When I first heard that FFXV was going to break with franchise tradition by having an all-male central team, I was more than a little surprised. Final Fantasy has always been distinguished as much by its memorable – and central – female characters as by any other element; which is why, somewhat paradoxically, I never felt particularly angry about the switch, either. As a whole, video games are still male-dominated in a way that frequently sets my teeth on edge, but Final Fantasy has a strong line of credit with me: whatever my thoughts on the state of gaming as an industry – and while criticism of Square Enix’s decision in this context is nonetheless valid – I felt I could still attempt the game itself.
Thus far, at roughly eight hours in – which is, I’m aware, not very far at all – I’m enjoying myself immensely, though possibly not in a way that was intended. And in order to satisfactorily explain why that is, I first need to say a little about my history with the franchise.
The first Final Fantasy I ever played was VIII, which always made me something of an oddity among my friends: unlike everyone who started the series at VII or earlier, I had no established sense of how the combat system ought to work, and so took the VIII model, which was a widely-hated departure from canon, as my yardstick for the series. This meant I was not only frustrated by the traditional setup used in VII and IX, but irritated by the more cartoonish character designs. Which isn’t to say that I disliked either game, exactly: just that they were always less beloved to me than VIII and, later on, X and XII, whose advanced graphics and combat systems more closely resembled what VIII had been trying – with, admittedly, more ambition than success – to achieve.
Even now, XII remains my favourite Final Fantasy. The writing and voice acting were both incredible, and even though Vaan, rather than Ashe, was the POV character, I loved the departure from canon that made him a non-romantic participant in her narrative. By contrast, XIII was a clusterfuck, so much so that I quickly set it aside as unplayable: the writing was naff, the voice acting melodramatic (with the single exception of Sazh), the premise confused and the combat frustratingly garbled. I couldn’t understand how the best aspects of XII had been so thoroughly disregarded, and as such, I never bothered with the sequel, which makes XV the first new Final Fantasy I’ve played since 2010.
Aesthetically, then, XV is paying a great deal of homage to my favourite games in the series – VIII and XII – which predisposes me to love it. The opening premise of an invading empire and a missing heir to the throne is evocative of both Galbadia and Archadia, with Noctis’s early quest to recover lost weapons from ancient tombs running a close parallel to Ashe’s quest in XII. The fact that Noctis, Prompto, Ignis and Gladio spend the game driving around in a sports car might seem ridiculous on the surface, especially if you’ve got a preference for the airships of VII, IX and XII, but only if you’ve forgotten the convertibles and jeeps of VIII, where driving on the worldmap was also a feature, and where fancy cars were a staple of the more dramatic cutscenes.
In fact, there’s always been something of a roadtrip vibe to a lot of the Final Fantasy games, and not only in terms of the main party journeying thither and yon across multiple fictional worlds. The many flashbacks to Lord Braska’s pilgrimage in X show him broing it up with Auron and Jecht (to whom Gladio bears more than a superficial physical and vocal resemblance), while their decision to sphere-capture their adventures is a clear forerunner to Prompto’s photography. VIII didn’t lack for female characters, but the initial SEED test features a grumpily all-male party, with Squall, Zell and Seifer forced into a temporary alliance. Squall and Zell were always something of an odd pair, but delightfully so, and their dynamic has been revived – and, I’d argue, improved – in the byplay between Noctis and Prompto. Likewise, Ignis’s dry drawl and dryer expression are more than a little reminiscent of Balthier, though his dutiful priorities make him a closer equivalent to Auron and Basch.
In other words, the four protagonists of XV are themselves a homage to the male relationships of previous Final Fantasy games, and quite clearly so. Together, they interact much as you’d expect of a quartet of twentysomething men, joking and snarking at each other in equal measure. The writing and voice acting aren’t as good as XII, but they’re nowhere near the abysmal mess of XIII. I’d peg them as being on par with X: naff at times, but somehow endearingly so, and overall engaging. Granted, the background plot is complex – it helps to have watched the prequel movie, Kingsglaive, and there’s also an accompanying anime series – but part of what makes the quartet watchable is how clearly established their friendship is: we’re getting to know the characters by how they know each other.
As far as the gameplay and levelling systems go, I’ve got no complaints thus far. Even without being able to run through the full tutorial for fighting – my version kept glitching when it came to learning how to warp – I’ve still found it intuitive to use. It’s a dissimilar combat system to most FF games, in that it’s not turn-based, but neither is it as blindingly fast-paced or poorly-designed as the system used in XIII, and the ability to warp to targets makes for some engaging tactical options. It helps that I’ve just come off a huge Dragon Age: Inquisition jag: my preferred approach to combat in both games can best be described as “running in headfirst with a large sword and hitting things until they fall down,” with magic and projectile weapons left on auto until or unless I’m specifically forced to use them. Players who favour different tactics might have more complaints to level here, but for my purposes, it works just fine.
But what I’m really loving about XV is the extent to which – I assume unintentionally – it’s both hilarious and heavily queercoded.
I’ll deal with the latter first, because it’s arguably the more contentious point. Let me be clear: I’m not for one second giving Square Enix props for deliberately creating queer representation here, because I don’t think for a second that it’s what they actually meant to do – or at least, if they’re trying to muddle vaguely in that direction, then they haven’t had the guts to confirm it. Culturally, the lines we draw been homosocial and homosexual behaviour tend to be as historically arbitrary as they are fiercely policed, with any overlap subject to argument on both sides. But cultural differences is, I suspect, a large part of why XV reads the way it does: the game is originally Japanese, and in trying to cater to both Japanese and Western masculine ideals, Square Enix has wandered into what plays as a rather spectacularly queer compromise.
First and most obviously, there’s the wardrobe issue. Clearly, the all-black leather aesthetic is meant to look Manly and Cool and Deeply Heterosexual In A Traditionally Masculine Way, and if the designs were simple, functional and militaristic, then that would probably work, even given the youth and beauty of the characters (more of which shortly). But Final Fantasy, like a great many Japanese properties, is famous for its distinctive clothing designs, which means the characters look less like soldiers and more like scene kids en route to a metal concert. Specifically: Noctis and Prompto look like they shop at Hot Topic, Ignis is wearing Cuban heeled boots, driving gloves and seme glasses (seriously) and Gladio consistently looks like he’s posing for a Grindr photo. Like. I’m aware that he’s meant to be the most hypermasculine straight male self-identification fantasy of the four, what with the scar and the tattoos and the devastatingly Japanese mullet, but generally speaking, ripped guys in open leather shirts and tight leather pants are more visually reminiscent of Mardi Gras than the military. I’m just saying.
The fact that you can customise their outfits (to a degree), and that picking a new wardrobe changes their stats, isn’t a new development: in fact, it’s something the franchise first introduced with dress spheres in the all-female X-2, which makes its presence in the all-male XV a subtly pleasing symmetry. And yet it runs up against a standard of masculine gaming: changing your armour is one thing, because armour is Manly, but changing your clothes – which, stat bonuses or not, is what we’re functionally talking about – is something else entirely. It’s a truly strange demarcation, because there are plenty of instances where video game characters change outfits of their own accord, in cutscenes or for plot-specific purposes, or where the change represents a specific, all-over upgrade. But the option to alter the appearance of male characters for largely aesthetic reasons – to change how they look to you, the player, in clothes that are recognisably modern and fashionable – is not, I suspect, a common feature of games aimed at heterosexual men, nor is the in-game implication of the characters toting around a bunch of fancy matching outfits a particularly straight-coded thing.
And, okay. Even though we queer folk often telegraph our identities through fashion, there’s a degree of reductive stereotype inherent in judging sexuality on the basis of clothing choice, and if that were the only issue here, I wouldn’t have brought it up. (Except, of course, to point out the truly delightful ridiculousness of watching four goth boys run around the countryside in full club gear, often while complaining about the temperature. It’s like they’re headed for Glastonbury with monsters.) But the queercoding of XV is a package deal: it’s not just the clothes, but the clothes in combination with the characters themselves, the dialogue they’re given, and the way the four of them occupy the game.
Specifically: Final Fantasy is a gaming franchise that’s well aware, historically speaking, of its very large female fanbase. Even though the majority of the games have male protagonists, they’ve traditionally been designed for a straight female gaze – and more, I would argue, a teenage female gaze, given that the characters are usually in their teens or very early twenties – in line with aesthetics more Japanese than Western. Former heroes like Cloud, Squall, Zidane, Tidus and Vaan might be formidable warriors in-game, but they’re never beefed up: they’re overwhelmingly built lean, with much longer, more stylised hair than you typically see on masculine Western characters. They wear jewellery – often visible in their base character designs, and not just as a hidden accessory slot – and offhand, aside from various weird lines around Cloud crossdressing in VII, I can’t think of any real instances of sexism or misogyny from those characters that aren’t actively shut down. In fact, the number of female characters in the earlier games ensures that, in addition to any love interests, the leading men also have platonic female friends – something that’s still damnably unusual in most forms of media, let alone in video games.
All of which, thus far, holds true in XV, too: Princess Lunafreya, Noctis’s intended bride, is his childhood friend, as is Gladio’s sister, Iris. When the game begins, Noctis and his friends are travelling to meet Lunafreya before their (politically arranged) wedding; when everything goes awry because betrayal and empire, they’re forced to regroup and end up hanging out with Iris, who has escaped to the city of Lesallum. That’s where I’m up to so far, and what immediately stands out to me, as someone who spent a not inconsiderable portion of their adolescence and early twenties hanging around single straight guys, is the fact that the quartet barely ever talk about women at all. And the thing is, I can see why it’s been done! Final Fantasy has a heavy female fanbase, and in any case, they’re not the sort of games where the male soldiers sit around reminiscing about sexual conquests. But contextually, because of the way the game is presented – four friends driving and talking shit in real time, mocking each other, while initially on the way to see one of them married – the lack of talk about sex or romance of any kind is jarring.
Which isn’t to say the subject of women never comes up at all; it’s just that, when it does, the overwhelming impression is of dialogue written with a female audience in mind, but without any awareness of the queercoding implications of its delivery by these particular male characters. This means, for instance, that there’s a scene where the boys find a magazine article about Lunafreya’s wedding dress, and all of them start cooing about how beautiful it will be; Ignis notes that the dress is bespoke, designed by Vivienne Westwood, and Prompto starts enthusing about how pretty Lunafreya will look in it. In Hammerhead, the buxom mechanic Cindy, whose character design is clearly meant to please the straight male players, is someone who, in real life, you’d expect a bunch of straight boys on an ostensible stag trip to talk about. Except that they never do; and instead, the one time there’s a reference made to Gladio “chatting someone up,” it turns out to be a grumpily endearing scientist who wants you to go catch some frogs as penance for interrupting her research.
And then there’s Noctis taking a tour of Lestallum with Iris. Throughout this mini-quest, you’re given a set of binary conversational options to either encourage Iris in her enthusiasm for the town, or to disapprove. Then, at the end, she coyly suggests that being on the tour was almost like a date – an assertion you can either play off lightly, or outright deny: pointedly, there is no option to agree. If you deny, she laughs and says “you could at least play along for once,” suggesting that Iris knows Noctis isn’t interested in her and is willing to tease him about it – an odd thing to include, if you don’t want the audience to wonder about his preferences.
A little earlier in the game, Prompto asks Noctis what he ought to take more photos of: apart from declining, the only options are “me” (meaning Noctis), Ignis or Gladio. Again, there’s a gameworld logic to this – the photos are ultimately viewed by the player, who gets to pick which character they want to record the most – but in terms of the impact in setting, this is not an outstandingly heterosexual moment. Very possibly, there exists a group of straight bros whose designated photographer is happy asking, “Hey bro, which of our friends do you want to see more in pictures?” in an established No Homo way, and if so, more power to them. But if you want to find a context where that sort of exchange is an everyday thing, then look no further than the queer regions of Instagram. (Plus, it’s kind of conspicuous how often Prompto, when assessing the day’s photos, comments on how good Gladio the Perpetually Shirtless looks.)
And then there’s the occasional quirks of dialogue and voice acting: choices that, again, would be minor on their own, but which collectively become suggestive of something specific. Early on, Cor sends Gladio, Prompto and Ignis to make a distraction at a military blockade while he and Noctis sneak inside: the gambit is successful, and when the group reunites afterwards, Gladio says cheerfully, “The Niffs couldn’t keep their eyes off us!”. To which Ignis quips, in reference to Noctis and Cor’s arrival, “You spared us their attentions.” Offhand, I can think of about a dozen different ways to word that exchange that don’t remotely brush up against innuendo, and which are far more colloquially and contextually apt besides. The eyes/attentions combo is the kind of thing you’d expect a pair of femme fatales to say after seducing the guards and knocking them out in an action movie. (The fact that we don’t actually witness the initial distraction only adds to its ambiguity.) And yet, this is what they’ve gone with.
Other examples are smaller, but they all add up. Whenever you find new ingredients for Ignis to cook with, he stops to announce, with particular vocal flamboyance, that he’s just thought up a new recipe (exclamation mark!), and whips out a notebook to jot it down. (“I’ll taste test for ya,” Gladio says, in a playfully growling tone that always seems to have one eye on the bedroom.) And then there’s Prompto, who I’m inclined to think of as a confused bisexual puppy, whose voice turns dreamily fanboyish when discussing Cor’s exploits, and who gets just as excited on receiving Cor’s praise as he does at the prospect of seeing Lunafreya in her pretty wedding dress.
Put this all together, then, and what you have are a bunch of young men who are, by Western standards, more pretty than handsome, dressed in fashionable clothes and accessories that are more evocative of queer or queer-friendly subcultures than not, and who care enough about their appearance to have multiple outfits on hand at any given time. (You can, if you’re willing to sacrifice an accessory slot to aesthetics, buy hair gel for them to use.) These men are knowledgeable about fashion, have a platonic concern for the women they encounter, are constantly photographing one another for each other, have zero comments to make about the stupidly hot female mechanic unless they’re praising her competence, and whose idea of “chatting someone up” apparently means “talking to the grumpy frog lady about the local wildlife population”. This isn’t me leaping to conclusions, here: in the immortal words of Buffy Summers, I took a tiny step and there conclusions were.
All of which is a way of saying that, thus far, I’m delighted with Final Fantasy XV, though not in the ways I’d expected. The characters and setting are a homage to my favourite games in the series, and while I worried the absence of female characters would grate on me, our quartet of bumbling chocobros is stupidly endearing. At this point, Noctis is functionally useless as a prince: even when he’s recognised, the local yokels have no qualms about asking him to take their deliveries or run their errands, and while random sidequests are an RPG staple, they’re usually somewhat tailored to the protagonist’s perceived status. In FFXV, everything is rendered hilarious by the fact that Noctis is a prince, and is seen as a prince, and is still being asked to catch frogs in a swamp and grab shit from some random marketeer’s broken van.
(He’s also gloriously introverted: in dealing with people, his responses usually vary from monosyllabic to resigned disinterest, but when you come across a stray cat in need of feeding – a tiny sidequest that’s a deliberate throwback to Squall doing likewise in VIII – he talks to it at greater length and with more enthusiasm than he otherwise displays with anyone.)
As far as I’m concerned, FFXV is a magic road trip with a bunch of queer boys who have their wardrobes together, but not their shit. I can identify. And so, I suspect, can everyone else who’s fallen into the trashpile of this visually beautiful, thematically mishmash game. I honestly don’t care about the random anachronisms, like the fact that they’re carrying smartphones and fighting magic robots, but still using paper maps and newspapers, to say nothing of using a fucking dog as a messenger for vital correspondence through a warzone – or rather, I do care, but only because the clear discontinuity of it somehow plays as a feature instead of a bug. The entire thing ought to be ridiculous, and it kind of is, but pleasingly so, like a cat in a Halloween costume. The characters don’t take each other seriously, which frees the player up to do likewise – to laugh with them, rather than at them. And frankly, I’ll take that over XIII’s self-important melodrama any day of the week.