So, upon the request of a fellow video game reviewer who knows I have a penchant for good games that play with gender roles/tropes, I was given a copy of Tales of Xillia to play with. He didn’t tell me much beforehand, except that I would find one character very, very interesting.
Oh, how right he was.
Milla Maxwell is the physical incarnation of the game’s God – quite literally, she has the 4 spirits (Earth, Wind, Fire, Water) at her beck and call, has a handmaid* (who is male, more on that later) and does not require food or sleep at any given time. She also has absolutely no idea about humans or their social gender roles. While her clothing may appear feminine, it is only because her handmaid has picked them, with her only orders being that they are comfortable. Nudity, relationships, and (indirectly) sex are all completely foreign to her. How is this handled in the game?
Milla succeeds where a lot of female-embodiment-of-God tropes have failed because she never really places herself in roles of feminine value or social containment. Never is she seen playing dress up or dancing; the romance that is implied between herself and the other main character (whom you can choose to play as instead, if you wish, I chose Milla simply because I like playing as a girl when possible) is entirely based on respect and mutual love. Of the two of them, she is the one you don’t want to cross in a fight; though Jude is formidable as the story goes along, he is a bookworm and healer first – she is the one who bears the blade.
Along with this, anyone (usually NPCs) who directly attempts to place Milla into a gendered role in the game is frequently waved off:
“Wouldn’t you rather wear a nice dress?”
“I wouldn’t be able to fight with my legs so obstructed.”
“Wouldn’t you like a flower from a nice boy?”
“Anyone who respects me knows that I prefer items of function, not necessarily dead greenery.”
Milla defies expectation without a second thought; the NPCs around her that only think her a random female (rather than an embodiment of God) have their expectations tossed aside. One could argue that she is simply a woman fulfilling male stereotypes, but her interests are varied – she gives a pendant to Jude, not intending for the item to be seen as ‘jewelry,’ but because it holds significant personal value to herself. Eventually the NPCs stop asking questions like that after Milla/the others have come into town (usually after the first encounter if there are any comments like that). Milla calls things cute and strong in the same sentence; though the physical nature of her body is female, she herself bears no mental/psychological gender.
This fact becomes even more defining when we find out later in the game that she actually is -not- an embodiment of God, but a human being created by the God Maxwell to act as a diversion for his enemies. She could at that point fall into self-denial or attempt to thwart her fate, but Milla instead continues with her journey, and in the end chooses to shoulder the mantle of Godhood rather than give in to her personal desire of being a wife/partner to Jude. She does this not because of any expectation on Jude’s part to be his spouse, but because the world’s fate is more important than her own personal happiness. She then goes on to be fulfilled despite the loss of a personal dream, saving two worlds and uniting them – and still showing her avatar as her female form.
The story in Tales of Xillia is fantastic if nothing else. Double/Triple agents and an engaging battle system aside, the game is worth its value for undermining tropes and expectations. Milla is just the icing on the cake for a well-made JRPG – one that is ascendant of gender.
*There is also the matter of her handmaid. Despite the fact that normal culture (and the naming chosen) would suggest they be female, Ivar is quite male. And unlike the relationship that one would expect from a male servant to his God/dess, instead of attempting to seduce her, he instead goes out of his way to demonstrate his faith/loyalty by trying to one-up Jude through acts of courage and wisdom. His faith is unwavering, though his intellect is… questionable.