TW: visible vs invisible illness, privilege
SPOILERS for Final Fantasy XV
You might remember a while ago, before the computer incident, I said I wanted to talk about how Final Fantasy XV treated disability.
I (apparently stupidly) mentioned this a few other places, and showed a few people a rough draft of the key points I wanted to cover.
This draft was rough, really. It was a paragraph for each point; there were meant to be three, but I described point three under point two; I didn’t go and play the game again, check the videos I had saved of my playthrough, It was <i> a draft</i>.
This revealed a few points about how gamers see disability and games that felt, to me, more important than pointing out that the game treats invisible disabilities much more cavalierly than visible ones. (Sure, now that the dust has settled, there are a lot of people who feel like it was ‘unfair’ and ‘could have been better explained’. That wasn’t my point. My point was that the game showed this as okay, and as an AAA title with a worldwide audience, which took into account significant player feedback during development, it should have made an effort to portray the invisible disability just as compassionately as the visible one. (On the same place where this discussion took place, there were arguments about Scarlett Johanssen’s casting in Ghost in the Shell, Riverdale erasing asexuality, and Black visibility in American media. I would have thought I wouldn’t have to spell this out.)
My conclusion out of all this was that it was useless trying to continue talking there, because the counter arguments were “but they are privileged and in character so it’s okay” and “but you need a doctor to diagnose mental illness because it’s really hard so we shouldn’t expect people to know anything is wrong” and “we have more information than they do so we can’t expect too much from them”. I didn’t have it in me to try to explain that in-universe privilege doesn’t excuse anyone not noticing their best friend is in crisis, or that even doctors don’t always understand or correctly diagnose/treat mental illness, or dismiss it completely (as happens in-game). It shouldn’t be shown as okay or in-character for someone living in close quarters with someone else to bully and put down that person explicitly for having a crisis, while being solicitous of someone with a visible disability. This normalises treating mental illness as an other, as a thing that people can’t see or understand, and that filters onwards.
“But they’re young and don’t have experience with it, so they don’t know what to do,” was another thing. Nobody ever asked, either.
I didn’t want to keep on trying to explain how in-game signals and the very change in personality they pointed out were exactly what should have clued them in to Something Being Wrong, and that a character not knowing what to do shouldn’t mean that ignoring the entire thing was okay. I was told I was disregarding character in favour of wanting a “Correct” approach, like a “How To Deal With Disability Handbook checklist”.
And then, when I left the conversation, the person who silenced me was told that they won.
I don’t know how to explain that none of this is okay. I don’t know how to say that dismissing something because you can’t put a name on something isn’t okay. I don’t know how to say that lowering expectations of portrayals of disability because illness is hard is not okay. Apparently, I’m not able to do that. But that was their argument, which they supposedly won with, as if it was a competition, as if the whole aim was to shut me down.
“You need a doctor to diagnose mental illness because it can be so many things and it’s really hard, so we can’t expect normal people to notice what up and not tell people off for having something wrong,” is not okay as an argument or a position in real life. If we switched ‘mental illness’ there for ‘physical injury’, it would sound stupid.
“You need a doctor to tell you your leg is broken because it could be so many things and it’s really hard so we can’t expect a normal person to notice that you can’t walk and not tell you off for not walking. ” Sure. A normal person couldn’t easily diagnose or treat a compound tibial fracture, but it’s pretty likely that your normal person is going to be able to tell that you can’t take weight on that leg (even if it appears totally normal, isn’t swelling, doesn’t have a bone sticking out or foot pointed the wrong way) and that you’re in pain, and is socially expected to help to the best of their ability – calling an ambulance, bringing water, blanket, making the area safe. If someone with medical training is present, most law areas have provisions allowing them to provide first aid with the expectation of not being held liable for doing so.
“You need a doctor to tell you have acute adjustment disorder with anxiety and depressive mood because it could be so many things and it’s really hard so we can’t expect a normal person to notice that suddenly you’re withdrawing from your friends, having emotional outbursts, and having trouble coping with your job.” Sure. A normal person wouldn’t even know the term, but they could pretty easily tell that your entire personality changed, or that you’re not doing things you used to, or that something that society deems easy is suddenly really hard and making you cry. They can check on you more often, ask what you need, offer you time off, call an ambulance (which can be humiliating, so I recommend only doing this if there’s actual, you know, risk in play, not just someone crying in a corner for a few seconds; use discretion and judgment), offer to include you in a social thing and not tell you off if you don’t participate at a certain level. The point here, is that even though you can’t <i>see</i> the injury because it’s inside, you can see the <i>effects</i> of it. You can see that frequent panic attacks may not allow someone to work full time.
Except, when someone can’t do the thing society expects that you should, and you’re not visibly unable to do it, then society puts you on the outside. You have to fight to get the same treatment as someone with a visible injury. In many cases, even people with a visible injury and a proper name for it and an army of doctors who agree have to fight for things like compensation, welfare, and/or accommodations. Normalising that because it’s something we can’t see and diagnose, treating it differently to a visible illness is okay, IS NOT OKAY.
I will now refer specifically to the in-game situation, so if you haven’t played and don’t want to be spoiled, thank you for reading and I hope I made sense.
Visible: Ignis, the tactical expert, your former steward, the person who strategises, drives, and cooks for you, in an off-screen incident, is blinded. We are not told how, or to what extent he is blind (and there are so many ways to be blind, that insisting that being blind is simple but mental illness is hard is rather ridiculous to me), we just see that he’s wearing a dark version of his normal glasses, has a cane (which does not resemble any version of a cane used for mobility assistance).
Ignis wants to continue with you, and you have the choice of letting him or not, except game makes him come anyway. You get told off if you take his word for it that he’s capable of coming with you. If you ask if he’s alright, he asks if he’s being a burden, so you respect his space. The other characters tell you off if you go too far away, because you can’t leave Ignis behind, even to run down a side corridor to grab a treasure while Ignis catches up. They will help him stand and constantly ask if he’s okay, running back to check on him. One of them will even help him walk.
This continues for the rest of the game.
- The response I got to pointing this out was ‘it’s only a small part of the game, it must be a glitch!’, ‘it didn’t bother me!’ and that the cane was a gift so it’s okay that it doesn’t resemble any kind of mobility aid. About the only thing that wasn’t in contention was that Ignis adapted really quickly, which, well, is entirely possible for him. We don’t see how this happened, or what assistance he had immediately afterward, because there’s a convenient time jump in which this all happens.
- My issue is that Noctis, the player character, gets told off for allowing Ignis to retain some agency and independence, while everyone else fawns over Ignis. Ignis has to relearn how he contributes to your party, and Noctis’ plan is to let him do that on his own terms, while everyone else prevents Ignis doing so because they are always right there being ‘helpful’ and ‘considerate’, which possibly contributes to his feeling of being a burden and could well be preventing him from adapting as best as he could. (Like, when you learn to ride a bike, if you have training wheels, you have to learn to balance again when they come off, whereas if you learn without training wheels you only have to work out balancing once.)
Invisible: At this point in the game, all four party members have seen their home razed, lost people, fought things that hurt them, (probably died a few times, but there’s Phoenix Down for that), been manipulated, and so on. The main character, the one you control as a player, Noctis, has a few more things on his plate. When he was little, he was severely injured, and had to spend time in a wheelchair. He was taken to another country for treatment, made a friend, Luna, and the country was attacked while he was there. He escaped, but his friend chose to say and he had to leave her behind. The game starts with him going to see her again, to marry her. She dies.
Noctis is also the Crown Prince, and has the huge responsibility of being the Chosen One, who’s destined to save the world and get rid of daemons forever, etc. When his home was razed? His dad died, too. That makes him, well, King. Suddenly he has this responsibility, and everything he does has to be informed by that, except his advisors are his three friends, who, well, are the ones telling him off and constantly reminding him that he’s going to be King. Two of them were instrumental in training him to take this on from a very young age. They taught him. Now they’re telling him he has to take responsibility.
At around the same point in the story where Ignis’ injury occurs, Noctis inherits the Ring of the Lucii, which grants him the power that comes with being King etc. and is tangible proof that Luna is dead, since she was meant to give it to him, but he failed to reach her in time. It all kind of collapses on him at once and he has a Heroic BSOD.
So, in a very short period of time, Noctis loses everyone but the three people with him and has this huge responsibility shoved on him with no time to grieve or adapt. He stops hiding his pain/grief and just shuts down. He’s ignored things before, of course, but he’s never done that like this – he’s complained, he’s gotten angry, he’s turned his rage into motivation, but he’s never turned in.
Gladio, the one who taught Noctis to fight and constantly berated him for not trying hard enough, is yelling at Noctis for this. Gladio tells Noctis to man up, that he’s being a coward, that he is still not allowed to have feelings because his job is the most important and only thing that he should put energy into.
Ignis is dealing with his own stuff (above), and Noctis is told off for trying to let Ignis decide what his limits are – basically Gladio also tells Noctis off for respecting Ignis’ lived experience of his disability, because apparently, people with disability should be protected or something. When Noctis does reach out to Ignis, Ignis shuts him down.
Prompto, the only one who is just friends with Noctis and didn’t come into the group in some kind of official/tutor role, acts like he’s scared of Noctis. Prompto asks if Noctis is okay, in a very quiet, hushed voice, and then when Noctis says he is, Prompto runs away.
Another thing we see Noctis physically have trouble putting the Ring on. It’s necessary, to save his companions, but his body, all this time, has been preventing him putting the Ring on. He tries, and his hands just won’t do it.
Again, we have time jumps, so we don’t know what happened, or how things got to that exact point in the first place.
But what we have is Gladio and Prompto pushing their own ideas on how to ‘help’ Ignis onto Ignis and Noctis, while Noctis, who is just as visibly affected but doesn’t have a name or injury to go with those effects, isn’t forced to deal with any help, even if he wanted it, and is told off for not being social and considerate enough and for not imposing his ideas on Ignis – part of which is <i>the very thing that should clue three people who have been sleeping in the same room as him for the entire length of the game and were in his life for years before that something is not right.</i>
And of course, if you’re berated for having your symptoms, you’re not going to ask for help, are you?
So what I was told about all this was that it’s in character for the guys so it’s okay for them to act like this because ‘they don’t understand disability anyway’ and ‘they’re privileged’ and ‘but we can’t diagnose it anyway’. That doesn’t matter. They’re arguments designed to pull focus away from the core issue and justify the paper wall between mental/physical and visible/invisible disability. Gladio and Prompto should have seen that Noctis wasn’t alright and instead of acting the way they did about it, acted the same way they did towards Ignis. Noctis and Ignis are both injured. Gladio doesn’t tell Ignis off for not being considerate of Noctis (arguably, Ignis’ only job, just as Noctis’ only job was becoming King and Saving The World). Prompto is always there around Ignis in case, but avoids Noctis. If Noctis should be extra considerate of Ignis and disregard Ignis’ ability to judge his own capabilities, then Ignis should be told to do the same for Noctis. But they don’t. Instead, we see the game reinforce that you should treat mental/invisible disabilities differently to physical/visible disabilities. Apparently, people think that’s okay.
I also think that if you are going to hold media producers accountable for diversity in race and gender that you should then dismiss them making bad moves on disability.
In this case, there was no way I could ‘win’ the argument, because I didn’t have the spoons or the non-personal perspective to convince them that ‘because mental illness is hard we shouldn’t expect people to realise something is wtong’ isn’t okay. Privilege doesn’t excuse that. “Characterization” doesn’t excuse that, especially in a game where you control that by what quests you do and what answers you choose.
What I wanted to see was either Noctis get the same, considerate/overconsiderate treatment the others gave to Ignis, or his mental state being clearly and explicitly acknowledged with at least some effort to provide support. Include both Noctis and Ignis in word games to pass the time! Don’t leave Noctis alone if you’re not going to leave Ignis alone! If either of them ask for a specific thing from you, give it! If they don’t ask for help, ask them if they want it before insisting on providing it!
I especially would have preferred Noctis not be berated and put down because of his mental state and for choosing to respect Ignis’ own assessment of his physical state.
In short, Square Enix had the opportunity to show gamers that physical, mental, invisible, visible disabilities, permanent or otherwise, could all be recognised and treated compassionately, and they didn’t. They perpetuated the idea that mental illness isn’t as entitled to consideration as a physical disability. They could have shown a blind person with real-world similarities, and instead chose not to. They could have given more depth to the mental state and shown a positive way of dealing with it. They didn’t.
And that leaves us with people who think that not being able to see and name something means it’s okay to treat people who live with a disability that can’t be seen as lesser, to tell them off for it, to tell them to get over it, to deal with it because someone else’s visible disability is more important. That’s what they’re being told – that it doesn’t matter that sometimes, nobody names mental illnesses, or that there aren’t names for them, or sometimes things work that shouldn’t based on the name; it doesn’t matter that disabilities can be highly individual, and even if they have a name, they may not present the same way; it doesn’t matter that people can go through diagnoses until they find the right one from the right doctor, or have two or three that together become something else; it doesn’t matter that sometimes everyone knows something’s wrong but nobody knows what. The message in that – if it doesn’t have a name, it’s not important; if you can’t name it, you can’t see it, you don’t have to deal with it; if you can’t armchair diagnose it, you can’t help, so don’t try, just tell the person off for inconveniencing you and keep right on contributing to the shame and stigma society has placed on mental illness.
That message is not okay. I don’t feel okay that FFXV has perpetuated it, or that people think that it’s okay because FFXV perpetuated it. We have two people who treat their visibly disabled friend differently from their invisibly disabled friend, because of their disabilities. That is never okay, and should never be justified. Choosing not to be around people who think that it can be isn’t me ‘losing’, it’s me surrounding myself with people who, in turn, don’t put me down for the outcome of my lived experience as someone with multiple invisible disabilities.
(I don’t need to say acute adjustment disorder with depression and conversion to get that Noctis is going through heavy stuff and could use a Moogle hug. Noctis just lost his entire world view and has to literally take over the world. He gets a Moogle hug. “Noctis, do you want a Moogle hug? The Moogle will be right here if you do, okay?”)
(I have probably used illness and disability interchangeably. I don’t know if there’s a good word that covers both at once. And there can be visible mental illness and invisible physical illness. In this case the line is between mental-invisible/physical-visible by coincidence. Whether the situation would be the same if it was physical-invisible, well… and really, in some cases blindness is only visible because of the accommodations people use – which is kind of borderline here. They treat Ignis differently because they know he’s blind. I don’t have enough information or experience to unpack the details of that.)