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Final Fantasy is truly a special and bold video game series. While it has stumbled a bit over the course of its 30 year history, its willingness to create a new universe, cast, style of gameplay, and story theme with each new installment is nothing short of admirable. While there are a handful of direct sequels and and spin-offs that cash in on the popularity of some of its characters, for the most part Final Fantasy always demonstrates a desire to try something new with each new main installment, and in an industry full of derivative sequels that's a wonderful thing, and as a result, a lot of people attribute a different Final Fantasy game to being their favorite.
After a rocky decade long development phase, the newest installment in the series, Final Fantasy XV has released, and it is undoubtedly a flawed game. Its side quests are often nothing more than repetitive fetch quests, and some of its story beats could have used further elaboration for example. Yet in spite of this, it has emerged as by far and away my favorite installment in the three decade old franchise, and this is in large part due to its cast of characters. Final Fantasy XV stars four male heroes who are already great friends before the start of the game. While some bemoaned the lack of female party members, I actually feel that the focus on intimate male bonds is something that up until now has sorely been underrepresented in video games.
In Robert Garfield's wonderful book "Breaking the Male Code: Unlocking the Power of Friendship," the author explores how we still live in a society that has a strong idea of how men ought to behave in the company of others. Men are generally expected to be strong and stoic - the rock that always remains firm in the face of the turbulent storm that is life. As a result, many men are discouraged from bearing their true emotions to others, causing many to feel isolated and lonely even if on the outside they appear to have plenty of "friends." The best example of this is the stigma that men are not expected to cry, but it can also be seen in how many males are more willing to talk about superficial subjects than intimate ones with the majority of their friends.
This has also impacted how men are portrayed in video games, as they are often strong, stoic, and unyielding, typically only demonstrating intimacy in the presence of a female love interest. Final Fantasy XV completely shatters this portrayal in the best possible way. Protagonists Noctis, Gladiolus, Ignis, and Prompto share an intimate bond not often seen between male characters in video games. Sure, they have fun together; they rant about how much they like Chocobos or Cup Noodle (in the most shameless yet glorious video game product placement ever), but they also aren't afraid to talk about their emotions with one another.
One of Final Fantasy XV's big themes is that being the "Chosen One," frankly kind of sucks. Most video games put us in the shoes of a character who is "special," chosen to fulfill a great destiny, which gives us on an excuse to go on fun and unforgettable adventures. However, being the Chosen One also often brings with it great responsibility and denies someone the chance to live a normal life. This is reflected in the main character Noctis' character arc. He is royalty of his country, and his destiny is to ascend the throne after his father's passing and save the world from ensuing plague and demons. But Noctis simply doesn't want to. He'd much rather live his life travelling the country alongside his friends casually fishing and going on adventures. Noctis informs his friends of this on several occasions, hoping that the road trip across Eos they are partaking in never has to end. In response to this, Ignis and Prompto empathize with him in rather touching ways, and Gladiolus shows him the tough love needed to help him "grow up" and come to terms with his responsibility as king.
Another great example with this has to do with the root of Prompto's character. On the surface, Prompto is the "doofy best friend" JRPG archetype, cracking unrelenting jokes and sarcastic quips throughout the main campaign. Some find his dialogue grating, but I personally found his humor refreshing, especially as it adds levity to some of the darker portions of the narrative. Yet in a rather touching, optional scene at a motel, Prompto confides in Noctis that he is actually suffering from great feelings of inadequacy and isolation on the inside. Gladiolus was chosen to accompany Noctis on his journey because he possesses great strength and people skills, and is a sworn bodyguard, brother, and friend of Noctis. Ignis is not only a childhood friend of Noctis, but has served the royal family since a young age, and is a skilled chef, tactician, and driver (well, mostly). Prompto... can take good selfies. He's the odd man out in the group in that he was only chosen to travel with Noctis because he is his best friend. Prompto lives in constant fear that he doesn't belong, nor deserve to accompany Noctis as a result of this. And in response, Noctis tells Prompto that being his friend is more than enough to justify his place on their adventure.
It's a very sweet scene that adds layers of depth to Prompto's character. You realize that he only acts like a jokester because he feels like levity is the only thing he can truly contribute to the group, and is actually struggling with his self-esteem on the inside. His confession of this to Noctis is a rare scene in an industry that typically depicts men as battle hardened, emotionless warriors.
Final Fantasy XV's cast in many ways felt like the friends I didn't have growing up. Whether we were hunting down royal tombs or playing smartphone games, the wonderful writing, voice acting, scenarios, and animations did wonders to making all four of the main characters feel like real people who genuinely cared about one another. I knew that I liked these characters a lot while playing the game, but it wasn't until the ending that I realized how much they truly meant to me.
SPOILERS FOR THE END OF FINAL FANTASY XV IN THE NEXT TWO PARAGRAPHS AND VIDEO DON'T SAY I DIDN'T WARN YOU
At the end of the game, it is revealed that part of Noctis' destiny is to sacrifice his life in order to banish never-ending darkness and demon waves from the world. After he is forced into isolation for ten years, Noctis reunites with his friends and informs them of this. They sit around a campfire one last time and shed tears together, knowing it is the last time they will ever be together as a group. This scene, coupled with the absolutely beautiful cover of Stand By Me that plays during the credits actually drove me to tears as well.
I grew so attached to the cast of Final Fantasy XV while playing. I saw myself in Noctis. And his rare bond with his friends was depicted in such a genuine and heartfelt way, that seeing them come to terms with Noctis' ensuing death was an incredibly emotional moment.
Final Fantasy XV was a rare, special, and beautiful game. All the time I spent carrying out lame fetch quests and trying to make sense of some of the story beats completely dissolved in the wake of an absolute emotional gut punch of an ending. Simply put, Final Fantasy XV's all male cast was a phenomenal decision on the part of Square Enix, as they've depicted intimate male relationships that are both underrepresented in fiction, and tragically few and far between in real life.
Some day, ten years from now, Final Fantasy XVI may be a thing. But Square Enix has quite a task ahead of itself if it wants to replace Final Fantasy XV as my favorite game in the series. If you're a fan of RPGs, or strong character writing in general, I urge you to play Final Fantasy XV for yourself to experience a refreshing new take on male friendship.
Have you finished Final Fantasy XV? What are your thoughts on the cast? Am I the only one that likes Prompto? Sound off in the comments below, and happy gaming!