Final Fantasy XVI’s big battle centerpiece, however, is its fights between Eikons. Each one is different in style and scope, though Yoshida says they’re all made to feel “like a pro wrestling–type match.” Although Clive isn’t a Dominant in a typical way, he transforms into Ifrit, a slightly sinister and mysterious Eikon, for these battles.
Each Dominant’s motivation and how their values and ambitions clash is central to the game’s narrative. “We didn’t want to make this simply a story about right and wrong, because we believe that right and wrong is a very gray area,” says Yoshida. Final Fantasy XVI is ruled by a more somber tone than its predecessors, and certainly a bloodier one. Early teasers for the game, for example, suggest a savage end for the cherubic-faced Joshua and his mop of sandy hair.
Curiously, though, the team’s venture into deeper narrative waters has meant creating a blindingly white cast. In previous interviews, Yoshida has said that the game leaned on medieval Europe, and because of those “geographical, technological, and geopolitical constraints” the setting was “never going to realistically be as diverse as, say, a modern-day Earth … or even Final Fantasy XIV.”
According to Yoshida, the series has always been about conflict “between the empowered and those used and/or exploited by those privileged few … it can be challenging to assign distinctive ethnicities to either antagonist or protagonist without triggering audience preconceptions, inviting unwarranted speculation, and ultimately stoking flames of controversy.”
Yet Yoshia’s assertion that the team wanted players to focus “less on the outward appearance of our characters” and more on them as “people who are complex and diverse in their natures, backgrounds, beliefs, personalities, and motivations” undermines that point more than anything. It’s a strange fantasy to pursue, that characters of color in a world Square Enix itself is creating could not be portrayed in the same complex, nuanced ways as its white cast. Although Final Fantasy has included characters of color, they’ve yet to be featured in the more complex stories the company hopes to achieve.
Final Fantasy XVI isn’t the only game in the franchise to get a Mature rating from the Entertainment Software Rating Board, but it is the first in its mainline series. Yoshida has previously said the rating gave the team more creative freedom to explore the heavy themes they’re interested in as regulations grow stricter. But it matters in a more practical sense. “It’s not like we want to go out of our way to create something that’s violent,” Yoshida says. “We want to go out of our way to create something that feels real.”
It’s not just about violence, however. One of the characters, Cid–a recurring series favorite who is typically cast as a tinkering engineer—is a heavy smoker, a no-go for Everyone or Teen ratings. Even a party would get scrutiny. Picture this, says Yoshida: Everyone is celebrating after a victory. They raise their tankards and fill them with wine. “But if we want a Teen rating, we have to tell the ESRB, ‘No, no, no, no,’” he says. “‘That’s not wine, it’s grape juice that everyone is drinking after battle.’”
The point is not to create a game that thrives off being gloomy or sordid. Square Enix has leaned heavily into its grim image in showing off the game, but Yoshida says Final Fantasy XVI is full of hope. From the demo, though, that’s still hard to discern. Fighting through an enemy-filled castle at night, only to reach a ruthless battle at its peak, does not inspire images of optimism. But to hear Yoshida tell it, it’s a promise of personal growth—not so different from what he would like future developers to do with the series. “Whoever makes Final Fantasy XVII, it’s probably not going to be us,” he says. The game, then, is a lesson to those upcoming creators.