[NOTE: I’m just about to finish Day 10, so please no spoilers on things that come after that.]
I was having a conversation with my husband the other night about cultural appropriation and Lightning Returns, in which I had occasion to make the following comparison: “It’s like an Evangelical white Texan decided to write a game about Hinduism. That’s how wrong it gets everything.”
And I’d really like to expand on that! But before we go any further, let’s break down the specific example I’m talking about.
Lightning Returns: the most bonkers take on Catholicism ever
So firstly, let’s just get started with the fact that in 13-1, Lightning becomes the pawn of the fal’cie, nigh-omnipotent servants of an omnipotent but mostly absent god who created the world and then abandoned it. She then spends the entire game fighting against entities that are roughly analogous to archangels, and soundly kicks their asses. And somewhere in there she somehow befriends Odin and he becomes her beating-things-up buddy, because, I dunno, I guess he just really likes that her name is Lightning?
Then in 13-2, she’s suddenly abducted by a goddess of Death-but-not-really(?) and turned into a valkyrie. And now in 13-3, she’s back working for God again, and she is literally the savior. As in, that is her title now – Savior Comma The.
So now 13-3, Lightning Returns, stars Lightning, The Savior, chosen of God – Bhunivelze the Lord of Light, who apparently decided that priestly robes were passe and that Lightning should have priestly bondage wear instead.
And then there’s a bunch of stuff about the end of the world because it’s Squeenix and let’s just cut to the fact that “God’s” base of operations is The Ark, which looks like a fevered acid-trip conjured by the love child of a Futurist and an Art Nouveau aficionado. And that weird tree there? Oh, don’t mind that, that’s just The Tree of Life, AKA Yggdrasil, AKA the World Tree of Norse mythology:
Why is Yggdrasil a plot point in a game that is literally about making Lightning the Christian Bondage Wear Messiah? Let’s not worry about that, okay? Let’s also not worry about that in 13-3, Lightning saves a white chocobo named The Angel of Valhalla, who was really – surprise! – Odin all along! Only Odin is a giant white chicken now, because reasons. And Odin, Valhalla, and Yggdrasil… well Norse culture only predates Christianity by, like, a couple centuries, and Scandinavia is, like, in the same hemisphere and Norse people and Christians are both white, or you know, mostly white, or okay there are non-white Christians but we just won’t pay attention to them because that’s not important.
So, okay, Lightning the Bondage Messiah has been chosen by God to save the souls of as many people as she can before the end of the world so that they can live again in the new world that God is going to create. And no, none of that sentence was in any way a metaphor, because here is Lightning doing some sweet, sweet, soul saving:
Oh, and then there’s the official church of God, who are, like, God’s official homies. Only they’re called “The Order”, and they are totes Catholic because seriously check out this badass Cathedral:
But even though the Order are God’s official homies, they’re also preparing to fuck up God’s shit by doing a ritual to destroy all of the dead souls still hanging around and shit, which would ruin God’s promise to bring back Lightning’s dead sister after she helps him save the world and stuff. Because holding family members hostage is something that totally happened, like for real the New Testament was full of DO WHAT I SAY JESUS OR I WILL FUCKING SHIV MARY SERIOUSLY DO NOT FUCK WITH ME JESUS.
Oh, and even though I haven’t finished the game, I know for realz that Lightning is going to wind up beating up and maybe killing God because Squeenix is telegraphing it so hard, which is also legit Christian, because don’t you remember that time that Jesus and God had that throwdown in the Octagon?
…I think you probably get the idea by now.
So what does this have to do with cultural appropriation?
What exactly does and does not count as cultural appropriation is always tricky to pin down. Myself, I would say that although Lightning Returns is a bizarre and misinterpretation of Catholic Christianity, I would not call it cultural appropriation, simply because of the context of the two cultures in question. While Japan did not suffer as many ill effects of Western colonial oppression as other Asian countries, it still left an indelible mark on Japanese society. And in general, it is certainly true that Christianity was often a tool of colonial oppression.
And yes Japan does have a history of colonialism itself, and yes it does have a problem with racism against non-Yamato-Japanese. But Japan has never colonized the West, nor has it attempted to forcibly convert Western people or otherwise destroy Western religion. And bizarrely-worded t-shirts aside, it certainly doesn’t have a history of selling misrepresentations of Western religion and culture for profit in such a way that would comprise a threat to the integrity of said religion and culture.
So while Lightning Returns is a deeply weird take on Christianity that some might find offensive (I don’t, but I could understand people who do), I don’t think it’s fair to call it cultural appropriation.
So why go on at such length? Because I think the close-but-not-quite nature of Lightning Returns makes it a useful illustration of what cultural appropriation looks like for people who might not be accustomed to looking out for such things.
There are, unfortunately, a lot of game writers out there who see nothing wrong with raiding non-European cultures for game fodder. Because these cultures are often seen as “inspiration” and not as cultures that belong to real, living people, the result can be big, dumb pastiches of stereotypes and misinterpretations that read as bizarre at best to members of that culture. And because the majority of game developers are still, sadly, white, it only perpetuates the cultural trend of white people commodifying and profiting from the cultures of groups that they themselves have historically victimized.
There’s nothing inherently wrong about writing a game about or set in a culture that you are not a part of. I’m a firm believer in promoting the stories of marginalized groups of people! Hell, I wrote a game set in the Reconquista specifically because I was bothered by the erasure of PoC from European history. But it is wrong to write a game about a culture that isn’t yours if you don’t treat it as something worthy of respect.
Which is where we come back to Lightning Returns as a useful example of What Not To Do!
Looking at Lightning Returns, we have:
* Casual conflation of two distinct cultures from ethnically similar but distinct groups of people (Norse paganism =/ Christianity)
* Use of a cultural or religious symbols to argue for the destruction of that culture or religion (because come on, I don’t have to have finished the game to know that Lightning is going to try to kill God)
* Characters represented in such a way that would be offensive to a significant portion of the real-world members of that culture (Lightning’s bondage messiah gear)
* Representation of a religious figure/cultural hero as something antithetical to their traditional representation. (Jesus was a Jewish carpenter and prophet, not a pink-haired Japanese sword-wielding lady badass who beats up gods for fun.)
So, you know, if you’re struggling with the whole “how not to do cultural appropriation”, you can at least not do those things, which will be a start.
 Because a Buffy reference seemed appropriate.
 Only it’s Thor that’s the Norse Thunder God, not Odin, but let’s not get sidetracked…