Romance Evolved: An Exploration of Romance in Final Fantasy VIII and Lunar
The text below is the transcript of a talk I gave at the PCA / ACA National Conference 2011, held from April 19th 2011 to April 23rd 2011, in San Antonio’s Mariott Rivercenter, San Antonio, TX. It was presented as part of a panel on romance across genres. It is a very condensed and, due to time restrictions, incomplete version of the draft of an article titled “Romance Evolved: An Exploration of Romance in the Videogame Medium” that I am working on with Fanny Ramirez (UTA) for an upcoming special issue of the Journal of Popular Culture.
There is also an accompanying slideshow here: Romance Presentation
When we hear the term “romance” the first texts that come to mind are Shakespearean tragedies, medieval “hero quests”, and French romances; and while most of us would not hesitate to engage in closed readings of any of the aforementioned types of texts, few would consider doing the same on a videogame, a kind of text commonly considered “a child’s toy”.
Yet perhaps we should.
In this paper I will discuss how interactive narratives as represented in the videogame medium fall under the romance paradigm and how the unique qualities of the medium can help the genre, and perhaps the scholarship, of romance, evolve.
Why should we be bothered with looking at interactive narratives through literary lenses? Alison Light, a researcher atSussexUniversity, reminds us that we need critical discussions that are not a devoid of the fact that literature is a source of pleasure, passion and entertainment, and both romances and interactive narratives seem to fulfill this role of the pleasure giver.
But what is romance anyway? As it is used today, romance refers to a particular type of fiction: the love story. However, that story must be bound by certain parameters. In her book Romance Fiction: A Guide to the Genre, Kristin Ramsdel suggests that “while the narrative can include elements such as mysteries to be solved, career goals to be attained, or social successes to be achieved, the focus of the plot should be the relationship between the two main characters” (4). In other words, romances can have elements that are tangential to the development of the love story, but the main focus of the narrative should be the love story itself. Furthermore, these narratives need to conform to an outcome that includes a committed relationship and where the protagonists are honorable and engaged in monogamous relationships. A final element needed, according to Ramsdel, is a quest through which the protagonist, or hero, proves his love for the heroine.
Benjamin La Farge, a professor in Bard College, explains how “in romances, the hero – who is invested with a mission – is superior in degree both to other men and to his environment, and because he moves in a world where the ordinary laws of nature are slightly suspended he is naturally capable of prodigious feats of courage” (24). However, he also enjoys the benefit of talismans and enchanted weapons. He also identifies as characteristic of secular romance, that the narrative following the protagonist as he tries to win the love of the heroine should take place in a vast space where a landscape or ocean separates the hero from the safe, familiar world, and where, in addition to human opponents, he must overcome natural obstacles like typhoons, impenetrable jungles, and insurmountable mountains. One consequence of this vast geographical space is that the action is characteristically episodic and often seems to be never-ending.
All of these elements of romance narratives are also shared by many interactive narratives. Most interactive narratives feature a hero who is often an extraordinary, yet mortal, human who is torn from his familiar space and thrust into a large, hostile environments full of challenges. As the hero wonders a vast space acquiring enchanted artifacts that aid him in his quest to win the love of the heroine, he is faced with several obstacles, both human and natural.
Eric Selinger, a professor of English atDePaulUniversity, narrows down the narrative elements of the romance to eight characteristics:
A definition of society that is always corrupt, and that the romance novel will reform
The meeting between the heroine and hero
An account of their attraction for each other
The barrier between them
The point of ritual death, which he explains as a moment where “no happy resolution of the narrative seems possible”
The recognition that fells the barrier
The declaration of heroine and hero that they love each other
And their engagement (14)
John Whitman stressed that in some respects these initial points of reference in a romance narrative are already in medias res, as is the case with the two titles that we will be focusing on: Final Fantasy and Lunar.
FINAL FANTASY VIII
Janet Perez, a professor at TexasTechUniversity, comments that the romantic structure focuses on the episodic narrative of a fatherless adolescent anti hero who leaves home (429). In his travels he serves several masters and lives in impoverished conditions, encounters ruffians, rouges, and rascals in random battles, looses his innocence, and temporarily becomes a man of property while reaching adulthood. This is what we see in the narrative of Final Fantasy VIII where Squall, an arrogant and mysterious young man with little regard for authority, and a certain level of distaste for social institutions, finds himself exiled from his home. During his travels, Squall acquires knowledge and experience while at the same time fostering his relationship with the text’s heroine, Rinoa. Although Squall does not possess any special ability beyond an average skill with a weapon, he finds that he is favored by the Guardian Forces of the world – entities that empower him and enable him to complete his quest and prove his love for Rinoa. La Farge explains that the motif of the transcendental power that aids the hero in the romantic quest can be traced back to Thomas Malory’s The Death of Arthur, where the young Arthur is elevated to his rightful inheritance as heir to the throne when he is mysteriously aided by Merlin to pull the sword from the stone (20).
One of the more interesting ways in which Final Fantasy VIII adheres to the romance paradigms is by using an interlaced narrative strategy that Whitman calls “entrelacement”. Whitman mentions that although entrelacement takes a variety of forms, it normally involves at least two basic features. The first characteristic can be observable when the text interweaves two or more narrative strands (133). This practice of “polyphonic narrative”, as Whitman calls it, where the focus of the narrative shifts back and forth from one character and topic to another, is one that can be found not only in the Final Fantasy titles, which simultaneously present the narrative strands of the hero, the heroine, and the antagonist, but in many other interactive narratives as well. But more interestingly, Final Fantasy VIII flawlessly integrates the second feature of entrelaced narratives, which Whitman explains is “the reshaping of conventional chronological sequence in a narrative, as the story turns back and forth in time.” Whitman’s example of Cheretien de Troyes’ The Knight with the White Lion, where there is a textual progression in the narrative of events and a temporal regression as one of the character relates a story of war and lost love that takes place 11 years previous, is echoed in the stories of Squall and Laguna.
Although the textual progression in Final Fantasy VIII focuses on Squall as he travels the world and proves his love for Rinoa, the text invites the reader into a temporal regression where they are made aware of the events that took place 18 years previous by narrating the events of a time past– a past story of war and lost love. The main focus of the overall narrative of Final Fantasy VIII is on Squall, which represents the textual progression of the present, and on Laguna, which represents the temporal regression to the past. This allows the narrative to echo events that have already taken place in events that are yet to happen, and allow the reader to anticipate how similar circumstances have the potential of changing. Whitman argues that the back-and-forth movements of the medieval romance dramatize the very process of thinking, by which the revolving of the mind turns a past toward a future (134).
Perez has mentioned how, in romances, the quest cycle, like the life cycle, is perpetually repeated; heroes enjoy their laurels only briefly before being replaced by the heroes of a new generation (433). This is something that we see in various interactive narratives, but is especially prominent in Lunar. Just as Whitman suggests that romances do, the story that takes place in the world of Lunar begins in medias res. The story is narrated from the first person perspective of the hero, Alex, who spends his days dreaming about the grandiose adventures of his hero, Dyne. However, fifteen years before the narrative even begins, Dyne, the hero of the previous generation, had proven his devotion, love, and loyalty to Althena, the previous generation’s heroine, by engaging in tremendous feats and overcoming challenges. Just as Perez suggests is part of the romance tradition, Dyne enjoys his victory only until the narrative shifts focus on Alex.
This new hero, Alex, fits the archetype of the protagonists from seventeenth century French romances. A child who is exiled from his quiet, familiar town by the same looming evil that Dyne had to overcome in the previous generation, Alex embarks on a series of ordeals that lead to personal growth. As he overcomes obstacles set by a clearly defined “evil”, Alex is joined by companions who help him accomplish the ultimate goal of overcoming adversity and proving his love for the heroine. Thomas Pavel, a professor of comparative literature atPrinceton, argues that companions who gravitate towards the hero and help him on his quest make the previously hostile and unknown world in which the romance is set seem adventurous and magically familiar. Once Alex manages to break the final barrier and struggle beyond the point of ritual death, he returns home a hero and enjoys a long life in the company of Luna, his one true love. However, Alex enjoys his victory only until the narrative continues by focusing on Hiro, another dreamer who is joined by a cast of characters and sets out on a quest to prove his love for Lucia.
Other elements of the romance as identified by Perez, namely allusions to knighthood and questing, as well as the mirroring of the saintly and libertine identities, are present in the narrative. The picaresque and chivalric motifs used in the text and that are interlaced with the author’s pointed reference to the moon’s importance reinforce the hypothesis that Lunar constitutes a variant of what Perez calls a “feminized quest romance”.
Now that we have seen that interactive narratives can conform to the paradigms set by traditional romances, let’s consider how the videogame medium can “evolve” romance.
La Farge explains how the focus of secular romance is the hero, who embodies the reader’s wish and carries it to a triumphant conclusion. Typically, his adventure takes him on a journey from the world of familiar reality into another realm, where the difference between good and evil is clearly defined. The journey that the hero must undertake subjects him to a series of dangerous encounters from which he emerges triumphant as he attempts to prove his love for the heroine.
This is a textbook definition of the kind of interactive narratives that we have considered today. The focus of these narratives are the characters – Squall and Alex – both of whom are ripped from their world of familiarity – The Garden and Burg respectively – and thrust into the large, open worlds of Balamb and Lunar. The way that the medium “evolves” the narrative is by allowing the reader control of the character, not only at a surface level, but also by allowing the reader to make active choices that have a direct effect on the way that the narrative unfolds.
Ramsdel explains how “a romance must attempt to engage the reader” and “should have some quality that allows, almost demands, a certain emotional involvement on the part of the reader” (4). This is something that interactive narratives excel at doing. Interactive narratives engage readers through immersion. As opposed to traditional media, which present the readers with a linear story set in a fictional world, interactive narratives tend to present the reader with a world filled with characters in which the story takes place. This is an important difference. Although the focus of both of these types of texts is the narrative, allowing the reader to interact with the world directly, as opposed to interacting with the world only through the lens of the narrative, an additional layer of engagement is added to the reader’s experience.
This effect is furthered when the reader realizes that in interactive narratives the protagonists only have a limited preformed identity, as their actions and choices are directed not by the author, but by the reader. Interactive narratives let the reader decides how to engage with the text, not only through the quest and challenges presented, but also through personal decisions on how the reader interacts with different characters. By allowing this, the protagonist transcends the role of a character that embodies the reader’s wish and becomes the avatar of the reader: the hero is no longer an outside entity as much as a representation of the self. In a very real sense, the hero stops being an external persona and becomes an extension of the reader. The protagonist – the reader’s extended self in the story world – is the tool through which the reader not only learns about the world, but also experiences it. Interactive narratives thus let the readers become an active part of the narrative – the world becomes a space to be explored by the reader, and the story a “divinely inspired motif” to be discovered. By being immersed in the world through an extension of self, and by being exposed to an evolving narrative, the reader becomes actively engaged with the text. Giving readers a world to interact with and an evolving narrative that takes into account reader choice, as opposed to a set linear narrative, interactive narratives allow for a higher level of engagement than possible with traditional print media.
In addition to this layer of engagement to narratives added by open worlds and extended identities, interactive narratives allow even further immersion by allowing choice. In most interactive narratives, the reader is allowed a certain degree of freedom of choice. The reader is not only navigating the extended self through a narrative, but actively participating in the creation and evolution of the narrative by making choices that affect the outcome. Whether readers are making the choice of what characters to take as companions as they engage in seemingly impossible quests to prove their love for their lover, how to tackle the challenges presented in the quest, or which lover to settle down with, the fact remains that these choices create a highly personal level of reader investment.
With the evolution of technology, new ways of telling stories are starting to arise. From digital versions of classical texts to new, original interactive narratives, these stories are expanding previously existing genres, as well as creating new ones. As academics, we should not turn away from these new texts, but embrace them. This is a especially exciting concept for those of us interested in romance, as this concept of the love story, as we have seen, transcends media and evolve with culture. By understanding how these texts adopt already existing elements of established narratives and adapt them to fit the paradigms of newly created media we might be able to earn a clearer insight into the workings of today’s popular culture.
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Posted on April 21, 2011, in Literature Commentary, Video Game Commentary and tagged final fantasy viii, lunar eternal blue romance, Romance, romance and games, romance and videogames, romance final fantasy 8, romance final fantasy viii, romance lunar, romance scholarship, videogame criticism. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.