Final Fantasy VIII is arguably the most divisive entry in the Final Fantasy series. With the way Final Fantasy VII took the world by storm and was touted by many as the greatest JRPG ever made, Squaresoft had the impossible task of making a sequel that would at least be as good as FFVII, if not better.
Enter Final Fantasy VIII. Released in 1999, it was quickly recognized as “that one game with the romantic couple”, or “that one game with that awful song by Faye Wong”. What really sets Final Fantasy VIII apart from the rest of the entries, though, is the open-ended nature of its story. Over the years, it has spawned quite a few fan theories and debates about exactly what the hell went on in that game.
But here’s the thing that makes Final Fantasy VIII so interesting: this game is either one of the worst written Final Fantasy games in existence, or it’s the most brilliant. It all depends on how you want to look at it.
What makes FFVIII a badly written game, you ask? Where to start? Well, how about the tin-foil romance between Squall and Rinoa? Yes, I’m sure we were all very moved when Squall leaped out into space to save Rinoa from suffocating to death. And I’m sure a good number of fans squealed when ‘Eyes On Me’ started playing as our moody hero tried to brush off his heroic acts as nothing more than an act of duty. No one can forget the way Rinoa urged Irvine to turn the jeep around and rescue Squall from the prison. And of course, that whole dance sequence that takes place between the pair when they first meet at the SeeD party. Very romantic stuff.
However, there are two glaring problems with this romance arc: the first being Squall and Rinoa’s mutual loathing of each other, and the second is Rinoa’s relationship with Seifer. The ‘Squall Is Dead’ theory – a rather Vanilla Sky-esque theory – addresses these issues with the argument that Squall dies after getting impaled by a shard of ice at the end of disc 1, and that everything that happens afterwards is simply a part of his imagination and what he thinks would’ve happened had he survived his encounter with Edea. Hence everything quickly falls into place: he gets the girl, Seifer gets pushed out of the picture, happy ending for everyone.
I personally found the romantic development between Squall and Rinoa to fall a little bit on the unbelievable side. Squall holds little respect for her and the Timber Owls, thinking that they don’t have what it takes to bring independence to Timber, while Rinoa dislikes Squall’s callous nature – the incident where she tells him off for refusing to say anything encouraging to Zell comes to mind. I can definitely see how two characters of polar opposites could fall in love with each other, but the romance subplot just wasn’t handled well and ends up feeling rather rushed and a little contrived. To see all of these issues brought up in disc 1 get brushed aside so easily in the latter half of the game doesn’t quite sit well with me, but this discrepancy is addressed by the theory which argues that the romance was meant to be badly written, because it’s essentially a dream sequence.
Think about it. How many RPGs have actually had the balls to kill off their main protagonist in the first act of the game and have everything that comes after that be part of a dream sequence? Just like Vanilla Sky, this is a twist that no one would see coming. The problem with this argument is that Squaresoft does typically like to end off their Final Fantasy games with a happy resolution; Squall being dead doesn’t really lend itself well to a happy ending. But seeing as howFinal Fantasy VIII itself is already an anomaly in the series, suddenly the possibility of Squall being dead after disc 1 doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch.
The ‘Squall Is Dead’ theory isn’t completely foolproof, however. If Squall really did die at the end of disc 1 and everything we see after that is part of his dream world, isn’t it odd that he would dream up such a convoluted mess of a plot for him and his comrades to unravel? In the latter half of the game, we are introduced to new characters like Odine, Adel, and finally Ultimecia. If Squall simply wanted to live in a fantasy world as his life quickly faded away, why did he see the need to invent new characters in his head? Why not just make Edea the main antagonist the party needed to defeat in order to save the world?
So the question here is: was Nojima just really bad at writing a convincing love story? Or did Squall actually die, thus providing an acceptable explanation for why the romance between Rinoa and himself, though sweet at times, felt forced?
The next bone of contention that most fans have to pick with Final Fantasy VIII is the seemingly random nature of Ultimecia as the main antagonist. After defeating the sorceress Edea in the game’s second act, we soon learn that Edea’s actually a really kind, motherly matron who only committed evil deeds because Ultimecia possessed her. And what exactly is Ultimecia trying to achieve? Well, according to the game, she wants to compress time and mesh the past, present, and future together to create a realm where only she can exist. It is also later revealed that the whole Time Compression thing is part of her effort to ensure that SeeD doesn’t destroy her.
Simply put, she’s an evil being who wants to prevent others from killing her by killing off the whole world first. Fair enough. That makes sense. Except this is her only motivation in the entire game. For a character that’s meant to take on the role of the ultimate big baddie in a Final Fantasy game, she isn’t very compelling. In fact, she’s such a weak villain that fans have taken to constructing the very elaborate Rinoa=Ultimecia theory to explore her character further and see if she has more depth than she lets on.