It all started when I made this weird, rambling post complaining about Samus Aran’s characterization in Other Msome crappy new game I hadn’t even played. Basically, I feel like there aren’t enough awesome female protagonists in video games. I took an inventory of every console game I’ve purchased in the last ten years and made a list, and was shocked to find that there have only been five really memorable heroines who aren’t sultry sex kittens and who don’t have to share their spotlight with some dude. So I figured I’d blog about them! There were a lot of also-rans and not-quite-greats as well, so I’ll be covering them as well. Thanks very much for reading!
Video Game Heroines Series
Week One: Supplanted Heroines
Week Two: Great Gaming Heroines #5: Ashley Robbins
Week Three: Shantae vs. Shanoa — An Action Girl Case Study
Week Four: Great Gaming Heroines #4: Commander Shepard
Week Five: The Off-the-Shelf Heroine
Week Six: Great Gaming Heroines #3: Jade
Week Seven: Sharing the Spotlight
That’s about the extent Final Fantasy XIII‘s detractors like to go when describing Lightning. I think it has something to do with a comment by one of the character designers early in FF13’s development, about wanting a more “serious” protagonist this time around. Then came the inevitable comparison shots, comparing the wispy-haired Lightning to the wispy-haired Cloud from Advent Children.
It was all good fun, but right up until FF13’s release I admit I was apprehensive that’s all the more Square-Enix wanted out of the character. Fans love Cloud, and fans love sex appeal… therefore, female Cloud should sell a million copies. Well, I happen to not be a big fan of Cloud (at least, not his Advent Children incarnation), and I’m not a fan of sex appeal either (at least, not as Japanese pop culture defines it). As a result, while I was looking forward to the new world and its innovative macro-management combat system, I was silently hoping there would be more to the heroine herself. It would have been so easy to just slap some boobs on Cloud and call it a day, after all… and I can’t rightly think of a good reason from this past hardware generation to give Square-Enix any credit for interesting character development.
Fortunately, Lightning turned out to be a unique character all to herself. If my 13 Weeks of Final Fantasy can be believed, she ended up being my third-favorite hero in the series. Personality-wise, Lightning turned out closer to Squall than Cloud… though she’s not “female Squall” either. She’s definitely Squall-like, but she’s also quite Terra-like. Terra’s the one everyone loves, right? Pretty much the antithesis of everything people hate about Squall?
I… I need to stop describing Lightning in terms of older characters. Here’s what I’m trying to say: Lightning is both the meanest FF protagonist, and the most feminine. “More feminine than Vaan?” you ask. “Why yes!” I respond. (FF12 had its fair share of hero jokes early in its development cycle too, see.)
All-encompassing angst is a common thread in JRPGs, and Lightning certainly has it in spades. I was surprised, though, at how that angst materialized during gameplay. There’s a scene very early in the game where fro-topped funnyman Sazh latches onto her, hoping her military prowess will help keep him safe amidst the hail of gunfire surrounding them both. “Oh,” I thought, “that explains how Sazh joins the party.” I’ve played some RPGs in my day, and this didn’t seem like anything more than a bog-standard RPG contrivance. Sazh was going to latch on to Lightning, and they’d fight masked guards and blob monsters together for a while. I wasn’t at all expecting any real interaction between the two characters.
I certainly wasn’t expecting Lightning to try and abandon Sazh. She neither needs nor wants his company. He’s just burdening her. Once he takes the hint and points out, in plain terms, that he needs her help to stay alive, her response is something like “That’s not my problem.” She has more important things to do than babysit some dude who smells like a chocobo stable.
She doesn’t manage to actually shake Sazh — at least, not at first. He’s pretty persistant. The RPG party-gathering contrivance is firmly in place, despite Lightning’s best efforts. Eventually the rest of the cast latches on, too. The game carries on like that for a while.
Then, out of nowhere, Lightning succeeds. She gets sick of carrying the party around and just up and takes off.
That was the first thing that struck me so powerfully about Lightning. I’m so used to RPG heroes showing anger in the form of a squiggly line in a thought bubble above their head that it was very jarring to see one who makes the leap to outright callousness. Or physical violence! I can’t be the only person who never got tired of watching Lightning sock Snow in the jaw.
But where does all this pent-up aggression come from? The game spends a lot of time exploring this in the little backstory vignettes lined up just before the plot. Much of it involves her relationship with her younger sister Serah, which involves a surprisingly deep well of resentment. Serah is the typical hip, trendy J-pop girl: delicate and innocent, more doll than person. In short, she’s the character we usually get in these kinds of games.
Lightning has been taking care of Serah for a number of years. She supports the two of them with military service, a life at which she excels, but… which doesn’t particularly please her. She had to force herself to grow up far too quickly, and utterly devote herself to her sister. She made the conscious decision to let Serah have all the things she wanted for herself, and as FF13 opens it finally seems to be dawning on her that Serah is getting them. Serah has a boyfriend, and stylish clothes, and not a care in the world. Even imminent danger doesn’t faze Serah… not because she’s fearless, but because she’s ignorant. That ignorance is something Lightning never experienced for herself, having been denied the adolescence Serah is just graduating from.
And that’s the undercurrent to Lightning’s character — that she plainly wanted to be the normal Cocoon girl, with her frilly skirts and her doting boy-toys, but had to be a soldier instead.
That said, Lightning is also not the standard RPG warrior-woman. She’s not muscular, or large, or freakishly strong. She fights like a lady, emphasizing grace and agility over brute force. Her aggressiveness comes from a much different place than her comrades, the bubbly Vanille or the mannish Fang. Vanille treats combat like a cutesy game of whack-a-mole, politely apologizing to the monsters she beats up and capping each victory with an over-enthusiastic cheer. Fang focuses on singular spear attacks, attempting to crush her opponents with each powerful blow. Lightning, in contrast, zips around the battlefield with all the ferocity of her namesake. She deals in quick, frequent attacks and constant, fluid motion. It just wouldn’t do to have a male character fight like this. We know, because Cloud tried it in Advent Children and… well… the accusations started flying.
Is it unfair to define a character by the way she moves around the screen? After all, Lightning has a pretty huge hardware advantage over the RPG heroes of yesteryear, who all stood in line patiently awaiting their turn to strike. Motion was something you didn’t really play with outside of fighting games… which, now that I think about it, is where I got this idea that female fighters fought with agility rather than strength in the first place.
I’m very happy that Lightning turned out to be a memorable character in her own right. In the end, the reason she’s constantly compared to Cloud is because, like Cloud, Lightning is mostly defined by her negative traits. Her angst, her anger, her short-sightedness… the things that drive and motivate her are a long way removed from the virtues of justice and honor we’re more used to seeing in this genre. Lightning doesn’t quite overcome all of these flaws, but she does acknowledge them, and even incorporates them into her personality in positive ways. There aren’t many aspects of FF13’s story worth noting, but Lightning’s character arc is one of them.
And hey, isn’t it nice to have a JRPG heroine who isn’t a bikini-wearing cleavage monster?