Those of us who clamor for richer stories and deeper characters in games have a familiar laundry list of requests. We want stories that reflect on the world we live in. We want cleverness, subtlety and ambiguity. We want characters, especially women protagonists, who add up to more than a trait and a motive. We want a game that unfolds its narrative, not merely to extend gameplay, but to explore its themes and characters.
Hey, guess what? Final Fantasy XIII is precisely such a game. Surprised? Me too. Expected a fastball. Got a change-up.
FFXIII is a post-9/11 meditation on fear, loss, and the desperate measures they provoke. It depicts leaders who "don't run from fights," sending innocent citizens to their deaths. It explores the ramifications of demonizing an enemy to build public support for a war machine. It exposes the hollowness of jingoism in the face of profound personal pain.
It's impossible not to see parallels between the 'Purge' - the Sanctum's publicly sanctioned internment of citizens suspected of sympathizing with the enemy - and the WWII 'Yellow Peril' internment of Japanese Americans (or more recent government surveillance of 'suspect' citizens). It's equally impossible to miss FFXIII's indictment of the media's culpability in spreading the administration's message that human rights are dispensable when national security is perceived as threatened.
Snow, FFXIII's beefy male protagonist, delivers most of the familiar heroic platitudes, "We are the heroes, after all! Let's prove it!!" but unlike other FF games, FFXIII often treats him ironically. After exhorting a group of defenseless refugees to join the fight, he arms them, stirs them to battle...and then watches as they die, shot by enemy soldiers, or falling to their deaths in a massive platform collapse. The bloody toll of war is never far from view in this game.
The women of FFXIII are the game's main narrative attraction, driving the action forward and providing most of the game's thematic depth. Throughout FFXIII's long story, it's the women who display the most savvy. They're more decisive, less panic-stricken than their male counterparts. Early in the game, it's a woman - a mother with a frightened son - who courageously saves Snow's life before losing her own. And it's a woman - Lightning's sister - who imparts the story's central mission: save Cocoon, their home.
Lightning is the game's real protagonist, a tormented, woman-with-no-name lone wolf with mad ninja skills and reckless cunning. She instigates the rebellion in the game's opening scene, and as the story progresses, she is nearly always the one pushing it forward. Resisting her authority comes at a cost, as Snow discovers when Lightning lays him out flat with a roundhouse punch.
As you might expect, there's more to Lighting than meets the eye, and FFXIII does an especially good job of slowly unpeeling her layers and breaking through her defenses. Her voice actor, Ali Hillis, is a major discovery, whose only previous game VO was Mass Effect 1&2's Dr. Liara T'Soni. She's also set to appear in Bioware's upcoming Star Wars: The Old Republic.
Games rarely depict human suffering. They're much better showing us the circumstances surrounding it. Final Fantasy games have tried, but always as fantasy-tinged youth melodrama. FFXIII doesn't stray far from that path, but it mostly avoids the cloying teen angst of previous games. Repeatedly in my many hours with this game, I've discovered moments of genuine sorrow and compassion. Its fractured, multi-POV storytelling feels fresh and convincing to me, despite the occasional cliche or awkward vocal performance.
It's as if Square-Enix decided to push the game in two opposite directions: ease the complexity of the game's formal systems and increase the complexity of the game's storytelling. As a result, FFXIII feels like it's targeted at grownups eager for a deep, but accessible RPG with a big story. Longtime fans may miss the towns, merchants, and NPCs, but I've found their absence eliminates clutter and streamlines a game formula that's grown bloated and tiresome.
FFXIII is more than its story and characters, of course, and there's much to be said about the game built around them. Simon Ferrari at Chungking Expresso says it far better than I ever could, and I strongly encourage you to read his studious take on "the purity" of FFXIII's gameplay systems.
Final Fantasy XIII admonished me with a helpful reminder. Playing a game yourself is the only way to understand what that game says to you. FF games carry more game culture baggage than any franchise I can think of. We know all about them, so they're easy to dismiss. And sometimes maybe they are (FFX-2?).
FFXIII made me sit up and pay attention. It's a beautiful game of stellar craftsmanship with gorgeous cutscenes. In other words, it's another Final Fantasy game. But if you play it - and you must be patient because the game takes its time - you may find it's much more than that.