Right, I’ve about had it.
Let me set some context for this blog post: I’m listening to ”Blinded by Light” — aka Final Fantasy XIII‘s default battle music and riff on Lightning’s character theme — on loop while I write it. So, you know.
So this happened:
To be more literal about it: ever since Final Fantasy XIII-2 introduced DLC costumes and such to the franchise for the first time in a flagship title, you must have known this sort of thing was coming. This picture, if you don’t know, is promo for Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, but is also cross-promotion for the upcoming Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. Specifically, that outfit she’s wearing is the default racial costume for mi’qote female characters when they start the game. Lightning happens to be wearing it. There’s also going to be a reverse promotion, by the way, for FF14:ARR characters to wear Lightning’s FF13 Guardian Corps default outfit, Snow’s outfit, etc. as well.
So I’m going to give a little context here but if you just want to see me tear into Chris Kohler’s article, scroll down to “Or so I thought.”
Now, I loved FF13 and Lightning is, perhaps second only to Yuna, one of my favorite characters across any game. It’d be fair to say that if Yuna represents the person I think I am, Lightning represents the person I want to be, and that person is in charge of her life, in control, confident and strong, but (if you observe the arc of her character) struggling not to give up her personhood to do it. I respect that. I recently had a conversation with Maddy Myers where we both agreed Lightning’s default outfit in FF13 would be better with pants but wasn’t so bad.
So I get it when people see this picture and go “STOP WHAT YOU’RE DOING.” I’m behind that, mostly. I don’t think this sexy pose or the painfully ridiculous mi’qote outfit fit what I love about the character. Practical, focused Lightning would never wear this nonsense and so it offends those of us who like that about her to see her in it. A tiny part of me, however, is saying: it’s a promo thing. I’m annoyed by it, I wish it didn’t exist, but it’s not built in. You’re not forced to see this on her if you don’t want to. And that does create a different rhetorical space. I am much more inclined to get angrier at this sort of thing when it’s required. I still don’t like it, but I can handle it. Plus like, she’s got that Cloud’s outfit costume too? I mean I hate Cloud but she looks great in the outfit, and it’s practical and makes sense so, you know, there’s that.
Now everyone’s furious and I don’t blame them and I think the major reason I am upset about this is that it is not even remotely called for, necessary, or even interesting. I cannot say it more plainly. Lightning didn’t need her breasts enlarged to be sexier, she didn’t need them to jiggle (seriously, what is up with Japanese pop culture and breast jiggling?! Have you ever played a Super Robot Wars game? “Zero gravity” doesn’t even begin to describe the problems). This game is supposedly about Lightning being the savior, a detective/warrior/paladin who’s out to make sure everyone leaves the doomed world for something better. She is functionally a divine avatar. So what the fuck purpose does boob jiggling++ serve other than to please an audience that never asked for it, which I am going to say mostly exists in some marketing department’s head? I know this is Squenix Japan on this one, but it’s the not first or most recent “imagined hetero male audience” problem they’ve had recently, either. Remember this Hitman: Absolution Facebook app nonsense?
Long story short, yet another story of “male-dominated dev culture” + “imagined gamer audience” + “zero checks in place for this stuff” = “awful decision that will alienate more people than it convinces.”
And then what happens the next day? I see this:
Lightning wearing a Yuna costume. Holy fuck, talk about fanboy whiplash. One minute I am seething with fury, the next I practically catpaw’ed my monitor off the desk with joy. Two great tastes, together! And can I say Yuna’s yukata is one of my favorite FF heroine outfits? It isn’t necessarily practical but it’s mostly full coverage, it’s simple, elegant, tasteful, and reflects her character! I love it so much I made it as an Animal Crossing New Leaf design!
So I dunno, man. I’m up, I’m down. I’m still super interested in this game, because I feel like a lot of the gameplay elements it’s going to use hearken back to Final Fantasy X-2, which is unquestionably my favorite JRPG, or RPG, or possibly even game of all time. Clothes are power! Fun jokes and neat locales! A bit of the old and a bit of the new! After FF13-2 which I liked but didn’t love, I super want FF13:LR to be good. So Lightbreastnado is seriously chapping my Chocobo hide but I’m going to try and power through unless something else titanic and awful happens.
Or so I thought.
I read this and can only describe my reaction as flipped the fuck out.
Like, okay. I gotta break this down but first I’m gonna tell you that I loved FF13 and I know some people didn’t and that’s fine, because it had some flaws, some important ones. They were flaws that I was willing to ignore in favor of the parts of the game that I came to really enjoy and be engrossed in. So if your plan is to roll up in here and argue about FF13 I suggest you kindly don’t, because we’re not gonna convince each other, but I will feel compelled to start arguing about all the hypocritical, illogical bullshit that many people trot out to “explain” why FF13 is “bad” that very frequently have no basis in, say, reality.
Just wanted to get that out of the way.
But seriously, this article of Kohler’s is basically my problem with gaming culture and nostalgia, especially as it relates to “beloved” franchises, in text form. Kohler claims that FF is “dead” because there was a press conference where they talked about Lightning’s breast size, and it used to be the pinnacle of console gaming’s vision of Respectability™. I mean, take a look at this paragraph from the article:
In its heyday, Final Fantasy was the ne plus ultra of console videogames based around strong, relatable characters and epic storylines. Sure, the games had their moments of levity, but mostly took themselves seriously enough to attempt to tackle subtle, complex themes on platforms that were largely dominated by paper-thin plots and cartoon characters. They pushed the boundaries, if imperfectly; despite what I may have believed in high school the writing was not exactly Shakespeare. But the ideas of orchestras playing the games’ amazing musical scores or of art galleries displaying the design work of Yoshitaka Amano were not out of the question. And surely today’s game designers, the people making games like BioShock Infinite or The Last of Us, were inspired in part by early Final Fantasy.
You have got to be kidding me.
Seriously can we get past this high art/low art nonsense that plagues every mass medium, ever? Well video games sure are respectable when there’s ORCHESTRAS and ART GALLERY SHOWINGS but not when there are JIGGLY TITTIES. Then they are mere mass entertainment! Never mind that I find the invocation of The Last of Us, a game I cannot imagine being inspired in any way by any Final Fantasy game except in the concept of zombies or fungus or fungus zombies as enemies. But really, the invocation of Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us is purposeful: they are the two most recent games that try to be High Art rather than Mass Entertainment because they cover Very Serious Themes like “What It’s Like To Be A White Dad With A Spunky Daughter Sidekick Also Some Firearms.” I have said my piece about Bioshock Infinite already so ref that for my thoughts, and I can’t comment much on The Last of Us as an actual GAME because I don’t have any interest in playing it (I made it about 45 minutes in before giving up). So I guess what Kohler is saying is that Final Fantasy represented the Masterpiece Theatre of games and because they were Just So Goddamned Classy and Sehr Deep, we can thank them for inspiring the Seriously Important You Guys games about guys shooting people we enjoy today in the West.
I’ve played them all, guys. I didn’t spent a lot of time with 2 and 3 (like, Japanese 2 and 3), but I’ve played them all since the very first FF. And let me tell you something: I loved most of them, but they are not what your imagination is telling you. FF1 has ciphers for characters, as does FF3. The heroes of FF2 are not exactly the greatest or deepest, and while some storytelling finally seems to emerge in FF4 (which I am currently replaying on the PSP) those characters are pretty thin. They don’t explore anything like “depth” in the “fine literature” sense. Same for FF5 which was more about the job system than deep, meaningful narrative. FF6 seems to be the shining star for most of us who played it as FF3US back in the day, and I admit it’s one of the best FFs but it’s hardly ORCHESTRAS and ART GALLERY SHOWINGS. Don’t even get me started on FF7 (which I like less the farther I get from it) and FF8 (which I loved but is basically Final Fantasy: the Teen Drama Game). What did the FFs of the 80s, 90s, and even early 00s push in terms of boundaries? Am I supposed to think they were groundbreaking because they killed off Aerith? That’s nonsense.
Never mind that this is a vision of the past that reduces the FF games to novels rather than being games. I’ll be honest, a lot of what was satsifying about many of the FFs is their character design, and that they play pretty smooth for JRPGs, which can often be a clunky and unforgiving mass of confusing systems (sidenote: it’s important to have systemic depth, but FF13 is evil for withholding some of that depth until later in the game so you get a handle on it but the combat is too confusing I guess? Because whatever, FF13 critics don’t need logic). While I didn’t enjoy the gambit system of FF12 I know a lot of people who found that very rewarding and fun, considerably more than any other part of the game. But that’s not what we remember them for, in this weird High Art public nostalgia. No, it’s all about the narrative moments and the stories which are just so deep, man. So, so deep.
I might be sounding kind of hypocritical right now given my love of FF13, and maybe I am to a small extent. I’m not going to claim that the characters in that game are Sehr Deep You Know because they’re not, but I will say they had enough depth so that I found a way to engage with all of them. Someday I’m going to write about the parallels to queerness and feeling empowered by queer identity I see in the concept of l’Cie, for example. And that’s a personal thing and I know they’re not going to appeal to everyone and a few of them are, while fun, massively problematic stereotypes (looking at you, Sazh). Of course, strip off the serial numbers and I just described every FF cast from 4 onwards. So, you know, there’s that.
Kohler goes on to talk about how the Final Fantasy name has basically fallen from grace. He cites the failed FF14 which bombed really hard, and then says of FF14: A Realm Reborn, the sequel that most agree is actually looking pretty fun (I was a beta tester and I enjoyed it), “even if it’s good, it’s still going to be an MMO with a monthly fee in an era dominated by the free-to-play model.” I… what? I know WoW is slipping in numbers but it’s still the biggest bloody MMO I can think of which works on a monthly fee and that seems to be working just fine for Blizzard, so… is the Warcraft name dead now too? Where are you going with this?
Then he talks about Final Fantasy X-2, which “decided that what the series needed was to take all the female player characters, give them skimpier outfits and make them into J-pop stars.” Okay. So… what would have been better? A grimdark journey through Yuna’s inner turmoil where maybe her dad comes back and they journey to Nevada? I’m confused. Yeah, Final Fantasy X-2 had a lot of elements that were new to the series. It was the first flagship FF sequel, for example, but it had magical girl transformation sequences and it started at a pop concert and the heroes were all girls in what probably are somewhat problematic outfits but it was also a great exploration of Spira as a world, a setting, and a culture. It was the first FF story that looked behind the happy ending to the problems that come after you’ve saved the world. And it featured one of the most amazing women protagonists any RPG has ever seen, even if she was in denim cutoffs. Never mind that it was a localization that focused on snappy, fun, witty dialogue rather than stentorious fantasy cliche speeches, which was also a first for FFs. Never mind that it adapted FFX‘s battle system into one that wasn’t overly complex but felt fun, fast, and new compared to the game it was a sequel to while retaining familiarity.
I think what that statement really says is “They tried something new but it wasn’t what I expected or wanted so it’s all wrong.” But claiming that the game is “about” putting the girls in hotpants and staying in for a pop song music night is a statement that suggests, to me, the speaker had already made up their mind about FFX-2 because it was out of their comfort zone. To me, FFX-2 represented the series’ first step into contemporary storytelling, moving out of the shadow of Endless World-Saving Fantasy Narratives. That was something FF8 tried with questionable success but I respected it for that, at least.
Kohler talks about Final Fantasy: All the Bravest as a “naked gameplay-free cash grab.” I’ve never played All the Bravest but as far as I can tell “naked gameplay-free cash grab” is the mobile games market default, so I hardly see the issue. Interestingly Crystal Defenders didn’t come up, there. Wonder why.
He closes out the article with this:
Cash cows don’t last forever. The declining sales of Final Fantasy games, following the utter mess that was Final Fantasy XIII, should indicate that. At this point, it’s tough to see a path back to relevance forFinal Fantasy, if the caretakers of the series are spending their creative cycles thinking about the particulars of breast physics. That’s not why the Final Fantasy brand still carries the cachet that it does, and the modern games are at this point living entirely off an inherited reputation.
You had a good run, Final Fantasy, and it was nice knowin’ ya.
I’m sorry, it is. The idea that Final Fantasy is now dead because it is now doing things that other games do boggles my mind. As infuriating as it is, breast — or ass, or whatever — jiggle physics in games aren’t exactly new. Yeah, I guess part of me hoped that Final Fantasy would be “above” that but like… considering plenty of massively successful AAA-space games also do it without killing off their franchises I hardly see it as a death knell. Don’t even get me started on the idea that Final Fantasy X-2 represented the downslide into Pop Art Nonsense instead of High Art Fantasy Narrative that has now consumed the franchise because I will probably headbutt a wall until I shatter if you do.
But you know, the truth is, I kind of hope that Final Fantasy does die. Here’s how I put it on Twitter earlier today:
Frankly if the FF games start distancing themselves from the MIST-SHROUDED MONOLITH of their own past I'd be THRILLED.
— Todd Harper (@laevantine) July 30, 2013
Because honestly, I don’t think it’s the series, or the name, or even the devs that are holding the baggage anymore. It’s the players and the critics. I think they don’t even know what they want FF to be anymore and even if they did, it’s a fading thing that can’t be effectively articulated. So instead we make sweeping pronouncements of this sort. The idea that FF is some shining beacon of High Art that inspired our current crop of Games About Important Stuff that is now magically devalued because it tried to change over time, and in so doing stepped into a world of costume changes and pop art and DLC costumes? That’s ludicrous.
Maybe Final Fantasy isn’t dead. Maybe it’s just not for you anymore. And you know what? Speaking as someone who has found great personal pleasure enjoying the last few games that you say are the series death knell?
I’m fine with that.