Several months before Final Fantasy XV was released, I saw the arguments beginning: how could a video game franchise with such a long history of including women as playable characters release a game with a main cast of four men? I empathized with the outrage: women who grew up with the Final Fantasy franchise felt like it had been their safe haven for representation, and the reveal that this title would be all about Noctis, Ignis, Prompto, and Gladiolus felt like a betrayal.
Still, I (perhaps foolishly) entered into debates where fans demanded we boycott the game, gently suggesting that we have a little faith in the Final Fantasy franchise. Although no one ‘earns the right’ to stop representing women in their games, I felt as though Final Fantasy’s history of featuring dynamic ladies (including Lightning as the protagonist of Final Fantasy XIII) meant that I should give them the benefit of the doubt. This is a video game franchise that — at least to some extent — understands the importance of gender representation. Maybe their story about a journey shared by four men was a narrative worth telling.
Although I wasn’t alone in this speculation, I felt like I was in the minority. However, when Final Fantasy XV was released, I was not disappointed.
Bear with me for a moment while I make a brief aside: it was only two months ago that we heard Donald Trump justify bragging about sexual assault by referring to it as “locker room talk.” The implication that men are permitted or expected to speak crudely about women when we are not around in order to impress their mates was a sentiment that outraged a lot of people — including athletes who are very familiar with actual locker rooms. But it’s a common narrative: in order to impress one another and be accepted, men are expected to objectify and insult women.
While some men behave in this way because it adheres to their genuine view of women, there are also followers and bystanders who engage in this narrative because it’s what they believe they must do after seeing it in every movie, on every television show, and — with people like Trump justifying it in the public political sphere — on every news program. This can lead to all sorts of strange situations, including groups of men who don’t really believe anything they’re saying, yet still make crude comments or ‘rate’ women in terms of appearance because they think that other men expect it.
It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s rape culture. So how do we dismantle the idea of what occurs in a boys’ locker room without first creating one?
Final Fantasy XV is the story of Noctis, Ignis, Prompto, and Gladiolus being thrown into a car together without any women so that we, as the audience, can see what they get up to. Do they make crude comments about the ladies they encounter on their journey, engage in toilet humor, and become otherwise disgusting creatures, as we expect that they must?
Well, sometimes. There’s a line that Gladiolus says in Lestallum about the women in the city being ‘built’ that I’m not quite sure how to interpret. He may be awkwardly expressing his attraction towards these women, or he might be surprised (or impressed) by how muscular they are. Noctis also has a strange line during a quest in Lestallum, implying that the woman he is helping must be grateful that he helped them.
There are also occasional comments from Prompto regarding his obvious crush on Cindy (which the other three tease him about), but although he clearly finds her attractive, he is also impressed by her for so many other reasons. He never seems to speak about her inappropriately — instead, he simply hopes that she’ll call or asks if they’ll be stopping by her garage in Hammerhead from time to time.
Overall, the conversations and experiences shared by these four men are flavored with everything that the patriarchy dictates isn’t typically masculine. Noctis and his friends regularly talk about their feelings, and we see Noctis cry on several occasions after emotional events.
Although other ways of coping with emotions — such as Gladiolus’ temper and Ignis’ stoicism — are also acknowledged, they are explored in ways that reveal they are unproductive methods of dealing with emotions long-term, and eventually, everybody talks about their feelings in more useful ways. This includes a scene where the four boys sit around a campfire and express their ongoing love and concern for one another.
There are a lot of other aspects to this narrative that could be perceived as deviations from typical masculinity. Ignis’ primary role during the group’s travels is a supportive one, cooking for the others and driving the Regalia. His enjoyment of cooking is regularly discussed, and he is always pleased when he discovers a new recipe. Prompto’s equivalent skill is photography, and he frequently asks Noctis if they can stop driving because he found a beautiful scene that he wants to capture. The supportive conversations shared between Prompto and his friends when they look over new photographs while resting at campsites demonstrates the caring relationships they have.
There’s a scene where Gladiolus encourages Noctis to train with him one morning in order to help with his inability to wake up early. And when they race each other across the beach, Gladiolus almost certainly lets Noctis win.
In battle, these friends pick each other up when they become weak and shout words of support. Outside of battle, they have sincere discussions about how they can be the better men to the women in their lives.
The ways in which Noctis, Ignis, Prompto, and Gladiolus share their feelings, support one another, and obviously express their love are significant because these moments are often experienced while they are on the road — without the presence or influence of women. This makes it undeniable that these men do not subscribe to the toxic masculinity that supposedly fill boys’ locker rooms. This is a narrative that needs to be told, and despite its lack of playable women, this is still a feminist narrative.
Of course, that’s not to say that Final Fantasy XV is a flawless feminist masterpiece; there are definitely issues that cannot be ignored and that have already been widely discussed. Cindy’s bikini and jacket combo don’t seem particularly practical for a mechanic, Shiva’s clothing (or lack thereof) is so revealing that it had to be censored in mainland China’s release of the game, Aranea’s armor shows off a fair bit of cleavage, and the strange half-pants that some women in Lestallum wear are … confusing.
However, these scantily clad women are positioned alongside a number of characters in more practical attire, such as Lunafreya, Gentiana, Iris, and Sania.
There is a definitely an argument to be made that these characters do not need such revealing outfits and that this is a choice made by Square Enix for the purposes of appealing to the heteronormative gaze of cis straight men. However, there’s more going on here. All of these women are capable characters and independently successful in their areas of expertise. Aranea works as a mercenary with several men answering to her leadership, Lunafreya is particularly determined and powerful in her role as Oracle, and Sania is an established academic and researcher. Both Iris and Aranea also join the party for a short time and can battle alongside the four main characters (although Noctis is the only playable character in the title).
But perhaps it’s Cindy who interests me most, if only because her character has been discussed and criticized at length. In many ways, Cindy is a stereotype: she wears a bikini and washes your car (the Regalia). But at the same time, her character breaks this stereotype. She’s not just there to clean your car, but is a fully qualified mechanic who also repairs and modifies your vehicle, while genuinely loving the Regalia and chatting about what’s under the hood.
Cindy is completely capable in a role typically dominated by men, which can be surprising for an audience who expects her to embody the ‘dumb blonde’ character trope. Even more importantly, nobody in the game treats Cindy with disrespect due to her choice of attire. In fact, she is openly praised for her skills.
Sure, Cindy could have been designed to wear a little more clothing or to lean over the car a little less often, but regardless, her character is still making an interesting point. And part of me wonders whether her cleavage is enough to trick men who subscribe to ideals of toxic masculinity into playing a game that’s ostensibly all about men sharing their feelings and loving each other. Maybe they’ll accidentally learn something that they can take back to the locker room.