Square’s Final Fantasy IX was released in Japan twenty years ago and, in the years since, I’ve kept going back to its details, its fairy-tale world, its quirkiness and its characters. Until recently though, I had no idea one of its main characters, Quina Quen, was explicitly non-gendered. In fact, they are one of the first video game characters disrupting gender binarism and definitions.
The original Japanese text never states Quina’s gender: they have a somewhat traditionally feminine look, but they can’t wear female-exclusive equipment and they are male as far as gendered game mechanics are concerned. In this article, I’m going to refer to Quina using they/them pronouns, but Quina’s pronouns can be quite confusing in the American localisation: the game uses possessive and demonstrative pronouns “his” and “him,” but then goes for a weird “s/he.”
“Final Fantasy IX was my second project at Square” Brody Phillips tells me over LinkedIn. “My first one was Legend of Mana. I was one of three in-house translators on FF9. The structure of the text files made it relatively easy to divide the translation work based on in-game location. There was so much work to do that we needed 2 editors to check it all. But unlike later titles (especially FFX), there was [no] talking in the cutscenes, so we didn’t have to use a recording studio for English voice-overs.”
“There was actually already an in-house team when I started working there – they had already done FF8, Parasite Eve, and a few other titles,” Phillips continues. “I remember many temporary European language translators had just wrapped up their translations on FF8 and were going home. Rather than translate directly from Japanese, Euro language translations were usually based on the English translation. This was due to cost and availability factors. So many more European translators know English instead of Japanese.”
“Quina’s dialogue was very vague as to gender” Phillips answers when I ask him what he remembers about the character. “Other characters referred to Quina as the gender-neutral あいつ (aitsu) instead of the standard 彼 (kare) and 彼女 (kanajo), so it was always vague and we wanted to keep it that way. Looking back with more experience now, I think it’s a little heavy-handed and a lot of work for the reader to get through. I imagine it must’ve been incredibly awkward for European language translators and players since unlike English and Japanese, every noun has some kind of gender.”
Phillips is right: in Italian, my first language, every noun is gendered. Our chairs are girls, our books are boys. We don’t have something like the neutral “they/them” and we don’t even have something like “it:” our language struggles to express the shifting specter of gender. In this regard, I suggest you to read this brief essay about how Fabio Bortolotti handled the Italian translation of Neo Cab’s non-binary pronouns. So, in the Italian localisation of Final Fantasy IX,Quina is referred with feminine pronouns and they are even called “woman”; their non-binary, agender, or even sexless nature was lost. The localisation of Quina was a complete, global mess.
The character is a mess, too. In the tragic and war-torn world of Final Fantasy IX, Quina looks like stereotypical fat-phobic comic relief. In Amano’s illustrations, they are depicted as a clown, in the game they look (and talk) like the caricature of a Chinese cook, and they initially join the party because their master, the equally genderless Quale, wants them to become independent and to improve their cooking skills by discovering and tasting new foods. Eating is a game mechanic for Quina: they are the “blue mage” of Final Fantasy IX, learning new spells from the enemies they fight and from the enemies they eat during battles. Their Frog Drop skill is one of the strongest of the game (it can reach 9,999 points of damage), but Quina must level it up by catching and eating frogs in marshes. Yet their characterisation is deeper: they are bizarre, creepy and imaginative, they are driven by curiosity and pleasure and, during their journey, they grow and learn how to take care of others, as well as themself.
Discovering that lost gender nonconformity in my favourite Final Fantasy mirrored my questioning the gender that I used to take for granted. Sure, Quina’s nature is different from my non-binarism: they are biologically genderless (or at least either unclassifiable or unknowable from a human point of view) because they belong to the fantasy species of the Qu Tribe, so in Final Fantasy 9 gender is still a biological matter. Even so, their gender is never either investigated or mocked by the other characters. Final Fantasy IX at least tells us that we can imagine something beyond gender binarism, and the story of its localisation proves that sometimes the main problem we face when imagining it is a language barrier.