Final Fantasy VIII, the sorceress epic about a hormone-fueled romance, has been my favorite game in the series ever since I was 12 years old. I beat it almost that many times before I unlearned the lessons that Squall and Rinoa’s relationship taught me about trying to fix sad, broken guys, like the game’s gunblade-brandishing hero.
Though the junction system was disorienting and the punishment for using magic latched to your stats disappointing, Final Fantasy VIII stole my youthful, awkward heart. Its love story, in hindsight, was problematic as hell, its themes easily internalized by vulnerable young dorks like me, and all the more realistic for it. When I started playing, late to both the game and puberty, I was full of tender new feelings; if the guarded stoicism of Squall Leonhart, the game’s sullen protagonist, was meant to appeal to boys, designer Tetsuya Nomura was unwittingly sensitive to the daydreams of young straightish girls, too. My friend and I developed crushes on Squall the moment antagonist Seifer wounded his face with the eponymous gunblade, rendering him only lovelier. VIII was the high school movie of the franchise, and Squall was its heartthrob.
Video game crushes leave plenty of room to dream—they’re pure, spacious fantasy, only one step removed from the realm of imagination already. “Crush” hardly applies: With no stakes, the cartoon crush is weightless, its form defined all by yourself, its density only as heavy as you choose it to be. Squall felt real to me, and his relationship with Rinoa Heartilly, the rebellious, angel-winged romantic lead, kept me hooked. His grumpy reticence to open up was a trope endemic to other games and anime: the aloof boy with a cold heart waiting to be melted, and an inexplicably cheerful girl bold enough to try.
When I replayed Final Fantasy VIII earlier this year, it became clear that Squall was comically mean to Rinoa, even as she Manic Pixie Dream Girled her way into his life. Their romance was a big, cinematic lesson in unavailability and emotional labor—Rinoa provided endless, giggling support; Squall rebuffed it almost throughout. This is all codified: her care in the face of his glaring disinterest indicates—proves—that they’re the story’s love interests, even with no visible love. We know this is how relationships begin, because we’ve already ascertained (from life, love, and all other media depicting the same scenario in different flavors) that women are caretakers. I understood that uplifting a man till he’s man enough was my hidden, dismal birthright, long before I touched the game. Final Fantasy VIII just reinforced the story..
Following that bloody introduction sequence, we meet Squall at the Balamb Garden infirmary, emerging from wound-induced slumber under the loving gaze of three consecutive women: physician Dr. Kadowaki, time-compressing Ellone, and instructor Quistis. His personality is spelled in his name: “Squall,” like a tempest, or a tempestuous teenager, which he is; “Leonhart,” like his feline, epicene babeliness and also his heart, guarded as if by a griffin. Squall’s countenance was reportedly based on River Phoenix, if Phoenix was a mercenary SeeD who never smoked. Like many real-life teenage boys—the ones I would later fall for, with all the crushing weight of a real infatuation—Squall is sullen and terse, maybe depressed.
His affected attitude is explained in the backstory: Like the rest of the main characters, he was orphaned as a toddler, and grew deeply attached to the Ellone, who unexpectedly left the orphanage. In a flashback, little Squall stands on the porch in the rain, speaking to the traces she left behind: “Sis…I’m…all alone. But I’m doing my best…I’ll be okay without you, Sis. I’ll be able to take care of myself.”
In the realm beyond a PlayStation game, an aversion to tenderness is a sad bastion of masculinity—the tenet that care is a poison, lest it be misconstrued or, in the case of Squall, brutally taken away. He spends the rest of his life, presumably, rejecting everyone who takes care of him, particularly Rinoa. They meet at a dance , where she saunters up to him in one of the series’ loveliest cut-scenes. When she says, “You’re the best-looking guy here,” it’s like a command. Squall is quiet and probably annoyed. Rinoa attempts hypnosis: “Look into my eyes,” she says. “You’re-going-to-like-me.” It doesn’t work.
From here through half of Disc 3, no interaction between the two of them is any different. Rinoa, outside of the Timber TV Station, asks for a safe hideaway, to which Squall face-palms, flabbergasted. Rinoa at Fisherman’s Horizon, lit up on an ice-blue walkway, insists, “We want you to talk to us a little more…I know it’s not easy, but I wish you would trust us and rely on us a little more.” Squall face-palms again—he prefers, he thinks to himself, to be alone. In one tense scene, Rinoa hangs off the side of Balamb Garden as Galbadia Garden crashes into it, prompting another face-palm from Squall as the sniper Irvine chastises: “Didn’t think you were so heartless, Squall. Rinoa is gonna die! Don’t you realize that!?” He does. And yet Rinoa still dangles off the cracked edge of a building for upwards of 20 gameplay minutes, willful suspension of disbelief notwithstanding.
Rinoa can’t catch a break, not even after she hopes, aloud, that her ex-boyfriend Seifer is still alive (“As long as you don’t get your hopes up, you can take anything,” says Squall), not even after she clings to Squall’s arm after almost getting murdered by Edea (“Better get going.”), not even after she performs the labor of explaining, calmly, “You have to voice your feelings, or I won’t understand.”
Given his pain and his adolescent age, Squall’s distance was understandable. In fact, it was an appropriate setup for a character arc, and maybe the most beloved thing about FFVIII. But why did Rinoa keep trying anyway? Why make it her goal to heal the trauma of someone who wasn’t ready for it? Why do we expect this of women, feel unphased by it, in any context? This is the realm of play, to be sure, and Squall and Rinoa are merely polygonal teenagers—not even an animated man and woman, but children—and no more role models than they are actual people.
As a teen, I was already predisposed towards brooding dudes. But I kept trying, too, mothering cruel boys who already had mothers like it’d yield a reward. It’s not so much that I metabolized the game as a lesson; it’s that the game properly illustrated a miniaturized version of real life. I’d already been told, since my first foray into a sandbox, that a boy was only awful to me if he liked me an awful lot. (Some people think it might work, too; see this thread on the futility or benefits of acting like Squall “just to get a girl like Rinoa.”) If FFVIII was low-key misogynistic, that was only because reality is, too.
Final Fantasy VIII was also compassionate. That it had room for as many feelings as I had is probably why I love it so damn much. When Rinoa discovers that she’s a sorceress, she elects to get cryogenically frozen, protecting the future of humankind from her prowess. Squall, upon realizing he may never see her again, falls in love with her. (In real life, too, ghosting can have the same effect.) Rinoa’s conversations about support mirror real-life rhetoric about empathy; Squall’s elucidate what happens when inherited trauma and male posturing combine to make that kind of care difficult. That it’s initially cloaked as douchebaggery takes a little unpacking.
The development of Squall is FFVIII’s most beloved plot line—he overcomes his history to become a loving boyfriend to Rinoa, a confident leader, a kind friend, a patient listener. The problem is that it was never Rinoa’s job to do it; remember that, and there’s a great lesson to be gleaned here, more complex, I think, than I realized at the time.
Monica Uszerowicz (@monilaurasimone) is a Miami-based writer and photographer whose work has appeared in Hyperallergic, Bomb, Hazlitt, Vice, V, Bon Appétit, and Avidly.