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As Black as Lightning (Part 1) - Destructoid

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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.

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I have a sneaking suspicion that it was (the great) Jim Sterling’s review of Final Fantasy XIII that led me to discover Destructoid one fateful day.  In a universe where eights, nines, and the occasional perfect score orbited the game like Saturn’s rings, that one glorious 4.0 shone brighter than the sun, and to this day stands as proof -- a totem of fans’ and gamers’ outrage.  That game has come and gone, and for those who felt wronged, there have been plenty of titles that have helped heal the wound.  But with the third game in this saga looming large on the horizon and Square-Enix in dire straits -- and news of Lightning getting a bunny suit, because of course she gets a bunny suit -- I think it’s time for me to make an assertion I’ve had in mind for a while.

That famous review started with this line: “If you're a hardcore Final Fantasy XIII fan, prone to emotional outbursts and so defensive of Square Enix's latest effort that you'll get upset by harsh criticism, then you're advised to not read this review.”  The same applies here...to some extent, at least, considering that this isn’t a review.  In fact, you can almost consider this a refutation.

One thing that (the great) Jim Sterling has asserted a few times in the past -- like right here -- is that Lightning has no personality.  That’s a point I can’t quite bring myself to agree with.  I understand what he’s getting at, yes, and it’s a valid interpretation, sure…but I have a different one in mind.  I’ve made it no secret that I consider Lightning to be the worst character I’ve ever encountered in anything, but even with my bias I say Lightning DOES have a personality.  It’s just that it’s so terrible, it pins her as the villain of her games.  



I'm a firm believer in -- oh wait, hold on.

(Spoilers for FFXIII and XIII-2 incoming.  You’d best bail now if you want to see the games fresh.  Also?  You probably shouldn’t take this thing too seriously, seeing as how the last time I proposed a theory I suggested a certain princess was some blood-thirsty demigoddess.  Just being honest here.)

I’m a firm believer in the idea that a strong cast is one of, if not THE most important part of a story, video game or not.  I’ve even said that if the main character of a story is bad, the story is bad.  No exceptions.  That’s part of the reason why I disliked DmC as much as I did -- because even at the endgame, I felt like Dante was still a huffy, short-sighted tough guy…maybe less so than at the start of his game, but the circumstances of the ending only highlighted how out of his element he was for everything to come.  

Meanwhile, Metal Gear Rising gave me a Raiden I wasn’t expecting to like, but ended up gleefully following on his road to revengeance, getting new insights and new depth from a grown man wearing metal bikini bottoms.  It’s almost sad that the game that should have been smart ended up stupid, while the game that could have been stupid ended up smart.  In my humble opinion, of course. 
 


In any case, what’s important to note is that a main character defines a story.  With his/her actions, ideas, and development, the story at large takes shape around them.  How do they interact with others?  How do they change the world around them?  How do they solidify and spread their ideals?  All questions that a good story should have answered -- with overwhelming evidence -- by the endgame.  

Even if vanilla XIII put on airs of an ensemble cast where no one character was more important than the other, it seems obvious to me that Lightning always was and always will be the star of this subseries…which, you know, has been retroactively called “The Lightning Saga”.  That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that in order for the games to even approach being good -- which in this case I’ll call “universally enjoyed”, a task that isn’t as impossible as it sounds given other games elsewhere -- Lightning has to make a strong argument for herself, for her world, and her saga.

She doesn’t. 

…In my humble opinion, of course. 



In a nutshell, vanilla XIII’s story pins Lightning and company as fugitives on the run.  After a riot to save her little sister Serah goes awry, Lightning and the party are branded as l’Cie -- slaves of the gods -- by fal’Cie -- the biomechanical might-as-well-be gods in question -- to do their bidding, and are given the magical power to do so.  But since being a l’Cie in their canon is a big no-no, the military hunts them from one corner of their cushy paradise Cocoon to the next.  The gang ends up discovering the true nature of their mission and the machinations of the fal’Cie (to bring Cocoon hurtling to the ground, killing everyone in it), so they decide to take a stand.  So they march on to the capital, they fight some, stuff…happens, and the day is saved.  Lightning gets reunited with her sister, and all is well.  At least until XIII-2, but we’ll get to that.

If you ask me, one of the notable facets (and greatest vices) of Lightning’s character is her relationship with power.  Think about it -- her backstory paints her as a highly-trained, highly-skilled soldier who specializes in and is rewarded -- mentally and emotionally as well as organizationally -- for murder.  Prior to the start of the game, she’s given more than enough reason to see the world in black and white.  She’s a soldier, so she fights criminals and monsters.  And she’s pretty good at it.  Probably.   



That’s not only her mindset, but the very concept her life and livelihood are based on.  The idea is supposed to be that Pulse -- the world outside Cocoon’s borders -- is full of schemers and malcontents looking to disturb the peace, so if they were to launch an invasion, Lightning would have every right to crush them under holy orders.  (It certainly helps that there’s been propaganda against Pulse for who knows how long, brainwashing the populace.)  Lightning herself admits in one cutscene that “she didn’t want to think” and one of her battle quotes is “target’s a target”.  All she needs is an enemy, the black to her white, and she’ll strike them down.  No questions asked.

Now here’s a question that I have to ask -- not just Square-Enix, but to anyone who has a commanding understanding of the canon.  What is the difference between Lightning with l’Cie powers and Lightning without l’Cie powers?  The implication is supposed to be that a l’Cie is several times more powerful than the average human, and not just because he/she can use magic (especially since the soldiers you fight use magic anyway via portable containers and grenades).  But at the start of the game, Lightning is capable of moving at near-superhuman speed, shooting a machine gun one-handed with pinpoint accuracy whether she’s upside-down or not, and drop-kicking grunts across a train car. 



That all happens in the opening cutscene; when she’s out of the opening cutscene, the first thing she does is take on a laser-blasting mech with a sword and back flips.  It’s arguable that being a l’Cie is supposed to remove the limiters on a person’s body, letting their potential climb to infinity -- even though there’s not much reason for a fal’Cie to let its gofer gain enough power to destroy it in an act of rebellion -- but that just highlights the problem.  

In a cutscene a little later, Lightning slides around a soldier and hits him with a Tekken-style combo before he can even hit the ground.  Where do you go from there?  Well, you could give her an Eidolon, but what good would that do?  Give her free reign to stomp down on a race track she didn’t even need to visit and murder everyone that looks at her funny?



…Oh.  OhOhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

Like any RPG, the gameplay makes a character’s growth a key part of the experience (you can’t clear the adventure without getting that sweet, sweet EXP).  The problem is that story-wise, there’s nothing to make that growth -- that need for growth -- ring true for Lightning.  She’s already right where she needs to be but gets stronger regardless, and doesn’t face the struggles needed to understand the purpose of that power. 

She doesn’t get the challenge she needs to spark her character development; there’s no rival character that serves her a barrel’s worth of humble pie, and while there is a dedicated antagonist, he doesn’t show up for what has to be nearly two dozen hours.  (The whole game is reluctant to give its cast dedicated antagonists or rivals; there was setup to give Sazh one in Jihl, but she got axed without fanfare because reasons.)  The external force pushing Lightning to change and evolve is a tangential one, not a perceivable one; there needed to be a face and a name to push her farther -- and push her down -- but even with the villain’s reveal it doesn’t amount to nearly as much as it could have.  Because of it, Lightning’s development is stunted…in my humble opinion, of course.



That all said, it’s not necessarily a game-breaker to lack those elements.  It just means that the other elements have to work that much harder -- the internal struggles and realizations that Lightning comes to could compensate several times over. Or should I say, they could have compensated, but didn’t.  Lightning’s black-white vision remains ironclad throughout the game, with the key change being who she considers in the white and who she considers in the black. 

Her rigid definitions put every character that doesn’t agree with her in the black, no matter how good their intentions are (Snow), how justified they are (the soldiers), or even how inconsequential they are to Lightning’s ultimate goal (every other party member prior to roughly the start of the game’s second half).  She has no attachment to anyone in the black -- i.e. her party, with the debatable exception of Hope -- until the plot arbitrarily decides to make her attached to the others even though she spent huge swaths of time separated from them, ensuring that her black-white worldview remains unchallenged and sacred.  In fact, one of Lightning’s key character-development scenes was triggered by Hope on accident, in a scene that completely defies my faith in humanity to this day.
 


I could point out the problems with that one cutscene and everything leading up to it for a solid hour, but I haven’t even gotten to XIII-2yet, so let’s move on.  To make a long, dumb story short, prior to that cutscene Lightning is 100% okay with killing off everyone in Cocoon -- or if not the people, then the government who in turn maintain the peace and safety of the people -- as per the fal’Cie’s wishes; humanity has been moved into the black thanks to one simple order.  She argues that her hopes and dreams have been stolen away from her, but what those entail is never established in the game proper, even in the flashbacks.  

Does she want to become the greatest soldier ever?  Does she want to retire to the countryside?  Does she want to take up pottery, the noblest of all pursuits?  There’s no telling, so all that’s left is conjecture.  So, based on her status in the military and what we know of her goals story-wise, the only things we can be sure of are A) she wants to survive, B) she wants to crush her enemies -- those in the black -- and C) she wants Serah by her side.  And it’s that last point that pushes Lightning even further into the role of the villain.



With the exception of a superior officer who shows up in one, maybe two cutscenes, the only person we can fully ascertain to be in the white -- besides Lightning herself -- is her younger sister Serah.  Fair enough.  But again, what’s established about Lightning in the game doesn’t paint her as a stable or even intelligent character, much less a nurturing older sister.  

This is a character that thinks she needs to “forget her past” because reasons, takes on a name that she thinks symbolizes pure destruction (even though lightning -- or electricity, if you prefer -- is kind of important), and complains about Snow just as much as the fourteen-year-old chained to her leg.  I know people give Snow a lot of flak, and he’s not exactly peachy-keen either, but at least he had some semblance of a goal in mind from the get-go.  At least he worked toward it in his own, stupid way.  At least he didn’t win several Darwin Awards at once with this cutscene…in my humble opinion, of course.
 


It would be easy -- too easy -- to call Lightning bland and leave it at that.  Viable, but easy.  Cut just a little bit deeper and you find further layers to this character.  Her behavior and reasoning don’t seem that much more evolved than a sixth-grader; she’s petulant, thoughtless, selfish, and outright eager to ram her gunblade down the throat of decency or common sense.  Serah had no reason to lie to Lightning -- and likely couldn’t, considering the nature of the l’Cie brand -- and yet the pink-haired powerhouse decides it’s a good idea to outright reject Serah in her time of need because…say it with me now…reasons.  So you could probably add “dumb” to the list of character traits, or even “brutish” when you remember that the answer to most of her problems is to aggressively attack anyone or anything that disagrees with her.

But I’d like to take it a step further.  Lightning’s black and white world is one of concepts.  Of absolute ideas.  If this character does this, then they’re in the black and must be rejected -- or if not that, then destroyed.  If this character does that, then they’re in the white and must be protected (alongside Lightning) and their whims attended to.  Lightning reasons that the fal’Cie made her a l’Cie to bring about the destruction of Cocoon, and because of those holy orders from a higher power she has every reason to move what should be a reluctant partner at best into something to be revered and protected. 



For the longest time, that divinity is something she doesn’t bother to question until it’s time to flip-flop and play hero, as one would expect from a Final Fantasy lead.  Compare that to Serah; she has a more mundane presence and a more mundane understanding of life -- one that might as well be alien to her older sister.  As long as Serah performs actions that please Lightning, she’ll remain in her white.  But if she dissents -- if she, for example, decides to marry Snow -- then Lightning will go out of her way to reject her, even if it means leaping over every logical barrier to do so.  She’s now in the black.  And part of me wonders if the only reason Lightning didn’t attack her was because of the plot…and the whole sisterhood thing, but mostly the plot.

Thankfully Lightning realizes the error of her ways -- even though that conflict shouldn’t have been there in the first place -- but the damage has been done.  If not for that act, it’s very possible that the plot of vanilla XIII as we know it wouldn’t have happened.  The fal’Cie could have roped in some new candidates for the plan, yes (although that’s not quite as likely, given that it’d mean another half-dozen band of idiots would have to get in close contact with a biomechanical god), but the main cast would have been dropped.  Serah is the instigator of Lightning’s venture and Snow’s venture, and the other characters have their lives impacted by her presence to a lesser extent.  But by and large, what’s happened is mostly Lightning’s fault because she provoked Serah to run in the first place.  Her act of rejection pushed Serah, the one person she’s supposed to protect, in harm’s way.  And given how she acts about her throughout almost the entirety of the game after that, I wonder if she’s even all that hung up about it.



Serah gets turned into a crystal statue and appears primarily in flashbacks to flesh her out.  It’s suggested that by becoming a crystal, she’s effectively become immortal -- and given a fate worse than death, arguably -- but I have a hunch that this is exactly the way Lightning wants it.  Think about it.  Serah can no longer talk, which means she can no longer talk back.  She can’t progress any further in her life, and remains stuck in stasis precisely as Lightning remembers her -- a perfect embodiment of beauty, innocence, and purity. 

She has ceased being human, and has become a concept.  She is at once the ultimate embodiment of Lightning’s white, and a release from it; with no one to protect but her own life and self-interests, Lightning is free to cut loose and destroy to her heart’s content.  She’s free to fight and to destroy, cutting down anything and anyone that doesn’t agree with her.  Lightning is the world’s only source of white -- and everything else is jet black.



You could make the argument that “she gets better” over the course of the game because of the JRPG trappings.  Given her archetype and the structure of the plot, you could say that A) Lightning’s heart grows three sizes and she realizes how crazy she’s been, B) there’s a bigger enemy and catastrophe that need to be stopped, and C) she has the power to find new dreams if she fights on and believes in miracles.  But for me, none of those ring true.  I don’t think Lightning has a single meaningful moment with any NPCs besides Hope’s dad (if that), meaning that if she was supposed to realize and stand up for humanity’s potential, she has no basis for it besides hearsay. 

Setting aside the fact that she was willing to spark a catastrophe in the game’s earlier hours, the antagonist that ultimately appears is as stock a villain as they come, negating the impact and merit of both the characters and the story.  And even in the later goings of the game, Lightning at best comes off as someone begrudgingly tolerating the characters and events around her…between bad one-liners, of course.  I would sooner expect to hear Vanille or Snow (or Kamina) talking about fighting to make the impossible possible, making her mentions of anything besides the mission at hand jarring.  On the other hand, reminders of Gurren Lagann are always appreciable.



Now let’s get serious for a moment. There’s something that’s been on my mind for a while when it comes to XIII’s story, but it revolves around a tricky subject matter.  I’m going to try and be delicate here, but it’s not something I or likely anyone can talk about comfortably.  So fair warning: if you’re the type who gets easily bothered by difficult topics, you might want to consider leaving now.  Go listen to…I don’t know, The Lion King soundtrack or something.  All right?  All right.

Personally, I think suicide is a concept that XIII needed to tackle.  Sazh actually does look like he’s going to go through with it at one point, but the scene’s impact is immediately diffused by the fact that he just got his Eidolon and there are still several dozen hours left in the game by that point (and the notion that “shooting himself in the head” is apparently a bloodless affair).  If the game actually had bothered to bring up the concept seriously -- which it could have, considering how seriously it takes itself -- it would have turned the histrionics into something meaningful.  Something weighty. 

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the l’Cie/fal’Cie system is completely bogus.  The masters give their gofers tasks that could very well be impossible to have done, accomplishing nothing. Meanwhile, the gofers either complete their mission and turn into crystal sculptures, or fail their mission and turn into shambling rock-zombies.  There’s no incentive for them to clear the mission if both roads lead to death…so why even bother?  If neither option leads to a happy ending, then why not take a third and final option?



The system seems to have a mechanism like that built into it.  It’s explained that the Eidolons are the judges of their summoner’s will; if/when they face their darkest hour, an Eidolon will appear to fight them.  If the gofer beats them, the beast’s power becomes theirs.  If the gofer loses, they’re dead.  So when Sazh thinks he’s lost his son, he’s lost all hope -- that is, until his Eidolon shows up and he shoots it into submission. 

Each Eidolon fight is supposed to signal a key point in each character’s arc, but I’m hard-pressed to understand the reason why some of the beasts descend when they do, let alone their impact.  Snow’s just appears when he’s tired and surrounded by grunts, and I sincerely doubt he even understood what the fight was supposed to mean at the time (and I doubt the player did, either).  There are ways to make a heavy topic like suicide or other internal conflicts into physical threats -- Persona 4 was built on them -- but for a game like XIII, they needed to make the discussion overt instead of...



Yeah.  That.

As fugitives tasked with destroying what amounts to the majority of the world with (at first) no hope of escaping their fate, the issue could have been a real proving ground for each character.  If faced with the choice of completing a mission at the cost of your life and the lives of millions of others, or the choice of purposely failing a mission to live out your life as a horrible monster, OR the choice of dying with what remains of your dignity and all of your sanity, what would choose?  Is the greater good worth more than your life, especially if your life is forfeit anyway?  Is the greater good worth more than your life, especially if your sole chance at salvation -- taking the fight to your master’s doorstep -- doesn’t even have a one percent chance of coming to pass?  Do you have the resolve to take your own life? 

Those are heavy questions -- VERY heavy questions, with even heavier consequences.  But thinking back, I don’t feel as if XIII handled them very well, if at all.  It just feels as if the cast jumped from aimless survival to blind optimism.  They figured everything would be all right if they just kept fighting.  It worked out in the end, but only because of the JRPG trappings.  Only because “defying fate” and “overcoming the gods” are just things you do in a video game.  And the characters follow the “rules” just as closely as the player.  By design, there’s no room for dissent.  No room for exploration.



But what does all of this have to do with Lightning?  Am I saying that she should have considered suicide just to make the story good?  No, obviously not.  It just feels like something that could have contributed to her arc.  Sazh brought up the topic, and for the most part he was the only character of the core six to genuinely act on it; the other characters went through bouts of confusion and worrying (or angst, if you prefer), but Sazh was the only one who even entertained the thought of taking action, not just trot about the subject while it sat miles away.  

It showed a level of desperation that the game hadn’t really established, even if it was just a meaningless gesture in the end.  Sazh had likely been thinking long and hard about what he was going to do, and prior to his Eidolon fight actually spells out his plan to Vanille.  For him to dash those plans means that he weighed the options and considered what would happen if he continued on his forced quest, and decided he only had one option left.  Maybe that’s why so many people think Sazh is the best character to come out of this Saga -- because he’s the closest to being a genuine human.



You would expect, then, that of the six cast members, three of them would be the passionate, idealistic sort.  The other three would be the rational, contemplative sort.  Snow and Vanille are easy enough to peg, as are Sazh and Fang…for the most part.  Hope probably belongs to the former camp, which for the sake of balance would put Lightning on the cool-heads’ team.  But I have a hard time buying it, and the fact that suicide is made a non-issue for her only highlights both her weaknesses as a character and (paradoxically) her strengths as a villain. 

To me, Lightning comes off as a character that puts on airs of calmness and rationality, but I’d like to think that there’s more than enough evidence -- here, and in the games to come -- that she’s not quite the voice of reason she pretends to be.  It’s true that the will to live is an important part of human nature, and it’s a thought current in every third story, video game or otherwise, ever released.  But I get the sense that Lightning’s will to live is just a concept to her -- a right that she holds dear, merely because it exists and she recognizes it.  I have sincere doubts that Lightning understands what life means, much less respects it.  Unless the game was being extremely subtle (which I doubt, for obvious reasons), her Eidolon fight is more about learning to accept help from others and stop being so cold, not forcing her to face true despair.  Other Eidolon fights are similarly…confused, but considering the sore lack of notable moments in her character arc, I think Lightning gets hit hardest. 



I don’t feel as if Lightning has struggled any more than the other cast members -- certainly not on a personal level.  She may admit throughout the game that she doesn’t know what she’s supposed to do, but that doesn’t stop her from footnoting each cutscene with either a fight against the next enemy or a trek to the next random destination.  She has no aim, but she has no reason to stop.  No reason to consider the weight of life -- hers, her comrades’, or the people she shares a world with.  She has power, so why would she ever think she has a chance of failure?  Of dying?  Of not getting her way?  As long as she keeps swinging that sword of hers, she’ll live on.  She can keep ensuring that she has exactly the life she wants.  Breaking everything, breaking anything. 
 
I will be fair, though.  The concept of suicide DOES eventually get brought up again in XIII-2.  It’s just that it’s such a broken application that it very nearly comes off as an insult.  Then again, I feel that way about the entire game.  But I’ll get to that next time.



The takeaway from all this is that the so-called Lightning Saga got off on the wrong foot.  Setting aside the fact that making a saga probably wasn’t the intention at the game’s reveal all those years ago,  attempts to paint Lightning as the saga’s hero come off as hollow and insincere -- and flat-out wrong.  I could accept her being the main character of these games, sure, but the hero?  No.  Squeenix is asking too much of its audience.  The evidence it gives far outweighs the JRPG conventions, and just goes to highlight one of two things: either how little they understood the character and her game(s), or how much they wanted to bend everything to suit her.  Neither option makes for a very good product; vanilla XIII comes off as confused, contradictory, and…well, kind of crummy.  In my humble opinion, of course. 

But as bad as I consider XIII to be, XIII-2 is worse.  Phenomenally worse.  And just as the Lightning Saga dips into the darkness, so too does its leading lady.  And I’ll gladly explain what I mean…next time.  I get the feeling that I’ve typed enough for one day, so I’ll go ahead and give my fingers -- and your eyes -- a rest. 

See you guys soon.  Because we’ve still got a looooooooooooooooooooong way to go.

…And thank God for Jim.
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