The game Final Fantasy VIII does something in its story that (in my experience) is very rare. For most of the game, you are switched from one viewpoint to another, back and forth. What makes this unique is the fact that you are in effect following parallel lives; following two different men in two different time periods whose stories have very little to do with another with regard to the overall plot. Squall Leonhart, the dark and moody main character, works his way through the present time. Laguna Loire, the cheerful and happy badass, takes the player through encounters and events that happen twenty years in the past.
The purpose of this division in story is to show us a marked contrast between the two. Though their stories have almost nothing to do with another, you see an enormous difference between the two figures. The fact that this storytelling ploy was so successful for me has had me thinking about it often, and wanting to write about it and explain.
Squall lives in a world where power is divided between three different 'Gardens', massive floating cities that train mercenaries known as SeeDs. The SeeDs were established to maintain a global balance of power, primarily through opposing the oft recurring threat of powerful sorceresses. Squall himself is brought up in a distant orphanage, a childhood that helped turn him into the brooding man that he is in the present. For, unlike the other children, Squall spent his youth in a reclusive manner, devoting his attentions to a quiet young girl much like himself.
But, sadly, events outside of his understanding occurred, causing his only friend to be taken away from the orphanage, and taken away from him. What made things worse was that nobody would tell him why she left, and she never got the chance to say goodbye. Consequently, Squall turned inward and forced himself to become emotionally detached, antisocial, and abrasive to those who sought to open up the lonesome boy. It was his self-defense mechanism. So he would never be hurt again.
Thus, when he is an adult SeeD mercenary, he spends most of the game solitary and stand-offish, struggling to figure out what to do with life, and what to do with himself. His fellow soldiers tease him and occasionally try to get him to open up, but they all fail. Except for one woman. Rinoa Heartilly spends the entire game trying to get him out of his shell, and while she eventually succeeds and they fall in love, it is clear that his efforts to do reciprocate are near child-like with devotion. His childhood dominates him, and sets him back when it comes to socializing with her, and with others. But this does not stop his growth, and he actually becomes a fairly balanced adult by the end of the game.
By contrast, Laguna lived in the same world, twenty years before. You are introduced to him through flashback interludes, allowing the player to notice the differences in personalities, quirks, and storyline first hand.
Laguna is brought into the story without any explanation as to why the focus has shifted to him. You find him in a random forest equipped in the gear of a soldier, fighting in some unknown war with two close friends and comrades: the big, boisterous Ward and the athletic, sarcastic Kiros. Together they fight their way through the forest to the city nearby, their fights exciting and waged to music designed to get you pumped and to make you think, "These are heroes." For point of reference, the combat music of Squall and his companions is intense, hardcore, and dramatic. The difference is acute, and instantly inspires. For the music of Laguna seems to exude optimism, whereas the music of Squall is something... less.
It becomes clear that Laguna is everything that Squall is not. Laguna is confident, self-assurred, and more than willing to joke and laugh with strangers and friends alike. He is not without flaws, but those flaws seem to endear him to the player all the same. Whenever he is around attractive women, his left leg cramps up severely, causing him to hilariously limp about. His very life story is an exercise in exploration and wondering at the world. We find him as a soldier, not because he wants to be part of some conflict, but because he wants to work for his dream of becoming a traveling journalist. Traveling as a soldier to foreign lands is just a step in that direction.
After being knocked unconscious from one battle, we see him raised to health in a town far from the front, and without a moment's hesitation he declares himself the town's guardian, defending the area from monsters since all the able-bodied men are away at war. He meets the love of his life, they have a child, and eventually he moves on to single-handedly duel with a a dragon, and even become the president of the nation of Esthar. Laguna's optimism and zest for life is infectious and, instead of being a distraction, the flashbacks involving him become one of the highlights of the game.
The sheer differences between the two men are staggering, and it helps contrast the two effectively, bringing additional meaning to each of their story arcs. From Laguna we see what Squall might become, and we cheer Squall on when the dour mercenary begins to open up later in the game. It helps to make Final Fantasy VIII an engrossing tale of one man's growth and learning from another man's confidence and enthusiasm. A triumph of optimism over pessimism, if you will.
And, for the record, the only other story that I've seen do something like this is The Godfather Part II. In that movie, we see the separate stories of the original godfather of the past (Robert DeNiro), and the new godfather of the present (Al Pacino). Through the eyes of both we see that, despite the crimes of the original godfather, he still made his family a paramount part of his life and died a happy man. The failure of the present godfather to weigh his family and friends above his role as criminal overlord is the tragedy of the film, and makes it all the more poignant.