The thing to take into account is that the fictional world of a videogame (or a whatever) is not the only language of a piece. There is also the language around the piece, what the audience brings to and understands from a game. Exit Fate is not isolated from the rest of the world: in fact it’s deeply enmeshed in its generic history. So when you have a character, the player’s interpretation of them does not hinge solely on what the text tells us of them. By the time a person is able to understand any kind of creative work, they’re already marinated in the readings and interpretations that they bring into the experience.
I can tell you that both Tiffany and Tarlia are blonde ladies in Exit Fate and you will have an understanding of what that means. I can tell you that Tiffany is a dancer and that Tarlia is an army general. That connects more nodes in the conceptual web and helps narrow down an image of each woman. That’s text. But there is also subtext: the things underneath the surface that invoke understood, automatic associations of ideas in one’s own cognitive web. Subtext helps us determine which blonde lady is Tiffany the dancer and which is Tarlia the army general.
We can differentiate one from the other by looking at them because we know what a dancer looks like. We have an idea of what a dancer is in our head and we automatically check off matching characteristics and account for deviations. There is a perfect concept of “dancer” in a given person’s mind and the closer a “dancer” figure matches that, the more complacent the audience is (I don’t want to invoke Plato too much as it’s been known to provoke volleys of rage-induced vomit).
At one point Tiffany quits dancing to go to university. It’s harder to account for Tiffany being both a dancer and a university student at the same time—they are concepts that tend to be distant from one another in many people’s minds—so we pick one and that’s what she is. Then Tiffany drops out of university. Now it becomes easier to think of Tiffany as a dancer all along who failed because her dancer-ness interfered with her student-ness: we no longer have to account for her being both nor do we have to do the work of picking one over the other. The concept of “dancer” is closer to the concept of “stupid” than it is to that of “university student” so our judgment of her stabilizes. However, it’s perfectly reasonable—and evident within the text—that Tiffany just doesn’t like university and she would rather go back to dancing because it makes her happy.
She could have succeeded in university, but it would have been boring and miserable so she returns to dancing which is fun and fulfilling. This breaks an expectation of dancers as stupid. She’s not supposed to want to be a dancer unless she’s stupid. Her being intelligent and choosing to move her provocatively dressed body to music for a living don’t fit well so it’s meaningful that the game creates this association. Of course, in the real world an intelligent dancer that hates university is nothing special, they exist everywhere. But they aren’t as visible in our fiction as a dancer that’s stupid. It’s significant for a piece of fiction to make that kind of person visible and take her seriously because the audience will have their own expectations and assumed concepts of Tiffany, her profession and her choices.
Players bring their ideas into their texts, so when there is a game that is entirely about the power of cooperating and bringing talented people together (plural protagonism) it means something when only a small portion of the people involved are not white men. It reinforces the strong relationships between concepts of manliness and concepts of competence and leadership. This is not a conscious decision for audiences, it is not immediately obvious and I’m confident it’s not something that was said intentionally. Media creates, breaks, reshapes, and reinforces the associations we keep in our minds. It’s kind of its thing.
The idea of a powerful and loyal but conflicted high officer that doubts themselves every time they obey or disregard an order is a character that’s been seen many times before. It’s a character that is associated with certain images. When that character is a woman, it carries special significance to the audience even if it doesn’t within the fiction. In fact, it has an even greater impact on the audience because the fiction doesn’t treat our woman officer anomalously.
Similarly, a woman playing Princess Hamlet has a monumental impact on what a performance of the eponymous play means. The audience comes in carrying certain ideas about Hamlet and women and queerness that colour the way they will interpret, say, Hamlet’s sexually charged banter with Ophelia. They’ll also have their own thoughts regarding the princess’s fixation on her father’s death and her nihilistic lament for a childhood caretaker and her murder of and by her brother-in-law. Nothing has changed about the text, direction, blocking or characters because the script—the concrete object that the piece comes from—is unchanged. But it’s still different because the audience brings in ideas toward Lady Hamlet that they wouldn’t have to her traditional, dudely counterpart.
Mike Joffe (who is only capable of writing awesome things) puts this point into practice with a mod of Final Fantasy VI.1 By “re-casting” the digital actors of Final Fantasy VI, Joffe reshapes the interpretation of the game without rewriting any of the content. The gender and sexualities of the primary characters get jumbled up; rival brothers become rival sisters, a mother finding serenity in raising orphans becomes a father finding serenity in raising orphans. The scripts of Final Fantasy VI or Hamlet don’t change, but with a queer women in the lead role of either, it takes on a new meaning and demands that the audience mash different concepts together to understand what’s being said.
When expectations are not met it changes the way that people connect ideas, or at least it calls attention to what audience expectations are. Players expect Ayara to fall for the hero because that’s what lady sidekicks do. It’s refreshing when Exit Fate values her because she’s a strong comrade and friend, not a vagina the hero moistens over the course of an adventure. Players expect Petra the straw feminist to be cartoonishly aggressive and unreasonable and when the text gives them exactly that, it reinforces negative ideas about women and movements toward gender equality. It takes a second of deliberate thought to challenge Petra’s representation and when images are taken in literally at the speed of light, a second is kind of a big deal. What needs to be remembered is that some portrayals demand further thought while others permit the absence of thought.
This has been said a hundred billion times before but it needs to be driven home until it’s understood as a truism: when young white men are consistently being treated as the default, any humanity in non-default characters becomes unique or unexpected. People bring their subtext into every conversation, be it with fiction or with another human being. When that subtext is a constant reinforcement that white men are human beings and everyone else is whatever, it becomes really jarring and uncomfortable when we have a gendered recast of Final Fantasy VI, a Lady Hamlet, or a jaded commander that’s a woman. It becomes harder to accept women as people because connecting women with concepts of humanity becomes unnatural and requires extra thought where white men are automatically respected as peers.
We don’t want our dancers to go to university. And if they do we certainly don’t want them to quit so they can go back to dancing.
The Burden of Representation
When we see a large cast consisting of only a few women it makes women a “special” concept. One of Otherness. A woman like Ayara is fleshed out, rounded, flawed, significant to the plot, sympathetic and overall neato-burrito. Petra is flat, unchanging and a pretty nasty jab at women’s rights. One doesn’t compensate for the other but the general absence of women puts greater expectations on more rounded characters like Ayara and makes the blemishes of oversimplified characters like Petra more glaring.
Of course, there are more dimensions to a person than gender, but Exit Fate leaves little room for those kinds of discussions. Nobody in the game really talks about their sexuality or gender, though there’s room for speculation. There are characters of various ages that make it into the main cast, including an older woman that serves as one of Daniel’s most formidable and relatable antagonists—save for a disappointing reveal near the end, her appeal is similar to Meredith’s from Dragon Age II3—and there is an ally who may be blind. But, again, many of the “invisible” dimensions of identity can only be speculated on. However, there remains what is perhaps the most visible marker of social identity: race.
Of the 75 characters, only five are definitively non-white, two of whom are siblings. Again, there’s a lot of substance to some of these characters, particularly Nomad and his sister, Marian. They are educated historians bitterly divided over whether history should be preserved through Indiana Jones-esque treasure hunts to keep artifacts out of the wrong hands or meticulous data-crunching and record-keeping to keep documents, if not relics, preserved. Nomad is an adventurous drop-out carrying out his research independently with the goal of finding lost ruins and landmarks. His sister, Marian, is the headmaster of the continent’s most respected university who spends her days pining over records to declare truth and mistruth with the absolute certainty characteristic of academics.
But they are more than exaggerated extremes to offset one another, there’s an affectionate competition between them. They like one another and they like their careers. When Nomad uncovers the long sought after but presumed nonexistent ruins of a lost city, the first thing he wants to do is bring an artifact from the ruins to his sister. He wants to report his findings to her for two reasons of equal weight: to present his discovery to a respected professional and to brag about finding something that his fancy-pants sister was so sure didn’t exist. Conversely, Marian agrees to join the team to study, verify and document the artifact’s existence as much as it presents an opportunity for her to get the upper hand over Nomad the next time he farts around some old bones looking for a dead guy’s collectibles.
They respect one another’s fields and acknowledge their professional interdependence. Even though Nomad prefers not to study, he’s done it and he appreciates that it’s necessary to understand the records and personalities that have created history. Even though Marian prefers not to excavate historical sites, she’s done it and she appreciates that it’s necessary to chronicle and preserve the stories of ancient peoples. But Marian and Nomad still try to one-up one another in their different approaches to a common goal. There’s an adorable pettiness to their rivalry, the kind that you only see in siblings and scholars.
Compare these characters with Tong-Wu, the only east-Asian character in the game. Tong-Wu is a martial arts master from a distant land seeking to test his fighting style against a worthy opponent. His personality and character design is based on a kung-fu movie. The problem isn’t that he’s inspired from a certain form of pulp fiction, the problem is that he’s the only character associated with a category of people that have a strong and oversimplified connection to a stereotype. He alone bears the burden of representation for an entire category of people.
Once again, there’s an automatic connection between ideas. Easy ideas fostered by a history of repetition are stereotypes. Tong-Wu is copied from a stereotype. There’s nothing subversive about him and there’s nothing else going in his mind or his personality. Most damning, though, is that there isn’t anyone else associated with his racial identity. He is the sole image of east-Asians in the game. There actually are people in real life that only want to test their kung-fu against other people in a sporting arena and some of them are of east-Asian decent. But there are also east-Asians that smoke reefer, collect stuffed animals and photograph pelicans for a living.
Tong-Wu’s quest to perfect his face-punching technique isn’t a part of a personality, he doesn’t even really have a personality. SCF put this character into his game deliberately because he apparently wanted a travelling martial artist to appear in his game. That’s fine, but said martial artist didn’t need to be east-Asian, he didn’t need to be dimensionless and he didn’t need to be the only person of a racial identity in the game. Tung-Wu is a spot-on print from a stereotype because it’s easy to write when there’s already ideas connected together from a tradition of storytelling. Those preexisting ideas are false, oversimplified and/or harmful but they’re still easy to exploit. When Tong-Wu alone represents the concept of “east-Asian” and he has such a strong connection with a stereotype, it means that the game accepts that stereotype at face value.
It isn’t that Tong-Wu shouldn’t exist, but the problems associated with that character shine through by virtue of his isolation. There isn’t the pelican photographer to share the burden of representing an entire social identity. Tong-Wu has no depth to him, no quirks or relationships to balance out his obvious stereotyped influence. There are no other Asian characters that nuance the category of people from whom he was drawn.
The burden of representing an ethnicity falls to a small number of people and the affectionate, scholarly rivalry between siblings Nomad and Marian gets lost in the cliché beneath the east-Asian kung-fu master. Marian and Nomad aren’t even the same ethnicity as Tong-Wu but they’re the closest proxy by virtue of their shared “not whiteness”, which should not be so rare a trait that it becomes remarkable. There’s such little non-white character content that the stereotypical, easy, comfortable content is more immediately accessible on a cognitive level.
To switch gears for a moment, Barret of Final Fantasy VII is remembered most because he’s a massive black man with a short temper and a dirty mouth. In fiction we’re used to seeing massive black men with short tempers and dirty mouths. Barret is also a conflicted but caring father and a courageous revolutionary. But people don’t tend to remember his confliction with violence, his fatherhood or his courage because his character design is modelled after Mr. T and his attitude is shaped by every black “bad cop” from 1990’s action cinema. Likewise, Rude is another stereotype: that of the physically imposing, stoic black guy. Rude is also incredibly loyal, professional with a shyness that makes it difficult for him to express himself without his closest bro nearby. But again, that gets lost. When these are the only two black characters in a primary cast of dozens, their stereotypes shine through any meaningful personalities they might have.
Imagine if Cloud were black. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t be in the way that his being a man is important to his character-defining struggle with masculinity.2 Imagine if President Shinra and Rufus were also black. Imagine, also, that the kid that gives the party the snowboard, Scarlet, the officer at the Junon parade, the doctor that treats Cloud in Mideel, Don Corneo, Professor Gast, Tifa, and the chocobo farmers are also black. Suddenly, when black characters have more representation than just two stereotypes, said stereotypes are less pronounced. With so much company, Barret wouldn’t be a caricature of an angry black guy anymore, he’d be a guy who is justifiably angry who is also black.
To return to Exit Fate, what we see in the problematic portrayals of Petra and Tong-Wu stand out because they have such little company. Ayara, Nomad, Marian and other “good” characters have to have a greater presence and more layers to detract from the problems associated with Petra and Tong-Wu. Moreover, because Otherized characters are an exceptional presence rather than a natural one (that’s what makes them “Other”), their problems are more visible and more central to who they are than any virtues a player can read into them.
Keep in mind that Exit Fate does not chronicle a handful of people on a personal journey, it’s a sweeping epic about the nature of war and nations. This is a story of plural protagonism, of people coming together and contributing in more or less equal ways to create a better, global future. The greatest minds in the country come together to forge a new era. That’s a good thing to talk about. But when you see visibly darker skinned sprites walk around towns who never get a name or a personality, it begs the question of why almost none of these people of colour have the talent or skill to contribute to the brave new world. If women are equal in population and opportunity, why are do so few of them show up to plan the country’s future? There are 75 potential party members! Why are there only 17 women, 5 people of colour and only 1 person that is an intersection of just those two dimensions?
1 Joffe, Mike. “Final Fantasy VI recast: a ‘Video Games of the Oppressed’ exclusive romhack.” Video Games of the Oppressed. April 11 2013.
2 Filipowich, Mark. “A Profile of Cloud Strife.” bigtallwords. November 17 2011.
3 Cross, Katherine. “Immoral Women: Why We Need More of Them.” Nuclear Unicorn. March 6 2012.