Eyes On Me 1



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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!