Recently I’ve been watching my brother run through another round of Final Fantasy X. Personally, I’ve never been very into the series (except for X-2, but I think I’m in the minority there). However, seeing as it’s hailed as one of the masterpieces of the franchise, I’m more than willing to watch my brother go from temple to temple gaining summon spirits (or “aeons”, I guess) until the final summoning. It’s all very interesting and Tidus isn’t nearly as annoying as I imagined him being, but as he continues fighting through Sin spawn and other various baddies one thought has been ringing through my mind: being a white mage sucks. Not only in Spira—in many Final Fantasy games it seems as though if you’re a practitioner of the healing white magic you’re stuck healing and only healing—unless you’re also a summoner (which only aids this trope, but I’m getting ahead of myself).
Of course, this isn’t anything new; these limitations of the white mage far extend outside of the world of Final Fantasy into other JRPGs. A white mage, in addition to replacing combat expertise with that sweet healing magic, is almost always a woman. A “pure”-seeming woman (aka virginal). Ace spoke about one of the outliers (who just so happens to be in another Final Fantasy game) in a previous article, but the trend at large still stands. Yet, in more recent titles, it seems as though developers have taken it upon themselves to finally twist this trope for the better.
I’ve already lauded Tales of Xillia on its portrayal of female friendships that bypass unnecessary love triangles, but I was more than pleased to find that the game also took the white mage trope and destroyed it. …Okay, “destroy” is too strong of a term. There still is a “white mage” character, Elize. However, she
breaks out of the mold in an interesting way. Where most white mages have a self-sacrificing air to them, Elize is selfish at times, and vindictive. She’s eager to help her friends, but is more than willing to leave someone out to dry if they cross her and said friends. Many white mages are concerned with the larger picture: saving a kingdom, saving the world, and so forth. I think it’s very refreshing to see a healer who doesn’t necessarily ignore these overarching problems, but is more focused on the people in front of them—it certainly makes Elize feel more human, in any case.
What Xillia does that I love the most, though, is that while there is arguably a “white mage” character, the healing isn’t completely dependent on them. True, previous installments of the Tales of series had this, such as in Tales of Symphonia, but it’s more apparent here than ever before. Every character, save for two, gets personal healing artes. Additionally, every character has the ability to heal if they link (partner up) with another character and combine one of their skills. By doing something like this, it takes away some of the mysticism surrounding the white mage character and allows the audience to start viewing them on their character traits rather than making subconscious assumptions due to the type of magic they have. This is further explored by the fact that two of the characters are doctors, have healing artes, but are not “white mage” characters. Jude, one of the main characters, was almost a fully certified doctor by the time he left on his journey and his childhood friend, Leia, is also an employed nurse. However, both Jude and Leia are brawlers, not only in fighting style, but narratively as well (both Jude and Leia practiced martial arts under Leia’s mother).
Although these things seem small and inconsequential, they actually provide important, sub-textualmessages about the “white mage” trope. First of all, and perhaps most importantly, a setup like this provides evidence that the white mage doesn’t have to be and shouldn’t be limited to only women. You think something like this would be obvious by now, but these various RPG classes are so steeped in gender roles that it’s actually surprising to see them broken, especially in a way that promotes a more balanced view than simply changing the gender.
Also, allowing a variety of interpretations of a healer character is important, as with any character. All healers shouldn’t be forced into low hp/high magic roles. Take a look at Estelle from Tales of Vesperia; though she’s a healer, she also has the strength necessary to wield a sword and still be well-balanced in terms of game stats.
Although there is a time and a place for the quintessential white mage many of us have come to know, it shouldn’t be a crutch for developers to lean on when trying to create a character. Limiters like this only serve to hinder a character’s growth and potential, and in turn, hurt the players by further narrowing their view by forcing these archetypes on them. Although I know that Yuna doesn’t die at the end of Final Fantasy X, nothing about her character arc surprises me because she follows the “white mage” trope so closely. Maybe that’s why I love X-2 so much: it gave its white mage a chance to grow past her magical abilities. I’m eager for a future where the white mage no longer exists, where healing is not a mystical art seemingly passed down through a lineage of doe-eyed people, but instead is a supplement to other, unique skills. With the way things are going, this might be a gaming pipe dream that might actually come to fruition.