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Squee From the Keeper Shelf: Final Fantasy VIII

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If I had to pick one video game that had the most significant combined impact on me as a gamer and a romance reader, it has to be Final Fantasy VIII. FFVIII is essentially a romance novel in RPG video game form and it had an indelible impact in making me love tropes that are STILL major catnip for me, like settings that combine science fiction and magic elements, political intrigues, girls dealing with possibly world-destroying supernatural powers, found family, and romance between a fun, sweet person and gruff, cranky person.

The basic premise of FFVIII is that in a world pretty similar to our own but with magic, elite teens are enrolled in military academies, called “Gardens,” and then hired out for various martial purposes as mercenaries both when they are students and graduates. (The organization running the Gardens is called SeeD, and the students/soldiers themselves are also called SeeDs. GET IT? A GARDEN FOR SEEDS?)

A very hot, grumpy, and taciturn cadet named Squall Leonhart is the main protagonist. In the course of the game, he and his military-academy pals get drawn first into various political conflicts and then, of course, into a mission to save the world. Early on in this journey, he meets Rinoa Heartilly, the estranged daughter of a general in the superpower country of Galbadia. She is also drawn into the various Things Happening and so even though she is not a SeeD, she becomes part of the main ensemble.

The main cuties. Official concept art for the game by Tetsuya Nomura.

Squall and Rinoa have an incredibly sweet, slow-burn, opposites-attract romance. Squall is like a human stormcloud, and Rinoa is bubbly, warm, empathic, and highly social. At first, they are baffled and annoyed by each other while also being attracted to each other (and both kind of mad about the attraction). This eventually gives way to mutual fascination and finally love and devotion. We learn throughout the game that Squall is so closed off because of all the loss he’s already faced in his life, and that Rinoa’s cheerful facade hides a lot of fear. This fear becomes even more pronounced when she inherits a world-shaping magical power and must rely on Squall both to protect her and to help keep her from losing herself. They are two well-rendered characters who just fit together. I am not ashamed to admit that for most of my teenage years I wanted to be Rinoa Heartilly and find my devoted, steady Squall. Also, her fashion is bomb. (I can’t find a particularly good picture online from the game, but she sometimes wears a very 90’s white halter minidress that is SO cute. I wanted it when I was 14 and I still want it now.)

Here is a video of an early-game cutscene featuring the dress though!



While most of the gameplay objectives, dungeon-crawling, and boss fights are centered around the political and world-saving aspects, the true core of the game’s narrative is the romance between Squall and Rinoa. The character beats between them are treated as important and integral to the plot as the quest to defeat the Big Baddie. Their relationship is actually crucial to the world-saving. In fact, in a pretty literal plot sense, the strong bonds between all of the major characters form the glue that enables them to not just save the world, but to save the world and not die in the process. (I won’t get too into the specifics because spoilers, but basically the bonds between the heroes is what enables them to survive the warping of time and space by Evil). Elements of Final Fantasy VIII are decidedly disturbing and dark, but its ultimate message is that love is the most powerful force in the universe. I mean, the game’s logo (pictured below) is Squall and Rinoa embracing!!



There’s also a parallel story in the game where the player periodically takes control of another group of SeeDs, led by another incredibly handsome man named Laguna Loire. In addition to filling out various backstory/world-building elements, this storyline ALSO has a strong romance element. I think there’s something to be said here about the fact that while major studio release video games were (and still are) largely targeted to and marketed towards men, many of them have strong romantic subplots. This is especially true of the Final Fantasy series, where there’s at least one significant romantic relationship in basically every game. Hm, it’s almost like there’s a demand for stories about love and relationships among men in spite of all of the shitty social norms dictating that romance is girly shit!! Imagine that.

I’ve talked a lot about the plot and characters, but FFVIII also just a really fun game. It has an expansive world and a complicated turn-based combat system involving character customization via a system called “junctioning,” where various mythology-inspired battle spirits are basically equipped onto a character’s body. (If you are wondering if the creepier implications of this “equip onto a body” system are explored in the plot, they are, to disturbing effect.)

As a major strategy-game devotee, I personally LOVE this kind of needlessly complicated combat system that rewards meticulous planning. With that said, the game is also pretty hard; the boss fights are notoriously punishing and grueling. Confession: I did not actually ever beat the final boss. I got really close a couple times (the battle takes hours) and then gave up and watched the final cutscene. This accurately reflects my devotion to accomplishment for accomplishment’s sake in gaming. #NoRegrets

I could literally go on and on about everything I love about Final Fantasy VIII. My baby closeted bisexual heart could not handle how many hotties were in this game (They are hotties going primarily by the amazing character art by Tetsuya Nomura, as the non-cutscene graphics aren’t really good enough for Hottie Rendering and the CGI cutscenes sort of give everyone the same face). The characterization in the game makes the cast seem much more warm, approachable, and real than many fantasy video game characters, who often feel more like larger-than-life demigods than real people. This game also contains what I think is one of the greatest rivalry portrayals of ALL TIME, between Squall and another cadet, Seifer Almasy.


An assortment of hotties from the game.


Also, soooo many things in this game are just there because they are cool and not because they make any sense, and honestly, I love that too. For example, Squall’s main weapon is called a gunblade. It’s a gun, and it’s a sword. I really think for combat purposes it’s probably better to have a separate gun and a separate sword but I don’t care because it’s awesome.

I played Final Fantasy VIII when I was in junior high, so I was about 13 years old, but it remained one of my guiding media stars through most of high school. (It still is, but more in an implicit “this shaped me” way than “I think about this game at least once a day” way.) It is hard for me to fully articulate how obsessed I was. I rewatched cutscenes on youtube. I watched fan-made videos. I pored over character cosplays online. I had an orchestral version of the soundtrack (which still SLAPS, by the way) that I played to death in the car in high school, to the extent that my mom BEGGED me to put on another CD. I wanted to climb inside the PlayStation and live inside FFVIII. The game was also not new when I played it. It had already been out for about six years at that point. It was on four separate discs. I remember one of my friends came over while I was playing, and the first thing she said was, “Wow, these graphics are shitty!” And I guess they were, but I was so absorbed in the story I didn’t care. The fact that the game was past the height of its popularity when I was so into it only added to its appeal for contrarian-teen me.

I cannot find my favorite fan-made video tribute to Squall and Rinoa, as unfortunately it seems to have vanished from the internet, but I did just find this one that I’m sure I would have watched on loop if it had existed when I played the game:

One thing I realized when writing this piece is that FFVIII’s high concept plot, with elite teenaged soldiers saving the world and finding romance in the process, actually seems to presage the meteoric rise of similar speculative YA. Even though I don’t read that much YA anymore, I still have a big soft spot for those kinds of stories. While entrusting the fate of the world to teenagers makes very little sense (and is also hella unethical–teen soldiers, hello??), it is still enjoyable to experience narratives about teenagers struggling with teen stuff like first love and friendship and with heavy, world-saving adult responsibility at the same time. There’s something inherently interesting in watching people learn how to handle power that very much parallels the process of becoming an adult, which may be why the two things are so often braided in fiction.

While the Fire Emblem series may be the number one RPG franchise in my heart these days, Final Fantasy, and Final Fantasy VIII in particular, is a pretty close second. An unabashedly romantic game about falling in love and saving the world that is at times sleek and cool and other times unselfconsciously corny, it will always hold a special, formative place in my psyche.

If this squee intrigued you and you would like to experience this romantic, bananapants, late-90s game extravaganza for yourself, I have great news: you can get the game for the PC on Steam! There’s the original version (which is about $11) and a “remastered” version (which is about $20). I put “remastered” in quotes because apparently all they did was touch up the main character sprites and some of the cutscenes, and users have complained that it is really laggy. So maybe stick with the original version unless you have a superpowered gaming machine.

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