(Final) Fantasies of Empire

So I recently finished Final Fantasy XV, aside from some post-game content that I intend on continuing on with. It was a decidedly mixed experience, with flashes of brilliance and remarkably compelling characterization coexisting with deep, deep flaws in mechanics, quest design, and storytelling. As is the case with most modern Final Fantasy games, I found it to be a worthwhile experience for its sense of style and purpose, even if the rough edges were really rough.

But aside from the technical details, some of the plot and lore led me to stop and think about the implicit discourse going on, particularly as it comes to usage of ’empire.’ Spoiler warning for some story details from FFXV below. (And also a lot of the comments could apply to FFVI as well, which shares quite a bit of DNA with XV, up to and including an evil empire using Magitek)

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‘Empire’ is obviously a term loaded with symbolism and meaning in other popular culture. But notably, this usage isn’t really the same way that historians of the past few centuries think about empire or imperialism – particularly in the context of the 18th and 19th centuries, best typified by British colonialism. Instead, games such as FFXV limit their implicit definitions of ’empire’ to an evil, militarily-aggressive state. The empire drives the plot by attempting to subdue or conquer other nation-states that share similar capabilities and vaguely similar European-derived cultures – partially because Japanese RPGs often rely on tropes of feudal European kingdoms, though that’s a discussion for another time.

Throughout this usage, the process and legacies of colonization are rarely considered in any depth, with any sense of hierarchy in cross-cultural interactions flattened out. As one example in FFXV, the state of Accordo is under the control of the Niflheim Empire, but operates with seemingly full autonomy and a distinct and vibrant culture. If anything, the Empire itself is the blank slate, devoid of meaningful culture or defining characteristics other than military force – certainly exacerbated by a lack of any characters from the Empire aside from Ardyn. Even the two most notable enemies aligned with the Empire are foreign, as commander Ravus Nox Fleuret hails from the nation of Tenebrae, and dragoon Aranea Highwind fights for the Empire as a mercenary.

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In this sense, I would argue that the political structure drawn upon for plot purposes better reflects an aggressive state operating within a shared cultural context such as Europe of World War II, rather than the expansion and exploitation of earlier imperialism across vastly different cultures and spaces in the British Empire. The form of FFXV’s Niflheim Empire draws extensively upon structure and themes of totalitarianism, with an oppressive state and the minimization of civilian autonomy. In fact, FFXV notably locates the cause of the violence and aggressive expansion in the motives of one character: Ardyn, the chancellor of the Empire. As is revealed late in the story, the entirety of the Empire’s actions are his responsibility, including the destruction of the majority of its own population to power the dark magic of its military.

In this way, and as normal for the series, Final Fantasy XV stumbles into some insight even while being inordinately clumsy. The game both simplifies the rise of a figure like Hitler or Mussolini by condensing complex intersections of political forces and personal charisma into otherworldly magic (Ardyn can do the things he does because he is literally immortal), but also represents the capacity of totalitarianism and war to anonymize and ultimately sacrifice the citizenry of the state to that effort. However, it feels deeply problematic to explain war as the result of the evil and selfish desires of a singular figure in power without adequately explaining how that person came to and maintained that power. Still, the susceptibility of a large and powerful state apparatus to misuse either through malevolence or incompetence seems extremely relevant to this point in history.

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There’s more that I could say, particularly about the ethics of technology in this context: Magitek as utilized by the Empire is very explicitly evil and harnesses daemons for military purposes, while the advanced technology of the Noct’s nation comes across as much more benevolent and good – even though the game notes that that advanced technology isn’t shared with the broader world, setting up a technological divide between the Crown City and the locations that the rest of the game exists in. (The game sets this up but does very very little with actually reflecting on or exploring this potentially super problematic disparity)

And as a friend pointed out, even in this analysis, I’m taking a Euro-centric approach to a game made by Japanese developers and certainly shaped by cultural understandings of empire that extend beyond that Western sphere. But notably, it’s made me more think: are there other game experience that better reflect imperialism and colonization? Certainly in a civilization or 4X mode, but how about in a format with more deliberately constructed narrative?

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