Rinoa and death

Rinoa is mind controlled. Rinoa does something bad. Rinoa floats through space. Rinoa dies.

You should watch the scene here (turn off the sound, the LPer running the game is a total asshole who ruins it.)

For those who don’t want to spend three minutes getting caught up: Rinoa, arguably the focal character of Final Fantasy VIII, is drifting away from a space station. She is in a suit, but that suit is running out of oxygen. There is an internal monologue that runs. Text boxes appear with internal monologue. “I’m helpless,” she thinks. “That’s it.” “I’m gonna…die.” “Good bye.”

Let me back up: onscreen death in the Final Fantasy series is defined by Aeris’ death in Final Fantasy VII. It is a keystone event in video games, period, and I’m not sure there is anything left to be said about that after Brian Taylor’s “Save Aeris.” In any case, Final Fantasy VIII exists, and was developed in, a post-Aeris world. That world has a particular politics attached to it–Aeris’ death, after all, is a plot engine. It gives the (male) character a reason to struggle on in the world, against all odds, and whatever. If you could hear me reading that last sentence, you would understand how much I’m not into women being refridgerated for the sake of plot.

There are a couple things to note here: First, Rinoa doesn’t die. Second, the scene ends in the most stereotypical “Let me tell you all of my feelings” JRPG way imaginable when the “protagonist” of the game, Squall, shows up and saves her and they declare their eternal love for one another blah blah blah.

There is something to the risk of the scene that I am attracted to. There is something about the aesthetics–Rinoa is reduced to a dot at the bottom of the screen. The infinity of the universe stretches out behind her. It scrolls slowly. Behind this, a counter ticks slowly, breath by breath. Life support runs out. [Life Support Has Terminated]. In this moment, Rinoa knows that she is going to die. The game doesn’t have anymore use for her. She drifts.

In the real game, in the canonical universe, Squall intervenes. Rinoa lives.

But I keep drifting back to a speculation. Rinoa knew what was going to happen. “I’m gonna…die.” “Good bye.” I get stuck here. My lesson comes from holding back time, holding back narrative, preventing the future from happening. If I never touch the X button, if I let the text box hang forever, then Rinoa keeps scrolling. She drifts in space, dying and then dead, without an intervention to save her. I have to press X; I have to extend love, to move time forward, to release her from stasis

My power as a player in a JRPG is to press buttons during cutscenes. Sometimes I press buttons to select from extensive menus during combat. If I don’t press X, the world is paused forever. Rinoa becomes trapped; a real death never comes. Matthew Weise, in his “R.I.P. J-RPG,” writes about the RPG genre in and of itself as “a group of shallow systems arranged in a way that reinforc[es] each other enough to sustain a narrative.” One of these shallow systems is, weirdly, my neurological system; serpentine muscles twitch in my arm, my wrist draws together so slightly, and I tap the X button.

Is there anything more horrifying then that never happening? Something breaks down. Communication lost in biological static. Squall never comes to the rescue. Rinoa drifts forever. This moment, extended for all time based on a total system failure of my body coming into contact with a controller, lingers.

An existential gap widens. The full reality of being yawns in the scrolling stars. The fantastic story of Squall and company saving the universe means nothing against all this backdrop.

There isn’t anything to bring all of these heterogeneous pieces together. Another criticism of Final Fantasy VIII is that it is fragmented, that pieces come out of nowhere to unsettle the plot. Characters appear and disappear. Life appears and flares out.

The game doesn’t run up against anything “profound” when Rinoa’s life support fails. It just reveals; it shows both how powerful and finite the player is in relation to the game. It shows us our existence, a Squall-less existence, where we float forever. Players can be saviors or they can be absent gods, smiling down, watching characters drift forever.

I leave the game running. Rinoa floats through space. Life support failing, forever.


  1. I love this so so much. What a weird and awesome way to look at a dialogue system.

    It makes me want to imagine the JRPG dialogue system as a structure giant cogs that *I* have to turn to keep it moving. Perhaps, if you look at it that way, you can say the JRPG is significantly more involving than other kinds of heavy dialogue, just because it rests on me to keep it going.

  2. There was something that really touched me with this scene. I didn’t expect any sort of emotional reaction while playing but it was at this point that I started to think what Final Fantasy 8 was really about. Something I really hated about 7 was that it told the story of two women patiently nurturing a manchild into a full grown man that can go on to save the world for them. It had a lot of redeeming qualities but for me the answer to why anybody thought Cloud was the appropriate person to be a hero eluded me and made it hard to look at the rest of the story with good eyes.

    Final Fantasy 8, while being deficient in a lot of the departments where 7 excelled, seemed to explore in great detail the nature of the brooding, sophomoric protagonist and their role. One thing I loved about 8 is how honest, hilarious, yet tragic all the scenes between Rinoa and Squall are. They make a great comedy duo, Squall being the comic foil. When I first played FF8, one of my friends was a lot like Squall, incredibly broody, dramatic and self-absorbed. With a few other friends, we could spend a whole evening waiting expectantly for Squall to blurt out another of his priceless bits of nonsense and if we were lucky Rinoa would follow it up with a slap on the back of the neck for comic nirvana.

    However, even through the laughter you can feel Rinoa’s dismay when she is at her wit’s end with Squall’s solipsism and how to get Squall to realize that she needs his support. She doesn’t need his support as a knight in shining armour, as Squall’s title and upbringing would imply and he certainly offers a lot of that, but as a friend and a companion.

    The scene after the life support race is probably the most heartbreaking in the whole story. There they are. Finally safe and going home and Rinoa comes out ith the revelation that she’s a witch. She’s scared and doesn’t know what to do. Squall proceeds to do fuck all. Rinoa leaves to be locked away, still terrified and now totally alone. At this point the rest of their friends exposit on hat a piece of shit Squall is. All Rinoa needed was for him to comfort her and give her strength and he failed completely.

    Ultimately, Squall realizes he has to pick up his broken ass and support Rinoa in her journey whatever it takes and no matter how many times he fails because that’s what you do if you care for somebody.

    That said, I would have appreciated the possibility for an ending where Rinoa and Squall’s bodies die and float in space forever.

  3. Pingback: Rinoa and Death | this cage is worms

  4. I almost don’t want to intrude on Rinoa’s space, but this article has had my brain buzzing. I have encountered this existential crisis in many books, (do I continue creating the characters, plot, the universe by reading?) and whenever I decide not to continue I feel awful, as though I raised something to adolescence for the sake of abandonment. I always apologize.
    Author, you describe a very different emotional response. You don’t approve of women being refrigerated for the sake advancing the protagonist’s motivations, but leave Rinoa freezing…does she become the protagonist?
    My brain has been buzzing with ways to describe this perspective: first person omniscient prescient reconstructive?

    • I have no idea. Video games are weird and they are probably alive.

  5. I’m just going to pop in real quick and say that Pinback’s Byzantine was playing while I experienced that scene in FFVIII (where Rinoa just slowly tumbles in space with some pretty introspective monologue appearing on the screen) and it really enhanced the experience, it was a thing I liked to do anyway ’cause eventhough I love Nobuo Uematsu, I sometimes couldn’t always go through the jarring sounds of the midi BGM, so I’d put together a playlist and play my game along with it. So, somewhere down my recent memory anyway, I found this scene familiar in the most nostalgic sense, though I had just experienced the cutscene for the first time, that time. Like I thought to myself some time doing something unremarkable in some nondescript place thinking about my mortality or something– and this vaguely fit how I wanted to maybe pass on. Wondering to myself and calmly accepting death and waiting for it like you’re underwater, willingly riding the under current who will hand you over on two open palms to a fate that will terminate your physical existence. Something like that. So I found this scene and I was just; well shit I dunno, I was staring, watching, never pressing the x button– I just sat back and wish I had some bud and be in a poignant spell. That was how it went down(I played FFVIII again around a month ago). I actually muted the game in the mixer and played Dark Side of the Moon in a media player off-window another time, for godsake, I was ready for this shit. This was a scene that was special to me, eventhough my personal rapport with it seemed to be a rather morbid one. But I wish I could replay that part everytime(like I don’t have to go through anymore dialogue and running around), and not play the mini-game of catching her in space. Or maybe sure, so I could screw up and read the hilarious text that slaps you, “Hey man, you messed up dawg. Her ass dead in space now. Frever.” Thanks for this article, glad other people found the scene profound, or moving and the like. ‘Cause it really is. It felt incredibly real somehow, like we would ask ourselves the same questions, and even the helplessness in Rinoa’s character at that time spread to me and weakened my own knees. It was amazing I would definitely never forget it, and because of it I look for video games that could possibly recreate or beckon that feeling again. My little Pink Floyd episode with a girl floating in space. Nostalgic.