Regrettably, this will be a broad strokes summary of the characters of the story and where they come in, to serve Final Fantasy VIII newcomers with a handy introduction to Quistis’s situation in the story and the cast that animates it. Major themes of the game feature recovery, on a global and personal scale — that is, recovering reasons why the present has the features it does, be it a present person or a present nation. It’s also a game that involves time travel. Both of these features make chronological exposition difficult, and exposition in order of discovery is not just beyond my hopes for this shrine, but also will pale against those discoveries as played through. I don’t want to attempt that, but I hope to explain the general events and the characters of the game in such a way that someone who hasn’t played FFVIII will find it tempting.
Squall Leonhart’s perspective controls the progression the story while his interior monologue colors it, providing a level of intimacy obviously unparalleled by the remaining characters. In his introductory sequence, we find him sparring well but not creatively with his rival, Seifer Almasy, who scars him across the nose after using an unexpected magical attack; Squall responds with new ferocity to reciprocate the scarring. Cut to Squall sprawled on an infirmary cot at his military academy, Balamb Garden, which trains and then employs mercenaries called SeeDs in political conflicts around the globe. As the head physician, Dr. Kadowaki, contacts his instructor, Squall is greeted by a mysterious woman, whose prior knowledge of him does not appear to be shared. His reputation as aloof is deserved early in the game, as initially only the player is privy to the degree that surrounding characters and events affect him; he begins deferent to authority and not forthcoming on matters non-logistical. Beyond a quiet aptitude for both combat and scholastics, he does not distinguish himself amongst SeeD cadets.
In contrast, Seifer Almasy is flagrantly dismissive of rules despite enjoying a unique authority as the head of the Disciplinary Committee at Balamb Garden, an organization which polices fellow students’ behavior. His fellow committee members are his close friends, Rajin and Fujin, a man and woman notable both for their esteem of Seifer and their unique linguistic tics: Rajin repetitively uses ‘y’know’ throughout his speech; while Fujin appears to eliminate all but one or two words in her clauses, skipping prepositions and articles entirely.
Seifer is a complicated figure within FFVIII. Though he acts as a foil to Squall, it’s not simply that Seifer is bad and Squall is good, but rather that they take opposite approaches in their willingness to interact with the world. Squall cuts off involvement with other people, desiring not to be harmed by caring for someone, and declines responsibility for the way his actions as a mercenary may play out with global consequences, the former in a wish to avoid being harmed by others; whereas Seifer is eagerly confrontational as he strives towards personal and moral objectives, unafraid to cause harm in pursuit. For both boys, the effects of their actions on others is a secondary concern — it’s only the respective primary concerns that differ, Squall passively avoiding harm, Seifer actively seeking goals. Their symmetry continues throughout the game: they are identically scarred; they wield the same rare weapon; they swear fealty to sorceresses in a way that dictates their most important actions in the game.
Instructor Trepe enters with a roll of her eyes, unimpressed by the boys’ dueling. It’s interesting feature of the story that despite their equal injuries as shown in the prologue, no one alludes to Seifer bleeding in some other cot requiring instructor accompaniment — from the beginning, Squall as the injured party is emphasized. Quistis walks him back to her classroom, teasing him by imitating his limited pool of responses (“Whatever” is his one-size-fits-all rejoinder) and smothering her laughter behind her hand. Hardly professional behavior, but there is nothing overtly inappropriate until she accompanies him on the prerequisite combat exam. Before that she serves as the game’s tutorial, neatly braiding her characterization as a capable teacher with what would otherwise be a function of the game’s interface.
Speaking to any of the lingering cadets reveals that she’s achieved SeeD status and an instructor license in record-breaking time; as a consequence, there are several students who have formed a fan club in her honor, though any reference to a non-tutelage relationship with her comes across as wistful possibility only. It’s only when they enter the exam’s Fire Cavern that she references to how very nervous the young men she supervises during these exams get — and that she’s teasing Squall just to put him at ease before combat.
True to character, he doesn’t respond, and it seems unlikely that she achieved her aim. He passes the prerequisite anyway. From the contrast between her attention to Squall and the intimacy reported by other cadets, it’s clear that she has an unusual interest in him concealed when they are not alone. Though that interest doesn’t pan out for Quistis, she remains a central figure in Squall’s romantic life because she urges him to connect with others, either because of their needs or his, at critical points in the game. Interestingly, given how frequently she advises Squall to depend on others, she’s the only character to have no implied partnership at the conclusion of the game.
During the actual field exam, Seifer is assigned leadership of a trio of cadets that includes Squall and the newly introduced Zell Dincht, another member of their class. Seifer repeatedly calls Zell a ‘chicken-wuss’ and, after he asks after the woman who greeted him in the infirmary, calls Squall ‘puberty boy.’ Zell quivers with rage at the insult, though he ultimately does nothing; sheer animation appears to be his central characteristic, usually manifested in unproductive uses of energy, as well as an incorrigible informality in his speech. For every ‘whatever’ from Squall, there’s a ‘yo’ from Zell.
The player is perhaps visually tipped-off to undue haste in Zell, because he’s a seventeen year old with a prominent face tattoo, but all evidence cements that Zell is in fact from a loving family in nearby Balamb town that accepts his combat aspirations and seems extremely well-adjusted. Interestingly, Zell, for all his idle rambunctiousness, is one of the steadier-minded characters, likely because of the firm love rooted in his home. We never seem him flinch, and despite being prefixed with a ‘yo,’ his thoughts are usually roughly the right course for the situation.
The trio’s exam mission is to assist the city of Dollet in repelling a complement of Galbadian soldiers who have invaded their city-state. Though there is no clear reason for sudden aggression, Galbadia was one of the major actors in a world-wide war with Esthar in the hopes of dominating all of the cities that dot their sparsely populated planet — and so a sudden invasion is quite in character. When Seifer directs his team to defy direct orders from Quistis to hold their position for more combat against Galbadian soldiers, only Zell questions the sense of that. Squall says little, but the moment is a nuanced instant of comradery between himself and Seifer, as it seems like Squall almost wanted more action, yet wouldn’t have had the gall to go find it.
When the trio spies on Galbadian soldiers entering a communication tower, Seifer peels off from the group to fight them individually, just as Selphie Tilmitt falls into the group. Literally. Seifer shouts that he has a ‘romantic dream’ just as he disappears; this follows a conversation where Seifer essentially questions the utility of their orders, suggesting that his romantic dream and his present defiance are all about creating the life he wants, which does not include following pointless directions.
Selphie’s there to deliver orders to rendezvous at the beach at a particular time. It’s possible that the player could make her acquaintance earlier to show her around Balamb Garden because she’s a transfer student. Balamb Garden is one of three military academies in the world; because they produce mercenaries that operate at the whims of the highest bidder, Garden institutions are not politically associated with the locales that give them their name. Selphie is from Trabia, a city-state the northernmost continent, and seems to equal Zell in zeal.
Later conversations highlight blood thirst incongruous with her girlish demeaner, a ferocity that equals her enthusiasm for event organization, trains, and fan sites. Despite the adolescent cast of her interests, these are also the only interests besides love and war exhibited by any of the main cast, and they suggest a technical and organized mind. She is also the only character who we observe grieving for the fallen when she emotionally confesses achieving her dream (playing bass in a band) to tombstones marking former friends. Like Zell, her responses have an unconsidered quality, despite the actual content being very intelligent.
After passing the SeeD exam, which involves discovering the Galbadians had only wanted to repair the Dollet communications tower and Quistis saving the day from an arachnoid robot, the newly minted SeeDs attend a ball in their honor. Zell and Selphie are unable to draw Squall from sipping wine against a back wall, but a young woman in a white slip prods his chest — “You are going to like me” — and then drags him into the ball room. It’s a brief interaction, but we observe Squall’s repeated escape attempts being thwarted. When he finally gives in, they waltz fluidly under the moon and he examines her closely under a burst of fireworks.
Later we learn that this is Rinoa Heartilly, the leader of a resistance faction protesting Galbadian occupation of the nation of Timber — and the daughter of a prominent Galbadian general. She departs to speak to someone else and Squall withdraws to the balcony with his chardonnay. That dynamic, Rinoa pushing, Squall withdrawing, remains in place for a significant portion of the game, but shifts as Squall accepts his interest in Rinoa and need for others generally. Early instances of that shift feature Squall rescuing Rinoa, particularly after she becomes a ‘sorceress’: a user of natural magic, in contrast to the junctioned magic that our party normally relies on. This ability has to be inherited from a dying sorceress and given to a young woman nearby with the right latency — and is a cause of much fear, as sorceresses are traditionally powerful beings that shape the political landscape of the game. That rescue dynamic is challenged by the game's conclusion.
The foregoing are our main party members, with one late addition: Irvine Kinneas, a sniper from Galbadia Garden who saunters over to the team with a tip of a cowboy hat. That cowboy act is an affectation that serves him in his posturing as a ladies man (his first action when the team separates into two parties is to put Selphie and Rinoa on each arm), but that appearance of capable aloofness belies a surprising amount of emotional intelligence.
Unlike Zell and Selphie, whose combat and intellectual prowess are occasionally at odds with their adolescent phrasing, Irvine’s contributions always sound mature — but more importantly, though Zell and Selphie express sincere concern for others, Irvine, Quistis, and Rinoa are the only supporting characters that go into any real detail about the inner lives of others, often to nudge a recalcitrant Squall in the right interpersonal direction. A wink and a hat is all it takes for him to be written off as a self-absorbed flirt, yet Irvine and Quistis flank Squall at key moments in Squall’s relationship with Rinoa, pushing him towards connection. It’s that same sophistication of thought that makes him an ironically poor shot in the mission that prompts his joining.
With the exception of Rinoa, the above cast members are all members of the liberi fatali, a latin term translating to ‘fated children.’ All of them grew up on a lonely orphanage on the southern continent of Centra, abandoned for some time after the civilization that occupied it was destroyed in a lunar cry, a rain of monsters from the moon. Their primary caretaker, a woman they called Matron, is later revealed to be Sorceress Edea, the villain of the first two acts. In a double twist it turns out that she was possessed by a sorceress from the future, Ultimecia, who wanted to compress space and time so that she could be a solitary being, the team members are completely unphased by Edea’s appearance in this role, excluding Irvine Kinneas. Throughout the game you are urged to use Guardian Forces which allow you to junction magic — and then you learn that there is a slight side effect of memory loss. The gardens have differing policies on Guardian Force usage; Galbadia Garden specifically prohibits them, so Irvine alone knew that they were attacking their mother figure. What makes them the fated children deals with time travel shenanigans. This will involve lengthy explanation.
The main villain, Ultimecia, is a future sorceress prophesied to die at the hands of a ‘legendary SeeD’, which is what inspires her desire to compress time and space to prevent her death. To do that, she has to use time travel, either to reach a certain point in the past or to exist at sufficiently separate points in the continuum of time to cast the spell; there is a machine, called Junction Machine Ellone, which allows her consciousness to travel to Squall’s present and ‘possess’ other sorceresses, but she needs to find the young woman who inspired the machine, Ellone, to get to the point she needs. Ellone is a young woman identified as a potential sorceress with a peculiar ability to send consciousnesses to the past — which she does repeatedly to Squall and company, exposing them to a figure named Laguna Loire who begins as a Galbadian soldier in love with Rinoa Heartilly’s mother, Julia Heartilly, then a monster fighter in Ellone’s village of Winhill who falls in love with her adoptive mother, Raine Leonhart. Sorceress Adel collects potential sorceresses to find a successor, including young Ellone, so Laguna pursues her in Adel’s nation of Esthar, eventually joining the resistance against Sorceress Adel, sealing her in space, and rescuing Ellone. While he does this, Raine Leonhart dies in childbirth, so when he sends Ellone home to Winhill, she has no home, and is transferred to Matron Edea’s orphanage on Centra . This seems extremely tangential to the party members at the time, who are understandably puzzled about why they have periods of abrupt shared dreaming. Ellone’s hope is that they can change the present by changing the past, but instead they are only able to observe previous events. Because Ellone never trained as a SeeD, she’s never encountered a Guardian Force, leaving her memories perfectly in tact.
Ellone remains associated with the Gardens, however, because of her time at the orphanage: the idea for the institution came from Sorceress Edea, alias Matron, alias Edea Kramer, spouse of Balamb Garden Headmaster Cid Kramer. Cid and Edea train a group of individuals, white SeeDs, to travel with and protect Ellone around the globe because her power is still highly sought after. She’s still close with Laguna, because he’s a father figure to her, even as he acts as president of Esthar. And she’s close to Squall Leonhart because she’s his adoptive sister: he is the son of Laguna Loire and Raine Leonhart, though no character states it explicitly. Squall’s emotional issues all stem from Ellone being retrieved from Edea’s orphanage without him, effectively abandoning him, though it takes most of the game for him to put that together. So Ellone tries to send Squall to the past, trying to prevent the rise of this future sorceress, and perhaps also trying to mend their family back together. It doesn’t work.
The trick with the villain being in the future is that they cannot best her when she merely possesses someone in the present. She simply hops between hosts. To be able to actually eliminate Ultimecia, the team arranges for a partial time compression. After she transfers between Edea to Rinoa, who was a latent sorceress all along, Ultimecia arranges for the release of the imprisoned Sorceress Adel, former despot of Esthar, so that she can possess her. The team strikes down Adel with Rinoa present, so that Ultimecia transfers to possess Rinoa and Ellone can send their consciousnesses back in time. As Ultimecia triggers time compression, Ellone then separates the consciousnesses of the two women (returning Ultimecia to the future and Rinoa to the present), but since partial time compression has occurred, they are able to access Ultimecia’s actual form. They’re warned that they must rely on their belief in one another’s existence to survive the distorted reality of time compression. Though they battle many creatures throughout Ultimecia’s castle lost in time, they have no difficulty navigating the time compression until they begin to make their way back. Squall trips through time, somehow arriving at Matron Edea’s orphanage with a dying Ultimecia, who transfers her powers to Edea before she passes. Edea and Squall converse, with a very young Squall milling about Matron’s skirts; before Edea asks him to return to where and when he belongs, Squall tells Edea about the ‘her’ idea of Garden and SeeD. (See? Time travel shenanigans. They are the fated children because Squall’s future self causes the circumstances that shape his past self. ) Squall has increasing difficulty navigating time compression, perhaps due to his inability to believe in others, or perhaps his inability to believe that they believe in him, and ends up in an isle of time, alone. Rinoa turns back for him while the others continue on, oblivious and untroubled, and rescues him through their mutual care. Cue happily ever after.
The foregoing may not make Final Fantasy VIII sound as wonderful, and as emotional, as it really is. (A great deal of that is how restrictive this summary has been. Yes, restrictive! This is just the big stuff.) Though it lacks the camp of Final Fantasy IX, it’s not all grit, and Squall’s drone of abandonment issues is mixed with self-awareness, humor, and thoughtful commentary. Particularly in the emotional domain, awareness of a problem doesn’t necessarily make you able to solve it — it feels true and real that Squall’s epiphanies regarding emotional connection are non-linear. And though I’ve sketched the plot in broad strokes, the game takes care to introduce you to a nuanced world with a particularly history shaped by regional and global conflicts, then allows you plenty of time to roam it before undertaking more constrained objectives. Squall’s story moves from being a novice mercenary with no particularly identity or loyalty, to someone with a fierce sense of home, to someone with a collection of loved ones. He becomes more and more like a person in his accumulation of specificity — and it’s that feature undergoes trial when he wanders through time. People have a way of reminding us of who we are. I think that’s part of why he comes back to Edea’s orphanage before finding his way to the present, because it’s that moment of his life that stays with him so deeply that it has consequences even after Guardian Force usage erases his memories of his childhood. In a sense he chooses the circumstances that have shaped him ... and chooses to move on, though he needs help to do so.