Square Enix really wants you to know that there's a good reason Final Fantasy 15 has an all-male main cast. No really, it's cool - it makes the characters "more approachable for players" by showing "what boys do when girls aren't around", and pardon me while I gently tap my head against this wall for a second. It's a clumsily-worded justification that suggests female characters somehow aren't approachable, and has sparked yet another conversation about how women in games are treated. And the worst part is that it's a justification that didn't really need to be made - a game that centers on a sincere portrayal of male friendship is a genuinely great idea that deserves to exist.
That isn't to say there aren't plenty of games helmed by men, because lone-wolf bodybuilders with big guns and bad attitudes are still the industry's bread and butter. Or steak and potatoes, because manly. But that's not a sincere portrayal of what men are actually like - it's an idealized version of masculinity that's entirely surface-level and doesn't take into account the importance of camaraderie to men's mental and emotional wellbeing. It's a problem with deep roots in reality, where independence and toughness are so heavily emphasized for at least American men that they can miss out on the deep, trusting friendships they need for a healthy life. Yes, even when they want them.
While games aren't the sole arbiters of this skewed ideal (almost every aspect of western pop culture plays up badass male characters whose primary personality trait is being too huge for Big & Tall), film and television have at least responded with the bromance subgenre. Gaming has no real equivalent, so outside a few stoic nods in war games and maybe the existence of Nathan Drake and Sully in Uncharted, a focus on male friendship and healthy masculinity in games is virtually nonexistent.
That's where something like Final Fantasy 15 could be a huge and invaluable step, if it does what its creators say they're aiming for. In an interview with GameSpot (the same one that spawned the "more approachable" comment), director Hajime Tabata noted that "to give the most natural feeling, to make [the cast] feel sincere and honest, having them all the same gender made sense in that way." While that wording's still iffy, it's true that being around a platonic group of friends makes it easier to be unguarded and genuine, and for some people that means a single-gender group where you won't need to impress any potential mates (judging by Tabata's statements, we can probably assume these guys are meant to be heterosexual).
It's possible that this focus could just be an excuse to keep girls out of the clubhouse without saying anything meaningful, but the snippet of 15 shown off in its Episode Duscae demo seems to support Tabata's claims. The characters don't have a problem sharing a tent, offering each other compliments, or manhandling one another out of bed in the morning without feeling like their friendship is weird or emasculating. They also take care of each other in both direct and subtle ways - while Prompto might express concern for Noctis and heal him on the battlefield, Ignis manages to cook dinner and keep the team healthy without it being an assault on his masculinity.
Plus, Tabata has a pretty good track record when it comes to developing meaningful relationships between male characters, given his work on Final Fantasy 7: Crisis Core and its buddy-tragedy elements. If his word is reliable and 15 builds upon the intimate dynamic between friends established in Duscae, it's possible we could see a game that says close male companionship is not only okay, but ideal, and men are stronger for pursuing it.
As it approaches release and developers continue to make eyebrow-raising comments, Final Fantasy 15 has a lot of ground to cover. Before it only had to deal with questions about how its real-time battle system would work and why the main cast looks like a My Chemical Romance tribute band. Now there are concerns that any 'boys will be boys' attitude it pushes will end up being reductive and erasing any women who aren't just eye-candy (please Cindy, zip up, you're losing all of that jacket's protective potential). But if Tabata and team are sincerely interested in, and can deliver on, a narrative that explores why the relationships between its male characters are so important, then Final Fantasy 15 will have done something truly significant.
While there are plenty of games starring men, games that talk about what it means to be a man outside shooting stuff and getting laid are far less common. It's a delicate line to walk, but if they succeed, it'll be well worth the effort. Men expressing love for their friends by cooking them awesome stew? Now that's manly.