You know what always confused me? Sonic fan art.
No, I’m not talking about THAT kind of Sonic fan art. I mean the original character stuff -- the stuff that has all these multi-colored hedgehogs looking mean and tough and powerful, preferably in a stance that’s a dead ringer for a Super Saiyan. I never understood the mentality behind that. Sure, in the games Sonic and Shadow and even Silver got to go all gold and glowy, but we’re talking about a series built around characters that roll along the ground and ram their bodies into enemies. Just think about Sonic Adventure 2; Sonic and Shadow both go gold, but apparently their best attack strategy for defeating the ultimate life-form fused with a colony hurtling toward Earth is to ram their faces into the pulsing boils all over its body.
Imagine my surprise when I see Sonic ’06 -- via the Game Grumps -- and lest my eyes deceived me, Shadow threw around energy blasts, furiously
flailed in midair attacked foes with precise yet powerful
punches and kicks, and activated his Kaioken.
Now, granted, Shadow’s ridiculously-expanded repertoire would have more
impact if most of his opponents could absorb more than one hit, or if the black
hedgehog actually HAD to fight every enemy every time instead of just running
past them at subsonic speed, but I guess it’s not much to ponder too
deeply. Shadow’s tough now! He’s cool!
He’s powerful! He’s the ultimate
life-form, and the best way to get that point across is with completely
extraneous gameplay mechanics!
Reminds me of a certain other game. Though the name escapes me at the moment…I think it starts with Final or something. Well, whatever. Let’s move on.
So let’s tackle this next section with a different context -- a little something I like to call “The Chosen One Problem.”
Part 3: Lightning, Serah, and Noel
(Or: Keep Holding Out, Bonnie Tyler)
Not too long ago, there was an article on Cracked (written by The Great Net Lord Daniel O’Brien) about the kinds of movies Hollywood doesn’t make anymore. It’s not an especially long article, but it has so many important ideas and observations that you really owe it to yourself to give it a look. If you don’t feel like reading any more than one of my monster posts, then I’ll just go ahead and cut out a few snippets of it for you that are relevant to the matter at hand:
“The Everyman Action Hero is dead. He was killed and replaced by Jason Bourne, and I don't know if we'll ever get him back. Audiences, apparently, no longer want to watch a good, average cop who happens to be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time; they want to see impossibly tough/smart/resourceful/cool supercops.”
“Just look at the movies that have been coming out. The whole Harry Potter franchise is based around Harry being the special chosen one. The biggest films of the year have been superhero movies. Skyfall featured maybe our Jason Bourniest Bond ever. The Hunger Games is about another "chosen one," a girl who happens to be the greatest archer alive and supernaturally great at surviving. Django Unchained's Django was immediately the fastest gun in the West. And so on and so on.”
He’s exactly right, of course. But one thing that’s worth noting is that in some cases, the so-called “chosen one” is less than ideal. I’ve explained this to my brother several times, but in the context of his titular series, Harry Potter is kind of a crappy wizard. He does all right for someone barely-entrenched in the magical world, but in terms of raw skill or intelligence or ability he’s sorely lacking (to the point where it seems like Hermione would make a better chosen one). It certainly doesn’t help that in pretty much every book but one, maybe two, he had to get bailed out by some random magical assist. True, you could argue that he had other skills that made him up to the task, and that his lack of magical ability was kind of the point of the story -- as a sort of foil to Voldemort -- or that his ability to love was his strongest weapon, but let’s be real here: in a world bursting with magic from every orifice, wouldn’t you expect our hero and savior to be a little more…what’s the word I’m looking for? Oh, yeah -- useful?
That’s “The Chosen One Problem”, a series of questions that have to be answered (or at least addressed) in order to satisfy the audience. The biggest question, and the nexus of all the other questions, is a simple one: why this guy? Why should the fate of the world, or the universe, or time itself be entrusted to this one person? What can he or she do that no one else can? Could the task be accomplished by anyone else? Questions like those (and more) are things that need to be considered over the course of a story, from inception to the typing of the final word.
It’s not a problem that needs a spreadsheet to sort out; it can be handled pretty simply if one wants. Take DmC for example; I know I gave it a lot of trouble recently, but it solves The Chosen One Problem fairly quickly and painlessly. Dante and Vergil are the only two nephilim kicking around at the moment, and certainly the only ones hanging around the city who are in any position to stop the demon king Mundus. They’ve got the power of angels and demons inside them, with regenerative powers, durability, and a near-instant mastery of any weapon they can get their hands on. The human race is (presumably) so brainwashed that the thought of even questioning Mundus is a foreign one, so if Dante and Vergil lose, it’s all over. So they get a pass in that regard; it’s just a shame that the rest of their story has more holes in it than Myrtle Beach…
Of course, you can look at The Chosen One Problem in plenty of other ways -- I know, because I’ve dabbled a bit in my own writing adventures. There’s a guy who’s a member of a secret society of magic users -- keepers of the peace and defenders of humanity from ghosts and demons and such that roam the world in secret -- and according to them, this guy is going to be the key in defeating the greatest threat the world’s ever known. The problem is that this guy is a brash, loudmouthed, and kind of dim fourteen-year-old who, unlike his clansmen, can’t use magic and can barely sense disturbances in the world unless they jump out at him. His “saving graces” are that he’s pretty much a walking tank with loads of energy, and can summon a giant flaming sword at will…albeit after muttering a long chant, because he sucks at using magic. Simply put, he’s all about brute force -- and even then his brute force is suspect, because it’s explained that his sword is the magical equivalent of a blown-up balloon. Between his personality, character design, and weapon of choice, you can think of him as a pastiche of a generic anime/JRPG hero.
In spite of his aptitude at sucking, he thinks that he’s a hot shot -- at least at the start of the story -- because his status as the chosen one makes him different and special. But of course, all of this is a façade; he’s putting up an act, because his status as a (terrible) chosen one has led to brutal training, rigid dogma, contempt and isolation, and worse…and it’s created a vicious cycle where he acts tough to shield himself and keep up his persona of wrongly-proposed perfection. His story arc is all about coming to terms with his weakness and fragility, finding a new source of pride and his own definition of strength. More than that, though, it’s about him blazing his own path, and becoming something more than what his title demands. And all this is helped by the fact that he’s not the main character; in fact, there’s no guarantee he’ll even make it to (or through) his fight with the big baddie. Maybe “destiny” is a bit more malleable than one would think…
So yeah, there are plenty of ways to handle The Chosen One Problem. But whether you give a justification or explore the circumstances surrounding the title, there’s one thing a creator should always keep in mind: the end goal isn’t just to tick a few boxes or prove that you’ve thought things through. The end goal is -- just like with every other element of a story -- to satisfy the audience. The key word, as always, is “adroitly”; whatever you decide to do, you have to do it well. Engage with an audience, and an audience will engage with you.
With that in mind, let’s think about this Problem using Final Fantasy 13-2 as a framework, and keep discussing the characters from there. We’ll go ahead and start with the obvious one:
If you don’t know who Lightning is and/or haven’t played through FF13 or 13-2 (in which case I envy you), here’s a quick rundown on Squeenix’s new golden girl. Lightning is a soldier, a member of the special unit known as the Guardian Corps dead-set on protecting the people of Cocoon from whatever nasties come strutting through. However, her life gets flip-turned upside down when Serah gets branded as a l’Cie and sent en route to exile; Lightning drops everything to try and save her, but not only fails to do so, but ends up branded as a l’Cie herself (along with four others, who’ll inevitably become her party members).
While being a l’Cie essentially makes the characters the gofers of the gods, the tradeoff is that now they have access to magical powers and eventually beasts to summon at will…although how having magic makes Lightning any different from the soldier at the start of the game is a mystery, given that she could already leap dozens of feet and slash apart war mechs. In any case, she’s sent on her way, gaining strength and travelling the world -- all a ploy of the main villain, prompting the team to try and sever the ties that bind them to their fates and head off on their own. But after fifty hours’ worth of leveling up, the gang manages to beat the baddie, and two of them sacrifice themselves to save Cocoon from crashing into the lower world and killing everyone.
That’s right around the time win FF13-2’s shenanigans start. Rather than giving Lightning and the other survivors the happy ending they’re after, in this new and altered timeline (or something) Lightning gets pulled away from the rest of the group and transported to Valhalla, presumably by the barely-mentioned goddess Etro. There, she’s imbued with powers far beyond the mortal ken, and tasked with doing…something. She’s a bodyguard, or a warrior goddess, or something like that. I don’t know, I haven’t finished the game yet (and thanks to “The Subplot”, I don’t know if I ever will. But I’ll get to that).
While there’s not exactly a “great destiny” calling Lightning to the battlefield, she is in many respects a Chosen One. So the question here remains: why Lightning? Why would Etro summon Lightning, and only Lightning to this empty world to fight a seemingly-endless (and arguably pointless) war? Why not any of the other characters, like Snow or Sazh? Is it because she’s a soldier? So what? Sazh is a pilot with skills as a marksman, and Snow can punch out tortoises the size of concert halls. And the whole matter of “experience” is negated when all six party members are not only swinging around supreme magicks, but were all chosen by other, lesser gods (and bear in mind that two of the six party members are pretty much children). It’s not a matter of pulling characters away from their loved ones, because Etro -- or whoever’s behind all this -- yanked Lightning away from Serah for one reason or another.
Furthermore, if there are gods that can -- according to comments I’ve picked up here and there -- make it so that the heroes succeed, or otherwise pull reality’s strings as needed, what’s the point of having a “champion” like Lightning? Why not just snap your fingers and whisk the bad men away? What lessons does Lightning need to learn besides “Golly! I guess it’s okay to trust other people after all!” and “Gee whiz, maybe I should think about others besides myself and occasionally help my sister! Tee hee!” Given that, why would you entrust someone who had to learn that lesson so late in her life with godlike power? Furthermore, why would you entrust that power to someone who barely managed to save her sister, much less the entire world without divine intervention? Why would you steal away her freedom to choose her path in life after she just earned her right to live by her own strength and volition?
The key takeaway from all this is simple: there’s no reason why Lightning had to become the goddess’ stooge. None. It comes out of nowhere, makes no sense in the context of vanilla 13 -- itself a story with confusing and contradictory context -- reveals the fact that the developers were caught with their pants down, and ultimately comes off as silly pandering. But the worst effect of making Lightning “The Chosen One” without any solid reasoning or context (besides further demolishing Squeenix’s credibility) is the fact that it demolishes her character. Somehow, they managed to take an already-sorry character and make her even worse.
Like I said, Lightning is a soldier. A fighter, but an average person all the same, fairly distant from the church. She’s aware of all that stuff regarding l’Cie and fal’Cie, but then again, so is everybody; it’s just a fact of life in the world of FF13. So given all that, does THIS sound like the dialogue of a common soldier?
“That time was lost. Yet time continued onwards. Divine Etro.Go peacefully to your rest. I will stand guard over your legacy. This endless realm is awash with sadness. Life and death lose all meaning under the rolling waves of chaos Valhalla. The currents of time do not touch its shores. In this world of lost moments, I begin my life anew.”
“Each reunion is a twist of the knife. The joy is ephemeral; it leaves fear in its wake. A fear that all too soon the time will come when you must bid farewell again. Yet you cannot help but long for the next encounter. Humanity's great frailty...We prefer past happiness to future uncertainty.”
“When reaching for the future, we sometimes fall into the past. As we gaze upon events that cannot be changed, our hearts grow bitter with regret. My dear Serah. How will you choose to deal with that pain?”
Okay, I know Lightning didn’t have the most memorable voice or character -- mostly because I can’t be arsed to remember anything about her beside stoicism or generic rage -- but I’m pretty sure she never said anything that sounds like it belongs in Paradise Lost as rewritten by idiots. In the grand scheme of things, what is the point of this overwrought narration -- and I stress narration, because all this is done via voice-overs by Lightning? The “leading lady” is a technical non-presence throughout the game, so…what, is it just a way to remind us that Lightning is the only character in this game and in this trilogy worth caring about? Isn’t that remarkably unfair to Serah and the original five party embers? Furthermore, what is the purpose of pulling Lightning into this pointless war if, ultimately, she’s just stalling for time for Serah to show up? Why would Etro pull Lightning there when Serah is the one that’s really necessary? Wouldn’t it make more sense for 13-2 to have Lightning trying to save her sister (again) if she’s supposed to be Squeenix’s guardian angel?
This is getting depressing. Let’s talk about a different character.
If ever there was a character that had to justify his existence, it would have to be Noel. This is a sequel that’s based on a game with an established ensemble cast (though a third of that cast bit it). And honestly? I don’t think I’m all that opposed to the idea of a smaller cast. 13’s problem was that it had six characters to develop, and buckled under the pressure; a daring duo could add focus and remove the chaff. The thing its sequel needed was a sense of dynamism -- something to latch onto and intrigue. Something new, something exciting, something --
Oh wait, never mind. He’s pretty much just enacting a (dumber) rehash of Kingdom Hearts.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A brown-haired, blue-eyed youth embarks on a journey well beyond the bounds of his world, travelling across space and time to help his young lady friend strapped to a grim fate, while simultaneously crossing paths with and clashing against their mutual friend, an older, more handsome, more powerful swordsman who willingly dips into the power of darkness for his own ends -- ends which may be more noble than they appear by virtue of his struggle to save the lady friend by any means necessary, no matter how much he has to get his hands dirty.
…Suddenly, I’m VERY fearful about Kingdom Hearts 3.
Okay, so how’s Noel as a character? Well…he’s not terrible, that’s for sure. He’s very, very safe -- he’s just the type of character you’d expect out of Squeenix. He’s a good guy at heart, but a little socially awkward (in the sense that he’ll gladly start trouble when there doesn’t need to be any). He’s got a dark and troubled past, he’s brave, he’s supportive of the lead female, he’s a little dim -- at least when you think about the story on anything more than a superficial level -- and he’s improbably adept at defying the laws of physics, just like any post-Advent Children character. Though to his credit, he seems to be more perceptive than, say, Tidus or Snow; much like the player, he knows that when Serah says “nothing’s wrong” after she has some kind of vision, she’s clearly lying. Incidentally, Noel has the same issue crop up with reversed roles later on, and the fact that he’s keeping secrets becomes increasingly obvious…and a little grating, but it’s not a game-breaker.
If there’s one thing I have to call Noel out for (besides the idea that keeping plot-relevant secrets to himself is a good idea), it’s his interactions with Serah. It’s not uncommon to see him yank her around by the arm or the shoulder at certain points, and, well, it just seems like unnecessary roughness. Though there is one exception to that, but I’ll talk about it in a second. In any case, it feels like Noel is a character created with good intentions and minimizes the garbage of the previous game, but he’s still kind of undeveloped. It feels like too much of his dialogue is spent trying to encourage Serah, or spent going on and on about time travel, or how this world works and what they need to do next. Noel isn’t really allowed to be Noel; he’s not allowed to ascend above his archetype, and comes off as merely inoffensive as a result. He’s not awful, but I expect more from Final Fantasy 13: The Apology Edition. I expected a little bit more ambition -- but alas, it looks like more work went into designing his freaky antler sword thing.
All right, so what’s Noel’s story? Well, he’s from seven hundred years in the future, and is apparently one of, if not the last human on the planet. His world is a desolate wasteland, devoid of life -- and those humans that manage to eke out an existence are lucky to make it to age fifty. (So basically, just like every other Final Fantasy game.) However, Etro apparently heard Noel’s prayers and dragged him through time, allowing him to meet Lightning and look for Serah on her -- and the goddess’ -- behalf. So the question here is why Noel? Why was this guy chosen by the goddess? (Also, where did his antler sword come from? How did he get the resources to make it in his dystopian future, and why would he make something so impractical? Why is it that Noel’s from a horrible, dust-laden future, but he’s both well-coiffed and immaculately dressed? Why is his language no different from someone centuries in the past? Why is his magic no different if he’s had seven hundred years’ worth of time for the magical arts to develop?)
But that’s enough questioning -- the bigger question is, how does he handle The Chosen One Problem? On one hand, it seems a bit more justified than you’d expect. Noel has a connection to two of the game’s main characters, the villainous Caius and the waifish Yeul; it’s likely that that could give the good guys a much-needed advantage. He has some skills, and while it’s highly arguable that his offense could be carried out by any other character in the series, he DOES have knowledge of events to come by virtue of Cocoon’s and Pulse’s future being Noel’s history. On the other hand, if Etro can pull Noel from the future to Valhalla, why can’t she pull Serah from the present to Valhalla, especially if that’s the one person that’s supposedly so vital to the safety and preservation of time and space? And why just summon one guy? Why not an army? Why not hundreds of people from before humanity died out in droves? Why not Noel and Caius, rendering the latter’s ability to wreak havoc on his own terms impossible? Why not Noel and Yeul, sparing the latter of the fate that drives Caius to go AWOL in the first place?
You know what? Maybe the problem here isn’t Lightning or Noel (not as much, at least). Maybe the one who’s really at fault isn’t the chosen one, but the one who’s doing the choosing. If Etro is this all-powerful, all-seeing goddess, why does she make such boneheaded decisions? Why does she insist on these incredibly-circuitous paths in the name of saving the world? Besides the obvious answers, like “because there would be no game” or “because Squeenix”?
Whatever. Let’s move on.
Oh wait. Wait, wait! No, I take it back! I take it --
I’ve already pondered many times (many, many, many times) why this game revolves around Serah…well, when it’s not revolving around Lightning, at least. She was barely a character in the original game. She was a frail, inexperienced young lady better suited to be protected and cradled by protectors like Lightning and Snow. Her early moments at the start of 13-2 still make me wince and cringe. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I cannot even begin to understand why Squeenix would switch from a tough action heroine to her significantly less-confident, less-capable little sister. Of course, those were all things I thought prior to release, and prior to actually being able to play through the game at my leisure. If the game was as long as I anticipated, I would be able to watch out -- and even chart -- the transformation of Serah from fledgling heroine to a fighter worthy of being one of the chosen ones.
You know, sometimes it’s hard to be an optimist.
I’m wholly convinced that the presence of Lightning not only ruins Serah in the context of the game, but in the context of her life. Let’s ignore the fact that she’s constantly and consistently stopping the game to give us voice-overs that sound like love letters to Lightning, and the fact that a good half of her dialogue is devoted to Lightning even if the topic at hand was only tangentially related to her. If the backstory of this game is to be believed, Serah was so distressed over the disappearance of Lightning that Snow ends up leaving to try and find her. You know, Snow. Serah’s fiancé. The guy who spent the entire game pining after her, and refused to leave her side even though she was frozen in crystal. Apparently, Serah was so depressed and dysfunctional that Snow decides to go and search for her, just to make her happy. And he never comes back -- or at least, he never comes home.
Am I the only one who thinks that’s kind of messed up? Sure, Serah is right to believe that Lightning is still alive, and this only goes to show that Snow is completely irresponsible and kind of a dick for abandoning his fiancé, especially in her time of need. But come the hell on; three years pass from Lightning’s disappearance (the end of vanilla 13) to the meteorite falling in New Bodhum (the start of 13-2); are you telling me that in the three years since, Serah has been completely unable to get over her loss? I’m not saying that she’s not allowed to miss her sister, but this behavior sounds vaguely self-destructive -- she always talks about her sister, she calls out for her sister when she’s in trouble, she writes these letters to her sister in her head, and she even has dreams about her sister. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say Serah wanted to -- nope, nope, nope, that’s Rule 34 territory. We’re not going there anytime soon. (Besides, that territory has been canonically tapped.)
What’s important to note is that Serah is never allowed to be Serah in her own right. She has the same problem as Noel, in that she’s incredibly safe (as the standard gentle but uncertain female in JRPGs) and that she isn’t doing as much development as she is marveling at the sights and sounds. But there’s a key moment later in the game -- in the dreaded “The Subplot” -- that shows off just what I’m talking about. After beating a tough boss (or at least tough to Serah and Noel; I pretty much vaporized it without effort), the two characters get a moment to catch their breath before moving to the next area. During their break, Noel comments that, since Serah was the one who managed the final blow, she’s starting to remind him of her sister. Ignoring the fact that Noel knew Lightning for all of ten minutes, the damage has been done with a few simple words. Apparently, the most Serah can aspire towards isn’t to become a noble warrior in her own right; she’s only allowed to be as good as her sister. Serah is stuck in the shadow of a character who is herself a shadow; Serah’s little more than an umbra, in spite of being THE main character. And that, my friends, is just one of many reasons why FF13-2 is a failure on every level.
So with that in mind, why is Serah one of the chosen ones? Presumably, because she’s some manner of “seeress” -- something not unlike Yeul, in the sense that she remembers how the timeline should actually be, but unique in the sense that she can control monsters for some reason. Fair enough…except in that context, Serah’s triumphantly inferior to Yeul because she barely knows how to control her powers. And there’s the fact that Lightning can command monsters -- Eidolons, no less -- with a wave of her hand. And even if she knows how the timeline should be, she doesn’t have the knowledge of future-history that Noel does -- and she’s still significantly less skilled and powerful than Lightning, Noel, and especially Caius. Sooooooooooooo, from the standpoint of someone who’s put in some twenty hours with the game, Serah’s job is done better by every member of the cast.
I hate this game.