Anybody who has ever sided with the cute weapon over the more powerful one knows that looking cute is just as much a part of having fun gaming as taking down enemies. But one series exemplifies this more than any other: Final Fantasy.
The fashion in Final Fantasy is at once absurd and iconic, bizarre and gorgeous, heinous and drool-worthy. You know a SquareEnix game on sight thanks to floofy pants, gravity-defying hairdos, and overlarge weapons, and any player of any game in the series has likely contemplated cosplaying a character only to dismiss it out of sheer difficulty.
As a series, Final Fantasy has an intense interest in costume design and fashion. It’s one of the few games out there to realize that badass and colorful designs aren’t at odds with one another, and it’s a rare example of outfits not only making you look cool but also increasing your power, indulging our greatest magical girl fantasies.
Nowhere is this more true than in Final Fantasy X-2, the first true sequel in the franchise. While Yuna, the protagonist of the original game, was a shy but strong character whose story was rooted in selflessness and sacrifice, FFX-2 Yuna is cute, fun, and ready to dance. Her hemline shrinks considerably, her neckline plunges, and suddenly she’s blowing smoke out of guns instead of healing others with a magical staff.
Ordinarily, that “cute and innocent” to “sexy and sassy” transformation without explanation is one that would put me off as a player—I liked cute and innocent Yuna, and her new gunner persona didn’t seem like it was meant for me. Yuna’s transformation isn’t excusable because she’s cute and spunky and powerful, but exploring the connection between fashion and power is something Final Fantasy X-2 does exceptionally well, even if they way they do it makes me uncomfortable.
This game is one of the few where we get to live out our most vivid magical girl fantasies. Among all of the typical random battles and confusing, melodramatic Final Fantasy plotlines, using powers in FFX-2 is a matter of changing clothes. While Yuna, Rikku, and Paine are powerful individuals on their own, changing outfits through the game’s ridiculous but totally awesome dressphere system grants them new powers. Want to cast some magic spells? Slap on a purple hat and vaguely witchy dress. Want to steal items from enemies? Obviously you’re going to need a ridiculously skimpy outfit, but damn if you don’t look cute during your transformation sequence anyway.
Maybe it’s shallow, but finally being able to play a character that’s both aesthetically appealing and badass is satisfying. Fashion is usually tied in with frippery and vanity over power, often demonized alongside things like women in dangerous situations crying “I broke a nail!” or being upset they have a smudge of dirt on their dress. Tying it in with powerful attacks is something different, something fun and refreshing, even as we critique the objectification and slow pans over Rikku, Yuna, and Paine’s legs.
But Final Fantasy‘s relationships with fashion isn’t necessarily equal. Mobius Final Fantasy raised some hackles last year for the costume of its main lead, Wol. While the series isn’t known for shying away from scantily-clad dudes (Final Fantasy XII‘s hero Vaan is bare chested but for a rinky-dink vest), Wol attracted a lot of attention for bearing his entire side and much of his upper thigh in his default outfit.
After complaints about Wol’s armor being unrealistic, impractical, or just too sexy for players to handle, his outfit was changed to more conservative armor that covered most of his exposed skin except for his back. Gone were the spaghetti-strap strings holding on his chest armor, and his thigh was covered up with additional fabric or plating.
The problem is not in Wol’s outfit specifically, but rather in the fan response and the way we treat male characters versus female ones. Yuna’s skimpy outfits are a dramatic departure from her original characterization (one explained by the developers as reflecting her independence and happiness), but there was little outcry for her outfits to be changed to something more demure. And Wol’s outfit covers far more than Rikku’s default thief outfit, but it’s only when a man is dressed in a sexy outfit that it raises eyebrows.
Because as much as Rikku and Wol’s outfits are impractical, unrealistic, and quite obviously sexy, those aren’t complains we hear levied at Rikku from the average player. These words are often used by feminist critics, but too often we hear lines like “it’s fantasy” used to dismiss these complaints. The changing of Wol’s outfit demonstrates a double standard we’re all too familiar with. While we may grow tired of seeing female characters crammed into too-tiny bikinis for the presumed straight male player, our protests are “crying for censorship” while straight male fans of Final Fantasy who don’t want to see Wol’s exposed side and thighs are somehow justified.
There’s a lot to unpack there, not just in the double standard itself but also in how and why it persists. Was Wol’s outfit changed because it was deemed too skimpy and thus, by association, too feminine? Why does a skimpy outfit seem connected to weakness? Is it misogyny, homophobia, entitlement, or a potent mixture of all three that lead to outcry?
All we know for certain is that Wol’s outfit was changed while characters like Yuna and Rikku remain in their default outfits.
But the saga of Final Fantasy‘s relationship with fashion never ends. Now the protagonist of Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2, Lightning, is a bonafide model for Louis Vuitton. The stoic, valiant hero doesn’t lose her power for being clad in designer outfits, discussing how life after the search for her sister has allowed her to more fully express herself, including through fashion.
It’s a cute and fun promo, even if it’s unlikely to steer fashion mavens to video games or vice-versa. While Lightning might be a mouthpiece for a haute couture sales pitch, it is still nice to see a character who’s at home wielding a giant sword have a good time in cute outfits. We can be skeptical and question the source of the sentiment even as we say, “heck yeah, I can look cute and kick ass.”
Final Fantasy‘s portrayal of fashion is fraught with conversations to be had. As a culture, we need to disentangle vulnerability, femininity, and sexuality—none of them are inherently evil, but the combined notions of all three lead to troubling circumstances like Wol’s changed outfit. We accept Yuna’s redesign without question but a man in more clothing than she wears is a problem actually addressed, not written off as an expression of confidence, change, or independence—all perfectly valid ideas used to justify women’s skimpy outfits, but never men’s.
Personally, I find Final Fantasy X-2‘s dresspheres fun. The Gullwings are never not in control of a situation–their fashion sense and flagrant femininity are never a source of derision from their enemies, who are often dressed in similarly ridiculous fashion. More games should embrace fashion as a source of power without tying it so tightly to both femininity and weakness. We can have women loving their large-pauldroned armor and men who aren’t punished, mocked, or criticized for flashing a little leg. If we’re expected to believe that Rikku’s teeny-weeny bikini is for acrobatic purposes, we can believe the same of Wol’s thigh-bearing armor.
Fashion can be fun. It’s time that games embrace that in all its forms, whether that means fewer chainmail bikinis and more dudes in tight leather or a greater equality toward clothing across the board. Final Fantasy takes some intriguing steps along the way, though we can’t yet be sure where that journey will end.
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.