*Mild Spoilers for Forspoken*
When Forspoken was first announced and the main character of Frey was shown, I was super excited. Here we had a Black woman led fantasy AAA game that looked great. I’m hard press to think of any other game that would fit this description. This was a chance to inject something new into the familiar but fun genre of games. Then… those trailers came out. Yet, I was still positive. Ok yes, the dialogue is… interesting. But was it worth so much hate right off the back? These were out of context snippets, and we’ve heard plenty of characters that are loved with this kind of dialogue. It felt like there’s more behind the hate than just the dialogue.
Yet, I continued to remain hopeful, hoping this game would succeed. Especially with that asinine statement from Square Enix about Final Fantasy 16, saying diversity in our made-up world with dragons, monsters, and people literally changing into fire demons is just too unrealistic. And no, one token character does not excuse what came out of their mouths. I didn’t want it to be an excuse to not use more PoC in these types of games. And then the game came out.
Refusing the Call Shouldn’t Last This Long
If you’re unfamiliar, a refusal of the call is a well-used story structure where the hero refuses the call to adventure. And narratively, it makes sense for Frey. She was thrown into a strange new world and wants to go home. But it feels so stretched out in Forspoken and literally goes against the game mechanics at times. An abridged example of dialogue, “Hey Frey, you should check out this thing.” “F**k you Cuff, I’m don’t want to do that!” Game objective: Go check out the thing to advance the story. That’s a literally interaction in game. It feels like we aren’t supposed to like the character at all until the game says “Okay now like her.” It creates a barrier of unlikability so early in the game that it really hinders players from giving the game a fair shot.
So when there’s a character that’s hard to connect with, can the gameplay makeup for it? Sure, it can. Plenty of games have been saved by great gameplay. Unfortunately, that’s not the case here. Once you really start unlocking the powers it can be a lot of fun at times. It’s fast, frenetic, and really gives you a sense of power we love. But it takes so long to get to that point. And having to go on that journey with Frey was not enjoyable. And the fact that she and Cuff are constantly talking at each other instead of having conversations can be grinding. If you have to put in a setting to change how often a character talks, it might be too much. And honestly, I needed the setting for Frey rather than Cuff.
The Lack of a Voice
To be clear, I don’t think Forspoken is a bad game overall. It takes a while but once you get later into the game and unlock more abilities it becomes a really fun power fulfillment. But that story, and these characters… oooff. From the onset, Forspoken does its damnest to portray Frey as such an unlikable character. She’s abrasive, quick to anger, and aside from liking her cat she just has a generally bad attitude. It makes sense in the “real world” she comes from; however, once she’s transported she doubles down on treating everyone like garbage, even those who are actively helping her. How are you going to look at someone breaking you out of prison and treat them like they did you wrong? The way she is presented just comes off as lazy and honestly problematic at times. The character is steeped in the old “angry Black woman” archetype, and it’s such a bummer to see here.
However, I want to make sure we give the actress behind Frey, Ella Balinska, her flowers. She acts what the script calls for beautifully. When she’s obnoxious, she super obnoxious. And when the script lets her flex emotionally and lets her grow, Balinska is great. The main issue comes from the script and the writers. There’s such a lack of melanin in the room that a lot of it speaks volumes. This isn’t an indictment of maliciousness from the writers, more just a misguided effort that another voice in the room could have addressed. And this is why representation matters. Because we want our authentic voices heard. And when it’s not, this is the result.
Recently, it’s been revealed that the story of Forspoken changed drastically from what it was initially. Gary Whitta, a writer on such projects as Rogue One, Book of Eli, Taletale’s Walking Dead, and more, revealed on the Video Game Writing 101 podcast with Alanah Pearce that Square Enix pretty much rebooted the story midway through development. Square apparently didn’t like the original story but kept the world. It’s not uncommon for stories to change and to have multiple writers in the room. But unfortunately, the end result here just screams of written by committee and the story suffers from it.
The Wrong Lessons to Take
Honestly, I thought we were past this point in the history of media. We don’t just want to see ourselves but see and hear ourselves authentically. Because when it’s not authentic, you get a shallow representation like we do here. And now, the fear is that Square Enix will take away the wrong message. We want new IPs, characters, and stories. Not just the same sequel and remake of the same old games. But I know better. I know they’ll think the opposite and blame us for a game failing instead of themselves. And that’s unfortunately where we are. Maybe next time we can get a better character, a better story, a better game. Sadly, it seems we’ll have to wait a long time.