Final Fantasy VIII is a strange and somewhat frustrating game for me to discuss in nearly any context because the game inexplicably embodies elements that I adore and despise in many Final Fantasy titles, as well as video games as a whole. In VIII‘s case, the otherwise interesting sci-fi elements and world building are unfortunately undercut by the game’s messy story, bizarre plot reveals and hilariously unbalanced stat modifying system. Nonetheless, I feel that Final Fantasy VIII manages to succeed at telling a story about adolescent conflict present within a specific setting, and the reasonable problems that arise as a result. Furthermore, I also think this interpretation of an adolescent-focused story has the potential to be utilized in plenty of other stories. Please note this article will spoil major story elements in Final Fantasy VIII.
A major element present within Final Fantasy VIII‘s world building is the military academies known as Gardens, which train young individuals to become members of SeeD, an elite mercenary group. While the SeeD members are usually hired to provide military support or perform covert missions, it is revealed later in the story that the SeeD’s primary purpose is to defeat evil Sorceresses, human women who possess powerful magic capabilities. For the most part, the Gardens and the SeeDs commandeer a specific level of respect within VIII‘s setting (though appropriately, certain NPC’s express annoyance at the overt military presence in certain cities), but as a result nobody seems to question the fact that SeeD members are explicitly required to apply between the ages of 15 and 19.
While most games focused on a “teens in the military” type of story would probably not care to explore the obvious issues of having adolescents in this setting, Final Fantasy VIII does the opposite; VIII highlights some of the issues that would logically come from using teenage soldiers in such a world, but does so in an indirect way.
To begin, I want to analyze Squall Leonheart, the protagonist of the game. Squall spends most of the game with a typical “cool and tough” attitude; he is a serious guy who keeps people at arm’s length and prefers being on his own. While this character archetype certainly isn’t anything new, I’ve seen many critics of the game (hell, even I fell under this impression initially) that cool and tough is the beginning and end of Squall’s personality. Notably, Squall’s initial personality isn’t regarded too positively in-game; his teacher Quistis and love interest Rinoa tease him for being too serious, while the Garden’s headmaster Cid chides Squall for his unwillingness to speak his mind. Furthermore, as the story progresses, it’s made abundantly clear that there’s more to Squall under the surface. Through flashbacks, it’s revealed that Squall was raised in an orphanage and was forcefully separated from Ellone, an older girl who acted like an older sister figure. The separation traumatized Squall, and to cope he decided to distance himself from others to avoid being hurt again. Squall’s experiences at the Garden aren’t any better; he is physically scarred during a sparring session with Seifer and later he’s forced into a major leadership role he doesn’t want. Did I mention that Squall is 17 during the entirety of the game? While I would hesitate to call Squall a ‘realistic’ character, his immaturity and the bases for his present personality are explored in depth, as well as his personal development to learn to open up to his friends and form relationships. Again, while I don’t feel Squall’s characterization (and later subversion of said characterization) is particularly unique, the game manages to highlight the issues he faces and his (totally understandable) personal hurdles that arise as a result.
Many of the other major characters in the game often make decisions that are rash or just plain idiotic, due to a combination of personality quirks and good ol’ immaturity. Zell, the hotheaded martial artist, blurts his Garden’s name on a television broadcast during an undercover mission. Quistis, despite being an academic prodigy and an esteemed instructor, destroys her teaching career while trying to sort out her (maybe romantic, maybe sisterly) affection for Squall. Selphie, implied to be somewhat unhinged due to childhood trauma, nearly gets her team killed during a revenge mission for her old Garden. Irvine poses as a swauve womanizer and competent gunman to hide his pained feelings from the past, and nearly compromises an important mission because of his inability to communicate (said mission ends up failing anyway, but whatever). Seifer serves as the game’s “rival turned evil” archetype, and his deluded attempt to handle the SeeD test mission on his own terms goes disastrously wrong. Furthermore, Seifer’s chuunibyou-ish obsession with being a Sorceress’s Knight (an idea he got from a movie) leads to him siding with the game’s antagonist. Finally, Rinoa starts off the game seemingly attempting to take a page or two from the manic pixie girl’s handbook to earn Squall’s good graces, but she quickly finds out the hard way that her lack of formal military training can and will get her killed if she tries to act impulsively on her own.
Again, the main cast is full of inexperienced teenage soldiers, and the game highlights that their stupid decisions end up having actual consequences. It is genuinely refreshing to see a narrative that shows adolescents doing dumb things, rather than treating the cast like a group of infallible individuals who definitely Can Do No Wrong.
What makes Final Fantasy VIII‘s take on an adolescent narrative so fascinating to me is that the narrative isn’t the primary focus of the story. For better or worse, the story’s mostly about Squall and Rinoa’s relationship, along with some nonsense about ancient Sorceresses and time compression. The game doesn’t really put too much attention on the pile of problems the teenage SeeD’s have due to their immaturity; rather the connections are left up to the player to connect. In other words, the antics of these teen soldiers happen, and you realize “oh right it’s because they’re teens“.
I felt the structure of this narrative was absolutely fascinating, and it’s definitely something I would love to see in other stories, regardless of medium. Unfortunately, this sort of “passive” narrative does have its own issues. To this day, I still see many people who played Final Fantasy VIII and write Squall off as a generic cool character or don’t acknowledge the depths of the supporting cast. In other words, the passive narrative is easy to overlook. Nonetheless, I think subtle sub-narratives are a unique way to tell a story or add depth to a game’s setting despite the risks, and this style of storytelling could freshen up many a stale RPG plot.