Long-time gamer, aspiring writer, and frequent bearer of an afro. As an eternal optimist, I like to both look on the bright side of things and see the better parts of games; as a result, I love a game with a good story and awesome characters...and anything that lets me punch the heresy out of my enemies.
I'm a big fan of Atlus' games, and I've enjoyed my fair share of fighters and RPGs. Just...please, keep Final Fantasy XIII out of my sight. It never ends well for anyone involved.
You can check out some of my game musinga/stories/random stuff at my other blog, Cross-Up. I've also got a TV Tropes thingamajig, and I'm trying to get some freelance work going. Among other things. Like a web serial novel. And getting books published. If ever there was a time for the world to learn the joys of ghost-punching, this is it.
Once upon a time, I hoped that when Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy came to an end, we could all shut the hell up about Batman for a while. Not forever. Just long enough to give the guy a rest. Long enough for the public conscious to focus on someone else. Something else, either canonically or stylistically. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case, seeing as how the question of “How do we make a good Superman movie?” has been answered with “Add Batman to it.” Riveting.
I’ve wondered before if the presence of the Dark Knight Trilogy has had a negative impact on games (or media in general), but that’s all guesswork, and I don’t want to dive into that discussion anytime soon. That said, the release of Batman: Arkham Origins has gotten me thinking about the character and his mythos in general, and how he’s portrayed in whatever he may appear in. By now I’d hope you know what I prefer, but I want to make it clear that I don’t hate Batman. I just hate it when he -- or any character -- isn’t used well. And indeed, I was under the impression that this so-called prequel game would give me a fresh perspective on the caped crusader, in a way that only a prequel can.
Then again, that only raises its own set of problems.
I admit that I haven’t played that much of Origins, so if you’re looking for an in-depth judgment on that game, you should probably look somewhere else. I have a few impressions of it, though, based on my early forays and watching my brother punch his way through several hours of content. I don’t want to say the game is good/bad until I’ve had more time with it, but there are things that I like about it, and things that I dislike about it. So for now I’ll just say this: I ran into a glitch that glued Batman to a wall in the first thirty minutes of the game, forcing a restart. Take that as you will…besides the implication that walls are Batman’s one weakness.
What I find supremely interesting is that for a “prequel” -- for a game with “origins” in its title -- at its outset it doesn’t seem too eager to set up the origin of Batman. It’s possible, and probably likely that the stuff I’m after is later in the game. I’m actually interested in seeing the transformation of a mere man (albeit one empowered by ridiculous wealth, resources, and opportunities) into a symbol of dark justice. And the reason I’m interested is because of the promos that I’ve seen almost non-stop on YouTube.
It’s easy for me to poke fun at that promo -- “Oh no! He’s becoming a generic space marine!” -- but it did suggest promise. Potential. One of the problems I’ve had with games in the past and present (and to some extent in Nolan’s trilogy) is that the balance of power is too-far skewed. It seems like too many games are trying too hard to make me feel like a badass, or a predator, or an ultra-skilled ninja, and it’s long since stopped being rewarding in the way devs intended.
Little wonder, then, that I take issue with Batman and Batman games; the Arkham series has always felt more like games that are more fun to watch than they are to play, because flailing at goons trying to pin me in a circle and effortlessly countering their attacks has never felt compelling for me. (Then again, I could say the same about the Assassin’s Creed games.) The stealth is more intriguing, sure, but even that stacks the deck in a way that just leaves me dissatisfied. So my hope was that with Origins, I’d get that overwhelming power stripped away so I could learn about and understand Batman -- because as it stands, being Batman is as much fun as dusting the Batcave.
I wouldn’t have minded seeing a young Bruce Wayne going on a journey to become the Bat. They didn’t even have to make that the crux of the whole game; Uncharted 3 had young Drake and his quest for general tomfoolery, after all. I just expected a step back that would change the franchise in an unexpected, but incredibly-welcome way. Shame on me for setting my expectations so high; Batman starts off with all his technology, all his skills, and in the span of a single night gains the better part of his rogues gallery.
In fact, the game feels more like an installment of Mega Man than a full-on prequel; Batman has to take on eight assassins (playing their roles as Robot Masters) in an effort to thwart the plans of Black Mask (Dr. Wily…or would Joker be Dr. Wily, since he’s probably the game’s real bad guy?). It’s too early to say if I’m going to get anything out of the game that I want -- character development doesn’t tend to happen in the first couple of hours -- but for what it’s worth I don’t feel like I’m going to get a cure for what ails me for a while. Even if there’s a slight chance I’ll get my hands on Electrocutioner’s gloves after beating him.
I’m willing to give the game another shake, though, but I’m more than a little concerned. The less-than-flattering reviews haven’t made me too eager to see what lies around the Bat-Bend, and that rough start with a less-than-charismatic hero isn’t making the trip any more enticing. What REALLY worries me, though, is that even my brother -- whose love of Batman is only rivaled by his love of Spider-Man -- told me one day that Origins isn’t as good as he hoped. More recently, he said the game is outright terrible. Bear in mind that that statement came from a guy that doesn’t obsessively over-think and nitpick whatever comes his way, and is willing to overlook the flaws of nearly every game set before him. (Though The Bureau was where he drew the line.)
Part of that likely comes from his personal biases. In the same sense that I’ve got a strong…well, let’s call it distaste for stupidly-gritty fare, he’s said several times before that prequels are awful. Even a Batman prequel wasn’t enough to sway him, even if it didn’t stop him from buying. His reasoning is something that I agree with in a lot of ways. Rather than advancing the canon in a meaningful or appreciable way, they’re content with stepping back, undoing the developments (story-wise or character-wise) that made the earlier installment worthwhile in the first place. It’s a story that would rather wade around in the shallow end -- the status quo -- under the pretense that it’s a safe bet, but paradoxically run the risk of either A) adding nothing but a stopgap for something that actually matters, or B) hurting the canon it’s trying to stand in front of. Hell, just saying the word prequel (or reboot, in some cases) brings with it some seriousnegativeconnotations.
It’s not a problem limited to movies, of course. 2013 saw the release of both God of War: Ascension and Gears of War: Judgment, both prequels to blockbuster franchise, and both failing (by and large) to meet either fan expectations or sales prospects. It’s easy to blame the problems of both games on the fact that they’re prequels that apparently don’t add anything to their respective canons, and in some ways I think that’s a real issue…though given my time with Ascension, that’s not the only problem.
I was under the impression that stories are supposed to move forward, not backward; I want to see what Sera is like now that Delta Squad has saved the world, or the ramifications of Kratos’ actions in his quest for revenge. I don’t want games that just dribble a little spit from the corner of their mouths, and rained upon us filthy gamers while we wait for Gears 4 and GoW 4 to ACTUALLY continue the story.
It’s enough to make me wonder if the prequel model as we know it is broken. From a story perspective it’s got the potential to cause some real problems -- but for games, it might be even worse. It creates problems for the scale and threat of the enemies in the game, as well as the characters mucking about within. How do you create a distinct and perceivable enemy in a game without taking away from the challenge established by previous games, BUT without making them more dangerous than anything ever faced in the later parts of the canon?
How do you justify their existence, and how do you explain away their presence once the main story starts? How do you make a player character -- or any character, really -- distinct from his/her future incarnation? How do you give a character new tools and powers in the prequel without making the player wonder why said tools never get used again? There are a lot of ways to create a nasty disconnect, and I can’t shake the feeling that before my time with Origins is done -- assuming I even get that far -- I’m going to be left with questions the devs probably didn’t want me to ask.
There was an episode of Extra Credits a while back that talked about the potential of prequels and reboots; the idea was that when the level of spectacle and one-upping the last installment got too high, the devs could hit the reset button (reboot) or step back into the past (prequel) to give themselves a new foundation to work with. If that’s the case, it’s entirely possible that Origins, Ascension, and Judgment aren’t going to be the last we’ve seen of prequels. All things considered, those three games aren’t even the first we’ve seen of prequels; Devil May Cry 3, Snake Eater, Resident Evil Zero, Birth by Sleep, and the ever-beloved Metroid: Other M are just a few examples we’ve seen over the years. So let it be known that prequels can be good (and some are good). They can contribute something meaningful as well as fun. They can be not terrible. So will Arkham Origins prove to be not terrible? I’m hoping so, and the fact that I’ve still got some optimism for it has to stand for something. I do like the detective aspect of the game, and I hope it gets utilized well. The city may have been reused, but I do like its aesthetic, and exploring it reminds me of the grand old days of Spider-Man 2. And of course, I want to see what kind of juice the story’s got in store. I want to have something positive to post on my blog. I don’t want to believe that the game is just a triple-A cash grab that was bred for sale simply because Batman is in it. And the best way to gain proof of that for myself -- to gain a new perspective on this character -- is to have a look for myself.
But let’s set aside that game for now. I want to use the rest of this post to open the floor for discussion -- see where some of you weigh in on the subject of prequels. I’ve played my fair share of games, but not nearly enough to be an all-knowing authority. Nor do I have the variance in opinion and taste that even a party of four might hold. And that’s exactly why I’m calling upon you for a response: what do you think of prequels? Can they be used effectively for games? Or by nature are they destined to be filler at best? What do you want to see out of them? What don’t you want to see? Who would win in a fight, Batman or my dog if he doesn’t get his daily helping of cheeseburger pellet dog food when he demands it?
Let me hear your thoughts in the comments. Till next time, then. Same blog time, same blog…uh…blog.
If for some silly reason you’re just joining me here for this FFXIII miniseries (here’s part 1,and here’s part 2), let me give you another primer. The thrust of my argument is that Lightning Farron, lead character of this so-called Lightning Saga and Square-Enix’s current golden girl, is actually the villain of her games…and as of the last post, you can add “insane” to her name. By way of accident -- or incompetence, if you prefer -- the house that Final Fantasy built created a character that’s superficially one of the heroes, but compared to others in her franchise, she’s well below par on the do-gooder scorecard.
I would very much like to think that this trend is going to continue, and get even worse, with Lightning Returns. It’s easy to shrug off the game as having a garbage story and leaving it at that -- and just enjoying the gameplay -- but that really is a disservice to everyone involved. If a game is going to tell a story, especially if it’s part of a genre half-built on telling stories, then the quality of the game CAN’T be divorced from the quality of its story. The technique has to be judged, as do its particulars; ideas, themes, and especially characters have to be taken in wholesale. And that includes the sequel nobody begged for…to another sequel nobody begged for.
It’s hard to get a full understanding of the story without playing all of Lightning Returns, but with the release date lurching ever closer, I think there are just enough details for me to make a few claims. Obviously, all of this is going to be up for interpretation, so feel free to disagree with me. I’ll welcome dissent, even if I don’t exactly have a good counterargument. One man’s villain is another man’s hero, after all.
So let’s get started. But before I begin, let’s step back for a moment. A long moment.
(Spoilers for FFXIII and XIII-2 -- and potentially Lightning Returns -- incoming. I would probably not even read this post if I was you. Or…you know, if I was smart.)
It’s worth mentioning at this point that technically, I haven’t finished a game in this so-called Lightning Saga yet. That’s not to say that I haven’t played them -- on the contrary, I’ve done so extensively (against my better judgment, because I’m dumb). I made it to the last boss of the first game, but threw in the towel when his instant-death move randomly killed off the party leader for the twentieth time, and running back to get the one item I needed to protect myself would have not only taken time I didn’t care to spend, but would require me to once again negate a good twenty minutes of whittling down his forms’ millions of HP. I guess I made it through two-thirds of the second game, but once I realized that the number of significant events could almost be counted on one hand AND the game expected me to go on a reality-spanning fetch quest, I threw aside the controller, popped out the disc, and never played it again.
But for whatever (dumb) reason, I decided to watch whatever I couldn’t earn myself; I sat behind my brother and watched as he cleared vanilla XIII, and the two of us did our best to understand exactly what had just happened in its ending. I took to YouTube and watched -- well, mostly listened to an LP by a couple of guys named Pork Lift and Wateyad. They cleared the original game even if they’d long since stopped enjoying it, but couldn’t bring themselves to make it to XIII-2’shalfway point thanks to the “If you change the future, you change the past” line. I can’t say I blame them. So I had to switch to the LP done by Kung Fu Jesus and his posse. And for whatever (dumb) reason they decided to go for 100% completion…with their reward being Caius stating that everything they did was pointless.
It goes without saying, then, that I refused to pay good money for the DLC (or even XIII-2, given that my brother grabbed a used copy while I got the splendid Ratchet and Clank Future: Tools of Destruction). But I have seen it play out. And in a lot of ways -- almost too many to list -- it helps unravel the story, the game, and Lightning’s character even further, doing so in such a comprehensive sweep it’s almost praise-worthy. If my understanding of the DLC -- and the story at large -- is right, then it means that Lightning not only single-handedly ensured that time and space would effectively collapse, but that she would rather entomb herself instead of taking responsibility and helping out the people now doomed to suffer for ages. All because of some sort of “atonement.”
Given what I’ve said about Lightning earlier, you would think that she wouldn’t even begin to understand the concept of atonement. She certainly doesn’t understand the concept of suicide, given that she’s still alive in her crystal shell and waiting for some other god to sort things out. But the DLC shows that she’s more than willing to engage in self-punishment to make up for her past crimes. She even has a minutes-long monologue where she spins through space, lamenting what she’s done in the past and deciding that she needs to make up for it. It’s enough to shut down a huge chunk of my argument. Maybe Lightning is capable of growth and development. Maybe she sees the world in more rounded terms than just the standard black and white. Maybe she cares about Serah on a genuine level, and she actually didn’t mean to push her into the fray…twice. Maybe. Maybe.
But I doubt it. Because I don’t believe that spiel for a second.
(WARNING: The following content is extremely bland and pretentious. Viewer discretion is advised.)
Where did that characterization come from? Not from vanilla XIII, that’s for sure. One of the few -- and maybe only -- times Lightning gets slowed down and questions herself is with the previously-mentioned “we’re like pets” scene, and that that only established A) revelations only affect Lightning if they’re directly related to Lightning, and B) even a basic concept -- one triggered by the random words of a fourteen-year-old -- is enough to leave a grown woman breathlessly saying “I’ve been so blind.” The world at large and the people in it are just concepts to her, not things that need to be observed and protected. Even as a member of the Guardian Corps, I’d wager that the people she was supposed to protect and serve were only pieces of her objective. Objects, and nothing more.
Lightning doesn’t strike me as the sort of person that would suddenly have an epiphany, especially three years after the fact. It’s possible that her character development (such as it is) from soldier to goddess happened off-camera, or perhaps by gaining access to a view of all of history she could reflect on her past actions. But I have my doubts. In a lot of ways, it comes off as Squeenix deciding to saddle their golden girl with angst -- which I’d assume is the single strategy listed in their playbook as of late. It’s an insincere effort at adding depth to a character that isn’t even in five percent of a game with her face plastered on the cover; as a result, it makes the character herself seem insincere. She’s lying to us, and she’s lying to herself…and that just invites a whole new set of problems.
So here’s a question for you: what if Lightning is actually a psychopath?
Now hear me out on this. Obviously, I’m not much of an expert in the way of psychology. Throwing out a term like “psychopath” (or would it be sociopath?) and trying to ascribe it to someone without the proper steps taken seems like a quick way to invite ridicule. That said, let’s entertain the thought for a bit. Let’s pretend like all I need to make a diagnosis is reading off a list from Wikipedia. How does Lightning stack up? Well, let’s see for ourselves, based on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist.
--Glibness/superficial charm Lightning wouldn’t be on the cover of two, probably three boxes if she didn’t have that standard-fare Squeenix beauty, so it’s likely that that transfers into the game, even if it’s just a tiny bit. I wouldn’t say she’s charismatic in a conventional sense, but her tough, no-nonsense attitude has won her fans within and outside the game...even if it is less-than-ideal. Further, Robert D. Hare once said that "Psychopathic charm is not in the least shy, self-conscious, or afraid to say anything." Sound familiar?
--Grandiose sense of self-worth If we interpret Lightning’s need for survival to be a measure of how much she values her own life above others, then I’d say there’s at least a vague connection between the two. She’s right, and everyone else is wrong; she’s in the white, and those that oppose her are in the black.
--Pathological lying Thinking back to vanilla XIII, I have to wonder why, exactly, Lightning didn’t just explain to Sazh “her angle”. If she had just said “I want to save my sister”, it probably would have helped build rapport from the get-go. Indeed, Sazh notes that Lightning probably wants to be near her crystallized sister, even if the lady herself refuses to acknowledge it…meaning that she’s likely lying to herself. That sounds like a consistent part of her character, given her space-angsting in the sequel’s DLC.
--Cunning/manipulative I don’t know what Lightning did to Serah to make her cling so tightly to her ankle, but from my perspective it’s almost as if she’s conditioned her little sister to come running whenever she says her name. Then again, it could all be a part of my “Lightning altered everyone’s memories” theory, so…yeah. Not a pretty image.
--Lack of remorse or guilt Do I really need to say anything here at this point?
--Shallow affect (genuine emotion is short-lived and egocentric) According to the Saga’s masterminds, the driving force behind the sequel was the question “Is Lightning truly happy?” Said question was answered at the end of vanilla XIII, where we see Lightning make her first real smile over the course of some fifty hours at the sight of her revived sister. That’s HER revived sister, by the way. I wonder if she has any emotion to spare for the millions of people killed by the physics of Cocoon’s fall…or the incalculable number of people suffering at the malicious fingers of chaos scraping across time.
--Callousness; lack of empathy Guess I just answered my own question.
--Failure to accept responsibility for his or her own actions You know, I would have expected Hope to harp on Snow a lot, because the big guy (indirectly) caused the death of his mother. But I would have expected Lightning to refrain from joining in; instead, she’s just as quick to complain about everything he’s done wrong, even though she whacked a fal’Cie’s shell with her sword, and that probably isn’t the brightest idea she’s ever had. I suspect she’s only sorry when it involves her prized pig Serah coming in harm’s way, if that. Otherwise, she could care less about her actions. Also, she spends a bare minimum of three years in another dimension living out her Bleach fanfic without even trying to communicate with Serah, so what does that tell you?
--Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom To quote Lunar from Mischief Makers: “I live to fight! CERBERUS ALPHA!”
--Parasitic lifestyle It’s hard to say what Lightning’s living conditions are like (just how well does the life of a soldier pay? Is she living with Serah or not?), but if nothing else she needs Serah to fulfill a conceptual desire. She needs to feed off of her sister to get something that a sword fight wouldn’t allow. Even as a goddess, she has to drag Serah to her side.
--Poor behavioral control When in doubt, punch Snow! (Or alternatively, slap Fang.)
--Lack of realistic long-term goals Again, I have to ask -- what are Lightning’s hopes and dreams that are so precious to her? The story proper doesn’t have any answers, and she flat out admits several points that she doesn’t have a plan. I don’t know about you, but I would at least field an unrealistic goal. It’s better than no goal, at least.
--Impulsiveness I don’t think I need to put anything here.
--Irresponsibility …Or here.
--Juvenile delinquency. …Or -- oh wait, there’s nothing in the game to trip this one. Cool! Unless there’s a novel in Japan that mentions something, or the in-game datalogs that about eight people in the world ever bothered with. But those don’t count, so let’s move on.
--Early behavior problems Again, it’s hard to know anything conclusive here for sure. Then again, considering that she felt like she had to throw away her name, her past, and her emotions to protect Serah…
--Revocation of conditional release Doubt there’s any data here, so let’s move on.
--Criminal versatility Well, she IS a goddess now, so I’d assume that “versatility” entails the ability to super-duper destroy anything that looks at her funny.
So. Out of eighteen items, a bare-bones analysis of Lightning suggests that she trips about fifteen of them. Well, technically there are a couple of others, but given that they deal with her sexual promiscuity I think it’s safe to leave them off. (I’ll leave the imagining to the shippers around the internet.) But still, those are a lot of worrisome traits, especially when they’re back-to-back-to-back. And remember, this character is ostensibly supposed to be the games’ heroine -- the one champion who exists to evolve into an enlightened form, defeat the ultimate evils of the world, and ensure that the people can live merry lives unabated.
And had the Saga ended with the original game -- as it should have -- then it would have at least helped out the canon. I am 100% convinced that if not for Lightning, the canon would never have entered such dire straits in the first place. Arguably, there might not have been a canon, period. She may have a pretty face, but underneath that feathered hair and svelte form is the mind of a callous brute -- a brute that may very well refuse to acknowledge that she’s not as pure as she thinks she is.
And it only gets worse from here.
Here’s what I know about the story of the game so far. Centuries after the events of XIII-2, chaos has taken root in the world, and time itself has…well, let’s call it “fractured” for now. Those that were alive at the end of the game live on seemingly forever, while those that died (Serah) remain dead. But with the announcement of the world coming to an end in thirteen days, Lightning is awakened from her crystal slumber and sent in to sort it all out. Imbued with new powers by the god Bhundilv…Brunhiliv…Buns, Lightning -- now reported to be “stronger than ever” -- heads off to put an end to this mess before the mess ends her.
I could point out a number of problems based on that paragraph alone -- why does a goddess need even more power, why are there “days” if time doesn’t exist anymore, why didn’t the god Buns do something to sort the mess out from the start, or at the very least not wait half a millennia -- but again, until the game hits store shelves and I have a chance to not play it (thank you, LP Archive) it’s hard to pass judgment on an incomplete and largely-unrevealed product. What I CAN pass judgment on is this picture.
Apparently in the centuries since the start of vanilla XIII, Lightning has not only failed to learn anything, and not only completely missed the point of her plight, but is almost gleefully moving back into the same mental and emotional rut as before. Like the NES games of old, Serah is nothing more than a prize to be won, a trinket that signals a victory state in Lightning’s increasingly-warped mind. “If I save Serah, I’ll be complete again,” she might think. On the surface level, at least; in reality, her thoughts are something along the lines of “If I save Serah, I’ll be her hero.” Or “If I save Serah, I’ll have Serah by my side.”
As you can guess, I’m not wholly convinced that Lightning is quite in this for altruistic purposes. Oh, sure, she might beat the bad guy du jour (Caius? This new girl, Lumina? Etro? Hope?), but I suspect that it’ll just be something on her way to a newfound life as a super-duper goddess -- and I swear, if they go for the “I must sacrifice myself, for I am the messiah” route, I’m going to…be a little miffed. Because wouldn’t that be the perfect out for her? Rather than make up for the problems she caused, she’s going to go out in a blaze of glory, choosing to die instead of lending Serah a hand, or even entertaining the idea of life in a ruined/revived world.
But I guess it doesn’t matter. Because as far as I’m concerned, the game should be called Lightning’s Vacation: Final Fantasy XIII.
Four reasons for this one. Reason one: Lightning gets to go gallivanting across a new world with several distinct areas and styles, even though Cocoon/Pulse at large have barely been explored or defined. (Seriously, if anyone can draw me a map of two locations in Cocoon in relation to one another without just showing off a connected tube, I’ll praise them as my new lord and master.)
I have a hard time believing she has any attachment to the world she helped save, and even with this new game I suspect she doesn’t have much of an attachment to anything she might come across; even if XIII had its flaws, the fact that Vanille reacted to -- or over-reacted to -- the sights is vastly preferable to a character that just stared blankly at the million-dollar visuals. In any case, Lightning probably just needs a change of pace, even if she doesn’t necessarily have any reason to be excited about this new world as opposed to the old one.
Reason two: Lightning gets to relieve her “stress” by doing the one thing she’s always wanted: kill Snow. What sounds like the key thrust of a bad fanfic actually appears to be a plot point in this game; the two characters engage in a grudge match that has technically been one-sided since its inception. Moreover, Lightning gets to fight Noel, who doesn’t really have any reason to fight her besides some newly-minted “prophecy”, but she has every reason to fight him on the grounds that he -- and clearly not she -- was responsible for Serah’s death. And of course, Caius will probably get his turn at bat, so revenge (such as it is) can be exacted.
Lightning seems to be systematically working her way from one cast member to the next, to the point where I wouldn’t be surprised if she took a few swings at Sazh because he broke her ridiculously fragile anti-gravity device. I’d say it’s a means of catharsis, a way to strike at the only people that have even tried to matter to her; if it’s really impossible for anyone to die in this new world, then the consequences are removed…though that just means Lightning can fight and arguably torture her foes to her heart’s content. They’re battles that are meaningless, yet have a personal meaning -- now Lightning can cut at the ties at bind, severing one connection to her worthless past and more worthless friends.
Reason three (and this is a big one, given the news making the rounds): vanity. Much has been made of the staggering number of costumes revealed, no doubt with plenty more to unlock in the game proper. Admittedly, some of them do look pretty cool; others…don’t. And then you hear about Lightning getting a cat girl costume, or a bunny girl outfit, and of course the whole “bigger breasts” demand of the director. To say nothing of putting Lightning in costumes designed for characters -- Yuna and Aerith, as far as I know for now -- who are not only diametrically opposed to her in personality, but also ill-dressed to do the sorts of acrobatic moves Lightning is famous for…unless they plan to make those forms limited in movement, but that doesn’t exactly seem like a fun route for the player.
I know it’s a little futile to talk about reasonable clothing in a Final Fantasy game, but they really are an important aspect of a character. (Street Fighter’s world warriors dress the way they do for unspoken but understood reasons -- except Cammy, unless she’s just immensely proud of her backside.) I agree with the sentiment that most of the clothes Lightning decides to don don’t fit her personality -- at all -- but maybe during this little vacation she wants to be free to explore the possibilities. Maybe she wants to look good, and feel like she looks good. She’s been aware of her power for years, but now she wants to explore and accentuate her beauty -- to the point where she’d willingly do inappropriately-naughty poses. Gotta justify that grandiose sense of self-worth somehow.
Reason four is on some pretty shaky ground, but hear me out here. Get ready to cast it aside, though (much like the majority of this miniseries). Maybe Lightning’s vacation isn’t much of a vacation at all. Maybe it’s all just a dream -- she’s still in her crystal cocoon, preserving the memory of Serah and junk. And everything that happens in the game is either the product of her slumbering state, or the majority of it happens while she’s asleep, only for her to wake up at the fifteen-hour mark as per some sort of plot twist. That’s not exactly the most likely outcome, of course. Even I don’t really buy into it (since I’ve never put much stock into things like the “Alfred’s hallucination” theory of The Dark Knight Rises).
That said, it’d almost make too much sense. A grim, grisly world with the threat of death hanging over all, and the only one who can save the day from the black is the last embodiment of whiteness -- Lightning, the “warrior goddess”, doing what no one else can or will. She’s quite literally, according to trailers, taking on the title of “Savior”. Her vacation is, once again, her fantasy. A new fantasy, but one that’s in line with her desires.
There’s no telling how this story -- this Saga -- is going to end. I’d like to think that I’m patient enough and forgiving enough to give anything a fair shake. That said, I have a low tolerance for entertainment that fails to entertain, be it bland, clichéd, uninspiring, or even fundamentally broken. And indeed, this Saga is fundamentally broken to me. However it ends, there is no way it can satisfy me the way it needs to. Squeenix won’t let it. Lightning herself won’t let it. The gods are on her side, and any attempts to fix the canon are going to come off as token at best or offensive at worst.
I said earlier that I’d be mad if Lightning Returns took the heroic sacrifice route, and I meant it. Part of that is because I’ve never cared for the trope in the first place; even if we never see the outcome by way of the story ending, the threads left hanging by the now-dead hero leave tons of missed opportunities. And more often than not, it comes off as a cheap way to tell an audience “This is the ultimate hero, because he/she gave up living for the sake of others.” I don’t agree; the ultimate hero would be one that overcomes the odds without giving up their life, and make it back to repair or change the world ravaged by the baddies. But I can’t shake the feeling that that’s exactly what Lightning WON’T do at the end of this final game.
She’s never cared about her world. She’s never cared about the people in it. She’s never cared about the people around her. She’s never cared about rules, or morals, or even reason. She’s just in it for herself, and her rules. Every word that comes out of her mouth that suggests otherwise is a bold-faced lie. I know it, you know it, and she knows it. There’s no sincerity to her words, but she says them anyway.
So when she says “I might not even be human anymore”, or something to that effect in a trailer, it telegraphs one of two outcomes: A) she’s going to give up her powers at the very end to reunite with her “friends”, or B) she’s going to sacrifice herself -- either by going out in a blaze of glory, or by ascending to true godhood and separating herself from the others permanently. My money’s on B, because why would she do anything else? Why would she care about a world she tangentially acknowledges and actively wrecks? Why would she want to be remembered as anything besides “the warrior goddess who saved the world from chaos”? Why would she bother with anything beyond absolutes -- beyond her forceful defining of what’s black and what’s white? Why would she care about reality when she has her fantasy -- and a fantasy she’ll use to crush all opposition?
Why Lightning? Or to be more precise, why, Lightning?
It’s very likely that I’m wrong here. Almost a given. What I’ve put up here is little more than an interpretation of a character I’m on record of saying is the WORST character I’ve ever seen in a video game. She’s at the top of a list that includes DmC’s Donte, Birth by Sleep’s Terra, Halo’s Master Chief, and Tales of the Abyss’ Ion. (And that list is probably even longer; if I could remember a blasted thing from Gears of War besides a few “choice” cutscenes, I’d immediately add Marcus Fenix just under Tekken 6’s Lars Alexandersson. Because I really hate Lars.)
Obviously, I have some extreme bias towards Lightning and her games. Obviously. I wouldn’t have done as much ranting and raving, and even outright troublemaking -- seriously, have you seen my profile? Look at the last few lines -- if I didn’t have a massive one-sided grudge against this saga. My judgment is clouded, and I’ve likely taken some subconscious liberties; I’ve strung my words together in such a way as to put up a strong argument -- a condemnation of a character that is ultimately harmless. But I’ll be the first to acknowledge that my argument has holes, and massive ones at that. That’s precisely why I’ll welcome dissent. Prove me wrong if you so desire. As a wise man once said…
But in exchange, I want you readers -- especially you who like Lightning -- to do something for me. Whether you like the character and her saga, or whether you’ve spouted more bile than I ever could, I think we can all come to a similar conclusion. An answer to a simple question.
Couldn’t Lightning and her games have been better?
Before you answer that, think carefully about what I’ve said throughout this miniseries. Think carefully about the games. Think about your past experiences, and your current preferences -- and then watch this video. Remember these events. Remember that, as tongue-in-cheek and out-of-context as it may be, this is supposed to be a highlight reel of this character’s finest moments. This is supposed to be the person we’re rooting for, and want to succeed. This is our hero.
I don’t buy it for a second.But you know what? At the end of the day, I don’t mind playing as the villain. I think good-hearted heroes are a lot more entertaining, but I’m not opposed to taking a walk on the dark side. Marvel vs. Capcom 3 introduced me to characters like Super-Skrull and Dormammu, and now I think they’re some of the coolest guys around. Two contenders for the 2013 Game of the Year -- BioShock Infinite and The Last of Us -- effectively made players into unrepentant killing machines whose grisly acts couldn’t be justified by their cute female sidekicks. Grand Theft Auto might as well be called Terrible People Doing Terrible Things, but that’s one of the franchise’s biggest strengths. The latest game in particular establishes from the get-go that the leads will default to the least lawful option to suit their needs. And that’s fine. That honesty is refreshing.
That honesty is sorely missing from The Lightning Saga, either as a result of blind incompetence, or because of willful ignorance. “It’s a JRPG, so you have to play as the good guy,” the reasoning might go. Or “Sure, the hero does some bad things, but it’s for a good cause. The real villains are a whole lot worse, after all.” The genre itself invites slotting into certain mindsets and never getting out, but it is possible to deviate from norms. You’ve probably got a good half-dozen titles in mind by the end of this sentence. And indeed, I can think of at least a couple that defied conventions. (I’ve developed a stronger attachment to a baddie that spends most of the show as disembodied monster forearm than to ANY character in this Saga.) They were willing to be honest, and honestly explore the possibilities. The roads that lead to a satisfying end.
The Lightning Saga isn’t. The games tell us that Lightning is our hero, but the “hero” herself contradicts that with every other breath; it’s as if they tried to sell us a bowl of spinach and called it ice cream. I would have been fine with that if they had made her this sort of character on purpose -- if her faults and vices were intentionally added for the sake of calling her out (and indeed, every character in the Saga in turn), or even if they named her specifically as the villain. But they didn’t. The developers themselves firmly placed Lightning in the white, enabling her descent into the deepest, darkest black imaginable.
She’s been given the freedom to do as she pleases -- to destroy and distort the very world she was supposed to serve. A good story can’t exist without a good lead character; if said character isn’t allowed to be themselves, with the repercussions to follow and the development that stems from it, they’re hamstringing the story. And that may be the biggest crime Lightning has ever committed. That may be what makes her a true villain. She isn’t just wrecking her world. She’s wrecking her own games.
I asked earlier if Lightning and her games could have been better, but I’d like to rephrase that a bit. Any game, good or bad, could have been better. There’s no such thing as a perfect game; in the end, it all comes down to a matter of opinion. And I fully accept the opinions of others. Honestly, I WISH I could have gotten as much enjoyment out of The Lightning Saga as some of you out there. But I can’t. I can’t like the character, the canon, or the games, because I can’t turn my head without spotting a missed opportunity…either that, or an infuriatingfacet. Some may agree with me. Some don’t. No matter the opinion, a question still remains.
Couldn’t Lightning and her games have been loved by all instead of by some?
I think they could have been. They could have, once upon a time. And the fact that they aren’t -- the fact that what was once a glowing, beloved pillar of the gaming canon for so many people has turned into a mockery of its former self -- is goddamn heartbreaking.
That’s not an opinion. That’s the world we live in.
...Then again, our world's got Kamen Rider in it. So I'd say it all evens out.
If you’re just joining me here (and here’s part 1 if you missed it), let me give you a primer. In lieu of current evidence, I’m convinced that Square Enix’s beloved Lightning Farron is more than what she appears to be on the surface. Whether you’re convinced she’s a strong, cool heroine or a bland marketing tool, I have my own theory in mind. Simply put, I think this so-called “Lightning Saga” of Final Fantasy XIII games earned its name because the titular lady is actually the villain. Or if not that, then at least a villain.
It should go without saying, but die-hard fans of Lightning/FFXIIIMIGHT want to stay away from this post. Especially if you loved XIII-2. Trust me, it’ll keep your blood pressure at a stable level.
(Spoilers for FFXIII and XIII-2 incoming…and also Metal Gear Rising, tangentially. I would run now if I were you, especially if you want to see the games fresh. Especially MGR. Because it’s so friggin’ cool.)
For the four of you that are still reading this, I want to make a distinction. Yes, I think Lightning is the villain of the saga -- because if nothing else, I think my interpretation makes for a much cooler game…and would have been validated if what Squeenix tossed in was intentional. But the question is, to what extent is she a villain? It’s not as if she’s out to conquer the world. Guys like Barthandelus and Caius are doing their best to destroy the world…well, so to speak. Barthandelus wanted Cocoon to fall, but I don’t think there was ever any demand for everyone in it to die.
Theoretically, the original six party members could have called for a mass exodus of the verifiable space colony, and could have gotten help from The Cavalry or the other military officials (Rosch was only fighting to protect the people, so he might have lent a hand if he actually knew what was going on). Big Bad Bart may be the game’s main villain, but I’ve heard suggestions from the wiki and elsewhere that as a fal’Cie, he was just following orders as well. He went about it like a jerk, but there wasn’t much else he could do…well, there probably is, seeing as how the l’Cie/fal’Cie system is all predicated on nonsense, but work with me here.
Let’s assume that Bart is supposed to be a sympathetic villain, even though his in-game portrayal is anything but. If we assume that he’s only enacting his plan to fulfill his duty to a goddess, then that means he’s been stripped of his free will, no matter how much posturing he does to the contrary. The only free reign he’s given is the ability to choose exactly how he accomplishes his mission -- and given that his true form is some kind of wall/face/robot thing, I don’t think it’d be that easy for him to go gallivanting about. He pretty much has to rely on gofers to do his bidding, so the l’Cie (the party, specifically) are his only hope of getting anything done unless he wants to face the penalty of…uh…stuff.
Whatever the case, Bart’s ultimate end goal may involve the death of millions, but I’m hard-pressed to remember what exactly happens after that. There’s a mention of the destruction of Cocoon being a catalyst to bring back the fal’Cie’s “mother” or something, one of the lore’s vaguely-explained goddesses, but what happens after that is a mystery to me. (I really don’t think I need to bring up the games’ over-reliance on the Datalogs at this point; you may not need them to understand most of the plot, but at least some of the information in them HAD to be spoken at one point.) It makes me wonder if it’s one of those “divine designs”; like the saying goes, God works in mysterious ways.
So who’s to say that the destruction of Cocoon was an inherently bad thing? It was a cage that turned its people into insulated, paranoid sycophants who weren’t willing to cause trouble even in the face of obvious evidence that the system was bogus. Maybe Cocoon’s fall was supposed to be the equivalent of the biblical flood. Maybe the goddess Etro would -- as she did at the end of XIII, according to XIII-2 -- perform a miracle and save the people inside, helping not just the party, but the populace at large. I guess we’ll never know. Bart had to die because he was old and wrinkly and dressed like a pope.
You may be wondering why I’d think so hard on what seems like such a trivial matter (in which case I have to ask if you’re familiar with anything I’ve ever written). I have two reasons for that. The first is because I’m convinced that if we consider Bart to be a villain, then we must also consider Lightning -- and by association the rest of her party -- as a villain. These characters all have a Focus, a mission that they have to carry out, no matter what.
The thing is, while they have an end objective, it’s never fully made clear how they have to go about it. That’s the clincher. In the game’s early hours, the gang reasons that in order to bring down Cocoon and possibly fulfill their Focus, they have to become Ragnarok and cause a catastrophe. But Lightning also reasons that if she brings down the Sanctum, Cocoon will be kaput. She’s given the freedom to decide how exactly to go about her mission, just as long as the mission gets done. And what she chooses is to rack up a body count that the main villain of the story doesn’t even begin to reach.
It’s not just a matter of gameplay and story segregation. Remember, this is a character that we’re introduced to in the midst of a train assault, trying to save a sister that’s only in danger because “our hero” told her to shove off. (Bonus points for said sister not even being on the train, and unless it was done off-camera Lightning didn’t even bother to look at any of the passengers…but Sazh did). It seems as if Lightning will default to the most violent path, even if it’s completely unnecessary, or especially if it’s stupid; you could say that it’s just a result of Squeenix trying to make her look cool, but that only contributes to the nature of the character.
As a soldier I’d expect Lightning to think of fighting as an option; as a member of a band of peacekeepers, I’d expect Lightning to show a bit of restraint. Reason. Reluctance to use force unless absolutely necessary, and rationality to understand who her sword is hurtling towards. Then again, that would require Lightning to have something beyond a black-and-white view of the world hardwired into her brain, to the point where someone we’d expect to be smart leads the charge against the final boss…the final boss the group had explicitly decided NOT to kill unless they wanted Cocoon to fall.
But hey, maybe I’m being too harsh. Maybe my bias is seeping into my reason. Maybe I’m just going out of my way to ensure that anyone who reads this walks away thinking, “Wow, maybe Lightning isn’t as cool as I thought.” Maybe. Maybe.
I could be wrong. But I could be right. And you want to know why I think that? Easy. Remember how I said I had two reasons for dwelling on such a trivial matter?
This is the second.
Let’s start off with a quick primer for the story. Three years have passed since the events of vanilla XIII, but things didn’t end quite as well as one would have hoped. For one thing, Lightning’s reunion with her younger sister Serah apparently never happened; according to everyone but Serah, the soldier sacrificed herself along with Fang and Vanille to keep Cocoon up in the air, held in place by a crystal casing (which probably wouldn’t have happened if they had not decided to kill Orphan, but whatever).
The game proper starts with a raid on Serah’s beachside hamlet of New Bodhum, with monsters from across the ages leaping out for a chance to cause some chaos. Thankfully, newcomer Noel appears and gives Serah a weapon, and shortly thereafter gives her a message: Lightning is alive -- and empowered into, according to the manual, something like a goddess -- and fighting off the villainous Caius in another time and place. The thing is, Lightning tells Noel to bring Serah to her, presumably because she has some kind of power that’ll turn the tide of the fight. And so begins Serah and Noel’s excellent adventure to reunite the Farron sisters.
IT’S NOT WORTH IT.
…In my humble opinion, of course.
I can -- and effectively did -- write a novella's worth of posts about all the things XIII-2 gets wrong, but for now let’s focus more on Lightning. The original game showed us what Lightning would do if she was pushed into a corner, figuratively speaking, and showed how she’d handle a mission if all she had to go on was an end goal. She was trapped, but at the same time she had some semblance of free reign. With that in mind, consider XIII-2. Consider that in this game, Lightning’s free reign -- outside of the beckoning of the goddess -- is boundless. She’s a goddess in her own right now, and while she’s apparently something of a bodyguard to Etro, she’s been given enough trust and leeway to do what she thinks is right (possibly because Etro is MIA at best, but the point still stands). What does she do with her newfound power? Well, the game starts with a twenty-minute long sequence where Lightning fights Caius, but seeing as how that reminds me too much of Advent Children, let’s set that aside.
No one can talk about XIII-2 without making the “Lightning is only in the game for ten minutes” observation, so I guess I have to bring it up too…BUT I have to make a distinction. Lightning probably appears for forty minutes in the game tops -- outside of the DLC, and outside of flashbacks -- in what’s probably a twenty-five to thirty-hour game. That’s not particularly substantial, I know. But the devs compensated for that. Over-compensated, in fact. Even in a game where Lightning is a physical presence for a thirtieth of the time (making sure to sound as if she’s just woken up from a particularly heavy nap to sleep off a sore throat), she is still the main character. It’s a feat that can only be accomplished by making her the subject of every other conversation, making her the sole focus of Serah’s life and character, and doing a little bit of revisionist history to ensure that Lightning is seen as nothing but the perfect sister. You know, in spite of this being a thing that happened.
An afro-head never forgets.
Serah is never allowed to be the character she could have been because of Lightning. Her entire world revolves around her older sister, to the point where it’s almost…scratch that, IS kind of creepy. The first words we hear from Serah in the entire game are “Lightning, where are you?” Said words follow immediately after she has a dream about Lightning. When the New Bodhum raid starts, Serah ends up cowering in fear and shouting “Lightning, help me!” She practically turns hyperkinetic whenever someone mentions something even tangentially connected to Lightning. One of the first key items Serah has to track down is Lightning’s knife.
Nearly every major story event (and more often than not, the cutscenes in between) concludes with Serah sending the mental equivalent of a pen pal letter to Lightning. I could make a pretty strong argument that Serah’s life ends up hollowed out -- if not shut down completely -- because Lightning isn’t in her life. Even her character development -- such as it is -- basically boils down to “be more like Lightning”, which is something Noel praises her for when she spazzes out in a subplot so grating it makes my brain cells something something somethgckhgrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr sauerkraut.
So much time is devoted to making sure Lightning is a presence in the game, and it’s not just from Serah. One of the (only named) NPCs from the original game shouts “Lightning can’t protect you anymore!” even though Lightning protecting or even being kind to Serah is never seen onscreen, save for the very last cutscene of the original game where they hug. Snow ditches Serah -- his fiancée -- to go on a quest to find Lightning as a gesture of love for his girl, but inadvertently enabling her dependency. Hope has nothing but kind words for Lightning even though she pushed him into the murder-is-the-best-option “Operation Nora.” Noel’s spent about ten minutes with Lightning, but he’s in absolute awe of her from then on. Even Caius is willing to sing praises.
Again, it’s easy to say Squeenix Task Force X did a…problematic job with the game’s story. And that’s likely the case. But I prefer to treat the creator’s sins and the creation’s sins as entirely different entities. The story can tell us more about the story than the devs ever could. Given that, I have a theory in mind. A question, to be more specific. The game retcons the ending of vanilla XIII to erase its happy ending, and set the events of XIII-2into motion. But what if there were more things changed than just the ending of that game? What if someone went out of her way to change the world to suit her needs?
What if Lightning altered everyone’s memories?
That sounds like a big leap in logic, but hear me out. We’re never given a full-on explanation of the extent of Lightning’s powers, either through a physical demonstration or (less preferably) a lengthy info dump. What we know for sure is that she can summon swords in a flush of feathers, can summon Eidolons by the hundreds to act on her behalf, can fire off high-end magic at will, can protect and heal herself if she gets so much as a scratch, can leap incredible distances to the point where she’s effectively flying, and can create…a Moogle that can turn into a bow, because of course she can.
That aside, it’s explained -- in the manual, IIRC -- that Lightning has the power to see all of time and all of history, meaning that she has a full-on view of Serah’s activity at any given moment, even if she can’t directly communicate with her. (Let’s set aside the creepiness factor, because it’s the only way I’ll sleep tonight.) And of course, the implication here is that Lightning is effectively immortal, both gameplay-wise and story-wise.
Lightning is something at or very near all-powerful in XIII-2. It’s hard to know for sure what exactly her limits are, given that the DLC shows her crystallizing herself in a moment of “crisis”. She’s certainly not very good at applying her powers effectively, considering that the entire journey of the game could have started and ended in half an hour (or less) thanks to any number of moves on her part…but then again, my theory suggests that Lightning’s just a good-looking brute, so if nothing else it’s consistent. But when she does decide to use her powers well, she makes waves.
According to Lightning -- which we have to believe, otherwise there would be no game -- she needs Serah to come to Valhalla to do something important, because “she no longer can”. Presumably, she needs Serah to save the timeline. Why she would ask for Serah and ONLY Serah when she has at least three other well-trained party members to call upon is a mystery…that is, unless you consider her intention deeply. For all intents and purposes, in this new timeline Lightning is effectively dead. She’s gone. The only thing people have left of her is their memories -- and I’d wager that most of those aren’t exactly peachy-keen. But the way everyone talks about her in-game, it’s as if Lightning was nothing short of a saint. Serah, especially. For obvious reasons.
So let’s see if I can construct a good scenario...with the proper thinking music, of course.
After the true events of the end of XIII, Etro -- in accordance with XIII-2’s canon -- pulls Lightning to Valhalla and imbues her with the power of a goddess to fight on her behalf. This change in the timeline leads to everyone except Serah thinking that, instead of Lightning reuniting with her sister and giving her a hug in the midst of a well-earned sunrise, she sacrificed herself to support the crystal pillar holding up Cocoon. Martyrdom, in every sense of the word.
Etro pulled Lightning into Valhalla, but other than giving her a loosely-defined mission of protecting her (or standing watch over her throne, or something) Lightning had free reign to do whatever she wanted -- and as a full-on goddess, Etro had no reason to concern herself with the emotional distress of mere mortals. So to compensate, Lightning filled in the blanks. She created a new history -- or to be more precise, the perception of a new history in the minds of those “dearest” to her.
However, there was a secret consequence to her actions. Lightning’s interference (and likely Etro’s as well) created distortions in the current timeline. Her rewriting of the memories of others created clashes in the chronological flow -- errors, of a sort. Paradoxes -- the conflicts in history that could only be resolved by attending to and/or removing objects that didn’t belong in that era. Indeed, a number of the game’s paradoxes seem to involve or end up drawing the attention of The Lightning Saga’s cast. Sazh gets randomly pulled into another dimension. Snow gets warped into a lush jungle to fight a gooey beast. Hope may or may not have created one of his own as a result of his organization’s research, which is a focal point of enemy attacks in itself. It seems as if wherever Serah goes, paradoxes are sure to follow -- almost as if they’re tracking her. Or rather, her presence and travels ensure that more paradoxes are going to be created.
I can hazard a guess as to why. Lightning’s interference turned Serah into a paradox -- or more specifically, a catalyst for paradoxes. The paradox is supposed to be an impossibility in the timeline, an element or event that shouldn’t exist in a specific era. By that logic, Serah’s enchantment -- heavier than anyone else in the cast, without a doubt --practically made her radioactive, so much so that she became an ill-fitting element in any era she went to. The only place she belonged to from then on was by Lightning’s side, in accordance with the newly-minted goddess’ command. Exactly as planned.
You would think that Lightning would have called Serah to Valhalla (in the most circuitous path possible) for a reason. You know, the untrained, unconfident little sister whose biggest contribution to the fight against the fal’Cie was being encased in crystal. But that’s not the case. It looks like Serah will be useful, given that she has the power to summon monsters and has some kind of MacGuffin vision. All things considered, though, Serah isn’t worth very much besides being the player character. Everything she can do, Lightning can do better. Serah can call out one monster at a time; Lightning can build an army of a good thousand Eidolons. Serah can kinda-sorta see through time; Lightning can perfectly see all of history. Serah learns how to use a Moogle that turns into a bow that turns into a sword; Lightning is an immortal engine of destruction.
The plot seems to push the idea that Serah can do something Lightning can’t -- if not in terms of raw ability, then just by being a substitute -- but it just doesn’t come to pass. If anything, Serah and Noel’s excellent adventure ends up creating the exact circumstances Caius needs to win. And by association, that means that Lightning created the exact circumstances Caius needs to win; you’d think she would have known better, given the whole “I can see all of history” angle, but here we are.
It’s the sort of thing that enrages me to this day, knowing that the entire plot was built around a story that was ultimately pointless (in more ways than one, but there’s not enough space to explain here), but in hindsight I can think of two possible reasons why it played out the way it did, and both of them are centered on Lightning. The first possibility is that Lightning wanted to create “the best possible future”, knowing full well that no matter what Caius did, he’d win. Said possible future apparently entails the very concept of time crumbling to bits, Serah dead and gone, and chaos unleashed upon reality itself to cause untold amounts of death and destruction. Because that’s what I’d call a win.
The second -- and in my opinion, more likely -- possibility is that this was an outcome Lightning wanted. That is, she saw the possibilities, knew what would lead to destruction, and pushed for it anyway. She wanted Serah beside her at all costs, and was willing to jeopardize (if not sacrifice) everything and everyone just to suit her whims.
Move over, Captain America. We've got a much better hero than you.
In the original game, we saw what happened when Lightning was made into a slave of the gods. And now we have a full view of what happens when Lightning becomes a god. When she gains all the power she could ever need, with the freedom to wield it on a whim, we see what she does with it. Even if there’s no evidence to support her tampering with the memories of others, she still willingly brings Serah into the danger zone, knowing full well that she’s not ready to face anything beyond the walls of her house. And why? So Serah can act as her proxy, doing things that Lightning can’t?
No. if Lightning needed something done, she could have just sent an Eidolon into a different era to do what needed to be done; if she can summon an army, she should be able to use that army as needed -- not just to make a cutscene look cool. I’m not even wholly convinced that Lightning had to stay in Valhalla for any reason, given that A) if Caius wanted to kill Etro, he could have just turned into a dragon and blown up her throne from afar, and B) the only reason Lightning is unable to go on an adventure, as far as I can tell, is because she ends up getting sad and imprisons herself in crystal. (I’ll have to come back to this next time, so look forward to some of those shenanigans.) Also, would anyone like to explain why going into the past is such a big no-no in this game? Chrono Trigger didn’t have any problems, and its only fault was BEING AMAZING.
It really says a lot about a character when I have trouble seeing how they’re any better than the villain. I honestly can’t decide who’s worse in this game -- Caius, a warrior made immortal by a goddess who wants to destroy the world so he can kinda-sorta save his precious little girl friend (note the tactical spacing there), or Lightning, a warrior made immortal by the goddess who wants to destroy the world so she can…ummmm…what IS Lightning’s plan here, exactly? Preferably one that doesn’t need an additional game to provide a resolution?
Oh wait. I know. This is exactly what Lightning wanted all along. As I said before, Lightning is a person that deals with concepts and simple-minded duality -- black and white -- instead of seeing the multifaceted nature of her world or ours. She wants the concept of Serah by her side, not Serah herself (doubly so considering that her actions lead to Serah dying). Meanwhile, she wants the concept of Lightning, the perfect soldier, to take root in the minds of all that would know her name.
She wants them to consider her as the embodiment of justice and courage -- the purest form of white that their world could ever know. But in spite of all her fighting prowess, whether it’s before she became a goddess or afterward, she can’t win the one battle that matters most. If for any reason her worldview -- her desire -- is challenged, she’ll lash out at it. She won’t strive to prove her case, and offer up a viable answer. She’ll either lock it out, or campaign to destroy it -- because in the end, that’s all she really knows how to do. Be in the white, and destroy the black.
Caius barely even registers as a threat in his game of origin. It’s the same deal as with Kingdom Hearts II; ostensibly, that game is supposed to be about Sora versus Organization XIII, but outside of the first three hours, the last three hours, and a few cutscenes/boss fights in between, they’ve got very little to do with the actual plot. Most of them aren’t even set up properly; of the seven members that appear in the game, about half of them aren’t properly set up, and the last level crams in boss fights against four of them. (I don’t even think some of them are properly named in the game.)
I would say that Caius fares a little better, but like Organization XIII he’s criminally underused. His past is never fully expounded upon in the game -- and by “game” I mean audiovisual medium where it’d be a perfect chance to see him in action -- meaning that most of what we know about him is hearsay…and maybe not even that, considering that I probably know stuff about him because I checked the wiki. What I know for sure about Caius is that he’s immortal, he’s got lots of powers, he’s a friend of Yeul’s and Noel’s, and he wants to destroy time to save Yeul, which is certain to be beneficial to her and be something she wants because…uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…
It is a strange day indeed when the villain of a 2012, dead-serious, multi-million dollar production has a plan that’s dumber than something from Invader Zim -- a show that was SUPPOSED to have dumb plans.
If you know how Caius’ plan was supposed to work -- or how Yeul was any more than a walking plot device tailor-made to fish for player sympathy -- then by all means, enlighten me. Until then, I’m content with treating Caius as little more than what he really is: a concept. He’s the idea of being a powerful, unstoppable villain without really being much of a villain. He’s inactive for huge swaths of time; his major battles are at the start of the game against Lightning (which doesn’t count, seeing as how they’re both immortal and thus lacking in stakes and tension), somewhere in the first third of the game against Serah and Noel, and the endgame.
An entire subplot sees our heroes chasing after a digital copy of Caius instead of the real deal, wasting hours upon hours of play time instead of advancing the plot. There’s nothing for a player to sink his/her teeth into besides a sample of what could have been. And that really is a shame, because -- like the Saga in general -- Caius could have been so much more. As-is, he’s just a half-formed idea…and that’s exactly how Lightning wants it.
I’m not so presumptuous as to suggest that Lightning created Caius and his circumstances of immortality, because (apparently) that was more of a result of the goddess Etro’s boneheaded decision-making. But the existence of this man puts Lightning in just the place she wants to be. “This man wants to destroy the world, and so I must stop him.” A viable thought process, but I don’t think it’s quite what Lightning has in mind. I’d wager it’s something like “This man is as strong as me, so I can fight him.” And she does fight him -- for how long, it’s hard to say. A conservative estimate would put it at three years, minimum. But then again, isn’t a three-year period of fighting a fight with no gains or losses, condemned to a life of immortality alone in a nigh-colorless wasteland the very worst sort of torture? It would be for any normal person. But not Lightning.
If not for Caius living on in the game’s secret ending and his appearance in Lightning Returns, I would say that Caius wants nothing more than to die. And whether she wants it or not, he wants Yeul to die. Death will release them from their suffering, as the final and most thorough option -- even if it kills everyone else in the process. (It doesn’t, but LR is going to have to explain the full effects.) Caius is a villain, almost undeniably, but his entire goal revolves around suicide. He’s looking for death, while Lightning -- as you’d expect of a “hero” -- is fighting for life. Her life. She would gladly deny Caius -- a famed soldier and veteran recognized by the goddess herself for his service -- the death he wants, just so they can whack each other for centuries.
I have an extremely hard time believing that she’s fighting for anyone’s sake but her own. The game revolves almost single-mindedly around (poorly-explained) time travel, and yet the mere thought of sending herself or an Eidolon back to the past to stop Caius and Yeul from becoming immortal in the first place never occurs to her in spite of being able to see all of time. Or rather, it DID occur to her, but she willingly decided against it. She knew that if history progressed as intended, she’d get to have the bishonen equivalent of a sandbag to wail on to her heart’s content, with the justification to do so under the pretense that “it’ll save the world.” And indeed, she probably would have had her plans go just as she hoped if not for Caius deciding to bail and enact his own plans. Or…have a past version of himself enact a plan. Or…I don’t know, thinking about it makes my head hurt.
The only thing that can stop Lightning at this point (besides terrible writing) is Lightning herself. And that’s precisely why becoming a goddess and lording over an empty world -- either before Caius’ victory, or afterward -- is so ideal to her. Before her loss, she’s free to fight every day and every night to her heart’s content, swinging around powers beyond human comprehension against a foe that is quite literally in the black…and a foe that is just as powerful, and just as immortal as she is. She’s content with fighting a fight that never ends, making no gains and no losses, because it’s in her self-ordained programming.
And when it’s time for her to lose, she’s all right with it; in fact, she willingly gives up just so she can become an idealized form of herself, and during her slumber can keep an idealized version of Serah alive for all eternity, rather than a REAL Serah with her own aspirations and opinions. She doesn’t want to save the world. She wants to preserve her own -- to live in a created space where she’s free to embrace her desires without a single thought to challenge her.
Lightning only wants one thing: her final fantasy. And she gets it.
…You know what? I think I was wrong. Yeah. I’m totally wrong here. Sorry, but I guess this entire miniseries has been invalidated -- proven wrong by my own hand. It’s shameful, I know, but I guess I should admit to it sooner rather than later. Lightning, sorry about all this. You’re no villain.
And so ends part two. Hope you check back next time -- because even with Lightning Returns still a ways off, I think there’s enough evidence to prove myself once and for all, and come to the ultimate conclusion.
Tune in next time. I’m gonna bring this fight to an end.
I have a sneaking suspicion that it was (the great) Jim Sterling’s review of Final Fantasy XIII that led me to discover Destructoid one fateful day. In a universe where eights, nines, and the occasional perfect score orbited the game like Saturn’s rings, that one glorious 4.0 shone brighter than the sun, and to this day stands as proof -- a totem of fans’ and gamers’ outrage. That game has come and gone, and for those who felt wronged, there have been plenty of titles that have helped heal the wound. But with the third game in this saga looming large on the horizon and Square-Enix in dire straits -- and news of Lightning getting a bunny suit, because of course she gets a bunny suit -- I think it’s time for me to make an assertion I’ve had in mind for a while.
That famous review started with this line: “If you're a hardcore Final Fantasy XIII fan, prone to emotional outbursts and so defensive of Square Enix's latest effort that you'll get upset by harsh criticism, then you're advised to not read this review.” The same applies here...to some extent, at least, considering that this isn’t a review. In fact, you can almost consider this a refutation.
One thing that (the great) Jim Sterling has asserted a few times in the past -- like right here -- is that Lightning has no personality. That’s a point I can’t quite bring myself to agree with. I understand what he’s getting at, yes, and it’s a valid interpretation, sure…but I have a different one in mind. I’ve made it no secret that I consider Lightning to be the worst character I’ve ever encountered in anything, but even with my bias I say Lightning DOES have a personality. It’s just that it’s so terrible, it pins her as the villain of her games.
I'm a firm believer in -- oh wait, hold on.
(Spoilers for FFXIII and XIII-2 incoming. You’d best bail now if you want to see the games fresh. Also? You probably shouldn’t take this thing too seriously, seeing as how the last time I proposed a theory I suggested a certain princess was some blood-thirsty demigoddess. Just being honest here.)
I’m a firm believer in the idea that a strong cast is one of, if not THE most important part of a story, video game or not. I’ve even said that if the main character of a story is bad, the story is bad. No exceptions. That’s part of the reason why I disliked DmC as much as I did -- because even at the endgame, I felt like Dante was still a huffy, short-sighted tough guy…maybe less so than at the start of his game, but the circumstances of the ending only highlighted how out of his element he was for everything to come.
Meanwhile, Metal Gear Rising gave me a Raiden I wasn’t expecting to like, but ended up gleefully following on his road to revengeance, getting new insights and new depth from a grown man wearing metal bikini bottoms. It’s almost sad that the game that should have been smart ended up stupid, while the game that could have been stupid ended up smart. In my humble opinion, of course.
In any case, what’s important to note is that a main character defines a story. With his/her actions, ideas, and development, the story at large takes shape around them. How do they interact with others? How do they change the world around them? How do they solidify and spread their ideals? All questions that a good story should have answered -- with overwhelming evidence -- by the endgame.
Even if vanilla XIII put on airs of an ensemble cast where no one character was more important than the other, it seems obvious to me that Lightning always was and always will be the star of this subseries…which, you know, has been retroactively called “The Lightning Saga”. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that in order for the games to even approach being good -- which in this case I’ll call “universally enjoyed”, a task that isn’t as impossible as it sounds given other games elsewhere -- Lightning has to make a strong argument for herself, for her world, and her saga.
…In my humble opinion, of course.
In a nutshell, vanilla XIII’s story pins Lightning and company as fugitives on the run. After a riot to save her little sister Serah goes awry, Lightning and the party are branded as l’Cie -- slaves of the gods -- by fal’Cie -- the biomechanical might-as-well-be gods in question -- to do their bidding, and are given the magical power to do so. But since being a l’Cie in their canon is a big no-no, the military hunts them from one corner of their cushy paradise Cocoon to the next. The gang ends up discovering the true nature of their mission and the machinations of the fal’Cie (to bring Cocoon hurtling to the ground, killing everyone in it), so they decide to take a stand. So they march on to the capital, they fight some, stuff…happens, and the day is saved. Lightning gets reunited with her sister, and all is well. At least until XIII-2, but we’ll get to that.
If you ask me, one of the notable facets (and greatest vices) of Lightning’s character is her relationship with power. Think about it -- her backstory paints her as a highly-trained, highly-skilled soldier who specializes in and is rewarded -- mentally and emotionally as well as organizationally -- for murder. Prior to the start of the game, she’s given more than enough reason to see the world in black and white. She’s a soldier, so she fights criminals and monsters. And she’s pretty good at it. Probably.
That’s not only her mindset, but the very concept her life and livelihood are based on. The idea is supposed to be that Pulse -- the world outside Cocoon’s borders -- is full of schemers and malcontents looking to disturb the peace, so if they were to launch an invasion, Lightning would have every right to crush them under holy orders. (It certainly helps that there’s been propaganda against Pulse for who knows how long, brainwashing the populace.) Lightning herself admits in one cutscene that “she didn’t want to think” and one of her battle quotes is “target’s a target”. All she needs is an enemy, the black to her white, and she’ll strike them down. No questions asked.
Now here’s a question that I have to ask -- not just Square-Enix, but to anyone who has a commanding understanding of the canon. What is the difference between Lightning with l’Cie powers and Lightning without l’Cie powers? The implication is supposed to be that a l’Cie is several times more powerful than the average human, and not just because he/she can use magic (especially since the soldiers you fight use magic anyway via portable containers and grenades). But at the start of the game, Lightning is capable of moving at near-superhuman speed, shooting a machine gun one-handed with pinpoint accuracy whether she’s upside-down or not, and drop-kicking grunts across a train car.
That all happens in the opening cutscene; when she’s out of the opening cutscene, the first thing she does is take on a laser-blasting mech with a sword and back flips. It’s arguable that being a l’Cie is supposed to remove the limiters on a person’s body, letting their potential climb to infinity -- even though there’s not much reason for a fal’Cie to let its gofer gain enough power to destroy it in an act of rebellion -- but that just highlights the problem.
In a cutscene a little later, Lightning slides around a soldier and hits him with a Tekken-style combo before he can even hit the ground. Where do you go from there? Well, you could give her an Eidolon, but what good would that do? Give her free reign to stomp down on a race track she didn’t even need to visit and murder everyone that looks at her funny?
Like any RPG, the gameplay makes a character’s growth a key part of the experience (you can’t clear the adventure without getting that sweet, sweet EXP). The problem is that story-wise, there’s nothing to make that growth -- that need for growth -- ring true for Lightning. She’s already right where she needs to be but gets stronger regardless, and doesn’t face the struggles needed to understand the purpose of that power.
She doesn’t get the challenge she needs to spark her character development; there’s no rival character that serves her a barrel’s worth of humble pie, and while there is a dedicated antagonist, he doesn’t show up for what has to be nearly two dozen hours. (The whole game is reluctant to give its cast dedicated antagonists or rivals; there was setup to give Sazh one in Jihl, but she got axed without fanfare because reasons.) The external force pushing Lightning to change and evolve is a tangential one, not a perceivable one; there needed to be a face and a name to push her farther -- and push her down -- but even with the villain’s reveal it doesn’t amount to nearly as much as it could have. Because of it, Lightning’s development is stunted…in my humble opinion, of course.
That all said, it’s not necessarily a game-breaker to lack those elements. It just means that the other elements have to work that much harder -- the internal struggles and realizations that Lightning comes to could compensate several times over. Or should I say, they could have compensated, but didn’t. Lightning’s black-white vision remains ironclad throughout the game, with the key change being who she considers in the white and who she considers in the black.
Her rigid definitions put every character that doesn’t agree with her in the black, no matter how good their intentions are (Snow), how justified they are (the soldiers), or even how inconsequential they are to Lightning’s ultimate goal (every other party member prior to roughly the start of the game’s second half). She has no attachment to anyone in the black -- i.e. her party, with the debatable exception of Hope -- until the plot arbitrarily decides to make her attached to the others even though she spent huge swaths of time separated from them, ensuring that her black-white worldview remains unchallenged and sacred. In fact, one of Lightning’s key character-development scenes was triggered by Hope on accident, in a scene that completely defies my faith in humanity to this day.
I could point out the problems with that one cutscene and everything leading up to it for a solid hour, but I haven’t even gotten to XIII-2yet, so let’s move on. To make a long, dumb story short, prior to that cutscene Lightning is 100% okay with killing off everyone in Cocoon -- or if not the people, then the government who in turn maintain the peace and safety of the people -- as per the fal’Cie’s wishes; humanity has been moved into the black thanks to one simple order. She argues that her hopes and dreams have been stolen away from her, but what those entail is never established in the game proper, even in the flashbacks.
Does she want to become the greatest soldier ever? Does she want to retire to the countryside? Does she want to take up pottery, the noblest of all pursuits? There’s no telling, so all that’s left is conjecture. So, based on her status in the military and what we know of her goals story-wise, the only things we can be sure of are A) she wants to survive, B) she wants to crush her enemies -- those in the black -- and C) she wants Serah by her side. And it’s that last point that pushes Lightning even further into the role of the villain.
With the exception of a superior officer who shows up in one, maybe two cutscenes, the only person we can fully ascertain to be in the white -- besides Lightning herself -- is her younger sister Serah. Fair enough. But again, what’s established about Lightning in the game doesn’t paint her as a stable or even intelligent character, much less a nurturing older sister.
This is a character that thinks she needs to “forget her past” because reasons, takes on a name that she thinks symbolizes pure destruction (even though lightning -- or electricity, if you prefer -- is kind of important), and complains about Snow just as much as the fourteen-year-old chained to her leg. I know people give Snow a lot of flak, and he’s not exactly peachy-keen either, but at least he had some semblance of a goal in mind from the get-go. At least he worked toward it in his own, stupid way. At least he didn’t win several Darwin Awards at once with this cutscene…in my humble opinion, of course.
It would be easy -- too easy -- to call Lightning bland and leave it at that. Viable, but easy. Cut just a little bit deeper and you find further layers to this character. Her behavior and reasoning don’t seem that much more evolved than a sixth-grader; she’s petulant, thoughtless, selfish, and outright eager to ram her gunblade down the throat of decency or common sense. Serah had no reason to lie to Lightning -- and likely couldn’t, considering the nature of the l’Cie brand -- and yet the pink-haired powerhouse decides it’s a good idea to outright reject Serah in her time of need because…say it with me now…reasons. So you could probably add “dumb” to the list of character traits, or even “brutish” when you remember that the answer to most of her problems is to aggressively attack anyone or anything that disagrees with her.
But I’d like to take it a step further. Lightning’s black and white world is one of concepts. Of absolute ideas. If this character does this, then they’re in the black and must be rejected -- or if not that, then destroyed. If this character does that, then they’re in the white and must be protected (alongside Lightning) and their whims attended to. Lightning reasons that the fal’Cie made her a l’Cie to bring about the destruction of Cocoon, and because of those holy orders from a higher power she has every reason to move what should be a reluctant partner at best into something to be revered and protected.
For the longest time, that divinity is something she doesn’t bother to question until it’s time to flip-flop and play hero, as one would expect from a Final Fantasy lead. Compare that to Serah; she has a more mundane presence and a more mundane understanding of life -- one that might as well be alien to her older sister. As long as Serah performs actions that please Lightning, she’ll remain in her white. But if she dissents -- if she, for example, decides to marry Snow -- then Lightning will go out of her way to reject her, even if it means leaping over every logical barrier to do so. She’s now in the black. And part of me wonders if the only reason Lightning didn’t attack her was because of the plot…and the whole sisterhood thing, but mostly the plot.
Thankfully Lightning realizes the error of her ways -- even though that conflict shouldn’t have been there in the first place -- but the damage has been done. If not for that act, it’s very possible that the plot of vanilla XIII as we know it wouldn’t have happened. The fal’Cie could have roped in some new candidates for the plan, yes (although that’s not quite as likely, given that it’d mean another half-dozen band of idiots would have to get in close contact with a biomechanical god), but the main cast would have been dropped. Serah is the instigator of Lightning’s venture and Snow’s venture, and the other characters have their lives impacted by her presence to a lesser extent. But by and large, what’s happened is mostly Lightning’s fault because she provoked Serah to run in the first place. Her act of rejection pushed Serah, the one person she’s supposed to protect, in harm’s way. And given how she acts about her throughout almost the entirety of the game after that, I wonder if she’s even all that hung up about it.
Serah gets turned into a crystal statue and appears primarily in flashbacks to flesh her out. It’s suggested that by becoming a crystal, she’s effectively become immortal -- and given a fate worse than death, arguably -- but I have a hunch that this is exactly the way Lightning wants it. Think about it. Serah can no longer talk, which means she can no longer talk back. She can’t progress any further in her life, and remains stuck in stasis precisely as Lightning remembers her -- a perfect embodiment of beauty, innocence, and purity.
She has ceased being human, and has become a concept. She is at once the ultimate embodiment of Lightning’s white, and a release from it; with no one to protect but her own life and self-interests, Lightning is free to cut loose and destroy to her heart’s content. She’s free to fight and to destroy, cutting down anything and anyone that doesn’t agree with her. Lightning is the world’s only source of white -- and everything else is jet black.
You could make the argument that “she gets better” over the course of the game because of the JRPG trappings. Given her archetype and the structure of the plot, you could say that A) Lightning’s heart grows three sizes and she realizes how crazy she’s been, B) there’s a bigger enemy and catastrophe that need to be stopped, and C) she has the power to find new dreams if she fights on and believes in miracles. But for me, none of those ring true. I don’t think Lightning has a single meaningful moment with any NPCs besides Hope’s dad (if that), meaning that if she was supposed to realize and stand up for humanity’s potential, she has no basis for it besides hearsay.
Setting aside the fact that she was willing to spark a catastrophe in the game’s earlier hours, the antagonist that ultimately appears is as stock a villain as they come, negating the impact and merit of both the characters and the story. And even in the later goings of the game, Lightning at best comes off as someone begrudgingly tolerating the characters and events around her…between bad one-liners, of course. I would sooner expect to hear Vanille or Snow (or Kamina) talking about fighting to make the impossible possible, making her mentions of anything besides the mission at hand jarring. On the other hand, reminders of Gurren Lagann are always appreciable.
Now let’s get serious for a moment. There’s something that’s been on my mind for a while when it comes to XIII’s story, but it revolves around a tricky subject matter. I’m going to try and be delicate here, but it’s not something I or likely anyone can talk about comfortably. So fair warning: if you’re the type who gets easily bothered by difficult topics, you might want to consider leaving now. Go listen to…I don’t know, The Lion King soundtrack or something. All right? All right.
Personally, I think suicide is a concept that XIII needed to tackle. Sazh actually does look like he’s going to go through with it at one point, but the scene’s impact is immediately diffused by the fact that he just got his Eidolon and there are still several dozen hours left in the game by that point (and the notion that “shooting himself in the head” is apparently a bloodless affair). If the game actually had bothered to bring up the concept seriously -- which it could have, considering how seriously it takes itself -- it would have turned the histrionics into something meaningful. Something weighty.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the l’Cie/fal’Cie system is completely bogus. The masters give their gofers tasks that could very well be impossible to have done, accomplishing nothing. Meanwhile, the gofers either complete their mission and turn into crystal sculptures, or fail their mission and turn into shambling rock-zombies. There’s no incentive for them to clear the mission if both roads lead to death…so why even bother? If neither option leads to a happy ending, then why not take a third and final option?
The system seems to have a mechanism like that built into it. It’s explained that the Eidolons are the judges of their summoner’s will; if/when they face their darkest hour, an Eidolon will appear to fight them. If the gofer beats them, the beast’s power becomes theirs. If the gofer loses, they’re dead. So when Sazh thinks he’s lost his son, he’s lost all hope -- that is, until his Eidolon shows up and he shoots it into submission.
Each Eidolon fight is supposed to signal a key point in each character’s arc, but I’m hard-pressed to understand the reason why some of the beasts descend when they do, let alone their impact. Snow’s just appears when he’s tired and surrounded by grunts, and I sincerely doubt he even understood what the fight was supposed to mean at the time (and I doubt the player did, either). There are ways to make a heavy topic like suicide or other internal conflicts into physical threats -- Persona 4 was built on them -- but for a game like XIII, they needed to make the discussion overt instead of...
As fugitives tasked with destroying what amounts to the majority of the world with (at first) no hope of escaping their fate, the issue could have been a real proving ground for each character. If faced with the choice of completing a mission at the cost of your life and the lives of millions of others, or the choice of purposely failing a mission to live out your life as a horrible monster, OR the choice of dying with what remains of your dignity and all of your sanity, what would choose? Is the greater good worth more than your life, especially if your life is forfeit anyway? Is the greater good worth more than your life, especially if your sole chance at salvation -- taking the fight to your master’s doorstep -- doesn’t even have a one percent chance of coming to pass? Do you have the resolve to take your own life?
Those are heavy questions -- VERY heavy questions, with even heavier consequences. But thinking back, I don’t feel as if XIII handled them very well, if at all. It just feels as if the cast jumped from aimless survival to blind optimism. They figured everything would be all right if they just kept fighting. It worked out in the end, but only because of the JRPG trappings. Only because “defying fate” and “overcoming the gods” are just things you do in a video game. And the characters follow the “rules” just as closely as the player. By design, there’s no room for dissent. No room for exploration.
But what does all of this have to do with Lightning? Am I saying that she should have considered suicide just to make the story good? No, obviously not. It just feels like something that could have contributed to her arc. Sazh brought up the topic, and for the most part he was the only character of the core six to genuinely act on it; the other characters went through bouts of confusion and worrying (or angst, if you prefer), but Sazh was the only one who even entertained the thought of taking action, not just trot about the subject while it sat miles away.
It showed a level of desperation that the game hadn’t really established, even if it was just a meaningless gesture in the end. Sazh had likely been thinking long and hard about what he was going to do, and prior to his Eidolon fight actually spells out his plan to Vanille. For him to dash those plans means that he weighed the options and considered what would happen if he continued on his forced quest, and decided he only had one option left. Maybe that’s why so many people think Sazh is the best character to come out of this Saga -- because he’s the closest to being a genuine human.
You would expect, then, that of the six cast members, three of them would be the passionate, idealistic sort. The other three would be the rational, contemplative sort. Snow and Vanille are easy enough to peg, as are Sazh and Fang…for the most part. Hope probably belongs to the former camp, which for the sake of balance would put Lightning on the cool-heads’ team. But I have a hard time buying it, and the fact that suicide is made a non-issue for her only highlights both her weaknesses as a character and (paradoxically) her strengths as a villain.
To me, Lightning comes off as a character that puts on airs of calmness and rationality, but I’d like to think that there’s more than enough evidence -- here, and in the games to come -- that she’s not quite the voice of reason she pretends to be. It’s true that the will to live is an important part of human nature, and it’s a thought current in every third story, video game or otherwise, ever released. But I get the sense that Lightning’s will to live is just a concept to her -- a right that she holds dear, merely because it exists and she recognizes it. I have sincere doubts that Lightning understands what life means, much less respects it. Unless the game was being extremely subtle (which I doubt, for obvious reasons), her Eidolon fight is more about learning to accept help from others and stop being so cold, not forcing her to face true despair. Other Eidolon fights are similarly…confused, but considering the sore lack of notable moments in her character arc, I think Lightning gets hit hardest.
I don’t feel as if Lightning has struggled any more than the other cast members -- certainly not on a personal level. She may admit throughout the game that she doesn’t know what she’s supposed to do, but that doesn’t stop her from footnoting each cutscene with either a fight against the next enemy or a trek to the next random destination. She has no aim, but she has no reason to stop. No reason to consider the weight of life -- hers, her comrades’, or the people she shares a world with. She has power, so why would she ever think she has a chance of failure? Of dying? Of not getting her way? As long as she keeps swinging that sword of hers, she’ll live on. She can keep ensuring that she has exactly the life she wants. Breaking everything, breaking anything.
I will be fair, though. The concept of suicide DOES eventually get brought up again in XIII-2. It’s just that it’s such a broken application that it very nearly comes off as an insult. Then again, I feel that way about the entire game. But I’ll get to that next time.
The takeaway from all this is that the so-called Lightning Saga got off on the wrong foot. Setting aside the fact that making a saga probably wasn’t the intention at the game’s reveal all those years ago, attempts to paint Lightning as the saga’s hero come off as hollow and insincere -- and flat-out wrong. I could accept her being the main character of these games, sure, but the hero? No. Squeenix is asking too much of its audience. The evidence it gives far outweighs the JRPG conventions, and just goes to highlight one of two things: either how little they understood the character and her game(s), or how much they wanted to bend everything to suit her. Neither option makes for a very good product; vanilla XIII comes off as confused, contradictory, and…well, kind of crummy. In my humble opinion, of course.
But as bad as I consider XIII to be, XIII-2 is worse. Phenomenally worse. And just as the Lightning Saga dips into the darkness, so too does its leading lady. And I’ll gladly explain what I mean…next time. I get the feeling that I’ve typed enough for one day, so I’ll go ahead and give my fingers -- and your eyes -- a rest.
See you guys soon. Because we’ve still got a looooooooooooooooooooong way to go.
And the “Silliest Post Title of the Year” Award goes to…
In all honesty, I can’t think of a more appropriate title for a post. I consider myself a gamer of some degree of -- for lack of a better term -- “hardcore-itude”, but I’ll be the first to admit that there are gaps in my skill and knowledge. That said, I do have Grand Theft Auto V in my possession (as I should, because I exist), and while I haven’t gotten around to playing it yet, my brother has. And from what I’ve seen, it looks like a pretty cool game. Playing as this fabled creature the Elders call “Trevor” looks like it will quite literally be a blast.
But that puts me in a bit of a bind.
To date -- and excluding GTA5, if only temporarily -- I’ve played three other installments in the franchise: GTA3, San Andreas, and GTA4. And to date, neither I nor my brother (the completionist between the two of us) ever managed to see the end credits. He’s tried remarkably hard, though, to the point where he repeatedly deleted and reinstalled GTA4 while simultaneously swearing to finish it…though as fate would have it, he always got stuck on the same mission and lost interest shortly after. Conversely, I don’t think I’ve ever gotten past the first hour’s worth of story in any of the games. In fact, there’s a pretty good chance that across three games I’ve only seen an hour’s worth of narrative. That’s not to say I’ve never played the games; on the contrary, I’ve played my fair share of them (with San Andreas probably holding me captive the longest).
You can probably guess what that means I did.
Here’s how pretty much every session with San Andreas started for me. First, I’d find a motorcycle and steal it. Next, I’d drive over to the downtown area and find a certain building -- one of a very few you could enter, but one that you could enter while riding atop a motorcycle. Then, when I appeared on the rooftop of the building (or skyscraper, if you prefer), I drove off at top speed and did some sweet flips while the world blurred around me. If I got lucky, I survived, and even landed safely wheels-first on the street below. If I didn’t, then the only thing I lost were a few precious moments of easily-restored life. (Side note: more often than not I found myself flinging Carl Johnson off that same building -- with or without parachute -- just to hear him shout lovable lines like “I hate gravity!” Bonus points for CJ if he actually survived the fall.)
And after that? It was just an hour or two of me goofing off. Career highlights: 1) finding a plane and taking off so I could skydive face-first into a pool…unsuccessfully. 2) Inexplicably driving into a river -- and the same river, no less -- while trying to go anywhere to do anything. 3) Punching out the Ballas, AKA the scum of the earth. 4) Punching out other people, because as you know punching = manliness. 5) Flying around on a jetpack. 6) Singing along with Faith No More’s “Midlife Crisis” while engaging in the occasional strut about town. 7) Trying to steal a tank. 8) Trying to raise my wanted level high enough to steal a tank. 9) Using the tank’s blasts to propel myself down a road several times faster than the average car. 10) Dying spectacularly.
I’m…not wholly convinced that I’ve been playing GTA right.
I’m not wholly convinced, but I’m not wholly dissatisfied. I know I’ve taken shots at plenty of other games in the past, but strangely enough, GTA has never been one of them. I’ve never gotten the full story in any of the games, but from what I’ve seen, there’s a reason why people like it beyond just being the prophesized prostitute slayer of our age. It IS likely called a sandbox game for a reason, so maybe the fact that I can ditch the story and play for dozens of hours without getting my progress halted is entirely the point AND the draw of the franchise. Or to put it another way, maybe the fact that I’d rather eat the sand than play with the Tonka bulldozer in the corner is one of the franchise’s strong suits.
That all said, I’m more than a little apprehensive about starting up GTA5. I’m more than ready to play it like I did Skyrim (or more appropriately, the other GTA games), forgoing everything and everyone for my own cockamamie adventures. But then again, if I do that, I feel like I’ll be missing out on something truly special -- cool characters, a cool story, and more. The alternate title for the game might as well be Terrible People Doing Terrible Things, but while lesser games have tried and failed to win me over, there’s an unmistakable sense of energy, spirit, and dare I say it charisma that makes me think GTA is a cut above the rest. There’s much that remains to be seen and proven, obviously, but at a glance it seems more than a little intriguing. It’d just require a level of effort that frankly, I’m not sure I have in me. I still need to clear Dragon’s Crown-- and poor Ni no Kuni is still waiting to be played for more than a few hours…
Besides, would it really be so bad if I set aside the story? I can YouTube anything that I want to watch, but those moment-to-moment freak accidents are ones that only I can create (and indeed, my brother constantly egged me on to play GTA JUST to watch me find new ways to blow myself up). So I guess I’m at an impasse. Should I pursue the story and barrel-roll my way through whatever crazy missions the game will put me through? Or should I go down the pure gameplay route, and create scenarios far more insane than anything the game could offer? It feels like the ultimate battle between good and evil is raging in my soul.
So I guess the most I can do right now is refer back to the title of this post -- and its double meaning, in retrospect. How do YOU play Grand Theft Auto? And by extension, how DO you play Grand Theft Auto? In theory, it should be all about unleashing your inner deviant, but in practice, could it mean something more? Does it mean something more to you? Is it the ultimate fantasy, or perhaps the ultimate stress reliever? What is Grand Theft Auto, and why the hell is it so popular?
Let me know what you think in the comments. Hopefully it’ll give me a fresh perspective on what these games mean to others, and how I can use that for my own purposes. In the meantime, I’ll start laying plans for my own GTA adventures…starting with finding a way to ride a motorcycle atop a speeding train.
…I saw it in a movie once. And by movie I mean I might have made it up right just now.
You know, I’ve been thinking. (Cue the panicked shrieks of the masses as they run desperately for cover.)
So word on the street is that Senran Kagura is coming to the West. That’s interesting, I suppose. I can’t personally summon up too much interest in the game, but if it’s set to make plenty of gamers happy -- and of course let the devs offer up something to a wider audience -- then I’m glad this is something that’s happening. Of course, I can’t help but get a little nervous about reactions to the game being released; the whole Dragon’s Crown brouhaha is still a sore point for a lot of people, and has opened up debates that have likely done nothing more than spin in circles at 8000 RPM.
I’d argue that Senran Kagura has its own merits as a game and a series -- artistic merit, creative liberties, etc., etc. -- but even so it’s a bit harder to defend than Dragon’s Crown. That game has more overt throwbacks to fantasy artists and games of the past, with its eyebrow-raising designs a consequence of applying the amped-up aesthetic and design philosophy to everything and everyone. It’s very likely -- probable, even -- that Senran Kagura exists on the same axis (as an over-the-top parody of fanservice-laden elements, or if not that then winking tributes), but the line between playing it straight and playing it for laughs is…er…hazy.
So why is it that the more I hear about the game, the more I’m intrigued by it?
Don't make that face just yet; let me explain. I should back up and say that, even though I know of the game, I don’t know much about it. As a frequenter of Siliconera and TV Tropes, virtually everything I know about the game comes from random posts, basic summaries, and a small potpourri of gameplay videos. That’s about it. Well, that’s not 100% true; I know there was an anime of it semi-recently, but as I’m terrible at committing to watching anime -- I’ll finish watching you someday, Heroman-- I haven’t seen a single episode. I don’t know if I’ve dodged a bullet or missed out on the greatest masterpiece of our time. But I suspect only one of those options is viable, and you can guess which one I’m leaning toward.
That said, I’ve heard that the games are actually pretty good. I guess I was watching the wrong videos, because what I saw looked functional, but a bit clunky. It must have been the YouTube transition; it’s distorted my perception of plenty of fighting games prior to release in the past. I guess for whatever reason, the games have been doing something right consistently. And while I’d like to think that they succeed independent of the space-time-distorting-bosoms, I’d be lying if I said that the fanservice wasn’t a part of the package. It’s hard for me to approve with anything more than a nervous smile and unsteady clap, but hey -- they’re allowed to express themselves, gamers are allowed to enjoy what they may, and as long as they’re not actively forcing the world to see everything their way (to the point of attacking other players, artists, and styles), that’s fine. We can coexist. We can all go on our merry way.
…Is what I would like to say. But I think we know how this story plays out -- if it hasn’t already.
Let’s pretend that Senran Kagura is pretty much just a big joke. Let’s pretend that the game isn’t necessarily geared toward getting players’ engines revved up, and that anything beyond its purpose is just a happy side effect. Let’s pretend that what the devs are after is to put forth a game with giant-breasted ninja girls in an OTT game…and that you’re not supposed to do anything else besides laugh and have a merry old time. Even IF the intent was to make a joke out of the game, it’s a joke that’s not designed to have everyone laughing. In the same sense that some people find political jokes hilarious, others are turned off to them merely by design. “Ew, politics!” they’ll say out of reflex. And they’ll show disdain for whoever might make a joke like that. I know it’s not exactly a one-to-one comparison, but there are similarities. Bring in an offender, and people, gathered from all walks of life but many of them sharing similar tastes and ideals, will get offended. That’s just how it goes, no matter how much rationalizing you try to do. Is it fair? Unless the “joke” is seriously tasteless, no. It’s just life.
So is it fair to hate on Senran Kagura because of its intended goal? Moreover, is it fair to hate the game because of what it offers? Probably not. After all, I’ve not only heard that the gameplay is pretty good, but there’s more going on under the hood. Just looking at the non-spoiler-tagged stuff on TV Tropes says that there’s more than a little darkness to the cheery proceedings (the life of a ninja is not just about doing sweep-kicks and flip-flops), and the stuff that IS spoiler-tagged implies that a high percentage of the characters have grim backstories and reasons for why they fight. The fact that they got the guy who worked on the stories ofOkamiden, Professor Layton vs. Ace Attorney, and Chaos Rings has to stand for something.
On the other hand, I wonder if it’s enough. Dead or Alive also has a cast largely dominated by its full-figured females, and while they’re largely capable, strong-willed, independent of men, and have their own personas/backstories, sometimes I wonder if those are token additions. Kasumi’s wiki page is more than four thousand words long, but I feel like could sum her up in almost the space of a tweet: “runaway ninja who seems timid, but bravely and skillfully gets the job done.” (If you’re feeling facetious, you could add “probably has a brother complex.”) I’m no expert on the canon, but I suspect that in spite of the things that we’re told about her and the things that have happened to her, Kasumi hasn’t significantly evolved as a character from where she started back in the nineties. And I suspect that she won’t evolve because the devs would rather backpedal on their “I’m a fighter” mantra and put her and the other girls back in sexy costumes.
It seems that Senran Kagura is in a very tricky territory -- a gray area where the rules are just as hazy as the shinobi world it takes place in. At what point does the fanservice become a detriment, or nullify the creators’ intent? Has it gone far enough to offer up something more than questionable fanservice, or are its attempts at making its merits as developed as its cast ultimately a shallow affair? Can it win over the hearts of even rightfully-jaded gamers, or is it destined to become yet another sore point in gaming discussions everywhere? Without question, this is an extremely difficult topic to even talk about, let alone peaceably sort out. I’m hoping for the best -- if not with this game, then whatever draws heat next time -- but I know that there’s still a ways to go. I know that nobody has an answer that can lay this conversation to rest…and there shouldn’t be, so long as we have something to debate. Conflict can (not does, but can) give way to organized thought, rational discussion, an impetus to learn, and conclusions that people might not have considered on their own. If we can discuss, then by all means, let’s discuss.
Now then. Let’s talk about breasts.
It seems like whenever the topic of women in games comes up, someone usually says that when women appear, it’s as barely-clothed, big-breasted beauties. It’s very true that there’s a severe issue with the portrayal of women in games, and I can only hope that things get better as time passes. That said, every time the allusion does come up, I’m left more than a little confused. Where ARE these improbably-buxom clusters of data? Maybe this is just a consequence of women becoming increasingly-absent in the games industry, but for now let's just consider this a thought experiment. Strictly speaking, it’s hard to decide just what exactly the bar is for “improbably buxom”, but let’s go ahead and expand the scope to “remotely sexualized” female characters. The ones that seem to pop up most are pre-reboot Lara Croft, post-Soul Calibur 1 Ivy Valentine, Bloodrayne on occasion, and all the DOA ladies. And…who else, exactly? I’m not trying to take the piss out of anyone here; I’m genuinely curious. I want a record for future posterity from as many gamers as possible. (So yeah, comment as needed to shut me up.)
Still, I can think of more than a few on my own. Blaze from Streets of Rage and Tyris Flare from Golden Axe are a couple of old-school examples, and not too long ago we had Shahdee and Kaileena from the almost-hilarious Prince of Persia: Warrior Within. There's also Lulu from Final Fantasy 10, Tifa from 7, and (disturbingly enough) Rouge the Bat from the Sonic universe. If you’ll let me play the role of my own worst enemy, it seems like a LOT of the examples -- at least those that spring to mind -- are those from fighting games. Which is to say, almost all of them.
Street Fighter has Cammy for sure, but I’d assume that Chun-Li, Sakura, Elena, R. Mika, and C. Viper have to cater to someone’s tastes. BlazBluehas nearly every female character “remotely sexualized”, starting from the top with resident Boobie Lady Litchi and working down to Noel Vermillion, a character that many gamers assumed wasn’t wearing underwear…to say nothing of her Mu-12 form. Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance made a note of inserting jiggle physics, and the most recent version put some of its ladies in costumes destined to make opponents blush. And let us never forget the great legacy imparted upon us by SNK, for they willingly unleashed Mai Shiranui upon the world. And then unleashed her again in HD. I sincerely hope there are laws in place to prevent anything like Mai's sprite being created ever again.
I know there are more examples than that outside of fighting games -- WAY more, I’d guess, but I’m at a loss to name as many as some of you out there -- but there’s a specific reason I bring up fighting games. Remember, kinetic motion is a form of expression; that’s why dance is an art form, to the point of having entire schools built around it. And on top of that, we gain more data from non-verbal communication than from merely spoken words. So with that in mind, think carefully about the application of fighting games. I know for a fact that in Street Fighter 4, telling Ryu and Ken apart could be done by more than just their designs. Ryu’s default stance has a slower, straighter bounce, while Ken’s is a bit more active and swagger-laden. Simply put, there are things we can get from characters in ways we might not have expected. If memory serves, King got some...physics in King of Fighters 13, but that doesn't stop her from being awesome in terms of both her character and her motions.
In an ideal world, video game writing would be enough to satisfy us, and turn every character -- the women included -- into the “strong female characters” we’re all searching for. But alas, that’s not yet the case. (I honestly think we’re getting there, though; even if some of its ladies are notably chesty, the Tales Series has always made a note of making them more than breast-carriers -- as seen in Symphonia, Legendia, Abyss, Vesperia, and most recently Xillia.) But I know what video games are about. It’s not just a matter of telling a good story; it’s about making an input-output device that performs satisfying actions using its myriad elements. Simply put? Press buttons, and cool stuff happens. In its distilled, hyper-generalized form, that’s what a game is.
And believe it or not, I think Senran Kagura has the right idea.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that games need more improbably buxom women. And indeed, I’d say that the franchise is doing something you don’t usually see, buuuuuuuuuuut it could still do more. Much more. (Though in its defense, from what I’ve gathered it’s also a game about camaraderie and living life to its fullest.) What I’m arguing for isn’t necessarily about embracing fanservice -- to an extent, at least -- but more about applying that fanservice. Games are going to keep throwing more stuff, and bigger stuff, at us in the future; much like the triple-A market and company opulence at large, it’s going to be a matter of how you use what you have, not what you put in. The command shouldn’t be “We made a mountain. Look at it.” We should be able to do something with the mountain. Climb it. Search it. Go inside it. Slide down it. Or perhaps the mountain should do something independent of our input, or in-game triggers. Maybe erupt for whatever reason. Or have an avalanche. Or barf out some wooly goats. It shouldn’t be a static element…not entirely, at least.
Now imagine that concept applied to fanservice. The problem here is that the mindset is “There are breasts here. Look at them.” That’s not enough anymore -- not for everyone, at least. You can throw that stuff in haphazardly and get a few stiffened trousers, but you can take a shot at earning respect if you go a step further. Use elements for expression. Use them to make a statement. Use them to make your intent clear. Use them for originality, and make yourself stand out from the crowd. Use them to make the command “There are breasts here. Do something with them.”
…That came out a lot more sexually-charged than I would have hoped.
Maybe this is the product of my hot dog-addled mind, but I can’t help but see possibilities and ask questions about Senran Kagura’s universe -- things that could elevate the world-building and push its potentially-joking nature to insane levels. So let's see if we can get the old noodle working...with the proper music, of course.
I’ve said this about games in the past -- Devil Survivor 2 comes to mind -- but I’ll say it here again: in a world where everyone is improbably buxom, no one is improbably buxom. What might make the average gent crane his neck in our universe is barely worth a shrug in their world…and as such, their world must accommodate their norm. What would that mean for clothes-shopping? Or better yet, clothes production? How much more fabric would have to be produced just for the average department store catalog? How would that affect prices? How would that affect the fashion industry? How would that affect the economy, and the resource management needed to support such industries?
And I can’t help but wonder how it’d affect society at large. The ladies of the canon are ultra-skilled ninjas in the process of furthering their training -- so what if the struggle to become a splendid ninja is as much a measure to support certain organizations as it is a means to alleviate back pain? Could it be that athleticism is merely a means to allow these ladies a chance at simply living a normal life? Or could it be that said athleticism -- the myriad styles of each character -- is merely a means of expression, independent of bra size? Is it artistry personified? Are they trying to make their bodies art personified? Are they just trying to express themselves on the battlefield, ergo their unique costumes and propensity to get blown into their swimsuits? Is that how they view themselves?
How DO they view themselves? How do they view others? If “improbably buxom” is -- give or take a few inches -- the standard of their world, then what happens for those notably above or notably below the curve? Are they ostracized? Made into walking punchlines? Shamed and harassed? Genetically speaking, how did they inherit the potential to be above or below the curve? How are any of the characters as well-built as they are now? Is it dietary? Supplementary? Is there something in the water? Is it all a part of some hidden organization’s scheme to overwhelm the world with a torrent of estrogen? Or could it be that -- as per my theory on the DOA universe -- the series actually takes place in a totalitarian future where all the women are given nanomachine-filled injections to make their chests swell up? (It’d certainly explain the why the physics are bonkers -- their tissues are filled with tiny machines programmed to move asynchronously.)
Let it be known, then, that there are a lot of different ways you could explore the concept of a world full of hyper-bosomy ladies. You could take an investigative route and figure out what you can do with the setting and characters. Or you could take those ideas (and more) and play them for laughs. There’s just so much you could do JUST with the concept besides just shoving fanservice in someone’s face. Sure, you can find some fans with that alone…but you can do more. You can always do more with a creative outlet. Style, substance, whatever -- it’s one’s duty to explore a creation with as much skill as one could muster. That’s what being a man is all about.
But you know what? Even beyond Senran Kagura, there are still ways you can play with concepts and conventions. And I’ll prove it. So let’s shift the concept from merely “fanservice” to something with a bit more of a positive connotation: beauty.
This should be obvious to anyone who’s read my posts over the last year or so, but here I go again. I consider it the greatest idiosyncrasy of the gaming industry when, with all the technological prowess we have today, so many developers would fill their games with destruction, decay, and despair. Okay, sure, there’s creative liberty and the need to stick to an appropriate tone and canon’s demands, but I have a hard time believing that every dev and every company out there wants to make another war-torn or post-apocalyptic environment just for kicks. As gamers -- critics in our own right -- we’re on the lookout for the much-adored “beautiful graphics” seen so often in reviews. The problem is that in terms of aesthetics, sometimes that’s not quite as easy. I’m not trying to heap (too much) hate on modern games; this is just common sense. Flowers? Beautiful. Crumbling walls? Not beautiful. Babbling brooks? Beautiful. Glass shards strewn all over a street? Not beautiful. Golden, picturesque sunset framed perfectly on the horizon? Beautiful. Chest-high walls? A masterpiece of the modern age…but still not beautiful.
Obviously, this is something that applies to characters as well. Say what you will about any given lead in a Final Fantasy game -- especially post-Dissidia -- but the designers have to really try to make someone who’s not attractive on some level. Granted those designs have become improbable and bordering on self-parody in recent years, but the intent is there: make something pleasing to the eye while simultaneously expressing something about the character. It’s an effort that goes beyond just creating a character to fulfill a function while being as inoffensive as possible. It’s an effort meant to make a character -- and if possible, a world -- memorable to a gamer, as he/she is a person that can appreciate beauty wherever and however it pops up. Simple, yes? Common sense. Something worth pushing towards, without a doubt. BUT, I feel as if there’s more to it than that. More that can be done. It feels like there’s an entire untamed wilderness just itching to get tapped and shared with the people, if only some brave -- and only slightly-crazy -- pioneer is willing to venture in.
So I guess I’ll go ahead and give it a shot. Here’s a possible example: make a game centered on beauty pageants.
Don’t raise your halberds yet, people. I know that sounds a little too on-the-nose, and there is the possibility that people will shoot down the concept immediately (or just call it sexist outright), but hear me out. Consider this a little “what-if” exercise. Or if not an exercise, then a reimagining; after all, IIRC Gen III of Pokémon-- and to some extent, Yakuza 4 -- made entire gameplay segments around putting out the best beauty you could. And really, what is a model if not a well-trained Pokémon? (Please don’t answer that; I don’t think I want to hear the answer.)
Now then. Let’s start with our lead -- we’ll call her “Rally” for now. At the start, she’s just whittling away her days -- she’s lazy, unmotivated, scatterbrained, and more than ready to play games all the way to her grave. But when her carelessness leads to an accident that leaves a young model injured, said model’s coach/manager -- let’s call him “Jimmy Hotpants” -- furiously demands that he reimburses her. And since Rally can’t offer him the money he’s demanding, she offers her services instead; she agrees to enter the local pageant in the model’s place, so that Jimmy Hotpants can lay claim to fame. But what starts off as getting dragged into the “world of beauty” ends up becoming something more for Rally. And so begins the duo’s whirlwind adventure to make Rally into The World’s Most Beautiful Woman. (And if at all possible, Universe.)
One of the key elements of the game would be attending to -- and altering -- Rally’s appearance. Ideally, every player starts out with the same Rally -- a very tall, if lumbering and sleepy-looking, strawberry blonde. But depending on choices, training, and events, the Rally at one player’s endgame will be incredibly different from another player’s endgame. The real world has plenty of different aspects that affect one’s appearance -- diet, exercise, stress, good/bad habits, hygiene, esteem, and more -- so those aspects could carry over in some capacity to the game.
I imagine some sort of Sims-styled meter management, where you’ll have to cater to a few of Rally’s base desires, but everything beyond a certain point (and a notably low threshold, so you won’t have to spend the entire game just making sure she goes to the bathroom on time) is up to you. On one hand, you decide things like how often she goes to the gym and what she does, such as more strength training or more cardio -- and in addition, keeping an eye on what food she eats and how often. On the other hand, you still have a healthy degree of control over outward appearance. Makeup, hairstyle, clothing…and if you so deign, plastic surgery. Or since this would be a video game, perhaps some sort of herbal enhancers are on the market.
And even beyond that, there’s more to be done. You still have to balance Rally’s normal life with her newfound career -- i.e. taking care of business and earning some extra cash (and winding down with video games) while taking time out to do charity work/good deeds to increase your standing with others. It’d be a system that fuses the fundraising minigames of No More Heroes with the schedule management of Persona 4. Preparation is vital -- but if you got the skills and the savvy, you can always carve out a win.
“Now hold on there, Voltech!” you cry out, reaching for your halberd once more. “I thought you were trying to propose a game, not some virtual act of voyeuristic godhood! You’ve clearly underestimated me; as a virile man who demands a set of blades forged by Hephaestus just to tame my illustrious beard, I’ve no interest in playing with a digital doll! Away with you!” And to that I say…you’ve got a point as nice as your beard. But don’t shrug me off just yet. Training is as vital as the combat itself -- and if that’s the case, then I’d advocate the advent of beautiful combat. Because if there’s one thing I love in games and stories, it’s a heaping helping of absurdity.
I brought up that Yakuza comparison for a reason. In the same sense that Kazuma Kiryu and friends will get thrown into sudden brawls on the street, so too could this game play to its theme to an absurd degree…in which there are impromptu “beauty battles.” In this world, beauty means everything, to the point where people will do their damnedest to prove their beauty if and when the need arises. But instead of throwing hands, as Rally you’ll be engaging in appeals to the audience for victory. Think of it as a hybridization of Pokémon, Elite Beat Agents, and the Ace Attorney series; you’ll select your “attack” -- a cute smile, or a sultry strut, for example -- from the outset in a menu, and then execute it via well-timed button presses. It’d be something like this (albeit a bit quicker in pace):
The better you press the buttons, the more effective your attack will be, and the more points you’ll earn from an audience. And there would be a risk-reward system; simpler moves have simpler (randomly-generated) sequences, but won’t net you as many points as a complex move. Of course, if you have the energy for it you can change the momentum of a battle (even during an opponent’s turn) by appealing to one of your Rally’s Charm Points -- a physical or mental attribute that can steal away favor. Basically, it’s a system that demands decision-making, tactical use of one’s tool set, and a bit of rhythmic skill to earn the points needed to finish a battle. You know, just like a real beauty pageant!
And indeed, the beauty pageants -- such as they are -- would be the true test of skill and beauty, not unlike a Gym Battle. You’d have to work your way up through several rounds, as if you’re part of a tournament bracket. You’d be going up against entire groups of opponents instead of just one, and to qualify for the next round you have to garner enough points. And of course, each pageant would conclude with a climactic, OTT final showdown/boss battle with the rival du jour. (You’d get to save, cram in prep work, or quit the game between rounds, of course.)
The key difference? Instead of an undiscerning audience, for pageants there are judges that’ll put the contestants to work, pressing them with questions and demands as well as having tastes that you can play toward. In the same sense that you can interrupt opponents with your Charm Points, judges can interrupt you or your opponents with their supreme authority. What you can answer with will depend on how you’ve prepared Rally up to that point, and how you meet their challenges will affect both the character and her chances of victory at large. Again, think of it as something along the lines of Ace Attorney-- or if you prefer, Dangan Ronpa. It’d be a simple-enough process given a bit of flair by virtue of absurdity.
But make no mistake -- just because this all sounds like an idiot’s fever dream doesn’t mean that there aren’t ideas to take away from the game. The theme of beauty is one that’s being explored by virtually everyone and everything. As Rally goes from place to place and encounters new friends and rivals, they’ll each have their own answer to the question of “what is beauty?” Pride in one’s body. The courage to present something before others. Vanity that breeds conceit and corruption. A duty to gain favor and use it to change the world’s circumstances. A desire to put smiles on the faces of others. Many people, many answers -- including ones that you and Rally will offer over the course of the game. She’ll be changing on the outside (naturally), but she’ll change on the inside as well. Will she become a better person, and use her blooming fame to make the world a better place? Will she turn into a beautiful beast, and sit atop her throne as a wicked queen? What happens when the model whose place she took gets back into the action?
And there you go. That’s just one way you could do it -- take a theme, put a new spin on it, and turn what might have been repulsive to some and pointless to others into something that demandsfurther exploration. It’s not impossible. As with all things imaginative, it just takes a little thought and ingenuity. Be willing to explore the possibilities -- and have the open mind to do so besides just shouting “ew, gross!” and there are plenty of new avenues to explore. Or…hell, I don’t know. It might make a heartwarming story, at least.
So. What’s the moral of this story? Uhhhhhh…I forgot. This post kind of got away from me. I think it had something to do with ninjas at one point, but then I migrated to theoretical beauty pageants or something…
…You know what? I just realized I’ve made more ruminations on the female form in one post than most gamers will do over the course of their entire lives. I’d say this is a cause for celebration. Or despair.