Empire, Stormblood, and Gender
Please note that this analysis includes story details through the end of the second expansion’s main quest line.
A story incited by an expanding empire, in a world with cruel and apathetic gods, is a familiar one. Yet each retelling presents new angles and perspectives that elucidate the limitless variability of an oft-used trope. From Palamecia to Niflheim, the Final Fantasy series is no stranger to ravenous powers that rip the seams of their respective worlds in pursuit of their despot’s ambitions, and with each entry there is nuance in these depictions, as the offending empire’s goals, means, and relation to the player all differ; in IV the empire is the dutiful Cecil’s own kingdom and in VII it’s an obscenely powerful electrical company. As a story device, empires’ goals naturally produce conflict with diverse extrinsic factions. At the intersection between the empire, the party, and other interests are fascinating developments that progress the story. However, in the series the specifics through which empires exert their control are often untold or vaguely implied. Instead, “evil empire” is used as a vehicle for character driven stories. The party, obvious underdogs, must climb the ranks to fell these narcissistic figures who, in one way or another, seek to or actually achieve divinity, as it isn’t uncommon for the leader themself to be the most capable fighter in their lands. The empire, therefore, is an extension of one or a handful of characters’ personal journeys or quests. This forms the dichotomy between the villains and party, which makes what is ostensibly a geo-political conflict an intimate one.
Much of Final Fantasy, particularly XIV, is world driven as well as character driven; the story moves by the sights and sounds of the environment, harnessing and mastering systems, and climbing the ranks to face an uncertain divinity. It’s hard to say if Final Fantasy says anything meaningful about government or organized religion, but it uses these generalized concepts to build a world that grounds the party members’ power and motivations. The worlds of Final Fantasy don’t end where they start. The decisions in these games affect the worlds to a degree that shapes them, and forms, perhaps not perfect worlds, but new flawed ones, and ensures even the final acts drag on into memory. Similarly, the characters change as a result of their tumultuous environments. Stormblood’s environments are the political and personal landscapes that surround the Garlean Empire’s exploitation of its provinces, specifically Ala Mhigo and Doma. Stormblood utilizes character foils of returning heroes and new villains to construct the complicated relationship between empire, provinces, resistance, while also considering these elements in terms of gender.
As with empires throughout human history, the Garleans bring their provinces to heel through control and manipulation. They maintain a military presence and exact retribution for even the most minor of slights. They require regular tributes, control major resources, and coerce locals to serve in the military, either in their own province or abroad, and thus the motherland grows while the individual provinces flounder. A running thread is the exploitation of captured territories that, in the Garlean mindset, deserve to be captured due to their inherent weakness. Only by serving the empire can they rise to citizenship and power. Every individual must make decisions in the face of control that affects their fate. In the depiction of the relationship between the center and periphery, Final Fantasy XIV touches on elements of its world and lore that it previously distanced itself from; the difference between the male and female experience in Hydaelyn.
Eorzea and Othard are relatively ungendered realms, in that an individual’s (whose race is among the “races of man”) career, life choices, and actions are unaffected by their sex. In XIV there are both male and female monarchs, guild leaders, revolutionaries, scions, and so on, and there is little discussion given to an individual’s capacity to fulfill these roles. I should emphasize the word ‘relatively’ here because when it comes to matters of gender depictions in fiction there are multiple schools of thought that I can’t wholly account for. Furthermore, there are hundreds of characters and millions of lines of dialogue to analyze in order to assess the exact degree to which the world is gendered, which is far beyond my means and scope. I also say ‘relatively’ because there are hints prior to the second expansion of life in occupied territories; forced labor, and for women, abuse. The latter mentions are always spoken in euphemisms and never depicted, however they are enough to ground to the stakes of failure.
Since this expansion’s story deals with empire and periphery, the dilemmas of people existing in the territories are the focal point. There are three basic choices for the occupied; to resist the empire, to remain neutral, or to accept the imperial influence over their meager lot. Resisting, as mentioned earlier, can result in death, retribution on family, friends, and neighbors, and so on. However, this does not deter the Scions of the Seventh dawn. The movers in Stormblood include some of the usual suspects, namely Alphinaud, but also feature several characters whom we haven’t heard from for a while. The plucky pugilist Lyse (previously known by her sister’s name, Yda) was absent for most of the Heavensward expansion and for the entirety of the Dragonsong War arc, and Alisaie, who soon after her initial introduction split from Alphinaud due to a philosophical disagreement and was largely absent. Interestingly, these two, far be it from back row mages, are the adept fighters among the scions. Of the twins Alisaie is the better fighter. Allowing these two to bask in the limelight contrasts their experiences as free Eorzeans to those under Imperial domain.
Neutrality is only a choice a few possess. Sul-no-Sato, a literal bubble under the Ruby Sea from which Yugiri hails, lives in isolation and therefore is unaffected by Doma’s plight. However, if the Confederacy and Doma were to fail in their revolutions due to their inactivity, and the imperials were to discover them, they would have missed their chance to prevent occupation. Yugiri rejected neutrality and in so doing put herself at risk. The beast tribes of the snake-like ananta had a similar option. While the Vira allied with the resistance, the Qalyana’s policy was isolationism and they and the imperials mutually ignored one another. Their neutrality, however, backfired when imperial sympathizers took the broodmother’s daughter and mistakenly killed her. The imperial occupation led the Qalyana to turn to their mythological goddess who, once summoned in the form of a primal, Sri Lakshmi, sought control in perpetual worship. Whatever choice one makes is a gamble, and one could draw an entire chart emphasizing possibilities through game theory. These two examples are also distinctly feminine. Yugiri is another example of a capable, motivated, and powerful female character, like Lyse and Alisaie. The ananta are an all-female tribe who emphasize self-beauty, not unlike the biblical Eve in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Even in neutrality are there potential consequences, and the desperate situation causes certain beliefs and behaviors to flare to the extremes. Lastly, there are those who join with the occupying force.
Zenos yae Galvus is the cruel and sadistic antagonist of Stormblood. He kills for the enjoyment of the hunt, experiments on prisoners of war and unsuccessful soldiers (in the same way his father did on him), and rules Ala Mhigo and Doma with a magitek fist. In each of these provinces respectively are two female characters who appear to be quite similar in their cruelty as the Garlean heir himself; Fordola rem Lupis and Yotsuyu. Fordola and her kabal of “Skulls” run parts of Gyr Abania and cut down any resistance efforts. After Zeno’s departure west, Yotsuyu became the the acting viceroy of Doma. Both of them are natives of their respective regions and perform their roles with unrelenting aggression. Neither think twice about punishing and killing their former countrymen and women, and the latter particularly has a flair for physical and psychological torture. Fordola seeks liberation through assimilation, and Yotsuyu does through power, but neither achieve their goal. Despite any similarities and their loyal service, these two are not Zeno’s equal and are not treated with the same respect as native Garleans. Because of the inferior backgrounds, they must work hard to earn the respect of their master. So when the Scions and the Warrior of Light weaken the Garlean hold in their territories, they answer to Zenos, and the power dynamic between them is clear; they’re expendable savages who serve the personal interests of the emperor and Zenos. In addition to overcoming their inferior pedigree, they must also deal with gendered encounters.
Yotsuyu was worked to the bone as a child, seen as a burden, and was “sold” (she presumably refers to someone paying her family a dowry) to a drunken and abusive husband, before she worked as an imperial spy. Despite her successes, when she does falter, Zeno grabs her by the hair and threatens to kill her should she fail again. Fordola, when the Eorzean Alliance takes the bridge she was in charge of holding, goes to face Zenos in his throne room. Outside, she hears Garlean soldiers gossip about her and imply that the reason she rose through the ranks was through sexual favors. In lieu of being killed on the spot, the price of her failure was being experimented on.
Exploring these characters’ psychology produces an interesting dynamic; unlike Allisie and Lyse who lived outside of the empire’s influence, Fordola and Yotsuyu are trapped between different loyalties which are leveraged by their cruel master. Even in so emulating him, they cannot achieve what he did, and are constantly reminded of their birthplace, and their gender. The complex dynamics at play decided why they took the side that they did and explain why they are so ruthless; they have to work that much harder. So when they do fail, their falls are palpable and harsh, especially when compared to Lyse’s rise to the head of the Ala Mhigan resistance.
Stormblood stresses a dynamic A Realm Reborn and Heavesnward did not: the world is ungendered in some ways (males and females can rise to power) but not others (under systematic oppression other sorts of discrimination appear due to power differentials between states). Using gender to ground characters and their interiority in the face of multi-faceted dilemmas and as a point of comparison between two sides of a conflict proved to be an effective narrative technique. XIVdoes not have a perfect story, but it is thoughtful in its depictions of complicated sociopolitical situations, and forms an approximate basis for using elements of real world problems to emphasize character traits and struggles to keep a story that has been going on for seven years fresh.