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.