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Final Fantasy VIII makes high school’s life-or-death drama literal

Special Topics In Gameology explores a specific corner of the gaming world in a miniseries of articles. For this edition of the feature—School—we’re examining the ways games interpret the classroom experience and become classrooms themselves.

Around 15 years from now, my daughter is going to look me right in the face and say: “You don’t understand! It’s impossible for you to understand.” What we’re fighting about, what’s upset her or me or our world is a mystery. We’ll get there. She’s right, though. I won’t understand. I already don’t understand, because it’s impossible for me to recapture the full gravity of being a teenager. Time and biology have carried me an impossible distance away from the utter seriousness of high school life. And thank God. Neuromaturation seems to be the body’s way of making up for the fact that, for those four years, everything—every 90-minute history class and every brief conversation in the hall after cross-country practice—is the most deadly serious thing that has ever happened. To the teenage mind, all things are life and death, the beginning or the end of the world.

Final Fantasy VIII gets it. Persona 4 might meticulously recreate the high school experience and Gone Home might capture the reality of enduring school while you discover your own soul, but Final Fantasy VIII is the only video game that manages to be both about high school and capture the essential feeling of that time in our lives. How it manages this is surprisingly blunt: All of its teenagers are either mercenaries or revolutionaries. Their daily life is as rigidly defined and contained as the average high schooler, infused with all the terrifying parochialism that comes with being forced to spend every day in the same small space with the same people, but with actual life-and-death situations thrown into the mix. At the end of the day, they still go to club activities after class, but class is beating a fire monster to death or repelling an invading army from a nearby city. And rather than feel overwhelmingly melodramatic, Final Fantasy VIII evokes something true.

Not every high school kid is a magic-wielding soldier of fortune in Squaresoft’s weird world; only those who are students at Gardens, training facilities for a private army called SeeD. There are a handful of Gardens around the world, but our hero Squall Leonhart is a student at Balamb, a towering, gilded cross between the Guggenheim, an enormous conch, and a David Bowie album cover. When the game picks up, Squall is about to take his final exam to become a full SeeD member. He’s still a student but also a fighter sent out on active missions for the organization.

In the pantheon of Final Fantasy’s sullen, stoic protagonists who undergo a spiritual transformation after a painful journey, Squall’s utter jerk nature is refreshing. Unlike psychotic mope Cloud or traumatized veteran Cecil, Squall’s a teenager; being a withdrawn prick is in his job description. We get to see what his life is like right at the beginning of the game, and it’s instantly familiar. He gets injured during practice, wakes up in the nurse’s office, has to do an extra study session with his teacher/guidance counselor, and gets grouped up on a project with other students who make him uncomfortable because they’re so different from him. This is the stuff of high school, the unshakable pillars of routine that make it both so interminable when you’re going through it and forgettable afterward.

If it stopped there, the only thing that would distinguish FF8 from the average episode of Degrassi would be the batshit architecture and the Captain EO-meets-Billabong fashion, but it doesn’t. Squall doesn’t end up in the nurse’s office because he twisted his ankle at soccer. He’s there because Seifer, his rival and Balamb Garden’s only other gun-blade specialist aiming for a spot on SeeD, sliced open his face during a sparring session. His study session with teach? That’s a trip to an active volcano full of murderous, sentient fireballs where he has to defeat Ifrit, a demigod, so it will become his companion. When he meets up with the cheery but desperately insecure Selphie Tilmitt and the extroverted but equally insecure Zell Dincht, their class project is to go fight Galbadian war machines—with their fists and weird weapons, the morning before a school dance. And yet Squall reacts to his fantastical high-school life in the same way a typical quiet, reserved student does: with diligence, some annoyance, and a fat chip on his shoulder.

That doesn’t make Final Fantasy VIII feel strange or inhuman. Squall’s wrought reactions make sense because, while we never had to ride a warship into battle during finals week of junior year, it sure as hell felt like that’s what we were doing. That dire air comes from a couple of different places. In those years, the human brain isn’t finished making all its neural connections. Neurons are trimmed while the brain starts laying down new myelin sheaths to connect new ones, resulting in wildly vacillating emotional states. One of the effects of the process is a growing self-awareness. You start to perceive patterns around you, gaining a sense of others and the world, but at the same time your exposure to that world is still limited by the confines of school and its social circles. While your mind is positively exploding, your world remains small, so your sense of what matters is skewed to meet those confines. It’s why a rivalry with another school’s volleyball team can seem like the very foundation of reality and learning your crush doesn’t like you feels as if the sky is falling.

Final Fantasy VIII consistently recreates the basics of a high school experience while adorning them with fantastic embellishments that embody the essence of what those experiences felt like in your brain. As a result, it ends up more natural than some of the most adored high-school fiction out there. Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows’ heroes have solemn conversations about tracking down pieces of an evil wizard’s soul so they can stop the world from ending. Final Fantasy VIII’s heroes go to war with another Garden, their magical flying high schools crashing into each other as students duel on sci-fi motorcycles, and afterward, they talk about how Squall would have an easier time if he’d just talk about stuff.

Over and over again, the game drops you into these scenarios, using strange sights to call back up the virulent intensity. When Squall meets someone who actually seems to like him, and he likes her back, they dance around each other completely unable to handle or address their feelings in an adult way. They finally get together, but they don’t kiss in Squall’s mom’s basement or at Ben’s crappy birthday party. They kiss in outer space after breaking into an ancient, dragon-shaped spaceship, which is precisely as strange and impossible as it feels to kiss your crush for the first time.

Even now when I call up what those years felt like, it’s purely intellectual. In the same way that my 34-year-old ears can’t hear a 14,400 hertz tone, I also can’t actually feel this way anymore. When my daughter yells at me that I don’t understand, I’m going to do my damnedest to be there for her, to support her through an impossible time. If I forget how to do it, I’ll go back and play some Final Fantasy VIII, just a bit to remember, if only slightly, what it’s like to be in her ill-fitting shoes and blooming brain.