 ].

Agrippa’s work went on to influence Dr. John Dee, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s who had worked closely with Elizabeth I, but had fallen out of favor. He fell under further suspicion when James I succeeded her [ 3 ]. He petitioned King James to withdraw the accusation that Dee was a “Conjurer, or Caller, or Invocator of Divels,” but the king did not, and Dee died impoverished and disgraced [ 4 ]. This is how we connect with The Tempest, where there are two types of magic present.

First is the “rational” magic of Prospero, which is described as wondrous and beautiful. In contrast, the magic of Caliban, and, by extension, Sycorax, is described as destructive and terrible, and Sycorax specifically is said to have worshipped the devil. These distinctions are not only made clear, but stated and restated countless times throughout the text, making it clear that Shakespeare did not want Prospero to be mistaken for a godless warlock.

“Know thus far forth.
By accident most strange, bountiful Fortune,
Now my dear lady, hath mine enemies
Brought to this shore; and by my prescience
I find my zenith doth depend upon
A most auspicious star, whose influence
If now I court not but omit, my fortunes
Will ever after droop” (2, Act I, Scene ii).

In practice, Prospero’s magic is almost identical to Caliban’s, as both command spirits to do their bidding, as this is how it was believed at the time that magic was performed. Caliban does perform one act of magic onstage by himself, during which he disarms Prospero, but otherwise his magic is all done through spirits, and this is where we find the connection to Final Fantasy VIII.

The game makes a strange statement by describing its villain Edea as a sorceress. Calling anyone a “sorcerer” or “sorceress” is often at odds with the world of Final Fantasy, where magic has a recurring role as a mundane resource used freely by the player characters. Thus, Edea’s magic has to be set apart from the magic available to the rest of the cast, and while it is not explicitly stated, it is slightly different.

The main couples of each respective story, Squall and Rinoa and Ferdinand and Miranda, could not be more different—especially the leading men of each story.

One of the most common complaints about Final Fantasy VIII was its magic system, where the classic spells existed as items that the characters had to collect and deplete as they used them [ 5 ]. Player character magic is limited to the typical magic in Final Fantasy games, including elemental spells like Fire or Thunder, healing spells, and status-inducing spells like Poison or Darkness.

Edea’s magic has a much broader scope. While in battle she is mostly still limited to the same spells as the players, in the cutscenes she teleports and is revealed to have memory-altering powers. In the full-motion cinematics she is depicted doing things like turning walls liquid and stopping things telekinetically. These powers, unlike anything seen elsewhere in the game, do affect reality directly and as such, resemble the magic used by Caliban. Then there’s the magic employed by the main characters.

Systematically, Magic is an ability that can only be equipped after the player has “Junctioned” with a Guardian Force, the game’s version of summons. These Guardian Forces are described as ancient spirits that imbue the player characters with strength and new powers through a command called Junction.

“Junction enables characters to power up and use abilities. This means a GF must be junctioned in order to power up and use abilities” [ 6 ]. While it is limited to the classic spells described above, the magic has a very different functionality than other games in the series, being used to raise stats such as HP, Strength, Defense, etc. This function is, again, tied to the abilities of the Guardian Force, as they have to learn the corresponding abilities for magic to be equipped to other stats.

There is then no question that in Final Fantasy VIII, the player characters’ magic is tied inexorably to the spirit that they have made a contract with, much like Prospero’s relationship with Ariel in The Tempest. It’s also worth noting that Ariel is described as an “air spirit,” tied to the classical element of air, much like how traditional summons in the Final Fantasy franchise tend to be tied to specific elements as well, such as Ifrit being associated with fire and Shiva being associated with ice. Unlike The Tempest, however, this form of magic is not without cost. A major plot point in FF8 is the revelation that extensive use of Guardian Forces has a negative effect on the user’s memory.

Irvine: [T]he price we pay for using the GF. The GF provides us its power. But the GF makes its own place inside our brain …
Quistis: So you’re saying that the area is where our memories are stored? No! That’s just a rumor the GF critics are spreading.
Zell: So if we keep relying on the GF, we won’t be able to remember a lot of things? [ 7 ]

This exchange happens just after the main party discovers that they all grew up in an orphanage together, but failed to remember it, due to repeated use of the Guardian Forces. As Irvine says, the memory loss is their payment for using these spirits’ magical power. In this way, it could be compared to the tradition of spiritual or demonic contracts, with sorcerers sacrificing something of value in order to access a demon’s power.

The primary difference, of course, is that none of the characters in Final Fantasy VIII were aware of the sacrifice they were making until they had already made it. Even Quistis, who is familiar with the rhetoric, assumes that it is merely propaganda, and thus dismissible. However, in traditional Faustian contracts, both parties must be made fully aware of the terms before either can reap the benefits.

‘What’s past is prologue.’

—William Shakespeare, The Tempest

There is, however, another character in Final Fantasy VIII who is capable of advanced magic like the Sorceress Edea. That character is Ellone, a young woman who has the uncanny ability to transfer consciousnesses through time as a form of time travel. This power, clearly magical but never described as such, is used on the main characters in the hopes of changing events in the past by sending their consciousness into the bodies of characters from the past.

In this way, she is not unlike Prospero and his conspiracy to trap his brother Antonio and his traveling party on the island by conjuring up a storm. Even though their methods are very different, both Prospero and Ellone are trying to use their gifts to change the present by affecting the past. Prospero does this subtly, attacking those who trapped him on the island with a storm to undo their sinister plot, while Ellone’s ambition is to force the mostly uninvolved Squall and his party to go back in time and undo the events that led to her family splitting apart.

Given that at the end of the play, Prospero is reunited with his family as a result of his magic, there is a very strong thematic similarity between the two characters’ ambitions. It’s also likely no coincidence that the main character of Final Fantasy VIII is named Squall, itself a synonym for a tempest, and that he is the one forced into the analogue for Prospero’s storm. And much like Prospero, Squall and the other main characters have been torn away from their families, growing up in an orphanage, only to have the memory of that ripped away from them.

The exception is Irvine Kinneas, who has not used GFs to the same extent as the other characters. In a way, Squall could be seen as a parallel to Prospero as well as Ellone. Criticism of The Tempest will sometimes suggest that Prospero is not on the island only because of the actions of his brother, but primarily so that he can learn to accept the different aspects of his soul, accepting his baser impulses by pardoning Caliban, and untethering his more high-minded spirit by freeing Ariel at the end of the play, at which point he is free to return to Milan.

“My Ariel, chick,
That is thy charge: then to the elements
Be free, and fare thou well! Please you, draw near” (2, Act V, Scene I).

Squall is not on a literal island, but he does isolate himself on a figurative one. Many of the other characters, primarily Quistis and Rinoa, confront Squall about his isolation and cold demeanor, which he has to let go of over the course of the game. When Quistis says to Squall, “It’s not like everyone can get by on their own, you know?” his response is “Says who?” [ 6 ]. He has set himself apart from other people as a way of protecting himself from heartbreak, and in so doing, he’s become the kind of person who hurts the people around him. Take a look at another exchange between Squall and Quistis:

Squall: What am I supposed to say about other people's problems?
Quistis: I'm not asking you to say anything. I just want you to listen.
Squall: Then go talk to a wall. [ 7 ]

Squall has moved beyond using his own defense mechanisms to protect himself; he is now imposing them on those around him. This is comparable to how Prospero, trapped on an island of his own making, according to the rhetoric, is now trapping others on his island as well. And while there is much to be said about Seifer, it’s no stretch to consider him an evil brother to Squall, given that they were raised in the same orphanage and serve as mirrored counterparts to each other.

Thus, if Squall is Prospero, then Seifer must certainly be Antonio. This is strengthened by Seifer’s defection from Balamb Garden to aid the Galbadian army in service of the Sorceress Edea, much like how Antonio seeks the help of Alonso, the King of Naples, to usurp his brother.

‘Awake, dear heart, awake. Thou hast slept well. Awake.’

—William Shakespeare, The Tempest

Although Squall and Rinoa’s relationship is central enough to the themes of Final Fantasy VIII to be worked into the game’s logo, they provide mostly contrast to The Tempest’s main romantic couple, Ferdinand and Miranda. A particularly interesting character in Shakespearean canon, Miranda is first introduced begging her father to spare the men at sea, who we soon learn are the ones responsible for their joint imprisonment on the island.

Defined both by her bravery and compassion as well as her naiveté, Miranda has many similarities to Rinoa Heartilly, who, shortly after her introductory scenes, during which she is unnamed, is established as rebelling as a part of the Forest Owls against her father, General Caraway, for his part in the Galbadian government’s military control of the game’s world. As Zell Dincht puts it, “So, the father’s a top military officer, and the daughter’s a member of an anti-government faction!? That’s bad … Really BAD!” [ 6 ]

However, the game begins to diverge from the play when she meets Squall Leonhart, who, as her primary love interest, would serve as the equivalent of Alonso’s son Ferdinand. In the play, Miranda is immediately stricken when she meets Ferdinand.

“What is’t? A spirit?
Lord, how it looks about! Believe me, sir,
It carries a brave form. But ‘tis a spirit.” [ 8 ]

Miranda is so enthralled by Ferdinand that she can’t believe he is anything but divine. So much so that Prospero, who intentionally arranged the meeting in the hopes that they would fall in love, has to discourage the relationship for fear that it came too easily. In Final Fantasy VIII, Rinoa responds favorably to her first meeting with Squall as well, telling him he’s the best-looking guy in the room and dragging him to dance with her.

“You’re the best looking guy here. Dance with me? Let me guess …You’ll only dance with someone you like. Ok then … Look into my eyes … You’re-going-to-like-me … You’re-going-to-like-me …” [ 6 ]

Rinoa’s joke does bring back references to magic, now referring to hypnosis, which is not one of the traditional forms of magic in the Final Fantasy series and is much more in line with Edea’s type of magic. This scene, which is initially lighthearted, but soon turns romantic, sets up their relationship for the rest of the game, but it is interrupted by Rinoa recognizing someone and abandoning Squall in the middle of the dance floor.

We later learn that that someone is her ex-boyfriend Seifer, who she still has feelings for after they parted ways less than a year earlier. Over the course of the game she moves on from her feelings toward him to fall in love with Squall, but it’s worth noting that a romantic—or at least sexual—connection is made between Miranda and Caliban in The Tempest. It’s said that when he was in Prospero’s service, he made an attempt to “violate her honor”—a nice way of saying that he tried to rape Miranda, something Caliban gleefully confirms, expressing an interest in populating the island with their offspring. This led to Prospero severing ties with him.

Now, while there are parallels between Caliban and Seifer, the latter’s relationship with Rinoa is fully consensual, and Seifer holds himself as a man of honor, with a fondness for Rinoa even as he turns to the side of the villains. With The Tempest, some readings even suggest that Caliban and Miranda’s relationship may have been consensual as well, but that Prospero’s disgust led to his torture of Caliban, although this is somewhat contradicted by Miranda’s shared disgust at Caliban.

Nonetheless, the trend in Shakespeare’s works portray the female love interests as “untouched,” having had no other romantic relationships prior to the relationship in the play. This includes characters like Ophelia in Hamlet, Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, and Hero in Much Ado About Nothing. This is in contrast with their respective love interests, all of whom are implied to have had sexual relationships in the past (Hamlet) or had a passionate romance (Romeo).

Perhaps one of the more compelling comparions that can be made, is between The Tempest’s Caliban, and FF8’s Seifer Almasy.

While Miranda is still established as a woman without any previous relationships, she is, thanks to Caliban, not completely unfamiliar with the concept of sexual intercourse. By contrast, in Final Fantasy VIII, it is Squall who is portrayed as naive in the ways of romance. It’s never discussed at length, but it’s not a stretch to assume that the infamously anti-social Squall, who eschews personal connections in general, has not had any extensive romantic connections. The closest thing to a relationship he is ever referenced having seems to be an unrequited crush that Quistis had on him, which he was unaware of until partway through the game.

“Even after becoming an instructor, I couldn’t stop thinking about Squall. I thought it was … love. I had to hide my feelings because I was an instructor” [ 6 ]. Squall is very much antithetical to Ferdinand, a hopeless romantic who declares his love for Miranda almost as soon as he meets her. Squall, on the other hand, holds Rinoa at arm’s length even as he develops feelings for her. He treats her coldly in Timber, questioning her and the Forest Owls’ dedication and comparing her to a child.

“How serious are you? Really? The 3 of you plop down on the floor to discuss strategy? On top of that, you can’t make a decision without our input, right? How do you think we feel, working for such an organization?” [ 6 ]

This scene, found smack-dab in the middle of Disc 1, is very much Final Fantasy VIII’s answer to Han Solo’s “Not in this for your revolution” speech in Star Wars. While Squall’s misgivings are hardly unfounded, it does hold true that his initial response to Rinoa is far from Ferdinand’s “love at first sight.” He is critical of her, and at best annoyed by her, and it’s not until Disc 2 that he begins to regard her with anything resembling affection.

Outwardly, he seems to treat her with nothing more than contempt. While this is mostly a reflection of his character, more than Rinoa’s, and the level to which he has committed to isolating himself, his criticisms tend toward addressing her lack of maturity. Ironically, this is a quality favored in many of Shakespeare’s works, including The Tempest, where a young waif is romanticized, rather than, in Squall’s case, tolerated.

‘Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.’

—William Shakespeare, The Tempest

The strongest connection between The Tempest and Final Fantasy VIII may be its villains. As mentioned before, Caliban serves as an interesting character, acting as the primary villain of the play, but he is largely a product of his surroundings. Caliban is the son of Sycorax, and while the latter is absent in the story, having died long before the arrival of Prospero and Miranda, her influence is still felt throughout the play. In this way, she’s not unlike Ultimecia, a sorceress who has not yet been born, but is affecting the present day through magic and manipulation. A more interesting parallel can be drawn through Caliban and Seifer, however.

Caliban grew up pampered by his mother despite his monstrous appearance, and upon her death, took on her contract with Setebos, the spirit he calls upon to perform magic. History has smiled upon the villain, as, in modern times, he is seen as a commentary on colonialism, and many modern portrayals see him as a symbol of the oppressed.

This is not absent in the play, as his motivation is primarily to take back his homeland, a concept which resonates strongly in our post-colonialist world, and has only grown more sympathetic as the information from the people oppressed by colonialism becomes more readily available in the 21st century. One particularly notable adaptation of The Tempest is Une Tempête (A Tempest), written by Aimé Césaire in 1969 [ 9 ]. This play casts Caliban as the hero, a slave who rebels against his master, Prospero. This may be why FF8’s analogue for Caliban is treated so sympathetically.

Seifer Almasy is not disfigured, nor is he a low savage as the Shakespeare portrayed Caliban. Much of this can be seen as a result of the evolving nature of character design. In the Elizabethan era, villains onstage would often be portrayed as ugly, monstrous creatures, whose inward evil was reflected in their outward appearance. Later on, villains came to be designed in much the opposite way; they became insidious characters whose beauty hid their true nature.

Seifer certainly falls into the latter camp, but his design also bears a number of modern tells that denote his villainy. Most of them refer directly to the context of the game itself, as Seifer’s design is meant to contrast with Squall’s. Where Squall has dark hair, Seifer’s hair is light. Squall wears mostly black, and so Seifer wears mostly white. Squall’s jacket is short, so Seifer’s is long. The two characters have mirrored scars, and while Squall is predominantly right-handed, Seifer is clearly left-handed. While the two characters wield the same weapon, a sword with a gun handle for the hilt known as the Gunblade, Squall holds his like a sword, denoting a respect for traditional weaponry that would resonate with a Japanese audience, while Seifer holds his like a gun, embracing Western influence and culture.

These details serve as quick and easy indicators that Seifer and Squall are in opposition, and subtext assures the audience that Seifer will be the antagonist of the piece. However, it’s hard to call Seifer an outright villain. He sees himself as a knight in shining armor, and has a commitment to honor, seeing himself as the hero who protects the Sorceress Edea. In spite of his pride, Seifer is the first to clap when Squall, Zell, and Selphie are awarded the rank of SeeD, even though he himself was denied the same.

The game doesn’t answer the question of how much Edea influenced Seifer, whether she used magic to brainwash him or was able to manipulate him because of his ambitions. One way or another, Seifer comes out of the game without any particular comeuppance for his crimes. This is similar to Caliban’s fate, as Prospero chooses to offhandedly pardon him at the end of the play.

“Go, sirrah, to my cell
Take with you your companions. As you look
To have my pardon, trim it handsomely” (2, Act V, Scene I).

It is left up to the audience to decide for themselves whether Caliban has been taken to Milan with Prospero and the others, or if he remains on his island by himself. At the end of the game, Seifer is seen fishing with Raijin and Fujin, having forgiven the player characters, and the audience is never told if he received any particular punishment or not. What this ultimately says about the concept of villains and forgiveness is up to interpretation, but it’s not a far leap to take it to be a message to forgive one’s enemies, once they’ve made the proper amends.

This is hinted at in Shakespeare’s work as well, but it also recognizes that Caliban’s attempted assault is not so easily forgiven. “Even though Prospero understands that Caliban’s bad behavior is like that of a child, he does not offer mercy and forgiveness as freely and earnestly as one should. The best Prospero can do is couch a rather lackluster pardon inside a command” [ 10 ].

There are many thematic parallels between Final Fantasy VIII and Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Both deal with themes of family and loss, they explore magic as a connection to spirits, and feature sympathetic antagonists, whose physical designs are so done to reflect the shorthands of their target audiences. While it may fade into the background compared to the more dramatic entries in the franchise, Final Fantasy VIII boasts a depth of theme and ingenuity that can be found in very few other places.

Images

  1. “Ellone’s ability to transfer her consciousness through time, and how it’s used in the narrative is not unlike Prospero’s conspiracy to trap his brother Antonio.”
  2. “The main couples of each respective story, Squall and Rinoa and Ferdinand and Miranda, could not be more different—especially the leading men of each story.”
  3. “Perhaps one of the more compelling comparions that can be made, is between The Tempest’s Caliban, and FF8’s Seifer Almasy.”

With a BA in English from the University of Massachusetts and his service in the public library system, Marcelo Gusmão’s considerable experience has served him and this endeavor well. Since joining Steam-Funk Studios in 2018, he’s demonstrated a blend of exacting, finely honed analysis, boundless creativity and skillful interpretation, all framed by a vigorous joie de vivre for all things nerd culture. A key member of SFS’ Intermediate writing and editorial staff, he’s penned several series.

Resources

  1. Folger Library Staff, “Prospero’s epilogue as Shakespeare’s farewell? Excerpt — ‘This is Shakespeare’ by Emma Smith.” Shakespeare & Beyond!, Folger Shakespeare Library, 31 Mar 2020. shakespeareandbeyond.folger.edu/2020/03/31/prospero-epilogue-tempest-shakespeare-farewell-emma-smith.
  2. Agrippa, Henricus Cornelius. “The Philosophy of Natural Magic.” Sacred Texts, John Bruno Hare. sacred-texts.com/eso/pnm/index.htm. Accessed 16 May 2021.
  3. Forshaw, Peter. “Review: Two Occult Philosophers in the Elizabethan Age.” History Workshop Journal No. 64 (Autumn, 2007), pp. 401–410. Via JSTOR, jstor.org/stable/25472956. Accessed 16 Mar 2021.
  4. “John Dee’s petition to James I asking to be cleared of accusations of conjuring, 1604.” Discovering Literature: Shakespeare & Renaissance Collections, British Library. bl.uk/collection-items/john-dees-petition-to-james-i-asking-to-be-cleared-of-accusations-of-conjuring-1604. Accessed 16 Mar 2021.
  5. Polanco, Tony. “Final Fantasy VIII Remastered Is as Frustrating and Amazing as the Original.” PC Mag, Ziff Davis, 5 Sep 2019. pcmag.com/opinions/final-fantasy-viii-remastered-is-as-frustrating-and-amazing-as-the-original
  6. Final Fantasy VIII. Square Enix, 1999.
  7. Final Fantasy VIII. Square Enix, 1999.
  8. Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. London, 1623.
  9. Césaire, Aimé. Une Tempête (A Tempest). Translated by Richard Miller. New York: TCG Translations, 2018.
  10. Mabillard, Amanda. “Forgiveness and Reconciliation in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.” Shakespeare Online, Shakespeare Online, 15 Dec. 2010. shakespeare-online.com/essays/tempestessay1.html.