Two weeks ago, Square Enix released a new story trailer for its upcoming RPG, Final Fantasy XVI. There’s just one noticeable problem—there doesn’t seem to be a single non-white character in it. So IGN asked producer Naoki Yoshida about whether or not the game would feature any Black people or other people of color. Unfortunately, his response made me go “Yikes” in real life.
Yoshida explained that the fantasy world of Valisthea was based on medieval Europe, and they wanted to limit the world culturally and geographically. “Valisthea was never going to realistically be as diverse as say a modern-day Earth…or even Final Fantasy XIV,” he said, as if he was being asked to incorporate every race on the entire planet. “Ultimately, we felt that while incorporating ethnic diversity into Valisthea was important, an over-incorporation into this single corner of a much larger world could end up causing a violation of those narrative boundaries we originally set for ourselves.”
Which begs the question: Why did they enforce a “whites-only” boundary in the first place?
After acknowledging that the real world is more diverse than Valisthea, he continued, “The story we are telling is fantasy, yes, but it is also rooted in reality.” Which is it, Yoshida? You can’t say that your fictional world isn’t bound to reality, and then use reality to explain why Black people can’t exist in Valisthea. Pick a struggle and stick with it, please.
What’s really frustrating about all of this is that Black and brown people have always existed in medieval Europe. If the creative leadership had done more research or checked their biases, then they might have noticed that Black people have been living in Britain for two thousand years. Or that some Black Europeans were canonized in the Holy Roman Empire. Or realized that Iberia was under Islamic rule for approximately 500 years. Instead of a realistic imagining of medieval Europe, we got FFXVI instead.
I emailed Square Enix to ask how it decided on whether or not a story element violated the developers’ “narrative boundaries,” and I’ll let you know once I’ve gotten a response.
I just rewatched the latest trailer, the one embedded above, and saw a giant winged lady throw ice shards. Apparently that’s not too over-the-top for fantasy realism, but bringing in real people from different races is a step too far. Localization director Michael-Christopher Koji Fox told IGN that the game drew inspiration from Game of Thrones. But even GoT had Black side characters (albeit represented very poorly). FFXVI might be worse about representation than one of the most white-bread shows on prestige television.
So why did the developers decide to include only white characters in the trailer? Yoshida has an answer that sounds entirely like a non-answer. “It can be challenging to assign distinctive ethnicities to either antagonist or protagonist without triggering audience preconceptions, inviting unwarranted speculation, and ultimately stoking flames of controversy,” he told IGN.
I believe that the developers can overcome that challenge without blowing up the internet. If the AAA blockbuster God of War: Ragnarök can feature a Black Angrboda as a major character in its Norse mythology, then a totally made-up world can do the same. Especially if the developers are looking to make Final Fantasy into a modern franchise that feels fresh to newcomers to the series.
These new quotes make me feel very cynical about Yoshida’s comments from a previous interview. In August, he said that he wanted to revitalize the Final Fantasy series, which had become mired in its own longstanding tradition. “In terms of whether Final Fantasy is successfully adapting to industry trends, I believe the series is currently struggling,” he said in the interview with Inverse. You know what doesn’t help with trying to make Final Fantasy not feel like it’s over 30 years old? Giving fans an all-white cast that runs counter to both industry standards and actual history.
For all that Yoshida is lauded for being the man who saved the Final Fantasy franchise, his creativity is also limited by a genre that has never been fair to Black and brown fans around the world. FFXVI may be the most “mature” game in the series, but its outlook on human history is a step backward for modern JRPGs.