I was starting to come around to the idea of Final Fantasy XV, I really was. I know I wasn’t that thrilled by the demo that was released back in 2015 along with Type 0, but after listening to a recent episode of US Gamer’s Axe of the Blood God podcast and hearing Jeremy Parish share some of his impressions of the most recent build of FFXV, my interest was somewhat rekindled.
After all, I reasoned, my primary issues with the game were the weird Kingdom Hearts-esque combat mechanics and the unfortunate predominance of bros as opposed to the usual mixed-gender party. Parish’s observations during his time with the first six hours of the game seemed to indicate that the combat did have turn-based options that opened battles up to be more strategic, something that makes the game seem much more appealing to me. The gender thing wasn’t going away, but I figured I could just deal with it. If this weren’t a mainline Final Fantasy game, I thought, I’d absolutely play it, bros or not, so I ought to just get over myself and look forward to a game that was starting to sound like it was going to be pretty solid.
And then I watched Kingsglaive.
Critics have not been kind to Kingsglaive, but that’s hardly surprising. The movie isn’t really a film; it’s an unusually long opening cutscene to a video game that just happened to be released before the rest of the game. I knew that going in, and you know what, as an opening cutscene, it’s pretty rad. The animation is absolutely stunning, the setting is fascinating with its mix of high fantasy and modern technology, and the voice acting (featuring the likes of Lena Hadley and Sean Bean) was unusually good for a piece of video game media. The action was a lot like Advent Children, a movie which I thoroughly enjoyed: fast-paced, very shiny, and occurring primarily in mid-air. Many of the characters were interesting enough, particularly King Regis, although his charisma may have been helped along by the natural gravitas that Sean Bean brings to any regal role. There was a lot to like here.
What ruined the movie for me was the the women.
Now, look. I know I sound like a broken record, constantly harping on the way that women are portrayed in video games. Why bother politicizing games? Why bring feminist thought into this at all? Why can’t I just sit down and enjoy a game without dragging gender into it? And you know what? I wish I could. I wish I could just play a game without this constant nagging itch of annoyance at the back of my head about gender stereotypes, but I can’t. It’s upsetting. It’s a constant reminder that so much of society has these outdated ideas of what women are and what they are supposed to be, and I don’t want to be those things.
I love video games. I spend enormous chunks of my life playing video games, because I’m passionate about my hobby, I enjoy experiencing stories in a completely interactive way, and I’m a big fan of solving puzzles and using strategy to conquer virtual challenges. And let me tell you, it is fucking disheartening to have this constant reminder in my favorite pastime that as a general rule, women are not as important, not as strong, not as powerful, not as interesting, not as numerous, and not as varied as men.
This is particularly hard to deal with in this, my favorite franchise. Final Fantasy brought me into the modern era of gaming. I played Atari as a child, experiencing a colorful world of primarily genderless pixels. I played Sonic the Hedgehog at my cousin’s house, and while I know Sonic is ostensibly male, he’s a Goddamn hedgehog, so his gender seems somewhat less relevant. Then I skipped straight to Final Fantasy X. This was my introduction to women in gaming:
Lulu, Yuna, and Rikku. Three wildly different women with wildly different personalities who had independent motivations, powerful abilities in battle, and interesting story arcs. I followed this game up with Final Fantasy VII, where I got to hang out with these awesome ladies:
Then I moved onto Final Fantasy VIII:
Are we seeing a theme? Sure, the women of Final Fantasy are often mages rather than front-line fighters, some of them are irritating as hell (I’m looking at you, Selphie), and sometimes they have to be saved by the men, but not always. And that’s the important bit, the not always. Sometimes women need saving. That’s fine. As long as the women sometimes get to be the savior. Like Yuna, who is on a quest to save her entire world. Sometimes women are healers, like Aerith. That’s fine, because she’s contrasted with Tifa, who will punch the shit out of anything that stays still long enough to let her do it. Sometimes women are even the bad guys, like Sorceress Edea in FFVII. That’s all I want. Variety. Acknowledgement that women are as different and varied as men with different strengths and weaknesses and likes and dislikes and modes of dress.
One of the reasons I like the Final Fantasy franchise so much is that there are always examples of strong and varied women. Always. If we discount Final Fantasy I, which was pretty light on the plot anyway, every single mainline Final Fantasy game has a diverse mixture of men and women in the roster of playable characters. They are almost always outnumbered by the men, but they are there and they are awesome and that was enough for me.
So it was a slap in the face when it was announced that Final Fantasy XV would have only men in the party. It was salt in the wound when director Hajime Tataba explained that this choice would make the game “more approachable” and more “sincere and honest”. My experience with this “more approachable” game was a sour one when I played the demo and discovered the sole example of female representation over the course of the experience:
But still. After a year of feeling frustrated about this, I was starting to come to terms with it. It could still be a good game. Maybe the final product would have more women in it, and maybe those women would be interesting. Maybe those women would take a more central role in Kingsglaive! After all, Lunafreya is right in the center of the poster! After all, Hironobu Sakaguchi himself said that the movie justified the lack of women in the game.
So I rented the movie and sat down to watch it last night with Boyfriend. And no. In case you were wondering. No. It didn’t justify anything. It just made everything worse.
There are exactly four women who speak words in this movie. Four. One is an unnamed female chancellor of King Regis. She appears in one scene and speaks a single line in favor of making peace. One is the Queen of the neighboring kingdom of Tenebrae, the Princess Lunafreya’s mother, who is tragically murdered approximately half a minute after she appears. One is Crowe, a mage in the Kingsglaive army, who manages to survive about thirty minutes before she too is tragically murdered. And one is the aforementioned Princess Lunafreya, who is ostensibly a central character.
Let’s talk first about Crow.
Well, hey, she looks pretty cool. And she wants to be a great, strong character. And I want her to be a great, strong character. But she isn’t.
FYI: The rest of this post contains heavy spoilers for Kingsglaive.
She appears in the first battle early in the movie, a battle between the elite soldiers of the Kingsglaive and the forces of the powerful empire Niflheim. The men of the Kingsglaive are clearly badasses, teleporting around the battlefield, destroying monsters, saving one another. What are Crowe and the other four women of the Kingsglaive up to?
Why, they’re hanging back as mages, shielding the big, strong men! Because of course they are.
Now I just want to point out as an aside: there is nothing wrong with women being mages. My point here is that these are the only women in the Kingsglaive. There are no women in combat on the ground. They are only support.
But fine, whatever, later on Crowe gets to go on a covert mission on her own to sneak into Niflheim and escort Princess Lunafreya to safety!
Hell yes, maybe the girls will get to kick ass together as they fight their way out of Niflheim together, getting to know each other, establishing some rapport together, and then maybe they can show up later in the game itself and be the kickass women I look for in a Final Fantasy game, and then…
No, instead, Crowe is delivered back to the city of Insomnia in a body bag. We don’t see her die. We don’t know what happened to her. She simply becomes a plot point in the character arc of Libertus, who vows revenge on the king for throwing “the weak to the wolves”. The “weak” in this analogy being, of course, Crowe. Later on, we get to hear from General Glauca about how Crowe cried when he shot her. That’s the last we hear about her in the movie.
Here’s our last woman, the Princess Lunafreya Nox Fleuret.
She’s in the middle of the Goddamn poster, so she must be strong and important! Right?
No, of course not. She spends twelve years locked in a tower as a hostage. She’s offered in marriage to Noctis, the prince of Lucis and the son of King Regis. All she wants to do is fulfill her “duty.” What her “duty” is we never find out, unless her duty is to be passively passed off from man to man over the course of the movie, first from her brother Ravus to Aldercept, leader of Niflheim, who brings her to King Regis in order to marry her to the prince; then from King Regis to Nyx, a member of the Kingsglaive assigned to guard the princess, the main protagonist; then from Nyx to General Glauca, who kidnaps her as a ruse; then she’s stolen back by Nyx, who takes her back to Regis, who sends her off with Nyx, who eventually passes her off to Libertus.
At one point in the movie King Regis and Aldercept have a conversation in which Luna is referred to as a precious object that has been stolen. Regis comments that this stolen object has “a will of its own,” but she must have a will of her own while she’s off screen, because on screen, she is only a receptacle for the will of the men surrounding her.
But the absolute worst moment in the movie, the moment I threw up my hands in disbelief and disgust, the moment I just stopped giving a shit about anything else that happened, the moment that I knew that Lunafreya was never going to be allowed to be anything but an object, came in the last thirty minutes of the movie. Luna and Nyx have fled the scene of the murder of King Regis, whose last action was to entrust Luna with the precious Ring of the Lucii, an artifact that allows the worthy ruler of Lucis to command the power of the crystal. Anyone unworthy who puts on the ring bursts into flame and is consumed by the ring’s power. General Glauca has pursued the fleeing princess and her guardian, and he’s got them cornered against a statue. Luna is holding the ring. She knows she’s not of the royal blood of Lucis, she knows that putting on the ring will likely result in her death, but she’s going to do it anyway, because she knows that there’s no other way. She isn’t afraid to die. She starts to put the ring on her finger…
…only to have Nyx snatch it away and declare that he’s the hero, not her. He puts the ring on. He saves the day. He saves the princess who is not permitted to save herself.
Nyx sends Luna away from the scene of the battle with Libertus. She buckles herself in his car next to the latest man in a long line of men who get to be responsible for saving her, since she can’t save herself. She looks at Libertus and says, “My life is in your hands.”
Her life isn’t in her own hands. She’s nothing without the men surrounding her.
So fuck you, Final Fantasy XV. Don’t feed me any more lines of bullshit about how the lack of women in the game is “justified” and “more approachable”. Your treatment of women has done nothing but alienate and insult me and all other members of my gender. You have, in fact, made your game and its world completely unapproachable for fully one-half of your audience. I came to this hoping for a Yuna, an Aerith, a Terra, or a Rinoa. You gave me a passive object instead, a pretty princess to be traded back and forth like a shiny bauble. You gave me a tragic plot point in the arc of a male character poorly disguised as a badass. You gave me nothing.
UPDATE: About 30 minutes after posting this, I became aware of Sqaure Enix’s latest marketing push for FFXV: #FFLegacies. Fans are invited to share their experiences with the Final Fantasy franchise on social media. Very well, Square Enix. Let this be my “legacy”.