Final Fantasy VIII is an unconventional entry into the series. It’s a story about sorceresses, time travel, child soldiers, and follows a motley crew of clashing personalities. The uniqueness of this title has led to its divisive critical reception.
But love or hate FFVIII, it has genuinely good design elements that often get overlooked in its general discussion. I’m going to shed light on one of these elements in the unique characterization of Squall Leonhart.
What’s So Unique About Squall?
Squall is a stoic character. His defining character trait being that he’s a man of few words, preferring to emote or think to himself than express his feelings directly. At face value, this character archetype is nothing new to the franchise. We saw bits of the “stoic hero” archetype in Cloud Strife during FFVII, as well as Vincent Valentine. Lightning from FFXIII also embodies this trope for much of that game. However, FFVIII turns the archetype on its head, due entirely to one thing: Squall’s internal monologues.
Through these internal monologues, Squall’s feelings are constantly laid bare to us. This extra dimension means that we get to interact with him on a more personal level than any other protagonist in the series. While Cloud and Lightning got to play the standoffish, brooding leader before gradually breaking out of their shells, Squall’s shell is broken before it’s even allowed to form, before he even undergoes an arc.
Stoics are typically written in a way that closes them off to the player completely. You’re only ever allowed to know what they want you to know about them. This wall between the Stoic and everyone else eventually comes down as they develop. Squall, however, does not have this luxury.
Squall adopts his cold disposition as a means to keep people from getting to know him. But by that same token, he makes himself completely vulnerable to the player. How the game does this is by using his thoughts to broadcast all his fears and insecurities.
In a sense, Squall’s characterization can be seen as an opposite evolution to Cloud’s in FFVII. While Cloud’s development was centered around the suppression of his pain, Squall’s revolves around his inability to forget his. Pretty ironic considering that a major plot point of FFVIII is amnesia.
Simple, yet Effective
FFVIII plays with the internal monologue concept in a variety of ways. The notable examples being Squall’s raw, emotion driven mental rants. But sometimes, the writing is more subdued.
Very often, you’ll find that what Squall thinks and what he says are at odds with each other. Instead of saying the things that are actually on his mind, he’ll make a simple remark or emote. But the game will always make it abundantly clear to us what he truly feels inside.
I love this because it puts on full display the lengths that Squall is willing to go to keep up with his front. It also speaks to the severity of his emotional scarring that he’s willing to assume such a passive role in the story. Squall has very little agency in the events of FFVIII because of this.
He’s shuffled around into a bunch of different positions, including leadership, throughout the game. None of these are things he’s actually confident about or willing to do, but he accepts them regardless. It’s not until after the Battle of the Gardens that Squall begins to take control of his fate.
This is the point where Squall’s thoughts turn to realizations, where we see him verbalize his thoughts rather than keeping everything to himself. His growth here is a natural one, not caused by anything that exists outside of himself. Squall’s character development is simply the result of introspection.
The writing for Squall’s monologues are some of the most “human” and relatable pieces of writing in the franchise. His internal struggles amidst the fantastical events of FFVIII serve to bring the game back down to earth.
Unfortunately, this style of character writing hasn’t been attempted to this degree since Squall, and we’ll probably never have another protagonist like him. For those reading this, drop a “Whatever” in honor of our favorite emo boy.