Final Fantasy VIII is an excellent entry in the long-running franchise, if not the most polarizing. One of the most compelling aspects of the game is its main lead, Squall Leonhart. Though he isn’t a complete departure of the tortured protagonist mold that Final Fantasy has been known for since IV, Squall perhaps has the most “human core” depth within a lead character since Cecil Harvey. That may seem a little controversial, as the reception of Ol’ Leon has always been incredibly divisive, but it does stand to reason that the polarization is what makes him so compelling, to begin with. It isn’t so much that he’s an unlikeable douchebag as it is that’s he’s the most annoying of all so-called jerks; the silent type. The kind of guy who’s only there to do his job and nothing else, not even so much to engage in small talk with his comrades and coworkers. He doesn’t even seem interested in flirting with any of the women in his class, which guys his age (he’s 17 in the game, by the way) normally do on a regular basis. In short, Squall’s a grumpy old man in a teenager’s body, or more specifically, a facade of maturity.
Why is this important? Because this is a love story, after all, and part of that kind of storytelling is about learning how to love oneself, not just the object of his infatuation. Throughout the first act of the game, Squall has a very nihilistic view of the world. He doesn’t seem to have any real ideals, he’s annoyed when people want to know what’s on his mind, he’s disengaged in social events, and while he doesn’t explicitly say it in the game’s dialogue, he thinks his friends are idiots. One of the biggest misconceptions about storytelling is that the main hero should be a person that people generate the most empathy with. It assumes too much; Scarface’s Tony Montana is one of the most iconic movie characters of all time, and he’s a sociopathic drug smuggler with a god complex. Squall is nowhere near as psychotic, but he’s in the doghouse just for being aloof and emotionally absent? This is a man whose actions can’t actually be redeemed, so, therefore, don’t deserve any understanding?
Of course, this would be for nothing if the writers didn’t allow the player inside Squall’s head to at least give some insight to why he’s like that. It doesn’t hurt that the love interest, Rinoa Heartilly, is the polar opposite; passionate and expressive to the point of being kind of obnoxious. Opposite attract indeed. But, the interactions between the two do show signs of Squall’s walls breaking down, especially if the player decides to take Rinoa with Squall to Balamb Garden on disc two. Remember the scene where he took her on the tour around the Garden, or when she asked to walk with him the next morning just because? Just because the protagonist starts off as a jerk doesn’t mean that he can’t turn his attitude around. It’s also important to remember that Squall hasn’t experienced love on a necessarily healthy level in order to respond to it well, and not just because he was orphaned at a young age either.
Consider Squall’s entire back story as told in the game; his father is absent, his mother is dead, his sister (or the closest to a sibling that he has) is adopted, and thanks to Seifer, he was bullied throughout his life, yes even though he continuously fought back. No one with Squall’s background is destined to have a happy childhood, hence the brooding attitude. It’s not even a normal teen angst attitude either; it’s a “life sucks” kind of attitude. If he were older, he’d probably be like Max Payne in the third game of that series. But, all of that angst stops mattering when Rinoa becomes comatose at the end of disc two; now this person who keeps everyone at arm’s length because people keep leaving him and treating him poorly is showing concern for the well-being of someone else. And all that took was someone to take the slightest bit of interest in him.
Now, none of this excuses any of the plot holes that do exist within the story, like the deal with Rinoa and Seifer (although that storyline is nowhere near as important as some people want to believe), or even why it matters that Laguna, the soldier who’s past Squall relives throughout the game, happens to be Squall’s father. The bonkers business regarding time compression was a headache-inducer as well. But, much like Bioshock Infinite‘s plot detours regarding the peasant uprising and vengeful ghosts, it’s possible that these were just smokescreens to distract us from understanding what’s at the heart of this narrative. Final Fantasy VIII isn’t about stopping a sorceress from destroying the world any more than it is about a group of mercenaries discovering their past. It’s about some guy’s developing relationship with some girl. That’s it. It’s about one lone jerk’s discovery that there are people out there who do care about him and can care for him if he gives them the chance. And that everyone doesn’t always have to take care of themselves, after all.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on November 20, 2016