game, video games

Outside, Photography: On Final Fantasy XV’s Prompto and ‘Passing’ Identity Practices

[Note: Major spoilers for Final Fantasy XV.]

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One of the first things the player learns about Prompto is that he like to talk about women. Revealing his attraction to Cindy, one of the first women who the four men come across at the very beginning of the game, Prompto talks about her while they drive and asks about her relationship status. He repeats this move a few more times, asking for help in trying to date other women including Aranea Highwind, an early enemy turned later ally, when Noctus and his group spends time with her in a dungeon. Whenever the four men come across a woman, Prompto asks about her and makes jokes to the other men about their own lack of relationships. For Prompto, one of contributions to the party is to notice the practices of others and to mention this to others.

This also works toward his identity as the member of the party who takes pictures of others during their journey and later, with an upgrade, during battles as well. Seemingly, Prompto is presented as both part of the on-going wanderings of the four men and not quite there at the same time: many of the pictures are from his perspective, but they also show events that did not happen to the player. He often produces images that are events as might have happened to the party, posed and smiling about their journey. For whatever the current events are, Prompto’s pictures show the best version and a fiction, if only a polite one, that did not happen or is, at best, staged. His world existing in photos is fake. But it’s also a good kind of fake.

Prompto is not human. This is first hinted at in a small way as part of the Brotherhood prequel anime series in which Prompto is shown covering up his marking. This is later revealed in a major way by the capture of Prompto by Ardyn late in Final Fantasy XV through conversations between Ardyn, Prompto, and Noctus. Like many of the soldiers the team has been fighting for the entire time of their journey, Prompto is a Niflheim Magitek creation. He was created from the work toward using the demons as soldiers and has no family outside of that which he has created with Noctus. However, unlike most of his brethren, he escaped and has been trying to build a life for himself among the people of Insomnia and as part of the group guarding Noctus. In a running theme across the entire series of Final Fantasy games, Prompto has taken what was done by science as an accident and turned it into a different life and for different purposes than intended. Prompto has, through acting, presented himself as person enough that he has become that which he has sought out to become.

In Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter, Judith Butler (1990; 1993) has put forth a way of understanding gender (and other) performances as a series of acts toward being. Instead of only picking from available performances – as others like Goffman (1959) suggest in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life –, a performer can create a performance through constant repetition and expression over time. Instead of a simple one-and-done aspect of performances, all gender identity is reinforced and reified through its expressions within the context in which it arises, re-codifying through actions its existence and, at the same time, its opposition and conformity to the normative behaviors in relate to it. Performances are never “over” and shift through the actions of those involved to the degree to which they can maintain the actions which support the identity they are creating. This also matches up with Jack Halberstam’s (1994) take on the idea of “passing” as something everyone does depending on their own context: in the same way performances are never over, everyone tries constantly to “pass” for something.

In “F2M: The Making of Female Masculinity”, Halberstam (1994) states that “We all pass or we don’t [ . . . ] It is just that for some of us our costumes are made of fabric or material, while other they are made of skin” and grounds the way in which ‘passing’ is a pattern of recognized behavior for everyone. Everything, from the clothing we wear to how we “are,” is part of the performance and our own identity politics and relationships others around us. We are either passing for some identity we are striving towards or we are not. We act towards the identity we want to achieve and are, as Judith Butler (1990; 1993) has suggested within the performativity nature of actions, always “toward” and never quite there, as the very identities we try to seek are, in themselves, never as solid as they appear and are, like us, in flux from the collective nature of the performances which construct them as normative.

Pairing Butler’s gender performativity as actions “toward” an identity with Halberstam’s take on “passing” sheds light on the plight of Prompto and his own relationship to the men he travels with over the course of Final Fantasy XV. His constant observant behavior comes into clear focus from the point of view of considering his non-humanity: his entire identity is composed of watching those around him and building a sense of self which matches to the expectations of others. Unlike nearly anyone else within the world of the game, he started much closer to a tabula rasa state and must completely build an identity from the images and other performances around him. His own photography, while not presented as such explicitly, clues the player into this part of his self. The ability to take pictures and to continue to both watch and perform the “best” version of himself fits into his own presentation of self. In many ways, he cannot not take images because it helps him capture the normative behaviors he is often positioned outside of as someone who started away from the world of the characters who he travels with across the world.

This also explains his fascination and anxiety over the relationship status of the other party members of Ignis, Gladius, and Noctus. For Prompto, his very survival is based in his ability to pass for the men around him and thus, to reflect their own tensions with a lack of a firm place in the world, Prompto picks up this anxiety from them as a mirror for the very performances he is watching. It is not, then, exclusive that Prompto wants to be in a relationship, but that he has seen how the other men want these same heteronormative behaviors and echoes their own with his already existing fear of not belonging at best and, at worst, of seen as an enemy to the very friends he is trying to keep. As someone who must belong to continue to not be seen as a threat to the masculinity around him, Prompto’s performance must be perfect at all times with his passing behaviors, actions, and speech.

His “outing,” then, serves as pivotal moment for both the character and the game in its presentation of a trans identity. Prompto’s identity as non-human is hidden so well that it can be easily missed before and up to the point where he disappears from the party during the latter part of the game. However, it is in his rescue as a non-human which places him, within the construction of the game, as also non-masculine, too. The game hints toward the player and Noctus that his friend has been lying to him through the series of events in the rescue mission and forces through its plot for Noctus to finally confront the last obstacle of him becoming king (and a ‘true’ man) of putting on the Ring of the Lucii. However, proportional to Noctus’ rise into the game’s construction of manhood is also the stripping away of the performance of Prompto: his exposure of non-human happens as the friends reunite and Noctus go on without them to confront Ardyn before his final transformation into the savior.

While this would be a tragic and terrible way to rip away the performance of Prompto and leave the game there, the men also have a final moment together under the stars where they bond for one last time and their differences between are, at least for the moment, put away as they gear up for the final battle. While Prompto’s identity is briefly mentioned here, it is also not questioned and the intervening years while Noctus was gone are not mentioned. It could be possible that Prompto had adopted a different performance or was even accepted as he was before this point. Regardless, however, it is at this point and on to the end in which the men have finally come to understand, in part, each other and have an equal footing with each other. For whatever Prompto may have performed previous this, he is considered part of the brotherhood of the group even with the now knowledge that he trans and non-human. He belongs. He is accepted as he wants to be.