[Trigger warning: emotional abuse, grief, and racial discrimination.]
Tidus from Final Fantasy X is a man we don’t often get to see in video games. While the stoic Cloud, brooding Solid Snake, and snarky Drake are familiar staples of mainstream video game land, Tidus eschewed this common hard-jawed machoism in favor of sensitivity and humor. What many games would even hold back on in favor of a sad reveal, you witness in the first few hours of Final Fantasy X—from Tidus sharing his hurt at the hands of his father to the loss of his mother to, yes, even being told he’s known to cry often—and that’s before this sports all-star gets teleported from his home in Zanarkand into the unknown world of Spira by a mysterious monster called Sin! When he encounters a group of people willing to help him find his way home (while trying to defeat Sin along the way), he opens up to them early on and proceeds to lay waste to many damaging hypermasculine tropes.
Tidus connects to fellow protagonist Yuna not through passive-aggressive quips, but comraderie and laughter (and, for the record, I include that scene). The emotional constipation normally reserved for protagonists who are men is tossed out the window and replaced with an overarching spoken narrative by Tidus, revealing his innermost feelings at key intervals—a touch that I still appreciate to this day. His outfit embodies the very best and the very worst of Tetsuya Nomura’s character design work (water soccer gauntlet???). Yes, Tidus really is something special. Thankfully, this hasn’t gone unnoticed.
The reaction to him over the years has been generally positive. Some love his youthful enthusiasm, citing him as a refreshing and funny break from the cold Cloud and aloof Squall from Final Fantasy VII and VIII, respectively. Others fell head over heels in love with his tender relationship with Yuna and consider it one of the best Final Fantasy romances in the series (and I won’t pretend like I haven’t gotten incredibly mushy over it myself). Yet more found the proceeding plot twists later in the game both in turns fascinating and tragic—all of this and more cementing Tidus as one of the Final Fantasy protagonist greats for years to come.
The other side of the coin? While some would cite the voice acting as the reason why they involuntarily cringe whenever Tidus appears onscreen in this sci-fi RPG, others say he’s immature and obnoxious. His impulsive tendencies and oft squawky reactions to mundane occurrences can grate on the average gamer’s nerves, and I won’t pretend for a second that Tidus is immune to the adjective “annoying” during his lesser moments. Yet more have said it’s because he’s too feminine or whiny about his father Jecht.
As you can see, some of these things are not like the other!
Growing up with Final Fantasy before decent internet, I did my best to immerse myself in whatever game-related feedback I could find, be it my favorite game magazine (rest in peace) or the vague tendrils of dial-up I was exposed to. When Final Fantasy X released, I was more than a little jarred by the vague and not-so-vague comparisons of Tidus to anyone who was gay, a woman, or transgender. This game’s graphics blew my mind at the time, and I was utterly swept up in its grand story … and this is what people got upset about? Calling him gay for crying or girly for his hair. I mean, sheesh. With his tragically inept character design (fishnet shorts???) and occasionally grating childish antics front and center, people were still diving headfirst for the homophobic low blows. C’mon, now.
And then there was the victim-blaming. From written review to video review to casual message board, many seemed frustrated and even irate at his tendency to cry, vent, and mention his abusive father. Reflecting on it as an adult, it’s never been clearer what the underlying prejudice is that buoys these remarks. Heck, even taking this inflammatory commentary into account: when’s the last time you saw a protagonist who is a man be so open with crying or sharing his experience with abuse? To be honest, I’m coming up a little blank.
Drake from Uncharted is your everyday adventure bro with a heart of gold, while Aiden Pearce of Watch Dogs is your suburban white boy hacker fantasy with the emotional capacity of a shoelace. Even more complex characters like Enslaved: Odyssey To The West’s Monkey and John Marston of Red Dead Redemption have their deeper emotional expression reserved for narrative reveals or covered thickly with extra grit.
Masculinity, as has been cited in too many studies to count, confines men and their media representation to a narrow box in which the mere poking of a finger into the open air can draw accusations of homosexuality, femininity, and many more ‘bad’ things that aren’t actually bad. While this isn’t to presume that straight, cisgender men can be victims of homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny (hint: they can’t), the comparison creates the divide that sees so many people of varying shapes and sizes struggling to fit into a box that, at best, cramps them, and at worst, severely hurts them and others.
Tidus’ narrative framing of recovering from abuse balances perfectly with the end-of-the-world plot of trying to destroy the massive monster Sin. Throughout the game he is shown crying multiple times—through flashbacks or real-time—and is given no shame (except when remembering how his father lambasted him for it). He openly discusses the way Jecht would put him down for not matching his skill in the fictional sport of blitzball, as well as the neglect of his mother and how she would favor his father’s attention over his emotional needs. A pivotal exchange near the beginning of the game where he and Yuna are getting to know each other even summarizes the often contradictory public face of abuse: when Yuna sings praises for his father, Tidus is quick to show her the other side of the story.
“There was nothing to honor about my old man, that’s for sure.”
“You shouldn’t say that about your father.”
“I got the right!”
Think of the last time you saw a known abuser who remained famous anyway. Sean Penn and Chris Brown are but two men who have been in the public eye a few times for domestic violence, yet still make money and cultivate adoring fans. To put it plainly: society hates abuse victims. A game whose main character is a victim of abuse and for the entirety of the game is allowed to come to terms with it is, sadly, a rarity.
The execution is especially varied and isn’t restricted to a one-off reveal. Final Fantasy X uses everything from flashbacks to narration to quiet conversations that show what Tidus is going through, which is a realistic way of depicting how abuse affects all areas of your life. To use another example: during his first night in the strange world of Spira, he finds himself dreaming of women he met recently, only for his father to appear and embarrass him back into a scared little boy. The women in his dream proceed to comfort him and encourage him to express his feelings openly.
“I hate you.”
“You have to speak a little more loudly.”
“I HATE YOU!”
“That’s the spirit!”
Final Fantasy X also takes care to show how people heal—or don’t heal—from abuse. While Tidus faced both emotional abuse and neglect at the hands of his parents, one of the primary villains of the game, Seymour, went through societal ostracization for being mixed-race. Rikku, introduced at the beginning of the game and later joining up with your party, is part of a historically discriminated group called the Al Bhed. While I have my issues with Seymour’s portrayal (primarily his severe Villain Decay near the end of the game), it’s necessary to show diverse reactions to social mistreatment. Although the narrative that those abused become abusive themselves is an inaccurate stereotype, people nonetheless will react differently to the hardships they face. For all that people called Tidus whiny, they don’t realize (or don’t care) that abuse isn’t a cold you get over. You bear its scars for life.
[Spoilers!] The game’s final twist hits you like a brick, though it’s difficult to summarize without hours of prior worldbuilding. It’s revealed that in order for Sin to disappear for good, the entirety of Yevon’s lie has to unravel, meaning the mystical Aeons originally born to fight Sin are to finally be allowed to rest and their dream of Zanarkand, subsequently, have to follow suit. Tidus, part of that Zanarkand dream, accepts his fate with the grace of someone who genuinely loves others and longs for the greater good. It’s not an easy thing to accept and I was impressed, even back when I played this for the first time at the age of eleven, with how much he grew and changed over the course of the game.
Tidus is last seen meeting with the spirits of characters who gave their lives to fight Sin and, eventually, giving his father a high-five. On one hand, it’s common for society to favor a narrative of selfless forgiveness, which is easier for abusers to be repeat offenders (“don’t fight fire with fire” being a common phrase). On the other hand, far be it for me to say whether it’s my decision for someone else to forgive or even acknowledge their abuser. Mourning an abuser is not uncommon for people who know little else, much less better. Even Tidus’ mother, who enabled the abuse (and very well could have been abused herself) is a source of his grief, if only for the only love he’s ever known. These reactions are not always sensible, but that’s abuse: it creates, then perpetuates, a cruel lack of sense.
“You know … for the first time, I’m glad to have you as a father.”
Jecht is a man who stunned millions of people with his sports prowess. Prior to the events in the game, he helped defeat Sin, eventually becoming a catalyst in destroying Sin forever. He also emotionally devastated his son by projecting his insecurities onto him and left scars that could last a lifetime. While the game displays him as a tragic anti-villain (and, yes, he does end up helping save the world at the end), it is also careful not to vilify or demean Tidus’ justifiable anger and regret. It’s a delicate balance that isn’t always struck, but is a genuine attempt that hits more than it misses. Abusers aren’t black and white storybook villains cackling behind the sleeve of their robe: they’re everyday people who do good things and terrible things all at the same time. [/Spoilers]
“I heard you were quite the crybaby.”
“Yeah, maybe back then. Maybe even now. Just a little.”
There are problems with the game, yes. Tidus’ mother, while clearly a neglectful influence in his life, doesn’t gain nearly as much narrative relevance compared to his father. I’ve written previously about the tendency to view the relationship between father and anyone as more important than mothers, and that applies here. There are a few exchanges in which Tidus is teased, however gently, for crying that could have been dropped with nothing lost. Blitzball, for all that its Tidus’ favorite sport and the go-to pastime for Spira, is surprisingly boring to play in-game. All these flaws and more are ripe for the picking.
Overall? Tidus is awesome. There is a severe dearth of men in games who are appreciated for their ability to show compassion to others, soothe with good humor, and who regularly treat people (particularly women and girls) with respect. I love that he’s a crybaby. I love that he gives men and boys a chance to see a guy that embraces his emotions in a sea of growly anti-heroes. His journey even mirrors my own in some ways, as I was ashamed of crying for years and had to attend counseling to come to terms with the anger I had bottled up for too long. Hell, the “Suteki Da Ne” scene turned me into a crybaby when I reviewed it to write this article!
Men and boys deserve—no, need—more options than funny anger, tragic anger, and angry anger. Even with the vast overrepresentation of men in video games, their emotional and social expression is astonishingly limited and everyone is worse off for it. My little brother is one such kid who should get more options than the same three hypermasculine archetypes in media when it’s all I can do at the best of times to counteract these toxic messages he’s spoon-fed daily. There are plenty of games you can play when you need to vent frustration or slip into escapism for a few hours after a long day of work. When it comes to emotional healing and validation, though? These games are rarer, but no less precious.
We could use more crybabies in video games.