The six main playable characters in Final Fantasy VIII are , a loner who keeps his focus on duty; , a passionate young woman who follows her heart in all situations; , an instructor with a serious, patient attitude; , a martial artist with a passion for hot dogs; , a cheerful girl who loves trains and flies the airship Ragnarok; and , a marksman and consummate ladies' man. Playable supporting characters include , , and , who appear in "flashback" sequences; and antagonists and . Other characters such as the main villain Ultimecia make appearances throughout the story; their significance and backstories are revealed as the game progresses.
Scenario writer Kazushige Nojima stresses the dynamic of players' relationships with the main character in Final Fantasy games; thus, he puts significant thought into how that relationship will develop. With Final Fantasy VII, protagonist Cloud Strife's reserved nature led Nojima to include scenarios in which the player can select Cloud's responses to certain situations and dialogue. With Final Fantasy VIII, which also features a reserved lead protagonist in Squall, Nojima wanted to give players actual insight into what the protagonist is thinking, even while other characters remain uninformed. This approach led to the inclusion of numerous instances of internal monologue, giving insight into what Squall thinks of other characters and recent developments.
Character designer Tetsuya Nomura, while exchanging e-mails with director Yoshinori Kitase during the period between the development of Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VIII, suggested that the game should have a "school days" feel. Because Nojima already had a story in mind in which the main characters were the same age, the idea worked. Thus, they created the concept of military academies, called "Gardens", in which students would train to become "SeeD" mercenaries. Nojima also planned for the two playable parties featured in the game—Squall's present day group and Laguna Loire's group of twenty years in the past—to highly contrast with one another. Laguna's group consists of characters in their late twenties and have a lot of combat experience. They are also close friends who have fought together for a long time and trust one another. Opposite, Squall's party is young and inexperienced, and Squall himself does not initially understand the value of friendship.
Kitase expressed a desire to give the game a foreign atmosphere ("foreign" being in relation to Japan); his objective with the environment was to create a largely Europe setting. The first character Nomura designed specifically for use in Final Fantasy VIII was Squall, initially giving him longer hair and a more feminine appearance. However, Yoshinori Kitase did not feel that this design worked and asked Nomura to shorten his hair and make him look more masculine, which led to the design seen in-game. When designing Cloud Strife, Nomura gave him distinctly spiky, bright blonde hair to emphasize his role as that game's protagonist. With Squall, Nomura wanted to try a unique angle to establish his role, giving him the characteristic gunblade scar across the bridge of his nose. A complete history was not yet conceived, so Nomura left the explanation for Squall's scar to Nojima. Squall's design was flourished by a fur lining along the collar of his jacket, included for the purpose of challenging the game's full motion video designers. This is but one example of the demands he has consistently extended to the programmers of the Final Fantasy series as technology has advanced.
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