[Trigger warning: mentions of gender dysphoria and transmisogyny.]
I was in the middle of finishing Final Fantasy IX because XV’s coming up when I realized that my playthrough was decidedly more impactful than a mere way to dredge up hype. I knew I loved the game back in the day, but I had never played it during my transition. So yeah, I’m transgender — presenting full-time, on hormones, doing all the stuff that makes me feel comfortable, and I’m surprised to find that this game feels like a sort of weird reflection of myself now.
Okay, way too dramatic, but I’ve been extrapolating a bunch of stuff that reminds me of my present fears and anxieties. This is a game about identity — how it’s established, refined, and even molded by experiences with others. Over its 40-hour play time, I witnessed a stuck-up (and completely hilarious) knight question his own loyalty and develop into a more independent person, a dragoon terrified of her own erasure, and a princess who learned to better understand herself as she discovered the world.
What about the entire existence of the black mages and genomes, both of whom develop a sense of individual and communal identity through social interaction and personal reflection? Then there’s Kuja, a man who rages against his progenitor for the simple right to exist.
I get it, really, I do — Final Fantasy IX is not a game about me, nor is it representative of trans people in general. I’m bringing a lot of baggage with me that colors my interpretation of the game’s themes. Yet the dilemmas these characters face has resonated with me so much more ever since I accepted my trans identity. I can recall when I doubted myself — when I raged against the kind of affirmation and definition that I now believe in.
It all started months before this. I was staring at my first torrent of creepy internet messages when some guys on Reddit said they wanted to fuck me, and I didn’t know what to feel. My mind raced. I knew how I was supposed to react, but my disgust was purely cerebral. I started viewing the message as endemic of normalized sexual harassment, and while I was appalled by how casually these men treated me, the feeling was borne of distaste for the trend — not the immediate act. In truth, all I sussed out was terror, guilt, and shame. How on earth could I find this experience validating?
Beyond the shallow stabs of giddiness I felt because these guys thought I was cute, I saw myself as finally experiencing something that nearly all women do. And I couldn’t help but feel as though I had betrayed my identity. I was disgusted that I’d internalized a fallacious correlation between womanhood and perpetual ‘victimhood’ and, moreover, I questioned whether I wanted to be a victim in order to feel validated. But I dug deeper and tried to analyze, think, and push through this. I talked to a friend, listened to music, and furiously “head-pillowed” in attempts to reconcile my pained affirmation. I’ve learned that the little things — like online comments — are never as small as they seem.
Today, I have no easy answer. I’m still frustrated, and I still feel shame for the ideas that I’d internalized throughout my youth and teenage years. I saw a void within me that desperately longed for a do-over. A new start, a complete respec. I pinpointed discomfort with my male socialization, lamenting and raging with my next breath. I have learned to live with my body, but for me, that’s been the easier part.
I am not only disgusted that I am validated by a negative experience, I am disgusted with myself for feeling as if I require this validation. I had never in my life felt the way I did after read those Reddit messages. I have never been so thoroughly objectified, never been told to have my “fuckhole plugged.” The novel wave of emotions that I felt during that experience emphasizes the constant perfunctory nature of my authentic self; I lack twenty years of feminine experience and socialization, and I can never get them back.
That terrifies me. I feel like a man who has taken it upon himself to define womanhood, to feel ‘authentic’ experiences that are requisite to my feminine integrity while dismissing those that I deem too ‘masculine.’ I feel like myself several years back in high school, then seen as a guy who, at arm’s length, knew all about misogyny.
So while I may have a trans identity, I knew nothing about myself as a woman then — I lacked those formative experiences, instead tethered to a history of boyhood. And I want it removed and re-sculpted more than any physical part of my body. My gender dysphoria stems from my past experiences as well as my body, and if my I history has defined me, my history is ‘male.’ And that would never change. So I felt powerless. I asserted, again and again, that I was a real woman, and while I believed it, I doubted whether I could ever be a complete woman.
Then I decided to take a break to get my mind off of the dysphoric nightmare, and I played Final Fantasy IX.
When I did, I played with the fear that I carried — a lack of completeness in my identity. I feared its end, and I feared its erasure. I both loathed my history and treasured each new second in embracing my identity. While it may seem trivial that my anxieties were represented by little dancing sprites and pixilated numbers, it made me feel understood on some level. I saw my rage in Kuja, my fear in Freya, and my confusion in Vivi. “They’re like children,” Amarant said, observing the genomes and black mages, his back pressed against the wall and arms smartly crossed. Then Freya interjected with a rather curious thought: could these poor souls recover all the years lived that lacked the development of their identity?
The answer is no, we can’t. Life is finite, and for the black mages, rapidly ending. We can only make do with what we have left, and it’s Vivi — the first “puppet” to gain consciousness and question his purpose — who recognized this. He expressed to Zidane that he found meaning in his time on Gaia because of the time he spent with his friends; they recognized him, said his name, and they all grew together. Final Fantasy IX is a game that ultimately says things are going to be okay, that they are going to work out, and that the people who care for you are a big part of that.
Over the course of playing the game and writing this article, I’ve moved past my online issues to — and on a wondrously childish whim — visiting forum buddies several states away, getting published, and somehow falling into my first serious relationship. These past few weeks have been dominated by the experiences I’ve had with others, their kindness, their affirmation, and my anxiety have abated. I’m not only seen as a woman by these people, but I’m able to be myself. I can make mistakes, goof around, or even get way too real at 2:30 in the morning while my buddy beats the crap out of Rafe in Uncharted 4. Dysphoria is still a knot inside of me, but I have both the reason and renewed strength to live with it and approach it on my own terms.
As baseless in reality as its stereotypical message of friendship may seem, Final Fantasy IX was an important game for me to play and something that I am glad to have participated in. Games aren’t perfect. These things scarcely speak to the specificity of my life, and I rarely feel myself represented by their digital canvas. But I think it’d be selling that power short if I said that they didn’t still affect me on a very personal level.
Maybe I read too much into things, or perhaps I find relatable thematic material just because I’m looking for it. But my experience with games — like that of Final Fantasy IX — can sometimes feel like a sort of comfort food. Sure, it’s escapism; I desperately want to be reminded that things are gonna be okay. But to do so, I bring with me the baggage that life collects. I wish that games would do the work for me — to reflect more diverse human stories than the vast majority of them do. But I can still find immense power in a tale about little blue boys in hats battling dragon-riding thong dudes, and I am not for a second going to write off the value I find in that experience.