Reclaiming The Throne
Final Fantasy XV and The Way of Men
Of all the intellectual ravages that modernity has wrought, one of its most fatal achievements has probably been the leveling of traditional masculine and feminine identities. Nowadays, every other discussion about politics or society seems to arrive at premises like “men just aren’t real men anymore” or “women just want to see the world burn”, and not without reason. But while many young women are still ensnared by the toxic fangs of so-called “3rd Wave Feminism” or drift aimlessly through the nothingness of hedonistic consumerism, there has been a strong awakening to traditional gender identity among men during the last few years. At the forefront of this emerging virile movement are online-communities like The Art of Manliness or The Patriarchy and the most important work to pursue the question of masculine identity in recent times is arguably Jack Donovan’s “The Way Of Men”. Another area where traditional and archaic archetypes of manliness have endured the devastating “progress” of the late 20th century, if only in a simulated form, is phantastical fiction and what has become of it. From the barbaric heroism of “Sword & Sorcery” pulp fiction over the refined majesty of Tolkien’s mythos to Pen & Paper RPGs and ultimately modern video games, the genre has always mimicked the classic heroic sagas and myths and thus created thousands of tales featuring strong, courageous and noble men as their protagonists. For the first installment in this series of re-constructive video game analysis, I will therefore take a closer look at one very recent Japanese RPG that combines the classic elements of the Fantasy genre with distinctly modern and realistic aesthetics – Final Fantasy XV – and show how its narrative and character development treat the subject of masculinity in accordance with Donovan’s writings.
I. The Gang
“The Way of Men is The Way of the Gang” – this is the blunt, essential truth which lies at the heart of Jack Donovan’s findings about masculinity and the common strands that run through men of all times and places. At its very core, “masculinity is about what men want from each other”1, expressed in the four tactical virtues – Strength, Courage, Mastery and Honor2. The ideal space for manliness to thrive and develop must therefore be a small group of men, a reflection of the primal gang of hunters and warriors, fighting together for survival and dominance against nature and other men – a place to prove one’s worth to one’s compatriots and grow from boyhood to manhood by the responsibility to one’s tribe. Telling stories about men and their struggles will therefore almost always involve tales about such small groups of men fighting together for a common goal and identity, especially if it is a story of youth and exploration.3 And so it is with Final Fantasy XV: The main focus of the game’s narrative lies on the young prince Noctis and his three close friends and compatriots, who together must navigate a world overrun by enemies and brave numerous hardships to deliver Noctis to his fate and reclaim the throne of his father, the King of Lucis. It is a story of brotherhood, friendship, struggle and growth, drawing its appeal from the carefully designed and convincingly human characters and their complex interactions and relationships. It is the tale of a young chief and his “gang”, who tread The Way of Men together. In this small group of men, roughly the size of a fireteam4, every member is indispensable and has a specific role to fulfill.
Probably the closest of Noctis’ allies is his childhood companion and loyal bodyguard Gladiolus Amicitia. Being the heir to the noble family which for generations has guarded the King of Lucis, he has spent his youth in service to the 3 years younger prince, training him in combat and keeping a watchful eye on the boy, who often fails to meet his instructor’s expectations. Nevertheless, the time and experiences they’ve shared have forged a strong bond between the two young men. Gladio, as he is callled by his friends, is Strength and Courage incarnate. His imposing physique, poised attitude and unflinching valour in battle make him an epitome of masculinity in its most primal form, for “physical strength is the defining metaphor of manhood”. The gang also depends on his outdoor survival skills and experience in traversing the countryside for their trip through the Lucian wilderness, which links his character to the natural elements and an earthbound, animalistic image of man intertwined with nature.
In combat, he easily outranks his companions in terms of physical strength and vitality and his giant sword wreaks havoc among enemies, while his shield is always ready to protect the prince from harm and take him out of danger. But Gladio is also the one who takes Noctis to task when the time calls for it. When the prince is confounded by grief and despair during the latter half of their adventure, it is Gladio’s forthright words and vehemence, bordering on physical violence, that make the prince snap out of his apathy and reinvigorate his spirits. He can therefore easily be recognized as the archetype of the Elder Brother, who cares deeply for his sibling or protégé but clothes his concern in a rough and demanding demeanor, trying to help them reach their full potential through challenge and competition.
The second among Noctis’ retainers is Ignis Scientia, who has been raised alongside the prince to act as his personal instructor and tutor, ensuring the prince’s straight upbringing and education in matters of politics and statecraft, a practice not uncommon in upper-class Japanese households. Even though this task often involved struggling with the youth’s somewhat introverted and unmotivated attitude, Ignis is thoroughly devoted to Noctis, both as the future King of Lucis and as a friend. In many ways, Ignis is a complementary character to Gladio. What he lacks in physical strength and presence, he compensates with skill and dexterity. His most prominent ability are his amazing cooking skills that let him produce some truly culinary feats with only basic ingredients and a camping stove. Aside from keeping his companions well fed, he also drives their car, provides them with strategic analysis when facing a problem, and even mends Noctis’ clothing at camp.
In combat, he supports his comrades by exploiting enemies’ weaknesses, breaking their defense with his daggers and spear, and reorganizing the battlefield if necessary. The numerous ways in which Ignis contributes to the group’s goals without reaching Gladio’s level of strength and valour, make him an embodiment of the tactical virtue of Mastery: the essential quality of “being able to carry your own weight” in the context of a group, which is exercised by bringing a certain set of useful skills to the table – being competent and self-sufficient, rather than depending on the help of others. Donovan recognizes that “Mastery can also be a compensatory virtue, in the sense that a weaker or less courageous man can earn the esteem of his peers by providing something else of great value”5, as demonstrated by the juxtaposition of Ignis and Gladio. Overall, Ignis can also be considered the most mature and civilized of the four gang members, which is reflected in his clothing and appearance. Whereas the bare-breasted and unkempt Gladiolus embodies a raw, vital and natural form of masculinity, Ignis’ neatly fitting dress shirt, clean-shaven face and classy leather gloves make him the perfect image of a civilized, urbane gentleman. Oh, and he’s also addicted to coffee. In relation to Noctis, he fulfills the role of the Teacher, an older man who contributes to a young man’s life by guiding him and acting as a role model, albeit in a more distanced and formalised way than an older brother.
That leaves us with the fourth member of the royal retinue, Prompto Argentum, who is a bit of a special case. He is of the same age as Noctis and has been a close friend to the prince since high school. He stands out from the rest of the gang not only by his blond hair but mostly by his overly cheerful and chatty behaviour. Prompto is by far the most youthful of the four and during their travels he constantly charges ahead, cracks jokes, makes pop-culture references and fantasises about women. But beneath all his merry-making, Prompto hides a deep insecurity. He is neither as strong as Gladio, nor as skillful as Ignis; he isn’t even of noble descent like his compatriots, but rather an adopted refugee from the very nation that is now threatening his friend’s life, Niflheim. He is therefore constantly haunted by feelings of inferiority and considers himself an outsider, despite the familiarity he shares with Noctis and the gang. To conceal this perceived weakness, he tries to make himself a useful member to the group by keeping up their spirits with his playful attitude and collecting photographs of their journey to remember the times they spent together.
Through the character of Prompto, the concept of male Honor is emphasized. According to Jack Donovan, “Honor is a concern for one’s reputation for strength, courage and mastery within the context of an honor group comprised primarily of other men.”6 While Prompto is obviously the least strong, courageous or competent among the prince’s entourage and has a hard time fitting in, he can still be considered an honorable man, simply because he constantly tries to be a valuable member of the group and strives to prove his worth to his compatriots, struggling “to show that [he is] worth having around, worthy of belonging to the group – a valued member of ‘us’.”7 There will always be weaker, more timid and less proficient members in a group of men, but their “shortcomings” don’t necessarily exclude them from the honor-system. They can still show their value as a man to other men by different means, even if it’s just by being the “class-clown” who keeps up the mood. Honor is where men try their best to be recognized by other men and that is exactly what Prompto is doing. To Noctis he is, above all, a valuable Friend: another young man he sees eye-to-eye with, who’s there to share his joys and troubles, who walks the same path and will support him every step of the way.
The story of Noctis’ journey is at large a tale of his coming of age and transition from boyhood to manhood. It is no coincidence that the character is made out to be exactly 20 years old, which is considered the traditional age of majority in Japan. His gang of friends and comrades feature as the prime agent for his growth and development, just as the primal gang of men envisioned by Jack Donovan constitutes the ideal space for masculinity to prosper and take effect. Not only do Noctis’ friends impersonate the tactical virtues of Strength, Courage, Mastery and Honor, but they also embody specific archetypal roles of men, that often shape a young man’s life and help him grow into a mature individual. But there is still one of these important manly figures left, whose impact no brother, teacher or friend can ever really compensate. His essential quality will be the topic of the next paragraph.
1 Jack Donovan, The Way Of Men, p. 2.
2 Ibid., p. 19.
3 Modern „lone-wolf“ heroes like Conan the Cimmerian, Geralt the Witcher or Batman have one important thing in common: They are already grown men, seasoned travelers on The Way of Men, and were forced on their lonesome path by a cruel destiny. But still they practice the tactical virtues that men expect from each other, and devote their vigour to the service of others.
4 Ibid, p 10.
5 Ibid., p. 49.
6 Ibid., p. 57.
7 Ibid., p. 64.