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Fabula Nova Feminas: Final Fantasy XIII is a Womens' World

Trent Fingland's picture

Final Fantasy XIII Screenshot

"But isn't Final Fantasy XIII totally old?"

It's true (well not really, but we're using game time here) but this article has been on my mind for quite some time. At first, I held off writing it because everyone was too busy talking about how Final Fantasy XIII is a terrible game, then it was because the game was "too old" to talk about. Fortunately, the recent release of Metroid: Other M has reignited conversation about the portrayal of women in games, and given me the perfect opportunity to get this article out of my mind and off of my back. For those who haven't played Final Fantasy XIII, a warning: this article will attempt to analyze its heroines, and in doing so will contain major spoilers.

In both its narrative and gameplay, Final Fantasy XIII keeps its heroines at the forefront of the action.

In fact, if the game completely omitted the male half of its party, the main storyline could still occur almost completely unaltered. The subplots involving Hope, Snow, and Sazh are either resolved early, or punted all the way to the final cutscene. Hope comes to terms with the death of his mother, and Sazh and Snow's loved ones are frozen in crystal. Once these events occur, these three characters are reduced to little more than cheerleaders, occasionally spouting boilerplate optimism and reminding the party of the urgency of their quest.

Final Fantasy XIII Screenshot

On the other hand, the subplots involving the heroines are critical to the game's central conflict, and central to the mythology of the twin worlds of Cocoon and Pulse. Like Snow, Lightning begins the game with sole desire of rescuing her sister, Sarah. Unlike Snow, her character is not defined by that single, narrow goal. Lightning is the first to realize that the Fal'cie are not the benevolent pseudo-gods as the people of Cocoon had been led to believe. She is also the first to resolve to to put an end to the systems of control that have saddled the party and countless others with grim foci that benefit only the Fal'cie.

Vanille and Fang also completely outstrip their male counterparts when it comes nuance to narrative relevance. Both hail from the "hell" that is Pulse, and originally came to Cocoon with the goal of destroying it. After their attempt fails, Vanille runs from her genocidal focus, hiding behind a mask of optimism and levity. Fang, willing to do whatever it takes to save her friend from the fate that awaits those who fail to fulfill their focus, remains determined to carry out their shared mission. Vanille drops her act bit by bit as the game progresses, while Fang constantly wrestles with weighing the life of her dear friend against the lives of countless contemptuous strangers who want them both dead. The two ultimately do take the form of Ragnarok in the game's final moments, but in doing so sacrifice themselves to end the tyranny of the Fal'cie, and save the inhabitants of Cocoon.

One aspect of this Pulsian pair that's also worth noting is the nature of their relationship, specifically because it's never clearly defined. A casual observer could easily get the impression that Vanille and Fang are more than just friends. Final Fantasy XIII presents this idea and then immediately shrugs it off, doing so in a way that suggests that their status as a couple is completely irrelevant given the seriousness of the situation at hand. It's an incredibly mature handling of a same-sex relationship that might not even exist. Considering videogames still can't handle even heterosexual relationships without childish jokes and nervous giggles, Square Enix absolutely deserves applause for this. 

While it's not unusual for the main character to have greater plot relevance than the rest of the party, it is unusual for the women in a game to categorically outweigh their male counterparts, which is exactly what happens in Final Fantasy XIII.

Final Fantasy XIII Screenshot

The game doesn't limit itself to redefining roles in the narrative; the male-female dynamic is almost completely turned on its head during gameplay. Fang is far and away the most powerful physical fighter of the six party members. No one else even comes close. Lightning is the second-runner up. Vanille is definitely a mage—a role frequently reserved for poor, physically defenseless women—but she still manages to defy stereotypes somewhat by specializing in nasty debuffing skills, and eventually gaining the ultimate offensive skill: Death. As in the story, the men are relegated to support roles here with Snow, Hope and Szah defending, healing, and buffing respectively.

Final Fantasy XIII is not without myriad problems, some of which are detailed in my own review and laboriously hammered home in many others around the web. On top of that, prominent female characters shouldn't come at the expense of compelling male ones (for the record, Sazh is pretty awesome at least), but given that "prominent female characters" are only slightly less rare than unicorns, it's easy to let these things slide. In an industry that still actively excludes and disempowers women, attention must be paid to the few games that try to tip the scales in the opposite direction.

I'd be remiss to end this article without mentioning Lake Desire's piece on the women of Final Fantasy XIII. Props to her for bringing these ladies up when everyone was whining about Tunnel: The RPG.

Category Tags
Platform(s): Xbox 360   PS3  
Developer(s): Square Enix  
Key Creator(s): Yoshinori Kitase  
Series: Final Fantasy  
Genre(s): Role-Playing  
Articles: Editorials  
Topic(s): Gender Roles   Game Design & Dev  

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One of the (admittedly few)

One of the (admittedly few) bright spots I found in FFXIII was the portrayal of Lightning/Fang as you and Lake Desire describe. I wound up liking Sazh a lot more than I thought I would as well.

It's to bad the game seems to suffer from a case of Deadly Premonition disease in regards to everything outside the story/characters :P

I am in definite agreement

I am in definite agreement with the principle of this article, but I do have to point out that the whole Fang-Vanille lesbian angle is kinda annoying. I really don't and didn't get that image when playing the game, and people highlighting it actually serves to hurt the whole point you're trying to make in your article.

Aside from that, I think Final Fantasy titles on the whole are some of the few games I could actually recommend to a potential female gamer. That's at once both promising and sad, and a good indicator of how immature this industry and community still is.

Completely Agree

The storyline of this game was one of the only reasons I was able to finish it. I was very impressed with the way Square Enix handled the female characters, especially in a genre that is still filled with kidnapped princesses. Video game developers for write stories that will appeal to their dominant audience, straight male gamers. However, I often feel that the grossly under estimate the intelligence and thoughtfulness of that audience.

Crofto

If I was asked to give my own opinion on the relationship status of Fang and Vanille, I'd probably say they were just very close friends.

BUT

A few scenes leave it open for interpretation, refusing to explicitly tell the player what's going on. I took that as the game saying--intentionally or not--that whatever is going on between the two is for them, and not really anyone else's business.

Maybe they are, maybe they aren't. Most importantly, who cares?

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