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January 23, 2012

You’re Doing It Wrong

The weather’s been pretty nice as of late.  Some sun, not too chilly -- yeah, the wind’s blowing like crazy, but that’s hardly worth complaining about.  And I’ve got plenty of oatmeal in the house; I’d argue to the death that it’s the breakfast of champions.  Had some tacos last night with a friend, played some games, watched 28 Days Later for the first time (pretty good movie, man!) …I’d say I’ve got nothing to complain about.

Oh, let’s look at what games are coming out this month.   Oooh, Soulcalibur 5.  That looks pretty good.  And it looks like we’ve got…

…Oh.  Oh dear.  It’s…


XIII-2.  Heh heh.  Ha.  Ha.  Ha.  Ha.  That’s…pretty…

I have…something of a love-hate relationship with the Final Fantasy XIII series.  And by love-hate I mean hate-hate.

I guess you could say it started back when the first trailer for FF13 came out.  Back when it was still a PS3 exclusive -- and more importantly, a showcase of the power of next-gen engines.  And what a trailer!  Just look at those graphics!  And that action!  And whoa holy cow would you look at that battle system!  Is this even an RPG anymore it’s all like whoop whoop whoosh shing shing batta-batta-batta DOPE!  Oh, and nice song, too. 

The game was nothing like this, except for the cutscenes.  Promises!

It was when that first trailer appeared at E3 2006 that I started to fear for Nintendo’s future.  “Oh man.  Mario and Link may be tough, but I don’t think even they can top that.”   When my brother would go on to naysay the PS3, I would say “But they’ve still got Final Fantasy.”  And as usual, I would go about collecting and retaining any of the information I could, eager for an RPG from a definitive franchise.

It wasn’t until I’d reached the penultimate boss of the game, years later and a few weeks after its release, that I realized how much I hated this game.  No, more than that.  It was as if I stared dozens of broken promises in the face.  It was as if all that hype and prospect had vanished.  It was as if everything I knew was wrong -- years of trust in a franchise brought into question and stomped upon, forcing me to wonder if what I’d believed in was just a sham wrought by the developers.

But at the very least, it had that one good song back in the first trailer.

I could go on and on about what made FF13 such a…displeasure…but that would take many moons and many seasons.  Someday, I’ll have explained my rationale in full.  But for now, I want to focus on something that’s been bugging me for a while.  Something I was vaguely aware of, and increasingly cognizant of since the reveal of 13-2 (Square Enix, you DON’T get to have a do-over when your last game was -- no, no, deep breaths, deep breaths, we’re not doing that today).

I think I would tolerate -- maybe even like -- Final Fantasy XIII if it wasn’t for the main character, Lightning.  

She's wearing about 20 belts.  Character design!

Now don’t start accusing me of sexism and hating on trying to put a “strong female lead” in games; I’m not.  In fact, I’m all for it, and maybe someday a story I write will have a heroine that the masses approve of.  And I appreciate what Square Enix tried to do here.  It’s just that they screwed it up on every conceivable level.  That alone makes me wish they’d just stuck with their stereotypical androgynous male (?) hero.  The crux of the problem -- and by extension the whole point of this post -- is that Square Enix wanted to make a badass.  Problem was, that single-minded goal ended up squeezing out anything that made Lightning vaguely enjoyable, leaving us with a drink that’s not unlike soaking nails in lemon juice.

Even before the game came out, there was one thing that both caught my interest and made me a bit nervous: the claim that XIII’s director and lead writer Motomu Toriyama wanted Lightning to be more or less “a female version of Cloud.”  (Cloud, as many of you know, was the lead character of 1997’s much-espoused Final Fantasy VII.)  That set off an alarm in my head for a number of reasons.  The first and most obvious is that, while it’s good to remember the past and past successes, you can’t -- and shouldn’t -- revisit treaded ground and wait for blind praise.  It’s okay to try new things, especially with a character that ISN’T Cloud, will NEVER BE Cloud, and could even SURPASS Cloud in terms of appeal/popularity with a little thought and ingenuity. 

The second point is that not everybody remembers every detail and facet of what made Cloud interesting.  People may remember a few of the basics (like a sword the size of a surfboard, a rivalry with the infamous Sephiroth, the fact that he spent years of his life deluding himself into thinking he was a badass mercenary -- go figure), but the nuances behind his character aren’t as easily remembered without another playthrough of the game.  Fans have moved on; they need something new because they lived through Cloud’s adventures.  Third -- and this is the most important -- I can’t help but wonder if Square Enix even remembers what Cloud was like.  Ignoring the fact that they were still Squaresoft when the game was released, and ignoring the fact that several of the minds behind the game had long since gone, who’s to say if Cloud’s perception within the company has changed any?  I’m leaning towards a cynical interpretation for once, if the movie sequel/tie-in Advent Children is any indicator.  I may not remember all the details about Cloud, but I doubt he’d turn into a colorless, morose twat so readily -- especially after he’d started overcoming his demons at the end of the original game.  But I suppose that was the price to pay for watching Cloud faff about until it was time to slash some white-haired boyband members to pieces.

It took 23 million dollars and ten virgin sacrifices to render that hair.

Make no mistake; the sins Lightning and her creators commit are all their own, independent of any Final Fantasy.  With the exception of the non-game Advent Children; it seems as if the ideas used and abused became the backbone of Square Enix’s philosophy.  Namely, that any scene can be made better by high-end graphics and applying liberal amounts of physics violation, flip-de-loops, and “OH JAM LOOK HOW HIGH I CAN JUMP” leaps.  Yes, there’s nothing wrong with seeing a character tear through an army, and it’s even welcome at times.  But Just as I recently spoke out against “epic in excess,” so too will I cry foul here.  What’s the point of all that awesome action if the character behind it is nothing short of a pissant?  It’s just sugar-coated popcorn.  Show me who the hero/heroine is, and then I’ll --

Wait.  No.  No, oh no, I didn’t mean…well, crap.

Well, I guess I’ll start with a bit of praise; like I said before, I have to commend Square Enix for at least trying to make a more proactive heroine, rather than a teary-eyed doormat or completely inept without the hero’s encouragement (in spite of being powerful enough to nuke a state).  In an effort to show how badass Lightning is, in the first few scenes she takes on soldiers, assaults a train, fights a huge robot, and does several flip-de-loops.  Okay, cool.  So she’s a no-nonsense soldier on a mission.  I get that.  And she’s a little cold.  Fine.  I see what you guys are going for.  Just don’t go too far in the wrong direction, or…oh.  Oh, so you’re…you’re going too far in the wrong direction.  Um, okay.  I’m sure that’s cool, too.

Have you ever played with the settings on your TV, tweaking the colors and brightness and contrast?  Ever tried fiddling with the Tint setting?  You know, shifting the balance between red and green so that everything either looks like it’s in a volcano, or everyone’s become a Martian?  Lightning is like that; she’s shifted so far into the “stoic, no-nonsense, lone wolf badass” area that it’s intolerable.  How does she show she’s stoic?  By oftentimes refusing to acknowledge anyone that’s nearby, even when they’re trying to help her survive.  How does she show she’s got a no-nonsense policy?  By punching her brother-in-law in the face without warning -- someone who’s trying to save her imprisoned sister while she does nothing but insult him.  How does she show she’s a lone wolf?  By daring to abandon a child in ancient ruins to fend for himself against monsters and soldiers hunting him. 

But the most groan-inducing moment has to be when Lightning’s sister not only tells her she’s getting married, but that she’s become a “l’Cie” -- a sort of slave to the gods (with a tattoo to prove it) and a pivotal part of the plot.  What does Lightning do, in a world where being a l’Cie is a serious issue, one that sparked a propaganda onslaught and deportations and quarantines?  Lightning raises more trouble over the fact that she’s getting married, and thinks she’s lying about being a l’Cie -- in spite of having the magical tattoo right in front of her damn face.  She even goes so far as to spout the meme-tastic line “Worst birthday ever.”  Because as we all know, the idea that your only family is trying to start a new life while simultaneously facing the end of her life is small potatoes compared to getting your hands on some tasty cake and presents.

An early sketch of Lightning.

Lightning is a bland, impudent child whose only saving grace is the fact that she’s a walking weapon of mass destruction.  There are no words to express how moronic her attempts at toughness are.   She casts people out of her life even when they’re trying to help her.  She goes ballistic and attacks people that don’t agree with her.  Worse yet, we have no evidence as to WHY she acts like this.* If anything, she should be more rational and team-oriented, what with being a sergeant in the so-called Guardian Corps.  She’s not badass at all; she’s like a preteen who stumbled onto the internet, Googling “ninja” until she found something vaguely resembling something cool.

True, you could argue that there is hope for her character -- that the magic of character development would ease my pain.  It didn’t.  If anything, she just became MORE infuriating.  Ignoring the fact that her epiphanies are nonsensical and hidden behind veils of meandering dialogue, she goes from needlessly aggressive to…sporadically aggressive.  As in, she learns not to punch people with nothing but good will for her, but in exchange she slips into the background; her dialogue starts to slide toward reminding the player that they’re in this together and we decide our fate, and making some bland-as-hell one liners.  Oh, and a speech at the end that serves to annoy rather than inspire.  “We fight to make the impossible possible!”  Lightning, sweetheart, you’re not Kamina from Gurren Lagann.  You can’t ape a line from a character intended to be a ham and play it straight.

Above: a primer on how to be a man.

So in the end, I spent about fifty hours with Lightning as the lead -- one near-complete playthrough when the game first came out, followed by a playthrough I gave up on (and my brother erased the new save file).  Hour after hour I spent with her, wishing that one of the other characters -- flawed as they are, but not as much -- was the real lead.  Why not the family man Sazh?  Why not Hope, the kid thrown into the elements?  Why not the rough-necked warrior woman Fang?  Why not Vanille, who’s narrating the whole thing?  Why not Snow -- you know, the brother-in-law who’s actually doing something besides pout and complain?  Why was this ersatz Cloud the champion of Final Fantasy’s first foray into the next-gen era?

Actually, scratch that.  I have more pressing questions to ask.  Like, why is Lightning being crammed down our throats by Square Enix, putting her in games where she doesn’t even belong?  Why is she on the cover of 13-2 in spite of being in it for about 10 minutes -- and why is she now a super-powered knight (without pants, natch) of a barely-referenced goddess in the first game?  Why do players have to spend time in the sequel searching for someone who, one would think, is tough enough to come back to her friends on her own?  Why do we have to pretend that Lightning is anything more than a petulant, pink-haired slab of wood?

Oh, I’ve actually got answers to those questions.  In order: To make her cool and popular.  To pander to the fanbase while cashing in.  Because the plot takes a backseat to beautiful people flying around to the chants of a Latin chorus.  And most of all, because Square Enix wants Lightning to be badass without actually making her badass.

Now, I know what you're thinking.  Voltech, who are you to deride a character?  They’re a multi-million dollar company with years of game development under their collective belt.  You’re a guy with a blog and an afro.  Even if they have screwed up -- and that’s heavily up for debate -- they’ve still put out one more game than you.”

Yes, that’s true.  This IS an opinionated post.  And I’m not much of a legitimate source of criticism.  But Lightning and Final Fantasy XIII are hotly debated topics all over the internet; doubtless you’ll find bloggers who can articulate Lightning’s finer points/rationale/failings/repulsiveness far better than I can.  Even so, I can’t let another day pass without giving my own thoughts -- without giving my pair of pennies on what it REALLY means to make a badass.  Lightning is a SparkNotes version of how NOT to make one. 

The asterisk stands for "guaranteed to piss you off."

Being a badass isn’t about how many goons you stamp out or how cold you can be.  Nor is it about the clothes you wear, or the hero/heroine you want to be like.  It’s about being brave in the face of danger; clinging to strong, identifiable beliefs while holding close the people you consider dear.  You have to stand tall and calm in the face of danger, but be willing to show and embrace emotion.  Your actions speak loudly, but the resolve behind them speaks louder than that.  Strength, intelligence, passion, all these things and more -- integrating them makes a character not just badass, but memorable, entertaining, and most of all, worthy of being cheered on.     Whether you’re a developer, a writer, a gamer, or just someone who likes a good story, that’s something you can at least nod to.

Japanese games -- and plenty of media from Japan, for that matter -- get a lot of flak these days.  Generally, I don’t agree with the naysayers; yet, if one of them was to cite Final Fantasy XIII as a reason why western games are the future, then I would back them the hell up.  While I admit that Final Fantasy has always had a bit of a problem…you know, making sense…at the very least they were serviceable, fun little romps where everybody has a good time, lessons are learned, the world gets saved, and at one point you strap yourself onto a giant yellow roadrunner.  XIII is a step back on at least a dozen fronts, even de-evolving into self-parody at times (and the sequel, if Game Informer is to be believed, takes it a step further story-wise).  Lightning, in spite of good intentions and hopes to move the franchise forward, is the lynchpin of that turn.  A story is only as strong as its main characters; when you have a serious, military-trained twentysomething-year-old throwing temper tantrums, you don’t have a badass.  You’ve got a problem.

As a final note -- and because I don’t want to finish this post while seething with rage -- I just thought I’d throw out a little comparison.  Based on the games in the series I’ve played/seen, Final Fantasy can be defined in part by its main characters.  Observe:

Final Fantasy VII
Main Character: Cloud Strife
--A flashy soldier with a prized image who’s actually a lot more complex than he seems, with a rivalry that’s destined to become legendary…and a guy who has trouble remembering just who he is, and what he should be in the future

Final Fantasy VIII
Main Character: Squall Leonhart
--A soldier who, while often put-upon and seemingly eager to alienate others, is actually a guy who you can depend upon and is capable of harnessing immense power…who’s trapped inside a ridiculous plot and surrounded by a small army of idiots

Final Fantasy X
Main Character: Tidus
--A blitzball player thrown into a different world who, despite his initial naivete and idiocy, proves himself to be a valued member of the team and an adult who thinks beyond tradition and dogma...who can't help but look and act like a sugar-addled chimpanzee prone to laughing like a loony.

Final Fantasy XII
Main Character: Vaan
Hahahaha!  No, just kidding.  It’s not Vaan.  It’s never Vaan.

REAL Main Character: Ashe
--An incredibly serious, topical, and mature young woman (and princess) out to right the wrongs done to her and her people by her enemies by any means necessary…who gets into political debates, thinking she’s a legitimate, respectable platform while gallivanting about in a miniskirt that would make a prostitute blush

Final Fantasy XIII
Main Character (regrettably): Claire “Lightning” Farron
--A “love her or hate her” fugitive trying to take control of her fate…who, in spite of having some good intentions, goes about them in moronic and asinine ways.  But at least she looks good doing it.

This isn’t the last time I’ll talk about Final Fantasy XIII on this blog -- but that’s for another day, I suppose.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I need a drink the size of Lake Erie; dredging up memories of this game has got me pretty morose.

*I’ve heard that there’s a novel tie-in called Final Fantasy XIII: Episode Zero that helps explain some of the backstory and events leading up to the game proper.  That’s fine, I guess; the problem is that these are things that could have -- and maybe should have -- been included in the game proper, rather than taking important elements in the story and either selling them separately or burying them in the game’s “datalogs.”  Ah, datalogs.  How I love you...**

**And by love I mean hate.

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