I’ve been playing the original Final Fantasy VII for the first time and it reminded me of this post about Final Fantasy VIII’s sound design that I wrote but never published back in 2018. (Why, I don’t know. I suppose because it lacked a profound conclusion I felt it “not worthy”? Silly of me in hindsight.)
All of the Playstation era (and earlier) Final Fantasies have a silent/pre-talkie era film quality to them. There are surprisingly few sound effects outside of battle, and no voice acting whatsoever throughout. One of the most unusual features of the series’ sound design is the total absence of sound during on-screen dialogue. It was and still is a common device in videogames without voice acting to have a sound effect during dialogue… why? I don’t know, to be honest. Sometimes noises indicate who is talking, with an indistinct voice gurgle to represent each character. In games of yesteryear where the sound effect don’t change between different speakers, the purpose was less clear.
In any case, the effect of doing away with any text scroll/dialogue sound effects is a lot like watching a silent film, where title cards showed text and dialogue against music. It means these games relied a lot on Uematsu’s score, and thank goodness then these soundtracks are so strong and so varied.
As anyone who’s played Final Fantasy VIII will know, it is a baggy, ambitious game. Story-wise it’s all over the place, upside-down batshit crazy at times (and unusually, a fan theory that makes up for one of plot’s main deficiences). It’s amazing then Nobuo Uematsu’s score is able to match the game’s madcap plot and settings in content as well as scope. The official soundtrack contains over 4 hours of music – compare that with the first Ni no Kuni game, which has a light by comparison 87 minute soundtrack but an almost identical game length to FFVIII: ~45 hours according to howlongtobeat.com.
The scope of Final Fantasy VIII’s soundtrack let the designers at Squaresoft make smart choices around world-building. I just played one of the “alternate world” sections of the game where you play as Laguna in a village called Winhill. It’s a sleepy, nostalgic location with plenty of personal significance for Laguna, and the music reflects that:
You can return to Winhill later in the game with the main character, Squall. However, since he has no personal connection to the location, the music is different:
There are also a large number of “one-offs” in Final Fantasy VIII’s soundtrack – unique tracks or arrangements that play during one scene only.
As well as the soundtrack registering the familiar emotions – happiness, sadness, nostalgia, ambience – there are also pieces that feel crafted to fit a specific idea. A bumbling, incompetent liberation group?
A bustling, upper class city under military occupation?
Matching Final Fantasy VIII’s all-over-the-place mood is no mean feat.
Most of all, it shows Squaresoft’s confidence in Uematsu’s music to give the music priority, to the point where it dominates the game’s audio. The music’s prominence and the silent film aesthetic certainly paid off, since the series is still revered for Uematsu’s scores.