In Which I Don’t Review Suikoden V

So I rented Suikoden V recently cause it’s Goddamn Suikoden and has a pretty impressive pedigree behind it. I didn’t really like it. The beginning was way too slow (after twelve hours of gameplay I’d barely gotten to the actual meat of the game) and left so many parts of its mechanics unexplained that even though I had a fleeting knowledge because of my time with Suikoden IV I just couldn’t get into it.

But I’m not here to review it. Instead, I want to talk about something that puzzled me.

See, the nation of Falena from which the hero hails is a Queendom. I’m all for gender diversity and alternative socio-political-economic-cultural structures in videogames but nothing’s ever done with it.

Well, OK, spoiler warning for the first 12 or so hours of the game. So you’re the Prince of Falena but in the Queendom, obviously only women can inherit the throne so it falls to your younger sister, Lymsleia, to inherit the throne.  This seems like it’d be setting up a female dominated society, which could let us see men undergoing gender based assumptions and persecutions, but instead it’s just a place with a queen. Sure, the people and her knights are loyal to her, and nobody questions her executive power, but in the hierarchy of Falena she’s the only woman (bar two others) of high office we ever get to meet.

The others are Raja, the Falenan Admiral who worked her way up from commoner status during the last civil war. But she runs the nomadic boat-based town of Raftfleet and seems to hold no sway in the kingdom except as the leader of Raftfleet. During the second civil war – the focus of this game – the Godwins have their own loyal contingent of the navy led by a man. Then there’s Lady Haswar, the Queen’s cousin and the Oracle of Falena. Despite it being an important religious role, she lives in a tiny mountain village and only ever seems to play a ceremonial role in proceedings.

All the members of the Senate we meet are men. The commander of the Queen’s Knights and, by extension, the entire Falenan army, has always been the Queen’s husband, the King. And he’s not selected by the Queen choosing a suitor, instead there’s a giant gladitorial tournament called the Sacred Games which determines the winner.

Even among the Queen’s Knights there’s only one woman and one young woman as an apprentice, and we never see any female guards or more than a handful of women in all of Falena who have jobs that weren’t traditionally associated with men. Those who do have what would be considered atypical jobs based on old fashioned gender assumptions, like doctors, are almost always one of the 108 recruitable Stars of Destiny or turn out to be a plot important NPC.

It’s also made clear that the Queen’s rule is not absolute. The Senate members have their own lands and loyal soldiers and citizens and so the Queen must play politics herself  to skirt around them in order to get things done.

What I’m really bemoaning here is the missed opportunity. I have a few theories about why the writers settled on having a Queendom but I’m not actually sure. It’s never explained. I’m not saying that I buy into Rune Magic and Dragon steeds but I can’t buy a woman being in charge. I’m saying that it strikes me as lazy to give no explanation as to how this socio-political structure (unique to Suikoden as far as I know) works and functions. The writers could at least follow through on the whole “women in charge” angle to gender-flip the traditional power structures. Like, it was the foundation for a great story with facets the series hasn’t really delved into before but instead we got the bog standard Suikoden plot.

Am I asking too much? Back in the PS2 era we hadn’t really started asking “Big Questions” as a community, so perhaps taking a series so grounded in tradition and making a radical shift in its gender policies would be too mu-no, wait, that’s stupid. Persona 4 gave us the stories of Kanji Tatsumi and his struggles against society’s perceptions and his possible homosexuality as just *one* of its character studies and that was a PS2 game.

Persona may well be “about” people, but Suikoden isn’t a game with a completely traditional take on gender politics. Since Suikoden I there’s been a healthy array of female fighters and not just in a “rebellious tomboy fighting even though she’s not meant to” kind of way. We’ve seen mercenaries, knights, magicians, strategists, explorers, heroes, villains; it’s had them all.

I don’t think the inclusion of a Queendom was meant to be a lip service to feminism (and if it was, it was pretty piss poor). It was probably because this game being set before all the other Suikoden games that Falena was mentioned to be a Queendom and they had to run with it.

Either that or it was an attempt at narrative convenience. They want you to play as a prince because “girl protagonists don’t sell videogames”, isn’t that right Samus Aran and Lara Croft (how sad is it that they were the only two consistently appearing, long running, mass recognised videogame heroines I could name)? And introducing a female lead to a long running franchise never works, does it Terra Brandford and Lightning? Also, the heir to the throne has to be a princess because no *woman* could manipulate a prince into being a figurehead, right?

There are arguments and counter-arguments to be made how necessary a Queendom is to the plot but it quickly gets convoluted. To reiterate, I am not attacking women in positions of power, or gender equality. I just really feel like Suikoden V missed a trick. With so many different ways they could have played it, it’s almost a shame they chose to tell the story they did with the world they’d created.

And here’s the really…heavy? important? controversial? whatever. Here’s That Part. As horrible as it is to admit, humankind has in 99.9% of cases created patriarchal societies with the role and power of women either never present or squashed as the patriarchal power structure became more entrenched. And we still don’t have true gender equality anywhere in the world.

I get the want to make our fictional worlds into utopias, like how the Federation of Star Trek was basically a socialist conclave of races based entirely around the promotion of peace and knowledge, and as Star Trek proved those settings can still give us amazing stories.

But as much as fiction is about escaping the unfairness of life, it’s also about dealing with it. Whether it’s speculative sci-fi or fantasy trying to understand how and why humanity could be changed by our advancement as a species, post-colonial literature bridging the gap between the cultures we destroyed and the ones we imposed on other people, romance novels letting us fulfill our unmet desires, adventure stories giving us the pulse-pounding thrill we crave or maybe we’re just empathising with how alone and under pressure Harry Potter feels as he struggles against the world around him.

And so too our fiction should meet matters of gender equality and other Serious Issues head on and tackle them. Of course, there’s places for fiction that does that and fiction that doesn’t. I don’t ‘hate’ Suikoden V for not tackling these issues, and I don’t feel that whenever we see women with power in fiction it ‘needs’ an explanation.

But I do feel that whenever we get ‘feminism-but-not-really’ in our fiction, like a woman stated to be all kinds of badass but really does nothing like Kate from the BBC Robin Hood series that it kind of demeans the fight for women’s rights that are still being fought for today.

I just feel that Suikoden V had a chance to do something really interesting with its setup of a Queendom, and if it had done any of the things mentioned above I would probably have stuck it out just to see what they did.

Suikoden V isn’t bad. In the end, it just wasn’t for me, even though I can see it’s what a Suikoden game is meant to be and competently pulled off. But it was like seeing an advert for some “All new Big Mac! Like nothing you’ve ever tasted before!” and getting yourself worked up, only to find it’s no different than before.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Meanwhile (Pt. 1) | words away
  2. Trackback: Meanwhile (Part 1) | words away

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