Final Fantasy XV's protagonist, Noctis, is always in good company. In Episode Duscae, a sizeable demo meant to introduce us to the world of XV, Noctis is followed by his three closest friends across a monster-packed wilderness as they search for cash to repair their broken car. They travel in a small pack, Noctis jogging along in front while his fellows trail behind, bantering lightly amongst themselves and occasionally calling out approaching enemies.
It's a sweet picture. Four best bros toughing it out in the wilds together, fighting off hungry beasts, cooking around a campfire, and sharing a cozy tent.
To date, Square Enix has released very little information about the rest of Final Fantasy XV's cast--namely, it's female characters. We've met Noctis' rival Stella and a mysterious young girl named Luna, and a girl with straight black hair has been featuring in some promotional images. We've also been introduced to Cidney, a spunky mechanic. But other than them, we don't know anything about the ladies of XV, or if they are playable in any capacity.
There's been a bit of hubbub over this; every Final Fantasy to date has featured at least a trio of playable gals. Half of Final Fantasy VI's massive cast was female, as is a good chunk of Final Fantasy IV's and most recently Final Fantasy Type-0. Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy XIII both got sequels focused on its girls, X-2, XII-2 and Lightning Returns. The series has always had a pretty even split of the sexes, but so far XV has focused primarily on Noctis and his male companions.
I'm comfortable with XV's cast so far. Obviously I'm hoping we have some gals to control, but I'd be perfectly happy without. The relationship between Noctis, Gladiolus, Ignis, and Promto is a bright, vivid picture of male companionship that we don't really see in other games. I'm not talking about a band of men just working together, or bro-ing along shooting aliens or zombies together. I'm talking about real, genuine male intimacy. The kind of behavior guys might be too shy to exhibit openly, a state they can only be when they are around their most trusted friends.
Writer Harris O'Malley wrote an excellent piece on the need for male intimacy, and how necessary it is for men to have other men they are comfortable sharing emotions with, on his blog, Doctor Nerd Love. O'Malley writes that in some circles, signs of affection between male friends is too often seen as "a mark of suspicion." For decades, popular culture has frowned on deep affection between heterosexual males; being intimate isn't what tough guys do, and you have to be tough to be manly. I think this idea is changing, albeit very slowly, but it's still very rare that a movie or video game portrays a relationship between men as deeply as it does between a man and a woman.
J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings place heavy emphasis on male camaraderie and the importance of relying on one another. In his literature, romance took a backseat to growing trust between the Fellowship of the Ring and the bond between Sam and Frodo, Merry and Pippin, Legolas and Gimli. Pairs of men, groups of warriors and hobbits struggling to cope with the horrors around them and hold on to what human connections they can in the midst of war. Tolkien himself devoted much of his own personal time to meetings with The Inklings, a group of other male writers who got together to smoke, drink, and discuss their writing and the changing world.
But Tolkien was writing in 1930s and 40s, a era much different from ours. These days the thought is that two men can't love each other as friends. Women can shout "I love you" to anyone and it's seen a hallmark of being the fairer sex, but men can't without this idea that things will get uncomfortable. My boyfriend speaks constantly of the men is his life as the people he loves; he recognizes the need for male intimacy in his life and how important it is to his growth and well-being to have those kind of connections. Brotherhood between men is beautiful thing, and with current media emphasis on adding more female representation in video games and de-sexualizing character designs, I hope it's concept that doesn't get lost in the process.
And this is where Final Fantasy XV comes in. During my time with the demo, I was drawn to Noctis and his companions in ways current game casts haven't caught me. While running across an open field, Prompto would call out to Noctis when he saw an item on the ground. Noctis, tired, maybe a little fed up, would grumpily respond. Gladiolus cheered Noctis on in every fight, calling out cheekily with every special move, "Hey, who taught you that one?" (Gladiolus taught Noctis how to fight.) In the opening cutscene, they call each other names and playfully rib one another as they get started for the day.
But the moment that really struck me was, when in battle, I turned Noctis away from the fight and ducked into bushed to recover health. Ignis ran to Noctis and put himself between him and the enemy, effectively becoming a human shield. Ignis wouldn't let Noctis, already perilously low on health, take any damage. Ignis, in the game, is Prince Noctis' sworn protector, raised from childhood to help guide and counsel him when he becomes king. It was a small touch with a powerful result.
It's obvious that these men care about each other. I enjoyed seeing through Noctis' eyes, living this relationship through XV's world. I get a lot of opportunities to play as men, but I rarely get to play as a man surrounded by other men who love him. From what I've seen, Square Enix has done an excellent job of presenting a group of guys who only need each other to get by. There's no focus on seeking intimacy and support from a romantic partner--notably because there is no romance evidence in the demo--but the openness with which these four care for and look out for each other is touching.
I love the idea of four guys on a road trip to save the world. It's refreshing to see a small group that emotionally trusts each other; they're relationships are pre-established before the demo, and the level to which they connect with each other is evident on the surface. This is a positive representation of male camaraderie without machismo, a rare representation of "bromance" that is infrequently used in video games.
"But there will be the ones who understand. The ones who respond, and who are looking for the same thing," O'Malley writes of male intimacy. "And those friendships will be the ones that change your life for the better." These friendships are already evident in Noctis' life in Final Fantasy XV Episode Duscae, and it makes their story stronger. It adds to the believability of the world, that it is lived in with people who are living and loving, and will ultimately--I believe--make for a stronger game.
I won't mind if there are no playable female characters in Final Fantasy XV, because the relationship between its four main characters is strong, sweet, and a very smart move.