By Sarah Awad
After news about the third installment of the Final Fantasy XIII saga, the author traveled back to a time when we were first introduced to Lightning Farron.
When the first Final Fantasy XIII trailer was released during E3 2006, it was love at first sight as Square Enix introduced to me what was seemingly a new type of heroine. Strong and swift with a searing glare, the mysterious Lightning Farron had a presence unlike that of previous franchise protagonists. She was not a soft-spoken Yuna, a youthful Tidus or Vann, or a poignant Cloud. She commanded her presence in that trailer with a bombastic punch and a fresh look, all while having full control over her body, her enemies, and may I say, her audience. And this was a mere sneak peek; in exactly 74 seconds, I was smitten. I have never felt such a connection with a character so quickly and so strongly prior to or since.
When the game was finally released, I was eager to become more acquainted with the woman I fell in love with three years prior; I wanted to know if she still possessed the power I had witnessed, if she was in fact the true videogame heroine I was longing for. And she was.
Lightning had so much potential. She had a lot going for her, and the game does do a good job of presenting her in an appropriate fashion; she is never put up on a pedestal as the “strong female character,” or objectified by questionable cinematography or dialogue. She is a well-rounded individual with several striking qualities that reveal themselves in the first several hours of gameplay, which I believe to be the most important regarding her character:
She is a Self-Driven Career Woman
While her backstory is stock and not elaborated upon (She cares for her sweet little sister after the death of her parents), Farron essentially builds herself a solid life from the ground up. As a solider/police officer of the Guardian Corps, she is shown as having a successful, stable job with the respect of her male superiors. This is especially seen in the video exchange she has with her commanding officer, Lieutenant Amodar. He jokes with her like an old buddy, praises her hard work, tells her she deserves a promotion, and encourages her to begin officer training for a higher position. He treats her as an equal, and has a respect for her that runs deep.
Her success in the workplace also translates materially. In the cut scene showing Lightning’s birthday dinner, the player gets to see a room in her nice home. Spacious, modern, and generously furnished with a bountiful table, the scene suggests her income allows her to live comfortably in a well-deserved abode.
Farron is well off, respected, successful, and all by the young age of twenty-one. This feat indicates she is a character that is persistent, hard working, organized, and passionate. Just from these short scenes alone, the designers present her as a well-rounded force to be reckoned with.
She Has Bite
Speaking of force…
Lightning is sassy, if a bit mean, but her edge is presented (for the most part) positively; it is never cockiness, but instead it’s a biting confidence. Leave the pomp and cock to Snow Villiers, the brooding blondie with an oozing ego. Juxtaposed with Farron, he appears ridiculous.
Right at the game’s opening, Lightning shows her teeth. As she efficiently KOs enemy after enemy (and jumps off of buildings!), there is great focus, but also a coldness, behind her eyes; her blows are skillful and dead on accurate; what an introduction for the player!
She is unafraid to state her point with a punch. One example is in her constant assault of Snow, of which she takes to the ground on several occasions. Each blow always follows with a scolding explanation that most times, puts the burly man in his place.
As a successful solider, it is made clear in Lightning’s character that she understands her capabilities, and her impactful expression of them in these instances demonstrates an individual with a boldness unlike characters before her. She walks straight up to someone twice her size and punches him in the face. Lightning’s spark is more like a firecracker.
She Hits Right in the Middle
Farron’s punchy presence reflects a new kind of character for the franchise, and especially when one looks at Final Fantasy females in recent years. She is never portrayed as a female character that is “being squeezed into the role of the male action hero” (Feminist Frequency). She is strong and kicks butt, but specific choices give her a fresh sensibility and speak to a more complex, nuanced character. This topic could be the subject of an entire post on its own, so let’s briefly highlight certain instances.
Farron is never pigeonholed into a single role on the battlefield, for the game’s battle system is a non-judgmental one. She can be a Healer, a role normally associated with female characters. Then she can immediately shift to an offensive role without issue or a sexy costume change. Leveling up different roles is also not as biased (compared to say, Final Fantasy X). This system does not label her; it becomes less about her gender or her personality. She becomes more versatile, and more valuable for what she can do.
Speaking of roles, the game’s other characters have been criticized for being lackluster to say the least. When juxtaposed with her companions, who easily fall into a stock role or trope, the player can better see Lightning’s lack of lean towards one type of role. She’s strong, but not a Macho Man (Snow Villiers), confident and attractive, but not like a Sexy Action Heroine (Fang), young, but not naïve and insecure (Hope)— and well, she’s nothing like a Manic Pixie (Vanille). And while Sazh (to me, the second best character in the game made even more awesome by the talented Reno Wilson) is potentially the most parallel to Lightning regarding their storylines (both are trying to rescue a loved one), his chattiness, sense of humor, and go-with-the-flow attitude simultaneously foils them.
Surrounded by these characters ( until 2:31), Farron’s inflection is highlighted— especially near the end of the cut scene— and her differences from the group are strikingly visible. She hits right in middle in comparison, and that makes her more realistic and complex.
Farron was a standout, a striking hero unlike anyone else in the game. Then, she was knocked down before she had the chance to truly shine. As the first several hours of game play on, the Lightning we were introduced to makes a dramatic turn into a character whose bombast is tamed, a turn hard for me to watch.
No I in Team
A large, traveling group of friends/guardians/fated followers is a Final Fantasy staple. This continues in XIII, but the dynamic it creates does not seem well suited towards Farron’s character, who tends to better work alone.
As discussed before, Lightning is independent and well off on her own; a wanted fugitive, she is completely capable of surviving on her own: the player sees her develop a plan, be observant and quick on her feet, and be knowledgeable and aware of the forces working against her. She is a solider, a skilled and well-respected one at that, and is trained for the dire situations like the ones she faces.
For much of the story, she seems severely irritated or uncomfortable with having companions (especially at the beginning), mates who are either not up to par in skill or have completely different goals than her. She has no problem abandoning them, telling them off, or as mentioned before, throttling them. In her travels to the warring Vestige to rescue her sister in the beginning, she has a goal, the tools she needs (such as her gun and her zero gravity button), and the smarts. When Sazh decides to tag along, he detours her, ruins one of her weapons, and interrogates her, to her obvious annoyance.
In many situations throughout the game, the companions can barely keep up with Lightning’s physical stamina, or have no idea what they are up against regarding their pursuers. This is very different than the circumstances withing say, Final Fantasy X, where the group chemistry and level of skill were on closer pages, and everyone was working together toward the same goal.
With this in mind, it feels as if Farron is squeezed into the group for the sake of the story, and the changes she experiences take quick and truncated turns in order to move forward the story. She becomes more attached to her companions without conflict, and in many instances becomes almost a motherly figure and less of a leader. In her journey to Palumpolum with young boy Hope, she becomes dramatically more affectionate. And Farron, once a being of few wordsn begins to speak motivational monologues to keep on keepin’ on. With this switch, the quality of her dialogue declines into sweeping stock statements, washing out much of the inflection the player laid witness to at the game’s beginning.
Her erosion continues as her character slowly fades into the background both personality wise, and as companions Fang and Vanille become more important and fleshed out. This occurs even though Farron is considered the main protagonist. So the decisions compromise her punchy edge, and her sense of independence fades as she begins to become more of a team player. The Lightning at the game’s end feels less engaging than the Lightning of 70 hours prior.
But what is probably the most unfortunate issue of XIII’s story that completely destroys Lightning’s character is the presence of her sister, Serah:
The player sees right away that Lightning’s character completely changes when it comes to her sister. To save the captured Serah, Farron willingly becomes a prisoner in order to be transferred to the Vestige where her sister is trapped. In this scene, she surrenders her saber and quits her job without any inflection of sadness or frustration. She tosses aside all the success, the life she had built for herself, with way too much ease. As previously stated, for someone as hardworking and well off as Lightning, this scene is completely out of character, and almost uncomfortable to watch.
As we will see later, Lightning experiences frustrating moments where she implies that her sister defines her; without her sister, she is and has nothing. I have a younger sister (We are actually the same ages as Lightning and Serah), and while many people like us would sacrifice great amounts for their kin, we are still beings with separate personalities and lives; there is more to our worlds. To watch Lightning give up her Blazefire Saber in this scene is difficult because she is in a way surrendering the only piece of her life that is not Serah-centric.
The attachment and longing for her sister tears her apart, and unfortunately appears to conquer her. She may be daring, but Purging herself also marks the start of many strange decisions made regarding Serah. She has moments where she is surprisingly sloppy and defeated. In one scene, Lightning deals with a monster cumbersomely, almost begging it to return her sister. This behavior is nothing like the artful, stoic soldier of before, and strips her of her strength.
One of the worst moments of the game though comes early on, with Lightning reciting what can be said as words of defeat for her character:
“Without Serah, without a future, there’s nothing to plan for. There’s no way out of this mess, and no way to fight it.”
As the player sees in the beginning of the game, Lightning does not melt this easily, yet becomes utterly desperate with the push of a button. These are not words that reveal vulnerability or properly portray it; it is the surrender flag, and almost compromises her completely. It is as if her sister is her identity, and without her, she is no one and has nothing. This is a far cry from the same person that previously exclaimed “How I live is up to me”. The independent, sassy, and fighting spirit the player was just bombastically acquainted with has fizzled out with two sentences, merely several hours into this time consuming game.
Maybe Lightning has a fear of ending up alone, but if she does, weakening her with melodrama and severely out of character actions may not be the most successful plotting for an epic story such as this.
Unfortunately, my long awaited moment with Lightning Farron was a disappointing one, and even more so as a player, for it was I with the controller, with no choice but to sadly pursue and take her through this path. I had almost given up on the game because essentially, my heroine had deteriorated, and I was fueling it by my playing.
As I pushed through to the end, my lengthy journey felt incomplete and frustrating. I longed for the mysterious figure I saw back in 2006, the pink-haired force of nature that could have been a shining new example of a female character done right. What happened to Lightning Farron was a missed opportunity both for Square Enix, who was long due for a new and iconic character to join its legendary ranks, as well as for fans like myself, who were looking forward getting further acquainted with a new type of heroine.
And as Lightning’s saga continued, this missed arrow kept sailing further and further into the unfortunate oblivion where it now rests— but really…
Coincidentally, Kotaku released this article at 4:00 this morning, divulging horrific details regarding the further, and to me a more aggressive, beatdown of Lightning’s character. In combination with recent controversies of a similar vein, this attack hits far deeper, and takes the conversation onto a larger stage. This sexualization of Lightning Farron is unfortunately another instance of a major problem that desperately needs to change; one that I will fight with my own gunblade.
This could be the topic of several posts, but shortly and (well, maybe not-so) sweetly, I am sadden and horrified—but mostly horrified— at the way Lightning’s character has deteriorated over the past two games, and hope that game designers and storytellers alike really look at this situation, and understand that a change needs to happen.
Sarah Awad, an ardent Final Fantasy fan and an NYU student, is also the Circle’s new intern. Sarah is also a trained dancer and loves 3D printers, which happens to be the subject of her next story.