Spoilers for Final Fantasy XIV and Final Fantasy XV to follow.
Soon after the joy I experienced when I first saw the trailer for Final Fantasy XVI set in an uncomfortable but increasingly familiar wariness. It’s been 11 years since the first iteration of Final Fantasy XIV was announced, making Final Fantasy XVI the first newly-announced mainline entry since then. Those years for Final Fantasy haven’t been easy, as the only three mainline releases — Final Fantasy Versus XIII/Final Fantasy XV, Final Fantasy XIV, and Final Fantasy VII Remake — all had tumultuous or lengthy development cycles.
In the last decade, it’s also not always been easy for me to be a Final Fantasy fan as a woman. What was once a series filled with multi-faceted and thoughtfully-written women has severely stagnated in this department. Instead, it has had some recent female characters whose writing can be so archaic that they feel like they belong in the pre-Final Fantasy VI era. Final Fantasy VII Remake escapes this problem only because the foundations for its characters were established back in 1997. Meanwhile, Final Fantasy XV and Final Fantasy XIV have struggled to give women agency and power in their narratives to varying degrees, some more egregious than others, making me cautious of how women will fare in Final Fantasy XVI.
When it was released in 2016, Final Fantasy XV marked the mainline series’ single-player return since the release of Final Fantasy XIII in 2009. In many ways, one of the most anticipated games of all time almost felt like a reaction to its predecessor. Final Fantasy XIII was the first mainline Final Fantasy game to have a set woman protagonist. (Final Fantasy VI technically has no determined protagonist, even if it’s widely accepted that Terra is its lead). This would not change even as the game received two sequels in the form of Final Fantasy XIII-2 and Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, as both were also led by women. Meanwhile, Final Fantasy XV was the first entry in the series, which began in 1987, to have an all-male party in the name of being “more approachable.”
This wouldn’t inherently have been an issue if it wasn’t for the game’s ridiculously poor treatment of women. There’s the general lack of presence and characterization the few girls and women in this game have, like Iris, Aranea, and Gentiana. There’s also its treatment of Cindy. Although Final Fantasy has never shied away from fanservice, the game’s extreme sexualization of her was a problem to the point that Director Hajime Tabata addressed (and defended) it during the game’s development.
But the biggest offender is by far Final Fantasy XV‘s main heroine, Lunafreya. She could barely be called a character, for she’s relegated to spouting lore and existing almost entirely for the main protagonist, Noctis. She has no motivations of her own, no aspects of her character that have nothing to do with her poor developed relationship with Noctis or her use to the plot. She’s also barely in the game until she’s killed off at its halfway point. In a game that spans at least 30 hours, her time on-screen amounts to barely one. Although she would’ve had more had her DLC episode not been canceled, it likely wouldn’t have been anywhere near enough to fix her writing. I don’t think Final Fantasy has had such a poorly written female character since the days before Final Fantasy IV, whose women weren’t very fleshed out less because their writing was bad and more because Final Fantasy only started having a significantly greater focus on characterization until Final Fantasy VI.
Final Fantasy XIV, despite being one of my favorites, isn’t quite so innocent, either. Its official mascot character is Y’shtola, yet one has to wonder why when she likely has the least amount of screentime out of anyone in your main group. At the end of A Realm Reborn, in which she has fairly little screentime, she sacrifices herself for the team and transports herself into the Lifestream. This spell puts her in a comatose state that leaves her out of the narrative until you reach a section in the first expansion, Heavensward, where she gets some characterization and development in a city known as Sharlayan.
Afterward, she’s rendered largely inconsequential all the way through to Stormblood. In the second expansion, she’s wounded early on and deemed unfit for the liberation fights for Doma and Ala Mhigo, which Stormblood’s plot revolves around. She has a short scene that exists for comedic value, and then she comes back hours later to, like the other scions, get rendered unconscious so that the Crystal Exarch can summon everyone in The First. It’s only until Shadowbringers that she gets what she should have gotten long ago — no constant fridging, a strong presence in the main narrative, and the amount of screentime a representative character should get.
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Y’shtola isn’t the extent of Final Fantasy XIV’s stumbles with women by any means. Heavensward has been heavily criticized for its visible lack of women. Both your main and supporting casts are composed of mostly men. The few women among them are Alisaie, Y’shtola, Lucia Junius, and Ysayle. All besides Ysayle, who ultimately sacrifices herself for everyone near the end of Heavensward, are involved with the story in only minor ways. While Stormblood gives Alisaie some much-needed characterization, it has been criticized for its handling of Lyse, a visibly light-skinned, blonde, and blue-eyed woman whose white savior narrative allows her to lead the liberation efforts for groups of majority black and brown people. Yotsuyu’s fascinating writing makes her one of the game’s most compelling characters, but it is marred by how she is infantilized for most of her arc in the Stormblood patches.
Shadowbringers is the best result — especially since, with the inclusion of Y’shtola, Alisaie, and Ryne in your group, it marks the first time in Final Fantasy XIV’s history that your party has an equal ratio of women to men. All of them get significant screentime and development, as well as agency in the main narrative. Also, you’re only threatened with Y’shtola getting fridged once. You take the victories where you can get them, yeah?
The fact is that no expansion has handled women in the most ideal ways. It’s not quite that the women of Final Fantasy XIV are written poorly, or else I would’ve had little to say and this section would’ve been as short as Final Fantasy XV’s. (With the exception of Minfilia, who was more an amalgamation of tropes before she became half-dead and then was fully killed off in Shadowbringers.) I believe some, like Yotsuyu, Fordola, Alisaie, and Ryne have overall incredible writing despite some falters.
But, for example, there are no main villains who are women; none of the central conflicts of Final Fantasy XIV are started by women. While Stormblood has two secondary female antagonists in Yotsuyu and Fordola, its central villain is a man. Upon death, Zenos is resurrected to continue playing a part in the narrative — and he isn’t the only one, for another Stormblood villain is brought back, in a way, at the end of Shadowbringers. The multiple villains and major heroes — like Aymeric, Haurchefant, Estinien, Hien, and the Crystal Exarch — of Heavensward and Shadowbringers are all men. And the overarching narratives of all three expansions revolve around them while the women are relegated to secondary roles.
Which brings me back to my concerns with Final Fantasy XVI. There’s only a single four-minute trailer to go off of right now, but there’s already been plenty of discourse. Final Fantasy is extremely popular with women, and many have expressed that they wished the trailer showed more female characters. Some fans were quick to point out the trailer highlighting multiple pale blonde women. After all, this trailer comes on the heels of Final Fantasy VII Remake’s release earlier this year, which has served as a reminder of the series’ contentious history with its extremely few brown and black main characters.
Seeing oneself in the media they consume can have a powerful effect on people. The video game series I mostly spent my formative years playing was likely Final Fantasy. Despite how poorly women have been historically treated in video games, many of the women in Final Fantasy — like Final Fantasy VII’s Aerith Gainsborough, Final Fantasy IX’s Garnet, Final Fantasy X’s Yuna, and Final Fantasy XIII’s Oerba Dia Vanille — were role models for me. Through the many different complicated versions of womanhood I witnessed across every entry, I was able to value my own womanhood and those of the women around me. While some women could have surely been written or presented better, Final Fantasy felt ahead of other video games for a long time. Unfortunately, it’s been a good while since Final Fantasy made me feel this way.
I hope we see more women when we next see Final Fantasy XVI and that they fare much better than any of the women in Final Fantasy XV. I hope their presence in the narrative is more integral than it is in Final Fantasy XIV, which is heading into its fourth expansion and is still struggling with putting women at the forefront. I miss when Final Fantasy gave me complex women and gave them the power to control their own narratives. Only two entirely new Final Fantasy stories have seen the light of day in the last ten years, but they’ve both felt like regressions in a series that sometimes stumbled but rarely fell in presenting women as the nuanced people we are.