Setting and characters
Most of Final Fantasy VIII is set on an unnamed fantasy world. The setting is highly European in design and features a blend of modern and futuristic locales. The planet contains five major landmasses, with Esthar, the largest, covering most of the eastern portion of the map. Galbadia, the second-largest continent, lies to the west, and contains many of the game's locations. The northernmost landmass is Trabia, an Arctic region. Positioned roughly in the middle of the world map lies Balamb, the smallest continent, the island on which the game begins. The remaining landmass is small and mostly desolate, riddled with rough, rocky terrain caused by the impact of a "Lunar Cry", an event where monsters from the moon fall to the planet. The southernmost landmass includes an archipelago of broken sections of land that have drifted apart. Islands and marine structures flesh out the game world, and a handful of off-world locations round out the playable areas.
The six main protagonists of Final Fantasy VIII are: Squall Leonhart, a loner who avoids vulnerability by focusing on his duty; Rinoa Heartilly, an outspoken and passionate young woman who follows her heart; Quistis Trepe, an instructor with a serious, patient attitude; Zell Dincht, an energetic martial artist with a fondness for hot dogs; Selphie Tilmitt, a cheerful girl who loves trains and pilots the airship Ragnarok; and Irvine Kinneas, a marksman and consummate ladies' man. All but Rinoa are members of "SeeD", an elite military force based out of futuristic installations called Gardens. Temporarily playable characters include Laguna Loire, Kiros Seagill, and Ward Zabac, who appear in "flashback" sequences; SeeD cadet-turned-antagonist Seifer Almasy; and sorceress Edea Kramer. The main antagonist is Ultimecia, a sorceress from the future who wishes to compress time.
Squall and Seifer spar each other while training outside Balamb Garden. Meanwhile, the Republic of Galbadia invades the Dollet Dukedom, forcing Dollet to hire SeeD. The school uses the mission as a final exam for its cadets; with the help of his instructor, Quistis, Squall passes the mission's prerequisite and is grouped with Seifer and Zell. Selphie replaces Seifer mid-mission when the latter disobeys orders and abandons his team. SeeD halts the Galbadian advance; Squall, Zell, and Selphie graduate to SeeD status, but Seifer is disciplined for his disobedience. During the graduation party, Squall meets Rinoa, whose personality is the opposite of his. When assigned with Zell and Selphie to help Rinoa's resistance in Galbadian-occupied Timber, Squall learns that Sorceress Edea is behind Galbadia's recent hostilities. Under orders from Garden, Squall and his comrades—joined by Rinoa, Quistis, and Irvine—attempt to assassinate Edea. During the effort, Squall's party also learns that Seifer has left Garden to become Edea's second-in-command. Edea survives the attempt, stabs Squall in the shoulder with an ice shard, and detains the party.
After Squall's party escapes, Edea destroys Trabia Garden in a retaliatory missile strike and prepares to attack Balamb Garden. Selphie delays the launch while Squall's team returns to Balamb Garden and activates its mobile functions to evade the missiles. Garden cannot be controlled, however, and it crashes into the docks at Fishermans' Horizon. While Garden is being repaired, Galbadia invades the town in search of a girl named Ellone, who had been staying at Balamb Garden. Before leaving, Ellone reveals that she has been "sending" Squall and his team into flashbacks set 17 years earlier in a vain effort to alter history. The scenes center on Laguna and his friends as he evolves from Galbadian soldier (where he shared a crush with Rinoa's future mother Julia) to village protector (where he served as caretaker to Ellone alongside a bartender named Raine) to leader of an Estharian resistance against Sorceress Adel. Ellone eventually escapes to Esthar, the world's technological superpower.
Meanwhile, Squall confronts his personal anxieties fueled by ongoing developments, such as Headmaster Cid appointing him as SeeD's new leader and his increasing attraction to Rinoa. Squall and his comrades learn that they, along with Seifer and Ellone, were all raised (except for Rinoa) in an orphanage run by Edea; after eventual separation, they later developed amnesia due to their use of Guardian Forces. Cid and Edea had established Garden and SeeD primarily to defeat corrupt sorceresses. After these revelations, the forces of Balamb Garden defeat the Galbadian Army, led by Seifer, aboard Galbadia Garden. Edea is also defeated by SeeD; however, the party learns that Edea is merely an unwilling host for Ultimecia, who planned to use Ellone to help achieve time compression. Ultimecia transfers her powers to Rinoa; Edea survives, but Rinoa enters a coma. Squall travels to Esthar to find Ellone, as he believes that she can help save Rinoa.
While Rinoa is being treated on Esthar's space station, Ultimecia uses her to free Adel from an orbital prison. Ultimecia then orders Seifer to activate the Lunatic Pandora facility, inciting a Lunar Cry that sends Adel's containment device to the planet. Having selected Adel as her next host, Ultimecia abandons Rinoa in outer space. Squall rescues her, and they return to the planet on a derelict starship and share a romantic moment; Ellone is captured by Galbadia shortly after that. After landing, the party encounters Laguna, now President of Esthar; he reveals Dr. Odine's plan to allow Ultimecia to cast time compression on their terms so that Ellone can send SeeD into Ultimecia's time period. At Lunatic Pandora, Squall's team defeats Seifer, rescues Ellone, and kills Adel; Ultimecia possesses Rinoa and begins casting time compression. Ellone sends Squall's team into Ultimecia's era, where she is defeated in a fierce battle before time compression can be fully achieved.
A dying Ultimecia travels back in time to pass her powers to Edea, but Squall inadvertently informs Edea of the concepts of Garden and SeeD that she will create. Squall is lost in the flow of time as he witnesses the origins of the game's story, sporadic apparitions of Rinoa, and a faceless portrait of himself. Rinoa manages to find Squall, but he is unresponsive. In the end, A repentant Seifer reunites with Raijin and Fujin, Laguna and his friends visit his lover's grave who turns out to be Raine, who died giving birth to their child, hinted to be Squall. Laguna thinks about the moment when he proposed to her. The SeeD celebrates at Balamb Garden, and it is revealed that Squall did, in fact, survive the time compression. Squall and Rinoa share a kiss under the moonlight.