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.
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.
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.
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.
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.