Joe Sutton is a New Jersey-based copywriter and poet. His work has appeared in the Huffington Post, the GROUND Magazine, Storychord, Silica Magazine and elsewhere. You can find more about him on his website.
Some days, it felt like I’d awoken from a dream: vague memories of urbane art show openings, downtown hobnobbing with community entrepreneurs at this or that reception, weekends protesting the oligarchy. This was my short-lived life as a college student in New York, all among the unique style of group therapy session that is the BFA creative writing workshop.
But after I graduated, those everyday moments faded into memory, feeling more like scenes blended together from a TV show I might have binged the night before. I’d moved back home and was underemployed, lonely, and geographically separated from most of my friends. Aimless after school, I came down with a serious case of arrested development and felt like a total loser.
It may be no surprise, then, that I turned back to my pre-college obsession with video games. Unsure how to reach the next step in my own life, videogames presented an easy sense of accomplishment or productivity. The grind to find a job in real life is soul-crushing; the grind to build a powerful character, meanwhile, is more manageable. In particular, I spent a lot of time playing Final Fantasy VIII. With themes centered around fate, growing up and realizing that responsibility doesn’t wait, the game resonated with me as I stumbled in search of “what’s next.”
The game follows Squall Leonhart, who’s much-maligned by fans of the series for being a bit of an asshole. When his companions try to encourage or confide in him, Squall pushes them away, often with his so-90s catch phrase, “Whatever.” Why he’s like this is a central focus of the plot: Squall remembers a sister he’d lost years ago, and this paralyzes him from forming new relationships in fear that they will lead to more pain. Squall is unquestionably a jerk—at least early in the game—but I found his arc and adventure to be deeply relatable. Feeling alienated by being thrust into an uncertain future after a life of structured education and the promises that come with that, Squall’s story of taking responsibility helped me cope.
The Bait & Switch
During short visits back home while on break from school, I reveled in the aura that a New York City college career in the creative field provides. But in a way, the life I relayed to friends back at home sometimes seemed almost as much of a fantasy as the stories I would write in the fiction workshop. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy real privileges within the city; I got to meet many influential people, including business owners, artists and others in the media industry. But I began to feel like I squandered opportunities, that the lack of payoff indicated some sort of flaw in me. In fact, the only reason I was at any high-profile event was largely due to my willingness to work for free in covering them. Once I completed my work-study job at the end of my senior year, “exposure” wasn’t an adequate return, and suddenly the lifestyle that appeared desirable to others felt exploitative to me.
While my graduation seemed fruitless, Squall’s has a payoff. Squall is a student at Balamb Garden, training to become a “SeeD,” or a mercenary soldier. The very beginning of the game has the player prepare for and take the SeeD exam, which Squall passes with ease. Shortly afterward, he and his companions are commissioned for their first official job: aid a rebel group called the Forest Owls in kidnapping the president of Galbadia, an imperialist country wading into war.
The Forest Owls are amateurs in comparison to the SeeD forces. Their leader, Rinoa—who is Squall’s foil thanks to her bubbly personality and idealism—joins the party, and her rambunctiousness gets them in trouble several times throughout the game, including the kidnapping operation which goes awry. Her role in the group becomes a conflict when a SeeD member suggests that her plan is motivated simply by an immature desire to oppose her father, a Galbadian general. Over the course of the game, Rinoa develops a fear that she’s become a burden and isn’t a real member of the group due to her inexperience.
Just as Rinoa privately felt left out from her more professional peers, upon seeing friends after graduation, I often felt like the child invited to sit at the adult table. I focused on the contrast between past and present, on what I lost: how everyone else seemed to have moved on without me. This made it incredibly difficult to talk to my peers because there really weren’t significant updates in my life to share. I didn’t want to ask how other friends were doing because I knew they would then ask the same question of me. This led to a sense of isolation for myself, and I’m sure it came off as rude aloofness to others.
As IRL relationships crumbled, I became accustomed to my new digital companions in the game during our first real mission together. The plan to take the president is a classic wild west-style heist: uncouple the president’s car from his train and attach it to the Forest Owls’. For a game about fate and destiny, trains—confined to tracks on set, predefined paths—are a recurring motif. It perhaps isn’t coincidental, then, that our first real mission of switching cars and trains results in failure: the president is just a body double. Reconnecting with friends, I likewise felt as though our respective tracks briefly converged, only to hurtle off in different directions at an alarming speed, with me headed somewhere without a future.
The School Under Siege
Shortly after the train operation, our party walks through their next mission: assassinate Edea, an influential witch. This is a bit more serious than a kidnapping, and party members seem uncertain. In preparing for the mission, Squall and Irvine, a party member, discuss their sense of agency in their work. “Is it true that SeeDs aren’t supposed to question their mission?” Irvine asks.
Squall privately muses that he’d also like to know, particularly regarding this operation. But instead of voicing this, he dismissively retorts “What do you care?” Irvine suggests that he’s more encouraged fighting an enemy that’s “pure evil.” Squall’s response—which, again, he keeps to himself—is that there is no such thing as good or evil, but rather two opposing views separated by perspective.
While this is certainly an opinion that many would agree with in terms of world conflict, Squall seems to use it as an excuse to not hold opinions at all. As a mercenary for hire, Squall falls on whichever side will fund him, leaving no room for opinion. While a philosophy without good and evil might encourage one to recognize multiple perspectives, Squall instead shuns them all: a cynical view in which nothing really matters because he is so alienated from the work and the things that he is fighting for.
This resonated with me while I gingerly dipped my toes into the job market. Society commonly equates one’s worth to productivity, making it easy to fall into the trap of assigning self-identity to one’s work. This is especially true in creative fields, to the point that young people are encouraged to perform labor underpaid or without any pay at all. Should one complain about it, they’re told they should be thankful for monetizing their “passion” at all. We like to think soldiers like Squall are fighting for our ideals, but his job was solely in pursuit of money. I’d hoped to market my voice and passions; instead, all I found were low-quality SEO gigs for an audience of Google web crawlers.
Judging from my writing program alone, you would think the only successful career there in writing is at a publishing house, on a magazine editorial board, or working as an agent. But these careers hardly exist outside of a major city, and freelancing was largely absent from the curriculum. Naïve to the reality of the freelancing business, I fell into the trap of content farms before I could teach myself how to find and evaluate better opportunities. The precarious world of repetitive, underpaid and robotic tasks from content farms cultivates a sense of alienation much like Squall’s.
Squall and Irvine were correct to question their duties because the assassination goes awry, which draws Galbadia’s ire toward Balamb Garden. When the party returns to the school, they find it under siege. Norg, the school’s proprietor and the one responsible for offering cadets for hire, ousts the headmaster in retaliation. The party must fight through faculty members allying with Norg, whose greed and cowardice is shown to compromise the organization’s integrity.
While I have no understanding of the relationship between profit and the education system in Japan, where Final Fantasy VIII was developed, it’s easy to apply this conflict to the state of the American education system, where students routinely feel left behind by schools and administrations concerned with profit more than supporting their students. Stories of inflated college sports programs and constant campus beautification amidst rising tuition costs are common amongst faculty and students across the country. During my own time in college, for example, a fire destroyed many painting majors’ thesis projects just months before they were due. It was clear that the school’s infrastructure overall had been crumbling; rather than fix issues like those, funds went toward new administrative offices and the replacement of walkways that were fine to begin with.
When entire programs are slashed in service of these projects, it’s obvious which departments are more valued than others. The writing department at my school was relatively new and without the resources that other departments enjoyed (alumni networks, job boards, networking events), which I feel contributed to my lack of preparation for the real world. To punish Norg for his profit-first mentality, then, offered a little twinge of catharsis.
As Final Fantasy VIII’s plot ramps up, we learn that Ultimecia, a sorceress from the future, aims to achieve “time compression,” a state in which all of eternity is compressed into a single, chaotic moment. Because it is prophesied that she will be destroyed by SeeD, Ultimecia wants to transcend time altogether to achieve immortality. Ironically, this is her own undoing; it’s her machinations across time that threaten the stability of the world which prompts SeeD to hunt for her in the first place.
Perhaps like Ultimecia learning about her impending murder, I stumbled into my 20s feeling as though my life had already ended before it actually began. I’m aware now of how over-dramatic that sounds, but it’s certainly a true, honest feeling that I imagine others have in their “quarter-life crisis.” I was too focused on things I felt I’d lost in life rather than recognizing privileges that I still had, and I dwelled on serious FOMO from social media posts of old friends that I grew apart from.
Likewise, both Final Fantasy VIII’s protagonist and antagonist are paralyzed by focusing on loss. Ultimecia can’t face her impending mortality, while Squall struggles to live life to the fullest in fear of losing the people he holds dear. Both characters cope by isolating themselves, clinging to the past instead.
My own attempt to cling to the past was to rekindle a close friendship from high school. This friend had also studied writing and moved back home after graduating, making our current circumstances identical. While I made many attempts to hang out, he flaked each time until I gave up trying. Hurt by the many failed attempts, I eventually told him that I felt as if he were avoiding me. Why was this so? “Because I feel intimidated by you,” he said. He commented on what he perceived to be a better education, a flashier life in the city, and other friends I’d made upon becoming worldlier. I was hurt by this. Why would someone I considered such a close friend think I would look down on them in that way? I realized that he’d projected onto me what must have been his own self-dissatisfaction, and that I’d been doing the same when other friends reached out.
By watching Squall painfully search for the right words to say in response to words of encouragement from his companions, I realized that I’d become pretty bitter to the point that I’d likewise pushed my friends away in a self-imposed state of digital exile. Why? Because I was afraid they would judge me as harshly as I’d judged myself for not achieving my dreams.
Connected by social media, it’s easy for us to want to “size up” with others. This is exacerbated by the constant prompt of “What’s going on?” from Twitter, Facebook and other social media services asking us to constantly affirm that we’re “doing” something, remaining productive and have things to share—through material items or interesting content—to prove it. When you’re at a place in life where you feel unproductive and useless, it can be painful to see friends happy, or to even see older posts from your own happier days.
In Final Fantasy VIII, characters are their own enemies standing in the way of self-development. As the party finally defeats Ultimecia and finds themselves lost and separated from one another in the chaos of time compression—reuniting shortly after at a lavish victory party in the present—we’re reminded that moments of discomfort are all part of the path we’re on, and that friends are out there to help us get out of that funk, even if we can’t immediately find them.