Eyes On Me 1


This month is Romance Month!  All of our arti­cles in April deal with romance or rela­tion­ships (or both!) in games. We are still accept­ing sub­mis­sions for guest arti­cles, so feel free to send drafts and/or pitch­es to Bill Coberly at editor@ontologicalgeek.com!

 

Final Fantasy VIII is prob­a­bly the game in the series most sub­ject to mock­ery, both from fans and detrac­tors alike. Reasons vary from a pro­tag­o­nist whose inten­tion­al­ly writ­ten to be hard to like, to a rad­i­cal change in aes­thet­ic from the pseudo-industrial aes­thet­ic that defined Final Fantasy VI and VII (and the series’ broad­er move away from “fan­ta­sy” visu­als), to a poorly-executed redesign of char­ac­ter cus­tomiza­tion that makes the first few hours of the game an obnox­ious grind.

In par­tic­u­lar, its depic­tion of an awk­ward, some­times unhealthy, but deeply sin­cere teenage romance has become one the most divi­sive ele­ments of an already divi­sive game. Personally? The depic­tion of ado­les­cent romance between two emo­tion­al­ly unhealthy peo­ple has always real­ly strong­ly res­onat­ed with me both as some­one strug­gling with depres­sion, and as some­one who has been through a fair amount of short-lived teenage romances myself, but I also think that there’s a lot of inter­est­ing ele­ments of the romance worth ana­lyz­ing that make it a strong ele­ment of FFVIII even if you have a hard time relat­ing to the char­ac­ters.

I’m going to start by doing short-form analy­ses of Squall and Rinoa’s per­son­al­i­ties on their own, and then try and do the math on how the game makes these two peo­ple fit togeth­er.

Squall

When peo­ple say they find Squall so deeply unlik­able I can’t help but take it per­son­al­ly, espe­cial­ly since he’s been so broad­ly mis­rep­re­sent­ed. As a teenager espe­cial­ly I found the char­ac­ter deeply empa­thet­ic. At a young age, his sis­ter was taken away from him leav­ing him grief-struck and alone. I was always glad there was some­one in a game going through the same thing I was going through, since I lost my broth­er when I was 9 years old. Squall may have been able to recon­nect with Ellone later, but in some sense the dam­age was done from the ini­tial trau­ma: as a teenager, he retreats into a cyn­i­cal shell and broad­ly rejects the pos­si­bil­i­ty of mak­ing emo­tion­al con­nec­tions with any­one. In his own words:

SQUALL

(Think what you want … Reality isn’t so kind. Everything doesn’t work out the way you want it to. That’s why …) As long as you don’t get your hopes up, you can take any­thing.”

But over the course of the game it sim­ply becomes impos­si­ble to actu­al­ly live alone like that.

Most of the story of FFVIII comes from Squall inter­act­ing with the sur­round­ing cast, and the most impor­tant of those inter­ac­tions are with Rinoa, but they hap­pen with most of the main party mem­bers. We know he’s a jerk because he’s bel­liger­ent towards Zell in the car head­ing towards the SeeD field test. His world­view is shown to be short­sight­ed as early as the con­ver­sa­tion he has with Quistis imme­di­ate­ly after the first meet­ing with Rinoa.

Even before the end of the first disc, Squall’s abil­i­ty to be emo­tion­al­ly self-sufficient has come into ques­tion: when he learns that Seifer may have been exe­cut­ed, the pos­si­bil­i­ty of it sinks in and he freaks out. Later in the game, when Rinoa goes into a coma and Squall faces the pos­si­bil­i­ty of los­ing her as well, he again loses grasp of rea­son, tak­ing it upon him­self to carry her across a bridge alone, one that spans a length approx­i­mate­ly the size of the Atlantic Ocean. (I am not inter­est­ed in whether that’s real­is­ti­cal­ly pos­si­ble.)

This is in stark con­trast to the pop­u­lar nar­ra­tive of Squall as screamo-singer-circa-2004 that’s been preva­lent in the Final Fantasy fan­dom for years now. Squall was never the out­ward­ly expres­sive type, he’s the one who keeps every­thing in until he’s full, and then spills.

I relate to that. In those years after my brother’s death I often felt respon­si­ble for my parent’s emo­tion­al well-being, espe­cial­ly my mother’s, and I tried for years to be as unre­liant on my par­ents or friends for emo­tion­al sup­port as pos­si­ble. But of course it doesn’t work that way.

SQUALL [as a child]

… Sis …

[as a teenager]

I was always wait­ing for “sis” to come back.

[as a child]

I’m all alone. But I’m doing my best … I’ll be ok with­out you, Sis. I’ll be able to take care of myself.

[as a teenager]

(… I didn’t turn out ok at all.)

I suf­fer from sev­ere clin­i­cal depres­sion that I wasn’t even being prop­er­ly treat­ed for until sopho­more year, and I ended up grad­u­at­ing half a year late. Truth be told I still have a lot of the same unhealthy atti­tudes even though I’ve tried hard to grow out of them. I’m work­ing on it. It’s get­ting bet­ter.

I don’t think it con­tro­ver­sial that this idea that men are sup­posed to be reliant upon them­selves and only them­selves, that men do not cry, is a mas­cu­line con­struct. I’ve always been thank­ful for FFVIII’s crit­i­cism of at least that part of mas­culin­i­ty as inhu­man. So many men suf­fer because they adhere to this false sto­icism, and it’s untrue to them­selves. Or, at the very least, it’s untrue to me.1

The Abstraction of Ludic Romance

Let’s get this out of the way: Rinoa is the first crush I ever remem­ber hav­ing, at the ten­der age of about 8 or 9 years old, fol­lowed short­ly by Dagger from FFIX since I was play­ing them both at the same time.  A lit­tle later, I real­ized I had a crush on a girl in real life2 because she remind­ed me of how I felt about Rinoa.

Thanks to a hearty com­bi­na­tion of hyper­sex­u­al­ized mass media, matched with an aggres­sive set of pro-abstinence and safe-sex PSAs in rota­tion on AFN3, I was pret­ty aware of human sex­u­al­i­ty from a very young age, around 2nd grade4. I went into pre-adolescence aware of the fact that, though I wasn’t crush­ing on girls yet, I would be soon enough. And when you’re young and emo­tion­al­ly vul­ner­a­ble, it’s a lot eas­ier to admit to your­self that, yeah, that girl in the white dress who’s basi­cal­ly look­ing into the cam­era, right at you (the play­er) is pret­ty cute than a girl you know in real life.

It’s dan­ger­ous ter­ri­to­ry to get into, but, to echo the old cliché, the things onscreen in a videogame can­not hurt you. And while, with­out a sense of self-control that can lead into unhealthy retreats from every­day life, if prac­ticed with self-awareness I think the abstrac­tion of videogames gives us a great way to deal with things we’re not nec­es­sar­i­ly ready to deal with in real life. In short: hav­ing a crush on some­one in real life has real con­se­quences, espe­cial­ly dur­ing the early, awk­ward years of teenage romance. By com­par­ison, hav­ing a crush on a char­ac­ter in a videogame is not near­ly as dan­ger­ous, giv­ing us a con­trolled space where we can learn more about our­selves, inter­act with those embar­rass­ing feel­ings of infat­u­a­tion (and, yes, even sex­u­al arousal) before we go out into the real world where those feel­ings can have wild­ly vary­ing effects on how we inter­act with other peo­ple. But enough about abstrac­tion, let’s talk about Rinoa.

Rinoa

It’s sim­ple. Rinoa is beau­ti­ful, coura­geous, flir­ty, well-read, and unend­ing­ly kind. She has a cute dog who helps her out in com­bat. The first time she meets Squall, she walks up to the guy with a fresh, nasty scar right across his face and says:

RINOA

You’re the best look­ing guy here.

What’s not to like? In fact, her unend­ing list of good traits might be her biggest prob­lem: she’s been accused of being a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but she doesn’t act as the sole rea­son Squall’s char­ac­ter grows, which is one of the key char­ac­ter­is­tics of a MPDG.

Rinoa, when we meet her, is the lead­er of the Timber resis­tance, and by all accounts she’s doing the best she can (she has the undy­ing ado­ra­tion of the towns­peo­ple and her fel­low resis­tance mem­bers) but she falls into obvi­ous traps. Going back to her first appear­ance, she sees Squall at a party, (look­ing sul­len as is to be expect­ed,) and imme­di­ate­ly takes it upon her­self to try and get the guy who says he can’t dance to get on the dance floor, and by sheer force of will makes it hap­pen. In other words, Rinoa, for good or ill, is a char­ac­ter who loves stick­ing her nose in other people’s busi­ness.

What I find inter­est­ing is that Rinoa’s involve­ment in oth­ers’ lives is due to a forced lack of agen­cy in her own. When the party goes to Deling City, we find she lives alone with her father who, play­ing to type as a General, is dom­i­neer­ing and author­i­tar­i­an, even going so far as to keep­ing her locked up in the man­sion. This is obvi­ous­ly not a func­tion­al rela­tion­ship: he’s General Caraway, and she’s Rinoa Heartilly, pre­sum­ably her late mother’s maid­en name. (Not that the game ever makes a point of bring­ing that up: sub­text!)

This recon­tex­tu­al­izes her actions up to this point. Rinoa may gen­uine­ly believe in her caus­es, but her impul­sive, teenage lust for adven­ture is kicked into hyper drive by her shel­tered and fail­ing home life. In this, and many other ways, she sub­verts the MPGD tag by, at least early on, fail­ing in her attempts to break Squall’s cyn­i­cal shell, and she def­i­nite­ly fails out­right in her attempts to attain inde­pen­dence for Timber. Her manic pixie char­ac­ter­is­tics are as much some­thing that makes her admirable as a flaw that emanates from the deep­est recess­es of her psy­che. This serves to broad­ly crit­i­cize the trope, and instead offers some­thing like an inves­ti­ga­tion of the patri­ar­chal nature of her rela­tion­ship with her father that informs the rest of her nosey per­son­al­i­ty.

When Rinoa starts to grow out of those MPDG char­ac­ter­is­tics that define her early on is when her approach­es towards Squall start to break his shell a bit. Instead of forc­ing him to dance, she tries to con­nect with him in small­er, more mean­ing­ful ways. She wakes him up in the morn­ing and asks for a tour of the Garden cam­pus. When he gets pro­mot­ed to SeeD Commander, she helps throw togeth­er a small cel­e­bra­tion with the other mem­bers of the team. Later, she takes notice of a ring Squall wears that has a lion engraved into it, and asks about it, which is the first time he notices that Rinoa’s try­ing to get to him.

RINOA

So that’s what you call it. You know Zell said he’ll make me one exact­ly like it. Who knows, maybe I can become like a lion, too. That’d be crazy, huh?! I mean, every­one might, y’know, get the wrong idea about us.

SQUALL
(If it’s so crazy why do you sound so delight­ed? Everyone is try­ing to get us togeth­er. It’s so obvi­ous even I can tell.) You sound like you want every­one to get the wrong idea.

Perhaps that’s what both­ers peo­ple: in this rela­tion­ship, Squall’s big roman­tic, chival­rous ges­tures of life-saving and such are ones that he bare­ly even per­ceives to be roman­tic for the most part. In real­i­ty, Rinoa is doing the “court­ing.”

Together

Of all the ques­tions that’s been asked about Final Fantasy VIII, one is both per­sis­tent and total­ly, total­ly non­sen­si­cal: “Why are these char­ac­ters attract­ed to each other? They have noth­ing in com­mon. She’s a live­ly socialite and he’s a sul­len recluse … ” and on and on. And while that read­ing is fair, it’s also based on only a sur­face level of the two character’s inter­ac­tions. But real­ly, why do they seem to work as a cou­ple? Or rather, why does the game insist that they do?

To go with the most obvi­ous one: these two peo­ple are con­stant­ly stuck togeth­er. I’m not sure if there’s sci­ence behind this, but the con­ven­tion­al wis­dom that would inform the writ­ing of this game would prob­a­bly state that any two peo­ple who are stuck togeth­er for extend­ed peri­ods of time will even­tu­al­ly find some­thing to con­nect over. Even Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan man­aged to be friends.5

The char­ac­ter mod­els have aged poor­ly, but have you seen the FMVs of Final Fantasy VIII late­ly? Squall and Rinoa are good look­ing peo­ple. (They are video game char­ac­ters after all.) He’s smol­der­ing­ly hand­some, broad-chested, pre­fer­ring low cut-shirts. She’s got the cutest face you could ask for, and long legs in short shorts to boot. Can I make it any more obvi­ous? They’re teenagers, so we know they’re hor­mon­al and impul­sive, do the math.

That’s the other thing: they’re teenagers. There’s not a real­ly inter­est­ing way to say this: teenagers don’t make sense, and to insist that just because this is fic­tion that the teenagers in fic­tion have to make sense is asinine. Teenagers are half-defined peo­ple who are strug­gling to find a sense of iden­ti­ty, com­mu­ni­ty, and self-worth, and you could trace any num­ber of ills in soci­ety to the fact that we ask teenagers to be ready to be ready to define them­selves when they are beyond ill-equipped to do so. I can say that, I just turned 20 in January.

But there’s also plen­ty of sub­text that, though it wouldn’t make a strong argu­ment that these two peo­ple would be happy togeth­er, does make it pret­ty obvi­ous why, at least in the game’s inter­nal logic, these two peo­ple might find them­selves attract­ed to each other.

First of all: These char­ac­ters are con­stant­ly fac­ing threats to life and limb. They live and work in an incred­i­bly high-stress envi­ron­ment, one that strains their half-formed psy­ches. If we’re still accept­ing the idea that peo­ple who are stuck togeth­er are going to even­tu­al­ly build emo­tion­al con­nec­tions, it’d be hard to find an expe­ri­ence that would lead to deep­er con­nec­tions than going through the same life-threatening dan­gers togeth­er.

These char­ac­ters are very, very lone­ly. Squall has no fam­i­ly, (his moth­er hav­ing died dur­ing child­birth, and his father, Laguna, being the Worst Parent in the History of Videogames) which is why he ended up a SeeD in the first place, which the game indi­cates may sim­ply just be some­thing about his life he accept­ed rather than active­ly sought out6. Rinoa  lost her moth­er at a young age, and strug­gles in ado­les­cence, to con­nect with her suf­fo­cat­ing father.7 Arguably, Squall’s clos­est rela­tion­ship is with Seifer, and that’s the guy who cut his face open. Rinoa, mean­while, is the type of per­son who, through a com­bi­na­tion of both her own stature (high-ranking mil­i­tary official’s daugh­ter) and her own assumed posi­tion of power, has many fol­low­ers but the game doesn’t show her hav­ing any close friends.

In short, they don’t bond over things they have in com­mon, they bond over what’s miss­ing in their lives. That, admit­ted­ly, is not healthy. But it is very ado­les­cent and painful­ly real, at least in my expe­ri­ence.

I think it’s rea­son­able to say that Squall, and prob­a­bly Rinoa too, both suf­fer from what the game is unwill­ing to say is clin­i­cal depres­sion. I can’t give a symptom-by-symptom analy­sis here, but suf­fice to say that as some­one who is diag­nosed clin­i­cal­ly depressed, I have never relat­ed more to a character’s out­look and char­ac­ter­is­tics than I have with Squall.

From that per­spec­tive, a lot of things start mak­ing sense. As of yet, I have only ever dated girls like me who suf­fer from clin­i­cal depres­sion, (or bipo­lar dis­or­der). I have been in very few dat­ing rela­tion­ships, but they have all become very intense in very brief peri­ods of time because our pas­sion was com­pound­ed by com­pas­sion. We loved togeth­er and suf­fered togeth­er.

Squall and Rinoa may want each other, but more so than that, they need each other. They need the emo­tion­al sup­port that they both rep­re­sent to each other, and that’s exact­ly how things have worked for me up until this point as well.

Future

For the audi­ence that’s invest­ed in Squall and Rinoa’s romance, the game can be ret­i­cent to give us emo­tion­al sat­is­fac­tion dur­ing key moments. During Squall’s biggest chival­rous ges­tures in the game (car­ry­ing her comatose body across the bridge, and sav­ing her in space) there are obvi­ous walls between the two that pre­vent them from show­ing their love for each other phys­i­cal­ly. In the game’s most roman­tic scene, with Squall and Rinoa on the bridge of the Ragnarok, the cam­era cuts away from them before we ever seem them even try to kiss. When they do final­ly kiss at the end of the game, the cam­era is focus­ing on them and then zooms out such that we don’t actu­al­ly see the kiss that, in the­o­ry, we’ve been want­i­ng to see the whole time. They don’t even ever say the word “love” to each other. Is that just genre-fiction ship-teasing? Is it self-censorship? It could be both, but it still plays as some­what sig­nif­i­cant. The game doesn’t give us any sort of text or other mate­ri­als that say they got mar­ried or any­thing either. Final Fantasy VIII may go out of its way to show us that these char­ac­ters love each other, but it doesn’t give us “hap­pi­ly ever after.”

It’s bet­ter that way. In truth, again, they’re teenagers: they like­ly won’t end up togeth­er forever. When I was younger I hated that, but the more I play the game, the older I get, the more I real­ize, that’s ok. People grow, peo­ple change. Sometimes, the love you feel for some­one and the love they feel for you is just anoth­er phase of growth and change that you go through on the way to some­thing else. Nothing is per­ma­nent, much as our aching hearts may beg for things to be so.

I look back on the romances I’ve been involved in, and while some­times I can’t help but miss one or the other, ulti­mate­ly I always end up just being glad that we could be there for each other in times of need, and I hope that I left as pos­i­tive an impact on their lives as they’ve left on mine.

Maybe Squall and Rinoa weren’t even meant to be togeth­er. Maybe “meant to be togeth­er” is some­thing we say to lend sig­nif­i­cance to a feel­ing that comes and goes as eas­i­ly as any­thing else, much as we’re loath to admit it. What mat­ters is the present. And in those times of need, I’m glad Squall and Rinoa were there for each other when they need­ed it.

 

Notes:
  1. Which is not to say that Final Fantasy VIII isn’t capa­ble of misog­y­ny. Squall at one point also says “Women … I don’t under­stand them.” Which is, admit­ted­ly, some­thing I could’ve said a few years ago. The game also damselizes Rinoa a grand total of three times. []
  2. Danielle: long, blonde hair, lots of glit­ter. I tried to read her jour­nal once and she saw me. She asked why and I said it was to find out if she liked me. She did. It didn’t last. I’ll never for­get. []
  3. A lit­tle back­sto­ry: my father was in the US Air Force for 23 years, and at the time we were sta­tioned in Germany. Families sta­tioned over­seas have access to the American Forces Network (AFN), which rebroad­casts a small selec­tion of what’s avail­able to watch on American Television, usu­al­ly the most pop­u­lar stuff from the big 4 net­works. Historically, the PSAs that the mil­i­tary is will­ing to put into rota­tion for ser­vice­men, women and their fam­i­lies to see are much more blunt than the stuff that civil­ians will see on cable. In par­tic­u­lar I remem­ber an anti-smoking PSA where a woman’s skin was burnt to a crisp and she looks in a mir­ror and lets out a blood-curdling scream []
  4. The exis­tence of it, less so than the tech­ni­cal details. []
  5. For read­ers unfa­mil­iar with American his­to­ry: O’Neill was the lead­er of a Democratic con­gress, and a vicious oppo­nent of the Republican President Reagan’s domes­tic and for­eign poli­cies. They were both quot­ed as say­ing some­thing along the lines that before 6PM was pol­i­tics, and after 6PM they were friends. []
  6.  He was a dif­fi­cult child (duh) and was thus never adopt­ed, enter­ing Balamb Garden as a SeeD can­di­date espe­cial­ly young. At one point in the game, he con­tem­plates quit­ting SeeD for about a split-second before he real­izes not only would he be aban­don­ing his respon­si­bil­i­ty, but also that he sim­ply would have nowhere to go. []
  7. We can see how this makes them lock togeth­er from an admit­ted­ly prob­lem­at­ic (and kinda creepy) Freudian per­spec­tive that relies heav­i­ly on gen­der het­ero­nor­ma­tiv­i­ty, but that would like­ly inform how the rela­tion­ship was writ­ten. Squall has no moth­er, but Rinoa’s gen­tle prob­ing and kind­ness are very moth­er­ly. Rinoa has dif­fi­cul­ty con­nect­ing with her father, but Squall’s rank and strength put him in a posi­tion of sim­i­lar power, and makes him the per­fect can­di­date for some­one to pour the affec­tion into that she would be giv­ing to her father. []

Austin Howe

About Austin Howe

Austin C. Howe is the writer of Haptic Feedback and a contributor to numerous games publications. He plans to spend 2015 working on a book-length series of essays about Final Fantasy VII. He wears a bomber jacket and a Griever necklace almost everyday and no, he doesn't think that's weird.

  • What a great read,. It is always nice to read some­thing that isn’t bash­ing the super­fi­cial low-hanging fruit. I am sorry to hear of the dep­pres­sion issues, I hope in time, that changes. Your writ­ing skill is fan­tas­tic, and 20 years old, to boot! Well done!