Final Fantasy VIII and Literary Criticism

RINOA

Note: All quotes from the game taken from Shotgunnova’s Script FAQ.

Warning: This post is going to devote a lot of time to analyzing a theory about Final Fantasy VIII, a game that is now 17 years old, in incredible detail. This is probably going to seem pointless and obsessive, because it is pointless and obsessive, but I’m going ahead with it anyway for two reasons:

  1. I love Final Fantasy VIII. Always have, always will.
  2. The way said theory is typically discussed in FF fandom is to me indicative of a larger issue within the gaming community, which is that– despite the leaps and bounds the medium has made in garnering critical attention– most gamers still have no use for anything that resembles literary criticism. I think that’s a bit of a shame.

To be fair, the main reason gamers have no interest in literary criticism is because most literary criticism, well…sucks. Too much of it is about shoehorning in a political agenda on any and all material within firing range, and even the criticism that’s apolitical tends to be infuriatingly obtuse, using pseudo-intellectual trappings to disguise a chronic lack of content. However, the theory I’m about to discuss, at least to me, demonstrates what can be really good about taking an analytical approach to fiction; in this case you take a somewhat lackluster story, but experiencing it through a new perspective makes it much more nuanced and interesting. What’s not to like about that?

I guess I should put in a major spoiler warning for Final Fantasy VIII before going any further here, but I wonder; what are the chances of anyone who actually needs a spoiler warning for this game reading even this far into this post? Maybe that’s an interesting “if a tree falls in the forest” kind of a question, but I have no time for that now because it’s time to discuss cool Sorceresses who freeze time and shit.

The R=U Theory

The theory I’m discussing is Rinoa=Ultimecia, often shortened to R=U. In this theory, the mysterious villain of the game, Ultimecia, is actually a future version of Rinoa, the game’s heroine. A corollary of this theory, usually discussed in the same breath, is the idea that Griever, the “ultimate GF” the party fights at the end of the game, is actually a future version of Squall. For the purposes of this post, I’m taking both theories together, since they complement each other. While there is no direct evidence in the game to support this, there is a tremendous amount of subtext that seems to imply it– to the point where, if this wasn’t intentional on the part of the developers, you have to wonder how many happy accidents had to occur to make the game read the way it does.

More importantly, when you play the game with the R=U theory in mind, it makes the story significantly better: plot threads that go nowhere on the surface get proper exploration, lines of dialogue that seemed unimportant take on new resonance, and the entire narrative seems to becomes multi-layered in a way the vanilla interpretation of the story just isn’t. I was young when I first played the game, so I didn’t notice all of the hints that led players to develop the R=U theory on my own. However, when I read about the theory years later and then rushed to play the game again, I was blown away by what a difference just considering R=U as a possibility made to the story.

Now, whenever this theory is discussed online, the conversation seems to always get hung up on whether or not the theory can be proven true, which of course it can’t; it’s all about interpreting subtext in a piece of fictional entertainment. The conversation then devolves into arguments like “The game text says that Sorceresses have normal lifespans, so Rinoa can’t be Ultimecia, CHECKMATE!” and “Square said R=U isn’t canon, so it’s not true.”

My problem with arguments like the above isn’t that they’re false; it’s that they’re insanely fucking boring, whereas delving into how R=U affects the story, which I am about to do, is fascinating for a true fan of the game. It’s not about proving true or false, like a mathematical proof: it’s about looking at a piece of fiction, seeing a bunch of pieces click in a way you never noticed, and saying “Wow, how cool is it that these pieces work together this way?”

Basically, I’m going to take a lot of story problems (or shortcomings) in the game and show how playing the game with the possibility of R=U in mind improves upon them.

Final Fantasy VIII Major Story Let Downs (AKA Square Gets Lazy Sometimes)

Who is Ultimecia?

The game’s final boss is something of a cipher; we know that she’s an evil sorceress from the future who wants to do something weird with time, and that’s practically all we know. I remember the Electronic Gaming Monthly review at the time cited the “absentee final boss,” or something to that effect, as one of the game’s few shortcomings. The game itself even calls attention to the fact that there’s no discernible reason for the villain to carry out her plans. From the game’s script:

Doctor Odine: Compressing time with magic…Vat good will it do for ze sorceress to compress time? There may be many reasons, but it doesn’t matter. Let’s just figure out vat Ultimecia is up to.

You have to appreciate the chutzpah on display here. “Ze major villain haz no motivation? Vat does it even matter, because zis iz video game!”

It takes a lot of the impact out of the struggle with Ultimecia that you don’t know what motivates her at all. We can infer from some of her dialogue that she’s bitter and just wants to lash out at the world, but it takes a fair amount of reading between the lines to even glean that much of a motive. You can kind of infer that she was persecuted for being a Sorceress and is now pissed, something something something, freezing time will help somehow.

So basically, in Final Fantasy VIII you fight an evil sorceress because…she is the bad guy doing bad guy things for some reason, and you kill her. Whoopdee-damn-do.

How R=U Fixes It:

Rinoa is the only character who expresses a clear motivation for manipulating time. After she inherits the sorceress power and realizes the corrupting potential of said power makes her a danger to the world, she says the following to Squall:

Rinoa: I don’t want the future. I want the present to stand still. I want to stay here with you…”

If you believe that Ultimecia is a future version of Rinoa (who has been warped beyond recognition by the sorceress power, as she fears), then not only does the villain suddenly have a motivation, but a beautifully ironic one. It’s the love she feels for Squall– the love that is unequivocally the game’s theme– that becomes the evil obsession you must overcome. The details of exactly how the time compression is supposed to work for Ultimecia are still a little fuzzy– does she want to freeze time at the point where Squall and her younger self had just fallen in love (which is effectively what happens, if you think about it) but is somewhat at odds with how time compression supposedly works? Or has the sorceress, her memory addled by time and magic (more on that later), retained her obsession with stopping time, but can no longer remember the reason?

Either way, it’s a much more interesting motivation for the villain of the piece than “She’s doing it because…well, who cares, we just need to kill her.”

Side Note: R=U also explains why Ultimecia’s castle is located on the site of the orphanage where Squall grew up, which is where Rinoa and Squall promised they’d meet in the future. Otherwise, there’s no reason why it’s located there– unless everything in the game just has to come back to that damn orphanage…oh God, forget I said anything.

What is Griever?

Griever, the mythical beast that adorns Squall’s ring, is another part of the story that’s underdeveloped. We’re told that it’s a GF (Guardian Force) that’s looks like a lion, and that Squall thinks it looks cool, hence the ring. Rinoa points out that Squall is kind of like a lion himself. When he gives her the ring, she says “Maybe I can become like a lion too.”

The problem is, we never get Griever’s story– beyond “it’s a lion.” We don’t even get some weak-sauce flavor text in the game’s glossary. Is it a mythical GF from a fairytale? Is it a real GF the party just never finds? Is it something Squall made up as a child, and it’s actually just a ring with a lion-ish design on it? This wouldn’t matter, except at the end of the game when you actually fight Griever, you have no idea what you’re even fighting. If you scan the beast, the text helpfully tells you that Griever is “from Squall’s mind,” but considering that we don’t really know why Griever means anything to Squall in the first place, that doesn’t help much. Basically, the penultimate boss is as much of a non-entity to the player as Ultimecia herself is.

How R=U Fixes It:

Going too deeply into the question of how Squall could have become Griever is probably taking us too far into fanfiction realm, but to me, the intuitive explanation is that all that’s left of Squall’s soul by the time of Ultimecia’s distant future remains in Griever. (This idea is similar to how Square would later develop the concept of fayth whose souls become aeons in Final Fantasy X, but I digress.) The idea that the only way Rinoa could keep Squall alive is as a monster, yet their love still exists in some twisted form, adds a poignancy to the revelation of Griever that doesn’t exist otherwise. It’s also worth noting that this interpretation is not at all at odds with the game’s explanation that Griever comes “from Squall’s mind.”

Then there’s the next phase of the battle, where Ultimecia and Griever “junction,” or join together; if the two are/were lovers, it doesn’t take a Freudian to see some sexual symbolism there. It seems that Rinoa did get to become “like a lion” after all, but perhaps not in the way she wanted.

Also, considering the time-loopy nature of the entire story, it’s possible that Griever was ALWAYS Squall– that Squall took as his signet a mythical beast that he was always destined to become. Once time compression happens, all bets are off as to where things are placed in time, so Squall could have known about Griever before Ultimecia made him (albeit not knowing the whole story.) This gets even more interesting when you consider the fact that Squall’s whole character exists in a stable time loop– and that’s canonical. Squall is the legendary SeeD who is going to defeat Ultimecia…because he came back from the future after defeating Ultiimecia and told Edea what happened. Then Edea takes care of young Squall at the orphanage, grooming him to become a warrior, rinse and repeat.

I don’t know; maybe I just love Squall, so the idea of him being in the center of overlapping time loops appeals to me. Still, even if you don’t share my love for the Lionhearted one, Griever being Squall is definitely more interesting than Griever just being some creature that we never get any backstory on whatsoever.

Oh, and the name of the song that plays when Squall fights Griever? “Maybe I’m a Lion.” Subtextual cue +10.

What Is The Sorceress’ Knight?

Considering the fact that he’s the third lead after Squall and Rinoa, Seifer’s whole character arc kind of fizzles into nothing. He wants to fulfill his dream of becoming the Sorceress’ Knight, a heroic figure, but actually becomes something of a joke as the story goes on. By the end, Squall is literally face-palming at Seifer’s pretensions. Was the whole point of Seifer just to be a cruel joke? And what’s the significance of the whole idea of a Sorceress’ Knight, if Seifer is more of a sad flunky?

But wait! Fortunately, Seifer is not the only character who makes mention of this Knight concept. Soon after Rinoa becomes a Sorceress, Rinoa and Squall have the following conversation:

Rinoa: But Edea’s still….I can’t guarantee anything, either, if Ultimecia possesses me again…you saw me. She controlled me in outer space and made me break Adel’s seal. What might happen next time? What will I end up doing? Will I end up fighting everyone?…Scary thought, isn’t it?

Squall: (Rinoa…..Even if you end up as the world’s enemy, I’ll…I’ll be your knight.)

Rinoa: If I fall under Ultimecia’s control again…SeeD will come kill me, right? And the leader of SeeD is you, Squall…Squall’s sword will pierce my heart….I guess it’s ok if it’s you, Squall. Nobody else. Squall, if that ever happens….

Squall: That’s enough! I’ll never do anything like that….

A defiant Squall as the Sorceress Knight, protecting the woman he loves against the entire world? Now we’re talking! Except…nothing comes of it. Rinoa isn’t the world’s enemy, she’s one of the good guys, and Squall never needs to put his money where his mouth is after this conversation. So the only Sorceress Knight we’re left with in the end is Seifer, who is just kind of pathetic.

How R=U Fixes It:

What’s really great about the theory in this instance is that it makes it so that BOTH scenarios that Rinoa and Squall are talking about in their important conversation come true, while in the vanilla interpretation, neither of them do. Squall is both the Sorceress Knight who protects his love against the entire world (in the form of Griever), and the heroic warrior whose sword pierces the heart of a Rinoa-turned-evil. It also shows you what it really means to be the Sorceress’ Knight; Griever fights for Ultimecia, when what she wants is to wipe out all of existence, including everything else he’s ever loved. Now that’s loyalty.

It also more fully fleshes out the contrast between Squall and Seifer’s characters, which the vanilla story touches on but never really does much with. Squall and Seifer are supposed to be mirrors of each other (hence their Triple Triad cards, a rare case of the game’s mechanics actually backing up the story rather than fighting with it), except this isn’t developed very far. However, if they both embody the role of the Sorceress’ Knight, in very different ways, the relationship between their characters becomes better defined; Seifer is the wanna-be Knight, and Squall is the real deal– even though what it means to really be the Sorceress’ Knight is tragic. Seifer’s pretensions to grandeur leading him to become a megalomaniac’s puppet is one kind of tragedy, while Squall’s genuine devotion to Rinoa begets tragedy on a totally different scale.

GFs and Memory Loss

One of the most heavily criticized parts of the game is the “orphanage scene”, where it’s revealed that all the main characters, sans Rinoa, all grew up in the same orphanage, but using magic through junctioning with Guardian Forces made them lose their memories. I’m not going to go into the merits of this plot twist on it’s own, since it’s tangential, but it does seem to be ominous foreshadowing for something that never happens.

Once the crew is freaked out by realizing how much the GFs made them forget, they decide to start keeping diaries so they won’t forget anything important. And apparently it works like a charm, since as far as we know, no one has any major memory problems ever again. This isn’t a plot hole so much as a case of squandered potential: why make such a big deal out of the GF=memory loss plot point if it’s never important again after one scene? It’s poor writing.

How R=U Fixes It:

In this scenario, we see the true danger of losing memories due to making arcane pacts with magical beings*: Rinoa wants to freeze time so she can be with Squall, except she forgets her motivation, and ends up nearly killing the man she loves in the process of trying to be with him. Suddenly, the whole “Wah, the GF made me forget stuff!” plot seems a bit more urgent. At the very least, it comes full circle instead of just ceasing to matter after the orphanage revelation.

This also adds resonance to Ultimecia’s final words, where it seems like she’s starting to remember something, but it’s never clear exactly what; at the very least, her demeanor changes notably as she’s defeated:

Ultimecia: Reflect on your…Childhood…

Your sensation…your words….your emotions…

Time…it will not wait…

No matter…how hard you hold on. It escapes you…

And…

To be fair, I would find this a moving sendoff,  even without the R=U theory. But, taken in the context of the conversation Rinoa and Squall have about their respective childhoods, the idea that Rinoa was trying to hold onto Squall and failed, only managing to keep a monstrous perversion of him, and the teasing final “And…”, it seems like Ultimecia may be remembering who she really is in her final moments.

A Quick Note On Death Of The Author

All this is very nice, but I do have to address the fact that the creators went out of their way to say that R=U wasn’t their intention, because for some people, that’s the end of the discussion right there. For me though, it’s kind of like this:

Me: Hmm, so there’s the standard version of this story that’s kind of dull, and an alternate reading that’s interesting, and much more bittersweet. Well, it’s a work of art and open to interpretation, so I guess I can just choose to believe–

Square: ATTENTION: The sucky version of the story is the real version, because we are God and we said so! Repeat, the sucky version is legit, ANY SEMBLANCE OF ADDITIONAL DEPTH TO THE STORY IS NOT ALLOWED!

Me:…Why can’t I have nice things?

Like literary criticism in general, a lot of Death-of-the-Author theories are crap; totally bonkers, nonsensical theories that people believe deserve respect outside of their own feverish headcanon simply because Death of the Author exists as a concept. However, because of stupidity like Square going out of their way to quash a viable alternate interpretation of their story (why?) , I’m glad Death of the Author is a thing and I can just say that I don’t particularly care what Square has to say here.

Besides, I’m not even sure Square knows what their games are supposed to be about half the time. I don’t want to get into conspiracy-theory territory obviously, but let’s just say I wouldn’t be surprised if sometimes different members of the development team aren’t all on the same page, and they kind of figure out as they’re going along what the story’s going to be. Furthermore, based on some of the dialogue in Dissidia, sometimes I have my doubts that the current Square Enix even remembers what their games were about….

…Sorry, do I sound bitter? I have no idea why, cough AdventChildrenCompilationofFFVIINovaChrysaliswhateverthefuck cough.

Debunking the Debunkers

As I said before, arguing over whether or not the theory can be conclusively proven is a pointless distraction, because who cares? (says the girl who just wrote a 3000 word blog post about an old RPG). However, just because the main argument that supposedly disproves the theory is so lame, I thought I’d play devil’s advocate and show why I don’t find it convincing.

Here’s the argument: It’s said in the game’s glossary, and implied by circumstances, that the Sorceresses in FFVIII have only normal human lifespans, despite their powers. Rinoa is from the game’s present and Ultimecia is stated to be from the far future; therefore, Rinoa cannot be Ultimecia, because she couldn’t have lived that long.

My counter is that the game’s glossary also speculates that the Sorceress power is split between the number of Sorceresses currently alive. It’s believed that while there can be multiple Sorceresses, the actual amount of power is finite. However, after the death of Adel late in the game, Rinoa is the only living Sorceress, i.e. has all of the Sorceress power that exists (and we know she’s the only living Sorceress because Dr. Odine, the world expert on Sorceresses, explicitly tells us that Rinoa and Adel were the only two left). Now, if Sorceresses are supposedly so powerful, and Rinoa has ALL of the Sorceress power that exists (for all we know, the first time this situation has occurred), who’s to say what she can and can’t do?

Furthermore, if you don’t find that counterargument convincing, how about this: not only does sophisticated cryogenic freezing exist in the world of FFVIII, a sorceress is actually frozen in time as a part of the plot. That’s not theory, that’s not fanfiction, that is the plot of the game.

So to me, saying “Rinoa can’t be Ultimecia because Ultimecia is from DA FUTURE!” in a game all about time travel, that explicitly uses cryogenic freezing anyway…seems like a really weak basis to outright reject everything I’ve detailed above.

R=U can’t be proven, especially because a lot of the information about Sorceresses in the game is presented as speculative; no one in the world of FFVIII is sure how Sorceresses powers work, including the Sorceresses themselves. But if you don’t like the theory, or just don’t want the story of FFVIII complicated by any of this stuff, it’s sufficient to say that the theory cannot be proven; there is no silver bullet that makes all of the oodles of subtext that make R=U such an interesting theory disappear.

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So, where does this mountain of text leave us? If you’ve gotten this far, I will leave you with this:

  1. Looking for alternate story interpretations in text is sometimes really fun, even if the text happens to be a videogame.
  2. Don’t be a party-pooper and disallow alternate interpretations because it’s “just a videogame;” yes, it is just a videogame, and videogames have stories.

*I should note that as a Sorceress, Rinoa shouldn’t have to junction with a GF to use magic, but the whole game is really inconsistent about that. After all, if you take the battle system into account, the most powerful Sorceress in the whole game is actually Selphie, of all people…

10 thoughts on “Final Fantasy VIII and Literary Criticism”

  1. Wow I never thought about it this way before; everything in the game gels together more cohesively when put forward with the observations you brought up. I think Square denied the possibility of R=U because they don’t wanna give fans hope of a sequel. They probably went through development hell, barely managing to even get the game to completion at all, and don’t wanna solidify any theories that will prompt fans to beg them for years to remake or add more to the lore like they had to with FF VII. That’s just my take on why they refuse to acknowledge the validity of the theory but we’ll never know why other than they want fans to continue doing open interpretations instead of stopping speculation on it altogether, among other reasons. But your analysis is spot on, so thank you very much for sharing this. Although I do hope someday it’s remastered, better yet remade, since a lot of stuff in the game needs adjustment. Also…about the end of the game, why was Squall stuck in what looked like the space between the present time and future, why only him, only then to return at the end of the game to his time to Rinoa? could that also be an allusion to him being Griever since he’d have had to traverse time to be alive and still be with Ultimecia, who is believed to be Rinoa?

  2. My take on the ending is that Squall has a crisis of faith. With time compression, it seems to be mind over matter– “believe in your friends’ existence and they’ll believe in yours,” etc. I think Squall was afraid he would end up alone, that no one believed in him, so his reality started to reflect that. He needed Rinoa to come and prove that he wasn’t alone. He had to accept the fact that he needed someone else to come back to reality.

    So I’ve never seen much of an R=U connection with the ending sequence. That said, I think it’s deliberately vague, so there are a lot of ways you can interpret it.

  3. Really fascinating stuff, I’d never heard of this theory before. Coincidentally I’ve just started playing through VIII again (Parasite Eve whet my appetite for more PS1 Square) so I’m keeping the theory in my head as I go to see what I think. So far the game in general has been very enjoyable. I know a lot of people grumble about this game’s “emo-factor” and I was worried it was going to bother me, but it hasn’t. Suspect that has to do with the other pleasant surprise, which is how lean the game is text-wise.

    1. I’ve never really understood the “emo” criticism. Doesn’t emo refer to people who don’t have real problems, but act like total drama queens about the limited problems they do have? Squall in FF8 has legitimate reasons for his psychological issues, and he doesn’t whine. Oh well.

  4. Yooooo, you make me want to get this game (PS1 copy) for my PS2 again. I was either debating either this or Vagrant Story, then I remember the grind the latter put me through & the memory block space (3 blocks) it took (but damn, I loved Ashley & Merlose). Even the NG+ function didn’t make me want to replay it so much.

    I actually liked FFVIII more than FFVII. IX is my personal favorite, but damn, I had Squall & Irvine figures back in the day. The ending sequence made me think about kids using phones today to record party moments.

    I watched an FFVIII speedrun and I started to remember all the conversations about the time compression stuff and it made my head hurt. But I just loved how modern everything was about the game, even moreso than FFVII.

    By the way, have you read everything at http://squallsdead.com/? It’s insane that there are theories about VIII again.

    1. I had heard of the Squall is Dead theory but hadn’t looked at the site. Having seen it, the theory is more credible than I had thought 0__o. I mean, I don’t think it was intentional on the part of the creators at all, but if you’re looking at it as a way to explain some of the game’s bizarre writing choices, it works surprisingly well.

      But ah man, choosing between Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy VIII? That’s like choosing between chocolate and peanut butter; why just choose one?

      I’ve been conflicted about whether I like FFVII or FFVIII better, since I kind of feel like FFVII is more important, for lack of a better term, but FFVIII is more fun for me to play personally. Grrr arrrgh can’t decide….

      1. I think of FFVIII as a FFIV type of story. It was trying to do what FFIV did at its time and that was to create a more mature & realistic story, more so than VII. In a sense, FFVII was FF1 (a solid intro to RPGs), FFVIII was FFIV (tried to go beyond regular RPG conventions), and FFIX was FFVI (pinnacle of all the experiences learned over time) during the PS1-era of FFs.

        Well, choosing between the 2 isn’t so bad when you think about it. I guess I’m trying to find a nice balance of games that I know I’ll be willing to play years from now. I just bought Chrono Cross & FFIX (PS1 copies) because watching speedruns brought me back and made me wonder why I sold them back when I was a young adult. Those 2 RPGs are my personal favorites.

        I love Vagrant Story, but I’m not sure I want to die so many times like I did when I first played. and the weapon customization aspect takes a bunch of time to get into. The replay value is a bit high because of NG+ & how you can just keep leveling up as much you like. Someone mentioned how Vagrant Story was basically “baby Dark Souls” and it was.

        I played through games to the point that I’ll just use speedrun strats to plow through everything without spending 60-80 hours. I feel like making a blog post somewhere about speedrunning & its rise among the video game public at some point because it made me think about the true golden ages of gaming, which were the SNES-PS1 eras.

        1. Yeah I think of the mid-to-late ’90s as the golden age of gaming as well, but that’s when I first got a home console and really got to spend time playing, so I’m biased. At times I’m tempted to apply somewhere to try to write about games professionally, but I don’t think it would work because I almost never want to write about today’s games; I’m always writing about something from at least 15 years ago.

          Speaking of which, I really did not like FFIX back in the day; didn’t even continue after Disc 1. Now, I wonder how much of that was me really disliking the game, and how much it wasn’t what I wanted at the time, which was something more like VIII, and IX is NOTHING like FFVIII. One of these days I have to make good on my ongoing threat to revisit that game.

          Chrono Cross is another one I tried but didn’t get into at the time of its release. Tempted to go back and try it again now, because I remember the battle system being intriguing…it might have just plain been too complex for me at the time.

  5. About the life time problem for the R=U theory given that ultimecia is more mature could that be because it took renoah time to gain the power to warp time and that being said it shouldn’t be impossible for her at that point to stop time thus giving herself an indefinite life time , what brings me to this point is the fact that the castle Ultimecia resides in seems frozen in a moment in time as well in the hidden Omega boss battle puzzle there was one I could never solve because it required understanding of Latin hence lithos ect anyway it seemed to revolve around the garden scene in the orphanage where Squall and Rinoah made Thier promise, did any of you every solve that puzzle?

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