"What's better than this: guys being dudes."
Men in popular culture are confined to a few specific roles: the strong, powerful hero, the possibly nerdy underdog, the more effeminate-looking villain, or the father figure. Sometimes there's some overlap, such as the father or husband who is motivated to save his wife or daughter—or to enact revenge after she's died, yet another reoccurring trope. In isolation, these character types are not bad, but they're certainly boring because of their overuse. But what lurks behind these masculine heroes and less masculine villains or comic relief characters is a fear of intimacy.
When you look at the more well-known male icons (Superman, Batman, James Bond, most of the action heroes played by Bruce Willis, etc.), you see muscles, grimaced faces, and usually a lack of emotion beyond anger. Video games often use violence as a motivator for the plot because that's easy to design around to compel a player forward, but that's also coupled with male dominance and power. We're seeing more complex stories that give depth to male characters, but there's still a lack of intimacy between male characters.
I'll be talking about Tales of Zestiria primarily further on for this article, but first I want to talk about a similar game called Final Fantasy XV. Like Tales of Zestiria, FFXV is a game multiple characters who are on a journey or quest together. FFXV departs from the norm in its series by having a cast of playable characters who are all male. They're basically on a roadtrip together, spending cozy nights together in a tent. As Alexa Ray Corriea writes at Gamespot, these guys act with each other with a sense of comfort, like they can behave intimately in a way that guys might only act around their closest friends. They're not "bro-ing" it up in a "Hey, I love you, bro, but no homo!" way. This sort of closeness stems from a fear of homosexuality and clings to the hypermasculine ideal that stresses physical strength over emotional openness. What we know about FFXV's male intimacy is confined to what people have seen in the demo because the game is still in development. While I'm optimistic, I'm also hesitant about the intimacy that will be portrayed in the game considering how the game sexualizes the first female character they encounter in the demo.
Tales of Zestiria also exhibits some sexism in character writing, but I can say it goes all in on a male intimacy that is believable and heartwarming. Sorey and Mikleo grew up together since they were babies, and they're cared about each other for as long as they can remember. They've been exploring together all that time, going on adventures as kids and now as teenagers. They both developed an interest in archeology. They bicker. They stand closer to each other. They rest their hands on each other. They reassure each other with physical touches. They're completely at ease with each other because they trust each other unconditionally.
In Tales of Zestiria, Sorey can fuse with the spirits who have entered a contract with him as the Shepard. The game never explains the details of this fusion to the extent that Cartoon Network's TV show Steven Universe does with its fusion, in which characters can fuse together to become someone stronger. Steven Universe depicts fusion as something inherently personal; in order to keep a fusion stable, characters have to be in sync with each other. At least in Sorey and Mikleo's case, I see their fusion working the same way because they love each other and know what the other person is going to do just as that person decides to do it. Because Sorey is an empathetic person, I can see fusion overall in Zestiria functioning similarly to that of Steven Universe.
Before Sorey and Mikleo can fuse together, Mikleo has to become a Sub Lord to Sorey. Sorey and Mikleo get in what is certainly not their first fight, but it's the first one we see, and they get into this fight because of how much they value each other. Sorey doesn't want Mikleo to enter that contract because he wants Mikleo to follow his own dreams rather than feel compelled to follow Sorey's. Mikleo is offended that Sorey is pushing him away and doesn't want him to help. After all, Mikleo wants the same thing that Sorey does: save the world, and explore the world. Prime Lord Lailah asks Mikleo to give Sorey his true name, a name that few know in the ancient language, and Mikleo replies that Sorey already knows what it is. And once the two make up, they have a tickle fight.
Sorey and Mikleo act in a way that makes us believe they're comfortable with each other. They rest their hands on each other. They stare at the sky together. And their relationship is always treated as the most important one in the narrative. Traditionally in Tales games, there's a male hero and his female companion who follows him and supports him (e.g. Lloyd and Colette in Tales of Symphonia, Cless and Mint in Tales of Phantasia). While there have been close male friendships in the series before (primarily Yuri and Flynn in Tales of Vesperia), these have always been presented within the game (not talking about fanfiction) as platonic. Sorey and Mikleo never have that Big Kiss Moment, but that's hardly a thing in the Tales series to begin with, and you don't need that to know they are each other's significant others, whether that's sexual or not. Their relationship as a human and a spirit who get along is seen as an ideal for the world, where humans and spirits have grown separated from one another. The people around Sorey and Mikleo hope to see more relationships like theirs between humans and spirits around the world.
Truly, it's noteworthy that this relationship is so important in a wider context because relationships like these are rare in video games, especially. However, it goes beyond male intimacy being seen as rare; we need to change the perception that men can't have close relationships where they hug each other tightly or hold hands—things that women do together without being portrayed as romantic. And yet, we also need more happy stories about people who are gay! In the last TV show you watched, how many characters were gay? Did they survive to the end of the story? Are they happy? I challenge all of you to reflect on the last TV show you watched, the last movie you watched, and the last game you played (one with a narrative) on how it represents sexuality and intimacy between the same gender. It won't be until we recognize the problems in our media that we start to make changes, and if the media we consume shows healthy relationships between friends and partners, then maybe that'll persuade some people to stop clinging to an outdated and unhealthy ideal of emotional stagnation in men.
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