Back to Splash Page

Towards a Feminist Mechanics Criticism

->Thought One: Well, first we need to see what mechanics are separate from narrative and visual design of a game, and what mechanics are in consortium with the narrative and visual design of a game, if we are to find a feminist mechanics criticism (or: the first and third term are well defined, while the second is slippery). This is, sadly, something for which I have yet to find a proper definition. Even my personal definition of it polymorphs over time. Some posts on this blog have gotten me part of the way to a solid and persistent definition, but since it has yet to calcify, I am going to have to attempt at concretizing the concept, at least for the purpose of this post (I promise, I will change my mind later. At the least, this is a provisional definition that probably describes one slice of mechanics, and that even if I change my mind later, unless the change is dramatic, the things here will hold as well as all juvenalia does.).

->Thought Two: So, it's complicated. There's a reason that mechanics criticism isn't easily done, and why we end up substituting a bunch of different things in for actually addressing the double hermeneutic in the room. Let's go over some of these strategies. Namely, there is the New Games analysis, which emphasizes personal experience with the game, how the individual player proceeds. This is not quite mechanics, and mistakes actions for the general structure of how a game makes one behave. It only gets at one part of the hermeneutic: what the player does to the system, not what the system does to the player based on the actions of the player. Then there is visual and narrative design criticism. The issue here is the same that occurred when cinematic analysis was based in narrative design: as Truffaut noted in his development of auteur theory, a narrative analysis does not do any of the heavy lifting when it comes to the films of Hitchock or Feuillade, and an analysis of cinematic conventions, of editing and cinematography, is requisite. I think that the best feminist games criticism of today has relied too heavily on narrative and visual analysis. I like, and respect deeply, Feminist Frequency and the work that Sarkeesian has done, but she focuses too heavily on visual design, how woman characters look and appeal to sexual and gazey dimensions, and foregoes mention of mechanics. Of course, I don't fault her for this because (a) this criticism is valid (see my crticism of Lisa: The Painful, which is an analysis from a gendered lens that can't rely totally on mechanical formalism) and (b) most people use this mode of criticism rather than one based in mechanics, so my issues are an issue with game criticism in general. But, I think that there is a story that is missed when the actual gameplay mechanics are not understood within the framework of feminist game criticism, which is why I am doing this blog post.

In order to show how mechanics play with femininity, I am going to focus on Final Fantasy VII, and in particular on the mechanics surrounding Aerith and her death.

Aerith Dies, No Shit.

->Thought Three: The Death of Aerith at the end of the Disc One of Final Fantasy VII is not merely a piece of narrative design, it is a piece of mechanics.

->Thought Three cont'd: How is it mechanical? Well, it is mechanical both ex post and ex ante, though the ex ante is going to take up the majority of this essay. It is mechanical ex post because you lose a party member, particularly your best healer. If the player has chosen to make Aerith one of their main party members, one of the three characters who, at any time, are active in battle, then suddenly the player must replace Aerith with some (probably underleveled) alternative. Aerith, as a healer, is critical, especially for the early game where powerful monsters make healers paramount. If the player had not decided to rely on Aerith, and to instead level up other characters and invest in weaponry for Tifa or Cait Sith or Red XIII, then gameplay will proceed the same as it ever was, but otherwise, after the fact, combat changes.

->Thought Three cont'd: But, what makes this a mechanic worth studying in a gendered lens is how it will affect the player's decisions ex ante. The question on a player's mind naturally will be this: should I waste experience and money and materia on a character who will disappear permanently before Disc One is even over, or do I really need a healer. There is another layer to this--which is why I mentioned meta-mechanics earlier: should I the player invest time in Aerith because she will die, in order that she be present for cut scenes, in order that I invest more deeply into her sentiments and experiences, in order that the weight of her death might mean something more to me.

->A Subthought for Thought Three: This assumes that the player knows that Aerith will die, which is not for certain. In fact, this was probably never the creators' intention: this game was released before the Internet, and before her death became famed as one of the great pieces of storytelling in JRPG history, the end of Disc One must have come off as legitimately shocking. But, it is known now. If someone is playing this game, they know that Aerith dies. It's even a joke in Wreck-It Ralph. So, is it fair to think of the ex ante in regards to Aerith? Yes. Why? Because games are meant to be replayed, just as books are meant to be reread and films are meant to be rewatched. Any analyses therein that do not take this into account are foolish, particularly when dealing with a game that is dependent on a twist like the death of Aerith, and deny how people actually behave. A player will replay the game and will know that Aerith dies. This is fair meat and fair game for analysis. That it is now common knowledge what lies in wait for Aerith only deepens this point by adding a fascinating meta: there exists communities outside of games, and since games take input from players, that means that games end up taking input from entire communities, and ther meaning making must be seen under this communal lens, particularly as it relates to mechanics.

->Thought Four: Three analyses of Aeries that get close to, but don't quite summate, the gendered totality of her character would be as follows. (1) We could look at her character design, and her narrative design. She is, by polygonal standards, conventionally attractive, with big beautiful anime eyes (kawaii, yo). She serves as Cloud's love interest, a gendered cliche made only more ergegious by her death. She exists to titilate our hero and player, and then inspire our hero and our player through her death to save the world. (2) Then there is the New Games criticism, which would focus on how her death made you feel. Here is a Kotaku article that does just that, but honestly, I don't give a shit about this mode of analysis, so I'm going to let you read it and see how it helps and how it falls short. (3) Then there is an analysis that does include mechanics, but only looks at it in the single hermeneutic. Aerith is a healer. Healing is a gendered profession, particularly in fantasy stories. In Final Fantasy, the white mage, or healer, is almost exclusively associated with femininity. Here is the Final Fantasy Wiki noting that Minwu, from Final Fantasy II, is one of the few male white mages in the series. Though there is no "class" system in FFVII, it is clear that mechanically Aerith plays a gendered role.

Aerith And Her Girlfriends

->Thought Five: But, here's my point, and that is that a gendered mechanics criticism can subsume all of these analyses and more adequately analyze the nature of Aerith and her death. Here is the what: because players know that they will lose Aerith, something untrue of any other party member in FFVII, they are incentivized to not include her in battle, and the incentives in place to counteract this incentive, that is, the valid mechanical reasons for a player to include her in combat, are largely gendered.

->Thought Six: I, like many, knew that Aerith would die, and when playing the game, I often considered whether or not to include her in battle. Experience is a limited resource, my dudes. From a purely gameplay level, which is to say, the shit that we normally consider to be gameplay, the double hermeneutic and the bold desire to complete the game as soon as possible and to kick the shit out of any bosses that come in your way, there is not a good reason to include Aerith. Here, I would like to point out that of the seven characters that the player must recruit over the course of the game, only two are women. Not only is it the case that one of these women will die, but there is a strong case that this character is useless from the start, and that there are sizable disadvantages to playing with her in the party due to the fact that she will up and vanish. Any forward looking agent knows this, and this will affect their decision making process.

->Aside One: I don't want to mention Tiffa here, because she's one of the characters for whom a standard visual design criticism sufficiently captures the issues with her character. Tiffa has huge breasts. Like, as a design choice, it's positively terrifying how large her breasts are. But, if we do delve into mechanics, I would make the argument that the game likewise disincentivizes the player from using Tiffa. The reason is as follows: Tiffa and Cloud, mechanically, serve the same purpose as a sweeper. Cloud is slightly more flexible, but their roles overlap too much. You are forced to have Cloud in your party at all times, because he is the protagonist, and due to this, there is no reason to have Tiffa in your party. Your party does not need to have two sweepers in it, and because you already have your hands tied and have to include one of them, there is no reason to include Tiffa.

->Aside Two: There is another woman character you can recruit optionally, but I never did so because the sidequest was too long. Maybe she is a cure to the strange confluence of mechanics that practically bars a reasonable character from adding a woman to their party. But, at least when I played it, if you allow some New Games solipsism for a hot second, my party was a real cis sausage fest.

->Thought Seven: But, returning to our main point. There are reasons for you to include Aerith in your party, despite the fact that she is going to die. And, in the first half of the game, I did so regularly. However, these reasons are necessarily tied up in sexist narrative design, mechanics, and meta-mechanics. One of the reasons to include her as a character is to have a healer. But, since we have already noted the weird sexism of this role, that is suspect in itself.

->Thought Seven cont'd: But that alone isn't as damning as what the double hermeneutic provides, and the meta-mechanics of the narrative. Aerith's death is gut-wrenching. Yes, if we are to be uncharitable with our analysis, it plays like every other woman in a fridge in video games. But, goddamn, it hurts to watch Aerith die! That's part of how misogynistic deaths of women in media work. They are gut-wrenching, and sad, so you don't always see how they are sexist. But, what really makes the death of Aerith hurt so much is that you are her, that you, as a player, connect with her. I have noted this a little bit in my essay on Lisa: The Painful, but there is a really complex psychological phenomenon at play when people play as a party in a video game. Though there is often a protagonist of such games, like Cloud in FFVII, you end up making decisions for, and thereby identifying with, all members of your party. It is this identification, and a desire to feel such identification wholly, that lead me to use Aerith.

->Thought Seven cont'd: That is, if you are like me and you like to get your heart broken, you will use Aerith in order to make memories with her. You can only savor her absence by knowing what it was like to have her in your party, to fight alongside her. That is, you begin to construct all of your decision-making with respect to Aerith in regards to her misogynistic death to come. You play as her so that you can weep when she's gone; how strange that is, how awfully skeevily complicit that makes us with regards to her passing. That is: it's not just a woman getting stuffed into a fridge, it is you, the player, falling in love with a woman because she will one day get stuffed into the fridge. Frankly, the main aesthetic decision of this work, and the most important piece of the narrative, and the reason that the game is so beloved, is the death of Aerith. The entire game revolves around this, from the level of pathos to the level of gameplay. It is the goddamned game, and the reason you would want to use Aerith is because you want her fridging to be as emotionally effective as possible. If you were to refuse to play as Aerith, you would render the game pointless. I firmly believe that. You would render the game an utterly useless combination of polygons. Truly, the point of the work, and the thing that makes it something more than your standard JRPG with a cute cyberpunk veneer, is that Aerith is going to die.

->Thought Eight: Not understanding that Aerith's future death affects player decisions now, which affect how the game works at an aesthetic level, is to miss the particular nuance of gender inherent in her character. This is not the richest analysis that I could do; I would have to replay the game to do so. But, I think it illustrates promise. If you want to understand how gender works in FFVII, and gender does A LOT of the aesthetic work in FFVII, you are going to need to look at how gender interplays with mechanics in this work.

->Thought Nine: If the player is playing the work to feel, they will play with Aerith, despite the fact that these feelings rely on a skeevy framework, and if they decide to play in order to win as many exciting and cool battles as possible, then they will not use Aerith, removing any real female presence from their party. Aerith, in every single inch of her mechanics and her kawaii design, gets gendered. Or, to go back to the double hermeneutic: there is no way that a player can interact with Aerith without mediating through a gendered system, and there is no way for the player to change the system such that this is not the case. When looking at the double hemeneutic, it is important to note what the player cannot change. There is no exit from Aerith's death. I believe that this is more pernicious than Princess Peach's design choices, because it makes players complicit.