Final Fantasy VIII is many things to many people.
A uniquely divisive entry in the franchise, it’s position is made harder by being the immediate followup to the seminal Final Fantasy VII. It’s some people’s favorite game, their passion for it rivaling that of many games more popularly considered masterpieces (FFVII included), but for others it’s a confounding teen drama lacking both narrative clarity and cohesive design.
I consider it to be one of the video game medium’s great romances and an in-depth character study and deconstruction of character tropes gaming remains too comfortable with and largely disinterested in examining.
In FFVIIIs first disc, the games protagonist Squall Leonheart is socially distant and singularly focused. A student at a military academy, he is content to be simply that and that alone. He is a SeeD of Balamb Garden; a soldier, a mercenary, a tool to be given orders, tasks and targets. He is tough and stoic and “cool.” He is the picture perfect archetype of the AAA video game protagonist, even now, twenty years on. But can’t he be more?
Among Squall and his fellow SeeDs, a series of strange dreams are shared in common. Visions of seemingly key events in the lives of a man named Laguna Loire and his allies Kiros and Ward. Laguna is brash in his actions, but good natured, and shy in the presence of a jazz singer that’s caught his eye at a club he and his pals frequent. Squall isn’t a fan of his attitude or his antics, but Laguna’s is only the first new perspective he’s going to have to come to grips with.
Rinoa Heartilly is, at first glance, the polar opposite of Squall. Warm, friendly, and well-humored. Curious and compassionate. Where Squall does things by the book, down to the letter, Rinoa is adventurous. She’s determined, but lacks his self-assured affect. She does her best, knowing it’s her best, knowing that it’s right, even if things might end in failure. She’s no trained mercenary, but she’s still quick on her feat and her aims are honest.
When Squall and Rinoa first meet, it’s casual, with no context for who exactly each other is. At a party to honor the latest graduates of SeeD, Squall leans against a wall, drink in hand. Rinoa spots him from across the dance floor. She looks his way and flashes a smile, her finger pointed up at the night sky, and strides over to him. To him, he’s just a guy being pestered at a party he didn’t even want to attend, but she’s just a girl trying to show ‘the best looking guy” there a good time. But Squall remains guarded, erecting the same emotional wall he does for everyone.
When next the two meet, it’s in a more professional context. Their training complete, Squall leads the group contracted by Rinoa’s “Timber Owls” resistance group to assist them in liberating a local territory from an encroaching empire. Rinoa and her allies have a distinct cause they’re personally committed to, regardless of their lack of expertise. But Squall is just a soldier with direct orders and an obligation to complete them. He is a trained professional, but also impatient, easily agitated, and just generally not taken with the more amateur antics of the Owls. Rinoa can’t understand Squall’s sole motivation being only cold orders that come externally, and while she’s direct in expressing her confusion, she makes an effort to understand Squall as the two continue working together.
Through his out-of-body experience as Laguna and initial clashing with Rinoa, Squall is exposed to different ways of being and thinking that slowly, but steadily impact his own. Where he was once sure it was only ever as simple as being given a mission and getting it done, he now questions himself much more. Decisions that were once easy now require second guessing and the cold stoicism is revealed to be more of an affect put on by a deeply self-conscious teen. As he travels across the world over the course of the games story, NPCs populating the various locals mention their love or longing for a significant other. They openly ponder their dreams, some of them are even vaguely existentialist. They too are a subtle but brilliant contrast to Squall himself, who always knows his mission, but so little of those around him and less still of himself.
If disc one is about the “Who?” of FFVIII, disc two gets into the “Why?” Rather than leaving Squall’s character as it is set, his continual bickering with Rinoa shifts their relationship from adversarial to comradely, the former giving the latter his favorite ring (although reluctantly, with the expectation of a return.) As their bond grows, their experiences and those of the rest of the party continuously reveal the holes in Squall’s thinking and fissures in his deepest memories.
Rinoa makes jokes and asks questions. She practically forces Squall to give her a tour of the school. She makes every overture to be present and live in the moment and just get to know him; to become his friend. But still Squall is guarded and dismissive; The wall between the two remains, and even she has her limits in how far she can climb it.
When the students decide to put on a celebration for Squall after he is designated as lead commander of the school and it’s forces, Rinoa, again, makes a more than kind effort to pull him out of his shell. And he just… sulks. He doesn’t want to have fun, he doesn’t want to care about anyone, he doesn’t want to get burned because of caring about anyone. He feels crushed and cornered by the new responsibility and weight of his choices. She confronts him on his selfishness, on always being stuck inside his own head: “Why does it always have to be like this?!” And it’s a question that reverberates through the story from then on. Why?
A plot revelation about the main cast being orphans is famously controversial and shaky. But as hard a pill as it may be to swallow, it still reveals Squall’s fear of abandonment; the root of his distrust and his aversion to dependence on others. His appointment as commander of Balamb Garden further forces him to struggle between his blossoming feelings for Rinoa and concern for his allies, and the priorities and hard choices for the greater good that come with being a leader. The hardest challenge comes at the end of disc two, when Rinoa finds herself comatose at the end of a battle, the team with few ideas of what to do next.
On to disc 3 and further flashbacks of Laguna reveal a somewhat strained relationship with a wife, Raine, and a much better rapport with an adopted daughter Ellone. Ellone is, in the story’s present timeline, the reason Squall and his allies are occasionally made to experience moments of Laguna and his time. Ellone is looking to the past to reforge her relationship with her father, to understand his actions and how the two became separated.
Back in the present, it may not be Squall’s fault that Rinoa is comatose, but it feels like an almost cosmic comeuppance of sorts; Like a debt being collected on his prior incuriosity, sometimes even outright rejection of his ally. The roles have been reversed now; where Rinoa tried to understand Squall and he maintained distance, Squall is now desperate to understand the internal life of Rinoa in the hopes that she might be saved. Embarking on the journey to understand Rinoa — how she thinks and feels, what drives her, what’s happened in her background to get her to this point — causes Squall to seek out Ellone, so that she might show him Rinoa’s past now. And while he searches for her, he realizes he must acknowledge now that what he’s feeling, whether he chose to or not, is a deep, genuine caring for another person. What he greatly feared before has become his prime motivator. He even looks upon his previous insecurity with a certain shame.
The climax of his personal journey is a realization that just seeing Rinoa’s past won’t wake her up. What Squall must do now is what Rinoa always tried to do for him: be present in the moment. He must speak to her, honestly, from within his genuine heart.
What comes next is a quite honestly breathtaking sequence where Rinoa, finally awake and stranded in space, is rescued by a Squall more clear-eyed and determined than ever before, risking his life to save hers. They recover, embrace, and their reunion is capped off by Squall truly giving Rinoa the ring he had wanted back, with no trace of reservation. A perfect metaphor for the piece of himself already held by her, their physical connection having already grown as Squall carried her while unconscious, through the streets of Fisherman’s Horizon and Esthar, always gentle, always keeping her close, never giving up on finding a way to bring her back. He spent their time apart in anguish and reflection, and when the opportunity finally came, not even the literal bounds of space were enough to stop him.
Finally back in play, Rinoa makes a tough choice to leave the group. It’s a choice of her own that Squall respects, but should he have?
There’s a lot of fairly obvious, reasonable critiques one could make of Rinoa’s character and how she’s handled. She’s damsel’d somewhat frequently and her progression is both reliant on and seemingly less than Squall’s. It should be noted though that Squall is not infatuated with her. She isn’t idolized or portrayed as any sort of perfect figure. If Squall is a deconstruction of the typical macho heroes, how they almost wilt when confronted with the nuance of emotion and the impact that their actions have on other people, Rinoa is great because she’s fearful. But rather than let that fear or trauma of her past dominate her thoughts and actions, she lives her life openly, honestly in the present, and facing the uncertainty of the future. She is, from the outset, so profoundly human she’s arguably the thematic core of the game.
The past is the true antagonist of FFVIII. Squall’s fear of forming real connections with others is ultimately revealed to be rooted in past trauma. He tries to use it like armor, but in truth, the past is only as useful as it informs the present, hopefully to bring about a better future. That, in all it’s scary uncertainty, is our relationship with time.
Once Squall understands this, he’s able to get Rinoa back, again, because after all the time he’s wasted, now he too can live honestly, in the present, with all the fear and uncertainty that entails. He’s willing to put up with it all if it means being reunited with her.
In the final scenes of the game we get one last look at Laguna in the past — proposing to Raine. In the present we see him standing over her grave while Ellone calls out to him from the horizon.
In the present, Squall stands with Rinoa on the balcony of the school. She flashes him the same smile as before, points up at the same night sky. But this time he meets her not with a scowl, but a warm smile of his own, and pulls her into an embrace.
Though still uncertain, their future is as bright as the moon is full, as the sky is a sea of stars. There are no walls between them now. ⬜️