While a huge step back from a Western feminist perspective, it can also be interpreted as the most female-focused 'Final Fantasy' ever
As the first and only Final Fantasy to feature an all-male main cast, Final Fantasy XV has suffered through plenty of condemnation and disapproval since it was released last November. The game features four pretty boy, leather-clad male leads with glorious hair who go on a road trip to fight fascists while exploring their friendships, being heroic, taking their shirts off and eating gigantic sandwiches. It's all just a bro-tastic, fist-bumping, male bonding thing, right? The game has came under plenty of – seemingly justifiable – fire for being brazenly sexist and relegating its female characters to minor roles that involve operating heavy machinery in hotpants. This was particularly surprising given that previous games in the series – like 2009's Final Fantasy XIII and its two sequels – seemed far more enlightened when it came to celebrating female leads.
The majority of the outrage associated with the game has been from a Western perspective. Things certainly weren't helped back in 2015 when game director Hajime Tabata told GameSpot that "an all-male party feels almost more approachable for players. Even the presence of one female in the group will change their behavior, so that they’ll act differently," but what none of the disdain takes into consideration is that Final Fantasy XV seems to have been tailored for a burgeoning Japanese market that's rarely spoken of elsewhere: the fujoshi.
Fujoshi is a self-deprecating term in Japanese that arose to describe a particular subset of female geeks, as it literally means "rotten girl." These women – primarily single young adults, but also older married women – take a keen interest in anime, manga, TV, movies, and games, and particularly the male characters they feature. But the main interest of most fujoshi isn't just ogling fantasy men: it's imagining them in romantic relationships, particularly "yaoi" – homosexual relationships with other male characters.
It's a big market, but one that's hard to quantify exactly. You only need to attend events and visit online spaces where they congregate to get an idea of how numerous – and how devoted – they are to the characters they adore. Social media sites like Pixiv (an art sharing site) and Twitter allow fujoshi to share fan art and stories featuring favorite characters and "couplings" while dissecting how subtext (intentional and unintentional) in their preferred media could support their personal fantasies.
Large-scale gatherings where "doujin" (self-produced) fan material is exchanged – such as Tokyo’s massive Comic Market and the various Comic City conventions – allow a shared space for these fujoshi to exchange printed art and stories featuring the subjects of their affection with other like-minded fans. These fan comics and fanfiction stories range from chaste interpretations of male bonding to explicit depictions of gay sex. By and large, the companies producing the original media don’t often make an effort to stop to these unauthorized, sometimes pornographic depictions of their characters – primarily because doing so would alienate them from some of their most devoted fans. It's a sharp contrast to how Western developers tend to handle such matters. Porn based on Blizzard's hugely-popular hero shooter Overwatch ranked 12th on Pornhub's top search trends for 2016 – outranking perennial stalwarts such as anal, threesomes and gangbangs – but Blizzard has generally taken a dim view of its characters being being used in such a manner. Since the game launched last summer, it has been making a concerted effort to scrub the Internet clean of any pornography created using art lifted directly from the game.
In Japan, Anime series with a fujoshi-friendly approach like high-school swimming club-themed series Free! and figure-skating drama Yuri!!!!! On Ice have become merchandising juggernauts, spawning collectible figures and trinkets featuring their toned, scantily clad male leads for fans to indulge in. Video game companies have certainly got the message: Capcom’s hugely popular historical-fantasy hack-n-slash series Sengoku Basara has proven to be a huge success among the fujoshi crowd thanks to its stylish and handsome heroes, and each of the seven sequels since the original in 2005 have taken advantage of this. Similarly, DMM and NitroPlus’s browser and mobile hit Touken Ranbu – a game in which handsome men embody legendary swords – is proving to be phenomenally popular. According to Paul Martin, a Tokyo-based expert on Japanese swords who served as curator for the British Museum’s Japanese Department, Touken Ranbu has been such a hit among women that the makeup of visitors to the Japanese Sword Museum in Tokyo has changed from being 60 percent foreign to 80 to 90 percent Japanese women.
Square Enix is no stranger at all to this practice. Final Fantasy, as a series, has long been a fujoshi favorite, with homoerotic encounters between Final Fantasy VII’s Cloud and Sephiroth enduring in fanart and fanfic. With the spending power of fujoshi as an acknowledged market force – and with the Japanese console game market at its lowest point in quite some time – merchandising and appeal outside of "traditional" markets becomes more and more enticing as a way to help recoup gigantic game development costs.
FFXV makes every effort to play up its subtext. Most fujoshi favorites don't come out and say "oh yeah, these dudes are totally gay" – instead, they play up little things: specific dialogue exchanges, scenarios where characters bond emotionally, even just characters sharing meaningful looks with each other. In FFXV, this subtext is abundant: four guys, all gorgeously handsome, together in a big fancy car, spending their days fighting as a team while exchanging quips and sharing special moments. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine a fantasy scenario where, say, Prompto and Ignis get drunk while at one of the game's campsites and awkwardly confess their burning love for each other, before jumping into bed together.
“For fujoshi fans, the whole setup of FFXV is a blatant invitation to 'ship' characters with one another," says Nele Noppe, a researcher and translator for the Open Japan Group, a media research and cultural consulting service. "It's really not subtle." In her mind, the fact that the game presents four stunningly attractive characters, each with different physiques, and coops them up in a car where they can get cozy, makes the intent crystal clear. "A broad range of fantasy material [is] served to you on a platter, and all you have to do is pick your preferred two/three/foursome and run with it. It's a buffet for fujoshi fans."
We're talking about the Japanese market here, but it would do Western fans of such material a disservice to not acknowledge that they exist, as well: a simple look at Tumblr or the Archive of Our Own will reveal plenty of fan-created male/male romantic fantasies, many written and drawn by and for women, based on all sorts of media properties, the Final Fantasy series among them. The key difference here is that Western media seems more unwilling to acknowledge and cater to such an audience – whereas in Japan, pandering to the fujoshi is far more common.
So while Final Fantasy XV might be a huge step back from a Western feminist perspective, it can also be interpreted as the most female-focused Final Fantasy ever. By giving fans ample opportunities to "read between the lines" and use their imagination, Square Enix has made a game that caters expressly to a female audience that many observers fail to acknowledge. It might not have the female representation some folks are looking for, but to other women, it’s one of the most empowering games out there.