Okay. Now let’s talk about character design for a little while.
In my own writing adventures, I’ve found that I prefer to describe characters as thoroughly as I can instead of leaving it up to interpretation. The downside is that I run the risk of grinding the pace to a halt -- and indeed, I’ll have to learn how to strike a balance -- but the upside is that it gives the reader just the image they need. As someone who’s deeply entrenched in visual mediums -- and someone who has good old common sense, like many others -- I know how important it is to have good character design. A lot of information, implicit and explicit, is conveyed by visuals. Think carefully about a book or movie or comic or game or show you’ve seen, and what a character’s appearance said about them. What does Barney Stinson’s love of suits say about him? How about Ryu wearing the same general outfit since his inception more than twenty years ago? What can you say about Superman’s suit in comparison to Batman’s suit?
Even if I’m removing the audience’s ability to use their imaginations, character design is something that I hold in high esteem -- and as the mastermind of more than a few stories, it’s my job to deliver thoroughly and fiercely on all accounts. A good character design can draw in an audience -- or if they’re already in deep with a story, they’ll be justly rewarded each time they come across a well-crafted character. Maybe they’ll be affected by visuals alone. Maybe I can have their expectations defied. Maybe they’ll just be eager to make their own characters. Whatever the case, the idea is to create a positive reaction through visuals; much as we all hate to admit it, appearances count for a lot.
Which brings us to Squeenix and Final Fantasy.
*sigh* Hold on to your butts.
Part 2: The Rest of the Opening
(Or: One Minute, Twenty-Eight Seconds)
If memory serves me right, I boasted that if it came down to it, I could pinpoint the exact moment when I realized I should give up trying to make sense of 13-2. It would be a fool’s errand to expect anything even vaguely satisfying about the game; every question I could ask about continuity or internal logic or planning could be answered by “Because Squeenix hadn’t thought it up yet.” I know I like to give people the benefit of the doubt -- I wouldn’t be the Eternal Optimist if I didn’t -- but the more I play, the more I realize that, yeah, they really phoned it in for this one. This game is nothing but an attempt to win favor with the customers; the problem is that they tried to win favor with some truly terrible decisions, a plot so inane it makes Resident Evil look competent, and an unmistakable air of laziness.
“Now hold on there, buckaroo!” you cry out, wishing that you’d donned your cowboy hat for that exclamation. “Everybody knows Final Fantasy’s glory days have long since gone the way of the dodo. They’re in it for the money, obviously; they know that as long as it has the name Final Fantasy, it’ll sell like hotcakes covered in a hefty sheen of drugs. They don’t have to try and they know it, so why bother? Why expect anything out of them besides a need to pay the bills?” And to that I say, yes, maybe it is futile of me to expect anything from Squeenix nowadays. I’ve declared that the company has long since been eclipsed, and the games themselves are relics compared to the fantastic titles that have been available for years (plus some that are still on the way). Like I said, it’s a fool’s errand.
But here’s the thing: even if Squeenix is just putting out games to earn a quick buck, it’s still putting out games. So many of those games have Final Fantasy in their title, and as such those games carry with them expectations. A pedigree. A legacy.
All of their games are fair targets for criticism. If Squeenix is dead-set on putting out these games and trying to recapture the magic from days of old, they’re not allowed to be free from criticism. Ever. I’ve put stuff out there for criticism in instances large and small; I won’t ever say or think that what I’ve produced is perfect, and I know none of my stuff is perfect (see: 100% of the content on this blog), but I do my damnedest with pretty much everything I write. I use common sense, ingenuity, knowledge, and insight to make the things that I make, and I expect others -- especially a multi-million dollar game developer built upon games that have touched the hearts of entire generations of players -- to put out a product that doesn’t make people want to ram a fist through their TVs. You can’t put out a game like this and expect others to just forget about it. No, scratch that; you can’t put out a game that’s supposed to be an apology for another bad game and not only fail to fix its problems, but add others that didn’t exist before AND further tarnish the name you tried to repair in the first place.
Ugh. All right, how many paragraphs was that little rant? Three and a quarter? Three and a quarter -- nearly five hundred fifty words -- and I haven’t even gotten into today’s topic.
Well…here you go.
Did you see it? Did you see it? Did you see the exact point when this game completely collapsed? I know I did.
Ladies. Gentlemen. Readers and bloggers alike. I beg of you, answer me this: what in the name of Paul Bunyan’s flannel button-downs is this?
Let’s put aside the character design element for a moment and start questioning the logic behind this. What is that costume? Where did it come from? What’s its purpose? Why does a time paradox (or something) give Serah new clothes? Why do they fit her perfectly? Why does she not take them off? Why does only one person in the entire game bring up the question of what she’s wearing? This is jumping ahead a bit, but it bears mentioning now: Serah is choosing to wear this costume (so to speak, given that someone somewhere "forced" her to). After the chaos dies down, she keeps on wearing it; that is, she goes to sleep in it, and rather than change into something more practical -- especially for a battle against untold hordes of time-displaced hellspawn -- she keeps on wearing it. Why? Who’s forcing her to keep wearing it (besides perverted developers, given that our re-introduction to the character is via a slow pan up her legs and thighs)? What makes her think that it’s a good idea to go around dressed like a lady of the evening? What makes developers think that we -- and by “we” I mean a predominantly-male, largely-teenage audience -- want to stare at THAT for upwards of thirty hours?
Now let’s go back to the character design aspect. See, if there’s one thing I’ve noticed about plenty of products -- and I’d wager you’ll agree with me on this -- it’s that there’s a certain design philosophy that runs throughout virtually every medium. I personally call it the “Cool Men, Hot Women” philosophy. It’s exactly how it sounds: visually, male characters are supposed to look as cool, or as tough, or as stylish, or as brave, or as heroic, or as badass as possible. They’re supposed to be characters we admire based on the perceived aura of strength and coolness they give off -- conveying physical information quickly and effectively, as they should. Female characters, on the other hand…well, I don’t think they fare as well on that front.
Let’s look at BlazBlue as an example. Here’s the most recent art for its leading man, Ragna the Bloodedge.
And here’s the most recent art for its leading lady, Noel Vermillion.
Uh…yeah. That’s a pretty marked difference. But it’s not the only example -- and certainly not the only one in that series alone. Compare Bang Shishigami to Litchi Faye Ling; both of them show a fair amount of skin, but the context and intended effect is a lot different. One of them is considered the manliest character ever created. The other is often called by her in-universe nickname: “Boobie Lady.”
This isn’t a problem localized singularly in Japan, either (though as you may know, Final Fantasy is no stranger to lovely ladies.) I have the manual to the GameCube game 007: Everything or Nothing on hand. Its front cover shows the Pierce Brosnan version of Bond looking suave and debonair, and also ready to fire off a bullet into the nearest goon’s head. Overlaid atop Bond in the center of the cover is a blonde woman in a slinky white dress, sliding her hair back and giving the camera (i.e. the viewer) a rather comely look. On the back cover, there’s an ad for Die Another Day. The top half shows Brosnan looking cool and ready for action, with gun in hand and clad in a black turtleneck. The bottom half has Halle Berry in a bikini. Though to be fair, she looks as if she’s sniffing a particularly egg-laden fart.
It’s an unfortunate dichotomy, to be sure. Now, to be fair, some examples aren’t as extreme (if at all) and one could argue that from the female perspective Ragna and Litchi represent a “Hot Men, Cool Women” design philosophy instead. That’s a real possibility. But no matter what side of the fence you’re on, I think there are two slight saving graces.
1) The women choose to wear those costumes. In Noel’s case, this is actually her second look in the BlazBlue canon (barring her Mu-12 form, but I’m pretty sure that’s HIGHLY NSFW). She had a different “uniform” as part of her duties for her organization -- one that was similarly suggestive, but whatever -- but after a series of revelations, decisions, and a bit of character development, she’s apparently decided to strike out on her own. So you can think of her new costume as “liberation” of sorts; she’s visually conveying that she’s free, and not just a slave to someone else’s will. Meanwhile, we have Litchi, who actually switches from her doctoring costume to her battle costume at the opportune moments.
Does she look like a lady of the evening? Undoubtedly, thanks to the “tactical exposure” each costume offers. But here’s the thing: more often than not, her art makes her look cool in her own regard. She looks contemplative. competent. Confident. A little sassy, even. Ready for action, wherever it may appear, regardless of her attire.
There’s always going to be that element of “Oh, the creator just made her look like a harlot so we could have someone to drool over”, but it doesn’t have to be the ONLY reason for a female character’s appearance. And you can mask that perverse intent by virtue of…
2) The woman has a personality. This is where Litchi excels in earnest, and becomes more than the stuff of DeviantArt fans everywhere. I would argue that she’s actually one of the more interesting members of the BlazBlue cast, or at least one of the most likeable. She’s a kind, gentle doctor that genuinely loves the town she operates in, and is a friend to children and the elderly alike. She has this soothing, motherly air about her, and is just as eager to reprimand as she is to smile. She has a grim past that she’s trying to make up for, up to and including the aid of a friend who’s turned into a monstrous sack of oil and bugs. She ends up coming to a decision that shocked me, and plenty of other players -- she’s so desperate to get what she wants that she’s willing to join up with the bad guys…to say nothing of the fact that the powers she wields are eroding her mind. She may be the requisite sexy girl amongst the cast (and that’s saying something, given the other ladies), but that doesn’t stop her from being something more than virtual curves.
Given all that, do I really need to say anything about Serah? I’ve put in more than twenty hours of game time at this point, and even though I’m guessing I still have a ways to go (though I hope I don’t), I can pretty conclusively say she’s a failure at both points, especially the latter. What can her costume say about her character if she’s wearing something that’s not only garish and revolting, but something she has no reason to wear? And what elements of her personality help give us something to latch onto besides that design?
I’ll get into Serah as a character more in a later post, but for right now it’s best to focus back on the video. I’ve derailed this post enough already. So let’s see if I can sum this up succinctly; there’s actually a bit more to this sequence, but I won’t force you to sit through any more footage if you don’t want to.
A meteorite falls out of the sky and rams into the outskirts of New Bodhum, waking up Serah and prompting an investigation. As she heads out, space-time distorts and leaves her in a lifeless dimension. It only lasts for a while, but it’s preferable to where she appears next: in the middle of a firefight between New Bodhum’s guardians, NORA, and a bunch of nasty monsters (many of which seem reminiscent of the Sinspawn from Final Fantasy 10). While the battle rages on, Serah stumbles and nearly loses her life to an attacking monster -- but luckily, she’s saved by Lebreau’s quick trigger finger. Unluckily, the pep talk she gives Serah ends up getting her smacked aside…and in turn, Noel appears to lend a hand. (I’d like to point out here that Noel does a pretty suicidal nosedive, but in the very next instant he’s landed perfectly feet-first. Okay…)
Noel gives Serah the Mog-Bow, and you get to control the two in a series of battles across the beach. Once that’s done, Gadot leads his men toward the crater the meteorite left, while Serah and Noel are left with a moment to catch their breaths and formally introduce themselves. It’s here that Noel reveals that Lightning is still around, and Serah is eager to learn more. (It’s also worth noting that there’s a very “interesting” camera angle at 12:02 -- truly a class act, Squeenix.) Noel also explains -- or assumes, at least -- that the meteorite brought him to New Bodhum, though his memory’s pretty hazy. In any case, the reins are handed to you right about here; you get to dip your feet into the battle system and fight a boss on your way to the crash site.
Story-wise, Noel explains who he is (to an extent), admitting that he’s from seven hundred years in the future and that he’s the last of humanity. Gadot acts surly toward Noel, alluding to “the boss” in one conversation, and outright telling him that Noel’s full of it when he says that they can find Lightning…and given that they both live in a fantastic universe with mountable chickens, skyscraper-sized cactus monsters, crystallized habitats, and just witnessed a meteorite crash, I’d say Gadot’s being a bit hasty on the whole “unbelievable” aspect. Noel takes Serah’s hand and presses it against the meteorite, revealing a Time Gate (how he knew that would happen or that there was even a Time Gate in the first place, along with how he knows what a Time Gate is and how it works, is of course never explained). So Serah and Noel grab an artifact lying around town and use it to activate the gate. And thus, Serah and Noel’s excellent adventure begins in earnest.
There are a lot of problems with this opening sequence, but pointing out the issues will be best handled in later posts. Honestly, I could end this post now and focus on the next one, because a lot of what I’m about to say ties into the theme of the next one. Still, I want to do it now; I want to make sure I get all these ideas down before I let them get away from me.
So let me start by saying this: there’s this thing that TV Tropes calls an “establishing character moment”, where a character will say or do something to start defining themselves as a member of the cast and/or set up expectations for the rest of the story. As you can guess, it’s kind of a big deal -- at least, it is to me. I’m getting more aware (and wary) of it as the days pass, so I not only try to make note of it in the works of others, but in my own stuff as well. If you’ve read the first chapter of I Hraet You, you probably know what I’m getting at; at first Lloyd gets painted as this suave, dashing prince who’s an ace at romancing the ladies, but once he starts talking he outs himself as an overly-honest idiot and justified punching bag -- fitting, given that he’s out to make a “big-breasted harem paradise.” You have a pretty good idea of who he is and what to expect from both him and the story immediately. Opinions of him may change as time passes and he reveals more of himself, but it’s a mechanic that’s seen use by pretty much every creator out there. And yes, that includes Squeenix.
That doesn’t mean Squeenix makes GOOD ones, though.
Think carefully for a minute. What is the first thing we hear come out of Serah’s mouth -- the very first word uttered as she wakes up, and we’re once again thrust into the world of FF13? Yes, that’s right -- it’s “Lightning”, said in a wistful and longing tone. And then when she goes outside, what does she say? She wonders if she can find Lightning in the dead zone she’s entered. When she trips and falls and is about to get slaughtered, what does she say? “Lightning, help me!” she shouts, recoiling from the sight of a monster. People, are you starting to see a trend here? Are you starting to see the problem?
First of all, this is a pretty marked bait-and-switch, giving us a taste of power with a warrior-goddess and then expecting us to play as her considerably weaker, considerably more fragile little sister. Second of all, Serah’s character is immediately hamstrung when her primary concern is “Where’s Lightning?” and “Can I find Lightning?” -- and this is after a full three years, suggesting that in the time since vanilla 13, this is all she’s ever cared about. (I’ll get into this more in a later post, because this actually has some very distressing aftereffects.) Third of all, in a game that’s all about looking cool and wielding godlike powers, from a company that’s now all about looking cool and wielding godlike powers, isn’t it just grand that we get to play as a weak, helpless, easily-shaken waif who’s got a mental and emotional ball-and-chain in the form of a character who’s unremarkable at best? I know that she’ll go through character development later on, but do they have to start her off at such a low level? If this is where the real game starts and not the action-packed opening, this is where you add the hook. This is where you prove that Serah can be just as cool as Lightning. You can’t have this shambling mess of a girl and expect gamers to do anything beyond roll their eyes and say “Oh, great! I can’t wait to play as THAT for forty hours!”
But where I cried foul -- and quite vocally during my playthrough -- is when Lebreau confronts Serah after she freezes up. “Lightning can’t protect you anymore!” she shouts. And she goes on about how Serah needs to toughen up and fight her own battles. The second point is fine. The first one?
Dr. Cox, you wanna take this one?
In one of many grievous re-interpretations of the FF13 canon (which is hilariously hard to believe, given that there was just a two-year gap or so between the original and the sequel), Lightning has gone from soldier to saint with no stops in between. I’ll give them the fact that Lightning is pretty much Serah’s only family, acting as a parent and guardian to her in the backstory -- even though that’s stuff we really needed to see in-game instead of in datalogs or side material. But here’s the thing: in the context of FF13, Lightning is a TERRIBLE sister. She failed Serah as a guardian, letting her out of sight and near a fal’Cie. She didn’t believe Serah when she admitted and then revealed that she’d been turned into a l’Cie, prompting Lightning to throw a little hissy fit and write her off. No, I haven’t forgotten about that -- and why the hell should I, considering that it makes Lightning look less like a competent, level-headed soldier and more like a whiny, hare-brained bitch?
She started her mission in 13 to save Serah, even though her situation was likely entirely preventable. And then once Serah gets turned into crystal (meaning that yes, for virtually all of vanilla 13 she’s just a plot device), Lightning abandons her, and leaves Snow to try and carve her out of the fields she’s lodged in. If anything, it should have been the opposite; if there was ever a moment for Lightning to go berserk and show some emotion and do something irrational (or anything at all), Lightning should have desperately tried to free her, and Snow should have gotten depressed and given up. I know it’s a little too late to be hoping for better storytelling in a game long-past, but the fact remains that what happened in vanilla 13 is canon. We know what kind of person Lightning is, and what she’ll do -- or WON’T do -- when it comes to her little sister.
But this is the inherent problem in 13-2: it’s trying to rewrite Lightning as someone worth praise and admiration, and it does a terrible job of it. Rather than give Serah the presence she needs, they not only keep her chained to one of the worst JRPG characters I’ve ever encountered, but let her be immediately overshadowed by this newcomer, Noel, from out of nowhere -- a safeguard against having Serah establish herself as a confident, capable, or even interesting character. Rather than care about Serah, the lead character, the player is expected to care about Lightning, someone who barely appears in the game. This is just...it's just...shit.
Look, I’m just gonna wrap up this post for now, all right? I’ve gabbed on enough, and there’s a topic that I need to address sooner rather than later -- and I’ve spent enough time lamenting over this opening sequence. So I’m done for now.
Next time, we plunge deep into the miasma, and have a closer look at our three heroes.