"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.
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.
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.