Just this morning I said that I was pretty close to done when it came to talking about Final Fantasy XV, mostly because, quote: “It’s like shouting at an incoming meteor with a megaphone asking it to politely turn around.” That was maybe me being a little upset because I’ve had a trying morning in general, but to say that engaging the topic of FF15 the past couple days has been exhausting is an understatement and a half.
But because I am that weirdo who appears to have very contrary opinions to the rest of his social sphere, I am compelled to be a bit of an iconoclast and blog about it. Because the feeling I have most about FF15 right now, from almost every angle, is frustration. There’s so much that feels like it’s headed off the rails and I am worried and annoyed. Still anticipatory, still interested, but… frustrated.
Let me say up front that this isn’t about proving that I’m “right” about the game, nor is it about telling people they shouldn’t be excited or interested. But I do think there’s things worth mentioning here as points of critique, especially after Thursday’s PR disaster interview with Hajime Tabata over at Gamespot. So without further ado, let’s get into it:
So let’s be real: as much as people like me have argued that Final Fantasy has featured some amazing, affecting women playable heroes, this is actually a relatively new development in the series. While women have been in the playable roster since the second game (FF2‘s Maria), and there’s been at least one ever since (sort of — the original NES version of FF3 is hard to pin down even if the remakes are more clear re: Refia), the idea that the women playables are important and independent is fairly new.
FF4‘s Rosa basically exists as a plot driver for Cecil, and while FF5‘s Faris, Lenna, and Krile are interesting, they’re also pretty secondary to Bartz. Terra and Celes are the first real hints of this in FF6, as they are major plot movers and their narrative is central to the game’s narrative, but FF6‘s huge ensemble cast means the attention of the story (and player) is constantly split and refocused. Everyone loves Tifa, Aerith, and Yuffie, but let’s be real — FF7 is about Cloud’s mangst, part of which is motivated by Aerith’s death. I’ll skip FF8 for a sec and hop to FF9: I like Garnet, Freya, and Eiko (kind of a lot, actually), but that game is fundamentally about Zidane. FF8, on the other hand, isn’t so much about Squall as it is about his relationships with others, primarily Rinoa (as love interest) and Edea (as mother figure). Quistis and Selphie are maybe less important, but they still feel like (to me) that they have a degree of narrative centrality that other women playables hadn’t, to that point.
But the real stars of the show are the last three flagship titles: FF10, FF12, and FF13. Yuna is absolutely the main character of her own story, the figure around which the entire game revolves. Ashe is basically the same in FF12; Tidus and Vaan are there more as viewpoint characters than being the center of the story. FFX-2 was the first game in the series to feature only women playables in a story primarily about them. And FF13 not only has a woman as its central figure (Lightning), it also has one of the series’ more overt queer couples in the form of Fang and Vanille.
This is not to say that women in Final Fantasy were somehow unsatisfying before FF10; far from it. Most of the characters I mention two paragraphs up are some of my favorites, characters about whom I have good, affecting memories. But the idea that women playables are central to the story and progression of an FF flagship title is recent, given the age of the series.
Why am I bringing this up? Because it points to a progression away from man-centric narratives in FF over the past 15 years. Their role in the stories and gameplay has gotten progressively bigger, more nuanced, more complicated. So when I heard that FF15‘s cast would be a small, tight-knit group of all guys… well, I was concerned. Not necessarily about the small cast; FFX-2 is my favorite FF by far, possibly my favorite video game of all time, and its small cast of 3 was what made that game work. In fact I think X-2 is proof that the core concept of FF15 can work out at all. But why all guys?
Enter director Hajime Tabata and an interview he gave Gamespot that went up on Thursday. Gamespot asked Tabata to speak to the notion of the all-male cast and here is, verbatim from the story, what he said:
Main character Noctis is flanked by companions Gladiolus, Ignis, and Prompto to form an all-male party which Tabata felt was key to making it feel more accessible.
“Speaking honestly, an all-male party feels almost more approachable for players. Even the presence of one female in the group will change their behaviour, so that they’ll act differently. So to give the most natural feeling, to make them feel sincere and honest, having them all the same gender made sense in that way,” Tabata said. The game certainly doesn’t shy away from the theme of male intimacy, with the party sharing a tent, protecting each other in battles, and holding no qualms about showing open concern for one another.
For Tabata, the journey will have the cast adopting what he dubs a “boys will be boys” type demeanor. “It was the story we wanted to tell and what we wanted to show players,” he explained.
“The world might be ready to see the curtain lifted on what boys do when girls aren’t around, when they come out of the tent all prim and proper. That’s kind of the idea behind it… we think, male or female player, that everyone will feel a certain connection and bond with the four characters.”
Y’all, I’m just gonna skip the diplomatic decorum and head straight to the marrow: this is nonsense.
- It’s heteronormative: The idea that “one female” will make the cast “act differently” has a strong tacit implication that it’s because these boys 1.) are straight and 2.) would act differently because as straight men a woman occupies a certain space relative to their desires, etc. The followup reinforces this, the idea that without a woman they’d be more “sincere and honest.” What this says, to me, is that their “true self” would be buried while they react to ~*the woman*~ in their midst. It’s not even that I disagree that a woman would change the dynamic — any character in such a small group will change the dynamic — but that it changing it in this specific way seems silly.
- It misunderstands and talks over the audience: The phrase “an all-male party feels almost more approachable for players” made me cringe. As the internet has asked about a zillion times already: approachable to who? This and the “there’s something for everyone” rider really felt like business as usual: the rest of us make do with what will sell to straight white cis men. Which is the truth; marginalized people learn very early on to develop consumptive strategies that let them engage with media which frequently don’t care about them, because the alternative is usually to just… not have anything to watch/play/etc. at all.
Probably the most honest thing in the whole quote is the line “It was the story we wanted to tell.” I can buy that. I mean… I reserve the right to not be interested in the result, but realistically speaking, “This is just what we wanted to do” is a perfectly valid reason to do a thing. The rest of this, though, seems like post-hoc justification for that core idea, “We just wanted to do this,” and I kinda don’t want that or think it’s worthwhile. Because, frankly, no justification is ever going to be good enough, for me. No amount of “but we think everyone will like it” or “we think it’s most approachable” or whatever is going to sufficiently justify what is, to me, a massive backswing after three titles’ worth of good, important women playables in FF games.
And the implicit assumptions about gender and sexuality in Tabata’s statement really destroy my hope that the game will give me something I can work with, overall. In general I tend to prefer women characters in media texts because “traditional” hegemonic masculinity is not something I have much interest in and which, in fact, is typically hostile to my self concept. Curiously enough, it’s Japanese-made pop culture where I usually turn to get away from this idea of masculinity. As friends have tried to get me into Yowamushi Pedal I’ve been examining sports anime, for example, and their relentless focus on relationships and emotional affect rather than the sport itself. But Japanese pop culture is hardly immune to hegemonic masculine portrayals, especially in triple-A game dev which is largely seen in a more global production context.
I can tell you from innumerable Twitter conversations on this topic that many of us who were uneasy at the prospect of no playable women in FF15 have hung all our hopes on the star that the boys will be… well, to be blunt, kinda gay. We want them to talk about their feelings more than they talk about fast cars or girls, for example. We want them to be slightly weepy, slightly dorky, not full of ~*machismo*~ and other indicators of the typical heter-bro-normative male characters that we can get basically anywhere else. And Final Fantasy as a series has a mixed bag when it comes to these sorts of portrayals. It could go either way.
And of course rather a lot of us have really wanted a couple of those boys to kiss. Which isn’t bloody likely, is it.
Gamespot’s Alexa Ray Corriea has written before about FF15 and “male intimacy,” but I’ll be honest: having played the demo and read Tabata’s interview responses, I don’t find the hope expressed in that article terribly compelling. I was already skeptical about this “male intimacy;” I held out hope that we’d get some actual closeness, vulnerability, etc. between these four achingly pretty boys, but my expectations were pretty low. With the demo in my hands, those hopes dwindled to nonexistence.
This “male intimacy” — “The kind of behavior guys might be too shy to exhibit openly, a state they can only be when they are around their most trusted friends” as Corriea puts it — consists almost entirely of combat barks, high fives/brofists, and your party members mentioning when there’s something in the environment you can look at, like items or roadsigns. These don’t strike me as particularly intimate, however. These are not private acts, nor are they expressions of deep emotional feeling or connection; they’re the public demonstrations of friendship that any group of close-knit individuals might express.
And don’t get me wrong: they’re cool! They’re the things I loved about… well, I hate to come back to it, but FFX-2. Combat barks where YRP had some interplay, as I said on the One More Turn podcast, were among my favorite parts of that game. But I don’t know that I would say they showed “intimacy;” instead, they show “familiarity” or “ease,” which is similar but not exactly the same. Rikku and Paine are friends, so Rikku playfully saying “Dr. P is in the house!” when a fight starts (and Paine replying with an exasperated “Stop that”) is a thing friends might do. But that’s not intimate; it’s familiar. Stuff like that makes me believe that Yuna, Rikku, and Paine were a team. They also make me believe that the heroes of FF15 are a team, too. I really enjoyed that these four men feel like they’re familiar with each other, that they’re friends with a common bond. But again: this isn’t intimacy. This isn’t the closed doors, “too shy to be open about it” behavior that intimacy implies. This is the public-facing aspect of friendship.
Corriea is right that we don’t see this largely machismo-free brand of male camaraderie in games often, but I guess I would say, we see it a hell of a lot more than we see camaraderie between all-women casts, or non-romantic camaraderie in groups with multiple genders represented. For Corriea, the prospect of more of that is enough to make up for FF15‘s lack of playable women; for me, it is not.
This is a view that Tabata’s comments exacerbate. The idea that FF15 is a “boys will be boys” scenario where we see what “boys” are like without girls around says to me: this is going to be another heteromasculine story that isn’t going to speak to you at all. I look at that, and compare it to the intense feelings of identification and emotional resonance I had with the women protagonists of FF10(-2), FF12, and the FF13 subseries, and am forced to ask: why should I care? I can’t get excited about this. I can’t. Some people can, and that’s fine! But for me, it feels like this huge step backwards.
If I’m gonna care about about the all-male-revue FF15, I need to be promised something of equal value to what I have lost in the process. I need the promise of something as powerful as Yuna’s journey, as affecting as Fang and Vanille’s tragic love and sisterhood. Instead, what I’m being offered is the promise of me having to do a lot of background queering work, a lot of spinning the straw of subtext into the gold of satisfying consumption. To be honest, I kinda don’t want to. If I’m gonna have male intimacy, I don’t want it to be brofists and combat assists. I want to know that these men have complicated relationships that problematize our visions of masculine identity, that suggest there are ways for men to be social with each other that do transcend romance or sex, that are not stuck in this weird binary of “manly men” vs. “feelings-haver fanfic bait.”
What we’ve seen of FF15 is a demo only, and of old content at that. It’s true that we don’t really know what’s coming in the final version. But going solely by what I’ve played, and what I’ve read the creators say about the game? My doubts are many and my comforts, few.