Back in May, it was announced Final Fantasy XVI would be banned in Saudi Arabia. Officially, it was because developer Square Enix refused to alter scenes in the game for the territory, which led to rumors and speculation that the 16th game in the long-running RPG series would have explicit gay sex scenes, which spawned memes and earnest excitement. Turns out, yes, there is a same-sex couple (and implied bisexual hero), but while one of the two involved men is one of Final Fantasy XVI’s standout characters, the romance never goes so far as the internet speculated, and the game seems hesitant to show it at all.
Spoilers for Final Fantasy XVI follow.
Dion Lesage is a lot of things. He’s the prince of the Holy Empire of Sanbreque, beloved by his people for his empathy in an otherwise uncaring monarchy. He is Bahamut’s Dominant, able to call upon the dragon’s power and transform into him during battle (Bahamut is a gay icon now, sorry about it). And he’s also the lover of Sir Terence, his devoted right hand.
From what little we see of the relationship, Terence is almost exclusively characterized by his devotion to his boyfriend. In the grand scheme of things that feels like a missed opportunity, but I gotta admit, I am captivated by the desperation and unbridled loyalty Terence demonstrates when he stands alongside Dion. It’s a dynamic ripe for fanfiction and players filling in the gaps, and if I didn’t write every day for my job, I’d probably be inclined to join in. Dion is nothing but caring for Terence when it would have been easy for a royal and his faithful knight to fall into toxic, abusive tropes. These two adore one another, and while Dion’s entire family dynamic is destructive fantasy politics made corporeal, this guy’s clearly broken the cycle and put in the self-work to be more than a prince to Terence.
All this wonderful character development and potential ultimately makes the places where Final Fantasy XVI pulls its punches all the more disappointing. Taking inspiration from Game of Thrones, Square puts a spotlight on physical intimacy in Final Fantasy XVI. There’s not a lot of what you’d consider overt sex scenes, but there’s a lot of romance happening, characters kissing and being naked together, and in most cases, the game is comfortable viewing it all from up close. However, Dion and Terence are an exception.
When the two share a kiss maybe halfway through the game, the camera moves away from them and we see it at a distance, when moments before we were watching a scene of Terence tending to Dion’s wounds at an intimate angle. The two very clearly kiss, but the distance the scene is shot from would make it easy to think they hadn’t.
The tragedy of it all is, Dion and Terence aren’t together through much of the game, so there’s not much opportunity for Final Fantasy XVI to make this right by expanding further on this relationship and giving them more chances to express the clear love they share on screen. As the dangers of Dion’s mission escalate, he sends Terence away to repay a debt he owes, and to keep his lover out of harm’s way. It’s an affecting scene and underscores the dire stakes of Final Fantasy XVI’s war, and it emphasizes the devotion these two have for each other. Terence is willing to do whatever Dion asks of him, and Dion knows that and uses it to push him out of the line of fire. It is a beautiful, tragic, angsty moment that would make my heart sing if I hadn’t already been disappointed by how little this relationship was foregrounded, and how scared Final Fantasy XVI seems to sit with it.
The Final Fantasy series seems to be getting gradually more comfortable with its own innate queerness, with characters like Andrea Rhodea being an unabashedly queer man in Final Fantasy VII Remake’s Honey Bee Inn sequence. He proclaims that beauty is all about expressing oneself regardless of any perception of gender, and dances the night away with Cloud without the camera once shying away from the flamboyant display. But when it comes to actually portraying the intimate expressions of queer identity, such as a kiss between two men who love each other, Final Fantasy XVI falls short of its own unapologetic ideals, while lingering on Dion and Terence’s straight contemporaries.
Sadly, this is par for the course in the video game industry. While there’s a ton of incredible work being done in the indie space, queer men and their relationships are still largely relegated to an option in AAA games, rather than something a player is forced to reckon with, much less a role they have to inhabit. Sure, games like Mass Effect and Assassin’s Creed may let you play as a gay man (though the latter series has twice now undermined that in Odyssey and Valhalla), but male-seeking-male intimacy is almost never at the forefront of AAA video games unless it’s sought out by gay players.
A lot of eyes were rightfully rolled when Ellie from The Last of Us was lifted up as the “first” queer protagonist in a AAA game because there have been plenty of characters that could be LGBTQIA+ before her, but when you actually go back and look at a list of queer characters in video games, most of the time, those characters are options for the player to express themselves, rather than the sole perspective the game offers. The choice is welcome, but engaging with stories that center queer characters and experience by default, the way so many stories do with straight characters, is the natural next step that video games still have trouble taking.
Even if Dion and Terence’s relationship had gotten more screen time and the cameraman didn’t suddenly sprint to the other side of the room when they kissed, it wouldn’t have solved this problem. Dion isn’t Final Fantasy XVI’s protagonist, Clive is, and his romance with Jill is given plenty of focus, even if it’s one of the least compelling relationships in the game. But the fact that Square Enix feels gun-shy in the most intimate moments of the game’s gay relationship is a symptom of a larger issue. The video game industry is quick to slap a Pride logo on its social media posts or sell Pride-branded merchandise, but the biggest franchises are still terrified to put queer people front and center, especially men who like to kiss other men.
We shouldn’t be looking to Final Fantasy to save us. Broadly, queer people shouldn’t be looking to any corporation or piece of media as the barometer for where queer liberation stands in the face of conservative movements seeking to strip the rights of queer people, especially the onslaught of attacks being levied against the trans community. But in a world where we’re constantly being barraged by real-world hate and regression, acceptance within media can sometimes feel like the only measurement of acceptance we have. So it’s a shame to see Final Fantasy XVI clearly want to express that, but fail to commit when it counts. Queer men are still waiting for their The Last of Us Part II moment, and if the biggest games can’t even stand in proximity of two men kissing unless the player has expressed a desire to initiate it, I don’t think we’ll get it any time soon.