In many Final Fantasy titles and RPGs in general, the game begins with a foregone conclusion that the two leads will end up romantically involved at some point, and most of the time, they do. Final Fantasy VIII is, of course, no exception as it is actively centered around the theme of love and works to pair its protagonists Squall and Rinoa up almost instantly upon their first meeting. Where it does differ from other titles in the series, though, is in having Rinoa be the pursuer, rather than the pursued. In fact, when they first meet, she spies him from across the room and walks directly up to him without a moment’s hesitation.
While the notoriously broody Squall spends much of the game in his own head, struggling with his issues of masculinity, unwanted leadership, and childhood abandonment, Rinoa works tirelessly to break down his walls and pull him out of his shell. Even though he puts the “ism” in “this is all just a defense mechanism”, and is often short or even rude to Rinoa, she remains undeterred in her quest to get what she wants.
The age-old wisdom that girls mature faster than boys is shown clearly in her demeanor which, despite her often silly sense of humor, is far more wizened and realistic than the character Squall. Having already dealt with romance and longing with Seifer, she sees through Squall’s stoic tough guy routine pretty quickly and calls him out on his bullshit regularly. A great example is when she sets up a thoughtful surprise for him, and he stands brooding near the edge of a small drop, maligned and unresponsive. As he stands with his arms crossed looking off into the distance, Rinoa cheerfully shoves him off the side, forcing him to break his routine in order to catch himself. It’s moments like these that help to define her character and create one of gaming’s most memorable romantic unions in the process.
Hilariously, Final Fantasy VIII also subverts gender stereotypes by having Rinoa be terrible at arts and crafts, most notably in a scene where she has to make a small replica of a train car as a demonstration of her plan to kidnap and interrogate a politician. As she begins explaining her plan, she is constantly interrupted by other characters asking who designed that “ugly” train car, causing her to declare that the poor design is an artistic representation of her hatred for the corrupt president himself. Riiiiiiiight.
Rinoa’s chief role in the narrative, however, is to inspire Squall and show him that there are things worth fighting for in his world. Later in the game, when Rinoa is afflicted by the presence of the sorceress Ultimecia, Squall picks her up and carries her for literally hundreds of miles to the only place she might be cured, the hidden city of Esthar. Having been unfair to her up until that point, it is only when he’s on the cusp of losing her that he realizes how important she is to him. This fact recurs even more as the game edges toward its conclusion, most notably when she drifts off into space and he flings himself into the abyss after her, even though he has no plan at all as to how he will return them both to safety.
What could inspire this kind of loyalty and devotion to another person? Well, Rinoa is just that special kind of being, the type who actively inspires those around her to be better and stronger people. If you’re lucky enough to have met one of these people in your life, it’s easy to understand, and if you’re fortunate enough to have been loved by one, the feeling is magnified in kind.
As a steadfast paragon of unabashed ambition and stubborn resilience, Rinoa Heartilly is a fantastic role model, and a wonderfully realized depiction of a woman in a genre and a medium that has so often lacked such characterizations, particularly at the time of its release.