“Representation” in Final Fantasy XVI

I had to block someone on Twitter this week.

To make a short story even shorter: Issues surrounding representation in media and popular culture are very important but extremely complicated, and I’m not interested in decontextualized virtue signaling being used as a weapon to beat down individual members of marginalized communities on social media.

To set the stage: I watched the reveal trailer for Final Fantasy XVI, and I liked it. I liked it a lot, actually.

Seeing as how my PlayStation 4 plays DVD and Blu-ray discs just fine, I probably won’t buy the PlayStation 5 console, but that’s okay. Knowing Square Enix, they’ll probably release the “game” as a movie, an animated miniseries, a novel, a short story collection, a manga, a spin-off manga, a mobile-only trading card game, a series of themed deserts in their Tokyo cafĂ©, and so on. Maybe I’ll play the actual game, and maybe I’ll engage with it through other media. Given that the project is still in development, this isn’t a decision I’ll have to make anytime soon.

Still, based on the trailer, Final Fantasy XVI looks like a cool game with an intriguing premise. After watching the trailer, I made three tweets about how:

(1) I like the dog,
(2) I like the Dark Souls aesthetic, and
(3) I like how this game seems to be developing the themes of the previous games.

Almost immediately, some random person whom I’ve never interacted with before decided that my positive reaction tweets about a promo trailer would be a good venue to tell me that it’s problematic for me to express appreciation about a game that doesn’t have any female or LGBTQ+ characters.

I also saw this sort of knee-jerk reaction from a few people I follow and respect, and I have to admit that I was surprised.

First of all, this was a four-minute trailer for a game that’s going to come out who knows when. “The next big information reveal is scheduled for 2021,” apparently. Although it seems as if the player will control a solitary male warrior, we don’t really have a lot of information about who the characters are and what their sexual histories and preferences might be.

Second, how dare this person come into Yoshi-P’s house and assume he’s not going to have female and queer characters in this game. Naoki Yoshida is famous in the gaming industry for hiring and promoting female staff members, and he’s been nothing but respectful of the LGBTQ+ communities that have formed within Final Fantasy XIV. All of the (female and queer-identified) translation and localization staff who have worked with him have nothing but good things to say about the creative environments he facilitates.

Third, although I may have once seen myself in Final Fantasy games in a way I didn’t see myself elsewhere, both the franchise and the gaming industry have shifted dramatically during the past ten years, and I think it’s unrealistic and unfair to rely on the four-minute trailer of a mainline Final Fantasy game for validation and representation.

Both as a queer creator (and translator) and as someone who works with and promotes queer creators (and translators), I always get defensive when people say that we don’t exist, or that the work we contribute to large projects is somehow invalid if the final product doesn’t meet certain arbitrary standards of “representation.”

When I look for representation – meaning, when I look for meaningful stories about identity that transcend mere tokenism – big-budget mainstream games are never going to be the first place I look. This is not to say that there aren’t female and queer protagonists in big-budget mainstream games, and this certainly isn’t to say that I wouldn’t like to see more of them. Still, I think it’s much more reasonable to expect a more specific type of “representation” from games created by smaller studios that are more invested in allowing individual voices to be expressed with clarity and distinction than they are in appealing to a broad audience. I’m almost 100% certain that there will be female and queer characters in Final Fantasy XVI, but that’s not why I would (or wouldn’t) play the game.

To me personally, it’s extremely insulting that someone would look at all the amazing and important work done by female and queer creators in the gaming industry, as well as all the powerful representation in both triple-A games and indie titles, and say, essentially, “That’s not good enough because it doesn’t interest me.”

I agree with this person that there should be more female and openly queer characters in big-budget mainstream game franchises. Of course I do. Anyone who has known me for any length of time knows that I’ve been engaging in a PLAYABLE ZELDA 2020 online campaign since at least 2015. Attempting to shame random people on Twitter for being fans of large franchises isn’t going to dismantle systems of inequality, however, nor is denying the existence of the diversity and representation that so many individual creators have fought and sacrificed to make happen.

But I couldn’t say all of this in a Tweet, so I just blocked this person. If nothing else, it’s rude to invade someone’s space for the sole purpose of publicly engaging in performative wokeness, and I don’t have the time to spend on that sort of emotional vampirism.

So I don’t care that the main protagonist in Final Fantasy XVI is probably going to be male. Once the game has been released, I might have more to say about what it does and doesn’t do regarding representation. Until then, I’d much rather devote my limited emotional resources to appreciating games from diverse creators that speak to me in a meaningful way.