Early in Final Fantasy XVI’s marketing cycle, producer Naoki Yoshida was asked about the apparent lack of inclusion of people of color in the game. His answer wasn’t great, essentially stating that including people of color would violate the narrative boundaries established by the fantasy world the developers created.
Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to follow up with Yoshida about that answer, asking him if he had the opportunity to hear the response to his words and if he had anything to say to the fans of color that he upset with them.
“I believe that with Final Fantasy XVI, we weave together a variety of peoples and cultures set in this kind of sweeping fantasy narrative and world, and one that we strived to create with care and respect,” Yoshida responded. “We hope that when players finally are able to take up the game in their own hands, that they will be able to see what we’ve aimed for and will hopefully ultimately be able to connect with that unique experience.”
With the game now in my hands, I can finally see what Yoshida and the narrative team were going for — and I don’t get the care or the respect.
Image: Square Enix
The world of Valisthea is made up of six countries, each evoking a real-world counterpart. Sanbreque, with its name and imperial designs of conquest, should bring to mind Napoleonic France, while the Crystalline Dominion, with its loose alliance of free cities, screams Holy Roman Empire. And you know Dhalmekia is supposed to be reminiscent of the Middle East because the second you’re introduced to it, all the colors shift from blues and greens to sandy browns and yellows, and the merchant stalls swap out root vegetables for hookahs.
Image: Square Enix and Image: Square Enix
But for all the stereotypical shorthands the game uses to scream at the viewer, “Hey, you’re in the non-white place now! You can tell because men are wearing turbans, their swords are curved, and there’s a sitar playing,” FFXVI fails to truly commit to the bit.
Everyone in Dhalmekia speaks with a cockney accent and passes the paper bag test with flying (lack of) colors. The darkest skin tone in the game is on Hugo Kupka, the Dominant of Titan, and he’s one of the bad guys.
Image: Square Enix
Beyond that, the tension that defines most of the game’s plot rings as hollow as its weak attempt at portraying non-white cultures. Final Fantasy XVI’s story centers on a conflict between people who can use magic and people who cannot.
Magic users, called Bearers, are tattooed, physically distinguishing them from non-magic users. They are treated as chattel, bought, sold, and ultimately discarded when their magic dries up. Though Bearers are socially ostracized, not everyone in the world of Valisthea treats them with contempt, and there is a secret network of sympathizers who work to help them escape bondage, sending them to places where they can live as free people.
As for Bearers themselves, they seem uncharacteristically meek and servile despite the fact they’re more inherently powerful than their masters. It is always Clive or other non-Bearers who come to their rescue, acting as their protectors and guardians.
There’s also no mention of Bearers who have taken a stand against their treatment — which seems like a glaring error given the breadth of the game’s lore feature. You mean to tell me, Harpocrates, that in all of Valisthean history, nobody pulled the Final Fantasy equivalent of a Toussaint L’ouverture?
Much like the political entities of Valisthea, Final Fantasy XVI itself doesn’t think of Bearers as people. Both by the game and in the game, Bearers are treated as tools, created and utilized in service to a plot. They exist only to be a permanent underclass of damsels in distress or as hacky object lessons on why discrimination is bad.
Knowing all this about the game’s plot, I think I understand why Yoshida and FFXVI’s developers were so reluctant to talk about the inclusion of people of color in the game. Maybe they thought that with a monochrome cast, nobody would think too hard about the uncomfortable parallels between the way Bearers are treated and the way African and Jewish people have been treated throughout history. Or they thought to dodge accusations of racism if the people subjected to this treatment were all white or white-adjacent.
Regardless of whatever the developers were thinking, despite how much I enjoyed the game and feel it’s worth playing, the way the game tackles inclusion manages to feel both lazy and non-existent.