Friday, December 26, 2008

Reflections on Final Fantasy X-2 (spoiler warning)

(These are my reflections on Final Fantasy X-2 for PS2. RPGing is a personal hobby, and such exposition enhances the gaming experience for me. But it may not be of interest to many readers, so please disregard this post if that is the case).

Charlie's Angels was one of the first series to showcase women in justice-seeking roles traditionally reserved for men. It's difficult not to feel as though Final Fantasy X-2 is attempting the same for the virtual role-playing world from the game's opening on. Yuna, the sensitive Kelly Garrett, Rikku the sporty Jill Munroe, and Paine the feminist Sabrina Duncan, form the trio referred to as "YRP" in freeze frames interspersed throughout. Setting a fanmade trailer to music from the Pussycat Dolls adequately conveys what the gamer is to be confronted with for much of the story:



A recent Pew Research study found that 65% of daily gamers are male and 35% are female. The ratio is surely even more lopsided among rpgers. So perhaps this has marketing value in expanding the SquareEnix customer base. It might also be thought that relatively immodestly dressed females would attract teenage boys, although it seems more than a little antiquated to presume that in an age of ubiquitous internet access and an ever expanding definition of what is sexually acceptable for entertainment mediums like television and movies, pg-13 virtual girls have much contemporary drawing power. To this, consider Sam Clemmons take on what constitutes a good story (p213). It remains relevant today:

"I find that the right way to write a story for boys," [Twain] argued, "is to write so that it will not only interest boys but will strongly interest any man who has ever been a boy."
Marketing considerations aside, an all-female party strains the ability to suspend disbelief. The traditional template involves a male protagonist rescuing (or fighting for) a female made captive by (or acting against) a male villain. Fight the villain, save the princess. It's the stuff of fairy tales and Mario games because it makes sense. Men are more heavily represented at the extremes in a variety of things, from intelligence to the number of children produced. While men comprise more than 98% of the greats across the board in the arts and sciences extending back to the time of Homer, men have also started nearly all of history's wars.

It thus seems natural for most of our heroes and most of our villains to be men. Of course, averages do not dictate what will be seen in specific individuals. But three girls and no guys strains credulity, especially given that most of the game's conflicts are resolved through violence. Women are on average smaller, weaker, slower, and fatter than men are. The genre has been able to compensate for these martial disadvantages by inserting fictional attributes and then having women dominate in them (magic, magic defense, luck). Further, the female advantage in flexibility is often furtively converted into an advantage in agility or dexterity, even though men are more agile and dexterous than women are.

In FFX, Yuna and Rikku illustrate as much. Yuna is a powerful white mage and summoner; Rikku the party's quickest member. Such profiles complement the greater physical prowess usually reserved for men. In FFX-2, an all-female party precludes the formula from being used. Paine is inserted as the rare female beatstick, usually played by barbarians or anthropogenic creatures who necessarily abandon femine qualities (Ayla from Chrono Trigger or Freya from FFIX).

As a cariacature of second- and third-wave feminism, Paine does indeed abandon them. Following a battle victory, in an asexual tone she frequently 'asks' "Satisfied?". No.

Paine's character should have been male. Reusing another character from FFX is unrealistic, since it would have meant a reduction in the playable character base by more than half without a novel addition. Who to add, then? Auron's son. Paine, like Auron, is a gruff and taciturn swords(wo)men with a mysterious past. Auron's progeny could have easily been molded to fill the role, and as Auron is the same age as Braska (Yuna's father) and Jecht (Tidus' father), the son would've fallen into the right age range.

Perhaps the gender hangup is overdone. The corresponding trio of faction leaders, Nooj, Gippal, and Baralai, balance the narrative, even if the player is left wishing he were controlling them instead of YRP.

However, it feeds into something larger. In lamenting how the Zanarkand Ruins have become a cheesy tourist hotspot, Isaaru notes that "People flock to what is new. They forget the things that stay the same." He nails what is so attractive about rpgs--they trade in the timeless attributes of character, the desire to stand up in the face of evil, to better the lives of those around oneself, to pursue nobility. In a clean break from FFX, Isaaru injects a positive view of religious tradition, a sentiment Yuna shares when emotionally remarking she is "almost glad tourists are getting attacked by fiends". She cannot anymore than Isaaru find anything genuinely sacred about the place, as Yevon's teachings have been discredited in full, yet it strikes them both as sacreligious that this once-sacred ground has been sullied by the cheapness of free-ranging tourists.

An analogy to FFX and its sequel is hard to avoid. The somber weightiness of the former is contrasted to the fluffy shallowness of the latter by recourse to Yuna's themes in each game. Consider the former and then the latter. Or just turn to aesthetics for the contrast. Satisfied?

Steve Sailer's insights on gender and frolf help in seeing FFX as a game directed at males and X-2 at females:

I've been to three U.S. Open golf tournaments, I've watched Jack Nicklaus try to stare in a 20 foot birdie putt on the back nine Sunday at Medinah to get him in the hunt for one last U.S. Open title at age 50, but I've never seen intensity like these guys playing frolf. I watched one guy take seven or eight practice "swings" before finally just missing a 15 footer. The other three players said nothing, and just began lining up their shots with the same furious concentration.

On the other hand, the only female twosome on the course squealed in delight at each other's good shoots, then instantly resumed their conversation, of which all I overheard was, "Well, I don't care what he thinks, because I know I'm worth it!"
My superciliousness aside, FFX-2 is Yuna's story. What transpires around her in Spira parallels an internal struggle to put her past to rest. With irreparable damage done to Yevon, Spira has split into two rival factions. This fissure can loosely be seen as referencing either the Reformation or Enlightenment. New Yevon, without a legitimate raison d'etre, is seen as a clumsy leviathan claiming power it has no right to. Church critics could have (p91), with a little tweaking, just as well been members of the Youth League:

[The destruction of Yu Yevon] raises the question of how a religion which consisted of confessing and acquiring penitential 'grace', of hearing masses and sermons, of venerating sacraments, of paying to saints in the 'Church triumphant', could exist at all... [when the its very foundations had been revealed to be fraudulent].
Those who shared some of the sentiments of Auron or the Al Bhed in distrusting Yevon had been forced to sit on them. In historian Euan Cameron's words:

They could not defy 'Holy Mother Church' so long as that Church bulked so large in their system of belief.
Despite the name, New Yevon is comprised primarily of old order of monks and soldiers who staffed it before the Calm. The Youth League is where the radical 'reformers' and non-Al Bhed secular technologists have found refuge. Beclem illustrates the extremist orientation of the Youth League in his obsessive desire to burn down Besaid Temple in spite of Wakka's protestations. Following the destruction of Vegnagun and Shuyin's being put to rest, a rapprochment between the two factions takes place as they vow to push forward together.

Yuna struggles with the New Yevon 'inside' of her--her pining for Tidus, the remorse she feels for having dispatched her loyal aeons, the emotive repugnance she feels in visiting the Zanarkand Ruins. She also struggles with an 'internal' Youth League--her directionless and capricious shifting of the Gullwings from one occupation to the next (first sphere hunters, then bodyguards for hire, then a musical troupe), her mistrust of Yevon's remnants--that seeks a radical break from her past without attaining the closure she so deeply desires.

The Spiran saga paralleled inside of her is given form in the Lenne-Shuyin relationship. Essentially, the gender roles are reversed. Lenne has left the world, and Shuyin is desperately looking for a way to bring her back, feeling like he had been unable to prevent her from going a millenia before. His obsession becomes increasingly destructive. Shuyin's own Calm only comes when he puts it to rest. Or, more accurately, when Yuna puts it to rest for him. Lenne is working through Yuna to realize this outcome, presumably through the Fayth, who are working in concert with one of their mortal allies. Who? Well, who guides Yuna in doing this? None other than Auron, whose reason for being had been--and in this last way, still is--putting to rest the destructive cycle of Yevon. Shuyin and Yuna simultaneously find acceptance of their respective losses.

There is a moral in Yuna's story that is universally applicable beyond the specific world of Spira: Making one's own happiness entirely contingent upon someone else is to court personal devastation. In addition to Yuna's all-in investment in Tidus, there is Barthellow's in Donna, Ormi's and Logos' in Le Blanc, Le Blanc's in Nooj, New Yevon's in Baralai, the Youth League's in Nooj, Brother's (unsettlingly incestuous) in Yuna, and of course Shuyin's in Lenne.

With this, the normal ending offers closure. Yet, realizing personal happiness must come from within if it is to have any permanence does not preclude fulfillment from being found externally! Michael Clarkson commented that it would be disappointing if FFX had a fairy tale ending, as Spira was so wrecked from the beginning.

But what of wanting something less ambitious yet arguably more satisfying--the reuniting of Tidus with Yuna? Spira could be made into a veritable paradise and yet the ending still hurts without this. In the words of Dave Matthews, "It's not where you are but who you're with that really matters". A Spira facing 1,000 challenges is okay if Yuna gets Tidus at her side. In this vein, I hoped X-2 would get closer to FFIX's magical ending than FFX did.

The "good" ending delivers:



It smacks of empty anodyne, though (hearing Tidus and Wakka exchange barbs again is saccahrine for sure though, even if the context is silly). The "perfect" ending is necessary to complete Yuna's story:



How has Tidus returned? Is he now anchored in flesh and blood, or is he as gossamer as before? These concerns overwhelm Yuna as soon as she has Tidus back. Yet Tidus, whose very existence is in question, will not be shaken. Descartes' epistemological uncertainty caused him great anxiety, conveyed in the Meditations in what could just as well have been a literal description of Tidus' situation:

I am in turmoil, as if I have accidentally fallen into very deep water and can neither touch bottom nor swim to the safety of the surface. But I will struggle and try to follow the path I started on...
Tidus' existential uncertainty does not phase him even though--or perhaps because--he knows he cannot provide certainty. Sure, he has some theories. Maybe the Fayth gathered up all of his thoughts and used them to reconstruct him, or maybe he's still a dream. But he resolves this by taking a Humist approach. Spira is a mass of confusion. Should Tidus then revise the way he interacts with others in the world? Hume thinks this is impossible for anything more than a moment or two, while in the midst of intense philosophical speculation. John Perry's summation of Hume's thoughts capture Tidus' resolution:

We should be aware of our confusions and limitations... but we should give into our natural inclinations to believe and infer cheerfully, for we really have no choice.
So Tidus offers this to stop Yuna's incessant fretting:

Cherish me, Yuna. And I'll cherish you.
Tidus' existentialism is not surprising given the roller coaster ride in and out of existence that he has been on since Sin brought him from Zanarkand 1,002 years ago. And his approach to the mess that is Spiran metaphysics is recommendable for Yuna, as the two are presumably going to be significant players in leading Spira forward.

Although the story is Yuna's, Kimahri develops as well. He betrays a Confucian teaching from the Analects:

The superior man is modest in his speech but exceeds in his actions... This man seldom speaks; when he does, he is sure to hit the point.
The excerpt is on the money up to the second part of the second sentence. Kimahri does not have the executive function to be an effective leader. He is determined not to use violence to dissuade Garik from launching an attack on the Guado, yet he has no alternative method of stopping it. The Ronso are a tribe of mountain warriors, after all, who respect martial prowess over all else. So YRP have to use violence to force Garik to submit.

However, Kimahri hides that he is not an abstract thinker through most of the Spiran saga by heeding the advice of Proverbs 17:28:

Even a fool, when he holds his peace, is counted wise. He who shuts his lips is esteemed a man of understanding.
Pointing this out is not to disparage Kimahri. He is one of the most noble characters in the Spiran universe. After being banished from Mount Gagazet, he fulfills the wish of a dying Auron to raise and protect Yuna. His devotion is unwavering, something Auron thanks him for by leaving him to face Seymour alone before Tidus rallies the troops and brings Seymour to his knees.

In X-2, he shows that common sense can compensate for a modest intellect. When Wakka is explaining to YRP his anxieties about becoming a father, Rikku applies what Kimahri said to Tidus about her on the snowmobile ride to Guadosalam. "Rikku is Rikku. So Wakka will always be Wakka." He is a good person who loves Lulu and wants to be a good father. Kimahri would expect nothing less, and neither does Rikku.

Finally, a few odds and ends:

- The Al Bhed might be seen as Jews, the destruction of Home alluding to the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem built by Solomon. After wandering around without a homeland, the Al Bhed made it back to the desert to begin excavation and create another settlement (the reconstruction of the Temple in the 6th Century BC), which is then besieged by Angra Mainyu (the Romans?!). The Al Bhed are also secular (which is anachronistic if the narrative about the temples is followed) and Rikku's English voice actor, Tara Strong, is Jewish.

- Garik and his followers might be thought of as a Hamas-like faction, taking an uncomprising hardline against a much more advanced neighbor they are in constant struggle with. Kimahri and the Ronso loyal to him, in contrast, might generously be seen as a faction similar to Fatah.

- LeBlanc makes a mockery of the strong woman who needs a man as much as a fish needs a bicycle. An exotic, leftist insurgent (Nooj) turns her into an obsequious votary instantly. In real life, there are plenty of people who more-or-less do the same.

- Ormi's name is perfect. Unlike Logos, who shows lots of witty cleverness and an expansive vocabulary (I had to look up "commodious" after he used it), Ormi is just sort of there.

- The Farplane's breathtaking landscape brings the movie What Dreams May Come to mind.











I am now launching into the oldschool Phantasy Star series from Sega, so there may not be enough depth to justify a post on my observations. From what I have heard about XenoGears, it should provide plenty of food for thought. That's on deck, so until then!

++Addition++The prolifically perspacious video game reviewer, who runs the blog Popular Symbolism, notes that Yevon and its relationship to Spira alludes strongly to Shintoism in Japan:

- Like Yevon, Shinto was a state religion enforced by the state
- It is a nature religion - something close to the Gaea hypothesis, except involving powerful spiritual ghosts - and hence one could say it is opposed to technology (though the lines are ever-more blurring in Japan, where Shinto priests are even
going so far as to bless Japanese laptops - LOL)
- After the end of World War II, Hirohito had to give up his divinity claim (he was worshipped as a 'Kami' - one of the spiritual ghosts/gods in Shintoism), and hence people were associating the religion with all that was wrong about Hirohito and distanced themselves from the religion
- In FFX-2, the people have dropped religion en-masse and society has now shifted into a consumerist, secularist society. This is not unlike current-day Japan, where most 'trendy' Japanese want their country to be regarded as secular, even though the roots to Shintoism are practically anywhere.
- The whole Dressphere thing and how it allows the user to morph into the previous owner (Yuna/Lenne) is taken from Shintoism.

Anyway, just as a side note: Japanese do not regard magic as 'fictional' or 'make-believe'. For one, they practice Buddhism mixed with Shintoism. Secondly, it is no coincidence that much of the Japanese games that succeed internationally feature magic to some degree. ...

Anyway, even though modern-day Japanese like to think of themselves as secularist, most of the games and movies they watch (anime) feature Shintoist concepts to some degree or another.
I am only vaguely familiar with Shintoism, but reading the general Wikipedia article on it, PS is clearly on the mark. Although the allusions are pretty blatant in FFX and its sequel (Yuna's 'purification' experiences each time she gains a new Aeon summon, for example), the Kami conception runs (inhabiting supernatural 'gods' as well as physical items like swords) throughout much of the Japanese rpg genre.

He's considering a review delving deeper into the above. So stay tuned!

26 comments:

Stopped Clock said...

Although I'm male, I think that one thing about Chrono Trigger that has always appealed to me was the way it largely inverted traditional RPG gender roles. Among the protagonists, there are four males and three females, but one of the males is a frog, one is a robot, and one is a boss who switched sides, and depending on how you play the game, might not be on your side to begin with.
Thus, you could analyze the game as including three girls as lead characters and only one boy, which is unusual even in the sexified world of RPGs. Moreover, Chrono is a flat character whose role in the game is determined by the fact that he is the only male: Marle falls in love with him, and takes great pains to rescue him when he is kidnapped. Thus it is the opposite of the "boy rescues princess" storyline.

I believe Ayla and maybe Lucca also showed romantic interest in Chrono, though he doesn't seem to have returned it, although that could be due to the fact that Chrono seems to be mute (this was never really explained in the game).

Secret of Mana also has a feminine feel to it, especially the second one (third in Japan). I pretty much stopped playing video games ten years ago so I can't say if the trend continued with the further sequels.

agnostic said...

Joan of Arc was a rare case. So, no one really believes all these butt-kicking babe roles. If there has to be a female heroine, she should go through the adventures of Thumbelina or something -- that's believable.

The creators just can't stop at giving her a quick mind and being brave, though -- she also has to know how to shoot guns, storm the castle, or whatever. C'mon...

The only time it works is when it's understood to be a fantasy, to underscore how unlikely it is, like the Amazons or the Gerudos.

Seems like it'd work better if, instead of putting the male and females together -- where the female role will resemble the male one, in order to sell -- they should just make it a one-character game, but you get to choose between a female and male character.

The female character would be like Thumbelina, the male character would be your typical male hero. The ultimate goal is the same, but you get there in two mostly different ways, one for the male and one for the female. The male storyline and gameplay would appeal to boys, and the female part would appeal to girls.

agnostic said...

One redeeming thing about butt-kicking babes in video games -- at least they get to draw them to look girly so that they'll appeal visually to girls, who want to look feminine after all.

In real life, you need to hire Angelina Jolie, Milla Jovovich, or some other trannie wannabe. The only girly-looking fighter babe is Princess Leia.

Dude, they should make a video game based on Labyrinth -- that would totally appeal to boys and girls.

Audacious Epigone said...

SC,

Frog (Glenn) is a more important character than Ayla, but the three primary protagonists are Crono, Lucca, and Marle, and like you say Crono doesn't speak. Lucca could've just as easily been male (though she does have an interest in Crono--Ayla does not, though, she is just impressed by Crono's strength, which Keno misreads as lustful interest), but Marle is a feminine heroine.

I'd been on a video game hiatus from about '97 to last year, but since I started back up it's the most enjoyable ~8 hours of my week.

Agnostic,

That'd be moving towards MMO territory, but with a single player conception. Interesting.

Yes, the females still tend to look girly, even the butt-kicking ones. This is probably a plus for boys, too. In FFX-2, Rikku is the best illustration of that. If the trio were real, she'd definitely be the most desirable one.

Oh, and Labyrinth has already been done... but it could stand to be redone...

popularsymbolism said...

FFX and FFX-2 are thinly disguised fictional yarns on Shintoism and its rise and fall in Japan, where it was being enforced.

The similarities are not hard to miss:
- Like Yevon, Shinto was a state religion enforced by the state
- It is a nature religion - something close to the Gaea hypothesis, except involving powerful spiritual ghosts - and hence one could say it is opposed to technology (though the lines are ever-more blurring in Japan, where Shinto priests are even going so far as to bless Japanese laptops - LOL)
- After the end of World War II, Hirohito had to give up his divinity claim (he was worshipped as a 'Kami' - one of the spiritual ghosts/gods in Shintoism), and hence people were associating the religion with all that was wrong about Hirohito and distanced themselves from the religion
- In FFX-2, the people have dropped religion en-masse and society has now shifted into a consumerist, secularist society. This is not unlike current-day Japan, where most 'trendy' Japanese want their country to be regarded as secular, even though the roots to Shintoism are practically anywhere.
- The whole Dressphere thing and how it allows the user to morph into the previous owner (Yuna/Lenne) is taken from Shintoism.

Anyway, just as a side note: Japanese do not regard magic as 'fictional' or 'make-believe'. For one, they practice Buddhism mixed with Shintoism. Secondly, it is no coincidence that much of the Japanese games that succeed internationally feature magic to some degree.

If you have played Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3, there are certain scenes where references are being made to Aleister Crowley and Helena Blavatsky, magic-practicing occultists (Crowley was British, Blavatsky was Russian who immigrated to America and became famous there).

Anyway, even though modern-day Japanese like to think of themselves as secularist, most of the games and movies they watch (anime) feature Shintoist concepts to some degree or another.

I might have to write my own article on FFX/2 someday to go deeper into all this.

Audacious Epigone said...

PS,

Very good stuff. I've added your commentary to body of the main post and urge you to put together a review (you said you were planning on doing so previously, after all!).

It's obviously a blind spot of mine, as I'm not too familiar with Shintoism. But just reading the Wikipedia entry on it brings other allusions to mind (Yuna's purification at each temple before being granted a new aeon to summon, the Kami in weapons--not so much in FFX, but in other games, especially with regards to the Masamune--etc).

popularsymbolism said...

Yeah, I know I said earlier I was going to write a piece - I was secretly hoping your article would cover it so it would save me some time, though :)

Your article kinda went some way towards rekindling my drive to write it, I guess.

Anyway, if you're interested in the subject, I wrote another article:
Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past - Shintoism at play.

This Zelda game, like FFX/X-2, once again blatantly borrows from Shintoism's rich folklore and concepts.

In fact, it's quite surprising to me, as a total novice to Japanese culture (remember, I'm just a caucasian guy from The Netherlands) that I seem to be the only person on the Internet that is pointing this stuff out to people - judging on English-language websites anyway.

It's also interesting to note that the creator of the Zelda and Mario series, Shigeru Miyamoto, is an admitted Shinto acolyte - it would seem he is not alone in the videogame field.

Also look at this excellent article:
Essay: A Look at Jewel Folklore In Japanese Developed Video Games

Basically, whenever a videogame features a crystal/gem/jewel of some sort with the power to change one's appearance or lend him magic powers, that's a giveaway that it's based on the concept of the 'magatama' in Shintoism.

popularsymbolism said...

As for women not being able to hold their own in combat, well, mythology and religion feature plenty of instances where women played central roles in warfare:

- Athena from Greek mythology, the goddess of tactical war and a warrior goddess in general
- The Valkyries in Nordic mythology, basically Odin's private army of female warriors

The whole Yuna, Rikku, Paine thing is taken from current J-pop trends: the holy trinity of a 3-girl posse is a pretty popular one in Japanese pop culture from what I have been able to ascertain, and has the following beneficiary traits (from a marketing perspective):
- obvious sex appeal for the teenage male audience
- girls in turn can read into it that these women are the ultimate expression of empowerment because they don't have a 'man' guiding their hand. Feminists and maternalists in the west also seem to appreciate of this concept, though I don't think they would approve of FFX-2's handling of it.

Countless television shows, games and anime in Japan have the same motif - almost like a cynical marketing device because it appeals to some girls' base psychological drive to be 'on top' of the man (and I don't mean that figuratively)

Anyway, the whole gender issue does not interest me terribly so - especially within the context of FFX-2. I kinda view it as a distraction, though female gamers always seem to capitalise on it - as if it's the only theme they seem to be looking for in a game. It's there, and we can quite reasonably assume why Square decided to dress their three heroines in skimpy clothing.

sclop said...

I didn't really play the game, so I can't make many comments. But from the little that I did play and from I've heard and seen from you, the game looks terrible. The endings with Tidus were dumb and poorly written; I honestly did not care. That's saying something considering I had a lump in my throat at the end of FF X.

Audacious Epigone said...

PS,

I've read your post on the Super NES Zelda game (I emailed a link of it to a couple of friends of mine who were fans of the series), but as I've never played it and am not very familiar with Shintoism, it apparently didn't stick. Going forward, I'll definitely be looking for similarities. The most obvious ones should be detectable, anyway.

Re: the ignorance/lack of interest in the gaming-Shintoism connection, there are probably several factors at play: The presumption that Japanese games strive for universality ("mukokuseki"), the Tolkienesque/medieval settings of many rpgs and the heavy use of borrowing names from European mytholigies (Greek, Norse, English, Irish, etc), the lack familiarity with Shintoism (I'd guess most people think of it generically as another version of shamanistic animism that isn't easily distinguishable from various 'pagan' belief systems in the West), and so on.

Re: the popularity of female characters in male eyes, I'm skeptical. I've seen multiple fan-based character tournaments, where individual characters from games are placed against others in a March Madness setup, with readers voting for the winner of each match. I don't recall ever seeing a female character reach the final four, but I'll refresh myself before asserting that for sure.

Sclop,

I've played the five games reviewed here since ending my decade-long hiatus from the virtual world, and FF X-2 is definitely at the bottom of my list. But a sequel's ending that ties into the title it followed devoid of what happens in between isn't going to be as satisfying as it would have been if you'd played the whole game through.

Getting into game mechanics isn't something I like to do, since there are an endless number of people out there who'll do a better job of it than I will, but the battle system has some neat aspects. It's entirely at the other end of the spectrum from FFX (my favorite battle system ever at this point). The biggest novelty is the sizable (and variable) delay between giving a command and having it executed. Timing is crucially important, yet it's consistently difficult to be precise. As of this writing, I've only made it to the 80th floor of the Bevelle cloister trial, and am struggling with Yunalesca's monstrous reincarnation/transformation.

Audacious Epigone said...

Re: male gamers' desire for female characters, Game FAQs annual character contest doesn't bear it out. Looking from '02 to '08, spanning the history of the contest (which draws hundreds of thousands of votes, although it's not scientific), Samus won in '06, but that's only because the top 4 performers of the previous year weren't included (Mario, Crono, Cloud, and Sephiroth). The Metroid character does consistently reach the 'elite eight'. But she's the only female that ever even challenges the other perennial top performers. Rikku, Tifa, Yuna, Mario, and Zelda don't ever get far.

Melinda Barton said...

As a woman who regularly plays RPG's, you're all wrong... on a lot of counts.

1. Female warriors aren't mythological. We have strong archaeological evidence of societies where women went into combat. There are still women warriors in Africa, in fact. Try google some time.

2. Women's size/strength is not purely genetic, but a combination of genetics and cultural expectation. For example, European and Asian women were historically discouraged from physical exertion b/c muscles on a woman were a sign of low class. Native American and African women traditionally participated in a variety of strength-building activities and are generally stronger and more muscular both through genetics and environment.

3. Comparing women of one race to men of another will often end up with the women being larger and stronger. Native American and African women are generally taller and stronger than Asian males, for instance. (I'm mixed race Native American and white and have easily overpowered white men my height and taller.)

4. We like playing female characters because we like characters that look like us. The exclusion of females in anything but supporting, princess roles often pushes women away from RPG who might otherwise be interested. Although the ultra-feminine look generally appeals to straight women who don't want the perception of gayness thrust upon them. Any woman who played sports prior to the last decade or so could tell you of all the gay jokes she dealt with on a regular basis.

5. Not all of us women who play strong female roles in RPG want to "top" men. Some of us aren't that interested in men at all, except as friends, if you know what I mean.

popularsymbolism said...

Melinda Barton:

Re the comment 'to be on top of the man' - Freudian psychology only goes so far - I wasn't implying that was necessarily the way it is, just that marketing folks like to think it is. Psychology and marketing folks, as do other social scientists, like to be full of themselves and think they got it all figured out.

On the subject of women in videogames, I do wonder why certain feminists feel the need to write lengthy articles on games like FFX-2 concerning gender representation, such as Pauline Chan's article here.

Is it because they feel the deck is stacked against them? Is it that they deem there's some sort of inequality? Furthermore, what would be the ideal representation of a woman in a videogame? And if we would finally arrive at the point where a certain equality would have been reached in videogames, would they be satisfied or would there still be the need to rally against what they deem to be 'sexist' or 'misogynist' character types?

Generally, when I look at a videogame or a movie, I just accept the character and don't try to project my own idealized version of a female/male on top of it, wishing what could have been. For instance, certain women in videogames are meant to be little more than archetypal 'damsels-in-distress', while others play roles that are of more importance to the storyline. Others are just obnoxious.

In FFX's case, Yuna is a complex character. She is obviously modelled after a Shinto Miko priest and has been raised from an early age for one specific task in particular - to save the world. The quandary is that this will result in her imminent death, and thus she has no time for such trivial issues such as love.

Tidus changes all that - and after X's conclusion, X-2 tries to develop Yuna's character further by giving her free reign over her own destiny - she joins this ragtag group of pirates while simultaneously trying to reconcile differences between two warring factions on the brink of war.

As you can gather from this, there is suddenly lots more going on here than simple aesthetics. So it's a little mystifying to me why sites such as 'Women Gamers.com' feel the need to catalogue every female character and grade the character according to their looks and personality.

And we can revert this as well. Not all men in videogames are Schwarzenegger-type steroid-heads. Tidus is a whiny petulant child at first, but gradually develops into something more respectable.

Audacious Epigone said...

Melinda,

You confuse statistical tendencies by transforming them into asserted absolute laws, constructing a strawman and then arguing against it. But as I discussed in the post, powerful women are not impossible, just much less frequent than powerful men. There are the Aylas (Crono Trigger) and the Alenas (Dragon Quest IV) out there, but they are atypical. Anyway, Rikku and Yuna are both quite effeminate. Paine looks, sounds, and acts like a stereotypical dyke, but she's not physically bruthish either. None of them look as though they'd be able to bench 100 pounds. Quite obviously they would be obliterated by Nooj (even with the gimp), Gippal, and Baralai in a brawl.

Take a look at the World Powerlifting Federation's champions by weight class. Champs are listed by weight class--among men and women who weigh the same amount, the leading men bench more than twice what the leading women do. So a fantasy universe's leading warriors are likely to be men. Male dominance in size, speed, and leanness is similar, although not by as great a multiple as brute strength.

Do you have any examples of women of one race being, on average, being larger or stronger than men of another? Mexican Americans are considerably smaller than whites and blacks in the US are, yet MA men are taller and heavier than black women are. Black women have higher BMIs than MA men though, because they have higher levels of body fat. Anyway, the characters in JRPGs tend toward mukokuseki (humans are basically without specified race--racial differences are signified by various species of humanoids, like the Ronso and Guado in FFX), and within racial groups, men are universally larger and more physically powerful than women are.

Re: preferring playing characters like yourself, I understand completely. In fact, that was one of the underlying points in the first half of my review--the 2/3s-plus gamers who are male do not have a character in FFX-2 to identify with. RPGs are at their best when the party is multicult (including gender), because it allows us, as players, to find at least one who is able to launch us into the thick of the frey vicariously. It's hard to do that in X-2 when the battles end with "Duck soup!" "Duck what?" and "Gullwings take the gold!"

Re: turning off women by excluding female characters, that's probably so, although I'm not aware of any hard data to back up the supposition. Do you doubt the gender exclusion swings in the other direction as well? This was one of my major points/gripes.

PS,

Re: non-macho males (and females), yes, but just like women in general relative to men, they must be given fictional abilities to stay at parity with the macho men. Usually the non-physical men are black magic wielders or techies who are apparently able to use guns and other gadgets that sword-swinging tanks are apparently unable to figure out how to use! That does not bother me--it makes games more enjoyable and dynamic than having a party like the one Ibn Fadlan travels with in Eaters of the Dead. But it's worth recognizing.

popularsymbolism said...

Audacious: Using the example of Tidus, even for a teen he isn't particularly muscular, nor does he benefit from any kind of fictional abilities (such as, say, spell casting or elemental spells).

Yet his physical attacks are second only to Auron's when his levels are high enough.

Audacious Epigone said...

PS,

Tidus is athletic, but not particularly strong. The special attacks are fantastical and defy the regular 'laws' of the game (are we to really assume Tidus slices 10 times and jumps off his sword, bicycles in the air, and lands an a-bomb blitzball in the same amount of time as a normal attack?!). I was surprised to find that I couldn't dig up final stats for each character if his grid is the only one touched (and maxed). This should be easy to do given the sphere blocks, and I think I'll do it and send it to gamefaqs. I think the strength order goes Auron-Wakka-Kimahri-Tidus-Rikku-Yuna-Lulu. Tidus is the most girlish (given the rpg archtype) of the males--his HP is moderate, his attack and defense are both middling, he's fast, and he has grey magic. The other three males are more traditionally masculine rpg characters (higher strength, HP, defense).

Melinda Barton said...

I'll respond to all at once. I hope I catch everything.

I'd prefer greater flexibility in character selection and design, as we have when playing live action RPG. I think that's one of the things that turns me off from most RPG videogames and one of the great complaints that hardcore feminist gamers have. In most games, I can either play male (which I don't really mind since they're often very interesting characters) or some ultra-feminine sexpot (which seems more demeaning somehow and is usually far less interesting). There are stereotypical male characters as well, but greater freedom for men to choose non-stereotypical characters.

This inequality, which exists across media, is what is most bothersome. With gamer-chicks, I think we're a bit more disappointed b/c the gamer guys are generally much more enlightened than your average male, especially since they're used to dealing with the nontraditional sorts of women that make up the gamer-chick world. (No offense against average males. I find the company of men far more pleasant in most cases than that of women. I just don't sleep with them.)

Surely, men should be represented and represented well and you're right that all things being equal, men will probably outnumber women amongst "all warriors" or the "elite warriors" in fighting styles where size and strength are determinative. In unarmed martial arts like Tae Kwon Do, however, size and strength aren't as much of an asset as they are in traditional warfare and female masters can hold their own against male masters.

However, this is fantasy we're talking about. Physically small and weak male characters are given all sorts of strengths and powers that greatly overcome their apparent physicality. Why not female characters too? Or create a female character of whatever race (alien or human) that has natural size and strength? Just make them interesting and offer something outside of the range of traditionally sexualized characters.

It's ridiculous not to have some reason that a woman (or man) who looks like a weakling has tremendous strength or ability. Which brings us to the problem with many female characters. They look like they weigh 90 pounds, but are supposed to have major physical strength without explanation, which I think is part of your problem with these characters. Why not either a.) explain or b.) have them look like a normal female warrior-type?

Okay, I hope there's some sense-making in there somewhere.

(BTW: As for the generalizations in my previous post, these are definitely generalizations. It isn't always the case that the women from one group will be stronger than men from other groups. The reverse will often be true. It's just that the male advantage isn't universal. Even within groups, the differences between men and women vary. In some, men are just slightly larger, while in others, men are significantly larger. However, it seems that we have more trouble with a Native American woman being a strong lead character than an Asian male, when on average, women from many native tribes are larger and stronger than males from most Asian countries. Prior to the size changes brought on by lifestyle changes, oddly enough, Native women from some tribes were larger than European males.)

Audacious Epigone said...

PS,

Here's a breakdown of the natural stat boosts by character. With starting stats (search for "the math") added in, Auron is the strongest, followed by Wakka, then Tidus. (Kimahri has to be discounted because his sphere grid is much shorter than the other characters--I guess that's because he has so few native abilities learned on the sphere grid, as they almost all come via the use of Lancet). Defense follows the same pattern, with Auron at top, followed by Wakka, and then Tidus. Same with HP. But Tidus is faster than Wakka and Auron. Oddly, Wakka has considerably better magic than Tidus--looks like I might have screwed up in putting Tidus on Rikku's path and then on Yuna's, to make him into a paladin-type character!

Auron is the standard tank warrior, and Wakka is a little less powerful but more versatile version of the same. Tidus is the most 'effeminate' of the males in stats.

Melinda,

Well put, we're in more agreement than I initially thought. If you've played Crono Trigger (old school) or Final Fantasy 9, you have versions of the warrior woman of an alien race. Part of the problem, from your perspective, is that girliness in a, well, girl, is much more attractive to most men than virility in a woman is. Yet it's that feminine girliness that tends to preclude female characters from being warrior-tank types (or if they are, causes a lot of dissonance in the gamer's mind).

I would still like something referenced to evidence your claim that there are human populations where the average female is larger and stronger than the average male in a contemporaneous but separate population. I asked a very knowledgeable source about the claim, and he tells me it's bunk.

Melinda Barton said...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_height

Comparing the countries shows that the average women in many countries are taller than the average men in others. (Unfortunately, this doesn't break down to ethnic group, since some African tribes have a greater average height than the average for their country of origin.)

Women in societies/groups where "women's work" entails physical labor are generally much stronger and more muscular. For instance, people from many rural parts of Eastern Europe, many African tribes, and many Native American tribes have greater muscle density and strength than other groups. It's difficult to find appropriate sources online, but I assure you this info is accurate.

Melinda Barton said...

Oops... One more thing.

Although the "ideal" weight for a woman my height is supposed to be between 135 and 150 pounds, multiple nutritionists/doctors have place my ideal weight at 170 due to naturally high muscle mass and density. (If you saw me, you'd be shocked at how much I weigh. One coworker brought in a scale to make me prove it.) Both the nutritionists and some anthropologists I spoke to years ago attribute this higher mass and density to my Native American heritage, especially since I no longer participate in activities that would increase either by that much.

Audacious Epigone said...

Melinda,

Interesting that your greater density is attributed to your Native American heritage, since Amerindians are so much smaller than people of European descent in the US today.

European women from some countries are taller on average than men from a few African and south Asian countries, but are they heavier or stronger? I am not aware of any evidence of this, since women have higher levels of body fat and lower body mass, on average, than men do.

Melinda Barton said...

Audacious Epigone,

It actually depends on the tribe, diet, healthcare, etc.

Much of the "shrinkage" height-wise of Native Americans has occurred due to diet changes and poverty, which have also led to extremely high rates of obesity (higher than amongst other ethnic groups) and diseases like diabetes and the lowest life expectancy of any ethnic group in the U.S. Some native tribes, predominantly those with the highest standard of living, still have women that are taller and larger on average than white women, although we're not talking about a huge difference size-wise.

Since I had a better overall environment from being raised in white society, the genes for height, muscle mass, etc. more readily present themselves. Most of the Native American women I've met (either mixed or full blood) who were raised off the rez have the "muscle thing". Even when they appear smaller, they weigh quite a bit and are rather strong compared to others. (People from the Plains tribes tend to be the tallest still.)

Supposedly, we also have a certain "walk" or way of carrying ourselves but I've never quite figured out what that is.

Melinda Barton said...

As to the body fat, yes, but that's "general." Just as men are generally taller, but some groups' women are taller than other groups' men; some groups' women are leaner and more muscular than other groups' men. Don't confuse a general trend for universality, that all women are weaker, fatter, smaller, etc. than all men. It's simply not the case.

Height, muscle mass, bone mass, strength, percentage of body fat, etc. vary between ethnic groups due to genetics, health, diet, and other environmental factors.

As I said earlier, I easily overpower most white and Asian guys my height (or did back when I was playing sports with the guys) and my sisters could too. My oldest sister, despite being quite small, is known for being freakishly strong and humiliating men in arm wrestling.

Brittany Vazquez said...

Quote from Melinda Barton

"5. Not all of us women who play strong female roles in RPG want to "top" men. Some of us aren't that interested in men at all, except as friends, if you know what I mean."

Ain't that the truth!

Audacious Epigone said...

Melinda and Brittany,

Yes, some women are, pound-for-pound, stronger than some men. But generally, that is not the case. And men are usually bigger on top of that. Also, most women are not lesbians. It's not that a trio of two girly girlies and one butch are totally unbelievable as a potent martial force, it's that they are very unlikely.

Ethan said...

Very interesting observations. I have noticed that FFX did have many religious allusions within, and have always liked the concept of the corrupt, hypocritical theocracy. I originally played FFX because I got hooked after a friend introduced me to the series through it. I played X-2 merely because it was a continuation of my favorite game, not because the main characters were scantily clad females(by the way, Charlie's Angels is idiotic). I value the two games, mostly FFX, because of their storyline and plot, much the same reason I love Halo. I look for story in a game, not just blowing things up. I've always admired FFX for the sheer depth of its story and emotion. I found your article very interesting and must agree with you on most of what you said, and I'm glad I'm not the only person looking at this game(and any games in general) like this.

On a side note, my favorite character is Rikku. And no, not because of how she dresses in X-2. It's her personality. It's the complete opposite of my own. And yet, unlike the character she's almost always compared to(Yuffie) she has emotional depth that the FFVII character does not.