Thoughts on Lightning Returns and cultural appropriation [SPOILERS]

[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[1].

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.

Lightning_LR_screenshot
Fetish messiah ftw

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:

Ark_screenshot

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.

REASONS.

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:

saving souls

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:

photo 2 - Copy

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?

Jesus confirms that is totally what happened.

…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.

[1] Because a Buffy reference seemed appropriate.

[2] Only it’s Thor that’s the Norse Thunder God, not Odin, but let’s not get sidetracked…

 

Lightning Returns is fun, but who do I have to kill for a pair of pants? [MANY IMAGES]

[NOTE: SPOILERS for pretty much all of the FFXIII games. ALSO – I’m writing this post before I’ve actually finished playing Lightning Returns, so PLEASE don’t spoil anything past day 10. Thanks.]

I’ve been working my way (slowly) through Lightning Returns the last few months. Despite the railroad-y nature of FFXIII, I did enjoy the characters – especially Lightning, whom I’ve written about as being one of my favorite RPG characters ever. I enjoyed FFXIII-2 even more, as it combined solid writing with more non-linear play options, even if the ending was 100% full of shit.

Hope can’t fucking deal with how terrible the ending was.

Especially since Squeenix was coy for the first several months about whether there was going to be an FFXIII-3. Yup! We’ve killed a protagonist, destroyed time, and ended the entire universe. The end!

…sorry. Got a little sidetracked there.

Anyway, when I found out that XIII-3 was going to be a thing, I knew that I was going to have to play. It was going to mitigate XIII-2’s crappy ending! And even better, it was going to star Lightning!

And then I started hearing… things. About how the game was going to bring back dress-spheres, and how the development team wanted to implement jiggle physics, and how there was a catgirl outfit that served no real purpose other than making Lightning look hawt. And suddenly I wasn’t so sure I wanted to pay money for the game.

Thankfully, a friend of mine had already purchased it before getting sidetracked playing the re-release of FFX/X-2. Problem solved!

Canonical Lightning’s Outfit sucks

Unfortunately, the facepalms started as soon as I fired up the game for the first time and saw Lightning’s new costume design. Yes, despite supposedly just having woke up from crystal stasis, which she entered while wearing her FFXIII-2 valkyrie armor, she woke up in this brand new outfit that honestly doesn’t make any fucking sense at all. Seriously, check out these stills, both of which happen in cutscenes within the first hour of starting a new game:

Opening cutscenes

The worst part is that the top image is from the very beginning of the game, the first time we see Lightning, the supposed protagonist of the game that I’m supposed to spend the next 40ish hours with. And the first thing I get is Lightning’s crotch.

Seriously, it would be impossible to overstate just how bad Lightning’s starting outfit is. Because while it might look borderline “reasonable” from the front, at least by the standards of normal video game oversexualization, what it looks like from the back is an entirely different story:

lightning default outfit

That’s right. Her flappy loincloth is designed to billow dramatically, which also, coincidentally, gives us a total panty shot. Also, it highlights that Lightning is really just wearing mostly straps and not much else.

BUT WUNDERGEEK. U CAN CHANGE WHAT LIGHTNING WEARS SO WHY DOES IT MATTER.

Well, yes, thanks internet. But that doesn’t change the fact that I had to play through the first hour or so of the game without any option to change outfits. Also, in terms of what has been established as the “canonical Lightning” for Lightning returns, this is, unfortunately, it:

toy
FUCK EVERYTHING.

But sure. Yes. Okay. There are lots of other garbs to choose from, so I don’t have to play with the default garb. True! Except…

The entire impetus for this post happened when my husband was watching me play last night and commented that I hadn’t changed any of my outfits in a long time. (As in 12-15 hours of gameplay.) And I groused that that was because the few garbs I’d encountered with better stats than my current garbs were garbs I wasn’t willing to wear because they were oversexualized nonsense.

So I decided that I was going to look at all of the available garbs in Lightning Returns and see how bad the actual breakdown was.

Sources, Criteria, and Caveats

I used the Final Fantasy Wiki to get a complete list of garbs, although there are a lot of limited edition preorder garbs that are nothing more than color- or pattern-swaps. So I decided to only include the 80 that either come with the game itself or can be gotten as DLC, so that the preorder only garbs didn’t muddy the results.

My goal was to classify each garb as either suggestive or not suggestive, using the same criteria established in my original article that started this blog. Tl;dr: anything showing cleavage, bared midriff or otherwise incompletely covered torso, or legs uncovered by a garment (skirts count, thigh-high stockings do not) counts as suggestive. (And honestly, all of the outfits classified as suggestive hit more than one, if not all of these.)

My hypothesis going in was that the breakdown would probably be 50/50 suggestive versus non-suggestive. So I was surprised when 44 of the 80 garbs counted as suggestive. No wonder I’d had trouble finding useful garbs that didn’t suck! The odds were actually stacked against me!

simple

The problem with the above chart, however, is that it doesn’t really tell the whole story. Because the problem is that while a 45/55 split still sounds okay in terms of reasonable outfits versus sexualized outfits, there were outfits that I wouldn’t ever consider wearing that didn’t count as suggestive.

For instance, there are no less than seven different evening gowns. EVENING GOWNS. Which makes no freaking sense. The entire series has been built up around what a martial badass Lightning is and how no one in the world is as strong or as good at fighting as she is, not even Snow. Not even Caius. So please explain to me how in a game based entirely around solo combat with a sword and shield, it makes even the smallest amount of sense to have Lightning run around in an evening gown while she swordilates things. (Yes it’s a word, shut up.)

In addition to the seven evening gowns, there were two other garbs that I categorically would never use, even if they don’t count as suggestive, simply because they feel so radically out of character that I wouldn’t be able to take the game seriously at all while using them.

OOC-not-suggsstive

Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against non-awful schoolgirl outfits, and this one is certainly pretty decent. The thing is, throughout the entire series, Lightning is depicted as the hardened veteran, the one who knows what has to be done and is willing to walk the difficult path – pretty much the complete opposite of the naive schoolgirl trope. Which makes this garb read as a fanservice fetish outfit to me. Gross.

And the moogle queen? …do I even need to explain how weird and jarring it would be to play with this garb?

Anyway, when I factor the above caveats into the breakdown, it winds up looking a lot worse:

detailed

Wow. So now instead of having slightly less than half of the outfits being not-suggestive, not-immersion breaking outfits, we’re down to only a third. That sucks. That sucks a lot.

How does it suck? Let me count the ways.

First, let me dispel the notion that when I talk about sexualized outfits, that I’m talking about things like Lightning’s FFXIII-2 valkyrie armor, which was admittedly pretty cool even if it didn’t have pants. The stuff that I’m complaining about is this:

seriously wtf
No #2’s outfit doesn’t include the hat by default. That’s just an accessory that makes it worse.

The garb on the far left is actually called, I shit you not, AMAZON WARRIOR. Because nothing says “female empowerment” like battle panties. Or thigh-high stockings. Or lingerie ninjas. You know, because ridiculous oversexualization to the point of becoming the platonic ideal of the male gaze is, like, totally okay if it’s a strong female character.

The problem with these extremely sexualized garbs is that they’re actually what shows up in the game’s in-engine cutscenes, which has been pretty much everything past the first hour. And that radically undercuts any sense of drama or investment in the narrative that I might have. How am I supposed to pay attention to Lightning’s speeches about saving her sister or creating a new world when I can’t take my eyes off of her ridiculous battle panties?

wtf cutscenes
Like the power to somehow not be flashing you right now.

And again, some people might say BUT U DON’T HAVE TO WEAR THEM STFU. And sure, if you ignore the fact that the game mechanically punishes people not willing to use sexualized or impractical garbs by having them outnumber the reasonable garbs 2-to-1, that’s true.

But what is also true is that it isn’t possible for me to entirely ignore the sexualized garbs either. Whenever I visit an Outfitters, looking for new garbs, there isn’t any indication of which garbs are sexy versus which aren’t, so I wind up being frustrated half the time when all of my new options are just more ridiculous cheesecake.

There’s also the issue that some of the ridiculously sexualized garbs are actual plot rewards, which makes them doubly impossible to ignore. The above Amazon Warrior garb is an example of this – it’s a garb that you get as a plot reward upon completing one of the game days. But another equally egregious example is the Mi’quote garb, which you have to actually quest for:

miquote
LEFT: Actual victory pose. (The ears and tail are accessories, not part of the actual outfit)

SO GROSS. I did the quest, because I’m something of a completionist, albeit within reason. (I didn’t bother getting any of the ultimate weapons in FFX, for example, although I did build up a champion blitzball team.) But as soon as I saw what it was, I promptly wish that I hadn’t. Hope’s dialogue about the Mi’quote as a culture felt like a weirdly tacked on addition to justify putting Lightning in blatant fetish wear, which was jarring. The director might as well have come onscreen and said “hey, I just really wanted to see sexy catgirl Lightning. Sorry.”

And I hate that. HATE IT. Because the immersive qualities of the Final Fantasy series games are what keep me coming back for each new title. And having that immersion jarred SUCKS. How the hell am I supposed to take this game seriously when this kind of bullshit sexism is being continually shoved in my face?

Just look at the difference one of these stupid outfits makes:

cutscene contrast

The first screenshot is an epic fantasy hero who happens to be female holding her own against a dude wielding a seriously ridiculous sword. The second is a stripper in a cat costume using an improvised weapon to fend off some creepy dude.

Do some people want to play the second way? Sure. But the people who are actually invested in Lightning as a character and who want to see her treated like a human being and not a piece of meat shouldn’t have to have this bullshit sexualization rammed down their throats in order to even play the game.

In other words, I’m not even saying that the sexy costumes shouldn’t necessarily exist. I’m just saying that they should be optional, clearly marked, and NOT FUCKING PLOT REWARDS. In other words, they should be opt-IN, not opt-OUT.

Lastly, a point of pedantry for the Final Fantasy fanatics

My last beef with the bullshit sexist outfits is that they even spilled over into the classic Final Fantasy jobs that appeared among the garb choices. Here are the six iconic final fantasy jobs/classes that showed up as garb choices:

FF Class Garbs

And here’s how those classes have typically been rendered in other series. (Yes I’m ignoring X-2. It was one game and didn’t match with how the jobs/classes are typically portrayed):

jobs

So looking at the Red Mage and Black Mage garbs, I have to say that I actually really like them! The red mage is absolutely true to form. And the Black Mage is actually a really nice feminine version of the typical unisex Bklack Mage design while still not being ridiculously impractical or fanservice-y.

The Dragoon and the Dark Knight I was much less happy with. They’re certainly much better than most of the other sexualized armors, but would it have killed them to include pants? The armors are so good except for that pesky lack of pants!

The two I like the least are the Blue Mage and the White Mage. The Blue Mage, because it tosses all of the design history out the window in favor of sexay that happens to be mostly blue. And the White Mage, while I didn’t actually count it as suggestive, also feels really boring and girly. They didn’t include any red in the design, the silhoutte is completely different, and there isn’t anything remotely priest-like about that dress. Which, honestly. If even X-2 managed to have sexay outfits that still recognizably adhered to the iconic class outfit design, what was their freaking excuse? It strikes me as being just plain lazy.