Classic game: Final Fantasy VIII
Squall’s well that ends well
“Once you crack Squall’s outer shell, you get to see perhaps one of the most broken protagonists in the series’ long history.”
Final Fantasy VIII is a love story. And it might be one of the greatest gaming has ever told. Coming off the back of the most successful RPG of all time (Final Fantasy VII) Squaresoft’s follow-up needed to be different. After a game with corporate greed, climate change, and political activism at its heart captivated players the world over, Squaresoft needed to put the followup’s ticker in a different place entirely. So the developer pinned it squarely to the sleeve of Squall’s iconic leather jacket.
Sure, your emo protagonist was the victim of some dodgy localisation and is generally an edgelord sourpuss, but he has heart. With plenty of internal monologue (unusual for the series), you spend loads of time in his head, too. His grim worldview and reticence to let anyone past his emotional walls has defined the game in hindsight, but once you crack Squall’s outer shell, you get to see perhaps one of the most broken protagonists in the series’ long history.
Squall exists in a world that’s been actively hostile towards an entire generation: rumours circulate of children being kidnapped to placate a mysterious sorceress, myriad wars span continents, and experimental technology is being adopted. Throw in the fact that he was orphaned at a young age, then abandoned by the one role model he had during his worst years, and you start to understand his prickliness when it comes to relationships and abandonment.
He’s a traumatised child, laden with responsibility he never asked for, in a world he doesn’t really want to save. Almost the polar opposite of Cloud. That was an intentional move by
Squaresoft; not only was Squall designed to exist on the opposite side of the chess board to Cloud, the whole game was an answer to
Final Fantasy VII: the levelling, powering-up, weapons, summons, and practically everything else were nearly as opposed to their FFVII equivalents as they could be. Squall, with his trauma, was the perfect figurehead for Final Fantasy’s reinvention.
Upon leaving the orphanage that was his home for most of his childhood, Squall enlists with Balamb Garden: an elite mercenary academy designed to train generations of students to repel a vague but cataclysmic threat: the Sorceress. We begin our story at Squall’s final exam (read: first deployment in an active war zone), and from here a web of political intrigue, conspiracy, and badly-explained science is spun.
DOWN THE GARDEN PATH
Story elements and world-building could be compared more to Le Guin and Asimov than Tolkien and Hobb: magic exists alongside science in a wonderful mix-up of vaguely defined rules that lets your imagination fill in the gaps. Military forces equipped with spells and swords battle across a map spanning the entire world, and Squall, in his mobile command base, makes the most of this open world as he strives to do right by the ‘army’ he’s placed in command of, while trying to recall what on earth made him so messed up in the first pace.
Enter Final Fantasy VIII’s biggest problem: amnesia. Forgetful protagonists aren’t exactly rare in roleplaying games, but the late-coming, plot-hole-ridden, and off-handed revelations near the end
sour things somewhat. For a game so immersive otherwise (the SeeD salary system is genius), it unravels as it nears its dramatic conclusion.
But that can be overlooked if you focus elsewhere. Instead of looking at the dodgy enemy level-scaling, the confusing junction system, or the baffling mid-game revelations about memory, focus on the game’s exposed, tender heart: Squall and Rinoa. Through Rinoa, Squall’s arc takes on so much more meaning. You see just how much this traumatised child has grown into the world so actively trying to oppress him. Cloud wanted to save the world, but Squall wants to save the woman he loves, and therein lies Final Fantasy VIII’s most compelling trait.
Final Fantasy VIII paired angst with growth, and demonstrated that change, in the face of daunting, overwhelming odds, is possible, and beautiful. To communicate that, while letting you batter enemies with a sword that’s also a gun? That’s the beating heart of Final Fantasy, right there.