How gender informs design is a subject rarely discussed but holds a lot of value as we explore how to express gender topics in games. What exactly is a feminine narrative design? There isn’t a concrete answer, but we have the benefit of the Final Fantasy series to consider the question, including its games led by women characters. This isn’t to say that what we find there is definitively feminine storytelling, but rather how the series shifts in technique whenever women dominate the cast.
A curious trend exists of women-led Final Fantasy games being ensemble stories rather than their men-led siblings with their single-character focus. Mostly notably in Final Fantasy VI it becomes unclear who exactly matters most in the story, since Terra is most often seen as the head of the party. However, Celes takes control for the last part of the game. Final Fantasy X-2, XIII, and XIII-2 all fall into ambiguity, in which the team is emphasized over the individual in terms of the game’s design. Contrast this to series favorites, like VII and VIII, which has male leads with no question as to who the story is about.
We can formally express this ambiguity by looking at how the series experiments with the difference between the story’s main character and protagonist. Most often these characters are the same, but they also often diverge in the series. Final Fantasy gives us two games with the clearest split between the main character and the protagonist. Final Fantasy X features Tidus and Yuna respectively, and XII features Vaan and Ashe. It’s interesting in these games that the main character is a man because the main character is the perspective that the player takes on. Main characters are there for the player to most immediately relate to and trust (or mistrust), while the protagonist drives the action of the story and clashes with the antagonist. Tidus and Vaan are quite literally tag-alongs to a party of much more pertinent characters but offer their unique outsider perspectives so that the player isn’t lost when dropped into the action. It’s Yuna’s pilgrimage that Seymour is out to stop, Ashe’s legitimacy to power that threatens Vayne. Now, who exactly is the main character and who is the protagonist of VI?
What makes games like VI and XIII interesting from this perspective is how much the women share narrative responsibility with other characters. Lightning is the cover character for her game, but control often shifts to other characters. As well, her perspective is constantly informed by the meta-narration of Vanille, who is arguably the actual central character of the cast. Both she and Fang act as protagonists while their Cocoon party members are scrambling to adapt to the consequences of their actions. How it’s probable that you’ll remember the women and forget the men in a video game is remarkable, though the men take more narrative authority than they would allow women in other games. This ambiguity most likely adds into gamers’ frustrations with the game, as it is generally unfamiliar ground for everyone involved. However, there is a general gendered reaction to XIII similar to Dragon Age II’s reception; it also focused on an ensemble cast and took narrative importance away from the player character. The oft male-dominated old guard took issue with this change while many minority gamers felt more room to relate to characters.
My best guess as to why narrative importance is more egalitarian in these titles is a combination of two things: sensitivity to distancing men from relating to the main characters by spreading out the focus and the role that women typically are assigned in stories. The lack of women in proper starring roles in games isn’t a new thing, and what Final Fantasy seems to be doing is cheating. We can have strong women only if the player isn’t forced to identify with them throughout the entire game. This also taps into the usual function of women serving as the source of the social cohesion of their group. Very often parties present a child/maiden/mother trifecta (e.g. Rikku, Yuna, and Lulu) used to keep a group functioning, especially acting as emotional guidance for the male characters. Following this idea, video game women can only continue to do this as leads until game designers figure out different or more nuanced roles for them. On the other hand, the ambiguity of roles that these games provide is preferable, as they share influence throughout the entire cast instead of just coming up with excuses as to why the majority of characters fight for the main character.
Gender politics influences more than costume design and word choice but also design decisions that govern our relationship to the game. This is important for diversity causes in gaming, as how players can empathize with the characters determines a large portion of their enjoyment. It also opens up more discussion about the seemingly arcane practice of narrative design, drawing attention to how elements such as characters and point of view reinforce design ideologies. With a new Final Fantasy on the horizon, it will be interesting to see a sole woman lead or a male-led ensemble cast.