Lightning Returns, the final game in the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy, is coming out in Europe in about a month and a half. To remind myself of what preceded it, I've resumed my replay of Final Fantasy XIII.
Final Fantasy XIII has rather more 'I'VE JUST REALISED WHAT'S BEEN DRIVING ME THE ENTIRE TIME AND NOW I'M GOING TO EXPLAIN IT AT LENGTH, ALOUD' moments than I'd remembered. Stop that, Final Fantasy XIII. If you keep it subtle, some people aren't going to grasp the flaws that motivate these characters to make terrible decisions, true, but you have to accept that. Having the characters explicitly say 'oh my God, I've just realised that this character flaw of mine has led me to make all these terrible decisions!' sounds incredibly unnatural and moreover takes all the fun out of character analysis. Leave something for us!
Whenever I get annoyed with this game, though, there's a really lovely bit of character interaction and I have to forgive it. Plus the battle system is twice as great as I remembered. In most Final Fantasy games, my strategy is 'hit things, cast Cure, ignore all other abilities'. In XIII there are six different combat roles, and I make regular use of every single one of them.
One interesting thing about the XIII battle system is the way in which it reverses traditional JRPG gender roles. Although each character can take several roles in battle, each has a particular role in which they excel: Fang is an incredibly powerful Commando, for example. Vanille is the best Saboteur, Sazh the best Synergist, Snow the best Sentinel, Hope the best Medic. The best Ravager can perhaps be debated, but I personally feel it's Lightning for her versatility; I'd certainly make her my Ravager if I had to assign each role to a single character. And this means that all the women excel in offensive roles, whereas the men excel in support roles. The women damage and weaken the enemies; the men heal and support the party. I'm not saying that all female characters should be cast in offensive roles forever, of course - Yuna of Final Fantasy X, who is a healer and can only be built into a physical fighter with some very determined levelling, is one of my favourite characters of all time - but they're certainly cast in support roles disproportionately often, and so Final Fantasy XIII makes a pleasant change.
I also really like that Final Fantasy XIII is very much a story about women and the relationships between them. That's shockingly rare in a videogame; I think Portal is the only other game I've played in which the relationship between female characters drives the plot, and the plot of Portal is fairly thin.* In Final Fantasy XIII, the four most important characters are all female: Vanille, Fang, Serah and Lightning, with Snow maybe coming in a distant fifth. Take Lightning out, and there's no resolution to topple the Sanctum. Without Serah, most of the characters don't become l'Cie in the first place. Without Vanille and Fang, absolutely nothing in the game happens. The male characters aren't superfluous, but their roles in the plot tend to be secondary. It's incredible to realise how rare this is, and how commonly we see the reverse. It's fine to have stories about men, just as it's fine to have stories about women, but it'd be nice if the balance were a little less skewed.
How did this turn into a lengthy ramble about gender roles in videogames? Moving on:
I think the scene on Pulse in which Hope tells the others to go on without him, just before the Alexander fight, might be one of my favourites in the game. Hope's not amongst my favourite characters (it doesn't help that his role is frequently relegated to 'summarising the plot so far'), but there's something really likeable about him in that scene. The poor kid's terrified that he's holding everybody back, and he tries to put on a brave face and tell everyone that he'll be fine if they carry on without him, even though there are monsters everywhere and he can barely stay on his feet. (And the moment when he falls forward and Snow catches him!)
I found myself wondering recently whether it would be possible to write a Final Fantasy XIII/Animorphs AU, in which the cast of XIII, rather than becoming l'Cie, become Animorphs. Superficially it seemed to make sense, because both Final Fantasy XIII and Animorphs are tales of a group of people who, having been drawn together by chance, experience something that binds them and changes their lives forever. On further consideration, though, I don't think it can be written. Too many of the Final Fantasy XIII cast are warriors. The point of Animorphs is that these are ordinary kids, thrown suddenly into a war that's far bigger than they are. Characters like Lightning and Fang are too used to fighting already. Hope's the only real Animorph candidate amongst the l'Cie.
Which sort of breaks my heart, because I'd love to see that crossover.
(No, wait, Serah would be a Controller, wouldn't she? I WOULDN'T LOVE TO SEE THAT CROSSOVER; IT WOULD BREAK MY HEART.)
* I've seen criticism of Portal saying that the fact Chell is female does nothing for female representation in games, because she's a silent protagonist and the game would be no different if she were a man. I personally think that makes Chell incredibly important. She could be male, true, and nothing would change. But she isn't! Having a female main character doesn't have to be a plot twist, or a source of titillation, or a vehicle for telling a particular story; it can just be because, you know, sometimes people are female. There doesn't have to be a reason for someone to be a woman. I'm a woman for no reason at all.