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Final Fantasy XVI has a medieval approach to diversity

Nixing people of color in service to making a game ‘rooted in reality’ not only runs contrary to the game’s own goal of having broad appeal but also to the game’s own internal world-building.

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Screenshot from Final Fantasy XVI featuring a close up on the face of the character Dion Lesage
Image: Square Enix

When Naoki Yoshida, producer of Final Fantasy XVI, was doing the first round of press tours to ramp up hype for the game last year, he gave an interview with IGN talking about the game’s apparent lack of diversity. When asked if players can expect characters of color in the game, Yoshida had this to say:

“Our design concept from the earliest stages of development has always heavily featured medieval Europe, incorporating historical, cultural, political, and anthropological standards that were prevalent at the time. [...] Ultimately, we felt that while incorporating ethnic diversity into Valisthea was important, an over-incorporation into this single corner of a much larger world could end up causing a violation of those narrative boundaries we originally set for ourselves. The story we are telling is fantasy, yes, but it is also rooted in reality.”

Essentially, Yoshida said that because they’re basing the world of Valisthea on their idea of what the European continent was like in the past, the cast for their totally made-up world has to be all white. The quote was a rare miss from a generally well-liked developer, and it naturally upset fans of color.

“The story we are telling is fantasy, yes, but it is also rooted in reality.”

It’s easy to see where Yoshida’s sentiments in his IGN interview fall apart. I could trot out the standard response that gets used whenever a work of fantasy fails to include people of color in the name of “historical accuracy,” aka “blah blah blah, it doesn’t make sense that chocobos, Eikons, and magic are permitted but people of color is a step too far.”

Screenshot from Final Fantasy XII featuring a close up of the character Fran
Fran from Final Fantasy XII is one of my favorite characters in the series’ 35-year history.
Square Enix

I could also crack open the history books to point out that medieval Europe was never all white all the time (the Moorish kingdom of Spain sends its regards). But beyond the general fallacy of “no people of color in medieval Europe,” Yoshida’s quote doesn’t even make sense within the context of one of Final Fantasy XVI’s other stated goals — to have broad appeal.

As someone who’s been Black and a Final Fantasy fan all her life, I, too, had a problem with Yoshida’s answer. Final Fantasy has never been perfect with regard to its diversity, but the more recent games had been getting better. This idea of Final Fantasy XVI being “rooted in reality” is likely going to end up hurting the developers’ other, arguably more important goal for FFXVI, which is for the game to reach as big an audience as possible.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Yoshida and the senior development team behind FFXVI, and I asked if, since that interview with IGN, Yoshida had the opportunity to hear feedback and if he had anything to say to the fans of color who may be turning their back on the game. 

“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,” Yosida answered through translator Michael-Christopher Koji-Fox. “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.”

So… judging from this answer, not really.

It doesn’t make sense that chocobos, Eikons, and magic are permitted but people of color is a step too far

In my interview with Yoshida, he spoke about the concern that Final Fantasy wasn’t bringing in fans like it used to. “We’ve seen that our fans are distancing themselves from the series,” he said. “There are not as many people playing the series as the series has gone on. Those numbers are going down. There is a fear of the series becoming more niche.”

The developers believe that a full-action game, one with darker, more mature themes that resembles the more recent God of War games, is what will bring people back to the fold. But while Ragnarok is a game firmly rooted in the customs and culture of Norse mythology, it still takes the time and care and effort to include characters of color like Angrboda. That game was successful in part because its developers did not let a notion of “reality” constrain what they could do with their characters and world-building. It’s a lesson a lot of new games are taking to heart, symbolizing much-needed progress within the industry.

Screenshot from Pentiment featuring an illustrated manuscript of the Bible filled with characters of color.
If Pentiment, a game with no fantastical elements set in Germany in the 16th century, can include characters of color, what’s your excuse?
Image: Obsidian Entertainment

Yoshida talked about how “over-inclusion” of people of color would “violate narrative boundaries” and, in his answer to my follow-up, brought up the different peoples and cultures the development team included in FFXVI. In introducing the game, he gave an overview of the different kingdoms and factions vying for control of the all-powerful mothercrystals.

One such kingdom, The Dhalmekian Republic, has an aesthetic and architectural style that doesn’t fit with the flying buttresses and gothic cathedrals of the rest. It’s an arid desert nation, and screenshots of the land feature domed structures that kinda look like mosques one might find in North Africa or the Middle East. A description of Dhalmekia shared during the Final Fantasy XVI press event called it a desert kingdom that thrives via trade, bringing to mind the west African kingdom of Mali and the great caravan of Mansa Musa. If we want to step away from real-world analogies, the republic’s name itself, Dhalmekia, is very reminiscent of the kingdom of Dalmasca from Final Fantasy XII, whose capital city Rabanastre was extremely overt in its references to Middle Eastern culture, architecture, and people. 

Screenshots from Final Fantasy XVI (left) and Final Fantasy XII (right) depicting the republic of Dhalmekia and the kingdom of Dalmasca respectively.
Left: Dhalmekia; Right: Dalmasca
Image: Square Enix

Given all that, it rings a bit hollow to say it would strain narrative credulity to include people of color in your game that’s based on European history, politics, whatever, then include a place in that game that not only references real-life places that were not all white but also references a place that even with your series’ own canon was also not all white. 

So if the goal for Final Fantasy XVI is to have broad appeal, wouldn’t it make sense then to make a game that appeals to the breadth of the people you want spending money on your game, including people of color?

Diversity works. That’s true of video games and movies at large and even within Final Fantasy itself. Final Fantasy XII, one of the games that feels most in line with FFXVI, included characters of color. Critically acclaimed MMORPG Final Fantasy XIV, the Final Fantasy Yoshida himself came from, has a wonderfully diverse player base and includes cultures from around the world in its many settings while having diverse NPCs throughout. Two of the best Final Fantasy characters from the last decade or so of the series are Black men

Ultimately, the Final Fantasy XVI development team wants to tell the story they want to tell in the world they want to tell it in. It just sucks that they feel the best way to do that was through an all-white cast in a world that isn’t even consistent with that homogeneous vision.