Ahead of its release next summer, Final Fantasy 16 has received plenty of praise for its colossal Eikon battles between mythical beasts, stunning fantasy realm, and fast-paced action full of spectacular magical effects.
But one major criticism has been the distinct lack of diversity in its main cast.
Last week, producer Naoki Yoshida addressed the lack of diversity in an interview. It fits the "isolated nature of this realm" he said, as well as the inspiration of Medieval Europe.
"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," he said.
Further, "it can be challenging to assign distinctive ethnicities to either antagonist or protagonist without triggering audience preconceptions, inviting unwarranted speculation, and ultimately stoking flames of controversy."
"In the end, we simply want the focus to be less on the outward appearance of our characters and more on who they are as people - people who are complex and diverse in their natures, backgrounds, beliefs, personalities, and motivations. People whose stories we can resonate with. There is diversity in Valisthea. Diversity that, while not all-encompassing, is synergistic with the setting we've created and is true to the inspirations from which we are drawing."
These comments were met with widespread criticism from Final Fantasy fans.
The realism argument is particularly disappointing when the game is full of mythical beasts and magical crystals, yet a Black character is a step too far.
All of the non-white people lived in the their respective corners of the world, and the giant rideable chickens roamed free.— ⚡ Shaz Shanghari (@ShazShanghari) November 4, 2022
"I was so incredibly excited for Final Fantasy 16 but the recent news regarding representation and diversity in the game was a souring moment for me," Twitch streamer DeeNugLife told Eurogamer.
"You can have a world set with the conceptual and theoretical themes and ideologies of a Medieval Europe within Valisthea while still incorporating representation. The classist systems, the struggle between rich and poor, the struggle to govern large bodies of land, implementing Cross-Channel governments, ruling and laws through faiths.
"The Medieval period and experience is not synonymous with white."
He posits the lack of diversity is a marketing decision by higher ups to sell the game to the widest audience.
"To be incredibly blunt: 'whiteness' is easy to sell and market. POC implementations and diversity have too many hoops to jump through for the team. It was easier to make people white than to have to build characters' personalities up, to make them palatable to people who have prejudicial reflex responses to POC characters in leading roles in the media they consume," he said.
"It irks me that my whole life I have been playing the series but in the forefront of my mind I'm constantly reminded that I'm not the hero," said streamer ReadySetBen.
"I'm dissapointed. I feel like the interview delivered a valid question but the answer was ill-prepared from a man who works in a fantasy settings signing off dragons, fairies, gods and demons but no diverse human characters."
Twitch streamer DataDave agreed that an all-white Medieval Europe is factually incorrect.
"The reasoning was maintaining the realism and having their game rooted in reality based on Medieval Europe, but even during those times, diversity did exist," he told Eurogamer.
"Quite often, people of colour aren't represented in movies, video games, and other forms of media and seeing that reasoning along with a game completely in fantasy with mythical beasts, magic, and even deities based from various cultures worldwide is disappointing when it comes to adding diversity."
In light of the IGN interview with Yoshi P about FFXIV's diversity in its medieval European setting, here's a short segment regarding the historical accuracy of POCs in these settings from a @blackgirlgamers video I contributed to back in 2020, "Medieval Europe in Video Games." pic.twitter.com/X36AnzvFxK— Katie | Liberate Palestine 🇵🇸 (@PikaChulita) November 7, 2022
What's also disappointing is that Final Fantasy 14, also directed by Yoshida, displays far more diversity - particularly with its character creator.
The MMORPG was DeeNugLife's introduction to the series. "It was refreshing to see so many diverse characters from the get-go," he said. The new game, by comparison, is a step backwards.
"Final Fantasy 14 does a much better job of having representation by even having various in-game races reflect numerous real world cultures worldwide and even ideologies," said DataDave.
"Being able to customise your character's race, and even having various tones within each in-game race regardless of what area or town you're in really is nice. I personally feel that if the character's race, culture and backstory isn't tied specifically to where a character has to be a said race, then having diversity within the game shouldn't be a major issue. Final Fantasy 14 does that and it helps me and many people feel represented in that world."
There’s been a severe lack of representation in the entire series for the longest time.— Benjamin (@ReadySetBen) November 4, 2022
I’m connected to the stories and have been for years, I don’t truly resonate with the characters.
As far as I’m aware, there are 3 Black characters in the entire series.
And this afro. https://t.co/1NiQbwWZdC pic.twitter.com/BclWvLIcan
"All of my characters in Final Fantasy 14 are Black," said Twitch streamer PleasantlyTwstd. "They include a rich palette in 14 where the world is just as much fantasy, just as rooted in some historical items as to the grandeur."
She notes the series doesn't have a strong history with Black characters in its single-player games.
"The conversation definitely isn't new - I distinctly remember playing 13 and being very upset and aggravated at how well they designed Sazh, but his handling was horrid and he wasn't very critical to the story by and large," she said.
"In Final Fantasy 8 the closest you got was an antagonist, 10 we took massive steps back because Wakka was racist as hell, 12 we got a bunny. Let's just say the track record is there and it isn't pretty."
She's also concerned about the authenticity of Forspoken, Square Enix's forthcoming action-adventure RPG that features a Black woman in the lead role. Performance director Tom Keegan described Frey with negative stereotypes like having a "hip-hoppy kind of walk" and being "very angry". The game's lead writers are all white.
"It's stereotype city," said PleasantlyTwstd.
Yoshida's comments are also disappointing when elsewhere at Square Enix, diverse representation is more considered. Harvestella, released last week, is the publisher's first game to include non-binary as a gender option in its character creator.
"Our game is for everyone," producer Daisuke Taka told Eurogamer.
DataDave and PleasantlyTwstd both praised Capcom's approach with Street Fighter 6. The game introduces new Black character Kimberley, who has become an instant favourite with the community.
"The developers shared that when they were designing this character, they hired and spoke to numerous Black consultants during the development process," said DataDaveTV. "As a result, they produced an authentic, likeable and amazing character accepted by many people over the internet, especially by POCs. Maybe one day Final Fantasy will take those steps as well."
As a fan of YoshiP's work and as a black FF creator, I do find his statements about inclusivity in FF16 disappointing. I also don't think this a problem that begins or ends at Final Fantasy 16, both inside or outside of Square Enix.— Night Sky (@NightSkyPrince_) November 5, 2022
Despite the Final Fantasy series including Black characters in the past, there's certainly a long way to go.
"I'd love to see someone who doesn't have to hold up a role of minstrel behaviours (looking at early FF7R Barret), or being relegated to side characters (Sazh, Fran)," said PleasantlyTwstd. "Someone who can be front and centre whose main role isn't to uphold That One White Protag With Issues That Definitely Are Kinda Their Fault."
Said DataDave: "Having more authentic Black characters in Final Fantasy games would mean a lot to me and fans of the series. To go a step further in authenticity for the franchise, possibly even taking cultural elements and feedback from Black people would help with authenticity within their fantasy realm."