NOTE: The following contains spoilers. You have been warned.
Fans of Final Fantasy will endlessly debate the pros and cons of the various protagonists and antagonists that have graced the ever-growing mythos. As a series, Final Fantasy contains a myriad of compelling characters and … well, paper thin cut-outs. That is par for the course in any game series really, especially one with such a storied history as Square-Enix’s flagship RPG. Having good and bad characterization across twenty years is more or less a given, but what is truly interesting is how such characterizations, the ones that are deep and complex, can be fully debatable.
Take for example, Cloud Strife in Final Fantasy VII. Cloud is an interesting and compelling character in his own right, but fans tend to clamor at his complexity for the wrong reasons; one thing I never could agree with for example is how multi-dimensional he was in Final Fantasy VII. Cloud had a simple character arc, one motivated by personal reasons over lofty, idealistic goals—the first half of the game he a mercenary living a lie to hide his own failures and later is purely motivated by vengeance against his rival Sephiroth. Cloud doesn't go through changes as a character in Final Fantasy VII, and this is perfectly fine since parts of the game are well told and presented. His character arc is one about finding his worth, finding motivation to prove to himself that his failures are not what makes him. For Cloud, this characterization is not the deepest or most complex; interesting, sure, there is a reason why Cloud is so well-liked, but not dynamic.
See, multi-dimensional growth can mean a lot of things, from character growth through their story arc to overlying personality issues and achievements that encompass who you are. Video games are slowly starting to showcase that multi-layering with complex characteristics, and the presentation of that is still in its infancy; characters with multiple dimensions are often shunned for being shallow or bipolar, showcasing too many traits without a natural progression. It is ironic that one such character, Squall Leonhart from Final Fantasy VIII, has been given that same moniker at times. For my money though, Squall is perhaps the deepest, multi-dimensional protagonist ever featured in a Final Fantasy game, surpassing even Cloud in this category by being purposefully different from him in many ways.
A seventeen year-old introvert who is a military cadet at Balamb Garden (a sort of futuristic mercenary academy) Squall perhaps performs too well as an emotional, uncompassionate young man. Much of the ire for his initial characteristics have demonized the perception of Squall, in particular his appearance, actions, and demeanor early in the game. His overall look, being drawn by Tetsuya Nomura, is hyper-stylized to portray a “lone wolf” to the player, and his actions and characteristics borrow heavily from this stereotype; the seemingly slumped appearance in-game showcases a body language that gives off an aloofness of character, for example. His interactions with fellow students at the Balamb Garden also portray him negatively—not fully caring about his peers and purposely pushing away characters at every turn who are friendly.
These are common, stereotypical traits for the emo subculture: brooding, melancholy, and indifferent to their surroundings. The notable absence of the music behind the subculture only enhances the character traits even further, and this is not by accident. It is safe to say Squall is supposed to be somewhat unlikable when we first meet him, because he is trying to be unapproachable on purpose. Mostly due to his past history, Squall has crafted a persona he believes to be his true self—this projection of the lone wolf in its purest sense by never showing empathy on purpose for those around him.
He also has an intense rival with another student, Seifer Almasy, which also showcases these differences by his contrasting character. Seifer is in many ways Squall’s foil; Seifer is rebellious, boastful, arrogant and quick to act, whereas Squall is quiet, follows orders, and slow to respond but thorough. The game does an excellent job at highlighting these character traits both subtly and overtly between these two teenagers, and it provides a rivalry that is not seeped in the typical “protagonist/antagonist” clichés we normally see, but rather one of begrudging respect and admiration between two extreme personalities as the game progresses.
Another example of contrasting Squall is the temporary character Laguna Loire. Laguna was planned by Square to highlight more differences between Squall and other, more typical Final Fantasy protagonists. Laguna and his party are experienced soldiers and veterans, Squall and his party are young, inexperienced mercenaries. Added to this is their personalities and how they relate; Laguna shows compassion for his war buddies and genuine regret when one a mission of theirs results in serious injury between the three of them. Squall, in contrast, is unflinching in those around him; again he is meticulous in his focus of duty and indifferent to his new “friends,” Zell and Selphie.
All of this continuously highlights Squall’s negative portrayal, and in terms of the narrative, it is purposeful. Squall is not supposed to be likable in the beginning to highlight his character’s growth by the game's end. All of this also serves a second purpose: dramatic timing regarding Squall’s backstory.
The true reason for Squall’s lack of compassion is ultimately revealed to be due to an irrational fear of abandonment—a psychological problem he has with himself. Throughout the game we learn about Squall’s past; as a young child he was separated from his step-sister, Ellone. Because Squall had no recollection of his parents, the aforementioned Laguna and his wife Raine, Ellone was his only link to a happier time before growing up in an orphanage after their abandonment. Ellone’s disappearance is purposeful, however, because she is pursued by the game’s primary antagonist, the being known as Ultimecia. As a villain, Ultimecia’s goal is simple, take Ellone and use her power to cast the spell known as Time Compression, which would basically cause time and space to change in her image, essentially taking over the known universe. Because of this major plot point, Ellone is forced to live on the run for years and abandons Squall when he was a young child.
With his older sister gone, Squall effectively retreated into himself. This sense of abandonment is magnified because of the use of the Guardian Forces, the summons in the game, which, as a deus ex machina plot element, causes the loss of memories. While this story element is arbitrary at best in the grand scheme of the game’s overall and admittedly often jumbled plot, what is important from this is to see how Squall behaves from these factors; it is this event that shapes Squall when he is first encountered, afraid to remember yet subconsciously pushing to forget his past.
The psychological trauma surrounding his abandonment issues effectively make him act out as he does; he becomes an angst-filled teenager not for paltry reasons, but due to a genuine sense of loss in his past life. He sees caring for people as a weakness due to this; a weakness because he could, and most certainly will, be hurt again if he forms a close bond once more. This feeling, coupled with the memory loss element, made him push others away as he developed his cold demeanor.
With this setup, Squall’s journey through the game has him unravel slowly. While characters and plot points in the game help him thaw his icy exterior, much of the credit has to be given to the female lead Rinoa Heartilly. Rinoa is an interesting character in her own right. She is bubbly, carefree, and not afraid of how she is perceived—another stark contrast to Squall in some ways. Like Squall, Rinoa suffered a loss early in her life; her mother Julia died in a car crash, which leads her to slowly drift away from her father, General Fury Caraway. Unlike Squall, Rinoa is more courageous and impulsive, joining a resistance movement against her father’s own government, perhaps exacting sub-conscious revenge for the loss of her mother, which showcases a difference she has with Squall—Rinoa does not keep emotions and duty separate.
This is important to note, because Rinoa and Squall’s relationship is ultimately the primary focus of the game’s narrative. Rinoa at first seems like a stalker to Squall, preying upon him in the superficial way Bella Swan did for Edward Cullen. Often she is decried as shallow and one-dimensional in her interactions, but is it deeper than that? Perhaps she sees a bit of herself in Squall's actions and wants to break him away from this feeling of loss and abandonment? Sadly, Final Fantasy VIII never really reveals Rinoa’s intentions for courting Squall, which is also frustrating for fans of the game because it gives more credence to her seemingly one-dimensional nature.
However, with the crux of the game being the relationship between Squall and Rinoa, Rinoa serves as the major catalyst into forcing Squall out of his shell, giving her a more dynamic personality. Meeting at Squall's graduation from the Balamb Garden, for example, she forces him to dance a waltz, then suddenly disappears like Cinderella at the stroke of midnight. After mentioning he is the "best looking guy there," Rinoa plays with Squall, gently smiling and leading him in a dance he clumsily stumbles through for the first few minutes, before letting go and showing not only can he dance, but can also enjoy the interaction with others in such an activity.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gbGaYh8mRuM
The lone wolf Squall, the one who is purposely pushing others away, disappears for a brief moment, and with a subtle wink, Rinoa darts away, leaving Squall confused, but curious about the young woman he interacted with. Rinoa is pro-active in this relationship; pro-active and wise enough to realize that Squall is not going to sink into a comfortable position with her so easily right off the bat. She is playful, yes, but does so on purpose to effectively “break the ice” in both a figurative and literal sense. This makes Rinoa a character with agency, one with a purposeful intention to get close to this “lone wolf.”
Later, Squall and his companions join forces with Rinoa’s resistance group and through a series of events become tangled with the overall plot of Ultemicia’s quest to perform the time compression spell. As convoluted as the main story may get at times, the overall narrative core, the burgeoning relationship between Squall and Rinoa, become the forefront of the entire story that dictate how Squall behaves. His motivation changes, slowly and gradually, due to this interaction.
Eventually, it is revealed that Rinoa is a sorceress. She is then possessed by Ultimecia and slips into a catatonic state mid-game. Squall questions why she is in this state and furiously looks for a cure for her. This act at first is similar to Rinoa’s stint with the resistance movement; the reasons are primarily selfish so Squall will not go through with another abandonment. But other motivations begin to bubble to the surface as Squall comes to terms with his own feelings for Rinoa. And when she is freed from this spell, it is clear that Squall acts differently towards the newly minted sorceress; he begins to lighten up as a character, showing more affection and shedding parts of his lone wolf persona. His relationship with Rinoa deepens, with Squall taking more initiative to woo Rinoa over time.
Much of this romance sub-plot is often chided because of how the characters behave, but one factor for this that is well done is the age of the characters. Both Squall, Rinoa, and most of their companions began the game in their elder teens, so their ages do reflect a lot of the positive and negative aspects of their characters—primarily the more annoying character traits and shallow dispositions. It can be chalked up to poor writing, but it can be just as easily be the purposeful immaturity the characters are supposed to showcase. Yet all of them progressed from this to a more serious demeanor; the horrors of war argument and the subplot on growing up can be discussed endlessly here as other major thematic elements in Final Fantasy VIII, which also give the characters’ behaviors, especially Squall and Rinoa, much more depth than their superficiality may suggest.
Perhaps the best example of this is towards the end of the game, when Squall finally reveals why he chooses to be alone to Rinoa. Rinoa, selfishly sitting in his lap, tries to show him that it is all right to have these feelings, because you can be comfortable around people you care for. In an instant, Rinoa herself becomes distraught because of earlier plot elements in the game, and it is Squall's turn to comfort her, a major shift in his character. It is also a role-reversal from what we have seen before; Squall tends to shut down and wallow in self-pity over the distress he has gone through, whereas Rinoa has always attempted to comfort him. From this, Squall shows he does care for Rinoa and the rest of the playable characters, not out of honor or duty or courage in the battlefield, but out of love and compassion and an understanding that you don’t have to be alone forever.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fV52DvjX9rA
While it may be cliché to say that “love conquers all” nowadays, what is important here is again not the ending of the tale, but the journey to it. The payoff after the prevention of the catastrophe that Ultimecia schemed for throughout the plot is Squall and Rinoa finally consummating their relationship with each other with a single embrace—a kiss that was well deserved after four discs worth of content. It is this moment that Squall as a character worked for; he overcame his own insecurities and let others into his comfort zone. It is not just a literal battle between good and evil for Squall, but an internal conflict of fighting his own fears and overcoming them for the future, a “squall” within Squall as it were.
The events of the game showed depth to Squall because of his motivations for his actions. As the feelings of introversion finally eroded, Squall as a character went from a brooding teenager to a stable young man. His journey is not just a sudden motivation shift like Cloud Strife, but a gradual, four disc odyssey that at points manifests through the game's dialogue and cinematic sequences, which accent the storyline well. He is a believable character because the payoff is a simple moment that contrasts with his beginnings, his fear of others gone, his issues of abandonment seemingly absolved. Squall is a character that is given character, and a shining example of good writing and development by Squaresoft.
Thank you for checking out another episode of Character Select. If you have any questions or comments, or any suggestions on characters that would make a good subject, please leave a message below or contact me via twitter @LinksOcarina. See you next time.