Final Fantasy XV drew some raised eyebrows from certain quarters for its focus on an all-male cast, but this was a specific decision made in order to support the overall tone and character of the story.
Despite what this might sound like, however, Final Fantasy XV does not make any particular effort to explore concepts such as traditional (or indeed “toxic”) masculinity and the like. In fact, at numerous points over the course of its narrative, it subverts expectations through the interactions between its main cast and the supporting characters.
Not only that, unlike most previous Final Fantasy titles, the experience is not intended purely to be judged on its main scenario. Instead, as we explored last time, much like other Japanese attempts at open-world games such as the Xenoblade Chronicles series, the intention is clearly to build up a comprehensive picture of how the game world as a whole works, supporting the main scenario with numerous intertwining side stories and background lore to create a setting that feels well-crafted and truly alive.
Let’s talk about the game’s main cast first of all. Noctis and his three companions are all male, but within the group they represent a broad array of archetypes.
Noctis, for example, could easily be judged by his appearance to be a stoic, taciturn sort of character — an impression further supported by Prompto’s exhortations for him to “show a bit of emotion” when he lands a particularly impressive catch in the fishing minigame — but throughout the narrative he’s revealed to be rather more hotheaded, impulsive and emotional. Part of this is a reference to the player being in control of him; he is only as impulsive as the person holding the controller, after all, but this means that any dangerous situations the team get into are usually the choice of the player.
Perhaps the best example of this is during the postgame when a battle against the mountain-sized Adamantoise becomes available. Said beast is visible from a good half a mile away, and as the party approaches — led by the player making a specific choice to head in that direction — Noct’s companions, particularly Prompto, start to show increasing signs of uneasiness, asking whether they’re really going to take on something that is quite literally a living mountain. Assuming the player continues to approach, “Noct’s” determination wins over the party, and the group take on the monster in a battle that takes a good hour or two of real time to complete.
Noct, being one of the youngest characters besides Prompto, is also a character most prone to making mistakes, and then dwelling on them after the fact. This is seen most clearly during the aftermath of the events in Altissia during the main scenario quests, when Noct blames himself for the injuries his companions suffer. Gladio in particular at this point doesn’t disagree with Noct for his self-flagellation, but through a bit of “tough love” encourages him to start acting a bit more like the king he is than an angsty teenager. It’s a difficult moment to be a part of, particularly as the group have been so close-knit in the game up until this point, but it’s ultimately important for Noct’s character arc as a whole.
Noct’s propensity to make mistakes is reflected in more subtle ways throughout the game, too. Switching weapons, for example, causes an array of spectral implements to manifest themselves around Noct, and if one of these grazes a companion, they will complain, encouraging both Noct and the player to be a bit more considerate. Similarly, during combat, if Noct gets hit or whiffs an attack, Prompto will occasionally ask “if you just…” to which Noct will hastily reply “You saw nothing!” as if ashamed of his inability to immediately be perfect at everything he does.
Prompto, meanwhile, is in many ways the opposite of Noctis. In the companion Brotherhood anime we see a young, overweight Prompto attempting to better himself and develop the confidence to even speak to the young prince, while in the game itself we see a Prompto who has learned to accept himself for the most part. The Prompto of Final Fantasy XV acknowledges that he’s not perfect or as skilled as his companions — indeed, he frequently simply falls over mid-combat, much to the chagrin of Gladio in particular — but during times of adversity simply picks himself up, dusts himself off and attempts to maintain an air of positivity. Even during the difficult middle chapters of main scenario, Prompto is the one who is trying hardest to keep the group coherent, and to not let bitterness and resentment get the better of a mutual friendship and sense of respect that has, by this point, lasted for a number of years.
At least part of Prompto’s self-acceptance is a facade, though. During the early hours of the game, an optional conversation with Noct sees Prompto express a certain degree of doubt in himself — in particular, whether or not he is “worthy” to be travelling with Noctis and his other companions. He acknowledges the fact that he is not as skillful or well-trained as Ignis or Gladio in particular, and wonders whether he should even be on the journey with the rest of the party. To an extent, he’s fishing for Noct’s approval at this point — something which Brotherhood demonstrated that he’s always been keen to do — but this moment is as much about him convincing himself that he’s worthy to be a part of the group as it is hearing it from Noct’s lips.
Later in the game, we learn exactly where Prompto’s sense of self-doubt and whether or not he truly “belongs” has come from, though by this point it’s immediately obvious that he’s already proved himself. His background, however “unsavoury” he might believe it to be, is irrelevant to Noct and his companions; so far as they’re concerned, he’s an important part of the group, if not for his skill then certainly for his important role in keeping morale up.
In contrast to the youthful Noctis and Prompto, meanwhile, both Ignis and Gladio represent different “big brother” archetypes. Ignis demonstrates his maturity through calm detachment and an ability to endure even the most terrible hardships without complaint, while Gladio is the literal embodiment of the strong, confident, self-assured masculine ideal, though somewhat prone to overreaction and aggressiveness when perhaps a more measured approach would be more appropriate.
Interestingly, while Gladio can be interpreted to be the most obvious representation of a “male power fantasy”, Noct shows little to no interest in aspiring to be like him. During the groups visit to Lestallum, for example, Noct complains about the heat, and Gladio encourages him to take his shirt off and go bare-chested like he does. Noct refuses, not wishing to exhibit himself in such an obvious, vulgar manner. Gladio berates him for this, accusing him of lacking confidence in his own body, though Noct protests, claiming that he “has muscle”, just no desire to flaunt it.
Ignis, meanwhile, has a much more solid understanding of the party dynamic than Gladio does. Gladio’s suggestions are frequently given in an order-like tone, while Ignis offers suggestions that he makes clear are Noct’s choice whether to follow or not. He also recognises Noct’s inherent authority as the king, deferring to his final judgement even after giving his own opinion on the situation.
Indeed, the only time we ever see Ignis crack is during the difficult middle hours of the main story, where his injuries make him something of a burden on the group as a whole. He does not apologise for this, however — after all, it was Noct’s choice to bring him along, rather than Ignis’ insistence — but instead we see him expressing rare anger and frustration at the bickering between Gladio and Noct in particular. Ultimately it’s this surprising deviation from Ignis’ typically calm demeanour that snaps the two out of being at each other’s throats, rather than Gladio’s aggressive and repeated insistence that Noct start “acting like a king”.
The game’s female characters represent an interesting contrast from their male counterparts, and few make this more immediately apparent than the first one the group encounters: mechanic Cindy, daughter of the obligatory Cid and one of the most capable characters in the whole game.
Cindy has drawn criticism from “progressive” critics primarily for her appearance, though ironically this literal objectification of her without any consideration of her personality and abilities demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of her importance to the game as a whole. Not only is it clear that her choice of attire is a direct consequence of the environment she works in — she toils away on hot machinery in an enclosed space in an area of the game world that both NPCs and party members frequently complain is far too warm to be comfortable — but she also makes it immediately apparent from the very outset that she is far more capable when it comes to engineering than any of the main cast members.
The game as a whole opens with the party’s car having broken down, after all, and Cindy is the one who gets it back on the road again, since none of the men in the main cast know what to do with it. In a world where, at the time of writing, there is a strong push to get more women involved in science, technology, engineering and mathematical (STEM) disciplines, Cindy is, on the whole, a pretty positive role model, even if she’s not a directly playable character.
Cindy’s not the only female character with extremely positive traits, however. Gladio’s sister Iris comes at things from another angle by initially appearing to be obviously feminine and “girly”, though it becomes apparent that’s she’s an intelligent, capable and determined young woman in her own right. Indeed, shortly before the party as a whole sets off for Altissia, it’s Iris who helps to set up a makeshift base for the party and takes care of those who have been displaced or suffered tragedy thanks to the Niflheim Empire’s machinations. Iris doesn’t make a big deal about how capable she actually is; she just quietly gets on with things, content to work in the shadows.
And then there’s Aranea Highwind, who is initially presented to the party as an antagonist, but is subsequently revealed to be a mercenary for hire rather than someone particularly loyal to the empire. Aranea is the character most similar to previous “strong women” in the Final Fantasy series; she carries a particular resemblance in both bearing and personality to Lightning from the Final Fantasy XIII series, though has a rather more playful and cheerful side to her, and is confident to express her femininity through her attire, which both resembles the traditional Final Fantasy dragoon armour and leaves the viewer in absolutely no doubt as to the gender of the person wearing it.
Aranea demonstrates her capability to the party firstly by fighting against them during a raid on an Imperial base, then subsequently by escorting them through a dungeon and later assisting with relief efforts following further Imperial incursions. Her impulsive, carefree nature is also occasionally demonstrated through the game mechanics; when fighting demons out on the road at night, Aranea will occasionally show up in her airship, drop down to assist in the battle then be on her way. She’s become a fan favourite for good reason; while she’s only in the story for a short period, she leaves quite an impression.
And then, of course, we come to Lunafreya, Noctis’ love interest and the main driving force behind the story’s opening hours. Luna is another character who has drawn some criticism from progressive quarters for supposedly falling into the “woman in refrigerator” trope — putting a character with whom the protagonist has emotional investment into a dangerous or even fatal situation as a quick, cheap way to inspire anger — but what this criticism fails to take into account is that at no point in the story has Luna done anything against her will. On the contrary, everything she does — in both the prequel Kingsglaive movie and Final Fantasy XV itself — is on her own initiative, up to and including putting herself in mortal danger.
Luna knows that she has an important role to fulfil as Oracle, and recognises Noctis’ importance as the one who will put an end to the Starscourge long before even he does. As such, her selfless actions throughout Kingsglaive and Final Fantasy XV are all in service of successfully delivering the Ring of the Lucii to Noctis so he can fulfil his destiny. She doesn’t resent what she has to do, and does so willingly; there are many points in the story where she could have simply walked away and refused to proceed further, but she knows that there are more important things at stake than her own life, so she proceeds in the name of the greater good rather than self-interest: the very essence of what an Oracle is supposed to do.
Luna’s role in the story in many ways mirrors that of Yuna in Final Fantasy X: she has a mission to fulfil in the name of helping out the world as a whole, and in performing this mission she will likely have to put herself in danger or even die. Both Yuna and Luna have completely accepted this role by the time we meet them for the first time, and both proceed on their respective journeys with no regrets, even knowing that they will leave loved ones behind. This is in stark contrast to Noctis, who on more than one occasion struggles with the burden that has been placed on him by higher powers; indeed, as the game’s finale shows, it takes him a very long time to get to a position where he is able to face what he has to do without fear or doubt.
In many ways, Final Fantasy XV subverts expectations with its characterisation. Not only are many of the female characters in the narrative by far the most capable, but the main cast are also far more likely to demonstrate stereotypically “feminine” characteristics than their female counterparts. Indeed, in the game’s final hours, it’s the women in the supporting cast such as Cindy, Aranea and Iris who are rallying the game world’s population with grim-faced determination while Noctis and his friends are so uneasy about what is to come that their heartbreaking final campsite scene sees Noct bursting into tears and telling his companions how much he loves them.
In short, despite Final Fantasy XV’s focus on an all-male playable cast, the game as a whole is far from an exploration of male power fantasies and toxic masculinity as some critics have accused it. On the contrary, it ultimately turns out to carry the overall positive message that both men and women are equally capable of being strong and talented in their fields — and also, at times, of being filled with doubt, lacking self-confidence or hesitating prior to doing what needs to be done.
To put it another way, everyone, regardless of their biological characteristics or their supposed preordained destiny, is only human, and all we can do at any point is quite simply make the best of what we have available to us.
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