Rinoa is Ultimecia. One of the most intriguing and almost certainly incorrect theories ever to orbit the critical space around Final Fantasy VIII. A way for fans to fill a perceived void in the narrative; a thematically-appropriate twist that never was; a testament to the power of character and world-building. Tens of thousands of words on forums, fan sites, Reddit threads, arguing back and forth about the story and philosophical ramifications of a fictional character’s mysterious origins. Two decades on, and the topic still reappears on occasion, in the form of blog posts or fan questions to the creators.
Here’s the theory: Ultimecia, the evil witch from the future who seeks the end of all time and space, is actually an older version of Rinoa Heartilly, newly minted sorceress and eternal lover of everything Squall. Some time after the events of the game, Squall is lost—either in some traumatic event or simply due to the passage of time—and Rinoa is left alone in a cold, unfeeling world without friends, or love, or that dog she can shoot out of her arm. She withdraws, and the sorceress powers inside her begin to corrupt her mind and body; during this process, she stumbles upon the idea of time travel, having been exposed to it earlier in her life. If she can travel through time, or make time travel through her, she can reunite with her lost love. But her mind is too far gone, her memories fade, and as the forces of the world converge on her castle, hell-bent on stopping the evil sorceress from destroying all of reality, she no longer remembers who Squall is. Her only thoughts are completing her work and punishing those who persecuted her; when her love shows up at the doorstep, she sees only an enemy to be crushed. Instead, she dies, and the young Rinoa idles in ignorance, waiting for her chance to become the villain all over again.
Hold on, there’s evidence! Oh boy, is there ever some evidence. But, like most analysis of Final Fantasy VIII, you need a bit of digging and seven solid levels of context. First you need to look at the game’s ending cinematic, which is an entirely bonkers series of images and imagery that blasts across the screen after the heroes defeat Ultimecia, which itself happens after all time and space has been compressed into a one-dimensional data point. Scenes from other parts of the game appear, reappear, melt and glitch as reality twists; Squall wanders a wasteland, sits atop a rock that floats within an endless void, and ever-so-briefly has a horrific circular abyss where his face should be. Don’t get distracted, though, we’re actually here for the shots of Rinoa, which are terrifying nightmares, but also briefly merge and swap places with the very similar face of Ultimecia. Not convincing enough for you? How about the fact that of all the sorceresses, only Ultimecia and Rinoa have wings—black and white, respectively. In one pivotal scene, Squall gives Rinoa his precious lion ring as a token, later telling her its name and allowing her to keep it. It’s very romantic, but this named ring (or the matching pendant, still worn by Squall) features later when Ultimecia herself summons a Guardian Force (FFVIII‘s version of summons) that resembles a lion and has the name Squall told Rinoa earlier in the story. The sorceress claims to have created it from Squall’s thoughts, but theory proponents would argue that it represents Rinoa’s remaining desire to be protected by Squall, locked away in the mind of a deranged witch. Ultimecia later merges with the beast, which is extremely sexual whether you subscribe to the Rinoa theory or not.
Just as your rational mind begins to debunk these ideas, you start to catch other curious things in the corner of your vision. After Squall rescues Rinoa from certain death in the coldness of space (goodness, this game is strange) they have a romantic chat in which Rinoa expresses a desire for time itself to stop forever. Which is kind of odd. Definitely not a smoking gun—or even a gun at all—but enough to make you wonder. And Final Fantasy VIII is all about repetition, loops, historical events repeating themselves, characters inadvertently creating themselves. It would make perfect sense to manufacture a villain that turns out to be a fractured shadow of not just one of the main characters, but the pure and innocent love interest.
There’s a seductive power to a theory as good and thematically-appropriate as the idea of Rinoa as Ultimecia. Whether or not Mew is hiding under a truck on the docks of Pokemon Blue and Red sparks an exciting moment, but it’s a binary one: true or false. The origins of Ultimecia are blurry and vague, her impact on the story goes mostly unnoticed until the third act, and her effect on the world is quite literally astronomical. As players, we want to know more, and the deliberately distant storytelling of FFVIII keeps the knowledge just out of reach. The purpose of theorising and discussion quickly shifts from “is this true?” to “what would it mean if it were?”
The peculiar thing about it all is the truth doesn’t matter. Final Fantasy VIII is a sly box of tricks, full of hidden fathers, time travel, amnesia, unspoken feelings and secret hot dogs. It’s a game where the most compelling (and also probably false) theory surrounding the story is that the main character died on the first disc and had a death bed dream about falling in love with a pretty girl. And if you’ve played the game you think to yourself “sure, that could be true,” because you just finished the scene where your secret father fights a dragon while filming the movie that will eventually inspire your high school rival to join an evil sorceress’ plan to subjugate an entire continent. Sure, maybe you are dead. Maybe the girl you’re in love with loses her mind in the face of your death, scrawls paint on her face, murders tens of thousands of people and builds a castle inside a black hole.
Even if you accept that it isn’t true, which it isn’t, the ramifications of the idea are perfectly in line with the game as a whole. Whether Rinoa is Ultimecia, or, most likely, a counterpoint to her, it strengthens the themes that are already found in the story. In the present day, two young people are carried through awful, life-changing events relatively unscathed because they have access to genuine love and friendship. They survive wars, prison, monsters and the actual apocalypse because they have one another. Ultimecia sits alone in her castle, spitefully plotting the end of everything, plagued by soldiers from across time who care nothing for her and wish her dead. Ultimecia and Rinoa are two sides of the same coin, two possible timelines for a sorceress in a world where sorcery tugs one toward the darkness. There but for the grace of Squall goes she.
Many have rather uncharitably categorised this sort of theorising as desperately grasping at straws; they say that it’s only so popular because the narrative of Final Fantasy VIII is so slight and full of holes that you simply have to fill in the gaps with your own bad fan-fiction to make something meaningful from it. But I prefer to view it as a testament to the power of the storytelling methods the game employs. Building a world that encourages players to peek outside the frame for answers—even if those answers are wrong—means a certain level of verisimilitude has been achieved. We believe the world exists independent of the story, that events have context not explicitly given in the script. We believe the characters are fully-formed, so we empathise, and seek to understand them better. That’s why I have a special place in my heart for the ridiculous idea that Rinoa is Ultimecia, or any outlandish theory about a game’s plot, because it suggests an engagement with the narrative. As far as I’m concerned, in a very Schrodinger’s Cat sort of way, Ultimecia is Rinoa; the mote of possibility exists within player understanding of FFVIII, there’s no way to separate the canon from the theory. And, like every other mystery in the game, the question is perhaps more important than the answer.