introduction

I hated Rinoa for a lot of reasons, not just my instant adoration of Instructor Trepe. I hated her pink gothic room and her animal companion and the fact that her fellow revolutionaries called her ‘princess’, and how she literally waltzed into the story with her hands on her hips and suddenly she was very important, that you could just tell that from the narrative and cinematic space given to her and how she jabbed her finger in Squall’s chest and got him to move. That made it feel like she was pampered twice over, as a character in a story and as a person with a background of privilege, given everything without warrant. I didn’t want to identify with a woman who had it easy. I was like Quistis, a struggler, an achiever, a serious person. Selphie would have felt more palatable than Rinoa, but still, she seemed more fun than real, with her blog and her Festival committee and her little-girl overalls and incongruous nunchucku.

The story takes more pains to expose us to these three women than Zell or Irvine; both Quistis and Selphie lead missions that reveal character traits, while Rinoa emerges as a powerful figure in her own right, with an interesting intersection in Squall’s backstory because of her mother. (Squall’s father, Laguna Loire, was infatuated with Rinoa’s mother, Julia Heartilly. Circumstances conspire to keep them apart, so that Julia marries General Fury Caraway, and Laguna finds Raine Leonhart.) In both missions, the main concern is with personal stakes instead of something relating to Squall: Quistis desperately wants to apologize to Rinoa; Selphie does everything she can to save Trabia Garden. In both cases, those objectives are not met within the course of their missions. I’m not sure what to say about that — yes, the women are given more time in the limelight, but they don’t necessarily look good in it. Where they try, they fail.

Though she never makes good on that apology, it’s telling that Quistis tries so hard to clear the air with Rinoa. Though many of Quistis’s dialogues throughout the game reference her interest in Squall Leonhart, the vast majority of them note the past tense of that interest and that she shelved the romance before Rinoa stepped on the scene, often with flattering allusions to Rinoa's hold on Squall. In fact, the story frames Quistis as the one who shoves Leonhart's reticent ass into action where his lady love is concerned. Sometimes that kind of interest in a former flame's love story is a way of trying to actively participate in their romance, not even necessarily nefariously. In the context of Final Fantasy VIII it serves to showcase Quistis's support of Rinoa, but never directly to Rinoa, only when speaking among the liberi fatali. Even in the flower fields of the game's prologue, when she accompanies Squall and Rinoa before allowing them a private moment, all of her comments on the strength of that relationship are directed to Squall. Despite that, consider her vehemence when Squall is tempted to allow Rinoa to be sealed away by the Estharian government to prevent a fresh magical despot.

QUISTIS: Was she taken by force?
SQUALL: No. It was Rinoa's decision. She was scared about being a sorceress... Scared of being feared... hated... Scared that no one would want to be around her... She said she couldn't handle that..
QUISTIS: Didn't you try to stop her, Squall?
SQUALL: It was Rinoa's decision. What right do I have to object?
QUISTIS: Oh! Stop that! What are you talking about!? Why did you go all the way out into space to save Rinoa!? To hand her over to Esthar!? So that you might never see her again!? No, right!? Wasn't it because you wanted to be with Rinoa? You're a fool.
ZELL: Seriously.
SQUALL: (A fool, huh?) ...Maybe. (What am I doing...? I may never get to hear Rinoa's voice ever again... What the hell am I doing? What can I do? ...Of course...)
QUISTIS: Have you decided?

Our glimpses beyond Squall's perspective are slim, and it's possible there was an offstage interaction between the two. All we know for certain is that Quistis risked a mission in her desperation to make things right between herself and Rinoa, and that for the remainder of the game, she expressed her approval whenever Rinoa happened to be out of the room — despite saying she's 'one of us.' I've always read that as a respect without understanding. Yes, she's one of the crew, and Quistis even says so ... but that doesn't mean she knows how to talk with her, or that they have common ground beyond Rinoa's romantic victory and Quistis's romantic failure.

SQUALL: I...I have to lead the attack.
IRVINE: I don't care what you have to do, or how you feel. Just do it... please! For Rinoa.
QUISTIS: Listen to Irvine, Squall. She's one of us.

When I replayed the game in 2016/2017, I realized that I am very much like the women I dismissed. When I lead, I tend to favor Rinoa's crouching-on-the-floor style, less concerned with appearances than that each member of the group felt like they were a part of the ultimate decision, and when I do things, say a fansite or an essay, I tend to do it with Selphie's crazy-eyed enthusiasm. I retain a strong connection to Quistis, but it's harder to say that I am actually like her, but rather I've felt the pinch I see in her character. Part of that is the natural distance that comes from loving something. Yes, often seeing something of yourself in a particular character kindles adoration, but favoritism often also involves a pedestal, and what a pedestal means is distance. Quistis has always struck me as coolly competent, elegant, awkwardly loving. Of that triad, I've only really felt the last, and part of that is that elegance and competence are terms we apply only if they seem wholly true. I know too much about my blooper reel to self-apply them.

But part of that replay process has made me uncomfortably familiar with a mindset I often bring to gaming, the fantasy-life equivalent of a certain helplessness I have when interacting with random dudes. Essentially, it's the unstoppable, not-even-necessarily-eager question of: "Are you my husband?" (I've debated what this means with a friend. He is a gay man that does not view every man as a potential partner, and pointed to this cognitive feature as a kind of heterosexual presumption and privilege. I pushed that it's a kind of patriarchal issue, that the objective of a successful romantic monogamy did not sufficiently dominate his conscious and unconscious that dogs even the most banal interactions with the appropriate sex. I'm still thinking about this.) Part of my consideration of these women as potential selves was about them as potential romantic selves. Did they deserve that they got? What were they like, and what did their 'deserts' tell us about how the game evaluates their features? Is it better to be the elegant but uncharming blonde, or perhaps the pushy, emotionally-intuitive brunette, or perhaps the feisty but childish auburn girl?

I've been thinking about that. The more I've written for this site, the more that I've felt that Quistis deserved better, but it's difficult to frame that appropriately. Anyone familiar with five tumblr posts on friendzoning can cite the central moral of the issue: that someone's affection and esteem are to be given as a result of autonomous choice, not obligated by good behavior. When I was on the fraying edge of childhood, that was part of my gall at Squall choosing Rinoa -- Quistis was just so clearly better. Thus, she deserved him, whatever his personal preferences. That's obviously wrongheaded. Even so, her role in the story of the game sometimes makes me angry. She is shown failing, romantically and professionally, then sticks it out like the good little soldier she is until the end. Much of what we hear is about Squall, and in those interactions, he never says what she means to him. Perhaps that's it. In a story all about a man's perspective, that man never acknowledges what Quistis feels, nor how he feels about her, even beyond the bounds of sex and love.

And yet, he is her story.

Imagine being raised on an empty continent with six other orphans under the care of a beautiful witch in the ruins of a dead civilization. Imagine two of those orphans form a close bond with one another; when one departs, the leftover boy is so despondent that you try to fill the absence that she left. Imagine that you are adopted, but you decide to pursue a military career anyway at the age of ten, where you excel. Imagine that every drop of magic you use erodes at your memory of that orphanage, except the sense of being a substitute, and a certain tender awareness of a particular other student. Imagine you become a soldier and instructor in record breaking time, that you are the very best card player in the school, that students fawn over you to the point of forming a club in your honor. Imagine you are that leftover boy's teacher. Imagine you repeatedly try to reach out to him. Imagine that he rebuffs you at every turn. Imagine you save his life as he runs from a haywire robot, stalling the submarine until he is safely aboard. Imagine you watch him dance with another girl at a ball you don't bother to dress the part for, the very night your teaching license is revoked. Imagine you manipulate him into spending time with you just once more, despite his cool demeanor, and that when you tell him you've lost your most prized distinction, he tells you to talk to a fucking wall. Imagine you are asked to accompany him on a mission to assassinate a supernatural woman, coincidentally aligning with the objectives of the girl he danced with. Imagine you watch them spar, then grow closer. Imagine that the headmaster of your military academy makes him commander-in-chief, despite there being no comparison in your credentials. Imagine you follow him around the globe, all the while observing the blossom of his romance with someone else. When your shared history is revealed, you suddenly understand that while your one persisting memory was of that boy, his only recollection from your shared past is that someone left - and not that you tried to replace her. When he wavers, wondering whether or not to rescue the girl from the ball, imagine you are the one who tells him to go after her. Imagine you fight together until the very end. Imagine your friends pair off together. Imagine you watch him reject you, fall in love, attain the leadership position they say you were unsuited for, and end up blissfully happy.

And you end up alone.

That's what the game offers, in terms of her story. When I say I wanted more for her, what I think about it wanting more for her that was simply for her. The love story component depends on whether or not she wants that, and the in-game information is split on this. We see her put the moves on a boy, and we see her end up alone. Possibly she's quite content that way.

And what's interesting, now that I'm older, now that I've replayed the game, is that unlike Quistis, the women I didn't want to be did not primarily define their stories in relation to Squall. It's true that Rinoa loves Squall, and that she and he save each other throughout Final Fantasy VIII, but she also had a life beyond him. She was leading a resistance. She was a sorceress, and though he took the knee and vowed to be her knight, the problems and possibilities revolving around that feature of her do not begin and end with Squall. Similarly, despite Irvine's interest in Selphie, she is decidedly less so. Girl loves trains and blowing shit up.

I've been alone most of my life. I've tried to achieve. I've gotten into top percentiles - and I've also truly failed. That part of me, the part that braids loneliness and excellence, is my connection to Quistis; perhaps she stamped a liminal boot-print into my pscyhe when I met her. But most unfortunately of all, I think we share that insistent romantic question, that incompletion, that self framed in the love of others.