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.
Hey, happy Valentine’s Day. Let’s talk about breasts.
A while back, I was on The Escapist sifting through the forums -- something I don’t do all that often, unless there’s an interesting topic listed on the front page. But as internet-surfing tends to go, one thing led to another, and after a while somebody asked an interesting question: “If Alyx Vance had big breasts, would she be a worse character?” I don’t know Half-Life well enough to comment, but I’ve heard of her before (since she’s a top-tier female character). And I know that her abject non-sexualization is part of her appeal. “She’s got clothes! She doesn’t have big boobs! She’s not just eye candy!” And so on.
But would making her improbably buxom automatically hurt her appeal? Her credibility? Well, yes and no. “Yes” in the sense that a bust boost threatens to head into seedy territory, and couldbe exploited. “No” in the sense that just because a character is busty doesn’t make them a bad character. (See: Lulu, Cortana, Juliet Starling, Bayonetta, Elizabeth Comstock, several Mass Effect characters, several Dragon Agecharacters, at least one character per Talesgame, and virtually every female character in the Devil Survivor games.) If a character only exists to be objectified, that’s a problem. If a colossal chest -- for a variable definition of “colossal” -- is used to make a character visually distinct, and as a trait of a character than a defining characteristic, then it makes for more stable ground.
Which brings me to Senran Kagura -- the seediest of all seedy games.
I don’t think I need to go into grave detail about the kind of content that’s in what’s now a healthy franchise (for better or worse), especially seeing as how I’ve already talked about it in the past. Nearly any given screenshot will have generously-proportioned ninja schoolgirls, who range in size from extra-large to back-snapping delight. Nearly any given article will bring up the clothing damage or maelstrom of panties therein. Nearly any given video will have more bouncing than ten years’ worth of basketball seasons, offset only by blushing, doe-eyed maidens. They’re not the sort of games you’d want anyone knowing you own, much less know about. Unless you belong to your town’s chapter of the Breast Enthusiast Society.
In a medium that’s struggling and often failing to find a place for females in their narratives, Senran Kagura as a whole feels like a step back. This is a series that was literally conceived when one man realized he could use the 3DS’ power to create dimension-crossing breasts. I have my sincere doubts that anyone cares about the plot of the games, because there’s a lot of focus on the…plot.
And while I’m a supporter of distinct visual design, SK almost gleefully straddles the bra straps (in more ways than one). When everyone is improbably buxom, no one is improbably buxom. They’re getting diminishing returns on their efforts, and the only way they’ll be able to counteract that is by going even further beyond and just adding a boss fight against barn-sized sentient breasts. But then they wouldn’t be able to add any butt shots, so they’ll just have to come closer and closer to a schoolgirl singularity.
It’s easy to look down on SK scornfully. Very easy. Would the series be what it is without its supremely-squishy swordswomen? Not a chance. I’m sure it’d have its fans, but as a game series -- based on what I’ve seen in videos, admittedly -- it’s hard for me to think that they’d sell based solely on the quality, or lack thereof, of its combat systems. I’ve had a look around on TV Tropes and the wiki and know that there’s an overarching plot, as well as a story behind each character, but I wonder if that’s enough to leave an impression -- or if the story is even remotely well-executed. I’m willing to give the franchise the benefit of the doubt, because once upon a time I did the same with Dead or Alive. But I understand why people take issue with SK. I really do.
And yet, despite that, a funny thing happened a while back. There was a Destructoid post (and a Siliconera post, and probably posts elsewhere, for obvious reasons) on one of the upcoming games -- a cooking battle/rhythm game, of all things. I’d heard favorable comparisons to Iron Chef, so I thought, “Eh, why not? Let’s see what those madmen are up to this time.” So I watched the video from start to finish. It would have been the perfect opportunity to laugh, point, shout “LOL, Japan!” and leave it at that. And in a sense, I did laugh…but not in a way I expected. It felt more like I was laughing with them, not at them. Or rather, laughing because of them. I didn’t exactly know why, but as I thought about it -- as a result of this post, and ponderings beforehand -- I think I’ve realized something.
Something about that game makes me happy. And I bet it makes others happy, too.
Not that kind of happy.
When all’s said and done, I have to admit that I kind of like the franchise’s visual flair. Not necessarily the sweater-Cerberuses the cast seems to be packing, though I can and have looked past that before. I just kind of like the way the characters look and act. They may not be the deepest characters, but if nothing else they convey their personalities -- their archetypes, in the worst-case scenario -- pretty well. (It certainly helps that they each have a distinct weapon of choice, which says a lot more than just “guns guns and more guns”.) They’re colorful, they’re energetic, they’re distinct, and perhaps most of all they’re expressive. When a SK character smiles, it makes me want to smile. Breasts or otherwise, there’s something strangely pleasant about the proceedings. One of those intangibles, I suppose.
It’s certainly preferable to DOA, at least in my opinion. My first experience with the franchise was DOA4, and while I have fond memories of the fights in that game -- nothing beats hammering a teleport-happy ninja out of the sky with some sick wrestling moves -- there was always something that freaked me out about the game. Not because of the obvious reason(s), but because they felt like creepy dolls. I couldn’t bear the sight of Kasumi, much less be attracted to her, because back then her eerily-still face and constant look of pensive worry made me feel uncomfortable even recognizing that she had eyes. That's the case, even to this day.
Look at that last picture. Look at it. LOOK AT IT!OH GOD, WHY?
The same goes for the rest of the female cast, to varying degrees; they’re all swimming in the uncanny valley, and even the most asynchronous breast bounce isn’t enough to sway me. Not even a graphical update/reboot with DOA5 did the trick; they might have made the breasts smaller (for a debatable degree of “smaller”), but the faces are just as lifeless. Their eyes are just as hollow, if not more so. And on top of that, despite claims that they’d make the girls more than paper dolls, when push came to shove theydidn’t evenhesitate to give them sexy outfits. Nor did it stop them from continuing to release sexy outfits. How does the saying go? Something about a fool and money and soon being parted? It’s on the tip of my tongue.
The two franchises may have similar affects, but what sets them apart is the philosophy behind them. If you ask me, DOA comes off as something trying to be erotic. It’s aiming for stiffened trousers, no matter what half-hearted attempts they make with their “I’m a fighter” mantra. (Remember Christie’s ending in DOA4 where they just made her a stripper? I sure do.) I probably don’t need to elaborate, considering that there have been two games designed to capitalize on the eldritch creatures masquerading as curvaceous young women (three including a handheld game, if I remember right). You could safely argue the same about SK -- it, too, is exploiting “sexiness” for fame and fortune -- but to me, it comes off as being enticing. There's an ever-so-subtle difference.
It wants your attention, but it has something different in mind. “Hey, gang! You like boobs and butts? Well here’s ten million of them, each one the size of a regulation volleyball at a bare minimum! And then on top of that we’ll add in over-the-top special moves, ninety-nine hit aerial raves, breakdancing ninjas, and school life shenanigans! And now we have cooking competitions! You bring the money, we’ll bring the fun!” I suspect that not everyone who buys this game is in it for arousal, because the bonkers-as-sin physics and post-pubescent bodies of these girls alone make the whole franchise a farce. You saw that opening, didn’t you? They have to know that the female form doesn’t work that way.
They have to, but they do it anyway -- probably because they think it’s hilarious. And they want you to think it’s hilarious. They’re not in it to make you go “Aw, yeaaaaaaaaaaaah.” They’re in it to make you go “HAHAHAHA! No WAY! I can’t believe they did that!” I certainly hope that’s the intent -- but even if it isn’t, they’re doing it anyway. They’re making people happy, because that’s what they wanted in the first place: their design philosophy, unabashedly, is “to wrap the world with happy boobs.” They’re a company that wants your money, but they’ll achieve that goal on their own terms. They know that they exist to serve the customer. They know that in order to survive, they have to make people happy.
AND THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT THEY’RE DOING. EVEN THOUGH THEY’VE ALREADY WON.
Part of the reason I like reading posts on SK is so I can see the comments that pop up. Seeing how people react and joke is a treat just as much as the games themselves could be -- probably more. Is it easy to snipe at the franchise? Yes. Are those shots justified? Pretty much. But it really is interesting, seeing people aim for their own laughs, because a “game for perverts” prompted them to. It’s throwing fuel onto the fire, along with a barge-load of bras soaked in gasoline.
And despite the eyebrow-raising material, it’s remarkable seeing how many people shout “localization, please” or “I want it” with all the force their keyboard strokes can muster. To say nothing of people who actually are fans of the franchise; they have their reasons, and it’d be outright silly to shrug them off. Even if it’s only for a moment, people are willing to drop their shields of cynicism and gather around the campfire. That’s a lot more than I can say about a game like Fuse, or Dead Space 3, or pretty much anything in a franchise featuring guns, QTEs, or EA these days.
Don’t get me wrong, though. I’m not trying to pardon SK from anything. It’s a franchise that has a built-in air of cynicism, considering that on some level (maybe all of them) it’s high-grade otaku pandering. The devs knew they had an audience; they just had to tap it with the promise of supreme secondary sexual characteristics. They just had to put the bait on a hook and cast out a line. The fish would practically catch themselves.
Likewise, the fact that the entire franchise is built on the aching backs of its chesty champions will always be something worth contention; instead of building an engrossing world, complex narratives, or characters whose arcs take them to heaven, hell, and everywhere in between, the devs were content with shouting “BOOBS!” and working their way out from there. They may have found success, but no one forced them to do it the way they did. No one ordered them to be “a part of the problem”.
And yet, contentious as it may be, ludicrous as it may be, I can’t help but admire what they’ve done.
They had an idea, and they went with it. They created their own style, and didn’t even think of backing down. They found their hook, and dragged gamer after gamer after gamer out of the water. They’re doing their best to spread the word that “Hey, if you love some hefty PLOTS, get over here on the double!” (Yes, this time I’m talking about thoseplots.)
Their games may vary in quality, but if their latest announcements and videos are any indication, they’re dead-set on boosting their games’ standards to the next level, so that they can be about more than just well-insulated perpetual motion devices. They’re putting in effort, because they want to fulfill their creative vision -- even if that creative vision makes the average Joe want to do a spit take. With the industry the way it is right now, I’ll take an absurd vision over none at all. And by extension, I’ll take an absurd vision over one that’s treading well-worn ground. What was the last big shooter that didn’t take itself seriously? Borderlands? Bulletstorm? I’d say Duke Nukem Forever, but I suspect that one was a joke for all the wrong reasons. (Seriously, look at its Wikipedia page -- it links directly to continued obsolescence.)
But if there’s one lesson I think is worth taking away from this, it’s that creative intent. I’m the Eternal Optimist, so every now and then I don’t mind taking someone’s idealized claims at face value. So when somebody says “I want to wrap the world in happy boobs”, I focus more on the “happy” than the “boobs”. Making people happy with one’s creation is a good goal to have, simple as it may be. It shows a sense of focus, good nature, and humility.
They weren’t out to make an “epic, cinematic, filmic experience” or “take video game narratives to the next level” or “use the medium to make social commentary”. They just wanted to make a game, and make people feel good about it. There’s a real earnestness in there that keeps them from reaching for the fruit at the top of the tree, and tumbling into a clump of brambles because of it, as so many others have. Granted they did that by swiping at the low-hanging fruit, but as a whole SK strikes me as the type of series that would paint the apple in zebra stripes instead of just eat it…but then eat it anyway just because it could. That level of conviction, zeal, and all-out ballsiness is something to appreciate.
So, bottom line. Is this franchise actually brilliant? In terms of the actual game(s), probably not -- at least for a while yet. In terms of the underlying thought current, yeah, I think SK has something special. Something that’s worth remembering, when all’s said and done. Will it ever break out of the rut it carved for itself, and become more than just Estrogen: The Game? No, it’s going to stay in that rut, and just dig more so more people can nestle up beside it, just like DOA. But unlike DOA, I do believe that it can become more -- it can have better gameplay, a better story, better characters, better everything. There isn’t a single game or franchise out there that’s perfect, but anything can improve if they’re willing to put in the work. As far as I can tell, Senran Kagura is -- and that just might be one more facet to its brilliance.
You and your giant breasts have got our attention, guys. Now it’s time to bust out. For all our love.
Okay. Next post needs to be about something manly...in a sense.
Fair warning: this is probably going to be the stupidest post you’ve ever read. Or if not the stupidest, then the one that’ll draw discussion away from the topic and put me under (or on) fire. Or if not that, then at least make you wonder what in the name of Paul Bunyan’s button-down flannel shirt I was thinking. So to temper whatever rage and disdain may come this way, let me start by bringing up Kamen Rider.
I’ve been checking out bits and the pieces of it recently -- as early as Den-O, as recent as Wizard, if those words mean anything to you -- and what I’ve seen of the decades-long franchise has been supremely rewarding, and supremely entertaining. What should ostensibly be a slew of big dumb kids’ shows have shown a level of depth that no one would expect, and married nigh-flawlessly to a spirit of fun and excitement. To use a food analogy, there’s something to lick for a quick sugar rush, but there’s a legitimate buffet to sink one’s teeth into. Although that’s probably not too good for the stomach, but whatever. Totally worth it.
But not too long ago, a funny thing happened. Apparently, someone saw a post I made on a forum a couple of years ago asking for the name of a song I’d heard. He (or she, possibly) not only gave me the name of the song, but a hearty recommendation for its series of origin: HeartCatch Precure. A show that, on occasion, looks like this:
Now, being an S-class nerd I’d known beforehand that HeartCatch Precure -- and as far as I know, most of the Pretty Cure installments -- have a lot of overlap with some of the more…shall we say, “masculine fare”. And HeartCatch encapsulates that nature very intently: music that wouldn’t be out of place in Guilty Gear, fights that wouldn’t be out of place in Dragon Ball Z, and dare I say it a procedure that wouldn’t be out of place in Kamen Rider. (Or if you prefer, Viewtiful Joe.) Evil invaders, a call to action, a doodad that turns a mere mortal into a distinctly-costumed hero, OTT fights, finishing moves…you know, the usual.
I haven’t seen enough of HeartCatch to make any sweeping judgments about it -- although I will admit that at times, the show’s package almost feels like something out of a fever dream -- but for what it’s worth, I like it. I want to see more of it, even if I want to watch Kamen Rider more (because wouldn’t you know it, there’s a Bruce Lee-style Rider who transforms with the power of disco). I don’t care if it’s “girly”. I care if it’s good. And it IS good. It’s feminine, but in a sense it has no shortage of manliness. I suspect this is one of the few shows in the universe where the lead character worries about looking like a doofus in class in one scene, and has a punch-up with a house-sized demonic doll in the next.
Whatever the case, Kamen Rider and Pretty Cure have gotten me thinking about video games (even though a gentle breeze is enough to do that). I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that KR and PC are inherently different from one another, given how much overlap there is with their setup and execution. But it’s something that’s fed into a question I’ve been pondering over for a while. Something I’ve been nervous to think about, because there’s a LOT of potential to get into some nasty territory. Still, I figured I might as well get opinions from others. See where they stand on the topic.
It should go without saying that as games continue to evolve and come our way -- as games continue to try their hardest to give us stories instead of just a chance at a high score -- they have to give us more and better elements if they want our support. The standards of many of us gamers is on the rise; topics are getting discussed (however shakily), and tolerance for the same old tricks is (hopefully) going to one day force devs to stop banking on them so heavily. And of course, one of the big topics is how women appear in games. How should they be portrayed? How should they appeal to others? How should they take the leading role? All questions worth considering.
But there’s an underlying question that’s been niggling at me for ages now -- something that makes me wonder if that’s the real (dumb) reason why getting women in games is such an uphill struggle these days. The question is: does being a strong female character automatically deny being a feminine character?
The obvious answer to that is no, of course not. But the way games are now, I can’t help but wonder if there are people out there who answer with an innocently naïve “yes”. There may very well be people out there trying to give gamers what they want, or what they think they want (or worse yet, what they think we want). There’s a dangerous line of reasoning in there; “Because gamers want high-octane action, we need to have characters that are nothing but pure action.” Stupid as it may be, I suspect there’s an association with women and inaction; if they want to be in a game, they have to be willing to bust up a few space aliens. They have to be active, stalwart, and “can play with the boys.”
Again, that’s not a line of reasoning I agree with -- and I hope to God it’s just me overreaching -- but I understand where it comes from. We’ve long since moved past the days when saving Princess Peach was just a thing to do, and that’s definitely a good thing. But I’m not wholly convinced that the answer we’ve come up with nowadays is that much better. Having a damsel in distress is no good, but I can’t shake the feeling that the intent is to overcorrect by leveling the playing field. Games seem to have an issue with sanding down identifiable character traits (see: every third game released in the past decade), making them avatars for action and little else. On one hand it’s a disservice to female characters -- any character, really, but the female perspective is one worth appreciating -- but on the other, it strikes me as an unspoken, agreed-upon necessity by creators.
This isn’t a problem unique to video games, even if it’s a problem that has yet to be ironed out in this industry of ours. Characters can (and should) define themselves with their actions, so a character that doesn’t runs the risk of being a bad character. That’s part of the stigma of Princess Peach and other damsels, I’d bet; time and time again she’s been kidnapped, and the most she could do was send letters and items. Thing is, I suspect that in order to fix that, there’s a conception that a female character has to act more like a male character -- going beyond just getting knee-deep in the action -- to avoid being considered “weak”. That’s not to say that women who kick ass are inherently bad; what I’m saying is that women (and men) who are only defined by being able to kick ass are problematic in their own right.
Take Violet from Ultraviolet or Alice from the Resident Evil movies (both incidentally played by the same actress --hmmm). They’re both women of mass destruction, but I defy you to describe their personalities with at least three adjectives. I sure couldn’t. Their personas start and end with “badass”, and rather than being memorable for what they did, they’re inherently forgettable for what they didn’t do: be human. It’s a problem that I suspect is being duplicated by video games; in making Final Fantasy XIII, Square-Enix gave us two monster-slaying ladies, but couldn’t be bothered to go any further than their character designs and skill sets; that’s especially worrisome when you consider that one of them started out as a man. And the less said about the treatment of some of these heroines to prove their mettle and toughness, the better off we’ll be. Adversity builds character, but you can only go so far before it turns into a farce. Just ask Jodie Holmes.
So what’s the solution, then? Am I saying that from now on, in order to gain respect and even a chance at being used well (or at all) in a game, female characters have to wear bright colors and act emotional? No, of course not. That’s just silly. What I want is for some trace of femininity to be a part of their character -- not in a way that demands a love for baking and ponies, but in a way that emphasizes their humanity. Their personality. Their emotional spectrum. Their strengths AND their weaknesses. Their concerns, hopes, fears, and more. I want something that sets them apart from others, be it in their game of origin or in games across the board. I want them to do it on their own terms, in a way that’s believable, understandable, and enjoyable. (We can’t go overboard, lest we birth another Alfina.)
That may seem like a tall order for a medium that can’t even get a space marine right, but it’s not impossible. I’ve seen it done before. Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance had Titania, who not only expressed her care and concern for her comrades -- along with some good old fashioned motherly scolding -- but was also one of THE most powerful units in the game AND in the story.
More recently, we’ve been delighted with a character like BioShock Infinite’s Elizabeth, who has the power to tear apart reality, but more importantly sees no harm in dancing, singing, enjoying the sights, and using crocodile tears to clock Booker when he least expects it. Nearly ALL the party members in Persona 4 struggle with the concept of femininity and the social norms surrounding them, and learning to accept or reject certain concepts and assets is as much a part of the game as it is vital to their characters. I know it’s kind of cheap to bring up an Atlus game, but it was either that or invoke the spirit of Beyond Good and Evil. So here you go.
One of the most interesting examples, if you ask me, is Juliet from Lollipop Chainsaw. (Note the use of the words “most interesting”, not “best.”) It goes without saying that she’s THE asskicker of the game, but she does so with a distinct and colorful style -- a reflection of her personality and character via gameplay, as it should be. It would have been easy to make her Mademoiselle Panty Shot and leave it at that, but there’s more to her than her curves OR her zombie-killing capacity.
She’s sweet, but she’s got a real mouth on her. She cares about her boyfriend and family, but she’s clearly a short a few dozen marbles. She’s heroic in the sense that she’s trying to fix the mess created by the baddies, but she’s flawed in the sense that she’s more than willing to ignore her boyfriend’s pleas to satisfy her needs. She’s cheerful in spite of the zombie apocalypse, but she’s cheerful in spite of the zombie apocalypse. She’s a juxtaposition of extremes just as the title implies. She’s a berserker with a seriously demonic edge -- and at the same time, she’s a warrior with the sensibilities of a high school cheerleader. I find it infinitely interesting that a character that looks like nothing but fanservice bait has some real depth to her. More so than plenty of other characters, regardless of gender.
Juliet is just one of many possible examples, I’d say. Not every character has to be like her, but she does show what can be done when a character is allowed to a bit of self-expression in the medium. As I’ve said before, games express themselves by way of their mechanics -- combat, most of all. That isn’t automatically a bad thing, of course, but at this stage, when there are scores of tinkerers trying to give their game an “epic” tale. It’s not enough to scream “ACTION!” and leave it at that.
Strength and weakness are things worth valuing. The fight is important, but so is the reason behind the fight -- the personbehind the fight. That’s not to say that femininity is inherently weak (anyone who’s had or seen a mother in action, myself included, can attest to that); no, it’s the qualities of femininity that can make for a stronger character overall, precisely because there’s a level of thought beyond “kill” or “survive”.
It’s enough to make me think about something tangentially related. To be honest, I’m a guy who appreciates a manly character; being able to play as (and lose with) Haggar was one of the main draws for me to play Marvel vs. Capcom 3. Manliness is something to be admired, but as with all things, it’s something that has to be used and added in moderation. There has to be something there besides just the spectacle or the basic skill set. Otherwise, the manliness is hollow. A character might merely end up as “okay” just by being able to zap a bunch of aliens -- but a great character is one that has charisma while zapping aliens. There’s something to get attached to beyond just the action itself.
One of my personal experiences -- by which I mean biggest surprises -- came from Far Cry 3. I gave the game a shot not knowing what to expect, but I walked away from it with a positive impression. I’d say that’s partly because of the (unfortunately-named) lead, Jason Brody; the first part of the game shows him scared and at wit’s end, whimpering and panting as he should. But later on when he’s reunited with one of his friends, he actually ends up bursting into tears. It came as a surprise, but it didn’t hit me until later when I went to go grab some hot dogs; I suddenly thought to myself, “Holy hell, did that guy just show some emotions?” He did indeed. And it was so refreshing, especially since I’d just come off of Halo 4. A male character allowing himself to cry? Letting himself be afraid? Not being in total command of the situation to the point of indifference? That’s the bee’s knees right there!
I’m not about to conflate things like fear and sorrow to femininity. But if nothing else, I’d like to think there’s an emotional freedom -- one mixed with a sense of stability -- that shouldn’t be ignored. There’s a concern for the self, for others, for the rules, and for the world that doesn’t have to automatically be a weakness. Nor does it have to just be about things that are traditionally considered girly, or inherently something associated with women.
Just think about some of the most-beloved games to come out in the past year or so, like BioShock Infinite, The Last of Us, and Telltale’s The Walking Dead -- all of them put a younger sidekick in your midst, and came out stronger because of it. (Granted my understanding is that barring TWD, those were more about protecting the “child” instead of nurturing them, but it at least shows that a parent/child relationship can be explored in games.) What I want most is for characters to be free to find and define their own strength, on their own terms. And I want them to do so independently from their fighting prowess.
I get the feeling that the games industry associates femininity with weakness and masculinity with strength, even if that’s just a fat load (or, I dearly hope, me jumping to conclusions). But I think the terminology, the definitions behind the mindsets, need to change. Maybe instead of strength and weakness, we should use “hardness and softness.”
One of them is partly about taking on challenges with gusto and force, but has an obvious harshness that harms friend and foe alike. The other is partly about being able to perceive the nuances and niceties of life -- all the better for protecting it -- but can struggle against major odds and challenges. The mix of the two is important, regardless of the gender. The mix of the two, and the balance that results, can make for a phenomenal character. Stalwartness as well as sensitivity. Endurance as well as expression. Conviction as well as compassion. That’s something the industry should aspire towards.
I’m willing to assume that some of you reading this are thinking that, even if my ideas are airtight (and that’s a big if) there’s no way what I’ve suggested will be viable for a wide audience. The dudebros and kiddies and whatnot want to play as Coolly McCoolerson; may the feminine touch be damned. That’s a concern, sure, but that’s no excuse. Putting out “the next big thing” isn’t about caving to audience interests or expectations. True success may very well come not from giving the people what they want, but giving them something they didn’t even know they wanted. That’s the clincher. That’s how we’re going to take the industry to the next level -- as consumers, and as its future creators. And if getting girly is the key to that evolution, then so be it. That’s a future I’ll gladly welcome.
And that’s the end of that chapter. Now do something important and go watch some Kamen Rider. It’s the only way you’ll get context for this:
Huh. You know, this clip actually brings another possible topic to mind. But I think I'll just hold off on that until I'm certain I can make it not-stupid. Maybe someday...
I don’t think I’ve had an existential crisis this bad since I watched Transformers: Dark of the Moon and legitimately wanted to bash my head against something until everything went black. Just thought I’d throw that out there to set the tone.
So. In a few weeks, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy 13 is going to be on store shelves and ready for purchase and digestion by gamers all over the states. And frankly, I’m ecstatic -- not about the game, of course. At long last, this so-called, ill-advised, and poorly-executed (in my humble opinion, of course <3) “Lightning Saga” is finally going to come to an end. For the foreseeable future, at least; I get the feeling this isn’t the last we’ll be seeing of Miss Farron, even beyond an appearance in a hypothetical third Dissidiagame. It’s safe to assume she’ll be popping up in the new Kingdom Hearts. I’m really looking forward to seeing the ever-energetic Sora talking to someone who's shown an emotion less than half a dozen times over some eighty hours' worth of canon. And when she does, it comes off as kind of creepy.
Brrr. Think I just got the chills.
But like I said, I’m ecstatic. I’m happy. FF13 was the game that “broke” the franchise for me -- a game so bad that it makes Transformers look good. (At least they have the good grace to end in three hours or less; FF13 made empty promises of getting good eventually, asking players to tough it out for about twenty hours.) And as if that wasn’t bad enough, FF13-2 was significantly worse; I not only consider it the WORST game I’ve ever played, but so unbelievably bad that it makes vanilla 13 look good. That level of failure is like going up to 18.0 on the Richter scale. So at least by this time next year, it’ll all be over.
And that just brings up a new problem. The Lightning Saga is coming to an end in terms of production. But in terms of this story? In terms of this one-sided rivalry of mine? It’s not over.
Lightning’s calling me out. Calling me to the ultimate ring.
I’m going to go ahead and assume you’re at least vaguely familiar with my work. If you’re not, then I’ll be brief. I can and have written multiple posts dissecting the previous two games in this so-called Lightning Saga. I’ve used my unreasonably large head to reason and argue that Squeenix’s golden girl is (by way of incompetent writing and blind glorification) actually thevillain ofher saga, and more likely to destroy her world instead of save it…or if not that, then at least be responsible for everything that’s gone wrong with the saga. Simply put, if there was no Lightning, there would be no conflict. Period.
I have a hard time supporting or even liking a game if its main character is complete garbage. But that’s precisely what Lightning is to me -- and even if she wasn’t in the “Saga”, that would still leave two games with barely-there gameplay, a world that might as well be painted on, a story that the common ostrich would call stupid, and a level of gravitas that makes the “serious” tale that much sillier, and threatens to strangle the player with hands that would make Hellboy feel inadequate. If I was ever going to play the betrayal card, it would be for these games -- and merely the fact that a third game is just weeks away from release makes me want to choke on my rage.
But I know how this goes. I have a very strong hunch that my brother’s going to grab the game, because he grabbed the other two -- and thanks to LR having an action-oriented bent, he has an even better reason to give it a shot. More to the point, I have a very strong hunch that he’s going to ask me to play through the game, even though he knows how much I loathe the “Saga”. I suspect on some level he wants to see me play through it, since I’ve beaten plenty of RPGs he couldn’t -- or more appropriately, because he wants to see me suffer as revenge for that one time I tainted his shake with mayonnaise and pickle juice as per the greatest April Fool’s Day ever.
He wants me to see it through to the end. And now there’s a part of me that wants to do the same.
I haven’t beaten a single game in this “Saga” yet, but not for lack of trying; I threw up my hands when dealing with the last boss of vanilla 13 (random chance that he’ll instantly kill my leader and force a Game Over? Do not want), and it took all of my willpower to keep myself from taking a jackhammer to 13-2 when it expected me to do a time-wasting fetch quest after suffering through a cockamamie subplot -- which paradoxically might have gotten more attention in the story than the main plot. So on one level, clearing LR is a chance to reclaim my honor, and reassert my pride as a gamer.
Setting matters of pride (the greatest sin of all!) aside, I can’t shake the feeling that how I approach LR could say certain things about my character -- as a gamer or otherwise. I’ve been burned twice by this “Saga”, and badly. But the Final Fantasy brand used to mean something to me. FF10 was a fun little romp that, while certainly not perfect, is still something I don’t mind admitting I like. I spent many more hours than I should have creating an unbeatable task force in FF8, and got a kick out of the proceedings that followed. FF7 was my first, and in a lot of ways it opened my mind -- not just to the potential of video games, but the possibility of one day dreaming up my own tales of heroes. I’m no die-hard fan, but I don’t have to be. The series already had its effect on me.
With this howling hydra that Squeenix calls The Lightning Saga well in our midst, I have to admit that I’ve decided to sever ties to the franchise that once inspired me, and once counted on. But it’s not something I did with ease. In fact, even now I feel kind of guilty about making such a bold declaration. “Is it really okay to turn my back on them?” I asked myself. “What if they turn it around with the next game?” I wondered. “Can I really call myself fair and just if I heap on the hate?” I thought. Indeed, hating a game that I never even touch would make me the worst sort of person -- something very near one of the fabled and reviled “nostalgiatards” that dwell in the annals of darkness.
And as you can guess, I have a personal stake in the matter. If the hydra really is coming my way, I have my doubts that I can just turn my back on it. Call it perversion if you will, because it’s probably something very close to it. I have to know how the story ends; if I didn’t, I would have spoiled the ending for myself a long time ago. I want to believe that there’s still a tiny glimmer of hope, some minute fragment that makes the “Saga” worthwhile. I want to play the game, and by some miracle have it offer something substantial to me. Something that’ll put my mind at ease, and heal the scars left by its gnashing heads.
I don’t want to be afraid to play another Final Fantasy game. But the fact that I feel that way in the first place has me worried.
I’m beginning to think that my instincts are a lot better than I give myself credit for. I was worried about DmC, and you just have to spot the tactical omission of the subtitle to know how I feel about that. I had my suspicions about Beyond: Two Souls, and wouldn’t you know it, everything that I suspected would be a problem became a problem. And when I was wrong, I was wrong in the worst way possible; The Last of Us went past just being a not-quite-worthy GOTY contender and became something not-even-mediocre, popular opinion be damned. So is there a chance that Lightning’s Last Hurrah will give me what I’m looking for in a game? Yes. Will it deliver? Sign after sign after sign seems to suggest that I should stay the hell away, to the point where I’m afraid the demo alone will scare me off. It wouldn't be the first time a demo has given me warning signals.
Like I said, I’m not a die-hard FF fan. But isn’t this the exact same thought process thousands of other gamers have gone through? Haven’t they been burned by a FF game in the past, but bought the next one anyway because there’s a chance the new one will recapture the magic? What kind of message would I be sending if I gave Squeenix the satisfaction in knowing that I played one of their post-Sakaguchi games? What kind of standard would I be setting for myself if I caved after saying “No more Final Fantasy” and played the sequel to a game that was effectively the cringe-worthy Apology Edition to a game that made me want to cry tears of blood? Wouldn’t caving in make me part of the problem, and not the solution?
And beyond all that, I have my doubts I’d be playing the game for the right reasons. I can tell you right now that I’m not the type who buys into the “turn your brain off” practice of entertainment; if you have to turn your brain off to enjoy something, then the story doesn’t deserve to be enjoyed. So whether the game is good or bad, I expect that if I play it (or rage-quit and watch the rest through an LP, as I did with 13-2), I’ll likely be posting my needlessly in-depth thoughts of it across the internet. And frankly, I wonder if that’s the only reason I’m interested in the game. Do I want to play it because I want closure on multiple levels? Do I want to play it so I can put another notch on my gamer belt? Do I want to play it just so I can revel smugly over how bad the game is, or how bad the franchise has gotten? Do I want to play it just so I can have something to complain about, or prove that I’m right? Do I have any intention of engaging with the game on its terms -- as a game designed to be rewarding in some form -- or just as proof that the joke’s still being told by Squeenix?
…It’s very possible that I’m over-thinking this. I do that sometimes.
Let’s be real here. The days when Final Fantasy and its creators -- Squaresoft, Square-Enix or otherwise -- ruled the roost have long since past. If I want a consistently-good franchise, I have the Tales Series. If I want a once-in-a-blue-moon but oh-so-satisfying release, I’ve got Atlus. If I want one-off games that come out of nowhere but hit like Muhammad Ali with rocket boosters in his gloves, I’ve got Lost Odyssey, Xenoblade Chronicles, and Ni no Kuni. And those are just the JRPGs. I have a feeling that Squeenix thinks it’s doing something revolutionary by making a FF gamethat’s action-oriented -- and as such, I have a feeling that their vision is being distorted by the vacuum they make their games in.
I don’t think I’m going to lose any sleep over another bad FF game. Nor will that be the case if (or when) I swear off the series for real, despite its best efforts to pull me back in. But in order to bring this story to an end, I have to drop down into the coal mines one last time -- to go deep into the bowels of the earth, and say goodbye to the stars above. The question is, do I have the willpower for it? Do I have the justified reasons to give it one more shot? Do I have the courage to ride with the devil?
…Kamen Rider W reference. Yes.
I’m going to go ahead and assume that there’s no clear-cut answer to all of these questions, so I’ll clam up here. And I’ll let you all weigh in on the subject. Should I take the plunge? How should I approach this game? Is anyone else struggling with the decision? Ever felt the same way? By all means, go on and chat it up in the comments.
As for me? Well, I’d say something about getting ready to weather the storm, but that’s way too obvious of a pun, don’t you think?
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.