The Final Fantasy XIII trilogy got a lot of flack for a myriad of problems: linearity, weak storyline, generic collect-and-return quests, but most pertinently, the main female protagonist, Lightning.
The problem with the gaming community is that it is decidedly male-centric, with many developers and reviewers catering to (and belonging to) the male gender. I can understand that; the world is trying to adjust to the influx of female gamers, and, call us crazy, but sometimes we enjoy playing a strong female character, no matter how banal the quests may be.
It’s true: FFXIII was very linear for a good three-quarters of the game. FFXIII-2 improved upon that, though it was almost to the point of confusion, as half the time the player has no clue where (or, more importantly, when) they are. Then came Lightning Returns, a game that improved upon many of the aspects complained about in previous games, and with a typically JRPG storyline – full of twists, turns, and heightened emotion. Most importantly, it featured a more intuitive battle system, which was successful enough to be adopted by the long awaited Final Fantasy XV. And yet, Lightning Returns still received mixed reviews. Why? My only conclusion is that male gamers still find it difficult to play a female protagonist (Square Enix clearly noticed this trend as they reverted to their standard male protagonist in the form of Noctis Lucis Caelum in Final Fantasy XV).
Let’s be clear: Lightning was a strong female character, if an emotionally-stunted one (an aspect which is addressed and resolved in the final game in the FFXIII series). She is a capable fighter with strong morals and, I would go as far as to say, a role-model for female JRPG players. Not even her sister, Serah (the female co-protagonist in FFXIII-2), possessed the gravitas that Lightning’s character brought to the games. Instead, she was unsure and in constant inner-conflict – quite the opposite of Lightning’s self-assured get-the-job-done attitude. This attitude stemmed from having to raise her sister after losing their parents: events that led to her Guardian Corp initiation. The very fact that she is a soldier is already a massive step in the right direction for Square Enix, as female characters are traditionally the damsels in distress. On the flip side of the coin, making Lightning a cold, hardened soldier makes her unlikeable and leaves her without the semblance of a personality. Lightning, being the first truly prominent female protagonist (after Terra of FFVI), definitely broadens the market by catering to both genders. However, Square Enix will need to work on making their leading ladies more relatable. One can’t really blame them: they’ve had very little practice truly exploring the psyche and motives of female protagonists, but practice makes perfect.
One might even say that the emotionally-stunted Lightning was directly contrasted by her emotionally-driven little sister. And of course, FFXIII dealt primarily with saving Serah, who was unable to save herself, placing her in the category of the classic damsel in distress role, waiting around for someone to save her. That ‘someone’ was Lightning, who risked life and limb to save the only family she had left. Then, in Lightning Returns, not only did she save her sister, but all of our favourite characters from the series, and even her arch-nemesis from FFXIII-2, Caius Ballad.
As of now, there are only two strong, independent, and truly prominent female characters in Final Fantasy’s long and complex history: Ultimecia, the primary antagonist of Final Fantasy VIII, and Lightning, the underrated and disregarded protagonist of the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy. Lightning added a feminist touch to the male-centric JRPG scene, though, that is not to say that there are not some great female characters in the Final Fantasy series: Tifa Lockhart and Rinoa Heartilly are prominent in FFVII and FFVIII, respectively, but they were support characters at best – there to guide the moral compass of the male protagonist. Aeris, Rinoa, and Yuna possessed inner strength and a tendency towards self-sacrifice. Though this is commendable, the fact that the developers were willing to sacrifice them in the first place is the real problem here. Then there’s Yeul, who is the ultimate personification of self-sacrifice, but still required not one, but two men to take care of her. The concept of self-sacrifice is a decidedly feminine characteristic, which is also possessed by Lightning, but with more of a hardened goal-oriented outlook that is generally looked upon as masculine.
Lightning combines the both feminine and masculine characteristics and thus embodies a very unique character. She even goes from fighting a god, to serving a god, to killing a god. That makes her an inspirational character in my book, gender-be-damned.