introduction
QUISTIS: Yes! That's right! Seifer was a kid who always needed to be the center of attention. But Squall always used to ignore him... But eventually they would end up fighting. Squall could have easily walked away from it, but always took up the challenge. He should've just ignored him, but Squall, almost in tears, would say...'I gotta do my best by myself. Or else I won't be able to see Sis'. I guess I was trying to take Sis...I mean, Ellone's place. I tried, but to no avail... That's probably it! Even after becoming an instructor, I couldn't stop thinking about Squall. I thought it was...love. I had to hide my feelings because I was an instructor, but I've come to realize it wasn't. It was my childhood feelings as a big sister that lingered... Oh well...

QUISTIS ABRUPTLY WALKS AWAY
SQUALL FOLLOWS

QUISTIS: (A misunderstood love...? Actually, I had completely given up when Rinoa came into the picture.) Hey! It must be the same for Seifer! I'm sure Seifer has forgotten his childhood, too. But whenever he sees Squall, his inner feelings start to boil, and...

Quistis apologizes for her short comings more than any other character in the game, always in scenarios where she is offering something for someone else. I think of that as a combined result from her own lingering damage from childhood: that she is a poor substitute, but a substitute nonetheless. No one disagrees, which is interesting. In some cases that seems warranted — her comfort, upon the news of Seifer’s execution, is that this is to be expected from the lives they lead, and so what Seifer did wasn’t especially tragic or moral, it was a career choice. If we imagine that we try to comfort others in the fashion that we would want to be comforted, this tells us a great deal about what Quistis takes to be soothing — a coolheaded assessment of the facts.

She also apologizes on the morning of Squall’s first full day as the Commander of Garden, specifically for undertaking the entire medical coordination of Garden and the assignment of all non-martial duties between herself and Xu without Squall’s permission. He responds exactly as you’d expect: “Fine,” the adult version of “Whatever.” The significance of that is that in all of these situations where Quistis apologizes, no one declines them as unnecessary. It’s not unusual to encounter women apologizing frequently, in life or in media, but Quistis does it significantly more than even her female counterparts. Though not apologies per se, she also agrees with the assessment of the Garden faculty that she has no leadership qualities — and here, she says she attempted to be a caring older sister for Squall “to no avail.”

Central to Squall's character is an eroded trauma from childhood abandonment. Through the use of magic via Guardian Forces, most of the liberi fatali forget their shared past; naturally, that makes what lingers especially significant. For Quistis, that seems to be three things: a need to replace someone; a sense that she had failed to do so; and a focus on both Seifer and Squall, though Squall especially. It's unclear whether or not her parenthetical thoughts after striding away in embarrassment are convincing, even to herself, but the thing to flag is that casual connection again between emotionality and her own incapacity. (‘Giving up’ is not the same as ‘getting over.’) Another moment where she sensed that someone needed something, and she knows she failed to give it to them. One way to think of it is a connection between there being a certain role that needed to be played, say sister, or instructor, or leader, and Quistis judging herself to have not met the requirements of that role. No one contradicts her, nor is she comforted. Though Squall walks over after she leaves to collect herself, he offers nothing.

Regrettably, no one pares at her casual allusion to a fucked-up childhood, either. Overall, the story of Squall Leonhart eclipses the characterization of the remaining cast, with Rinoa increasingly excepted as their romance develops. This is the place where we get most of our evidentiary morsels regarding Quistis, and they're insufficient to come to conclusions. A friend pointed out that Quistis's emotional revelations pale in comparison to Squall's largely due to the long thaw he undergoes. From the start she reveals parts of herself; because Squall does not, his tidbits appear to both player and character as that much more interesting. Part of why FFVIII is my favorite game in the franchise is that virtuoso scripting of Squall’s interior monologues, such that his manpain abandonment issues are actually represented interestingly throughout the game. Still, I wish that had not come at the cost of characterizing his companions.

That said, one of the interesting features about the game is how consistently it weaves Quistis’s moments into the main narrative. Beyond the total dominance of Squall, she’s the character we learn the most about in the first arc, before Rinoa outpaces her in the game’s remainder. It’s true that she acts as the game’s tutorial, but there’s quite a lot of characterization layered within her explanation of Guardian Forces and functioning, and even that explanation cements our sense of her as a knowledgeable teacher. Think of her commentary during the Fire Cavern, where she alludes to her desirability as a joke to calm down Squall, or the FMV on Dollet beach where she faces down the haywire robot — or when she leads a team sans Squall during their attack against Edea in Galbadia. Later on, at Fisherman’s Horizon, there’s an option of confronting a moping Squall with Quistis or Rinoa, depending on prior team composition. And even the dialogue quoted above is lengthier than any of the remaining supporting cast’s, despite the scant amount of backstory it reveals. In fact, the game won’t continue until Squall approaches Quistis, though he says nothing in response to her revelation.

Final Fantasy games sometimes include lingering potential love interests as part of the story, particularly when the runner-up is introduced earlier than the end-game. Specifically I’m thinking of Rikku in FFX, who is introduced to Tidus before he washes up in Besaid and into Yuna’s life, and a few dialogue options give Tidus the option to flirt with Rikku or Yuna, though the game follows the latter romance no matter the player’s input. Quistis’s persistent involvement feels a bit like that, even if some of her narrative involvement isn’t directly related to romance with the protagonist (such as her brief stint as a party leader). The ‘role’ in ‘role playing game’ can be a bit tricky when it comes to characters. Sometimes that role really means having a rotation of characters with various kinds of combat utility, so the role you play is really a role in battle rather than trying the role of a particular character. Often in those cases the player is given a wide range of meaningful options, with many potential effects on the game’s ending, sometimes including different romantic partners. (I’m thinking of Bioware’s Mass Effect and Pillars of Eternity.) In contrast, most JRPGS, including the Final Fantasy series, are about following the perspective of a particular character; that’s role you take on, often combined with combat capabilities of varying utility. Final Fantasy VIII’s Squall does not have a real romantic choice in sense of there being multiple endings depending on relationship decisions, though you might be fooled about that given the early attention paid to Quistis. You would have to ignore an obnoxiously cute ballroom dance — still, the attention is there.

Even as her potential as a genuine romantic option recedes, Quistis remains peculiarly important to that side of the plot. Twice she tells Squall to go get the girl instead of leaving Rinoa behind. Later, in the same idyllic flower fields of the game’s intro, she comments on how Rinoa’s importance has truly cemented for Squall before allowing them some privacy.

QUISTIS: This place is beautiful.
SQUALL: Yeah, the flower field... I forgot all about this place.
QUISTIS: Rinoa forces herself into your world, no matter how many walls you put around yourself, Squall. I knew I couldn't compete with her. The only issue is whether you would make a place for her... And you did, pretty quickly.
RINOA: Who knows...
QUISTIS: You've changed, Squall. It's like Rinoa's the only one on your mind. Good thing this wasn't before the exam. I'll leave you two alone, now.

There’s a deep seated insecurity at the heart of Quistis’s efforts to be something for others. Her persistent appearances in a romantic plot regarding another woman offers certainty to Squall at exactly the moment he needs it and affirmation that this really is a love story — it’s another way of her being a substitute for him. If he can’t find those assurances internally, or if Rinoa Heartilly isn’t there to push his reticent bum off a ledge, she gives assurance to him. History, its cycles, and our power over it are important themes in FFVIII; Quistis doesn’t break the cycle of trying to be what people need. I wonder if anyone ever loved for herself. Her adoption “didn’t work out,” so likely not there, and certainly not with Leonhart. And as I’ve emphasized several times throughout the shrine, it’s striking that she ends up the only single member of the liberi fatali. You might think that she’d have gotten a real love story if she’d just had needs, instead of so devotedly tamping them out in other people, but she did. She approached someone when she was at her lowest for companionship. No dice.

All these little apologies? They’re not just about other people, or rather they’re not just about the needs of other people that she didn’t address. An apology, after all, is primarily about what you’ve done. I think of them as ways of revealing that she’s not quite complete, that she knows she’s not fixed. No one does anything about that, but she will.