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volume 1, issue 39

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Pixel Obscura :
Fantasies at the End of the World






By Josh "Dr.Rouge" Vasquez

Final Fantasy VIII and millennial fears.

he millennium approaches. With it comes the feeling that something immense waits in the wings, some grand complication poised to ensnare us, the haunted travelers disembarking from a weary century. Yet this is not an altogether new sensation. Ever since the Church carved the year zero out of the rock of a hill called Golgotha, splinters of millennial fear have been working their way into the collective flesh. Things moved into overdrive once the final century, the 20th since Christ "gave up the ghost," began unraveling.

H. G. Wells' began his career in the mid 1890's with a dark quartet of books (The Time Machine, Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man, War of the Worlds) which were bleakly poetic warnings of apocalyptic ruin, both individual and societal. Although, with the exception of Time Machine, these stories were set in Wells' present, there is an implicit sense of "futureness" to the tales, a vision of the endtime linked to images of the clock slowing to a stop as the readout click sinto focus on the numbers 2-0-0-0. Never mind that the actual millennium arrives with the year 2001 (Kubrick and Clarke didn't just call the film that because they liked the number) or that some scholars believe that a calendar inaccuracy points to the fact that the millennium pasted several years ago, 2000 is still the symbolic barrier between what is known and what is to come.

The same could be said of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, an orchestral piece recounting the drama of a sacrifical pagan ritual. Written in 1913 on the eve of World War I, this revolutionary composition cracked the veneer of civilization, making it horribly clear just how deep the darkness ran. What these works have in common is a fusion of the primitive and the modern, the metropolis burned by torches.

This seems to be one of the key aspects of millennial fear, a strange, unnerving piercing of the present with ancient roots which generates a spooked "certainty" that the past thousand years has been nothing but an obscenely complicated Rube Goldberg device designed to trigger some terrible "birth." It's like a skyscraper built out of faded bones, a totem of deep mystery reaching out for the sensitive mind not from in front or behind, but rather from the side. If this description is vague, in a way it has to be...what else is millennial dread if not ambiguous.

Part of this already mentioned bizarre temporal discontinuity seems to be the combination of technology with the substrata. In Wells' novels, machines and scientific experiments reveal not the most enlightened side of humanity, but rather its darkest aspect. The time machine shows it user that only the bleakest future awaits, while Dr. Moreau's studies literally flesh out the ever present animal. The invading Martians in War of the Worlds conquer the earth using massive walking machines and use them to steal the blood from humans, injecting it into their own veins to survive.

This vampiric ritual, a strange kind of pagan sacrifice, is actually the result of the Martians extreme evolution, their "futureness." This idea can be symbolically paralleled by the rite performed in Stravinsky's piece in which "modern" instruments were forced to scream out the most "primitive" sounding music, and yet music which had never been heard before. At its strange heart, the millennium is a newness and an oldness which have been wrapped up in a being that has no face. It's a symbol which finds its ultimate embodiment in the bodies which littered the battlefields of World War I, an entire generation dreaming in red.

The Great War speaks to us across time as the defining millennial moment, the first conflict in which modern technology and ancient mysticism bled into one another. Never before had there been killing on so massive a scale or had so perverse an academic justification been offered. Soldiers on both sides took to wearing charms and amulets for protection. The symbol most frequently utilized by the Germans and Austrians was the swastika.

The symbol itself had come into common use long before the rise of the Nazis party. In 1848 in Vienna, an Austrian mystic named Guido Von List claimed to be having dreams of the past in which ancient forces revealed to him the occult heritage of the Teutonic orders. From these "messages," List studied and translated the set of symbols known as the Runes, the most important of which for him was the Swastika. List defined it as the "twice holy secret of constant regeneration." By the time of the Great War, an organization known as the List Society had grown up around the mystic's teachings, seeing the War as an opportunity to purge the world of evil leading to a new age, a kind of apocalyptic cleansing. Alongside the barbwire infested mud, machineguns, searing gas attacks and ariel battles was going on a mythic confrontation, even if just in the combatants minds.

It was a mystic infiltration of a supposedly civilized struggle. The Third Reich went on to adopt this occult heritage, embracing List and another mystical teacher Helena Blavatsky, who claimed psychic contact with the Tibetan masters of the long lost Aryan race, the beings of pure spirit.

Hitler and the Nazis elite (particularly Himmler) tried to work this doctrine into their own position. After witnessing a 1934 Nazis Nuremberg rally, a foreign reporter wrote: "Hitler is restoring pageantry and mysticism to the drab lives of the 20th century." The Reich was a technological horror, a machine of death, and a kind of mystical oracle, predicting the re-empowering of the once great German race.

This isn't so much a history lesson as a demonstration that the millennium has been a long time coming. It's not a feeling generated by a specific period, but a limitless vision of the end of the world. In the cinematics of the new game Final Fantasy VIII millennium fear beats behind the flashy visuals in a twisting path of love, conflict and memory.

The opening wastes no time setting the tone. While a chorus sings a halting melody, the "camera" picks up speed, careening out over the ocean as a mysterious dialogue begins to take shape in the form of appearing and disappearing lines of text. "I'll be here," it says..."why?"..."I'll be here waiting for you" comes the reply. At it's heart this is to be a love story, or at least the cinematics would have us think so.

The ocean becomes a desert that becomes a field in full bloom, spilling over with color. We are moving across time, watching a transformation which must have taken centuries. There is a progression going on here, a journey to the end point where something waits to be unleashed. Two figures are intercut with this speeding current, a man and a woman...these are to be our lovers. Surrounded by a storm of pink petals, the woman grasps one out of the air and in a flash it's gone, replaced by a feather which is drawn up into the heavens, deep within the body of a gathering darkness. From out of the clouds comes spinning a sword, cutting into the earth to stand like some later day Excalibur. Lightening flashes and a being appears for a moment in the clouds, taking up the entire sky.

This opening section establishes a millennial mood. Time is running out and some kind of end seems near. At our final destination something is indeed unleashed, set into motion by a vague alchemal process. The sword arrives heralding a coming battle, a warning sign, while in the distance a titanic force lurks with a silent indifference.

The animation is quite remarkable, the movement often ringing suprisingly true. The faces have a subtle expressivity, capturing a sneer or a disdainful shift of the eyebrows. The combat scenes are enhanced by this realism, not just cartoony scenes of "kill-em good!" Most intriguing about Final Fantasy VIII, however, is its apparent reliance on a love story as its driving force.

Memory is infused with conflict. Two men battle in a desolate landscape: the boy glimpsed in the opening and a blond, trench coat wearing fiend. The cracked, rocky, grey and black background (like they're fighting on the surface of an asteroid) is pure millennial countdown to disaster, an epic confrontation on a mythic scale. Intercut with this clash are glimpses of the past (or is it the present?). In a moment we can see what is really at stake. As the boy from the beginning charges at his adversary who has just landed a telling blow, his sword disappears into a cloud of feathers spinning on an invisible axis. They part and the girl comes towards him, arms outspread. The couple reach for one another, the music reaching a dramatic pitch, only for the image to vanish, seconds before they embrace. It's a remarkably stirring ending, surprisingly touching and earnest for a videogame.

While the overall cinematics of Final Fantasy VIII is not, except for the final image, particularly brilliant, it beautifully conveys the vague menace of millennial images. Even without the image of a giant digital clock clicking from 1999 to 2000 (which can be seen in the game's trailer) the intro piece has a millennial touch. Vaguely troubling end-of-time scenarios play out against a fractured future. The difference in Final Fantasy VIII's cinematics is that love is a possibility, an eternal hope to light the darkest corners of the ambiguous heart of a frightened century.

- Josh "Dr.Rouge" Vasquez is a regular contributor to loonygames.


Credits: Pixel Obscura logo illustrated and is © 1999 Dan Zalkus. Pixel Obscura is © 1999 Josh Vasquez. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited...we know where you live.