Being a Girl Gamer Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Penis Envy

Gah, I always get around to posting my blog updates so late, they’re almost not relevant anymore. Still, as someone who plays exactly the sort of games Consalvo discusses in our latest article of hers to be read, I feel the need to weigh in.

It’s tough being a girl gamer sometimes. The gaming community expects a certain character of each member of our little microcosm, such that boys are generally expected to play FPS games, or other titles featuring a significant amount of bloodshed, and girls are typically seen as playing casual games, and maybe some adventure titles, but generally, nothing more hardcore than Kingdom Hearts. This issue converges directly over the site Gamecrush.com, but that’s the subject of another blog post.

Of the 36 games currently on my shelf, 25 of them are JRPGs, and a further 13 of those are Final Fantasy titles. Of those 13 games, my favorite by far is Final Fantasy IX. Since Consalvo did the world the honor of writing about what is, in my opinion, the most under-appreciated Final Fantasy of the Sony era, I wish to return the honor and write in response. Mostly because she’s sort of wrong.

Not completely wrong, mind you, but, from where I stand, at least somewhat wrong-ish.

As I said so eloquently in my blog title, I’m a female gamer. Of all 36 titles on my shelf, only three have official female main characters (FFXIII, Xenosaga and Okami, though I have made the case that FFX and XII both feature true female main characters, rather than simply female leads acting in supporting roles to the male main character). The fact that the main characters of video games are almost always men has never bothered me, and I have never had a problem with identifying with the male characters in my games. I could connect with their personalities, or their strong, adventurous spirits quite easily. It was never necessary in my mind to connect with their penises, too. Sometimes, however, I would identify most closely not with the main characters, but with secondary characters or supporting cast members. In FFIX, I had the strongest connection with Garnet, for instance, a strong young woman longing to be independent and help those around her, but hampered by her inability to blend in with the crowd; she could always be picked out as the princess. I also felt a strong draw to the stalwart Burmecian knight Freya, for instance, and had an immense love for the shy and uncertain black mage Vivi; those two were almost always in my party, and were supported by either Garnet or Eiko. Though characters like Amarant could dish out more raw damage than Freya, and Steiner could perform magic-powered attacks in tandem with Vivi in addition to being a massive tank in general, I never felt the same connection with them, and so they often were left out of my party. Though I couldn’t actively play as them, I could spend more time with them during normal gameplay.

I LOVE THIS LITTLE MAN.

It’s not that I didn’t like Zidane or anything. His goofball antics and his swashbuckling attitude were very endearing, and his desire to help everyone around him meshed well with my play style (namely ‘help everyone–they’ll probably give you an awesome power-up if you do’). If my initial experience of the game is to be in any way similar to what Consalvo was writing about, I identified with Garnet, and played Zidane as a man trying to win my heart, not me as Zidane trying to win a woman. (My numerous save files from when I was 10 lay this out quite plainly–Garnet always had my name, and Zidane was named after boys I had crushes on.) I don’t think my way of playing is unique–I think many girls play Final Fantasy in a similar way. It’s part of the beauty of being able to name your characters in the earlier titles.

A similar situation arose while I played FFXIII. I often found myself with a party of Lightning, Fang and Hope; pound for pound, they were easily the biggest powerhouses of the main cast. All three had higher strength and magic scores than Sazh, and any spell that Vanille could cast could be covered by Hope (except for Death, of course, but it only works literally 1% of the time), and he would do it with a higher magic score. I also found myself more attached to these characters in general–though my heart broke for Sazh and his tale of woe, he just wasn’t useful to me in battle past about the halfway mark in the game, and I hated Snow right out of the gate–I never used him if I had the option.

Can you spot the deadweight in this picture?

Lightning was originally designed to literally be a female Cloud. The writing team went down to Nomura’s office during the character planning stages and said ‘野村先生、女のクラウドを書いて出来ますか?’ and Nomura said ‘あぁ、クラウドは女じゃなかいか?’, shrugged, and drew Lightning.

"Mr. Nomura, can you draw us a female Cloud?" "Wait, Cloud wasn't a woman?"

Therefore, her story as a tortured ex-soldier who is a puppet of the villain is familiar. Hope is the prototypical Final Fantasy boy, meaning he’s far too young to be involved in saving the world, and has less muscle mass than I do. Some players claimed he was ‘too whiny’, but considering that Hope’s mother died on screen with him watching the whole thing go down, and he is forced to travel with the man whom he holds responsible for his mother’s death (Snow), I’d say a little bit of whining is appropriate. It’s like saying the family of a soldier killed in action should ‘just get over it’, and that soldier is your mother, and she was killed in town square trying to fight against the government forces who were coming in to slaughter the undesirables living in your town, and they’re still coming after you to finish the job.

Except that if you're Hope, you then summon a giant laser-covered battle mech to wipe out huge swaths of your foes.

And I liked Fang most of all because she was brazen and bold, and was singularly driven by her task at hand, even though it often put her at odds with the rest of the cast. She also had a bitchin’ Australian accent, and giant tattoos; she was very much a wild woman, but with a tender heart. Her purpose in life as she saw it was to protect Vanille, creating a sort of dynamic reminiscent of the ‘Summoner and Guardian’ relationships seen in FFX. Her character was extremely colorful; moreso than most of the other cast members. Also, she could summon Bahamut, and was easily the biggest powerhouse in the cast, making her indispensable in battle. (The fact that her character was originally created as a man explains some of this; I don’t think there’s ever been a FF heroine quite like her.)

Flash 'em a bit of thigh, huh? How 'bout that?

Which brings us around to FFXII. If ever there was a game that demonstrated that Square Enix wants to make movies instead of video games, it was this one.

Wow, they pretty much do Star Wars better than George Lucas.

In early drafts of the story for XII, the main playable character was meant to be Basch (you can see his manly mug at 2:06), a Knight of Dalmasca who fought to restore his queen to the throne and, in the process, restore his good name; he had been branded a traitor after the assassination of King Raminas of Dalmasca at the signing of Dalmasca’s surrender to Archadia. And who doesn’t love a good story about redemption? When one considers the fact that Basch was meant to be the lead male character (who, shockingly, is never meant to get the girl–Queen Ashe, the lead female, is a widow, and is very much dedicated to the memory of her dead husband, Prince Rasler, who died a Basch’s side defending Dalmasca’s border), the plot of FFXII makes more sense.

What makes no sense, then, is that there are a couple of random teenage ruffians who somehow manage to fall in with the Queen and her loyal warriors. Vaan and Penelo, the new main characters of FFXII, were created to be more in line with the target demographic of the Final Fantasy series: Japanese teenagers.

"Hmm, which one would our players rather be? A strong, but shamed warrior fighting to restore his honor and kingdom, or a wimpy, worthless teenager who really offers nothing to the Queen's resistance movement?"

Vaan is nominally the main character of FFXII, and appears on the box art in a prominent position and such, but throughout the story, he acts more as a fly on the wall, an observer of the history unfolding around him. Vaan doesn’t even narrate the story, like Tidus does in FFX; Marquis Ondore narrates FFXII through his memoirs. Vaan is, quite literally, just there; a blank slate. He’s the perfect image for the player to project themselves onto. But this comes at the expense of Vaan’s place in the story. If he is not clearly defined, then how can he be an important player character in a complex web of characters, especially if he never really takes on a central role in the action?

Halo’s Master Chief, while being a silent protagonist whose face we never see (another classic ‘blank slate’ character), manages to avoid Vaan’s problem by being pretty much the only main character of Halo, and thus is the center of the action. Halo has a story, yes, but it isn’t one in which complex character interactions are the main subject–killing aliens is. Final Fantasy XII is a story centering around complicated international relations (which is probably one reason people don’t seem to like it very much). Queen Ashe easily comes to the forefront when the party is involved in these events, while Vaan often isn’t even allowed in the same room. If we were to compare the main cast to the cast of the original Star Wars trilogy, then Ashe would be Leia, except she doesn’t actually fall in love with Balthier, who is Han Solo (and Chewbacca is way hotter), and Vaan would be Luke Skywalker if he lost his Jedi powers, had no piloting skills (and, indeed, had never flown so much as a kite), and wasn’t Darth Vader’s son.

Like Han Solo, Balthier gets all the ladies. (Also, to complete my comparison, imagine Luke Skywalker always being the Luke Skywalker in the image to the right, that is, less useful in a firefight than Chewie.)

In general, male and female Final Fantasy fans alike are more drawn to Cloud Strife of FFVII fame. For males, it’s because Cloud speaks to the disillusioned teen full of angst within us all, and he gets to chop things in half with a sword that’s wider than he is. For girls, it’s because Cloud is a bishounen; quite literally a ‘pretty boy’. It’s not the fact that he’s feminized and is thus easier to identify with, it’s the fact that he’s attractive, and girls like to fantasize about attractive men. Square also tends to make their villains into bishounen and biseinen (‘pretty man’, though biseinen usually get lumped in with bishounen for simplicity’s sake, despite there being an age difference between the two categories), just to have all of their bases covered; girls do love a bad boy.

Guilty.

Game companies seem to take the 007 approach to making their main characters; ‘women want him, and men want to be him’. And if game companies are banking on making the female love interests of their games worthwhile targets for their male players’ affection and desire, then they’re doing the exact same thing with the male main characters, hoping to make them worthwhile targets for their female players’ affection and desire, so their female players will spend hours upon hours staring at the main character’s handsome mug on the screen.

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