Pokémon as Japanese Literature

Even though plenty of scholars have written essays about the Pokémon franchise, almost no one seems to take it seriously as literature. Despite this academic trend, I think the Pokémon video games can and should be read as Japanese literature, by which I mean that we should look carefully at their content and worldview as they are transmitted through gameplay and in-game text. I believe that, if we can look deeper than the transnational economic implications of the games and the “gotta catch ‘em all” ideology used to market them, it’s clear that they deal with some interesting issues. Here are three of these issues:

(1) Human society must constantly negotiate its paradoxical relationship with the natural world.

The theme of pokémon acting as symbolic stand-ins for natural resources has always been present in the video games, but it has become more clearly defined with each successive generation. Each of the games is set in a region loosely based on an area of Japan (or, in the case of the most recent generation, New York City and its suburbs), and each of these regions spreads out around a central urban area. Pokémon (usually) cannot be found in cities or towns, however, but must be sought out in the green spaces of each region – the fields, the caves, the mountains, the rivers, and the seas. Although some pokémon are similar to domestic animals, the majority are closely linked to nature. Some even have control over natural forces such the tides, the winds, and volcanic eruptions. In other words, pokémon are not creatures that are somehow separate from nature, such as dogs or cows (or digimon), but they in fact are nature.

While some pokémon are regarded as companions (nakama), there is a running discourse throughout the games that wild and semi-wild pokémon must be protected (mamoru or hogen suru). The villains of the games are criminal or terrorist organizations that selfishly and inhumanely employ pokémon for their own purposes. For example, Team Rocket, an organization present in first generation of games, sells pokémon for money as if the creatures were no more than consumer goods. This behavior is very clearly marked as evil, and its negative consequences are visibly demonstrated. The most recent generation, Pokémon Black/White, features villains who attempt to manipulate people by shaking the very foundations of their relationship with the world, telling them to release their pokémon from bondage, thereby allowing them return to nature. Your player-protagonist, however, restores balance by demonstrating that human beings and pokémon are meant to live together in harmony. Thus, exploiting nature is obviously bad, but living in a world separated from nature is also undesirable.

The primary goal of the player-protagonist is to travel the world and collect pokémon in order to complete his or her pokédex (pokemon zukan). If pokémon represent the natural world, such a project implies that human beings can break up this world into bite-sized chunks, consume it, and thus know it completely. Such arrogance is troubling. Also troubling are the pokémon battles that trainers use to develop the abilities of their pokémon, who are otherwise stored safely away in small capsules called pokéballs. It is difficult to read these two central aspects of gameplay as a positive analogy of the human relationship with the natural world. I would argue, however, that copious amounts of text in all of the generations of the games establishes pokémon battles as mutually beneficial to both the pokémon and their trainers, who are repeatedly reminded not to take their pokémon for granted and instead to respect and value them (taisetsu ni suru). Moreover, despite the grubbingly acquisitive nature of the task of pokédex completion, the text within the game justifies this project by positing that the better we understand pokémon, the better we will be able to share the world with them. According to the central ideology underlying the games, then, “catching ‘em all” is a scientific project designed to inspire curiosity towards and appreciation of the natural world.

The relationship between human beings and pokémon is presented as mutually beneficial, although humanity must constantly check its excesses in an effort to ensure that pokémon are protected and treated in a humane and respectful manner. Perhaps it is no wonder, then, that the worlds of the Pokémon video games are filled with grass, trees, and flowers. Boats, trains, and bicycles help people get from one place to another, but cars and airplanes are notably absent. Pokémon Diamond/Pearl even features an electric power plant run entirely by wind power, whose giant white windmill turbines exhibit one of the most beautiful and striking uses of the Nintendo DS console’s graphic capabilities. A world that respects its pokémon, then, is a world of lush greenery that can still accommodate all the conveniences of modern technology and an urban lifestyle.

(2) A “gender-free” society is not as far-fetched as we might think.

As soon as a player begins any one of the Pokémon video games, she must create her player-protagonist. Even before she can name this character, however, she is asked a simple question in one of the series’s most iconic lines of text: “Are you a boy? Or are you a girl?”

The player’s answer to this question has almost no ramifications on gameplay. The boy protagonist is equipped with a backpack, while the girl protagonist is equipped with a messenger bag. The boy protagonist wears a beret, while the girl protagonist wears a beanie. The boy protagonist gets a blue cell phone, while the girl protagonist gets a red cell phone. The boy protagonist wears cargo pants, while the girl protagonist wears cutoff shorts.

Aside from these minor differences in in-game graphics, the gameplay experience is exactly the same for a male protagonist and a female protagonist. The male protagonist has a competitive rivalry with a childhood friend, and so does the female protagonist. The female protagonist has a close relationship with her mother, and so does the male protagonist. The male protagonist can ride around on his bicycle at all hours of the night, and so can the female protagonist. The female protagonist is bullied and treated condescendingly by the male villain, and so is the male protagonist. With very few exceptions (such as the chan or kun suffix used when other characters address the protagonist), there are no gender-dependent differences in the way the people in the games’ universe treat your character. Furthermore, there is absolutely no evidence to support the claim that the stories are written for a male protagonist, with a female protagonist being tacked on as an option with no other purpose than to give the game more color and variety.

Besides the protagonist, his or her rival, and the main villains of the story, the characters with the most distinct personalities and graphic designs are the eight gym leaders whom your character must battle in order to advance in each game. After your protagonist has defeated the eight gym leaders, s/he becomes qualified to battle the “Elite Four” (shitennō), who serve as gatekeepers to each game’s most challenging opponent, the regional Pokémon Champion. The gym leaders, the Elite Four, and the Champion all have distinct personalities and character designs. In the first generation of the games, the personalities and designs of these characters tended to fall along gender stereotypes. The gym leaders specializing in defense-oriented water and grass pokémon were female, and the gym leaders specializing in attack-oriented rock and electric pokémon were male. As the series has progressed, however, the gender stereotypes that characterized the gym leaders and the Elite Four have gradually faded away. A gym leader specializing in dragon pokémon and regional history can be female, and a gym leader specializing in insect pokémon and art exhibitions can be male. The regional Pokémon Champion can be female, along with the Pokémon Professor who initially gives your protagonist his or her pokédex.

The gender of each of the game’s characters therefore has very little bearing on that character’s interests, talents, or personality. In fact, the gender of these characters often seems little more than window dressing. The various generic trainers whom your character encounters come in male and female varieties, and there is almost no gendered difference in their choice of pokémon, fighting ability, clothing, or dialog text. (There are a few exceptions, such as the gender-specific trainer categories of yama otoko and otona no onēsan, but these exceptions are relatively minor.) In the pokémon universe, then, it seems that there is no social, political, or cultural discrimination between genders. You can choose to be a boy, or you can choose to be a girl. Outside of your own personal choice, the games are almost entirely gender free. This is part of what makes them fun.

(3) There are as many versions of a text as there are readers who engage with the text.

Just as a player is free to choose the gender of her player-protagonist, she is also free to choose her path through each of the games. The narrative progression of the pokémon games is more or less linear – defeat the eight gym leaders and then battle the Elite Four to become a Pokémon Master (dendō iri) – but the player can follow or deviate from this linear structure as she chooses. The opening chapters of each game shuffle your character from one gym battle to the next; but, around the halfway point of each of the games, the player is given significantly more freedom to set off on her own and explore the world around her.

The game opens up to the player in two ways: through the acquisition of skills and through optional side quests. As your character wins gym battles, s/he gradually becomes able to train pokémon to remove obstacles such as large rocks and impassable underbrush. An astute player can remember the locations of these obstacles and return later in order to investigate what lies beyond. The ability to move across the surface of water also opens expansive areas that the player may choose to either explore or ignore entirely. Along with the ability to access more of the in-game world, the player is also offered the option of visiting out-of-the-way areas such as ancient ruins, wrecked ships, steel welding plants, mountain valleys, and underwater caves. Although visiting such areas will yield tangible benefits to gameplay, such as useful items and an opportunity to test one’s pokémon against a wider variety of trainers, it is absolutely not necessary to the game’s plot or progression that the player do so. Instead, the thrill of discovery and the adventure of venturing into the unknown drive the player to complete tasks that have nothing to do with defeating the bad guys and challenging the Elite Four.

It stands to reason, then, that every player will follow a different path through the games. It is also possible that different players will encounter different variations on each game’s story. These stories are told mainly through choreographed cut scenes over which the player has no control, and the player is not able to affect the outcome of the game in any way. Supporting this main story, however, are dozens of smaller stories that are fleshed out through the player’s interaction with the various NPCs (non-player characters) that inhabit the world alongside the player-protagonist. Each city and town that the player visits, for example, is populated by people willing to talk to the player-protagonist and even invite him or her into their houses and apartments. The player can choose to seek these people out and engage them, or she may simply ignore them and continue to advance the game’s plot without being bothered by such details. Likewise, the player may enjoy visiting the maritime museum and learning about sea currents and ship buoyancy in Poké Ruby/Sapphire or visiting the library in Pokémon Diamond/Pearl and reading short stories based on creation myths from the Hokkaido region, but she has no reason or motivation to do so besides her own curiosity. As a result of this type of open-ended gameplay, each player’s experience will be uniquely her own.

In other words, each of the games in the Pokémon franchise is an open text from which the player can gather bits of information according to her interests and desires. It could also be argued that the minimal characterization of the blank-slate protagonists also allows the player a significant degree of freedom of interpretation, as well as an augmented ability to insert herself in the world of the game. The Pokémon games are not true “sandbox” (complete open world exploration) games, however, but are driven by a fairly linear narrative of personal advancement and good triumphing over evil. In this way, I think, they are able to serve as experimental models of the way people read literature: not as slaves chained to the words on the page and the intentions of the author, but rather as empowered agents capable of making their own choices regarding interpretation, character identification, emotional investment, and non-linear progress through the story.

I believe that the Pokémon games thus serve as an excellent analogy for the ways in which we consume, digest, and reproduce narratives. A large part of the appeal of these games, which are bought and played by many people much older than their intended demographic, is the combination of a compelling story and a rich and detailed world in which to play. Numerous studies on fandom from both sides of the Pacific suggest the same thing: It’s not just the story that draws in readers, but also the setting, which has the power to generate even more stories. The appeal of the Pokémon franchise is the appeal of something like the Harry Potter franchise; and, the more we understand how such narratives work, the more we will understand the process of reading, interpreting, and communicating the stories that shape our lives.

*****

In conclusion, I think the Pokémon games are a pretty big deal. I also think video games in general are a pretty big deal. The past five years have witnessed an influx of groundbreaking academic studies on titles like Halo and Everquest, but scholars involved in Japan Studies seem to be stuck on treating Japanese video games as an economic and anthropological phenomenon. These new media narratives are so fascinating and complex, however, that it’s a shame not to treat them as literature as well. I have high hopes for the rising generation of scholars, and I’m looking forward to reading the academic articles on Japanese video games that are already starting to emerge.

Some of the most interesting academic work done on Pokémon in English can be found in Anne Allison’s anthropological study Millennial Monsters, which also covers topics like Sailor Moon and the Power Rangers franchise. Pikachu’s Global Adventure collects eleven essays on the Pokémon franchise written from various perspectives, such as marketing and early childhood psychological development.

One of my favorite essays on the Pokémon games as literary narratives is Yagi Chieko’s “Monogatari wa kawarieru ka: Seichō monogatari toshite no Pokemon o yomu,” which can be found in the 2006 issue of the journal Joseigaku Nenpō.

The April 2009 issue of the journal Eureka, RPG no bōken, is all about video games, and it contains an interesting essay by Shina Hidekuni titled “Pokemon to Monhan no yasei no shikō.” Shina is a fun writer, and he co-edits a journal called Game Maestro that I will definitely be checking out during my next research trip to Japan.

Feminism and Final Fantasy (Part Five)

If we can assume that the fantasy trope of mystical female other in bondage gear is popular among men, perhaps we can likewise assume that the fantasy trope often referred to as Draco in Leather Pants is popular among women. According to this trope, a man with a complicated past, equally complicated motivations, and a markedly antisocial streak has a heart of gold somewhere deep inside – especially if he’s handsome. The character Balthier from Final Fantasy XII meets all of these conditions; and, judging from the amount of fan fiction and fan art that has been created in his honor, female fans of the game love him.

It is therefore not unreasonable to argue that Balthier’s design and characterization both contain just as many fetish elements as Fran’s. After all, the male characters in the Final Fantasy series are subject to the same narrative tropes as the female characters. If Rydia is wedged into the role of spell caster by virtue of her gender, then Cecil is similarly cast into the role of the dark/white knight by virtue of his own gender. Moreover, if Rydia is sexually attractive to men, Cecil is perhaps even more attractive according to non-heteronormative female standards of male beauty (which include delicate features and long, willowy limbs). This is fantasy, and we want our characters to be attractive, and interesting, and suitably epic. There is no rule, after all, that says fantasy has to be any less subject to the confines of narrative tropes than, say, interwar French existentialist fiction.

If everyone in the Final Fantasy games is fetishized, and if everyone is subject to gendered tropes, however, can the series really be called “feminist”? Through my discussion of Rydia, Aeris, and Fran, I have attempted to prove that each successive game in the Final Fantasy series has become less sexist and phallocentric. I posited at the beginning of this essay that a “feminist” work contains “strong” (by which I mean “multi-dimensional” and “featured prominently”) female characters who are not villainized. By this standard of judgment, the games in the Final Fantasy series are indeed feminist works. Even though the player-protagonist is often male, this character is usually subordinate to the narrative importance of a central female character. Even though the story of this female character is seen through the eyes of a male character, it is her story that is being told, and the male player-protagonist is just along for the ride. While the player controls the gameplay, the actions of the female protagonist advance the plot and open more of the game’s world.

Although we could once safely assume that the gamer behind the player-protagonist was male, this is no longer the case; he is now just as likely to be controlled by a woman. The player-protagonist may have his own story, but he is also the eyes through which the player looks and the hands and feet by which the player explores and manipulates the world. Such a direct player identification thus makes his identity somewhat less than stable, along with his gender and sexual orientation. The player-protagonist is arguably little more than a cipher in many situations (such as Tidus in Final Fantasy X, who is never addressed or referred to by name, lest the player’s identification with him be impeded), and the true spotlight shines on the female protagonists of the series, such as Rinoa, Garnet, Yuna, and Ashe.

Perhaps, because these female characters were created by development teams consisting primarily of men, they can never be considered “pure” feminist role models, but there is another side to the equation – the female (and male!) fans of the series who have been inspired by these characters and have interpreted them in ways that may differ wildly from the original intentions of their creators. As I have argued elsewhere, a text does not end with the “Game Over” screen but rather spins into ever wider and deeper perversions in the personal fantasies of the player. These personal fantasies can then be reinforced and expanded upon when introduced into larger communities of gamers. Player reception is engaged in a feedback loop with Square-Enix, which has used the enormous revenue it has earned from the Final Fantasy franchise in order to develop games that will better appeal to its fans, both new and old. The strong female characters of the series have resulted in a large and vocal female following, which has in turn resulted in Final Fantasy XIII, a title that has been celebrated as a truly feminist video game. As gaming technology becomes more sophisticated, and as the narrative mechanisms of role playing games become more innovative and complex, I am looking forward to meeting the female characters in the future of Final Fantasy.

I cannot claim to have the final word on Final Fantasy, or on the topic of video games, role playing, and gender. Allow me to therefore cite my sources and inspirations, both online and in print.

The absolute best pieces of writing on Final Fantasy that I have ever had the pleasure of reading are collected under the title The Rise and Fall of Final Fantasy. Each of these essays is quite long, but each is beautifully written and provides all of the background information I have omitted, which is presented in a humorous and highly intelligent tone. The online video game “magazine” The Escapist recently posted a video essay called True Female Characters, which is a bit superficial in terms of analysis but makes some good points and provides several examples of female characters in video games who are prime examples of sexist stereotypes. A short, journalistic article called Getting the Girl offers an interesting counterpoint to this discussion in the light it sheds on female game developers and the market pressures they face when designing female characters. The website The Mary Sue has a number of interesting pieces on women and geek culture, including statistics relating to female gamers.

If you’re interested in other aspects of the Final Fantasy series as viewed from a “scholarly” analytical perspective, there is an essay in Mechademia 4: War/Time titled “Imagined History, Fading Memory: Mastering Narrative in Final Fantasy X.” This essay is somewhat crippled by the word count imposed by the journal, but it contains an interesting argument relating to how the narrative structure of the game may relate to Japan’s experience of modernity. There are also several interesting and tangentially related articles in an academic journal called Games and Culture, including an essay on ethics in Final Fantasy VI and Final Fantasy VII, as well as an interesting piece on fantasy races in MMO-RPGs.

On a broader level, Sharalyn Orbaugh’s “Busty Battlin’ Babes: The Evolution of the Shōjo in 1990s Visual Culture” (found in the collection Gender and Power in the Japanese Visual Field) is an excellent discussion of cross-gender character identification in a Japanese context. All four chapters of Tania Modleski’s short but brilliant Loving with a Vengeance discuss the romance tropes surrounding male characters and might be useful for a sustained inquiry into why a character like Balthier (or Sephiroth) is so popular with female fans. Finally, while I was writing this essay, I was addicted to Eleanor Byrne and Martin McQuillan’s Deconstructing Disney, which opens by making a strong case for why we should continue to analyze popular culture and then goes on to provide an fantastic model of how to do so.

All of the games and characters I have discussed, as well as (almost) all of the images I have borrowed, belong to Square-Enix. Square-Enix, I love you. Please don’t sue me.

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

Feminism and Final Fantasy (Part Four)

When one looks at Fran from Final Fantasy XII, the first thing that jumps to mind is most likely bunny girl or perhaps fetish character. Fran is tall, beautiful, and wearing very little clothing. The clothing that she is wearing is black leather bondage gear. She is marked as exotic not only by her rabbit ears but also by her Icelandic accent and the coffee color of her skin. If there were ever a character who seems designed solely for heterosexual male viewing pleasure, Fran would appear to be that character. Putting issues of costuming aside, however, I don’t think Final Fantasy XII’s characterization of Fran is in any way sexist.

Before I explain why her characterization isn’t sexist, let me first address the issue of why I don’t think her characterization is racist. Although it’s very easy to jump to the facile conclusion that Fran is just another example of a hyper-sexualized black woman, I would argue that this is not in fact the case. The most significant counter-argument against this claim is that Fran is not black, at least not in the sense that being “black” in America carries with it a great deal of history and cultural significance. In Ivalice, the fantasy world that Fran inhabits, there are many races of people with whom the player has extensive contact, and none of these races is distinguished by racial stereotypes (as, for example, Vulcans and Klingons are in the Star Trek universe).

To give an example, the Bangaa are a type of bipedal lizard-like people with floppy puppy-dog ears. Some of them are bounty hunters, and some of them are merchants or traders, and some of them are mechanics. Some of them are vicious and cruel, and some of them are pleasant and kind. Some of them are intelligent, and some of them are stupid. Some of them have red skin, and some have green skin, and some have blue skin, and some have brownish-yellow skin. Because the player comes into contact wide such a wide variety of Bangaa, and because the game itself does not stereotype them in any way, it’s almost impossible to create an overgeneralizing racial profile.

Fran’s race, the Viera, are the same. Although they all have rabbit ears, different individuals have different color hair, eyes, skin, and ear-fur. While some dress in skimpy clothing, others do not. While some live in the forest like mystical rabbit-healer-elf-ninjas, others do not. While some are wise and bound to nature, others live in urban areas and engage in commerce and trifling romantic affairs. The fantasy world of Invalice is a pan-cultural diaspora in the truest sense of the word, and one of the primary themes of the game is that the twin concepts of “homeland” and “people” are nothing if not extremely problematic.

While Fran may be exotic, then, I don’t feel that the game’s depiction of her is particularly racist. Nor do I feel that it is particularly sexist. As I mentioned earlier, the Viera are a diverse race of people. Even though the race seems to have originated in a heavily wooded area of Ivalice and has developed ears to hear the semi-magical “voice of the forest,” many Viera do not live in the woods and consider their ears as nothing more than mere decoration. In the case of the Viera in general, this makes a sexist equation between woman and nature, or woman and mysticism, or woman and emotion, difficult. In the specific case of Fran, who is an engineer and pilot, such an equation is utterly non-applicable. Moreover, even though the player may fetishize Fran, Final Fantasy XII does not. Not only is Fran significantly older and more mature than any of the other playable characters, but she is the object of no one’s sexual attraction, and even her relationship with her male partner Balthier is characterized as friendly yet professional.

The game makes it hard to draw sexist conclusions based on any of its female characters either in terms of plot or gameplay. Ashe, the character around whom the game’s plot revolves, is a princess, but she is less concerned with love than she is with political strategy, international alliances, and the consequences of the use of weapons of mass destruction. Ashe comes pre-equipped with a sword; but, if the player decides to make her a spell-caster instead of a melee fighter, there are no consequences. Likewise, although Fran comes pre-equipped with a bow, the player can choose to make her a two-handed weapon-wielding tank of a melee fighter.

As in many earlier games in the Final Fantasy series (including Final Fantasy V, Final Fantasy VI, Final Fantasy VII, and Final Fantasy VIII), gender bears absolutely no relevance to fighting ability in Final Fantasy XII. The player builds each player’s abilities though a device called the “license grid,” which is the same for all playable characters, regardless of gender. Furthermore, a character’s base statistics (for values like attack power and physical defense) are dependent on his or her equipment, the selection of which is also non-specific to gender. Men can be healers dependent on magic, and women can wield battle axes larger than they are.

In other words, there is nothing about Fran’s character or fighting capacity that is innate to her race or gender, save her revealing costume. The clothing of the game’s other two female characters, Ashe and Penelo, is similarly racy, but so too is the clothing of the game’s three male characters. This point brings me to an important twist in my argument about the fetishization and sexism inherent in the female characters of Final Fantasy – are male characters not fetishized and subject to sexism in exactly the same way?

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Five

Feminism and Final Fantasy (Part Three)

It can be argued that all of the characters in Final Fantasy VII are amalgamations of popular character tropes. One of the most important and popular characters from the game, Aeris, comes dangerously close to many of the various tropes identified with a Mary Sue. For example, the short paragraph of text in the game’s manual describes her as “mysteriously beautiful,” she has an exotic name, she has an usual and dramatic back story, she’s exceptionally talented in a wide variety of areas and possesses rare powers, she is the last of her race, all of game’s characters (even the markedly antisocial ones) adore her, she is brave, cheerful, and incorruptible, she is too pure for this earth and sacrifices herself to save everyone, and her only flaws, innocence and naivety, are far from damning. I am not trying to suggest that Aeris in fact is a Mary Sue character, or even that Mary Sue characters are necessarily a bad thing. What I am trying to suggest is that the character receives a very sympathetic portrayal and occasionally seems to good to be true.

No matter how close Aeris comes to a Mary Sue, she can never be a true Sue, as she is neither a writer nor a reader stand-in. That particular role belongs to Cloud, a confused and lonely young man who just happens to have a bigger sword than anyone else. It’s difficult not to sympathize with Cloud as he wins countless battles, runs up endless flights of stairs, snowboards, rides a huge motorcycle, cross-dresses, discovers his forgotten past, wins his revenge from the psychopath who torched his hometown, and is praised and admired by almost everyone in the game’s cast. At his core, though, Cloud is emotionally vulnerable and just needs someone to comfort and understand him.

That someone, for the first half of the game, is Aeris. Unless the player is armed with a cheat sheet of responses to in-game dialog, Final Fantasy VII sets Aeris up to be Cloud’s love interest. Aeris’s many attractive qualities serve to make her mid-game death more dramatically effective, of course, but they also serve to make her a more desirable partner for the player-protagonist. In this sense, then, she is what I might call a male-generated Mary Sue. She is not everything that the player wants to be, but everything that the player wants to be with. In other words, she is a perfect romantic partner, someone who is strong and kind and beautiful but still unconditionally attracted to the dorky male hero. Is the strength of such a female character truly empowering when it only serves to bolster the ego and libido of the player-protagonist?

Actually, quite a few female gamers have declared that yes, it is empowering. Over-rated though it may or may not be, Final Fantasy VII brought an extraordinary number of new players to the franchise with the richness and depth of its storytelling, world building, and gameplay. Many of these new players were female. As I mentioned earlier, although we can now say that it’s misleading to think of the majority of video game players as male, that stereotype wasn’t so far from the truth in 1997, the year that Final Fantasy VII was released during the early years of the Playstation gaming console. Female players were attracted to the game both by the burgeoning mainstream popularity of gaming and by the presence of female characters who were more than guns and boobs on a remote-controlled stick. Many female gamers in my generation grew up with Aeris and Tifa, and we saw these characters as much more than Cloud’s love interests – we saw them as real people, with real personalities. We also saw them as role models in a way that would have been difficult with the extremely limited dialog of earlier characters like Rydia.

Aeris may have been too good to be true, but she had thousands of lines of dialog that at least made her seem real to the player. Moreover, her dialog was not merely ego-reinforcement for the player-protagonist. Aeris kept secrets, and she had her own set of motivations that never became entirely clear until after her death. The character knew things that she did not share with the player-protagonist, and she expressed emotions that were not directly related to the player-protagonist or to the development of the game’s story. In other words, she had interiority.

Final Fantasy VII also passes the Bechdel Test in that Aeris is friends with Tifa, and the pair on multiple occasions talks about things other than Cloud. Tifa is herself an interesting character. Although her character design is all legs and chest, and although her fighting style seems tailor-made to show off her tight shirt and short shirt (witness her victory pose at the end of every successful battle), she has much more dialog than Aeris, and she is arguably a much darker character.

After the Shinra power company destroys her village and covers up the operation, she moves to the city of the company’s global headquarters, where she opens a bar that will serve as a base for a terrorist resistance movement. Throughout the game she is conscious of the human cost of terrorist activity, as well as the consequences of shutting down the world’s major source of electrical power. She must also navigate the guilt she feels at having bullied Cloud as a child, the confusion she feels regarding his amnesia surrounding their shared past, and the jealousy that she begins to feel toward Aeris. Yes, Tifa’s huge boobs are on constant display, and yes, the camera looks up her skirt when Cloud saves her from falling at the end of the game, but a new generation of female players were able to see past this and sympathize with Tifa as a complex character. Although there are countless fan works depicting the seduction and rape of both Tifa and Aeris, there are arguably many more that explore the aspirations and anxieties of the characters outside of sexual or romantic relationships.

Female players therefore brought with them a female gaze. This gaze not only transformed female characters from objects to subjects, but it also turned an objectifying lens on the male characters. These new female fans took advantage of the fledgling world wide web to form communities with other fans with whom they could discuss topics such as whether Cloud’s nemesis Sephiroth was even more attractive than Cloud. The international character of the internet also exposed Western fans to the work (and particularly the artwork) of Japanese fans, and soon Cloud was no longer in a romantic relationship with Aeris or Tifa but rather intimately involved with the evil military leader Sephiroth. For a generation of female fans too young for Star Trek, then, Final Fantasy VII was a gateway into alternative readings of popular texts. To give it due credit, the game has a story and cast of characters deep enough to actively encourage the female gaze that helped to make the game so popular. Although the vagaries of corporate marketing decisions are beyond me, I can only assume that Square quickly connected the unprecedented success of Final Fantasy VII to its popularity with gamers of both genders, since each successive game in the franchise has featured stronger and more developed female characters – as well as a colorful sprinkling of homoerotic tension between male characters.

Part One
Part Two
Part Four
Part Five

Feminism and Final Fantasy (Part Two)

Anyone who has played the first three Final Fantasy games, either on the NES or as reincarnated through their PSP and DS remakes, knows that there isn’t a great deal of character development involved. Male and female characters are more or less interchangeable; the gender of any given character is no more than window dressing for an essentially sexless data animal. Final Fantasy IV, the series’s first installment for the 16-bit Super Nintendo Entertainment System, is considered groundbreaking because it is the first of the games to feature a cast of characters with unique abilities, personalities, and backstories. The game follows the exploits of the dark knight Cecil, who has to (a) come to terms with the fact that he is working for an evil king, (b) overcome the darkness in his heart, (c) gain the holy sword necessary to fight evil, and (d) fly to the moon to defeat his evil brother and the dark force possessing him.

Cecil, who is your party’s fallback melee fighter, is supported by Rosa, one of those selfless white mage types who will do anything for Cecil but is all but useless in battle (at least until she learns the attack spell Holy). Despite all of the transformative and empowering fan work that has sprung up around her over the past twenty years, in the original game, Rosa was really nothing more than the love interest of Cecil and his rival Kain. Your party must repeatedly fight to save her from various conundrums, like fainting in the desert and being kidnapped. Much more interesting than Rosa, who is the proverbial sheath for the hero’s sword, is the summoner character Rydia.

Rydia is a young summoner whose village is unwittingly destroyed by Cecil. Since she has nowhere else to go after the entire race of summoners is killed, she accompanies your party until she is spirited away by a summon creature, Leviathan, to the city of summon creatures deep under the earth. When Cecil ends up traveling underground and finds himself in dire straights, he is rescued by Rydia, who has aged more than ten years while living in a different flow of time. Rydia is a valuable asset to your party, wielding whips that inflict paralysis and various other status ailments, as well as battle-ending summons and black magic so powerful that its use is depicted as killing other mages.

Since Rydia is so useful as a playable character, the player is given a strong incentive to go on several difficult side quests that serve no other purpose than to make her more powerful. The player therefore has something of a first-person investment in her, which is strengthened by her moving backstory. This backstory provides both a juxtaposition and an alternative to Cecil’s own. Both Cecil and Rydia are orphans who were raised to be masters of their respective powers, and both must make a choice regarding whom they will forgive and whom they will protect. Unlike Rosa, the adult Rydia does not need saving, and she is not interested in romantic love. It would seem that she is therefore not an object but rather a subject, a female hero who stands on equal footing with the male hero.

Unfortunately, there is the issue of her costuming. While the two primary male characters, Cecil and Kain, are allowed armor, Rydia is clothed in leggings, oversized arm warmers, a leotard, and high heels. Besides not being very practical for battle, this outfit is highly sexualized. As a result, fanworks from both Japan and America have cast the character as a porn star who is raped by not only Cecil and Kain but also by her summon monsters, a dubious honor that is not shared by Rosa.

This pornographic treatment is not merely a result of Rydia’s sexy costume (or of Rule 34), however. There is also an air of innocence and a whiff of child-in-a-woman’s-body about her that invite male protection and exploitation. While Cecil and Kain are depicted as undergoing emotional trails on the road to character development, Rydia has an almost complete lack of interiority. If the adult Rydia ever faces any doubt over her abilities or conflict over the fact that Cecil killed her entire family, for example, the player doesn’t hear about it. Rydia is magical and mystical and unknown; she is a blank slate in an appealing costume onto which the presumably male player can project his fantasies of exotic and mysterious femininity. Moreover, although Rydia’s magic is undeniably powerful, the game’s strict MP limitations ensure that she is never more than a support character in the vast majority of battles, an unfortunate caveat that also applies to Rosa.

In both the gameplay and narrative aspects of Final Fantasy IV, then, female characters are associated with magic, innate ability, dependence on men, and cheerful self-sacrifice, while male characters are associated with physical power, training and skill, and development toward emotional independence. The player is strongly encouraged to identify with the male characters and their personal struggles. The male is the subject, and the female is the object. The male is known and powerful, and the woman is unknown and mystical. These are popular fantasy tropes, and they are not unique to Final Fantasy IV, whose story is powerful and appealing partially because it makes effective use of these tropes.

Part One
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

Feminism and Final Fantasy (Part One)

For most of my life, I never gave any serious thought to the Final Fantasy series, despite the literally hundreds of hours I’ve spent playing it. I always had two fundamental assumptions regarding the series’s female characters. First of all, they can fight just as well as the male characters. Second, while they are very, very pretty, so too are the male characters. Like it says on the box, this is fantasy. In other words, my allergy to misogyny never flared up while I was playing the games.

I have since reconsidered these two assumptions. Before I begin this essay in earnest, however, I would like to state that I do not consider the Final Fantasy series to be misogynistic. Still, there are nuances in the portrayal of the primary female characters of the series that I would like to address.

I’d like to start off by defining my terms. Feminism, pure and simple, is the idea that men and women should be given equal opportunity. Although there are some basic biological differences between men and women that transcend time and culture, feminists believe that neither men, nor women, nor anyone in between should be judged or discriminated against simply by virtue of their sex or gender.

The antitheses of feminism are misogyny and sexism. Misogyny is an attitude of hatred towards women. It’s expressed through statements such as “Women are weaker than men” or “women can’t do [x, y, or z] as well as men.” It can also be expressed by identifying negative qualities with femininity, such as referring to a coward as a pussy. Misogyny is a type of sexism, which is an overgeneralization of character traits based on sex or gender. Sexism is like racism or ethnocentrism; it’s like saying “Jewish people are good with money” or “French people wear fashionable clothing.” Common sexist misconceptions include the ideas that women are more spiritual than men, that women are more artistic than men, that women are more in touch with their emotions than men, and that women have stronger social networks than men.

While on the surface it may seem like none of these statements is negative, such overgeneralizations in fact trap women within narrowly-defined social expectations. For example, a female elementary school student with a talent for math might not be encouraged and rewarded in the same way that a male student would be, since obviously girls are not good with numbers. Let’s say this little girls fights social pressure and the indifference of her teachers and grows up to become a promising investment banker. It’s really too bad that she won’t receive the same starting salary as her male colleagues, since everyone knows that she’ll just get pregnant, get married, and quit the firm. When facing social pressure and statistics like this, it can be difficult for girls and women to achieve personal goals that fall outside gender-related stereotypes.

One of the main tenets of feminism is that both boys and girls are constantly subjected to sexist social messages. If, for example, there were just one instance of a naïve young girl who makes stupid decisions for love being valorized while an experienced, unmarried older woman with political ambitions is demonized, then we could leave it at that – it’s just one instance, and relatively harmless. Feminist thought holds that there is an interconnected, unending web of such messages, however.

Both boys and girls are constantly bombarded with sexist social messages, and it’s difficult to escape their influence, even with proper parenting and media awareness. Over the past several decades, there has been a great deal of debate concerning what should be done about this. I personally believe that most people are smart enough to see through and see past sexism, but it’s still good for women to have strong female role models who aren’t villainized.

This brings us to Final Fantasy. Does the series promote sexist views of women? Does it provide strong female role models for the players who invest so much time and emotional energy into the series? To address these questions, I am going to look at three characters: Rydia from Final Fantasy IV, Aeris from Final Fantasy VII, and Fran from Final Fantasy XII. I will use these characters as examples in order to argue for a shift in the series from a male-centered viewpoint to a more gender-neutral narrative focus.

Before analyzing these three specific characters, though, I think it might be worthwhile to introduce the video games themselves. Final Fantasy is a series of fantasy role-playing games published by Square-Enix, which was formerly known as Square. Square was founded as a developer of computer game software by Miyamoto Masafumi in 1983 and, within five years, had fallen on tough times. In 1987, the company’s director of planning and development, Sakaguchi Hironobu, came up with the concept of a simplification of computer-based role-playing games meant to capitalize on the success of Enix’s Dragon Quest, which had been released the previous year. Because the success or failure of Sakaguchi’s proposed game would make or break the company, the seven-man production team decided to call the project “Final Fantasy,” as it would be Square’s last game if it didn’t sell. The game did sell, however, and it has since expanded into a record-breakingly profitable franchise that has spawned countless spin-off games as well as numerous anime, manga, and feature films.

Besides Sakaguchi, several other key players in the early success of this franchise are Amano Yoshitaka, who was responsible for the games’ concept art, Uematsu Nobuo, who wrote the musical scores for the games, and Itō Hiroyuki, who designed the games’ distinctive battle systems. Since Final Fantasy VII, the series’s debut on the 32-bit Playstation console, Kitase Yoshinori has taken over directorship of the games, and Nomura Tetsuya, who had previously adapted Amano’s artwork into pixel-based sprites, took over art direction and character design. The staff for each successive game in the series has gotten larger as each game has become more sophisticated in terms of technology and gameplay, so it’s impossible to attribute the success any of the games to the genius of one or two people. I mention these names of directors, programmers, artists, and composers in order to emphasize the careful planning and artistic contributions that go into every game in the series.

I also mention these names to point out that the main contributors to the series are male. Moreover, the primary audience of the games has historically been male. I should also point out that, with the exception of Final Fantasy X-2 and Final Fantasy XIII (and perhaps Final Fantasy VI, which is a bit of an anomaly in several ways), the player-character and primary hero of each of these games has been male. In other words, we’re talking about a group of men telling stories about men for an audience of men. Although by now it has become an untrue and clichéd stereotype that only men play video games, in the early days of the series, the stereotype was very close to the truth. Perhaps it’s therefore understandable that the games have been fairly phallocentric, a word that I use to refer to the dominance of a heterosexual, male-centered economy of desire. If the phrase “heterosexual, male-centered economy of desire” makes your head spin, I will confess that it makes my head spin a little too. In essence, though, it means that men are sexual subjects, and women are sexual objects. The boy gets the girl, not the other way around.

What I am going to argue is that the Final Fantasy games have become progressively less phallocentric with each successive installment in the series. This is a happy story, both for feminism as a whole and for fans of Final Fantasy, who come to the series looking for fully developed characters and intriguing stories, not just two-dimensional paper cut-outs going through the motions of a fantasy-themed farce. Before we can get to the more gender-equal present, however, we need to take off our nostalgia glasses and take a serious look at the dark days of the beginning of the series.

Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five