If there’s one thing the Final Fantasy VII Compilation taught us, it’s that Square-Enix knows how to beat a dead horse. Of course, this isn’t anything unusual about SE relative to other game developers (or any other business, for that matter), as businesses are designed to exploit merchandise until it stops being profitable.
But the current way Square-Enix is exploiting Lightning risks ruining what was originally so good about her.
Lightning has been a pretty big deal for the Final Fantasy series. She was the lead character in a main-numbered game, and Square-Enix has pushed her as the biggest thing since Cloud Strife, creating the entire Final Fantasy XIII mini-series around her, the latest and final one being Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII.
She’s also been cropping up everywhere, most lately in a crossover planned with Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. Lightning will make an appearance in an FFXIV event and has appeared as a scantily-clad Miqo’te, a popular race from the MMO.
So why is any of this a bad thing? Well, it’s not -- by itself.
Let’s examine, for a moment, why Lightning was such a big deal to begin with. She is the lead protagonist in a Final Fantasy game. She was the first female of that stature since Terra Bradford way back in Final Fantasy VI (while Ashe is widely regarded as the real main character of Final Fantasy XII, the lead playable role was still Vaan). We first met her in Final Fantasy XIII, where she was portrayed as a strong, independent, and fiercely competent soldier, who managed to overcome incredible odds in her quest to save her sister, and later the world. In Lightning Returns, Lightning will again have to save the world, and this time the game is focused even more on her character.
Lightning represented a positive step for the Final Fantasy series. I have previously criticized many Final Fantasy games for their reliance on sexist feminine tropes in their female characters, but I also largely praised Lighting and Square-Enix’s current trend of creating stronger and more varied female characters that are less cut-and-pasted from previous molds. She was not a weak damsel in distress, her purpose in the plot did not revolve around the male lead’s love for her, and she generally broke free from the stereotypes that have littered not only Final Fantasy, but video games and media in general. Not everyone liked Lightning, but even for those who didn’t, she still represented progress in at least this area.
And that progress is threatened by Square-Enix’s own marketing campaigning on her behalf.
Take a look at Lightning from Final Fantasy XIII as she appeared on the game’s cover side-by-side with her in that Miqo’te outfit, which will be making an appearance in Lightning Returns.
Can you see a difference? The first comes off as strong and confident, and the second is designed just to be sexy. The latter suffers from the all-too common trope of over-sexualized poses by female characters, a phenomenon I have taken to calling Hawkeye Initiative syndrome, after the website that shows how truly absurd these poses are by drawing Hawkeye in the same fashion. I discussed other examples of that phenomenon here.
When male characters are put in the same sort of poses, the absurdity is fully revealed.
Some may say that the Lightning image was just promotional, or that it was insignificant in the larger picture. But this shows that Square-Enix’s marketing still considers one of Lightning’s most important features to be her sexuality.
This isn’t just an isolated incident, either. In a recent Q&A session with some Lightning Returns developers, director Motomu Toriyama stated that the LR team made the conscious decision to make Lightning’s breasts bigger, and, depending on what she’s wearing, even jiggle. I can only imagine the upcoming bikini DLC to really emphasize the boob physics.
These sorts of exploitations, if continued, risk losing what was so significant about Lightning in the first place: a strong female role model, breaking free of the most common sexist stereotypes that have littered all forms of media for decades. She’s not just a pretty face, or a set of boobs, but a character. Square-Enix should stay true to that character, and resist turning Lightning into just another sexy body to turn into fan service for horny teenagers.
So go ahead and exploit Lightning, Square-Enix. We can’t stop you. You’re a business, and you’ll continue to do so until it’s not profitable anyway. But at least try not to do it in such a way that diminishes who Lightning is and gives us less hope for progress. Stay true to Lightning’s character and strength.