This piece contains spoilers for FFXV's main plot and, to the extent that it even can be spoiled, the plot of Episode Gladio.
When Final Fantasy XV came out, I found myself angry on the internet. A lot.
Everywhere I looked, people were praising the game's quartet of dude heroes and their "close friendship." Everyone loved the Good Boys and how much they loved each other. Whether it be the unending hot take mines of Twitter or the more refined and directed voices of mainstream review response, everyone loved the boys. They were such good, good friends.
Mind you, I'd actually been simmering my frustration on the topic for quite some time. When the "Episode Duscae" demo was released in 2015, Alexa Ray Corriea wrote for Gamespot about the game's "male intimacy." As she put it, "This is a positive representation of male camaraderie without machismo, a rare representation of 'bromance' that is infrequently used in video games." This was significantly in advance of the game's release, of course, and the rather limited demo didn't give us a deep picture of the main cast's camaraderie.
That didn't stop me being skeptical, however, nor from writing about said skepticism and frustration. The idea that the brofist-y, combat bark-fueled friendship we saw in the demo was intimacy didn't sit well with me. As I put it, the demo's examples of friendship "are not private acts, nor are they expressions of deep emotional feeling or connection; they're the public demonstrations of friendship that any group of close-knit individuals might express." Noctis and his crew felt familiar, certainly—friends of some acquaintance—but I didn't know that they felt intimate.
When the actual game came out and I got a chance to sit down and play it, to see these boys in action, I was even less convinced. Maybe the prophecy was self-fulfilled, but it was coming true. Instead of meaningful conversation, I got situations where Ignis would say: "Nice weather we're having," to which Prince Noctis would dreamily respond, "Yeahhhhhhhh." Sometimes they'd kill a wolf together, then they'd bump fists.
Very intimate. Really revealing about these men on a fundamental level.
I was, as they say, not impressed. Worse, these characters often seemed actively hostile toward each other… especially towards Prompto, the waifishly thin character with the decidedly fatphobic backstory. Upon his asking if the group wants to stop at one of the game's near-ubiquitous roadside diners, sententious nerd mom Ignis would snark back, "Only if you want to get fat." Super charming!
And the worst, the worst, of these came from Gladiolus Amicitia, the game's obligatory muscle dad.
A hulking, muscled, shirtless, tan bodyguard in black biker leathers, Gladio—whose last name literally means "friendly" or "friendship," by the way—was a routine jerk to the people around him during the game's first 6-7 chapters, the "open world" segment of the game. A frequent start-of-fight combat bark involved Prompto being frustrated at all the fighting and an annoyed Gladio demanding "less bitching, more fighting." If he's around when Noctis goes fishing, and Noct catches a small fish, Gladio will imply Noct has a small dick. Classy. When the boys pile into their car to drive along, you can see Ignis calmly steering, Prompto animatedly leaning into the back to talk with Noctis, and Gladio… reading. Silently.
But that's just the beginning. Once the game moves from the pseudo open-world to the 4 or 5-chapter runaway train of its second half, Gladio's asshole tendencies go into maximum overdrive. Chapter 10 finds the group in enemy territory, stuck on a train. Noctis just saw his bride-to-be murdered in front of him, and Ignis has been grievously wounded, blinding him. The train ride takes about 10 seconds to turn into a fight where Gladio literally tells Noctis, re: recent events, "You need to grow up and get over it" before shoving Prompto, who attempts to make peace, back into his seat by his face.
As the group heads into a nearby ancient tomb, a blinded and wounded Ignis must be carefully and slowly led around the dungeon, supported by Prompto. If Noctis gets too far away, Gladio calls him out for his perceived selfishness… though he also makes no move to help Ignis whatsoever, either, leaving that to Prompto.
A little digging into FFXV's backstory and tie-in media reveals that Gladio comes from a long line of royal bodyguards. As a teenager, he seriously disliked Noctis, who he thought of as selfish and spoiled. Through both the "Brotherhood" tie-in episode and the entire script of FFXV, Gladio is obsessed with duty and toughness, for both himself and for Noctis; part of Gladio's frustration with his royal charge is the idea that he doesn't take his duty as a king seriously enough.
All of this is part and parcel of what Gladio represents: stereotypical hegemonic masculinity. He's gruff, emotionally closed off, and self-sacrificial. He's disdainful even to supposed friends when they don't meet his standards. Physically, he's every gym rat's dream: a perfect wall of visible muscle, fighting with a greatsword the size of a car he swings in one hand like it was nothing. This adherence to the prototypical image of the macho strongman is made all the more intense for the company he keeps. Ignis and Noctis, while dudely enough, fit squarely into the trim/pretty bishounen/ biseinen body type, and their personalities—indifferent for Noctis, primly uptight for Ignis—don't quite match up to factory-standard machismo. Prompto -- the waifish weirdo art kid whose selfie-snapping good cheer made him a fan favorite and a cornerstone of the game's UX design -- is even further from that norm. As you might expect, that frequently makes him the target of the group's derision/snark… especially Gladio's.
The recently-released DLC "Episode Gladiolus" takes this embodiment of macho masculinity to its natural extreme, accounting for the time in the main story when Gladio quite literally just leaves, with no explanation, returning a chapter or two later with a new scar on his face. He obtained that scar fighting Gilgamesh, the custodian of a trial said to provide power to anyone who survives it. Having been brushed aside by an Imperial general in the storyline, Gladio is determined to obtain the power he needs to do his duty—protecting the future king, Noctis—by any means necessary.
Those means, as borne out by the DLC, are smacking people with a greatsword a lot. I had hopes that Episode Gladiolus would actually give us some insight into Gladio's character, to crack open his head and show us some depth or complexity. Having now played that DLC: this did not happen. If anything, Episode Gladio doubles down on his macho asshat image. You spend almost all of the very limited amount of content smacking things with a very large sword, having traded in the game's orchestral combat music for a driving, angry guitar track. As Gladio takes damage, a Rage meter builds up, which allows him to hit back harder.
At one point you gain the ability to, and I'm not kidding, rip telephone pole-sized stone pillars out of the ground to smack monsters with. Because why not.
The DLC's story is equally simplistic. Gladio calls Marshal Cor Leonis—his mentor, and the only person in all of creation other than his absent father that he seems to respect—and all but demands to be taken to the Tempering Grounds, where this Trial of Gilgamesh takes place. Inside, Cor shepherds him through a number of trials to prove his worth, all of which amount to "beat something to death with a sword." There's a lot of banter between Gladio and various others; Cor, Gilgamesh, and the disembodied souls of men who've failed the trial all engage him at some point. "Brute force is not enough!" they cry. "The King's Shield must have strength and mettle in equal measure."
By the end of the DLC, Gladio apparently proves this to Gilgamesh by—you guessed it—smacking him in the face, real hard, with a sword. His only real revelation or self-reflection of any kind is that he admits to being afraid… but the thing he's afraid of is not being able to do his job protecting Noctis. "I'll keep trying anyway, though," he says, which Gilgamesh accepts as proof of Gladio's mettle, suggesting that this Trial—which even Cor has not completed, barely escaping with his life 30 years ago—is probably just an excuse for people to smack monsters with a sword real hard.
As you can probably guess by now, I find Gladio's very tired, very rote masculinity to be incredibly boring and difficult to deal with. I never wanted him around. During his absence, he's replaced by the wise-cracking warrior lady Aranea Highwind… and I found myself hoping she could be a permanent replacement. I spent most of Episode Gladio rolling my eyes at every new grunting line of dialogue that, if boiled down to its essence, would just be the words "I MAN, MAN SMASH" on a piece of paper. In crayon.
"Please, if the conduct of Noctis, Gladio, Ignis and Prompto reminds you of your close friends, get better friends."
His gruff, often cruel or dismissive hypermasculinity is so frustrating that my core coping mechanism was to create a "headcanon" version of him via PS4 sharing features. Headcanon Gladio's lust for battle is quite literal. In a series of tweeted screencaps, he defiantly claims "…I'm gonna fuck it." in the face of gigantic, monstrous boss enemies,
There are examples involving the other characters too, but Gladio's painfully played out hypermasculinity is a large part of why, when it felt like the world of games was tripping over itself to talk about these "intimate male friendships," I felt like I was losing my grip on reality. I frequently wondered what in the hell people were seeing that made this seem normal or desirable. As Becky Davnall put it over at JRPGs Are Dead:
"Please, if the conduct of Noctis, Gladio, Ignis and Prompto reminds you of your close friends, get better friends."
But in looking at Gladio and his manlier-than-thou bullshit, I actually came to an understanding about why people might find the friendships of the cast compelling, and what they were seeing that made it so. It was wrapped up in gender, and expectations, and my personal experience with both… and how not just Gladio, but the entire party dynamic of FFXV's main cast, echoed that experience in the worst possible way.
My anti-Gladio bias here is clear, and the reason why is that dudes like Gladio were my bane for much of my life, and most definitely the part of my life when I would have been the same age as the principal cast of FFXV: late teens to early 20s. Men who were obsessed with being men, with inhabiting masculinity like it was a sort of honor code. Being fat, being queer, not being interested in the things that masculinity demanded I be interested in—beer, sports, girls, emotional unavailability—meant that, much like Gladio does to Noct and Prompto, I got consistent shit for not meeting that expectation. This even came from supposed friends, where it stung the most; weren't these the people to whom my vulnerability and lack of gender compliance were supposed to be acceptable?
Being more of a Prompto than a Gladio, perhaps what I was really missing was the personal context to make this nostalgia-driven masculine familiarity not feel so alien. I didn't joke around with the Gladios or even the Ignis-es of the world in high school or college. I avoided them, and separated myself from the crushing anxiety and hurt of their expectations. So as the Boys Who Are Good toured Lucis in their fancy convertible, snarking and brofist-ing… I didn't have a frame of reference. Instead all I saw were reminders of bad things that had happened to me. To others who perhaps didn't have that kind of background, though… maybe this friendship was familiar. Maybe to them, it felt like playful teasing and not cruel dismissal. I could accept that.
The problem here comes in the fact that in screen media—games or otherwise—this type of male friendship isn't new or different at all. It's all too common. If you've ever watched a TV show or movie with a "close-knit" group of dude friends, these archetypes probably feel pretty familiar. The dudely dude jock (Gladio), the gender non-conforming kickball (Prompto), the average Joe (Noctis), and the fussy nerd (Ignis)… these are very well-worn ensemble tropes (c.f. "The Four-Temperament Ensemble" which FFXV's principals slot into very neatly).
The truth is, these common threads don't expand our vision of masculinity very much, either. The rough and ready dude friends of stage and screen are familiar and friendly, but rarely emotionally accessible to one another. Noct and his buddies aren't much different. There's isolated bursts of actual emotional intimacy; for example, an optional nighttime chat between Prompto and Noct where Prompto discusses his worries about not belonging in the group. Otherwise, though, moments of actual empathy or sharing are exceedingly rare.
One of the game's only other major moments of actual emotional intimacy comes in the literal last five minutes of the game, after the credits roll. Noctis and company are gathered around a campfire, reflecting on the endgame events to come… events they all know will and must end in Noct's death. The scene is full of tense silence, awkward pauses; the characters' faces are visually alive with the struggle not to cry. Noct says that despite making peace with his impending sacrifice, "It's… it's so hard" to be with his friends at that moment. It is a genuinely affecting, powerful scene. It's emotionally moving, and it's a commentary on the difficulty of expressing emotions for men who've been asked, by masculinity, not to do that. It was genuinely great. But I'm not kidding about it being the last thing you see in FFXV. By that point, the game is already over.
To me, these otherwise very expected, very typical versions of male friendship found in FFXV are easier to understand, now. They're reflections of an experience of masculinity that I didn't have and don't share. At the same time, however, I think that throws some serious doubt on if they represent actual groundbreaking or new "male intimacy," and it definitely suggests that if what we want is to broaden and expand the types of male relationships we see in games, we have to move beyond this.
Part of me wonders what a truly innovative and intimate version of Episode Gladio would have been like. The idea that Gladio is scared by the first enemy he can't just beat down or intimidate, that he's worried he won't be do his job protecting the world's only hope as his family has done for generations… that's powerful! But the DLC doesn't actually do anything with that potential; instead, Gladio punches out his problems to rock guitar, roll credits.
My hope is that in June, the next DLC—Episode Prompto—will offer a different take, with its focus on a character less tied to the concept of being a Manly Man. Even if it does, however, I don't think we should be looking to FFXV for our model of what showing true "intimate male friendships" can be like. Otherwise, we're just going to get more of the same: dudes punching out their feelings and saying their friends have small dicks. We can definitely do better.