I’m about to become very unpopular with fans of Final Fantasy VIII.
Now, I actually like Final Fantasy VIII. I think it took risks on its leveling and stats systems; risks that paid off. And for the most part, its story is fairly inventive and unique: a futuristic spin on Harry Potter that follows a group of gifted youths in a mercenary academy trying to fight off the threat of an evil sorceress.
But the game’s biggest claim to fame is with its increased focus on romance. The key players in this romance are Squall, a withdrawn swordsman with a chip on his shoulder, and Rinoa, a spirited young woman at the forefront of a rebellion. Over the course of the game, Squall and Rinoa fight alongside each other, surmounting obstacles both human and supernatural, and then end up falling in love.
I’m about to show you why their love story was total bullshit.
The romance between Squall and Rinoa, when examined as a narrative arc, is paper thin and absolutely pathetic.
Let’s face it, for all of his stylish bravado, Squall has the emotional depth of a taco. We get it, he has issues. He is psychologically stunted. But when we discover why he is the way he is, it doesn’t add up.
Aside from one small tragedy, nothing particularly traumatizing happened to Squall in his youth. He just comes off as a cold and apathetic jerk, and not “emo” as some of his detractors claim him to be. No, emo suggests having actual feelings about things.
And then along comes Rinoa, Final Fantasy’s manic pixie dream girl. Rinoa, contrasted against Squall, is a much more complex character. She is idealistic, intelligent, rebellious, and even a little reckless. She is flawed, but her heart is in the right place.
Squall doesn’t deserve a girl like Rinoa.
So let’s examine how this romance unfolds. Rinoa meets Squall at Balamb Garden’s school dance. She coerces him onto the dance floor and they have what is perhaps one of the most iconic (and genuinely cute) scenes in the game. It’s a great introduction to Rinoa’s character. Here, she is shown as someone who’s trying to get Squall out his shell.
From therein out, Squall and Rinoa team up to try and lead an assault against a small nation under the control of a malevolent sorceress. Any character interaction between the two seems to take a backseat as the protagonists must deal with failed assassination attempts, prison breaks, vengeful benefactors and collective amnesia.
Then, at some point after discovering the nature of the true villain, Rinoa inexplicably falls into a coma. We are told that she is supposed to be possessed by the “big bad,” which would imply that she would act evil and possessed. But nope, she snoozes instead, and Squall is suddenly forced to carry her on his back across a bridge that stretches across half of the planet’s equator.
Now, I can understand wanting to be there for a female compatriot fallen in battle, but at this point in the game Squall and Rinoa haven’t had much time to get to know each other, and all of Rinoa’s heartily attempts have been met with a constant stream of “whatevers” from our leading man.
When Squall gets Rinoa to the futuristic city on the other side of the planet, he decides that the only way to save Rinoa is to go into space because…reasons.
This is the other issue I have with this game. There is no reason presented for why going into outer space will save Rinoa’s life. In fact, we are told that outer space in FFVIII’s world is pretty damn dangerous. Not only is the moon said to be the home of swarms of monsters, but it also serves as the prison of a cryogenically frozen doom witch.
So after a situation that would nowadays be compared to the the movie Gravity, Squall saves Rinoa and suddenly she is cured from her possession. They hijack an alien ship—after disposing of the aliens—and then suddenly Faye Wong sings “Eyes on Me” and boom, instant romance.
It seems that the creators of the game just wanted Rinoa and Squall to fall in love for the sake of love, or for the fact that the rest of the leading female cast consists of Squall’s teacher, his sister and a small Chihuahua pretending to be a human with a flip haircut.
There is simply no substance between these two characters based on how they were written and how they interacted. It is a romance based on narrative convenience, and I actually find it kind of sexist. Rinoa, for all her semi-decent character development, is put there to “change” Squall and then become the damsel in distress to show just how much he cares for her. Squall, the emotionally stunted hero, is given life because of this one magical woman.
And it’s crap, because that’s not how romance works, even in a fantasy setting. What kind of a woman, one who has put up with her own father’s controlling nonsense, is going to want to date a guy who has no other purpose in life than to be really good at cutting things? Rinoa is the leader of a rebel army. She is shrewd, compassionate and as we learn by game’s end, perhaps one of the most powerful people on the planet. In fact, why wasn’t she the leader to begin with? She certainly shows loads more capability than Squall, even when she’s getting herself into trouble. The trouble she gets into is simply used as a device so than Squall can sweep in and save her.
I could forgive the “instant romance” if the producers of the game put us in scenarios where Squall and Rinoa had time to talk, most of which could have broken up the action during Disk 2’s chaotic traipsing around the civil war. But let’s not forget that this is a game with one of the the most “convenient” plot devices and twists of all time, so I’m not entirely surprised that the producers didn’t find this necessary.
During one of these hypothetical “downtime” moments, Rinoa should have taken Squall to task on his apathetic whining. She should have told him to tear down his own walls. She should have shown him that she was trying to lend a hand because there was potential within himself that he was squandering. Squall, in turn, should have worked on himself, taken her words to heart. Maybe then it would have made sense for him to go: “You know what, this awesome woman had every right to call me out on my shit.” Then he could have made an actual effort in getting to know her, thus changing himself. It would have made for excellent character development, and not what ended up happening: “I must now care about this woman because she is in danger all the time. I suddenly dig her.”
All of that said, Final Fantasy VIII is a classic for a good reason. It has memorable characters and an excellent sense of world building. No other Final Fantasy comes close to combining a modern world with traditional fantasy elements like FFVIII did. When it comes to romance, however, Squall and Rinoa’s love story even puts Twilight to shame.