Women in Video Games: What FFXII got right

In the past several month the video game critic Jim Sterling made several of videos about female characters in video games. One deals with the video game industry’s deliberate culling of female protagonists, the other about how we actually need to talk about gender issues in the media instead of getting into rabid arguments, both of which struck a chord with me.

So today, I want to talk about one of my favorite video games and what I think they did well in regards to their female characters. I’m not going to be completely criticism-free, but I do want to focus on the things I really liked about how SquareEnix treated the female characters in the hopes they’ll continue to do so in the future. This is my attempt to throw something constructive into the internet gender-issues-in-gaming debate.

I will start with a couple of over-arching things, and then go into the specific female characters.

OVERALL
First of all: even gender distribution. There are six playable character, three male and three female. Awesome. They’re all fairly equal to each other in terms of base stats, and you can customize any character to have whatever power setup you want. Even more awesome.

Main Character: That’s an…interesting question.

For the male characters we have…

Vaan: teenage street-urchin who’s main goal in life is to be a sky-pirate

Balthier: The real sky-pirate. Similar to Han Solo, only with less Gruff-Cowboy and more Upbeat-Dashing-Swordsman (except with guns).

Basch: The honorable warrior struggling to “atone” for his “failure” to save his kingdom. The Ned Stark who somehow managed to keep his head.

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From left: Balthier, Vaan, and Basch

So for the main character we have…well, Basch was supposed to be the main character but was ditched by game developers because of his age, Balthier who thinks he’s the main character, Vaan who’s officially the main character, and…Ashe, who I would argue is the real main character.

My reasons being as follows:

The protagonist of a story is the one who’s journey the story focuses on…the story should be about the protagonist’s actions, experiences and how they grow and change in pursuit of their goal.

While the game is certainly told from Vaan’s point of view (sort of), most of what he does is whine about how he want’s to be a sky-pirate. He nominally wants vengeance on the Empire for his brother’s death, sure, but throughout the game it just feels like he’s “along for the ride”.

The entire story however, revolves around both the plot of a dethroned princess trying to reclaim her kingdom and the metaphorical issue of what it means for humankind to control it’s own destiny. Ashe is the one that wrestles with both of those, not Vaan. It’s not egregious, but it seems to be part of a trend of video games to downplay female protagonists in favor of male ones (that said, SquareEnix went on to heavily promote Lightning as the main character in FFXIII, so I’m not going to complain too much).

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At least Ashe is the biggest head on the cover art.

Moving on to the specific characters…

PENELO

Penelo is the younger sister archetype to Vaan, of the “younger-in-years-older-in-maturity” variety. She’s sweet, sensible, and forthright.

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As with many younger sister archetypes, she gets kidnapped fairly early on in the game…

…and I’m actually okay with it. In fact, I think this game provides a good example for a “Damsel in Distress” done correctly.

Damsels in distress are a problem because there are so many of them, reinforcing the notions that women are there as a prize for the male hero, or at least that women can’t take care of themselves. The most egregious offenders are works where a woman suffers from “chickification”, where a capable, competent woman suddenly and inexplicably becomes completely useless/helpless. That’s not to say all kidnapped/captive women are objects…there are a few out there who still serve the story as a real character with agency and depth even if they’re physically weak.

The problem is just that…only a few. Most D.I.D. plotlines remove the woman as an active agent in the story, removing them from the sight of the audience so they can watch the male hero doing Heroic Things (or the villain do Villanous Things to his captive).

The reason I am completely okay with Penelo’s Damsel-in-Distress moment is because it’s her springboard for becoming part of the main plot instead of removing her from it (it’s actually what ends up drawing everyone together into the party), and because her character isn’t shafted in order to accommodate it. Penelo is a physically small girl/young woman who at that point has had virtually no combat experience, so yes it makes sense she would be overpowered by a group of seasoned bounty-hunters, and afterwards she gets progressively more badass along with the rest of the group.

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Kidnapping/capturing plotlines are fine when they include characters in the plot rather than exclude them…without this kidnapping Penelo would have stayed back in Dalmasca being a street urchin and would never have gotten involved as one of the heroes.

The other big reason I give this one a free pass is because this kidnapping has NOTHING to do with the glorification of the male heroes.

You can tell because she never gets rescued.

No, really. The bounty hunters are after Balthier, and kidnap her to lure Balthier into a trap. Once they think he’s in the trap…they just let her go. She wanders off, gets her own side-plot, and everyone eventually meets up later. At which point Penelo permanently joins the party and from then on holds her own as a combatant. The whole point of the kidnapping is to draw the heroes to Where Plot is Happening, rather than give the heroes someone to rescue because they need to look heroic.

ASHE (Princess Ashelia Dalmasca)

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I’ve never particularly liked Ashe. She’s certainly competent, but she’s very cold emotionally and generally keeps herself aloof from the more “common” characters, and I never really related to her.

But one day I realized something.

Culturally we have certain expectations for women. They are expected to be more caring, emotionally nurturing, and self-sacrificing than men, and these ideals are so ingrained that we are naturally distrustful of any woman that doesn’t meet those expectations. As an extension, we tend to take issue with women who are ambitious, who desire or claim power for themselves rather than supporting or caring for the needs of another person…thus cultural works tend to have issues with Queens.

Princesses are stereotypically sweet and pretty and innocent and everyone except the villain loves them. Sometimes the princesses are more headstrong and rebellious, but a noted problem in fiction is that a good benevolent female ruler in her own right is still usually called a princess rather than a queen. Also, If a queen has a king for her to be the “supportive wife” of, she’s usually good.

But if not…odds are she’s going to be evil. If she calls herself queen, she will probably be cruel, ruthless, proud/vain, vengeful, power-hungry, and independent of the male king who would normally reign her in (also prone to shouting “FOOLS!”). Historically this trope has been applied to real female rulers even if they were decent at the job. Even today we tend to be wary of independent women with political power.

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From top left: Cersei Lannister (Game of Thrones), Jadis the White Witch (the Chronicles of Narnia), “Evil Queen” (Snow White), Catherine de Medici, Queen of France from 1547 to 1559.

So then you have Ashe. Yes, she’s a princess, but it’s noted in-universe that she should be queen since her father is dead, she just can’t be crowned due to the Evil Empire takeover of her kingdom. More importantly, she desperately wants to regain the throne and take power. She’s proud, cold and unsympathetic, and very, very much wants to avenge herself on the empire for her father, her husband and her kingdom. While she had a husband, she is now a widow and shows no indication of taking another partner.

She’s a royal who’s emotionally harsh, power-hungry, vengeful, and independent of a male counterpart.

AND THEY MADE HER A GOOD GUY.

THANK YOU! THANK YOU SQUARE ENIX FOR TURNING THIS TROPE ON IT’S HEAD!!!

And since she’s one of the heroes and arguably the main character of this story, she gets to work through and resolve her issues. No tragic death scene where she tearfully confesses to the heroes what led her down this dark road, no screaming in dismay at those darn kids who foiled her beautiful wickedness.

As much as she wants to reclaim her throne and be crowned Queen, she is eventually willing to set that quest aside when she realizes there are more pressing issues. As much as she wants vengeance (and the gods in this game manipulate her HARD towards taking  her revenge), she eventually chooses to put her grief to rest, defy the gods, and find a path that doesn’t involve this universe’s version of Weapons of Mass Destruction.

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In the end she becomes queen, and (based the Epilogue) serves as a good one.

(I would also like to point out this is one of the few examples I can think of where the MALE spouse/S.O. is “stuffed in the fridge”,a.k.a. is killed off before the start of the game/movie to provide a driving motivator for the protagonist)

FRAN

I really like Fran. But I have to get this out of the way first.

This is her character design.

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*sigh*

And it’s not just her…her entire species is dressed like that. Unfortunately…there’s just no way to look at her without thinking…

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Don’t get me wrong…I think the armor in and of itself is beautiful, and I’ve even considered doing a cosplay of Fran. And yes, I realize this is Final Fantasy, for which (like many other video games) crazy, impractical costumes are a tradition.

But did they HAVE to look like playboy bunnies?

One of my hopes for the video game industry is that more game-makers will realize that they don’t need to make female characters visually titillating for them to be interesting/marketable. A woman does not need to be attractive to be interesting.

Playboy bunny outfit aside, however, here is what I really like about what they did with Fran’s character.

She’s the reserved-but-competent Captain’s-copilot archetype (the Chewbacca to Balthier’s Han Solo, essentially). Her partnership with the smooth, suave Balthier is one of the unexplained mysteries of the game, but they’re always fun to watch.

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In fact, one of my biggest disappointments of the game was that it never goes in the backstory of how they teamed up…but again, one day I realized something.

Fran’s backstory is delved into a fair amount when the party ends up in Magical Forest on a sidequest and meets Fran’s native village…and sisters, one of whom is the village elder.  It is revealed that Fran chose to leave home to explore the world, but at the expense of her membership in the tribe. The party has to rescue her younger sister, and then Fran coaxes her to not make the same choices she made.

This is where I give Square Enix another bunch of props. This plot segment is the reason FFXII passes the bechdel test with flying colors,

They COULD have gone into how Balthier and Fran got together (I’m still very curious) but they didn’t. They gave Fran her own backstory. As much fun as their relationship is, it’s still a female-supports-male relationship which could have gotten even more limelight, but instead the game did a segment on her personal life that’s all-female.

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This is relatively rare in media. As the distribution of those works that pass the Bechdel test will show, movies, TV, literature, and video games assume that women’s lives, stories, and experiences are less interesting or relevant than men’s, ESPECIALLY when they only involve women. There are plenty of grand, funny, epic, tragic, and every-day stories about men doing things together, but very few about women doing the same things…and when there are they’re usually relegated to being “chick-flicks” and are considered to be lesser quality. This encourages the idea that women aren’t important when they’re not supporting men.

Because of this, I give kudos to Square Enix for having a decent female character, and for showcasing the part of her life that involves other women as the most important part of her development.

In conclusion…I loved this game to begin with, and after the brainstorming I did for this post, I have even more reasons to do so. Thanks SquareEnix, and keep up the good work!

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