Do yourself a favor and never mention the “Squall is Dead” theory to a Final Fantasy VIII fan. Why? Because you might get dragged into a fandom hellscape where enthusiasts eternally torment you like a third-grader berating a second-grader for believing in Santa Claus, enthusiastically destroying a largely harmless illusion. Yet, more important than whether Final Fantasy VIII protagonist Squall is dead or not is how that theory helped keep the game alive enough though it took over 20 years for Square Enix release even a simple remaster of the experience.
So, what is the “Squall is Dead” theory?
Toward’s the end of Final Fantasy VIII‘s first disc, protagonist Squall confronts the evil sorceress Edea atop a parade float. During the conflict, Edea shoots a giant magical ice shard at Squall. The ice shard hits him in the upper chest (some say it actually hits him right below the shoulder) and he falls off the float, tumbling down a great distance. But in the next scene, Squall wakes up in a prison cell and is miraculously fine. He says, “My wound…? No wound…? How…?” but no other reference to the injury is made for the rest of the game. Instead, Squall and his ever-growing group of companions continue their journey to defeat Edea and eventually the sorceress Ultimecia, who is actually responsible for many of their world’s conflicts. Still, some fans believe Squall died during the now-infamous fall sequence and the rest of the game is some kind of…well, that’s a matter open to interpretation.
Squall’s “death” has often been brushed aside by players who believe that there are ways he could have easily been healed. Most of the stores in the game’s world even sell an item that lets you resurrect the dead (or at least heal the mortally wounded). Granted, the fact that this major moment is virtually ignored for the rest of the game is generally agreed to be somewhat odd. Final Fantasy VIII even begins with Squall being wounded during training, leaving a scar he has to bear for the rest of the game. The fact that a skin-deep wound is treated as such a major event while a seemingly mortal injury is so casually brushed aside is an interesting contradiction at the very least.
Even if you believe that Squall could have been revived via various magical methods, it’s hard to deny that the idea that Squall died on that float becomes significantly more intriguing when you look at how relatively normal the events before his “death” are and how downright weird things get after that.
Up until the parade scene, Final Fantasy VIII features a pretty normal story by series standards. You play as an orphan boy named Squall who is trying to become a full member of the mercenary group SeeD. After returning from a successful mission, Squall graduates, meets Rinoa Heartilly (his love interest) at a dance, and is soon sent to assassinate Edea.
After Squall is injured by Edea, though, Final Fantasy VIII’s story becomes about as logical as a David Lynch fever dream. The game’s plot gradually introduces elements like evil alien financiers who live in the basement of the mercenary school they fund, playable flashbacks to events that occurred 17 years earlier, a random detour that sees members of your party form a band, and a trip to outer space that precedes a journey into an alternate timeline. There comes a point in the story when you get the feeling that the writers placed bets to see who could bind the strangest scenarios with the flimsiest of plot threads.
This is the heart of the “Squall is Dead” theory. It’s not uncommon for a story (especially a JRPG) to begin relatively normal and get stranger as things go along, but what separates Final Fantasy VIII is how cleanly the attack on Squall splits the game’s story in two. Nearly everything that happens before and after that sequence feels like separate stories strangely unified by the implications of Squall’s death.
The question is: “If Squall actually is dead, then what is the rest of the game?” The most popular theory is that the rest of the game is just Squall’s dream. There’s a kind of internal logic that supports that idea, but it feels a bit cheap to add “It Was All a Dream” to this theory’s list of tropes.
More interesting possibilities abound, though. For instance, it’s been suggested that the rest of the game is essentially Squall’s trip through some variation of purgatory. There’s a surprising amount of merit to that idea. Squall was a good young man, but he was also a tragic character. He was raised in an orphanage and saw his sister dragged away because of her ability to send someone’s consciousness through time. You could argue Squall’s childhood is responsible for his antisocial nature and desire to be the hero.
Is it possible, then, that the fantastic adventure Squall embarks upon was just a realization of his childhood fantasies designed to lead him into the afterlife and ensure that his soul was at peace? By the end of Final Fantasy VIII, Squall gets the girl, defeats monsters and aliens, and helps his friends find peace. Yes, he faces hardships, but so many of those hardships seem to be tied to the themes of accepting destiny/fate and moving on from the past. For instance, an unusual amount of NPCs in the game mention that it’s Squall’s “destiny” to defeat Edea even though that wording wasn’t really used before his supposed death. This could also explain why Squall’s lost sister unsuccessfully tries to send his conscience back in time to end the ongoing war against Edea. The message is that you can’t change your past and must accept where you are in the present.
Along those same lines is the even more fascinating idea that Squall has pulled a Billy Pilgrim and has become unstuck from time. There’s an interpretation of the game’s storyline which suggests that Squall’s sister begins the process of sending his conscience back in time around the time that he “dies.” Is it possible that his physical death coincided with (or conflicted with) the transfer of his conscience?
Aside from the game’s general fascination with reality and time, the most intriguing argument for this theory comes at the end of the game when Squall takes a Kubrick-like trip through time and space. During this sequence, the face of his love is blurred and distorted while Squall’s own face transforms into what can best be described as a black hole. It’s perhaps telling that most of Squall’s visions of Rinoa during this sequence are of her before or during the time of his “death.” The obscured face of Rinoa during events in which she and Squall were both clearly “alive” during the game’s story may suggest that there is some kind of force telling Squall that his memories of the time before his death are now very distant from wherever he is now. Could accepting this be part of the process of moving on to what comes next for him, or could it be that Squall seeing these visions is the trigger that makes him realize that he is no longer grounded to the timeline he thought he was a part of?
Arguably, the most interesting theory regarding Squall’s death involves the idea that Rinoa actually becomes the evil Sorceress Ultimecia and alters the flow of time and the nature of reality in order to undo Squall’s death and save her lover. This is supported by some striking similarities between main villain Ultimecia and Rinoa and the persistent idea that many sorceresses in this world ultimately succumb to their powers and embrace evil. Could it be that Rinoa’s love of Squall allowed her to always maintain some kind of clarity even as she went mad? Could Squall’s adventures after his death be the result of multiple timelines and universes coming together to form one timeline in which Squall and Rinoa are united?
That could be the case, but it isn’t. In 2017, Final Fantasy VIII director Yoshinori Kitase shot down the “Squall is Dead” theory and the suggestion that Rinoa and Ultimecia are one (among other fan theories). In the process, Kitase killed years of debate, speculation, and deep dives into the game’s lore. He also provided keyboard warriors everywhere all the ammunition they would need to kill fan theory conversations. What so many of those people often ignore is what else Kitase said regarding the theory:
“That is a very interesting idea, so if we ever do make a remake of Final Fantasy VIII, I might go along with that story in mind.”
Maybe that’s because the “Squall is Dead” theory makes Final Fantasy VIII a more interesting game. When some fans hear that, they take it to mean that they should accept the theory as a fact. They shouldn’t, and it isn’t. What the theory is, though, is the perfect lens through which to re-examine Final Fantasy VIII’s merits and legacy.
The theory touches upon so many of Final Fantasy VIII’s biggest and most interesting themes. It’s an explanation that gives the game’s time travel and dimensional rift plot points the kind of emotional weight that the most outlandish pieces of science fiction so often need. It turns the often stoic and uncharming Squall into a more tragic figure whose shortcomings become a greater part of his character arc. It even makes the game’s love story (one of its strongest elements) more memorable. After all, how many games examine the idea of love as something that offers not only meaning and motivation, but comfort in a world that tries to make us feel like we don’t belong?
Yet, the real value of the “Squall is Dead” theory is less about the hard truths of it and more about how even disputing the theory requires you to re-examine Final Fantasy VIII and appreciate how the game’s complex themes and bizarre ideas have inspired people to continue analyzing the adventure. Their conclusions may differ, but these theories unite fans in their love for a game that has otherwise been too often forgotten. It’s oddly appropriate that Kitase’s talk of a Final Fantasy remake comes in the context of a discussion regarding one of the game’s wildest fan theories. Despite the recent release of the remaster, they’re probably both just wishful thinking.
Wishful thinking is really only dangerous, though, if it impairs our ability to move forward. The opposite is true of Final Fantasy VIII and its many fan theories. They’ve allowed the game to reach a new generation of fans even after Square Enix spent nearly 20 years ignoring it. “Squall is Dead” not only offers a compelling explanation for a series of events that seemingly defy all logic, but it helps us to understand why the too-often misunderstood Final Fantasy VIII is worth remembering after all these years.
Matthew Byrd is a staff writer for Den of Geek. He spends most of his days trying to pitch deep-dive analytical pieces about Killer Klowns From Outer Space to an increasingly perturbed series of editors. You can read more of his work here or find him on Twitter at @SilverTuna014.