From the moment protagonist Squall Leonhart is dragged onto the dance floor by a headstrong girl in the opening hours of Final Fantasy VIII, I knew it was love. I would grow to adore this game and appreciate it despite its flaws, and much of that was because of the central story of Squall and Rinoa. In the 25 years since the game’s release, it has gone through waves of critical re-appraisal, often focused on the game existing in the shadow of its more famous predecessor (the one with the guy with the big sword and a big-budget remake). While it remains an underrated and oft-derided entry in the franchise, Final Fantasy VIII still stands as the best love story in the series.
Moody teenager Squall is a great encapsulation of Final Fantasy VIII as a whole. He’s abrasive on first meeting and it takes time to truly peel back what is going on underneath his exterior. A lot of people don’t like Squall because of his asshole tendencies in the game’s opening hours. If you thought Cloud Strife had a “too cool for school” attitude, then Squall will break your brain in how uncaring he is. His response of choice to any conversation is “Whatever…” But when player’s reach the Balamb Garden graduation party Squall’s persona gets shattered by the simple act of dancing with a pretty girl.
Rinoa, the pretty girl in question, is the complete opposite of Squall: Outgoing and kind. She breaks through Squall’s exterior by dragging him onto the dance floor and forcing him to sway and spin with her. He is terrible at dancing to the point he can’t stop stepping on Rinoa’s feet. The player can’t help but laugh at Squall, seeing for the first time he is nothing but a kid trying to put on a brave face. The graduation party is also one of the best meet cutes in gaming, telegraphing immediately that this is the couple we will watch grow close over the course of the story.
This isn’t the first or last game in the series to have a romance in it. Most Final Fantasy games do. But only a handful of entries have love and romance as the main theme. While Final Fantasy VIII has the expected political intrigue between nations and world-ending magical threats, it is all backdrop for the story of Squall and Rinoa’s relationship. Squall and his party are tasked throughout Final Fantasy VIII with carrying out a series of orders they have little input or knowledge about, they are simply soldiers, and Squall is excellent at applying cold logic to his missions and carrying out objectives with little questioning. Rinoa, again, is his opposite. She’s driven by passion for the cause and maintains a critical eye on those in power. The narrative continues to push the two together, giving Rinoa the role of slowly taking down Squall’s walls. Consequently, this makes Squall change how he thinks about his place in the world.
With the backdrop of nations fighting and a time-traveling sorceress attempting to end the world, Squall and Rinoa grow closer, to the point they eventually come to love each other (even if it is still hard for Squall to understand what these feelings are). But this delicate relationship is threatened when Rinoa must be put in stasis to save the world. She will effectively be dead after this decision. The Squall we know from the start of Final Fantasy VIII would not bat an eye at this decision. There is a cold logic to it that he would understand. But he isn’t that boy anymore.
Rinoa has worked her way under his skin and made him a more caring person—and one who is able to question the orders he follows. He comes to the realization that without people you care about, without Rinoa, without love, there is no point in saving the world. Casting aside the good of the world, he frees Rinoa and takes her in his arms. From this point on the two are able to find a new way to save the world while also saving Rinoa. In a series full of dramatic stories about saving the world from certain death, Final Fantasy VIII’s explicit message that love is the thing that gives us reason for being in the world in the first place makes it an emotional high for the franchise, one that deserves wider recognition.