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A brief look at ‘Xenoblade’ and its problematic writing of women

Well, this is certainly a rabbit hole, isn’t it?

I love Xenoblade Chronicles. It is the best game on the Wii, bar none and probably the best RPG on the 3DS, unless I find Bravely Default to dethrone it, but that’s a hell of a bar to climb to. I could probably sit here for hours just raving about this game. However, as much as I like this game, it isn’t perfect.

There are issues with the gameplay, such as the fact that the game’s only dedicated healing character is probably the least useful party member or how grindy and tedious side missions can get. Some would probably point at the voice acting, but I find it to be extremely charming, even with the many cheesy lines and completely disagree with the belief that the acting is poor.

I’m not even here to talk about the hit or miss character development, especially in regards to Dunban’s complete lack of clear development. He’s got a fantastic set up. A wounded veteran desperate to recover in case the Mechon return. Until Shulk picks up the Monado, it is believed that he’s the only one who can wield it, leaving the entire weight of defending the Homs on his shoulders. There are even shades of PTSD present in his character. Dunban takes the stoic badass archetype that many, if not most, JRPGs and adds serious depth to it. A shame about the lack of character development.

No, in keeping with our September theme, I’m here to talk about how Xenoblade treats its female party members.Carna

Now, because I have to spell it out for people or else I’ll be called an “SJW” and accused of calling the game sexist, I refer to the above paragraph where I proclaim my love for this game. I fully expect to be called an “SJW” and be accused of calling the game sexist, regardless of what I say, so all I can really do is just flat out say that I don’t think Xenoblade is sexist. There are elements of sexism, but as a whole? Not sexist.

I don’t believe sexist elements in a work makes the work inherently sexist as a whole. I was among the people rolling their eyes at the more or less baseless accusations of sexism thrown at Joss Whedon over Age of Ultron. The movie obviously isn’t perfect in this area, which is a topic for another day, but I wouldn’t call it sexist.

Even the greatest art has flaws. Humans are inherently flawed and that extends to the things we create. In order to enjoy works like video games and movies, we have to forgive the flaws. To use The Avengers as an example again, it is beloved by most everyone, but where the hell did that omnipresent council that sits in poorly lit rooms and secretly rules the world come from?

So, while I am here to criticize, it’s not because the game is bad, but rather because criticism helps creators grow and create better works. While I highly doubt anyone from Monolith or Nintendo will read this, I should also point out that this is also for the sake of consumer advocacy. We as consumers should always demand better and ignoring flaws, despite forgiving them for the sake of enjoying a work, is not the way to do it.

So before I get into the meat of things, I will warn that I will not be holding back any spoilers. This is a fantastic game and I encourage anyone who wants to play it to stop reading now, bookmark this article, play the game and come back in two weeks when you’ve finished this very long game.

At the very least, when it comes to how the women in the story are portrayed and written, Xenoblade does far better than many JRPGs. There’s no scene where our female lead gets into a slap fight with a female villain during a rescue mission. There is no forced damsel in distress plot line that comes out of nowhere and serves practically no purpose. We also don’t have any character that freaks out over having unimaginable power and is otherwise defined purely by her ability to bake.

We DO have a character killed off for the sake of influencing her love interest, but there’s at least a twist to it that has her still alive and it does add some intrigue to the plot. Are there better ways to kick off the story? Sure, but at least this wasn’t a typical “women in refrigerators” moment.

There are three female party members. Fiora, who is almost purely defined by being Shulk’s love interest, Sharla, a soldier whose character development largely revolves around the man she loves and the being game’s only dedicated healer, and Melia, who is my favorite character.

I would like to start this analysis on a high note, but I would rather leave Melia for the end, just to emphasize my point that Xenoblade isn’t perfect, but it still has things that work. Instead, I’m just going to jump straight into the bottom.

Fiora exists purely to be Shulk’s love interest. Remove her from the game and the results would be pretty minimal. Some of the story would have to be rewritten, but it would be largely unchanged.

In fact, the biggest effect to the game that would happen if it were to be rewritten to remove Fiora from the game would be that Shulk’s motivation would be cheapened slightly. He wouldn’t have the personal hatred for the Mechon, but since he’s the only one who can wield the Monado and the Mechon need to be defeated anyway, he’d still be sufficiently motivated to go on his journey.

However, this is only the start of the problems with Fiora. The bigger issue is that her character is defined purely by her relationship with Shulk. Yes, there is a small effort to highlight that she’s Dunban’s sister, but that’s more to motivate Dunban than anything else. Fiora falls under a problem a lot of women in fiction fall under: She defined by her relationship with a man.

Her motivation is Shulk. Everything she does is for Shulk. She is introduced by her bringing a goddamn sandwich to Shulk.

I’ve had it argued to me that you could make the same argument for Reyn. While I agree that Reyn is underdeveloped and could be far more well fleshed out than most of the rest of the cast, I disagree with the notion that Reyn exists to be Shulk’s friend.

What do we know about Reyn that doesn’t relate to Shulk? Admittedly not much. We know he’s a soldier with Colony 9’s defense force and that he’s kind of an idiot. That’s still more than we know of Fiora. We know nothing of Fiora as a person beyond her relationship with Shulk.

I can appreciate that she isn’t characterized as a passive woman, as well as the fact that the game doesn’t beat around the bush with a romance subplot, instead choosing to imply that Shulk and Fiora were going to end up in a relationship anyway from the start. It does help that the characters and actors have chemistry together, but it really doesn’t change that Fiora could pretty easily be written out of the game with very little lost.

Fiora1And really, this is the game’s biggest narrative failing. I can excuse the underdeveloped nature of characters like Reyn and Dunban (though Dunban in particular is a pretty big missed opportunity), especially since the many mysteries in the story are played as well as they are. However, this game was released in 2010, long after I feel this kind of problematic writing stopped being excusable.

But we still have two characters to look at.

Sharla fares better than Fiora. She’s still pretty problematic, however.

Sharla is a medic in Colony 6’s defense force. Yeah, we’re not off to a great start here. She’s the healer of the party, but luckily she doesn’t fit the typical passive healer that’s typical to this genre. Rather, I feel like she’s a loyal soldier who enlisted to protect her colony.

There’s no fanfare for her role as a soldier. There’s no condemnation of it. She doesn’t resent it, nor does she shove it in people’s faces. It’s simply her job and the game treats it as such. It’s a pretty refreshing change of pace.

In this regard, I think the game does very well with how it portrays it’s female characters. There’s no fanfare or condemnation of a woman simply for her occupation. Unfortunately for Sharla, the rest of her characterization isn’t quite as progressive.

When we first run into Sharla, she scolds her little brother for running off. How she interacts with Juju never goes beyond this. It comes off as less a concerned sister and more motherly. But you might think I’m making a mountain out of a molehill or am reading to much into this dynamic. But that’s not all that I have to criticize Sharla with.

There’s also the fact that her motivation when she joins up with the party is to search for Gadot, her fiance, who disappeared after the Mechon invaded Colony 6. When she first shows up, she mentions him and some pretty blunt exposition establishes their relationship. So, like with Fiora, we have another woman motivated by her man.

On top of this, the bulk of Sharla’s character development revolves around her growing relationship and romance with Reyn. So she’s defined largely by the influence of three male characters.

Granted, I do find Sharla to be less problematic than Fiora for the simple reason that we actually know more about her than her relationship with Gadot, as opposed to Fiora being purely defined by her relationship with Shulk, but it doesn’t change that far, far too many women in fiction in general are written to add to a man’s characterization instead of as people.

This isn’t anything new, nor is it anything exclusive to games. Sword Art Online is one of the most popular anime in recent memory, for example, and it’s female lead, Asuna, exists purely to be the hero’s love interest. Rosa from Final Fantasy IV has to be rescued multiple times and her character has exactly two descriptions: Cecil’s love interest and a white mage. Assassin’s Creed: Revelations introduced Ezio’s love interest more or less out of nowhere for the sake of the Animus plot.

Now, I’m not going to call those games sexist. I’ll happily call SAO sexist for a number of reasons, but that’s an article for another day. Final Fantasy IV might have Rosa, but it also has the absurdly awesome Rydia. Assassin’s Creed: Revelations may have thrown Sofia into the story for a weak reason, but she is a well defined character beyond her relationship with Ezio.

Melia2

But I want to close out on a high note. There’s still one more character to look at.

Melia is my favorite character in Xenoblade, and I don’t just say that because she’s played by the always great Jenna Coleman. Melia is not just a badass mage, but also the leader of her people and a strong, independent young woman (though, with her being half-High Entia, “young” is still 88 years old) who is ready and willing to do anything she must, even if it means fighting a dragon-like monster single-handedly.

And I mean it when I say she’s the leader of her people. When Melia is introduced, she is princess of the High Entia, who are basically Xenoblade’s elf analog. It isn’t long after her introduction that her father, Sorian, the emperor of the High Entia is killed by the Mechon and, as Melia had been named Sorian’s successor, she is made empress.

The best part of this is that she wasn’t the only candidate to be named Sorian’s successor. Melia has an older brother, Kalian, who doesn’t have a Homs (human) mother. Despite Kalian being shown as more than capable and willing, Melia is still chosen over him. And he accepts it and supports her.

Melia isn’t chosen to be empress because of her gender or any sort of High Entia traditions (though it is explained that High Entia tradition is why her mother is Homs). She is chosen because Sorian believed her to be the right person for the job. Like with Sharla’s role as a soldier, no one says that she’s not fit for the job.

Sure, Kalian’s mother tries to have Melia killed multiple times, but that doesn’t even have anything to do with her wanting Kalian as emperor, but rather because she’s a racist who can’t stand the idea of a half-Homs empress.

It’s frustrating to see the game with such a contrast between these three characters. Xenoblade is a great game, but it isn’t perfect. The story, while still a lot of fun and with a hell of a lot of good in it, has a depressing number of missed opportunities. This is one of them. There are makings of great, strong female protagonists here. Melia may be the only one who reaches that potential, but Sharla and Fiora have aspects of their characters that work, even if they are overshadowed by the problems.

I wish I could champion this game as the greatest and most feminist game out there, but alas, I can only say that it is a fantastic game with some serious flaws.


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