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 firstname.lastname@example.org!
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.
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:
“(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.
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:
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.
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.
(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.”
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.
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.
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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 [↩]
- The existence of it, less so than the technical details. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]