Women, the Ensemble, and Narrative Authority in the Final Fantasy Series

How gender informs design is a subject rarely discussed but holds a lot of value as we explore how to express gender topics in games. What exactly is a feminine narrative design? There isn’t a concrete answer, but we have the benefit of the Final Fantasy series to consider the question, including its games led by women characters. This isn’t to say that what we find there is definitively feminine storytelling, but rather how the series shifts in technique whenever women dominate the cast.

A curious trend exists of women-led Final Fantasy games being ensemble stories rather than their men-led siblings with their single-character focus. Mostly notably in Final Fantasy VI it becomes unclear who exactly matters most in the story, since Terra is most often seen as the head of the party. However, Celes takes control for the last part of the game. Final Fantasy X-2, XIII, and XIII-2 all fall into ambiguity, in which the team is emphasized over the individual in terms of the game’s design. Contrast this to series favorites, like VII and VIII, which has male leads with no question as to who the story is about.

We can formally express this ambiguity by looking at how the series experiments with the difference between the story’s main character and protagonist. Most often these characters are the same, but they also often diverge in the series. Final Fantasy gives us two games with the clearest split between the main character and the protagonist. Final Fantasy X features Tidus and Yuna respectively, and XII features Vaan and Ashe. It’s interesting in these games that the main character is a man because the main character is the perspective that the player takes on. Main characters are there for the player to most immediately relate to and trust (or mistrust), while the protagonist drives the action of the story and clashes with the antagonist. Tidus and Vaan are quite literally tag-alongs to a party of much more pertinent characters but offer their unique outsider perspectives so that the player isn’t lost when dropped into the action. It’s Yuna’s pilgrimage that Seymour is out to stop, Ashe’s legitimacy to power that threatens Vayne. Now, who exactly is the main character and who is the protagonist of VI?

What makes games like VI and XIII interesting from this perspective is how much the women share narrative responsibility with other characters. Lightning is the cover character for her game, but control often shifts to other characters. As well, her perspective is constantly informed by the meta-narration of Vanille, who is arguably the actual central character of the cast. Both she and Fang act as protagonists while their Cocoon party members are scrambling to adapt to the consequences of their actions. How it’s probable that you’ll remember the women and forget the men in a video game is remarkable, though the men take more narrative authority than they would allow women in other games. This ambiguity most likely adds into gamers’ frustrations with the game, as it is generally unfamiliar ground for everyone involved. However, there is a general gendered reaction to XIII similar to Dragon Age II’s reception; it also focused on an ensemble cast and took narrative importance away from the player character. The oft male-dominated old guard took issue with this change while many minority gamers felt more room to relate to characters.

My best guess as to why narrative importance is more egalitarian in these titles is a combination of two things: sensitivity to distancing men from relating to the main characters by spreading out the focus and the role that women typically are assigned in stories. The lack of women in proper starring roles in games isn’t a new thing, and what Final Fantasy seems to be doing is cheating. We can have strong women only if the player isn’t forced to identify with them throughout the entire game. This also taps into the usual function of women serving as the source of the social cohesion of their group. Very often parties present a child/maiden/mother trifecta (e.g. Rikku, Yuna, and Lulu) used to keep a group functioning, especially acting as emotional guidance for the male characters. Following this idea, video game women can only continue to do this as leads until game designers figure out different or more nuanced roles for them. On the other hand, the ambiguity of roles that these games provide is preferable, as they share influence throughout the entire cast instead of just coming up with excuses as to why the majority of characters fight for the main character.

Gender politics influences more than costume design and word choice but also design decisions that govern our relationship to the game. This is important for diversity causes in gaming, as how players can empathize with the characters determines a large portion of their enjoyment. It also opens up more discussion about the seemingly arcane practice of narrative design, drawing attention to how elements such as characters and point of view reinforce design ideologies. With a new Final Fantasy on the horizon, it will be interesting to see a sole woman lead or a male-led ensemble cast.

Valuing the Feminine: Why I Love Vanille

Let me come out with it now: my favorite Final Fantasy characters tend to be the classic cheerful and energetic archetype, like Aeris, Selphie, and Vanille. It’s usually because I bring a lot of myself into games, and want to relate to someone in a fantasy world. Before I really looked into gender studies, I didn’t realize how problematic these characters were in respect to women’s portrayal in games overall. While I have that perspective now, I still look back at my connection to them with fondness. It wasn’t until recent conversation with peers that I tested my defense of these women; their reception is mostly negative or dismissive because they are seen as hyperactive and hyper-feminine, perceived to serve the very narrow interests of hegemony. For the most part, I agree. The fandom Final Fantasy appeals to expects certain characters in their party, as consistently having that stereotype of a young girl just past sexual maturity shows. So I’m not going to argue against how they are problematic, rather just the short end of the stick they receive.

If there is a vantage point transition gives me, it’s to see how people react differently the identities they think I have. I experienced a shift of privilege when my appearance went from others pegging me as some sort of male to seeing me as a woman. One thing that, to this day, bothers me is how my happy-go-lucky, sensitive persona went from a characteristic of being well rounded as male to a sign of weakness and unintelligence as a woman. What was before friendly and comforting became ditzy and vulnerable. It’s been a battle for me in the workspaces I inhabit, as I either have to be myself and treated this way, or hardened and forceful with my competency, which brings on another set of gendered insults. I’ve experienced this recently when networking and socializing with other game writers, encountering some who devalue my opinion because I’m feminine. So I have a stake in this, one that tells me something else is going on with how we’re treating this type of character. We often demonize the feminine because it seems regressive in our gender politics, but decidedly feminine women aren’t the issue. It’s the values that see femininity as inferior we still need to look at.

I came to this realization when playing Final Fantasy XIII. It’s a game where the women stole the show and I barely remember what the men actually did, which is nice for a change. Lightning and Fang seem to get all of the credit, though, and not undeservedly; I’d go to say Fang was Woman of the Year in 2010. However, mostly due to the vocal direction her actress was given, Vanille was received with general disdain. I, on the other hand, loved her and thought she was the most important and nuanced character in that game. But that’s because I don’t think being badass, physically adept, and androgynous is the only way of being a strong woman. Sometimes the strongest character is the person who ties everyone together, is the subliminal, caretaking force that gives everything meaning.

Vanille’s role as the narrator, along with the aesthetic that came with being from Pulse, reminds me of the social function as storytellers women in some Native American (and I’m sure other) cultures, serving as their tribes’ memory and history. While the flashbacks explained everyone’s personal motivations, it was mostly Vanille’s memories that revealed the cause of the entire catastrophe. In a sense, her story of burden and guilt is thankless because it’s not the type of courage we’re used to valuing. The game wouldn’t exist without Vanille, but we’re ready to forget her.

This all might tie into feminist theory that hypothesizes work relegated to the private sphere and dubbed as feminine isn’t really seen as work or accomplishment, but expected duty. In order to get recognition, you must make a show for yourself in the aggressive, angled masculine space. Meaning, we’re already primed to either fetishize or degrade Vanille if we don’t identify with her. I feel like her theme summed it up for me, a track of someone walking a melancholy path and struggling to keep on a smile. XIII’s crew was full of angst, and without Vanille smiling, the group wouldn’t be able to hold itself together. So she kept doing it, even when it she didn’t want to. I personally empathize with the amount of courage and effort that takes, and wished I had someone to recognize it in my own life.

I don’t want to let Square Enix and other companies off the hook for the obvious pandering towards the hegemonic gamer base when it comes to characters like Vanille, but I also challenge gamers to check if they’re harsher on feminine characters. Are we measuring competency and worth with a masculine measuring stick? Let’s not relegate the feminine only to the service of hegemonic interests, but allow feminine people to feel as empowered as heroes. The Final Fantasy series is actually a good place to start exploring this topic with its range of feminine characters, to identify what is problematic, and what is heroically feminine.

Final Fantasy XIII-2 Review

If the philosophies concerning the criticism of sequels weren’t convoluted enough, the Final Fantasy series makes things even more complicated. Given the reception of Final Fantasy XIII and the framework that Square Enix created for it, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is explicitly about correcting the mistakes of its predecessor and providing as much fan service as possible while doing so. XIII-2 is XIII with a different story and a checklist of changes requested in popular reviews and on message boards. Contrast this with Final Fantasy X-2, which had a completely different set of mechanics than the game before it and just how transparent XIII-2 is as a fix becomes clearer. A lot of XIII-2’s value comes from the correct choices that it made to improve, but it also makes you wonder if Square Enix improved the right things.

All in all, this is a testament to a company listening to its fans. Players complained about not having areas filled with NPCs, and they got it. Freedom to explore? Check. Flexibility with the party? More item creation? Mini-games? All there. We even got quick time events just to cover all the bases. However, all of these qualities are grafted onto what was XIII and feel especially hollow. Sure, you don’t get tunnel-like maps anymore, but instead, you get a whole bunch of one-area maps that you still barely interacted with. You can choose what sequence of places you visit, but there is still a very strict, unchanging storyline that forces you to complete them in a certain order. These mechanics might calm the fans that just want their old JRPG back even if it results in pointless grinding and uninteresting battles, but the main issue is that fans don’t always know what they want. Grasping for the familiar is everyone’s gut reaction, but not necessarily the correct choice.

The problem with XIII is that it was already trying too hard to cling to the past. The development team involved didn’t construct all of our favorites, yet they are trying to implement all of the series’s mainstays. XIII-2 perpetuates this attitude of “We don’t care what the game is like, just give us ATB, moogles, and spiky hair!” The series found itself at a crossroads as a result of some bad timing. With the boom of open-world games and player-driven narratives, there’s an expectation for Final Fantasy to change alongside the evolution of other RPGs and to have a reason for its design decisions outside of providing fan service. Because Final Fantasy has been gliding on its laurels for so long, not even the fans actually know what they want except just another Final Fantasy. In XIII-2’s case, adding in more traditional elements didn’t make it a better game, it just shows how little ingenuity went into these games.

Something that did need to change from XIII is the battles and the strange dissonance that players feel when when they are used to controlling the actions of their party members. Instead, players were given a system that makes them a director or general, who manages tactics. XIII-2 doesn’t try to rectify that strange feeling of wanting to do more than wait to hit ‘Auto.’ Rather, it tries to add in more spice with monster collecting. Unfortunately, the monsters that the player collects actually hinder the team because they are only accessible by roles, and the main characters are typically better at said roles than the monsters. The Crystarium was only slightly edited, really just a glorified aesthetic makeover to typical leveling, as you can max out your characters’ abilities easily before the end of the game. This feels out of place in both games, whose narratives imply tactical moves and attention to cause and effect. It makes the beginning seem more interesting, but as you get closer to the end it becomes reminiscent of the blandness that was Final Fantasy XII’s class system at the end game. Square Enix tries to jam choice into a system that is not built for it. Something successful about XIII was how many elements reflected the dramatic situations of the characters. Choice wasn’t something those characters had the luxury of, rather, running and adapting was. And really, there is no choice in the narrative of XIII-2. Instead, the use of time travel gives the illusion of flexibility. The series has long relied on the illusion of choice to manage its narrative, and slapping on time travel to a game very focused on one particular event reveals the games’ innards, and they aren’t pretty.

Can this game placate fans upset about XIII? Sure. However, for anyone who mostly enjoyed or wanted something different from XIII, XIII-2 is going to look like a company grasping at straws to keep their cash cow intact. There are some that won’t blame Square Enix for regressing to serve its fans, but that doesn’t mean a good game is a result of doing so. It shows that the series is failing to adapt to the changing landscape of the gaming industry and is satisfied with just cranking out numbers instead of fantasies.

Speaking in Accents and the American Ethnocentrism in Video Games

Voice acting has become a staple in gaming that helps flesh out characters and setting. Abandoning the text-box provided a more intimate way for the game to connect to the player by expressing emotion and ideas in a way that they are more familiar with. The quality of voice acting in games is, of course, an area of contention, but when done properly, it adds brushstrokes to the aesthetics of the game. This is especially true for settings that benefit from characters having accents to imply nationality. The cultural politics that voice acting implies, however, often escape analysis. The default English accent is General American and deviations from this tap into a subtext that assumes an American player. How accents communicate information to the player exposes the subliminal effects of American ethnocentrism.

Looking at the voices chosen for the later Final Fantasy games reveal how conscious the video game industry is in having voiceover resonate with American players. There is critique about American culture in the very idea in how a foreign country would choose to best translate their characters. Exotification of both real-world cultures and in-game characters surfaces through the series’ presentation of accents. Final Fantasy XII and XIII use accents to imply regional differences rather than what normally would, the face. In Final Fantasy XII, most of the party has a General American accent, with florid vocabulary to make the setting reminiscent of “olde” times in Europe. This associates the American accent with the player, assumed as the default. Fran is the exception, but she is so in many respects: she’s the only non-human character in the party, the only non-white character, and also the most sexualized. Her odd Bjork-esque accent adds to her exotic characterization, though one could make a strong argument that Fran has the least personality of all of the party members in the game. With the Empire sporting England’s Received Pronunciation accent and while Rozzaria’s Al-Cid speaks with a Spanish one to match his exaggerated mannerisms, the player’s experience adds context to the notion that the politics of foreign countries decide the fate of their own if that player is American. This also takes place in Final Fantasy XIII, in which Fang and Vanille have Australian accents to designate their nationality, while Americans voice the rest of the cast. Along with their tribal inspired clothing and the uncultivated depiction of their home world, the Australian accent gives the American (and possibly other) players the subtext of the characters being wild and exotic. In a game that trumpets the theme of protecting the homeland from foreigners, the emphasized difference between the American- and Australian-voiced characters adds to the drama of the situation. This is absent for those who share the same stereotypical views that the US has about other cultures.

The Dragon Age series reappropriates accent dynamics for the assumed American player. Taking place in a fantasy setting, the dominant accent is the English Received Pronunciation. With this as the default, the other accents gain meaning through their interaction with the English: the Dalish speaking with Welsh accents, Orlesians are French, and Antivans Spanish. The treatment of these groups coincides with the stereotyping of their accents rather than their own in-game culture. This is especially true of Orlesians, as their voice acting is sometimes incomprehensible and usually humorous in its deprecating manner. What is surprising is the usage of American accents. City elves, dwarves, and the Qunari do not represent the default. Instead, American accents are a neutral sound because there doesn’t need to be any differentiation within these groups. This makes the American accent invisible so the player can focus on something other than their regional heritage. It uncovers what the developers wanted the audience to focus on with these groups: the classism of the dwarves, the absolute philosophical theocracy in Qunari culture, and how the city elves deal with racism (however there is little commentary on how humans are casually discriminatory towards them). In the cases of the humans and the Dalish, their regional differences are a core part of their story, so they receive European accents to illustrate their relationship to one another. Logically, American accents should sound out of place, as the continent remained undiscovered in the medieval Europe setting the series calls upon as its influence, but they actually do not as American accents are now what players in general have grown accustomed to as the default for video games.

The accents found in games don’t merely represent other people outside of the US, though but also groups within the country. Starcraft and games that use the “space marine aesthetic” often use American Southern accents to depict their characters, relying on many stereotypes of the South as unrefined and conservative. It’s no accident the game provides supplementary US Civil War Confederacy imagery to frame the context of their characters. Southern accents allow the player to understand the military of the future by having them relate to the usual trash-talking and attitudes assumed to be emblematic of those in the US’ current one. Instead of exploring the complexities of a Southern identity, the Starcraft series shows Southerners as unwanted and expendable. Players overlook this because the marines are like the outspoken bumpkins that American society at large has come to laugh at without reprimand. The player will rarely find wise, respected characters with Southern accents in their games; the General American accent or one of the many Northeastern ones allow for that role.

Realizing that development teams assume an American player as their audience can help diversify the setting and cast in video games. Accents can be more than flavor for a game’s aesthetics but also communicate cultural subtext that adds to the overall meaning of the game. Currently, games rely on an American perspective for characterization in a medium that is experienced internationally, and it’s time to question why this is. And as a community, move games into more of a shared global space.

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