Jaydra Discusses ‘Lightning Returns’, Part 01- Thematic Analysis

It’s been almost a month since Lightning Returns was released and I’ve had time to process it. It should be obvious to anyone who reads this site, or knows me at all, that Final Fantasy XIII is my favourite game of all time. The trilogy is something I hold very close to my heart. It all wrapped up with Lightning Returns, and here’s my take on it.

 >>> Foreword

Simultaneously a genius character study, and a rambling disjointed mess, Lightning Returns is both great (genuinely great, not enjoyed ironically), and a complete wreck. I have never felt that ‘ambivalence’ applied so well to my feelings on something, and I am thankful every day I’m not a professional games critic who had to assign this a review score. If pressed, I’d give Lightning Returns a 1-A+/113%. That said, I’m glad it exists. I put 35 hours in over the first three days after release, and am nearly done a Hard Mode run. If I’m going to sit down and play this game, I have to be certain my schedule for the rest of it is clear, because I can’t put it down. It also gives me plenty to write about!

In fact having written this article, being able to see the forest for the trees has given me a greater appreciation of this work.

Part one will discuss the three themes which developed throughout the trilogy. They are: Fate, Loss, and Violation. I’ll also discuss the ending, its integration of these themes, and endings in general.

Part two will discuss the story structure itself, and how I feel that a brilliant story is often lost in too much static. I want to go through how simply rearranging story elements could have made Lightning Returns far more effective. Along with some looks at directing, and how a few pivotal scenes could have been improved with similar minor regiggering.

Part three will discuss relationships, love, shipping, as well as stray observations. This trilogy is remarkably bleak at times, but it ends on a high note and so will this series of features.

Below are all the spoilers for Lightning Returns; fucking all of them.

Lightning kills God, Lumina is Claire Farron, Fang and Vanille die in each other’s arms (sorta), Serah’s alive, they end up on Earth (even the people who sorta died), Hope is possessed at one point, Noel ends up with Yeul (his Yeul), and Caius goes to govern the unseen realm with the other Yeuls, Snow’s still a good guy at heart! Sazh still doesn’t get nearly enough screen time (which sadly isn’t much of a spoiler at all)! Oh, and Sazh’s chocobo is Chocolina (technically a FFXIII-2 spoiler if you factor in Sazh’s DLC).

There we go. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

 >>> Fate

Funny how a story about fate and the defiance of it, begins and ends on a train.

"You sure about this?"

“You sure about this?”

While many people complained about the linearity of Final Fantasy XIII, I always thought that linearity accomplished two things. On the surface, it cut out the ‘where the fuck do I go?!’ moments of previous Final Fantasies, and was transparent about the fact that most Final Fantasy titles are linear as hell (they only disguised it better). The second is that the linearity, with those (very pretty) hallways, emphasized how bound to their fate each character was.

Think about it, every character (besides Fang) was lead directly to Serah whose Focus/ fate it was to bring them all together. Later Bartandalus reiterates how everything the party has done was preordained, that they’re playing right into the fal’Cie’s plan. Right up until the end of the Fifth Ark, you are locked on one path and unable to deviate from it.

Until the party decides to fight back, to defy fate, to find a way to rid themselves of their l’Cie brand. It happens right after Fang’s mental breakdown and the encounter with Bahamut. Fang realizes that there is hope for them not to turn Cie’th, no matter how little. That she’s prepared to take a chance, if it means she can save Vanille and Cocoon. What happens next? You hit Gran Pulse, and suddenly an entirely linear narrative (literally) opens up wide and gives you freedom for the first time.

I’m aware that Final Fantasy XIII-2’s decision to give you a choice on how you approach the narrative was because of fan pressure (of which I have a lot to say on…), but the fact that it’s much less linear than the original at least emphasizes how the fal’Cie and l’Cie influence has weakened.  Serah is single minded about finding Lightning, so her travels always relate back to that in some way, but they have the Historia Crux and are able to approach the problem largely how they see fit.

Lightning Returns is the most open of the trilogy. Lightning is going it alone; she has her mission, but that mission is foggy and without a clear path besides ‘save souls by giving them what they want’ . Which surprisingly doesn’t involve having sex with anyone. If Light showed up in some dominatrix garb and asked me if I needed help, to hell with finding my lost journal. I am amazed I haven’t seen a fanfic titled Lightning Comes Again, yet.

If there’s one theme I associate with Lightning, it would be the defiance of fate. Light is never one to accept things as they are, never simply going where the tide takes her. Arguably her very existence reflects this, the fact that she’s Lightning and not Claire Farron. She changes to protect her sister when their parents died, but it’s still an act which sees her abandon the name and identity she had been given, and forge one entirely on her own. It makes me wish that we got to see more of who Claire was before she became Lightning, even with Lumina it’s difficult to ascertain what Claire’s personality was exactly. We do see her identity evolve throughout Final Fantasy XIII, as she changes ‘Lightning’ to ‘Light’ in another act of choosing to alter her identity.

This theme continues with Lightning Returns. The Luxerion main quests revolve around Noel having seen a future in the Oracle Drive where he’s reunited with Yeul… if he kills Lightning/ the Savoir. He also believes that Lightning will destroy the world, a prophesy that the Cult of Etro believes as well. Although Noel isn’t involved with the Cult of Etro murdering  every rose haired woman in sight, of which there are a surprisingly large amount. The point is that Noel, crushed by guilt of having had a hand in ending the world, is desperate and willing to kill Lightning because he feels destined to do so. Naturally, he isn’t able to do this (even if he does get the chance). Lightning’s attempts to alleviate his guilt have little impact, but the realization that if he did murder Lightning he wouldn’t able to look Yeul in the eyes again, means that he could never be happy even if the prophesy came true. When he gets his chance to kill Lightning, he instead destroys the Oracle Drive, symbolically freeing him from one fate and giving him a chance to write his own destiny. Noel’s struggle between accepting destiny (at least as it’s shown to him), and forging his own path, is another exploration of fate and the consequences of defying it. Like the decision to kill Orphan, Noel effectively enters into an unknown world with an uncertain future, but decides that it’s better than accepting the path laid out for him.

The larger defiance of fate is seen when Lighting turns on the gods/ fal’Cie which ‘created’ her (at least giving her divine powers), and abandons the mission they send her on. I feel this warrants less discussion, as it’s established that this is what Lightning’s character is all about. Still, I’m reminded of Lightning’s revelation when she sees Carbuncle in the Nutricultre Facility. How before she still went along with the Sanctum fal’Cie’s lies that Pulse and its l’Cie were evil, but then realizes that the Sanctum fal’Cie basically keep Humans as pets. Eventually resisting their control. The same arc is seen in Lightning Returns, where Lightning first believes Bhunivelze’s lie about giving Serah back, to becoming increasingly skeptical, and there’s the moment when she realizes that Bhunivelze plans to destroy Serah with the rest of the dead. In both cases, it ends with Lightning becoming defiant and destroying the ones she once diligently worked for. She’s not one to accept that the gods have a master plan that should be followed, or that they might work in mysterious ways. Lightning views the future as hers to author, and rejects anyone or anything that says otherwise.

Lightning doing what Lightning does.

Lightning doing what Lightning does.

Lightning Returns likes to play with the idea of fate and free will in its side-quests, particularly in the one aptly named ‘Free Will’. That quest is more notable for how it relates to the third theme, so I’ll cover it in detail below. The Luxerion quest ‘Like Clockwork’ has Lightning helping someone do the job of ensuring the clocks are running. Light asks this woman why she’s so committed to doing her job, given the world is ending. The woman replies that she wants to go out knowing that she did what she was meant to do. This leads to an exchange Light has with Hope over having some respect for someone who has found a purpose in life. Even Bhakti in the Dead Dunes has purpose in reuniting with its friends, even if those friends are long dead. There is some comfort in doing what you’re meant to do, whether it’s the right thing or not, whether it matters at all. It’s interesting that Lightning, defiant by nature, has a lot of sympathy and respect for that woman and Bhakti, almost wishing she had such a strong purpose. To defy fate is to give you a chance to forge your own future, but possibly at the cost of having to find meaning in the unknown. There are many people who will stay in a painful circumstance, rather than face one they can’t predict.

On that note, I’ve seen it argued that Final Fantasy X-2 (in a fantastic article that I can’t seem to find, but if I do I’ll link it here) is an exploration of that theme. How Yuna has to deal with the freedom and uncertainty of being alive after Sin is gone, as she prepared her whole life to make a sacrifice which never happened.

 >>> Loss

Every main character in the trilogy is bound to another. It is their motivation for doing what they do. Light/ Snow and Serah, Sazh and Dajh, Fang and Vanille, Caius/ Noel and Yeul. The only character whose connection is more ambiguous is Hope, who lost his mother and had to accept that she was gone. Nora is dead, and his original journey is not about getting her back, but navigating his grief. Ultimately taking comfort that her memory remains, and knowing that life continues.

Hope is bound in some way to Lightning, the extent of which is open to debate. Still, he’s conscripted by Bhunivelze along with Lightning and tasked with helping Light save souls. He seems very uneasy at what Bhunivelze did to him, but he and Lightning do share a bond and that’s likely motivation enough to help her (besides with saving lives).

As in Final Fantasy XIII, Lightning’s motivation is less about saving people and instead focused on getting Serah back. She does what Bhunivelze says, because the deal is she gets to see her sister again after serving him. While this turns out to be a lie, the fact remains that the loss of a loved one is the protagonist’s central motivation once again. This is consistent with Final Fantasy XIII-2, where Serah travels with Noel because she wanted to find Lightning. In that story, Serah couldn’t accept that Lightning may have died, as others believed. An interesting reversal, given Lightning can’t accept Serah is gone either. Fang is found in the Dead Dunes without Vanille, but that’s only because wants to find the Clavis before the Order does, is the only way she’ll save Vanille. Snow’s torment and madness comes from having to live with Serah’s death every day for five-hundred years. Sazh’s story again revolves around having lost Dajh, to another type of unbreakable slumber. Noel’s fighting to see Yeul again as well, another example of loss continuing to be a motivation.

Snow, after five-hundred years without Serah. He'd still be looking alright if he weren't turning Cie'th.

Snow, after five-hundred years without Serah.

There’s more to the theme of loss though.  Banksy is quoted as saying, “I mean, they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.”. The story reveals that the dead are still with us because we remember them, that they’ll always exist because the living still hold a piece of that existence. The major threat is revealed to be Bhunivelze’s plan to destroy not only the dead’s souls, but the memory of them as well. His plan is for Lightning to collect all the souls that he wants, and then destroy the ones that died (because he believes them to be weak). If all goes to plan, Lightning wouldn’t strike back because she’d have no memory of Serah. Fang would also have no memory of Vanille, which is an even more disturbing thought. Even if I half expect that Fang would die with her, they do give their souls up simultaneously after all. Two halves of one whole. The point is that the climax (besides Lightning’s fight with Bhunivelze) revolves around interrupting the ceremony which would tear apart so many people forever.

The fact that Vanille wants to sacrifice herself in that ceremony is another example. Vanille believes that she’s guiding the souls of the dead to be reborn, knowing that the ritual to do so will claim her life. She gives up Fang of all people to do this, but in the side-quest ‘The Saint’s Stone’ it’s revealed that Vanille has spent hours (if not days) gazing into a gem which allows her to see Fang. Even when she’s prepared to die and leave it all behind, Vanille isn’t able to let Fang go.

On the topic of memory, it amuses me to think of Lightning and Snow, and how Light is the one to ‘live on’ through other Final Fantasy entries. “Heroes get remembered, but legends never die.”

The last example of loss is tied in with the third theme, where Lightning realizes that she has literally lost a part of herself.

 >>> Violation

I went into Lightning Returns expecting the first two themes to continue; I did not expect ‘violation’ to become a third. I mean, the theme was present in the other two, but Lightning Returns has genuinely disturbing moments stemming from this. These moments come when Light and company realize the extent to which they have been lied to, manipulated, and even altered.

Final Fantasy XIII revolves around the fal’Cie who brand Humans as l’Cie, destroying their lives in the process, so that they might carry out the fal’Cie’s wishes. That destruction of one’s life, and forcing them to carry out a Focus, is a violation of that person’s freedom. The l’Cie brand changes their bodies to the point where they aren’t considered Human anymore, and threatens to change them even further if they don’t carry out their Focus; this is a violation of the self. Final Fantasy XIII-2 features less examples of violation, but arguably Lightning didn’t choose to serve Etro, as she was ripped away from her friends and family to do so.

There are numerous examples of violation in Lightning Returns. Particularly ‘violations of the self’, or ones where a character’s identity or thoughts are forcibly altered by Bhunivelze, or others. There are two big examples of this, only one of which is directly explored in the plot. The first is Bhunivelze tearing out Claire Farron from Lightning when he awakens her, in a way making Light less emotional and more accepting of her mission. Light would do anything for Serah, this has been established time after time, but Lightning Returns is interesting in that there are several scenes where Light admits that she’s losing sight of her sister. That she’s forgetting what it’s like to be with her, and to exist as something other than a God or Goddess’ pawn. She realizes how emotionless she’s become, how somethings just don’t feel right, and that she doesn’t seem to care. After Lightning spends Final Fantasy XIII managing to regain a sense of identity apart from her need to protect Serah, apart from the fal’Cie, a God comes and cuts it out of her.

Lightning after catching a glimpse of Serah.

Lightning after catching a glimpse of Serah.

Claire Farron isn’t destroyed, managing to manifest as Lumina who holds that part of Light’s soul for safekeeping. Still, she’s someone that Lightning only has a faint recognition of, someone that she can’t quite understand. It’s made clear that Lightning doesn’t believe that Lumina is Serah, so it was interesting to see Light try and figure out who this person was. All the while wondering about her lack of emotional connection to anything or anyone. Effectively she’s only the wall which her ‘Lightning’ identity threw up to shield herself, without the ability to connect with people as Claire could.

There is a mission in Mass Effect 2 where Shepard is helping Legion (a robot/ Geth who is part of a hive mind) with its loyalty mission. At the end you’re given the choice of what to do with the faction of Geth who want to see you dead. You may either destroy them, or (because they’re AI) reprogram them to accept you. It’s a question that has stopped many players (including myself) dead in their tracks, despite having little gameplay consequence. Could you go through with changing someone (the AI are clearly sentient) on such a fundamental level, that if they wouldn’t even recognize their past selves if they came face to face with them? That faction of Geth has turned on its own kind, by reprogramming them, you make them the people who they were fighting against. More so than that, could you do it, knowing that these people wouldn’t even know you flipped a switch in their heads? They would continue like it was as it always had been. I couldn’t. Think about someone doing that to you for a moment. The idea that someone can alter you, to suit their means, and you wouldn’t even know. I ended up destroying those Geth. The idea of doing that to a person is disgusting, and I know I’d rather die than have someone change my entire beliefs system. Extra Credits, a series on game design, did a episode on this mission and it’s worth checking out.

As an aside: If the last paragraph, talk of altering someone’s thoughts and beliefs, or having yours altered by someone else for their own devices aroused you, then www.mcstories.com might be right up your alley.

The reason why sexual assault is so unforgivable is not only because of what the base act consists of, but because it leaves its victims dealing aftermath long after it. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is basically when one person loses control of their mind because of an external force. Your dreams are changed, your perception of the world changes, your physical habits change, your emotions change. It takes years to reclaim them, and even then you’re left with a scar. A tiny little bloody pinprick that ever so often bleeds into your conscious mind, if only a single drop. I personally view rape as worse than murder, at least a murder victim doesn’t have to live with the fallout. You are entirely free to debate me on that (or any other) point, but it’s how I feel.

It’s obvious how all of this relates to Lightning. She was altered to the point where she couldn’t even recognize Claire. Even if Light suppressed Claire, they were still the same soul. Even as we become different people throughout our lives, our past selves will always be a part of us. That warm, compassionate, even playful side that came out in Lightning during the final chapters of Final Fantasy XIII becomes foreign to her. To me, above all, this is why Bhunivelze is a villain. The idea that he would take someone and selectively remove parts of their self in order to make a better pawn is morally disgusting. It’s also the most obvious violation of Lightning’s self there is.

The second? One that (as far as I know) was completely unintentional? The big meta violation of Lightning’s self? The schemata. More specifically, the hundred or so grab Lightning wears, with hundreds more accessories. After all, the word ‘schema’ (quoting Wikipedia), “…describes an organized pattern of thought or behavior that organizes categories of information and the relationships among them.” In other words, a schema is something which we have that dictates to our mind how things are supposed to be, how they’re supposed to act, how they’re supposed to interact. We have schemata for everything. How we organize and see ourselves, to social situations, and how our brains make up a lot of what we see (acting off a schema) because it can’t process everything going on around us all at once. They fill in the blanks, and help us make sense of the otherwise overwhelming amount of stimuli and information we have to process every day.

I love how so many cutscenes have Lightning questioning how well she even knows herself, while she can be made to wear any number of outfits which can change her behaviour. In combat she has new lines, favours different abilities, has very different strengths and weaknesses. Both in and out she has different mannerisms, stances, poses, and people will react to her differently. She still acts the same in cutscenes, but the fact that this woman who has had her identity altered, converses with people, wearing things herself in FFXIII would never be caught dead in. It only serves to underscore the point of how much her identity has been shaken.

The ‘Paradigm Shift’ system has Lightning changing tactics and roles, the ‘Schema’ system changes who she is. She’s still Lightning, but much like how Bhunivelze altered her behaviour to suit his desires, she’s been altered again to suit the whims of the player.

I swear that this is why the Ultima Weapon and Shield exist in Lightning Returns. As Light realizes what has been done to her, and starts to reintegrate Lumina into her self, the most attractive weapon and shield likely becomes the ones she started with. The Ultima Weapon is after all, the Crimson Blitz restored to its former glory. Equilibrium+ (an upgraded form of her default schema) is likewise a powerful asset, which encourages you to switch back to it. Admittedly, this is despite that the three items were likely given to her by Bhunivelze, and hence may still be a symbol of his influence. Still, Light never wears anything that isn’t tied to service (to Etro, the Guardian Corps/ Sanctum) in the past two titles either; Equilibrium+ is the closest we may get to her ‘Lightning’ identity. Although she probably chose the clothes she wears in the epilogue. A part of me also feels that Light enjoyed wearing the Midnight Mauve garb, so that’s another possible outfit that she would choose willingly.

Nevermind the Yussan side-quest ‘Adorning Adornments’, which has Light standing nearly speechless at a woman’s increasingly bizarre choice of fashion accessories, while potentially wearing those same ones. In fact, you need to have acquired/ bought them in order to complete the quest. Essentially judging someone for wearing something, which she either owns or is even wearing herself.

Nevermind the other side-quest ‘Free Will’ (also in Yussan), where a strange group claims that Lightning has been enthralled under their spell, and predict that she’ll perform various tasks for them. The first, showing up at noon the next day, Light rationalizes as a coincidence. Second, she’s told to bring three Desert Flames to them and eventually shells out thousands of gil to a vendor to do so; rationalized as “How about we play along?”. Third is to wipe a species of monster from existence, again rationalized that it would make people safer. It’s true that it would, and possibly the player has already wiped out that particular species, but completing all three has Hope getting really concerned that Light was following their commands. Light’s response is to muse about how she can’t really be sure she’s in charge of her actions, maybe she is being controlled. This is a fairly obvious meta joke, a wink to the player. What makes it surprisingly effective is the fact she may be running down Pleasure Alley, dressed in a red leather bikini and cat ears while that exchange with Hope takes place.

As I said, I’m fairly certain the point of the ‘Schema’ system was not to introduce a ludic connection to the story, an exploration of a major narrative theme through play. Still, that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. So as much as the schemata let us play with combat options while having fun dressing Light up, I can’t help but feel a rather disturbing undercurrent to it all; as a woman dressed for my pleasure faces the reality that she’s being manipulated. I’m certainly not going to go on some tirade against the game for this, it’s just this curious little detail. A connection that changed how I saw an entire gameplay mechanic. Please tell me this was intentional, if only by one crafty member of the design team who seized an opportunity.

There are a few more examples of violation which happen to various characters which are worth noting. One is Bhunivelze’s plan to eradicate the memories of people who have died as a way of snuffing them from existence. I mentioned this one before when discussing loss, but it’s clear that Bhunivelze’s willingness to alter a person knows no bounds. Imagine Fang having no memory of Vanille. Lightning without Serah (which happens to an extent, as Light feels almost nothing for Serah due to Bhunivelze’s doings). There’s Bhunivelze taking direct control of Hope, literally using him as a puppet, another clear violation of mind and body. Hope is also reverted to being a child by Bhunivelze, and says that while he knows he built the Ark (Cocoon’s replacement), he has no memory of doing so as his future was changed. He also loses the body of the outrageously handsome, dreamy, voice as smooth and rich as velvet, twenty-something heartthrob hunk (who’s also a goddamn genius, and has a very prestigious job!). Hope probably lost out on all the pussy his future self got too, because goddamn was puberty kind to that one. Dammit, Bhunivelze took hot Hope away from me and that alone is unforgivable!

Wait, what was I going on about again? Oh right, violating people is bad.

On the subject of Hope: It’s said that the decision to revert Hope to his child form was done so that he could interact/ relate better with Lightning. This makes some sense in that they bonded when he was a kid, but they both live hundreds of years before reuniting, so I don’t really buy that. Besides, the fandom seems to think they’d get along just fine, and they make a more convincing slashfic argument.

The climax is a power struggle for everyone’s souls between Lightning who seeks to free them, and Bhunivelze who’s either planning to eradicate, or lobotomize them into the ‘perfect beings’ for his new world. Light even argues that taking so much away from a person takes away their humanity, that changing a person so much effectively destroys the person that they are.

Seriously kid, in ten years you call me.

Seriously kid, in ten years you call me.

The last example I can think of is what is done to Vanille. While I’m unsure of why she can hear the dead, I’m assuming it’s part of Bhunivelze’s plan. A way to manipulate Vanille into performing the ceremony to wipe out the dead (and herself). To do this, Vanille is tormented for thirteen goddamn years where she can hear the screams of the dead. She believes that this is punishment for all the people she’s killed, that she deserves to be forced to live with the pain she caused. This is an intensely cruel thing to make someone believe, and as Fang points out a pointless punishment. Say what you will about Vanille, but I think she paid her dues in Final Fantasy XIII. Imagine the hell that’s inflicted on this poor girl, it’s enough that she chooses to stay with the Order and die rather than leave the monastery with Fang. All of that suffering inflicted upon her psyche because of Bhunivelze.

Throughout the entire story of Lightning Returns runs an undercurrent of violation. Every soul (living or dead) has experienced it in some way. It’s having the cycle of life and death interrupted to the point where people collapse under the weight of having lived 500 years (with many becoming unrecognizable, and/ or forgetful of their past selves). It’s having their memories or personality forcibly changed. It’s having their bodies possessed. Seriously, Bhunivelze isn’t the most memorable villain, but I’d put him right up there with Kefka (*ducks for cover*) in terms of just how fucked up and deserving of an intensely painful death he is. I’m glad he dies in spectacular fashion, with his corpse frozen in a look of pure anguish. What he does to the cast’s minds (and sometimes bodies) is essentially rape. All the while, through it all, Light fights him to reclaim her identity, while being influenced by another force which alters that very identity to their whims.

 >>> Ending the Trilogy

Endings are hard. Really fucking hard. Especially putting the capstone on a trilogy or saga where you have literally hundreds of hours of storytelling to wrap up. I’ve always had a huge interest in how something ends, and especially the last scene. The last line. What is the note which the author/s decided to go out on? Which character has the last line? Equally important is the first line, the first scene. The hook. I think that’s why I’ve always loved bookends, where the first and last scene somehow mirror each other, but reflect differences which emphasize just how far the story has come. Regardless, endings are difficult to an extreme, especially when factoring in audience expectations.

I’m reminded of Noel Murray’s comments on endings in an AV Club article, as well as Zack Handlen’s take on things when it’s said: “… an ideal conclusion needs to balance what we want to see, and what best fits the story. An uncluttered, uncomplicated happy ending might sound wonderful, but it’s hardly ever satisfying. Because the value of great stories lies in the tension between desire and need, between the yearning for the ideal, and the unshakable conviction that ideals don’t really exist, at least not the way we want them to. A great story should hurt a little when it leaves us. There should be some hope, but that hope should remain somewhere just an inch beyond our fingers, because that’s the truth. Even if you had all the perfect moments in the world, you’d still be reaching.” 

A bittersweet ending emphasizes the pain and sacrifice which makes great drama, while giving us hope for the people we’ve grown to care about deeply. However is a difficult tightrope to walk, between the ‘Hollywood happy ending’, and something entirely depressing.

When I say Lightning Returns is impossible to quantify, I think its ending is the best example why. You have a scenario where everyone lives, Serah is reunited with Lightning, Vanille and Fang are together, Noel and Yeul are together, Sazh has his son back, etc. Which admittedly does both service and disservice to the themes and emotional impact of the story.

On one hand, I was expecting some central characters to die. My money was on Fang and Vanille, as they seemed like the natural candidates. While the moments before the end boss does show the pair sacrificing their souls to lead the dead to the new world, the whole impact of that scene is undermined by how they wake up shortly after. This is one of the strange things about Lightning Returns that I never got used to. When Light takes someone’s soul, they’re still alive. Even if Fang and Vanille slump over and appear dead, somehow they still keep going (much like everyone else, see the end of every side quest in the game). This weakens what should have been a very powerful scene, and I’ll go into more detail on this in the second part. Admittedly this was my expectation, but still, the ending sees everyone alive and well again. It doesn’t have the pain to make the pleasure that comes after so satisfying.

Serah being alive again in particular undermines the theme of loss, and is a missed opportunity for Light to learn something. The person who guides her through her journey is Hope, a kid who had to accept the loss of his mother. Serah died, and while the circumstances are different, dialogue towards the end seemed to indicate Lightning may have to accept that. Hope is positioned perfectly to help her do so. We could have had Hope teaching Light, as Light taught him. Light was on the path to learning that while she couldn’t protect Serah, she can’t spent her entire life dwelling on the past (as it’s clearly taken away her ability to enjoy life). I’m reminded of Snow admitting that he wished he could have saved Nora, and the pain he felt over that. A scene where he and Hope have to accept that she’s gone and that there’s nothing they can do to fix that. Fang has similar sentiments, with her telling Lightning that she can’t dwell on the people she and Vanille killed during the War of Transgression (and when she became Ragnarok). That “what’s done is done”, and that Vanille wanting to sacrifice herself as some sort of penance won’t bring those people back. Along with a couple scenes towards the end where Lightning openly questions if she needs to accept that Serah is gone, and I was certain this would end in a bittersweet way. Noel doesn’t kill Lightning, even if he saw a future where he’s reunited with Yeul if he did. While he’s determined to find another way, this is also a sign that he’s accepting a future where Yeul may never return. With all the talk of keeping people alive in memory, and how the only power Bhunivelze has over Light stems from the promise to give Serah back, I was sure Lightning would press on while keeping Serah in her heart. That it didn’t matter if Bhunivelze had Serah or not. In this light, the ending loses so much impact because Lightning manages to save everyone and gets a fresh start on life; she never has to accept death as a part of life, and this goes against a lot of what the story was building to.

However! Even if the theme of loss is weakened by an ending where everyone lives (especially Serah), the fact that Lightning defied God and death itself to get her ‘Hollywood happy ending’ is completely in character. Both for her, and the series as a whole. Lightning’s big speech to Orphan about how she’ll never give up, ends with her holding up her gunblade to the fal’Cie and stating, “We make the impossible, possible. That is our focus!”. During the show in Yussan, as Lightning is playing the role of the Savior, she states that she won’t even let God stop her. I like how Fang has one line about how they should be fighting gods together, instead of serving them. Fighting for what you want in defiance of all odds (even God himself), is completely in line with what this series is all about. If this element were not there, I’d view the ending as far less satisfying, but honestly… Light kicking Bhunivelze’s ass, and going to live a peaceful life with her friends and family… That works. It’s almost the only conclusion that makes sense for this story, despite the contradicting themes.

The happy ending also works because Lightning can only achieve her goal of saving everyone, by accepting their help. I liked this element, as it’s clearly Light reintegrating Claire into her identity. As I’ll explore later, the plot beat where Light realizes she has to accept others’ help is undermined by how quickly it comes and goes, but the sentiment is still there. The idea is that despite all her power, Lightning simply isn’t strong enough alone. How Light is able to retake their souls when she realizes that, is a fantastic end to her character arc. Lightning, who pushed everyone away, starts pulling them back. I wish we got to see more of it, and that what was going on in that scene was more clear. There’s something very powerful in Lightning ‘making the impossible, possible’ by having to save her own soul (something else she muses about, but is never fully explored), and to do that she needs to accept that vulnerable side of her. Claire Farron was too vulnerable, too young, too weak, so she felt she had to become Lightning and throw up those impenetrable defenses in order to protect Serah and herself.

The truth revealed.

I love that they explored this, if only briefly.

I thought it was fantastic that the story showed how being vulnerable can make you stronger. It doesn’t condemn ‘Lightning’ (in favour of ‘Claire’), and that’s good; Claire needed to become someone stronger. ‘Lightning’ is no less a valid identity as ‘Claire’ is. It’s the integration of the two that matters, and was teased at so much, and is ultimately what happens so that Lightning Farron can finally get that life she’s fought for. Ironically, the life that she became Lightning for in the first place could only be achieved by accepting Claire. It’s clear that finding a balance between her ‘Lightning’ and ‘Claire’ identities is the most difficult thing she’s ever had to do, so I like that there’s a happy ending when she manages it. Light deserves (and ultimately does what is needed) to be happy, so along with the theme of defying fate, an ending where she gets accomplishes everything makes a lot of sense.

As with nearly everything with the XIII series, I wish that Claire/ Lightning was explored in more depth and in a clearer way. Lumina is a complete mystery for far too long, and we don’t get enough hints about what she really represents. Lumina didn’t develop as a character much until the eleventh hour. They didn’t need to have Vanille shouting, “The only way you can save us is by accepting Claire into your heart!” to get the message across, but they did need to spend more time on (and building up to) the scene where Light realizes it.

They still have to say goodbye to their Eidolons, and Mog, while saying they’ll meet again while knowing that they’re about to enter a world without magic. That is a loss, especially after Odin and Lightning’s relationship is built on in Lightning Returns. There is an element of saying farewell during the closing scenes, but it’s not nearly on the level as if Light had to bid farewell to a friend or Serah.

In the end, I’m still happy with how things ended. I know that partially stems from being so involved with these characters, that I really did want good things to happen to them. I wanted Fang and Vanille to end up together (having given up on Fang and Light falling in love while searching for the Clavis). I’m glad that they all reunite and go to the new world together. I still cried when Light got her happy ending. For all of my love of a bittersweet goodbyes, and for all of the missed opportunities at really affecting drama, the ending makes perfect sense in context and manages to bring the story full circle. Lightning sitting on a train, going to reunite with her sister. This time with friends she could never have made before. This time, finally achieving what she’s been fighting for.

"This journey is over now. I wonder when the next will  begin."

“This journey is over now. I wonder when the next will begin.”

Stay Tuned for Part Two

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  1. Arbitrary_greay

    There’s a joke that all JRPGs end with killing god, but I think that’s more about a natural gaming progression, wherein bosses are supposed to get stronger and stronger, so the final boss is logically at divine being levels, than any philosophy hang-up.

    However, because the final boss of such games is at a divine being level, the stories built to justify them do have to deal with common themes surrounding the roles of such beings in our lives. As it seems that deities were often originally conceived in history to justify why there were so many forces in life beyond our control, game characters choosing to slay the final boss will inevitably have connotations of defying the thing (fate as controlled by these beings) that takes our agency away from us through outside forces.

    A sub-theme that has been common in Final Fantasy, specifically, is the concept of ascension. The final boss is often a “normal” human that, in their quest to overcome the limits imposed on them by the gods, overthrows them and takes their place. Then, usually, one or more of the protagonists must do the same to oppose them, which, of course, then opens up the game to explore questions of what humanity really means. (Or, sometimes, the ascension leads to a form of death, which leads to exploring sacrifice themes.) XIII was no exception.

    What XIII has to it specifically, is how explicitly it plays to these themes, whereas in the case of FFVI’s Celes and Terra, very much Lightning’s progenitors, these themes were only touched on, and left mostly to subtext. FFVII makes its themes of loss and violation enigmatic, because the player is only slowly made aware of the problem with Cloud’s memories. XIII makes no bones about what has been done to the characters, and jumps straight to making the ramifications of that front and center, instead of waiting for any particular reveal. It also makes the theme of familial bonds being the driving force behind the characters much more explicit than previous FFs, other than the FFX-2 epilogue DLC.

    Excellent essay. No matter its faults as a game, the XIII franchise has provided some excellent characters and bits of story worth remembering, and it’s great to see someone presenting its strengths with such detail.

  2. This is an amazing analysis!!

  3. I like your analysis, especially about Lightning. Could you make more analyses about FFXIII characters? Like Yeul or Noel, maybe? Because I can’t understand their character and their situation. I’m sorry if I have bothered you. Thank you.

    • It’s very possible I could do an analysis on Yeul, Noel, and Caius. Perhaps when I find myself replaying the trilogy next, as I don’t think I could do one off the top of my head.

      Also you’re not bothering me at all. Thank you for stopping by.

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