Sexism and Power Dynamics in Breath of Fire 4

Recently, I’ve started replaying Breath of Fire 4, a game I remember affectionately. Like many, my video game diet growing up was rich in JRPGs and, while the genre tends to offer little more than empty carbs anymore, it’s fun and enlightening to go back to the apotheoses of the form. Breath of Fire 4 in particular seemed deserving of a revisit as there’s virtually no critical writing on it, which is disappointing because I remember that, as a game it was well above average and as a story it accomplished some interesting things. Furthermore, whenever it is written about, it’s mostly referred to as a game that’s been unjustly forgotten. So, I figured I would replay it and gladly contribute to a pool of criticism that was sorely lacking. It was a no-brainer. Until I met the character Marlok.

Breath of Fire 4’s box art depicting a close up of Ryu, the protagonist holding katana upwards, the blade dividing the picture in half. Standing in the foreground is the game’s anti-hero, Fou-Lu, whose long white hair is blowing in the wind.

I’ll back up for a moment. The premise of the game is that Princess Nina and her soon-to-be brother-in-law, Cray, are searching for the heir to the Wyndian throne, Princess Elina. Eventually, the party reaches the city where Elina was last seen and encounters Marlok, a greedy merchant who claims to be the last person that saw Elina. Before he’ll share any information with you, though, he insists that the party complete a handful of odd jobs for him while Nina stays behind.

After Nina is finished with some housework we never see her do, Marlok has her give him a shoulder, foot then back massage. The unnerving implication here is that Marlok has put Nina into the position of his sexy maid in exchange for information about her missing sister. The implication becomes more aggressive later on when Marlok relieves Nina and insists that he give her a massage. The screen blackens and the scene changes just as a gold flicker (which has before signified Marlok giving a duplicitous wink) sparks and Nina lets out a sharp, startled scream as he lays his hands on her.

Screenshot of Marlok at the prow of a “sandflier.” He’s wearing a burgundy dust jacket and a black tricorne. Belonging to the manillo tribe, he is fishlike with orange skin, he is accompanied by an unnamed member of the grassrunner tribe, an anthropomorphic dog.

The entire episode of the game has been chronicled on YouTube in two parts for those interested (the description of the video is particularly indicative of the tone the developers strove for). The game never expressly says that Marlok forces himself on Nina or even that anything sexual is exchanged between them. That isn’t the point. The point is that Nina is put in a position where her body is on loan to advance the plot while Nina herself never has any say in the matter.

She’s never seen brokering this deal and the player never gets any indication of what her thoughts are when it was made. In fact, the entire conversation that led to Nina staying behind is skipped. Nina could have volunteered to stay behind, she could even have intended to reach second base with Marlok for any number of her own reasons. It doesn’t matter that that’s unlikely, what matters is that she’s silenced in a situation that directly deals with her body. Marlok tells the party to track down a thief and in the next scene Nina is gone with Cray (not Nina) offering barely a sentence explaining why.

The most troubling thing about the Marlok chapter, however, is how funny the whole thing is supposed to be. Nina is unworldly and she puts too much faith in others (hell, she’s a princess in a JRPG, you probably already have a good idea of who she is) so to see her in a sleazy businessman’s office is ripe for sitcom hilarity. The joke is that she’s royalty and he’s a creep and she has no idea how to deal with it. Nina is put in this place because she’s young and she’s feminine: the dynamic would not work with another character. This scene would never play out with the silent protagonist Ryu, Cray, the archetypical brute of the team, or Ershin, who, though a woman, is never seen out of her heavy suit of armour; nor would it play out with as yet unrecruited party members Scias, a socially anxious mercenary or Ursula, another woman, but who is very professional and soldierly. Nina is the most feminine character in the central cast and that’s used against her.

Concept art for Nina, she is tall, slender and blonde with pink wings protruding from her back. She’s wearing a long, light blue shirt and brown lights. She’s holding a golden rod loosely at her right side.

Why is this scene here? Either the veiled threat to Nina’s chastity is supposed to serve as impetus for the player to accomplish Marlok’s goals quickly or the developers have so little faith in their audience’s intelligence that they have to make this character a pervert on top of a rich, exploitative liar to convince them that he’s unlikable. It’s an incredibly “rapey” scene that’s unavoidable, set up awkwardly to silence the woman involved, it puts a minor male character in control of a major female character’s body, it and it does all this to be cute.

For what it’s worth, apparently in the manga adaptation, Cray returns in time to intervene, suggesting that Marlok is perhaps more aggressive on the page than he is in the game, but that changes nothing. In either case, the story carries on without any mention of what happened between Nina and Marlok: perhaps there was no assault, perhaps Nina and Marlok had consensual sex, a light lunch and carried on with their lives. It doesn’t matter because, again, the scene cuts away before Nina can reveal what her thoughts on the situation are. Marlok cops a feel, the player gets to snicker and the game continues. Nina reunites with the party and nothing is ever said of it ever again. It’s there and gone: making the entire exchange feel more superfluous and exploitative.

The player doesn’t ever have to see Marlok again unless they choose to, where he’ll teach the party some neat spells if you bring him treasure. It’s frankly a forgettable scene. At least, if you’re in the position to forget it.

I forgot it. I’ve completed Breath of Fire 4 at least three times before picking it up about a week ago and it was only after Marlok’s name was mentioned for the first time that I remembered the scene around him. During the first few phases of Marlok’s scene—before it became too creepy—I was tempted to ignore it. After all, Breath of Fire 4 has a lot of interesting things to say about the individual’s place in the state, the criteria for separating friends from enemies, the dangers of nationalism in a shrinking world, the frailty of a justice system that punishes the guilty at the expense of the innocent and forgives evil to protect good, among a few other things. As a critic looking to write about how good the game is, I really wanted to forgive it.

The main cast of Breath of Fire 4, excluding Ryu. Left to right they are: Cray, Ershin, Ursula, Scias and Nina. Each has a distinct non-human feature, respectively: tiger stripes and tail, heavy, stout armour, rodent ears and a fox tail, doglike features and bird wings.

Of course, I get to forgive it if I want to, I don’t have to feel threatened by Marlok’s scene. It isn’t targeting me, it isn’t representing someone like me and therefore it doesn’t imply that I lack agency, the scene’s dominant figure doesn’t loom over my virtual analogue and it isn’t exploiting characteristics of my identity for laughs. Breath of Fire 4 doesn’t suggest that my silence is something to make a joke of. I can shrug it off.

It’s important to remember that this scene serves no purpose other than to diminish Nina: it doesn’t do or say anything that hasn’t already been established. The scene with Marlok strikes me as the worst kind of sexism in video games because it’s insidious. It’s a totally unnecessary scene, probably written without the intention of meaning anything, that structurally exploits and disempowers femininity for its own sake.

Duke Nukem Forever is awful but it’s obvious why it’s awful. The game is indefensible and its only value is its status as a mark of shame for the art and industry. But it’s obvious. Something like Marlok’s scene in Breath of Fire 4 strikes me as far worse because it takes place over 20 minutes of a 20 to 30 hour game. It’s easy to overlook and it’s easy to apologize for because Breath of Fire 4 is a good game and there are plenty of, like, themes or whatever.

I think about carrying on with the game and writing about what it does well but that doesn’t seem possible with such a glaring instance of sexism. It doesn’t matter if the rest of the game is an emotional and intellectual tour de force: I don’t think I’ll be able to write about it without ignoring Marlok scene. That would be enabling more structural sexism in video games. I think about what’s being lost if I drop the game now because one arbitrary and stupid scene put a messy bullet hole in the developer’s foot and, honestly, it doesn’t seem like such a great tragedy.

About Mark Filipowich

Mark Filipowich writes about older, obscure, overlooked and indie games that are great for people of low income trying to keep up with the very expensive hobby that is gaming. His writing has been featured in PopMatters, Unwinnable, Nightmare Mode, Medium Difficulty and elsewhere. He also has a personal blog at big-tall-words.
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9 Responses to Sexism and Power Dynamics in Breath of Fire 4

  1. Patches says:

    This article was just plain great!

    For me, the best part was your conclusion that the one slip-up REQUIRES us to ignore it in order to continue with our analysis. This is a topic I’ve been discussing a lot in regard to anime (I’ve dropped three anime that made major rape culture missteps early in their runs and have been defending that stance to a number of my peers whenever it comes up).

    • Really, that’s the part that confuses me. Surely encountering a troubling scene makes it more important to include that scene in the analysis rather than to ignore it?

      I mean, not saying that you should feel forced to keep watching something that has already crossed your NOPE threshold. But if you want to write about something, if it has a lot of elements worth talking about, I don’t see why finding a problem means that you have to not talk about it at all. Shouldn’t an analysis cover the problems as well as the strengths?

    • marco says:

      Agreed~. I’ve had that too, and also have refused to pick up stuff lately because others have called it out.
      If I may ask, would you mind naming those anime (and why) you dropped? The most recent one for me was Kotoura-san, which I wanted to pick up well before it aired, but decided against that when I heard how the first episode went.

  2. nescire says:

    You read a whole lot into something you describe as “without the intention of meaning anything”. The scene skips ahead and you tell us it can mean any number of things… of which you decide that the game means to silence a female character into submission.

    I never played Breath of Fire IV and only have your own words to go with. The situation and scene you described here… I feel can not in good faith be interpreted as supportive of rape or rape culture. You deliberately frame the scene into a rape context originally absent from the game then rely on said context to judge the game supportive of rape culture.

    I feel it’s extremely telling that you completed the game “at least three times before” and saw no wrong with it, only to find something now that your perspective has changed. These faults you find to the game do not seem to be intrinsic.

    Regardless, why discard the positive messages you found previously (and I assume are still present) on the slight you now perceive? There is nothing to be gained from this kind of extremist attitude, unless your goal is to shelter yourself from every content you can possibly find offensive, ever.

    This article seems misguided to me.

    • Perhaps it was my fault for not linking the clips of the scene closer to the beginning. It was my–perhaps presumptuous–hope that readers would watch the scene I’m talking about on YouTube so that they can make their own judgments while reading about how I came to mine.

      As for the developers not intending the scene to mean anything, I think it’s irrelevant. One of the fascinating beauties of communication is that there is always layers of subtext beneath the text. And beneath the text of “Nina must do some temp work for Marlok” is “Nina is a pretty girl that Marlok wants to grope.” That was where my problem was.

      As for my not voicing any problems with the scene on any of my previous playthroughs: I agree, it is extremely telling. I had never been compelled to voice any of my concerns in the past either because my teenage self didn’t pick up on the subtext the first time or because the threat was not aimed at me and I was therefore able to ignore it. Alternatively, as Patches above pointed out, the scene is set up to be digested, internalized and forgotten quickly: it serves no point other than to cheapen and disempower femininity. Or, if my article didn’t convince you, maybe I am reading into it too much. But I think, at the very least, it’s worth discussing.

      To be honest, I’m still torn over whether I should finish the game or not. I was pretty upset by the scene I described but I do see your point. One of my hopes in writing this article was that I would find some clarity. In any case, thank you for the comment.

    • Korva says:

      Have you never expanded your education and awareness to the point that something you once saw as harmless fun or not even worth noticing was finally revealed as horrifying and despicable? Gaming and greater society are so utterly steeped in rape culture and contempt of women that many folks who might otherwise be quite decent participate in and contribute to it because it is so commonplace and normal. So much so that people only see the worst excesses — if that, and even then you can still bet on a shitload of victim-blaming. But it’s the little things that create the everyday normality of this behavior. Each rape “joke” told, each “what do you expect when wearing a short skirt”, each boundary violation being played for fun, each accusation of overreacting shames the victims, their allies and those just beginning to gain some awareness of all this toxic shit into staying silent and not rocking the boat. When in fact the boat needs to not only be rocked, but fucking capsized so the people enjoying their cushy cruise at the expense of women (or other marginalized groups) finally get a cold and rude awakening.

      One doesn’t need to actively hate and want to degrade a marginalized group of people in order to hurt them — all that is required is to thoughtlessly do what everyone else does. Because surely that can’t be wrong, and UGH why can’t those bitches and fags ever shut the fuck up and let us have fun, and anyway there are starving children in Africa so no one else is allowed to whine about their stupidly meaningless pretend-problems.

      IMO, it is a GOOD thing to be willing and able to look critically at things we otherwise enjoy, and to point out whatever problematic elements exist in them. Take Tolkien and the entire genre he spawned — both FULL of really problematic things. That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy fantasy games and books, but awareness is a good thing while denial and blind support are not. If we’re not and don’t want to be aware of the crappy parts, how could we hope to find or create something more inclusive and less degrading? Something that speaks to us and includes us instead of allowing us to exist only as sickening stereotypes for the REAL characters (read: straight, cis, lily-white, stereotypically masculine and preferably royal men) to use and abuse as props, punching bags or due rewards on their road to glory?

      • Ms. Sunlight says:

        I agree, it’s a good thing to be able to look critically at things that previously you didn’t notice were problematic. It’s what used to be called “consciousness raising” and I totally agree that this particular plot in BoF4 is hugely probelmatic.

        I do however think that it is possible, and even necessary, to enjoy and evaluate things critically without agreeing with everything in them. I find scenes where an unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise disempowered person is raped or sexually assaulted hugely triggering and upsetting but that doesn’t mean that I think I can’t or that we as a society should just write things off because of that rather than casting a more discerning critical eye.

        BoF4 is a great game with important things to say. That it stumbles in some aspects doesn’t mean that it doesn’t achieve what it sets out to do in others. It’s important to address its faults because it does do so well in other aspects of its storytelling. I think saying “this is good because of x but rapey and unpleasant because of y” is a distinction we MUST make and MUST NOT shy away from.

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  4. Joe R says:

    You know, something similar cropped up in, of all things, Secret of Mana for the SNES — though most people probably don’t remember it due to the script being heavily truncated and somewhat censored for the English translation. They’re captives in the sand ship, a higher-up officer demands the heroine give him a massage.

    The difference, of course, is that she angrily refuses, the guy making the demand gets a verbal smackdown from another NPC, and everyone proceeds to go about their business.

    As for the scene in BoF4, you’re right about it being insidious — I barely remembered it. When thinking about gender issues in this game, there are the far more prominent negative examples of damsels in distress/women in refrigerators (though used to meaningful effect in the story’s primary “message” depending on how you interpret it), but also the positive examples of the very professional Ursula, who in one specific scene is confronted with sexism and promptly retorts in her own very pointed fashion, and Ershin, who is nigh-asexual but for the one scene we get to see her for who she truly is, and there isn’t any doubt at all that her sexual agency is all her own.

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