Final Heroes

A thought I keep having lately:

What was the last Final Fantasy game with a male hero?

I don’t mean a male protagonist (Tidus) or a male viewpoint character (Vaan). There’s a difference, too, between being heroic and being a hero, and another between being a hero and being the hero. It’s the last of these senses that I’m interested in here.

I take ‘the hero’ of a story to be the character who saves whatever it is the story centres on the saving of (or, more likely, the character who leads whatever effort it is ultimately achieves that saving). A possible alternative account would be that the hero is the character on whose virtues and vices turns the saving whatever is to be saved. These are necessarily imprecise and shouldn’t be taken as ‘definitions’, just flexible guides to what I have in mind.


So, which Final Fantasy[1] last had a male hero?

Whatever Snow might think, it’s clearly not any of the FFXIII games. Taken as a trilogy, the hero is clearly Lightning. There are cases to be made that Fang and Vanille are the heroes of the first game, and Serah the hero of the second, though individuating the games like this risks losing nuances of the wider project.

I’ve dug into FFXII‘s Vaan before. Suffice it to say that, however important Vaan’s presence is to FFXII as a complete work, there is no plausible reading according to which he, rather than Ashe, is the hero. Similarly, Basch is too much Ashe’s follower, and Balthier altogether too superfluous, to displace her.

What about Tidus? FFX‘s protagonist is certainly more important to his game’s events than Vaan or Snow to theirs. I think it’s clear, though, that his metaphysical alienation from the modern Spira limits his ability to actually save anything. He supports Yuna’s effort to save the world, definitely, and does so in ways that no other character does or could, but ultimately Yuna does the saving, and so is the hero.

I think it’s fairly uncontroversial to say that both FFVII and FFVIII have male heroes. I don’t really know FFIX well enough as yet to make a judgement – I’m eagerly awaiting the Steam release to rectify this oversight – but my impression is that things are more balanced between Zidane and Garnet than between, say, Squall and Rinoa. Even if hero duties ultimately fall squarely to Zidane, though, it’s been fifteen-plus years since Square/Enix released a Final Fantasy whose hero was male.

I’m not saying this to attribute some great feminist virtue to Square’s developers (in fact the opposite could be argued), nor as a simplistic defence of FFXV‘s all-male central cast, though I do think it establishes a context that makes the latter phenomenon more interesting. Instead I want to look at it as interrelated with (either caused by, a cause of, or some mix of the two) a general shift in how Final Fantasy has presented and engaged with the concept of heroism, and videogame heroism specifically.

There are multiple ways to state my underlying thesis, none of them perfect:

  • ‘Heroism’ is a male concept and in trying to create female heroes, Squenix designers had to develop a new concept of heroism.
  • In trying to develop new, more critical notions of ‘heroism’, Squenix designers found it necessary to dissociate heroism from male characters.
  • The way we relate to traditional notions of heroism is such that any female character placed in a heroic role will seem masculine.
  • The way we relate to traditional notions of heroism is such that any female character placed in a heroic role will seem implausible.

I could go on, but I’ve made enough of a mess already. Some of these claims require sociological or psychological evidence I’m not qualified or trained to obtain. Others would at least require some journalism I’m not willing or able to do. It is difficult to state a ‘purely aesthetic’ thesis as such, though, particularly since nothing can be ‘purely aesthetic’ in this sense; the use of socio-political signposts is inescapable.

Still, there are enough different approaches here that we can do some triangulating. Clearly, the nature of (video game) heroism is central to what I’m getting at. So is some idea of associations between aspects of that nature and gender. Both the perspectives on gender held by specific individuals – designers and writers employed at various times by Square/Enix – and those that exist as more general patterns in our society[2] are called into question.

Heroism

I’ve written before about the idea of ‘hero privilege‘, a distinctive way in which characters framed as heroes in fantasy stories relate to the societies that they move through. It can be summed up this way: because a hero encodes a normative value (i.e. heroism requires or entails ‘doing good’), if they come into conflict with society over a question of value, the hero defaults to being morally right. If society opposes the hero, society is in the wrong.

This means that things which we ordinarily value, like democracy, self-determination, free agency and human rights, if they belong to characters who are tokens of society in a heroic narrative, may be overridden. The people (or at least people-tokens) who make up a society can be comprehensively dehumanised purely because they stand between the hero and objectives the hero has deemed necessary.

This pattern is found across a wide range of media involving the heroic fantasy narrative (the most familiar example may be the police drama where the hero ‘goes rogue’ in order to stop a criminal who has evaded the legitimate methods of law enforcement), but it becomes particularly pernicious, I think, in video games. In some ways, JRPGs are most at risk of this problem, though the genre has also produced some of my favourite critical engagements with it.

Video games generally, or at least single-player-centric ones, naturally give a special place to one particular character or character-token – the one controlled by the player. Often games do their best to pretend otherwise, but characters in a game apart from those controlled by the player are not fully-rounded human beings with agency of their own.

What values a game ultimately expresses, then, will be shaped at least in significant part by the way the relationship between the player character and others is handled. If the player character is allowed to relate to the rest of their world’s population as an abstraction only, a blob of simulated humanity to be saved or ignored, it suggests endorsement of the player character’s ‘specialness’ – and possibly by extension treats the player themselves as special. Lana Polansky has written persuasively about how limiting this can be.

On the other hand, if other characters in the world are allowed to challenge the hero, if the hero’s rightness isn’t guaranteed, something much more nuanced can emerge. In ‘real life’, we have to deal with clashes of value and conflicting interests all the time. Our art should be able to engage with this, but it can’t if one particular position or point of view within the work is given huge special treatment.

JRPGs tend to represent society in more abstract ways than most games[3]. Towns will be represented by a handful of NPCs, a couple of houses and a shop which sketches a hint of an economic situation. Social authority is often reserved solely for traditional authority figures – kings, parents, teachers – while other characters are little more than walking signposts.

This means that JRPGs are particularly susceptible to this problem. The player characters are often the only ones able to travel from town to town; they often become absurdly, economy-devastatingly rich; to add unimpeachable moral authority to that is to completely dismiss any humanity that ‘ordinary’ people in this fictional world might possess.

To their credit, narratively-focussed franchises like Tales and even Final Fantasy have done their best to engage with this. Still, the iconic Final Fantasy heroes, Cloud and Squall, certainly benefit from elements of this privilege. Cloud, particularly, exists in a world where the only major authority, the Shinra corporation, is clearly coded as evil. There is seldom any question over whether Cloud is right to challenge them, and, apart from other playable characters, he is seldom answerable to anyone else over whether or not he does.

Cloud and Squall are both presented as loners. The female heroes of the 21st-century Final Fantasy games, though, are more commonly seen in group contexts. Nowhere is this more apparent than with Yuna; Tidus, the player’s viewpoint, spends the first third of the game watching Yuna interact with other people more than talking to her himself. On Besaid, Lulu and Wakka keep Tidus at arm’s length while the locals crowd around to wish Yuna well. At Kilika, Yuna tends to the traumatised community in the wake of Sin’s attack, more a priestess than a summoner.

It isn’t really until the infamous laughing scene at Luca that Tidus gets to connect with Yuna directly. After that, episodes involving the Crusaders’ Operation Mi’hen and Seymour’s wedding continue to emphasise how much Yuna is a part of Spiran society, how many different factions have an interest in her and compete to determine her actions.

When Yuna and her guardians do finally turn against the expectations of society, it’s a much less trivial thing than Cloud’s opposition to Shinra. And the weight of their decision is reinforced by a sequel in which the transformation of the religious order, and resulting schism in society, dominate much of the plot.

For Ashe, as a princess trying to restore her kingdom, relationships to society are even more complex. Much of Ashe’s journey is concerned with not just the fact but the legitimacy of her throne. Initially, she seeks proof of her lineage in order to appeal to such impartial authorities as Ivalice has, believing that if she can just establish herself as the legal ruler she will be able to at least negotiate with the occupying empire of Archadia.

When the Archadians reveal the extent to which they’re willing to use force regardless of any legal or traditional authority, Ashe’s quest switches to one for power. She seeks a weapon powerful enough to serve as a deterrent to further Imperial aggression. Much of what happens thereafter, though, from Vaan’s presence to the devastated ruins of Nabradia, is structured to reveal the absurd moral compromise that weapons of mass destruction entail.

To whatever extent Ashe actually earns legitimacy as a ruler in the story, it comes from giving up such power; from not only throwing away her own opportunity to wield it, but from working to dismantle and stop the superweapons of others. The gods of Ivalice offer her the weapon she seeks, but only after she refuses them and those who seek to unseat them can she actually restore her kingdom.

With Lightning, things are twistier still. Lightning has no great heralded societal place; she’s just a soldier. Being a soldier, and being the persona a woman – Claire Farron – has constructed in order to perform soldierhood, she is already divorced from the kind of social ties that Yuna and Ashe experience. By the start of FFXIII, Lightning has also cast off military authority and is acting on her own.

In fact, Lightning’s determined preference for acting alone rings throughout the trilogy, right up until the final hours of Lightning Returns (about which I don’t want to say too much because the Steam release is still fairly recent). But it does so because people keep placing demands on Lightning, not always without justification.

When Lightning frees Sazh in the middle of the Purge at the beginning of the game, she’s obviously frustrated at his tagging along – but what else can he do? The game makes clear that his options are go with Lightning or fight and most likely die alone. Later, in the Vile Peaks, it’s Hope who becomes the burden, this time grounded in a vague idea of connection between Lightning and Snow (of whom more later).

Lightning’s old military organisation tries to lay claim to her in its power struggle with other factions in Cocoon’s government. And there’s the overarching question of which fal’cie power has claimed the party and in doing so forced them together – Lightning spends a long time trying to ignore her brand in favour of saving Serah.

So while Lightning definitely aspires to the solitary freedom of the hero, Final Fantasy XIII keeps finding ways to deny it to her. In the second game, Lightning gets her solitude, at the expense of being totally narratively inert – literally trapped outside of time – and having the focus shift onto her sister.

Serah, by the way, is consistently shown as deeply engaged with communities and social ties. She’s a teacher, she lives with a group of close friends, her objectives in the game are always established according to the needs of local communities, and her only ‘heroic’ motivation is the restoration of her family, through getting Snow and Lightning back. The extent to which she’s defined by this signifiers of archetypal femininity is heavy-handed, even clumsy at times.

Lightning Returns crams Lightning into a cramped, closed-circle world stuffed full of individual NPCs with distinct needs and objectives. Since the player can only raise Lightning’s stats by completing their sidequests, Lightning is forced to draw power from specific social connections. Her only escape is to her base on the Ark, another place outside of time and space where Lightning can be a demigod, but only ineffectually.

LR also runs on a fixed internal clock – as long as Lightning is outside the Ark, time flows and cannot be clawed back. Sidequest-givers are only available at particular times, and once missed may be missed for good. The need to be in specific places at specific times to gain the power needed to complete the game is another way of limiting Lightning through social connections, of making concrete the demands society places on her.

Ultimately, the structure of the trilogy undercuts Claire Farron’s attempt to perform the ‘Lightning’ persona. Given that FFXIII director Motomu Toriyama specifically asked Tetsuya Nomura to design Lightning as “a female version of Cloud from FFVII“, the effect is a reflection on that earlier construction of the hero, and it shows just how far Final Fantasy‘s heroes have come.

I don’t want to sound like I’m dunking on Cloud – his story is interesting. It’s just the parts of it in which he is a hero, and the subsequent cultural understanding which remembers him purely as a brooding loner who fights Sephiroth, are among the least interesting. The story of Lightning, who wants to be the brooding loner fighting evil but is unable to deny the nuance demanded by her social and societal connections, addresses exactly this blind spot.

Gender

It’s possible to see this shift in Final Fantasy‘s heroes as a product of their various writers’ needs to break new storytelling ground – since at least Final Fantasy VII, Square Enix’s devs have been under intense pressure to take the lead in this area. The traditional construction of heroism is familiar, sometimes to the point of tedium, and attempts to move beyond it will almost inevitably require critical engagement with it. The switch to female heroes could be a coincidence.

But we should be careful not to understate what it means to be a coincidence. We needn’t prove that a decision to change to female heroes caused the shift in narrative types or vice versa in order to show that the two changes were connected. The link I want to argue for may be much subtler than direct one-way causation, but still much more substantial than coincidence.

Refining from my starting points, my claim is this: hero privilege and the more general male privilege are similar enough that we – and particularly the writers and narrative designers employed by mass-media companies like Square Enix – struggle to conceive of a character having one without the other. This is not to say that it’s impossible, just that it’s easy to not do. Standard ideas of innovation aren’t enough.

Try to imagine a male hero coerced into a political marriage, as Yuna is. Male heroic characters can have political and tactical marriages – FFXII‘s Prince Rasler, for example – but because society still treats the ‘husband’ role as the authoritative one, these cannot pose a threat to their agency in the way that marriage to Seymour might subordinate Yuna’s. To a male hero, a political marriage can be a tiresome but necessary symbol; to a female hero, it is by default an obstacle to be overcome, every bit as much as any boss fight.

Or consider the sequence in FFXII when Archadian officials steal the Dusk Shard from Ashe. Judge Ghis tells her, “We hold the proof of your royal lineage. A maid of passing resemblance will serve our purposes now.” Ashe’s body and person are dismissed outright. It is only Ashe-as-symbol that the antagonists are interested in, because no other part of Ashe presents a threat to them. It’s a very clear statement against heroic actions that it’s hard to imagine any but the youngest male heroes encountering. A male hero would normally never be reduced to his ‘passing resemblance’.

There’s another shift at work in the 21st-century Final Fantasies, too. Each game invokes male heroism in characters who ultimately prove ineffectual, or at least markedly less significant than their heroines.

Tidus is an endearing goof, sometimes important for his outsider’s ability to think the unthinkable and sometimes important for the party’s morale, but Yuna would have succeeded at being some kind of hero without him. Her place at the intersection of Yevon and Al Bhed cultures contributes as much to that as anything Tidus does.

Balthier is a more pitiful spectacle; a pampered rich kid playing at defiance and criminality as a flight from his troubled family situation. His repeated wisecracks about being ‘the leading man’, in context of the wider story, are a sad joke. Basch is a deeper character, but his narrative role is as little more than a vector for exposition and context.

With Snow in FFXIII, the franchise turned outright scornful. Snow is a childish fool whose playing at heroism, the game makes abundantly clear, gets people killed. That his gang’s epithet is NORA – ‘No Obligations, Rules or Authority’ – makes him the most pointed comment yet on the dangerous irresponsibility of hero-privilege narratives.

Again, it’s hard to imagine characters this ridiculous being female. A woman in the place of Snow or Balthier wouldn’t be tolerated by those around her, or if she was would be regarded much more clearly as repugnant by the majority of the games’ audiences. In mass media, men – or at least men who centrally benefit from male privilege, which is the group of men we see most of – get away with behaviour which from anyone else would be unacceptable.

Critiquing heroism goes hand-in-hand with critiquing masculinity, but that doesn’t mean that there can’t be better representations of either. Both Sazh (despite the harmful way his race is presented) and Hope in the FFXIII trilogy are given more nuanced treatment, a broad range of emotional expression and strong non-sexual social ties. Both are placed firmly in their social context and are answerable to other human beings.

Which leads naturally to the question of where Final Fantasy is headed next – Final Fantasy XV, a game with an apparently all-male playable cast, with director Hajime Tabata talking about a ‘boys will be boys’ story, that lifts the curtain on ‘what boys do when girls aren’t around’. Tabata’s remarks are at best an awkward misstep, and definitely troubling, but, well…

What if the game actually does offer an alternative? What if it gives us men who, at least in character if not in identity, aren’t like those we’re used to seeing? Some of the signifiers of hero privilege are present, like the characters having the freedom to travel into the unknown, but the journey, framed as a roadtrip, seems more aimless than many. So far it’s unclear what threatens the world, or how the characters’ journey is supposed to help.

Taken on its own, another game with an all-male cast is a tedious prospect. As inheritor of the modern Final Fantasy tradition (and, indeed, Tabata’s record for games that present healthier masculinities, like Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII), though, there is at least the possibility of something more.


[1] I want to limit this to the ‘major releases’, but this is increasingly difficult to define. ‘Home console releases’ is more precise and I think captures what people mean when they muse about the trends, destiny and/or fate of the franchise. Let’s assume for now that the MMOs, FFXI and FFXIV, can be safely overlooked, as well as handheld and mobile spinoffs. The Fabula Nova Crystallis (FFXIII) sequence is so coherent as a trilogy that I feel justified including all three games, though Type-0, as a handheld spinoff that was later ported to home consoles, is a tricky one, and entirely available as a gotcha against my pitch.

[2] It’s vital to recognise that in certain crucial respects, Squenix’s staff have never been members of our society. This limits what I can say because, again, I am not sociologist (or anthropologist) enough to have significant insight into the construction of gender in Japanese culture. I can talk from my own experience of our ‘Western’ (better: Anglo-American) culture, and I can speculate to an extent on how Final Fantasy games have increasingly been developed for an international market and audience, but these don’t entitle me to leap the cultural gap.

[3] And to do so more as a matter of conscious choice than as a response to technological limitation, though certainly the traditional abstractions of the JRPG started as a response to technological constraints. To whatever extent ‘the JRPG’ is a coherent concept, it has always valued ‘realism’ (or ‘literalism’, or even just ‘the concrete’) less than western RPGs and other genres.

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3 thoughts on “Final Heroes

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