I’m reluctant to talk about Final Fantasy. Five in particular. On the topic of Pride Month especially.
One of the people I respect and admire in my field is something of an expert in Final Fantasy, particularly in the way that literally nobody is right about it. Two of my friends are experts at the game, and they’ll both go ‘oh, no, I’m not an expert’ but they’re both fucking liars, they are experts. Neither of them, bonus, are cis boys, which means that suddenly opening the genders door puts me at the intersection of a lot of spotlights.
Nonetheless, this is Pride Month, and there are not a lot of games that land in this space, accidentally or deliberately, so le’s go.
One of the strangest things to do is to describe a Final Fantasy game without treating it as if knowledge of the game is a foregone conclusion, because sometimes doing so makes the game sound very different to how it plays. For example, Final Fantasy 5 is the story of three lost princesses and the men in their lives as they work to prevent an evil tree from smashing two planets together like clacker balls. And this sounds like nonsense, but also, it could be described as a long, wandering epic story from a random wandering to rescuing an old man to befriending women and pirates and becoming empowered by the nature of reality itself to eventually deal with the reawakening of old gods and new deaths all in the hands of a dude named Buttz. It’s a story that’s somehow epic but only really expresses that in being long, vast but happening to mostly six people.
It is a land of contrasts, and also, a society.
It’s really good, by the way, I really liked this game. It’s probably the Final Fantasy I sunk the most meaningful play time into. I think I clocked something like 20 hours into Final Fantasy 13-2, and in the process, I didn’t progress much beyond the tutorial, so I’m grading on a curve here. The idea of meaningful time is also tied into how much or how willingly I went back to play it again. Final Fantasy 5 was a free download (yo ho ho) for me back when I got it, and it ate a summer as I both combed through FAQs for help when I was stumped, but also never read anything comprehensive, meaning I have a youthful experience of the game filled with half-assed knowledge that could help you where brute force grinding and save states wouldn’t.
It’s the Final Fantasy I latched onto in that time when all the cool kids with ‘money’ were playing their Final Fantasy 7 with their precious ‘consoles’ but the good news is that Final Fantasy 5 kinda slaps on its own, in its own totally different way. Having grown up with PC RPGs, where you chose classes for your party, found out that you did a bad job, then watched them all get burned at the stake as Witches in medieval Germany, the character construction of Final Fantasy 5 blew my damn mind.
The system – and I am simplifying, yes, thank you – is where you get various ‘classes’ that give your characters special abilities, and as you defeat enemies, you earn Experience (to level up the character) and Ability Points (to level up that class). Levelling up your class gets you more abilities from that class. When you level up enough, you start being able to level other classes with the special abilities of a class you already had levelled up – so you could, for example, level up a Dragoon, but have the health bonus of a Monk.
Then as you start mastering a lot of classes, towards the end of the game, you find that your base ‘traveller’ class, gets all the passive abilities of every class you’ve matered, and so while building up all these small goals on the way, you have this amazing, wonderful, fascinating late-game moment of struggling against difficult opponents, then realising you’ve unlocked this howitzer of a tool you can bring to bear on it. This rules.
It also is a game full of fair play; oh, lots of monster abilities are unfair nonsense, and most status effects in true Square JRPG style, do not work on the things you really want them to work on, but there’s this layer of mechanical knowledge where if you’re willing to dig in, you’ll find that a lot of enemies and bosses have these interesting, interconnected weaknesses, and ways to trivialise major battles. That gives you mastery depth (which I do not have). That’s also cool.
There have been some releases of Final Fantasy 5 on some platforms. I would recommend, if you can, to go find a very legal Gameboy Advance copy, and play that, on a very legal Gameboy Advance (and honestly, joking aside, the game and console could run you as little as $40 and it’s really worth it). The Steam release doesn’t look very nice to me, whatever. The thing is, the text I worked from is this older Gameboy Advance script, with its incompleteness and storage problems and limitations, and there,
is where we find Faris.
Spoilers, I guess, for the first two hours of this five hundred hour game.
Anyway, Faris is a pirate. Faris is also, a long lost princess. Faris, when introduced in Japanese, is referred to in the gender neutral, and then, you find, later on, to your surprise, that Faris is (what we would normally in a cisnormative society) a female! Shock and surprise! Then you find out she’s the older sister of Lenna, one of your party members, and you can take her back to her family estate, and there’s a scene in a dress, and you know those tropes? Yeah, it does those tropes.
Faris was ‘raised male’ by the pirates. She asserts at points in response to questions about her gender in the form of threats. Her outfits in the original are almost all coded masculine or neutral – except in the case of the Dancer, a late game option. When she’s probed about her gender, she’s pretty defensive about it, and people drop it. Despite being given the life of a literal queen, she runs away and becomes a pirate – again.
We don’t get tons of insight into Faris’ inner life. She never sits down and writes in a book ‘hello, diary, I am going to discuss my thoughts as a genderqueer person’ or ‘bigender rights’ or ‘ha ha, I am full of genderfluid.’ This is not that kind of game. For the most part, you can almost guarantee that Faris was created to be a sort of dashing bifauxnen, one of your classic ‘handsome woman’ who nonetheless is still treated by narrative as a woman, and will therefore, probably, wind up having an awful romance with some dude who ‘sets her right.’
I am a bit bitter about JRPGs with this kind of character.
There is a detail in all of this though. See, it’s very easy to get in the habit of seeing ‘cis’ as ‘normal.’ Right? Don’t feel too bad if you realise you do this – human brains are like that, and it’s hard to work on habits. It’s one of those first-leaner versions of the idea. There are trans people who ‘change gender’ and we use the term ‘cis’ to refer to everyone else, as a natural other. The thing is, you gotta rememeber, and it helps to hold on to, that cis isn’t a natural category. Cis means complies with the gender they were assigned. That means that cis is a thing that is done. No assignment, no cisness. No transness either.
Faris was, in the limited language of the story as we get it, assigned male by the Pirates that raised her. Oh, there’s a lot of implications wound up there, I know, but this story doesn’t go into why, and I’m glad it doesn’t. Nonetheless, it presents the idea that in the space of this fantasy story, Faris was assigned male, and while she may prefer presentations that are male, her sister using ‘her’ to refer to her uncorrected may well be a recognition that Faris doesnt comply to the gender assigned to her.
Is Faris the genderfluid pirate captain we need in videogames? Well, she rules and if you like that take best, great, go for it. Is she full of Big Agender Energy to you? Ace Lesbian? Trans, But In A Specific Way? There’s room for all of these, and the weirdest thing is, the rules, as indicated seem to suggest that at least in the society of the game, Faris isn’t cis.
Because Faris isn’t a boy, like she was assigned.