Having played just about every RPG available in the Nintendo line of portables and then some, I’ve started to really get bored with the straight, cis male protagonist. There is a certain level of predictability to RPGs: if you’re the protagonist, you’re probably hauling dangly bits between your legs, and will likely get attached to the largest set of ta-tas in the room. Some people like this predictability, but for me, predictability is the death knell of a story.
Logically, I get why they do it. Allowing a (presumed cishet male) player to insert themselves as the protagonist, saving the day and romancing the female they like, is a backbone of the video game narrative. I just couldn’t ever insert myself. Heck, I wasn’t even able to properly write self-inserts in fanfiction. Imagining myself—as myself, not a character—as the center of a story wasn’t something I’d successfully done since I was a kid.
When I picked up the demo of 7th Dragon III: Code VFD from the 3DS digital store, knowing nothing about the franchise, I didn’t have any expectations I wouldn’t be playing another dangly-bits ta-ta chaser. So when the player character, a woman, walks out of the opening door, it was a pleasant surprise. Though games in general have gotten better about offering female options for customizable or silent protagonists (can I blame Pokémon for this? I’m blaming Pokémon for this) the number of games with predefined, developed female main characters … well, I can probably count without taking off my shoes. The game lets you completely customize your party, including the main character, unless you start by playing the demo, which skips customization and gives you the only predefined main character in the beginning: the female samurai Yaiba. She meets a sickly young woman named Mio, and strikes up a friendship pretty quickly. Hey, female friends! This was different.
But as I finished up the demo and bought the game proper, I started noticing this game was a little … queer. Your female (more women!) boss isn’t shy about flirting with men or women. Likewise with her second-hand man, Julietta, who not only flirts with half the cast, but isn’t exactly a strict adherent to the gender binary himself….
And the friendship with the protagonist and Mio is … look, by the time you’re inviting her up into the top floor bar to admire the night skies, it’s pretty established this is full-on sapphic romance. It only gets less subtle from there. At the same time, you’re introduced to Yuma, a young man/anti-dragon combat soldier who is one part rival, one part … well, it’s more subtle than the protag/Mio pairing, but there the both of you are, on the top floor, fading to black.
But 7th Dragon III isn’t done there. The top floor bar isn’t just a pretty location, it’s a game mechanic that will allow you to romance almost anyone, both the characters of your party and the named members of the cast. In fact, if you want the best equipment in the game, you have to romance them. And this isn’t some abstract Disney-esque “pure” romance or platonic friendship—7th Dragon III is about as explicit as it can be without venturing into ero-game territory that yes, those dates are ending in some hanky-panky. Even if you decide to forego the ultimate equipment, the narrative itself highlights both the relationship with Mio and Yuma, putting the protagonist in more one-on-one situations with the both of them than the rest of the cast. This wasn’t heteronormative. This wasn’t subtext. This was a deliberate decision to not only put queerness front and center into the narrative, but to make as clear as possible that it was queer. It felt like the game was looking at me, saying “Hey. You queer people out there? We see you. It’s cool.”
Oh, I realized, this is what they mean by representation.
It wasn’t that I could now insert myself into the player character; she still felt like her own person, a character with her own personality and desires. But she was like me, sharing my sexual/romantic leanings in a way I hadn’t seen narratives typically allow a protagonist to do. She romances as many (or as few) genders as she wants, and it’s treated as normal.
Most games where you can choose the protagonist’s gender either offer separate romantic choices per gender or avoid it altogether (come on, Pokemon Black/White, you had so much shipping potential!) The ones that do allow a choice of gender and romance often anticipate a male PC, and gear toward a female love interest. And while it is fun to subvert the cishet expectations, this game making the default character a woman means playing the game “as intended” centers around a sapphic pairing. It’s not just that you can subvert game expectations and headcanon queer pairings, but having a narrative shaped around it. 7th Dragon III expects you to be queer in the way most games expect you to be straight.
Representation isn’t just having a queer, POC, neuroatypical, or disabled main character floating around the background. It’s about the narrative normalizing that marginalized aspect, and giving agency to that character. I still had control over the game. I could decide where to go and when, and yes, who to romance. The part of me that was so very often invisible in games got handed the keys and told to go wild. And you don’t realize how important those keys are until you finally get to hold them. 7th Dragon III is a typical JPRG about relationships between people, hope versus despair, making amends for the past, changing the future … and queer people.
I’m sure there’s going to be no shortage of game narratives focused on straight white cis men anytime in the near future. I’m sure I’m going to play some of them, and even enjoy them. (Narrator: She had already done so.) But now that I’ve gotten a taste of agency, I’m going to be looking for that in the future. You want to make your stories really resonate with me and get me excited? Make ‘em queer.
Longtime writer, temporary office minion, and nerd of all trades, tiakall is a fan of lengthy subordinate clauses and the Oxford comma. She enjoys plants, cats, puns of varying quality, and making cannibal jokes before it was cool.