I love Exit Fate. A lot. It’s weird, clever, sentimental, dramatic, subversive, funny and charming; its characters are endearing, believable and dynamic and its world comes alive with details. I can’t recommend enough that you go to the creator’s website, download the free game (available for Mac, here courtesy of a programmer named Barış Şencan), support the developer if you’re able and talk about it. As far as “small indie games” go, it’s pretty well-known but I still want to do my part to support what I think is a brilliant videogame.
As with many JRPGs, the main draw of Exit Fate is in how its characters relate to one another and where they find a place in the increasingly tumultuous world. And just like the JRPG it is, it charges into big issues—the nation and the individual, war and loyalty, faith and pacifism, fate and spirituality—with all the unironic gusto of an epic poem.
As much as I want to champion this game though, near the end it occurred to me that the cast that had endeared me so was, to my surprise, homogeneous. The majority of the characters were young white men. That’s nothing new in videogames, but I was still gobsmacked when I actually looked at the roster because the cast was so well-rounded that I never felt like representation was weighted toward one category of people over all others. I felt like there was fair representation because the game tended to place such value on dynamic individuals; many of the most important characters were not men, not an extreme of the gender spectrum, not young and not white.
If anything, Exit Fate seems above the average in terms of how it represents non-privileged people because it places more emphasis on who characters are as people than as tokens of an underrepresented social group. But no matter what it’s positives are, when the bar is set so low above-average doesn’t mean much and its problems are still problems. Exit Fate is a good lens at looking at issues of representation because it demonstrates what positive representation and mis-representation look like, the associated problems of representation, and the reason why it’s so important to get it right.
I somewhat covered Exit Fate in my plural protagonism series already, and it’s important to keep in mind that it fits the necessary criteria for it.1 Exit Fate is about a diverse group of people combining their unique skills and talents for a global benefit. The game values cooperation in the story and in the mechanics: success comes when separate characters act together and failure comes when they’re isolated from one another. This isn’t three or four people with an obvious goal: Exit Fate is concerned with universal conditions and it approaches them with a myriad of different perspectives; it’s a game about society, relationships and cooperation. For this reason, representation is even more important. If a game is about the best minds in the world cooperating to solve problems of escalating grandeur, it’s significant that a majority of those minds belong to the category of people who have a stranglehold on culture in the real world.
The playable cast of up to 75 characters offers a stunning human tapestry to work with and polymath developer SCF creates wide-ranged and very human characters out of such a large group. As said, the cast feels big and incredibly alive because it’s filled with so many people, all with their own quirks and side-stories and subtle relationships. Sure, plenty are less rounded than others, but everyone has a personal stake in the adventure, even if it’s just a passive, anthropological curiosity. Even the most obscurely optional characters have a reason for existing in the story and eventually get some warmth from the spotlight. On a more mechanical level, each individual performs differently based on who else is in the party. Everyone has varying levels of affection for one another that boosts or hinders their in-game attributes. All of these are qualities of plural protagonism: people succeed because they grow close and function better socially.
Over time, though, a pattern emerges. In fact, it’s the same pattern that smashed me over the head while playing Tekken Tag Tournament 2:
There are men that are tall and men that are short. Some men are grizzled while others are delicate. There are fat men, and there are lithe men. Some have rippling muscles and others have soft features. They are dark skinned and pale. They are ancient, and they are young. They are slow and lumbering, and they are lightning fast. They are sexy, and they are grotesque. They are serious and they are a walking joke. The women enjoy no such diversity.2
While Exit Fate does not sexualize its female characters in the way that Tekken does, it’s guilty of the larger problem of narrowing the impact women have on the plot and influence on the narrative by limiting their representation. Exit Fate might have “better” characters than Tekken (whatever that means) but it still limits the range of characteristics women have by virtue of how few women there are compared with men. In the three countries the player explores through Exit Fate, they come across women scholars, bandits, generals, sailors, soldiers, entertainers, ninjas and business owners; it takes place in an egalitarian fantasy world where women appear to have as much opportunity as men. That’s awesome but the game is noncommittal about it. Of the 75 party members, only 17 are women.
The game shows us women and people of colour in the game’s world so we know that they exist in the general population and we can see them with a wide variety of personalities and occupations. So the question becomes “if there are non-white, non-men in the world with as much access to opportunity, why do so few show up for heroing duty?”
It’s possible to have an effective, mechanically deep all-female squad of five in Exit Fate even without setting out to do so. Women aren’t just archers and mages. In fact—as is the case with the fellas—archers and mages are rare: most carry a sword or a spear. There are women that fit every standard RPG combat role with a few healthy mixes and diviations. Similarly, female characters have a variety of roles in the plot: there is a general sent from a small, vulnerable country seeking the friendship of a large, powerful country; there is an enemy commander that abandons her post after her colleague butchers civilian prisoners; there is a snobby magic dealer with a superiority complex; there’s a conniving treasure hunter looking for her next big score; and there are others. There is a conscious and largely successful effort to create layers of motivations, flaws and ideologies for every personality without relegating them to second-tier party members. Women aren’t just there: they’re active, involved and human.
Consider Ayara. When the game’s protagonist, Colonel Daniel Vinyard, is framed for a massacre at his encampment, he flees and is joined only by Ayara, a private under his command whom he’d met only briefly. Ayara is an excellent judge of people and—based on what she knows of Daniel through meeting with him—knows he’s been framed. She isn’t guided by a random guess or by psychic intervention: Daniel has a reputation as a pacifist and her meeting with him confirmed it. Ayara knows a violent turncoat when she sees one and, through her own reason, determines that Daniel is no such thing. She doesn’t join him because he orders her to (though, conditioned to military life, she respects his rank even after he’s left it) and she isn’t being a patriot (she risks far more when they join a new army because, as a private, she is a far less valuable defection).
Ayara joins Daniel because she believes he was wrongfully accused of an atrocity and she respects his quest for peace. Other characters admire Ayara based on who she is and what she does, she makes her own decisions independently, she has doubts about herself, she has to adjust her worldview and her concept of self as the adventure progresses, she swings a hand-axe into monsters’ faces awesomely. All of these are markers of a character that matters more than a smurfette shoehorned in as an afterthought.
In the epilogue, a pair of sentences reveal that Ayara had developed a romantic relationship with another party member. There is an entire love story in the backdrop of Exit Fate that the player only catches a glimpse of at the very end. Daniel (and the player) never learns about Ayara’s romance because its none of his business. Ayara is defined in the narrative by her trust in a worthwhile leader and her conviction to see his plans carried out; on the mechanical end, she is—in my playthrough anyway—the best and most rounded physical fighter in the game who was present for more battles than any other member of the player-commanded Elysium army. In either case, she is Daniel’s first permanent ally and therefore stands with him longer than anyone else. Ayara falls in love because that’s what people do. But her private life does not belong on stage so it stays in the wings, even while the expectation of her as the female character with the most screen time is that she will fall for the lead.
Mid-way though Exit Fate, one of Ayara’s closest friends in the party directly asks her if she has feelings for the Colonel. She doesn’t answer and the scene is structured to make us think she doesn’t want to admit her feelings. But actually she doesn’t answer because it’s nobody’s goddamn business. She’s there for her courage, strength and judgment of character, not to fall in love with the senior officer. The game sets up the expectation that the hero’s closest comrade and sidekick will fall in love because—if patterns are to be believed—that’s what they do; that’s their role in most role-playing games. The game stalls and then defeats that expectation.
Along the way, the player also meets a woman named Petra. Petra is a straw feminist. Anita Sarkeesian probably doesn’t know it but she’s given a better summary of Petra that I could.3 Petra is an optional ally that only joins if Daniel speaks to her with an all-male crew. When she sees a lack of women in Daniel’s army, she joins up. When the player takes her on a mission she answers his call with “Do you require a women’s strength?” When she’s hanging around Daniel’s fortress between adventures she again comments on the lack of women in the army and asks Daniel if he “fears female domination.” In a personal interview, she accuses Meiko, her interviewer, of creating a bias against women in the media. She’s the type of feminist that has to look for misrepresentation to find it, the type that wants dominance over equality, the type that picks fights without listening.
The thing is, there actually is a widespread cultural perception of feminists as being more interested in gaining superiority than equality. There’s also a pretty nasty media bias against women as well. Similar to the discussion on Powerpuff Girls in Sarkeesian’s video, Exit Fate takes place in a fantasy world where women and men are ostensibly equal, where it is apparently unreasonable to believe that there’s a bias in the media against women in power. But in the real world, there is a documented and persistent anti-feminine bias and putting that complaint in a make-believe context where it doesn’t apply dismisses an actual, real-world concern. What’s especially interesting about Petra is that she’s an extremely effective character in the game: she has above average physical attack and she has incredible defensive stats. I took her with me for a good deal of the game, including the final boss. She might have been the butt of a joke in her limited impact on the story, but she has an effective place in the cogs-and-wheels of the game’s gamey gameness.
Finally, even though Petra is a figure the player is supposed to be poking fun at, she’s never really wrong. When she asks if I “require a woman’s strength,” the answer becomes self-evident: I took her to the final boss’s house and won so…yes, I did need, not just a woman’s strength, but her strength. When she’s commenting on the lack of women at the castle, she’s isn’t crazy: there actually are 58 men and 17 women that participate in the adventure. Even within the isolated fantasy of the game, she’s not wrong to voice her concerns. In a world where men and women are equal in population and status, they should appear equally in the world.
The gender disparity says something in the game’s subtext. Even though it’s a game that takes plural protagonism, a narrative technique that structurally argues the value of cooperation, it implicitly privileges one category of people over another.
Just a Game
The problem is that you can’t say a thing and have it not mean anything. Language isn’t just limited to words: images, facial expressions, attire, music, sound effects and game mechanics are all language. The human mind is an infinitely sprawling web of ideas that are connected with varying levels of strength.4 Language is the magic that activates certain nodes of that web in another person so they create their own associations that sprawl out to other concepts based on their own experiences. Some ideas are more easily activated than others—the hero with a dark past that is Daniel, the stalwart companion that is Ayara, the straw feminist that is Petra—and become solidified with every new iteration. Those things are called tropes: Hero With a Thousand Faces and whatnot. When we see the same connections between concepts retraced, emphasized and strengthened, they become truer in the mind regardless of how true they are in objective reality (whatever that is).
The trick is that there isn’t a way to not say something. Even silence communicates. In a work of art everything means something because it is rooted in language: it is somebody’s brain (or many somebodies’, as the case inevitably is) reaching out into an audiences’ brains. The universe might not have an author, but a text does: it comes from a person that is saying something. A text exists to reach an audience even if the audience is just “myself but later”; a text is language that is meant to reach someone and language always means something whether or not the author or the audience cares what it is. Language activates a concept, that concept is associated with other concepts, that are in turn activated and spread out and on and on. Nodes flickering on a web.
The express purpose of an audience experiencing a piece of art is to absorb it (or consume it, in capitalist parlance) by reading it. A swirl of colours is read as a random encounter, the number 100 popping over a monster’s head after Daniel strikes it is read as an attack, the enemy’s disappearance from the field is read as a victory and that victory is another step closer to succeeding in Daniel’s journey. In a game we read terrain, statistics, job classes, challenge, environments, character models and resources all as “stuff that also means other stuff” because all stuff always means a bunch of other stuff. And these meanings and associations are constantly shifting based on what we experience in reality and in the art we engage with.
When Exit Fate establishes Ayara as the first person to see Daniel’s potential and act as his first and greatest ally, it means something. When Ayara’s faith in Daniel and dedication to his cause is rewarded with a happy ending it means something. When an omniscient third-person narrator closes the story by revealing that Ayara has a private life outside of her commander’s awareness, that means something as well. When Petra assertively comments on the lack of women in her workplace, it means something. When there’s a mocking tone directed at her when she does so, it means something. When Petra, as a feminist, is exceptionally skilled at absorbing attacks so that other, weaker people don’t have to, that definitely means something. All of these things can and should be read because the language is there for people to interpret and create arguments out of.
There isn’t ever a choice in this. A person can’t ever honestly not read. Reading is automatic: it reinforces, challenges, complicates or otherwise influences all the preexisting ideas attached to the text. When a person says that they don’t like to “read too much into something” what they mean is they’re placated by what they’re reading and that they don’t see—nor do they want to see—any challenges to their worldview. Nobody ever wonders what it means when they see an armoured hero standing over a vanquished dragon with a blonde white woman in his arms. They know what a hero looks like because either the text communicated it to them or they have enough experience with heroes that their brain just activates the concept of hero automatically. You can’t just “shut off your brain for a little while.” That will kill you. You’ll die. A person’s brain is always working, always learning, always absorbing content and linking it to other content.
1 Filipowich, Mark. “Plural Protagonistm Part 3: the Shining Force.” bigtallwords. April 26 2013.
2 Filipowich, Mark. “One Dimension: Women’s Bodies in Tekken.” PopMatters. September 25 2012.
3 Sarkeesian, Anita. “Feminist Frequency Tropes vs. Women #6: The Straw Feminist.” Bitch Media. September 23 2011.
4 Roediger, Henry. “Memory metaphors in cognitive psychology.” Memory and Cognition. 8-3 pp 231-246. May 1980