Tag Archives: criticism

Another Boyband Saving The World

So Final Fantasy XV is finally coming out ‘soon,’ with the demo dropping recently. The game’s been on my radar since the debut trailer for Final Fantasy Versus XIII (as it was called then) was released almost nine years ago and as a fan of the Final Fantasy series — mostly because I plain love a good JRPG (there’s something fun about Japanese melodrama and saving the world) — I’m quite eager to see how this game works and if it’s any good.

As we’ve slowly found out more about the game, however, I’m a little annoyed that the game essentially features what looks like a boyband as the main characters. It’s disappointing to see yet another male dominated video game, but certainly not a deal breaker, least at this stage. That said, I’m curious as to the reasoning behind them going in this direction. Fortunately, game director Hajime Tabata explained why:

“Speaking honestly, an all-male party feels almost more approachable for players. Even the presence of one female in the group will change their behaviour, so that they’ll act differently. So to give the most natural feeling, to make them feel sincere and honest, having them all the same gender made sense in that way,”

This is where things start to really bother me: I don’t see how having a more diverse cast would be less approachable. These days around half of gamers are women and if we want video games as a genre to grow up we’ve gotta get away from this girls-have-cooties mentality that’s permeated the industry for far too long.

It’s especially frustrating that it comes a part of Final Fantasy of all things. The series has usually been quite good at representation, with the games featuring multiple female party members who often had an important role in the story beyond being damseled. The latest major installment, XIII had a woman as protagonist, something I talked about in my first post here three years ago. Not every game needs a female protagonist, but that doesn’t excuse making the game about a boyband.

Now Tabata does have some good intentions. He wants to get into the private life of men and stuff I’ve read about the game has said that the game does feature its male characters openly showing affection to each other. Which is actually really cool (suck it, patriarchy!). An unironic, actually honest look at a bromance is possibly as rare as strong female protagonists. There’s a reason one of my favorite moments in the finale of  Agent Carter was Howard Stark admitting that he loved Steve Rogers and missed him. I am so down for more honest bromances in fiction.

But I do not believe that this has to be an either-or scenario. I think we can have a single story or game that features both male intimacy and strong female characters — especially since Final Fantasy games usually take well over thirty hours to complete. Final Fantasy XIII had a mixed cast, but had some great scenes between sisters Lightning and Serah. If it’s vitally important for there to be chunks of time with the guys alone, then why not split the party? Final Fantasy VIII did it sixteen years ago, why not do it again?

I realize that in some ways I’m splitting hairs here, and we still have an indeterminate time before launch during which, unlikely as it is, things may change for Final Fantasy XV. I’m probably going to play the game at some point too; this isn’t a boycott. But I love video games and representation matters as much as defying gender norms about men. In an ideal world, we could do both at once and I don’t see why Tabata’s game couldn’t be that ideal world.

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Keeping Pace

I rant write a lot about genres and mediums. Discussing what’s considered art, or why science fiction is important. As I’ve said, a lot stories get dismissed simply because they take place in space or in the pages of a comic book.

Which is a bummer.

Especially considering the novel used to be held up as a lesser form. See, poetry used to be seen as being superior to the novel. Allen Tate, critic and generally important writer, thought that it was until Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary that the medium of the novel caught up. Not surpassed, mind you, caught up. It took a staggering amount of time, given that the novel came into being in 1008 or 1605 (depending on if you see The Tale of Genji or Don Quixote as the birth of the novel) and Madame Bovary wasn’t written until 1856. Way Tate sees it, most things written before then failed to measure up to the perfection of poetry. That means Gulliver’s Travels and Pride and Prejudice may have been good, but as a medium as a whole weren’t nearly good as a poem. The medium just wasn’t elevated enough.

These days novels are seen as being pretty darn artistic. Movies – the medium, if not all genres – too have grown up and are held up as another Paragon of Good Culture. These mediums are important, y’hear; a serious movie or book matters. Least that’s how it is now, anyway.

Right now, video games are to film as novels were to poetry in the days of Tate. Games are slowly catching up to film with regards to not just narrative, but also with technical prowess. Though supposedly still ignored by mainstream critics, gaming has been steadily getting better and better, with games like The Last of Us mining great emotional depths, BioShock: Infinite reconciling mechanics and story, and Papers Please showing off the potential of immersion. They’re becoming a medium, an art form, unto themselves. They are set apart from existing artistic mediums by the potential for audience involvement, like projection and empathy. Games are doing big things.

What’s interesting is that gaming started out so, well, basic. Spacewar! and Pong were hardly intended as the forerunners of gaming as we know it. They’ve long been seen as hobbies and ‘just’ games, like playing pretend or model making. So there’s a weird sort of pubescence that video games are going through as they go not from a pulpy form of storytelling, but from hobby to art form.

This is where comes the push back, because gaming is suddenly forced to confront the same literary criticism that other mediums are held up to. For so long gaming has been seen as simple amusement, that there’s almost a sort of culture shock as more critical lenses are applied to it. You don’t have to look hard on the internet to hear the cries of gamers who want games to be left out of this sort of scrutiny.

Literary criticism is incredibly important, especially in a nascent medium like video games. This can mean asking hard questions, like why are so many games about white men? Why are we usually fighting faceless, vaguely brown enemies? What is it with video games and portraying women as helpless sex objects? Seriously, what’s with all the white guys? There needs to be a discussion over topics like these and there needs to be a change in the way games handle these topics.

And in response, some games are becoming more self-aware. The new Tomb Raider eschews Lara’s previous sexualization for a characterization more befitting being a ‘female Indiana Jones’ and Spec Ops: The Line brutally destroyed the tropes of the military shooter. Moving things even further, Thomas Was Alone and Gone Home are modern games that don’t have you fighting enemies to progress, yet remain compelling games.

We need more of this. For games to really stand alongside film and books as not just legitimate, but accepted forms of storytelling there needs to be a conversation. It can’t just be independent developers making games that aren’t about violence and movies without white male protagonists shouldn’t be the exception. We’ve got a new medium here, one with great and new potential, it’s time we start treating it seriously.

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