Final Fantasy XV is a Love Letter to the Western World through Eastern Eyes

Also published at AiPT!

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“The fate of this world falls to the King of Kings, his providence consecrated in the divine light… Provenience is the sole means to ending the immortal Accursed, a power greater than even the [gods], purifying all by the light… Only at the throne can the Chosen receive it, and only at the cost of a life: his own. The King of Kings shall be granted the power to banish the darkness, but the blood price must be paid.”

The decidedly Christian themes present throughout the central story arc of Final Fantasy XV are immediately evident in the exposition above. The title “King of Kings,” here referring to protagonist Noctis Lucis Caelum, is most closely associated with Christ in the biblical book of Revelation. “Providence” in theology, is God’s authoring of history according to His purposes and to an ultimately beneficent end. “Light” and “Darkness” bring mind to the Johannian books, particularly the prelude of the Gospel: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” The notion of the chosen one sacrificing his own life, particularly in order to impart payment by his blood, goes beyond the general messianic archetype common throughout fantasy, specifically drawing upon the doctrine of Vicarious Atonement and Anselm’s theory of a propitious satisfaction.

That Final Fantasy XV should draw so explicitly and heavily on religion in general or Christianity in particular is not in itself surprising. The series has a long history of such. What is surprising, however, is how amenably Final Fantasy XV’s treatment of Christian ideas and imagery proves, contra the criticism and subversion other entries employ, which led MatPat of Game Theory to declare “Final Fantasy is Anti-Religion,” and, as he evidences, antitheistic. In Final Fantasy II and Lightning Returns, the heroes save the world by committing deicide against Gods named Creator and Maker, respectively. In Final Fantasy VI, the antagonist Kefka becomes not merely representative of God, but the Christian belief system as a whole, his final form incorporating elements directly from Dante’s Divine Comedy and Michelangelo’s Pieta. Final Fantasy X is at its core a deconstruction of Christianity, it’s Church of Yevon (read: Heaven) being built on a lie, enforcing upon society a Luddite-like technophobia which hinders progress; moreover, the notion that a sacrificial death is required to deal with the evil of Sin (literally the villain’s name) is dispelled, the would-be messiah Yuna ultimately rejecting the fate appointed her, freeing Spira from both the fear of Sin and the false religion peddling such.

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Yet Final Fantasy XV far from represents a sudden conversion to Christianity on the part of its creators. Rather, its positive treatment of Western religion can be explained as merely one aspect of the game’s central motif: the celebration of Occidental culture. Albeit from a thoroughly Japanese perspective, wherein derives much of the game’s weirdness.

Final Fantasy XV’s love letter to westernness is appropriate given is mechanical distinctions from prior main entries in the series, specifically its embrace of western game design’s propensity for real-time, action-focused combat – the primary divide between Western and Japanese Role-Playing Games, more so than even their provenience. From that design goal, it is easy to imagine that the narrative and visual themes were chosen for their conformity with such.

Said visual themes are the first and most obvious occidental elements which players will notice upon starting the game. We first meet Noctis and his companions, Ignis, Gladiolus, and Prompto as they’re pushing their car down a sparse road set within a landscape reminiscent of the American Southwest. The gas station and roadside diner they soon arrive at is a veritable embodiment of ‘50s era Americana. In immersing myself within this foreigners’ breathtakingly beautiful rendition of my homeland, I was struck with the same specific sehnsucht as when reading of the road trip in Nabokov’s Lolita (sans the sexually aggressive nymphet; her name here is Iris, and she’s only introduced later in the story). Later, other areas of the hemisphere provide visual inspiration, such as the Pacific Northwestern-like Duscae or the Venetian-esque Altissia.

Similarly, the names of these places and their denizens are all occidental in origin, with the plurality taken directly from Latin, the mother tongue of Western civilization. The Kingdom of Lucis, as I noted in my review of Kingsglaive, gets its name from the Latin word for “Light,” with the name of its prince, Noctis Lucis Caelum, roughly translating “The Light of the Night Sky” (at least I suspect that’s what Tabata et al were intending by it). The other protagonists have names even more indicative of their personalities and place in the story: the ever-knowledgeable adviser Ignis Scientia has a name conveying the character’s fiery intellect. The bodyguard/buddy Gladiolus Amicitia literally is Noctis’ “Sword-Friend.” And the mercurial Prompto Argentum has a name rightfully meaning “Quicksilver.”

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That these specific characters with their particular personalities should be the game’s protagonists also derives from western thought, specifically Hippocrates long-embraced theory of the Four Humors: Chloric, Melancholic, Phlegmatic, and Sanguine. The precise contours of these categories have shifted seismically from the ancient to medieval to the modern age, so that the four friends would be classified differently depending on whose list of the temperaments is being referenced, but the basic notion of a fourfold division of personality types distinct from but complimentary to one another holds nevertheless. Though the writers likely did not have such in mind when crafting the characters, in my own mind I find it most convenient to compare them to the all-time classic quadruplet, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. By that reckoning, Prompto is clearly Michelangelo, Ignis is Donatello, Gladiolus Leonardo, and Noctis is fan-favorite Raphael. And insofar as their bond of brotherhood forms the foundation of Final Fantasy XV’s emotional weight, this perpetual paradigm in western thought is an essential cornerstone to the game’s thematic unity and creative success.

That this game seems to celebrate westerness so wholeheartedly does not, however, make it a western work. Final Fantasy XV is a game only a Japanese studio could have produced. This is partly due to apparent cultural misunderstandings. In the opening minutes, the allegedly-urbane Noctis remarks to Prompto that gas station at which they’d arrived “ought to be paradise for a technophile like you,” as if the Japanese writers envisioned such out-of-the-way truck stops as cultural centers around which American city-dwellers come to congregate. Other cases are not a matter of misunderstanding, but rather different design sensibilities. The anime aesthetic of the characters, from their androgynous facial features to their ridiculously spiked hairstyles, represents a persistently present oriental element uniquely inconsistent with the otherwise entirely occidental visual motifs. Still, such flaws are aberrations in an otherwise truly fantastic game.

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In its gameplay mechanics, narrative themes, and artistic direction, Final Fantasy XV is a work clearly enamored by and emulative of occidental culture. It is not unique in drawing from western works – the series owing more to Tolkien’s Legendarium and Dungeons & Dragons than any eastern influences – but is unique in its emphasis on and favorableness to the western world. While other entries were consistently critical of Christianity, Final Fantasy XV is so committed to embracing every aspect of occidental culture that for the first time ever it makes its protagonist an explicit Christ-figure without then subverting the messianic archetype. In that respect, XV shares much more in common with The Matrix or Superman than past Final Fantasies. Beyond that, Tabata and his team draw upon the Four Temperaments, Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, fairy-tales, and other such touchstones in the tradition of western storytelling. As a westerner myself, I find XV – among all the Final Fantasies – to be superlatively satisfying; it is clearly appealing to my sensibilities, and absolutely succeeding in such.

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4 thoughts on “Final Fantasy XV is a Love Letter to the Western World through Eastern Eyes

  1. This was the most absolute, beautifully written article that showcases the PURPOSE behind the game as an artform over the shortcomings that are everywhere in the gaming media world. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post! SE really knocked it out of the park with this game! Many Japanese videogames and anime have always had a fascination with western culture, and this feels like a complete realization of how they perceive it. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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