Not so Final Fantasy is a tri-weekly column dedicated to all things Final Fantasy; from specific aspects of specific titles, to the universal features that set Square Enix’s inimitable JRPG series apart from the rest.
Final Fantasy VIII is without a doubt my second favourite game in the series, but I’ll be the first to admit, it’s not exactly what you’d call a typical JPRG.
Over the course of their adventure, protagonist Squall and company witness a chain of events that stretch the credulity of the series’ usual blend of science-fiction and fantasy to breaking point, threatening to jump the shark on more than one occasion. Amid amnesia-inducing Guardian Forces (summon monsters) and sporadic, subconscious journeys into the past are such things as a flying military academy and the Lunar Cry: a spectacular moment roughly three quarters of the way through the game during which a torrent of monsters rain down to the planet’s surface… from the Moon.
It’s perfectly understandable, then, that efforts to explain away some of the more ludicrous features of Final Fantasy VIII’s plot have been made over the years since its release.
The most prominent of these – titled, rather evocatively, ‘Squall is Dead’ – revolves around the idea that Squall is fatally wounded during the climactic battle at the end of disc one, rendering everything that happens thereafter an illusion generated by his dying mind.
I’ve never been convinced of the veracity of this particular fan theory myself, but it’s an intriguing prospect nonetheless, boasting some intriguing concepts that deserve a closer look – if only to disprove them.
Naturally, what follows is heavily laden with spoilers, so I’d advise not reading any further unless you’re already familiar with Final Fantasy VIII.
As I mentioned a few short lines ago, the theory doesn’t actually begin to diverge from the standard interpretation until the very final scene of disc one, specifically, at the moment Squall is impaled on a huge spear of ice magic cast by apparent villain Edea following SeeD’s abortive attempt to assassinate this increasingly powerful sorceress.
Knocked unconscious by the attack, Squall awakes sometime later trapped in a desert prison. Still somewhat disorientated, as you would be having so recently occupied the role of meat in a human kebab, the taciturn hero’s first thought is “where’s my wound”? A good question and one that kicks off the ‘Squall is Dead’ theory in earnest.
How could such a brutal attack leave no mark whatsoever on Squall’s body, the theory asks? Surely neither Edea nor the Galbadian Army would bother healing him only to execute him later on? After all, he presents a very real threat to their plans. The answer, according to Duckroll (online alias of the individual who first conceived of the concept), is that, from here on out, everything we see is a figment of Squall’s imagination; a coma fantasy; an extended version of the concept of life flashing before one’s eyes immediately preceding death. The key difference is that, in Squall’s case, his failing brain takes it one step further and, rather than simply reminiscing on his past life, actually fabricates an idealized future in which he finally learns the answers to the questions he’s not had the opportunity to ask. Questions such as what are Edea’s motives? Who are Laguna, Kiros, and Ward, and what do they have to do with Squall? And, most importantly of all, where does the protagonist himself come from?
This explains why the story takes such a fantastical turn from this point onward. His subconscious is now free to conjure any scenario it deems necessary to answer these questions, unfettered by the laws of physics and probability, which includes placing Squall at the centre of events despite his relative inexperience (more on that later).
Returning to the problem at hand, i.e., Squall’s miraculous recovery, I think Duckroll’s solution is completely superfluous. Is a deathbed fever dream really a better explanation than the obvious? That Edea has indeed healed Squall’s wounds, not out of any residual kindness or as part of some convoluted scheme, but to ensure he’s 100% fit and conscious for the ensuing examination-by-torture. Choosing to interrogate Squall rather than Quistis (an experienced member of the Garden hierarchy and therefore more knowledgeable of its inner workings than Squall at this point) because true main antagonist Ultimecia, via her ensorcelled proxy Edea, is instictively aware even now of the crucial role Squall will play in her fated demise.
Not through something as banal as intuition, but through the paradoxical, time-warping cycle of events that binds them so inextricably. Edea’s powers stem from Ultimecia who travelled back in time to pass them on after her defeat at the hands of Squall; the man whose destiny it was, is, and will be to confront Ultimecia because it was his future self that warned pre-sorceress Edea of Ultimecia’s rise to power and, crucially, tasked her with founding both Garden and SeeD. And because headmaster Cid, it transpires, is married to Edea, he patiently awaits Squall’s arrival, grooming him for leadership and offering whatever assistance he can in the fight against Ultimecia when he eventually finds his way to Garden as a young orphan.
Okay, so the plot is as confusing as The Matrix sequels, more or less, but once you’ve got your head around the different time-lines, it starts to make sense in a weird kind of way. Not only that, but with so many competing narrative threads and esoteric concepts to factor in, it doesn’t require any great leap of the imagination to see any loose threads present in the final release as unintentional if natural consequences of the writer’s attempts to create a story that leans more towards science-fiction than the traditional medieval fantasy of previous Final Fantasy titles.
Between here and the final confrontation with Ultimecia, evidence supporting the ‘Squall is Dead’ argument fluctuates in believability, taking the form of various isolated incidents rather than any coherent theme connected to the main narrative.
I’m not going to address all of them in detail, of course. I mean, there’s not much to say about the floating Garden, Lunar Cry, or the presence of Moombas in their defense, other than these are surely pretty typical of a series that’s never exactly shied away from such flights of fancy. Exhibit A) Suplexing a ghost train in Final Fantasy VI. Two of the more compelling points deserve a mention, however, beginning with the sudden upswing in the careers of Squall and Seifer, and how this ties into the overarching theme of fate.
As a newly minted member of SeeD, Squall’s ascendancy to squad leader and, later, commander of Balamb Garden as a whole does seem a bit precipitous when you think about it. Prior to his sudden rise, Squall is very much a loner who only tolerates the company of others because his habitual professionalism and loyalty to Garden dictates he must; he certainly has no wish to form any personal bonds with his comrades. Seifer, meanwhile, though of dubious morality in the early stages of the game and similarly unsociable, has always demonstrated a comparable degree of loyalty toward Garden, making his sudden shift in allegiance and personality from an abrasive, antagonistic heel to someone overtly evil just as difficult to account for. Unless this was all a product of Squall’s fading subconscious.
If this was the case, their sudden upturn in fortunes doesn’t seem quite so out of place. You can easily imagine Squall projecting an idealized version of himself as the selfless savior of the world, the indomitable warrior who gets the girl and learns the value of friendship, while his rival, Seifer, becomes nothing more than another disposable stooge of the heinous villain.
Or is it simply fate? We’ve already established that Squall is central to SeeD’s plans by virtue of his time-spanning relationship with Edea and Ultimecia, and, though neither headmaster Cid nor Edea are able to explicitly inform Squall of his destiny (I assume because it’d create a paradox, though this is never stated), it’s only natural that the weight of responsibility gradually placed on his shoulders as the story progresses in order to prepare him for the battles to come begin to change his personality; especially in respect to the people he commands. Seifer, meanwhile, has always viewed Squall as something of a rival; perhaps because he sees much of himself in Squall along with a few key differences. Seifer thus feels he has to constantly prove himself to others, to show them he’s every bit as good as Squall, triggering the violent encounter between the two at the very beginning of the game and placing a very large chip on his shoulder which leaves him vulnerable to the manipulative powers of Ultimecia.
And this is far from the only time fate, in one guise or another, is addressed prior to the seminal confrontation at the end of disc one. Throughout the first few hours of Final Fantasy VIII, the story is punctuated by sporadic dream sequences in which Squall’s (and his two chosen companion’s) consciousness is sent back in time, by a mysterious woman named Ellone, to inhabit the bodies of three unusual and apparently random Galbadian soldiers. Not to change the past; Ellone realizes that’s impossible. But to teach Squall to embrace his destiny, prepare him for the challenges that lie ahead, and help him grow as a leader.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say fate accounts for the equally abrupt development of Squall and Rinoa’s relationship from thinly veiled hostility to all-consuming love. But nor do I think the quick turn around in their feelings serves as evidence for the ‘Squall is Dead’ theory.
Squall’s lack of interest in Selphie and Quistis as potential love interests for one thing, a sticking point for proponents, is hardly surprising when you consider the differences in their personalities. Selphie is bubbly and gregarious – the polar opposite of the laconic, aloof Squall Leonhart and therefore hardly a suitable match. Serious and a little bit bossy, Squall has always viewed Quistis, meanwhile, as a mentor; despite the fact she’s only a year older than him.
Rinoa, by comparison, falls somewhere between the two. She’s kind-hearted and sweet like Selphie, but not quite as animated. And, while she undoubtedly possesses a great deal of inner strength and determination, neither is she as straight-laced as Quistis. For her part, in Squall, Rinoa sees all the qualities she thought she loved about Seifer (martial prowess, hidden depth, faithfulness, nobility) along with a handful of others unique to Squall: integrity and a greater capacity for affection among them.
Her personality complements Squall’s in a way that neither of the other two’s can. She’s self-assured and tough enough to give as good as she gets whenever Squall falls into one of his frequent bouts of severe introspection, yet possesses the requisite warmth of character to melt his outwardly chilly disposition. When viewed from this perspective, it’s hardly surprising their relationship blossoms so rapidly once they’ve spent some time together and begun to understand what really makes one another tick.
As far as I’m concerned, it’s not until the last hour or so of Final Fantasy VIII that any really thought-provoking arguments in support of the ‘Squall is Dead’ theory come to light. Beginning with Ultimecia’s nihilistic monologue on the inexorable movement of time’s arrow in the build-up to the final, multi-stage boss battle.
According to the theory, Ultimecia represents Squall’s subconscious during this scene, as it tries to convince him to embrace his impending death. To give up his futile struggle to cling onto a life and reality that is fast slipping through his fingers.
I must say, when I first considered her words, I was little unsettled. They do seem a little out of context when you consider her reasons for compressing time are to protect herself from SeeD by creating a world in which she alone can exist. Humanity is simply collateral damage, not the target; unlike Kefka or Sephiroth’s plans. I was unsettled that is, until I dug a deeper and discovered the sentiments conveyed during this exchange differ quite drastically in the original Japanese version, wherein Ultimecia talks specifically about childhood feelings, and how the linear motion of time makes any attempt to hold on to the memories and experiences of our younger days pointless; a subtle shot at Squall’s newfound appreciation for his friends and their shared past in the seaside orphanage. Any deeper existential concepts are nowhere to be found.
It’s harder to dismiss the theory’s interpretation of the post-boss cut-scene. The sheer number of distorted images that flood the screen upon Ultimecia’s defeat alone makes it a difficult sequence to parse, let alone the recurrent image of Edea piercing Squall’s body with her magic.
If this was indeed the last thing he ever saw in the waking world, as the theory suggests, it would make perfect sense for this event to replay over and over in his mind as he wanders a featureless subconscious abyss, trying desperately to organize the disparate memories of his recent past and his place within them. The increasingly blurred nature of these visions symbolizing the deteriorating state of his mind and body.
Compelling as it undeniably is, there are still holes in this argument, however, that, when considered alongside the standard interpretation of everything that’s gone before, leave me ultimately unconvinced.
To begin with, later events appear as part of this vignette that, if the theory is to be believed, would have to have happened after Squall became comatose: most notably, the moment he and Rinoa reuinite in space shortly after Adel is released from her celestial prison and returns to Earth amongst the monsters of the Lunar Cry. If the theory is correct and only moments from his life race through his mind at this point, how is this possible?
Which brings me on to my second and most crucial point. Although the image of Edea’s near-lethal attack on the parade float recurs time and again, it isn’t because this signals the end of Squall’s corporeal existence, but because, as he plummeted to the ground and looked up into Rinoa’s panic-stricken face, this was the moment he realized the true depth of his feelings for her.
So, when he finds himself stranded in the infinite abyss caused by Ellone’s time magic – a place where past, present, and future blur into one confusing, homogeneous mass – Squall realizes his only chance of getting home is to use the strength of his attachment to Rinoa as his focal point; to orient himself in time. Thus he summons forth images of their first meeting at the graduation dance, his zero-G rescue mission, and even that infamous moment on the parade float; these images distorted by the extreme conditions, of course, and the nagging self-doubts and uncertainty that plague Squall.
With precious little evidence supporting key points, I don’t think I’m being overly harsh when I say the ‘Squall is Dead’ interpretation of Final Fantasy VIII doesn’t have a lot going for it.
Aside from the counter arguments raised here and by various other fans who take the game at face value, director Yoshinori Kitase himself debunked the theory as hokum in a 2017 interview with Kotaku. Discussing the seminal encounter at the end of disc one that begun this whole discussion, Kitase said “I think he (Squall) was actually stabbed around the shoulder area, so he was not dead”. A pretty definitive response, I think we can all agree.
However, in the same interview, Kitase later conceded the ‘Squall is Dead’ concept presents “a very interesting idea” going on to say “if we ever do make a remake of Final Fantasy VIII, I might go along with that story in mind”. Perhaps there’s still hope for this intriguing idea after all, just not in the way adherents might have hoped.