Lightning Returns as Digital Fashion Line

I’ve always been a fan of outfits, and was a fan of the Final Fantasy series, so when I first played Final Fantasy X-2 with a battle system centered around changing outfits, I knew I would like future games a lot less without similar flourishes. It was one of the few games that began to throw into relief the difference between instrumental play, or playing a game strictly hewed to efficient goal accomplishment, and some other more personal play, where preference and the way I related to what was going on took over my actions. It’s common for games to make clothing and appearance mechanical, needing some sort of hard-etched material rule attached to it. This changes the nature of how clothes function, or at least, harshly normalizes it. Think about how clothing exists in reality: many items of clothing have no direct practical use or even are known to cause discomfort while wearing them, but we still keep these around for varying methods of expression. So I’ve been curious about how fashion is starting to  push through the conventions of game design, enjoying the experiments of works like The World Ends With You and Style Savvy. And maybe it was the reintroduction of multiple numbering systems that let the Final Fantasy series play with clothes again in XIII-3, Lightning Returns.

Outfit-based combat takes a more loose interpretation in Lightning Returns, paring down on X-2’s job system associations and making the abilities more customizable, as well as the colors of many parts of the outfits. There is still some mechanical leftovers from the past two games, making some outfits better for certain roles previously called Paradigms, but because there’s such a wide range of these and on easy mode (with exceptions) the mechanical differences submit to aesthetic preferences more often than not. This is bolstered by the barks of townspeople in the game, which differ depending on what kind of outfit Lightning is wearing, essentially letting the player craft their identity and presence in the world of the game, much like how fashion works in our world. For instance, I came to enjoy putting Lightning in men’s lounge suits, which had the people of Nova Chrysalia treating her as an arguably queer character, often revealing queer impulses of their own in a way you wouldn’t necessarily see as often in reality, or in other games for that matter.

But what makes a fashion analysis more pertinent for Lightning Returns is how Square-Enix has lent her to highly prestigious fashion houses as a model multiple times, first for Prada and most recently for Louis Vuitton. Another article will need to be devoted to how the fashion industry portrays her versus how people who’ve played her games view her (hint: one of the few times gamers are in the right), but this reveals some undercurrent forces at work with the Final Fantasy series. Out of video games in general, Final Fantasy is known for its distinctive and typically maximalist outfits, ranging from androgynous men to relatively modest (for games) and highly decorated women to characters with indiscernible genders, typically because of their clothing. The styles of Final Fantasy games have influenced the JRPG genre as a whole, and given how similar their theatricality is to some runway shows, feasibly the top digital couture house in video games. If so, maybe Final Fantasy series were never really video games, but interactive fashion lines with Tetsuya Nomura as the main visionary behind the experience. Maybe wearing the costumes from the series isn’t in fact cosplay, but the haute couture of nerd culture.

Nothing makes this reading stronger than Lightning Returns. There are different discernible lines in the games, from elegant latex vampire goth to tailored menswear to detailed theatrical gowns to kitschy interpretations of standby Final Fantasy job roles like the Black Mage. How they are organized and worn follow how fashion designers have loose inspirational concepts behind how they display their lines, for instance the elements or themes on the flowing fabric of her original outfit. Most importantly is how the game incorporates the street style photography now central to being seen in fashion circles through the final poses Lightning strikes at the end of battle, absolutely begging the player to screenshot her extravagant, faithfully JRPG movements that vary depending on the outfit. Battles felt more like a system to get Lightning moving in dramatic ways in her clothes more than feeling satisfied with defeating monsters, with the flourishes that come with changing outfits mid-battle, the different types of abilities, and the finishing move in her combos resulting in an extra sweeping gestures.

Strictly in JRPG game convention, Lightning Returns is boring and derivative in a way that is to be expected for the second offshoot of a game that is part of an interactively homogenous series. That it is a game is the least interesting part about it, save that it is a mostly unexplored method of experiencing fashion. Interpreting Lightning Returns as a fashion line raises a lot of questions, like the relationship between people who follow runway shows but rarely, if ever, wear the clothes featured in them and ideas about spectacle surrounding that. That people have an involvement with fashion that is purely conceptual or imaginative isn’t so much of a stretch if we see fashion being in the business of desire like how many see video games as the business of escapism. Fashion photography and advertising has always accepted surrealist notions of art to display clothing, and incorporating digital bodies might be the next step of having people connect their desires to a new imagining of the self.

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Women, the Ensemble, and Narrative Authority in the Final Fantasy Series

How gender informs design is a subject rarely discussed but holds a lot of value as we explore how to express gender topics in games. What exactly is a feminine narrative design? There isn’t a concrete answer, but we have the benefit of the Final Fantasy series to consider the question, including its games led by women characters. This isn’t to say that what we find there is definitively feminine storytelling, but rather how the series shifts in technique whenever women dominate the cast.

A curious trend exists of women-led Final Fantasy games being ensemble stories rather than their men-led siblings with their single-character focus. Mostly notably in Final Fantasy VI it becomes unclear who exactly matters most in the story, since Terra is most often seen as the head of the party. However, Celes takes control for the last part of the game. Final Fantasy X-2, XIII, and XIII-2 all fall into ambiguity, in which the team is emphasized over the individual in terms of the game’s design. Contrast this to series favorites, like VII and VIII, which has male leads with no question as to who the story is about.

We can formally express this ambiguity by looking at how the series experiments with the difference between the story’s main character and protagonist. Most often these characters are the same, but they also often diverge in the series. Final Fantasy gives us two games with the clearest split between the main character and the protagonist. Final Fantasy X features Tidus and Yuna respectively, and XII features Vaan and Ashe. It’s interesting in these games that the main character is a man because the main character is the perspective that the player takes on. Main characters are there for the player to most immediately relate to and trust (or mistrust), while the protagonist drives the action of the story and clashes with the antagonist. Tidus and Vaan are quite literally tag-alongs to a party of much more pertinent characters but offer their unique outsider perspectives so that the player isn’t lost when dropped into the action. It’s Yuna’s pilgrimage that Seymour is out to stop, Ashe’s legitimacy to power that threatens Vayne. Now, who exactly is the main character and who is the protagonist of VI?

What makes games like VI and XIII interesting from this perspective is how much the women share narrative responsibility with other characters. Lightning is the cover character for her game, but control often shifts to other characters. As well, her perspective is constantly informed by the meta-narration of Vanille, who is arguably the actual central character of the cast. Both she and Fang act as protagonists while their Cocoon party members are scrambling to adapt to the consequences of their actions. How it’s probable that you’ll remember the women and forget the men in a video game is remarkable, though the men take more narrative authority than they would allow women in other games. This ambiguity most likely adds into gamers’ frustrations with the game, as it is generally unfamiliar ground for everyone involved. However, there is a general gendered reaction to XIII similar to Dragon Age II’s reception; it also focused on an ensemble cast and took narrative importance away from the player character. The oft male-dominated old guard took issue with this change while many minority gamers felt more room to relate to characters.

My best guess as to why narrative importance is more egalitarian in these titles is a combination of two things: sensitivity to distancing men from relating to the main characters by spreading out the focus and the role that women typically are assigned in stories. The lack of women in proper starring roles in games isn’t a new thing, and what Final Fantasy seems to be doing is cheating. We can have strong women only if the player isn’t forced to identify with them throughout the entire game. This also taps into the usual function of women serving as the source of the social cohesion of their group. Very often parties present a child/maiden/mother trifecta (e.g. Rikku, Yuna, and Lulu) used to keep a group functioning, especially acting as emotional guidance for the male characters. Following this idea, video game women can only continue to do this as leads until game designers figure out different or more nuanced roles for them. On the other hand, the ambiguity of roles that these games provide is preferable, as they share influence throughout the entire cast instead of just coming up with excuses as to why the majority of characters fight for the main character.

Gender politics influences more than costume design and word choice but also design decisions that govern our relationship to the game. This is important for diversity causes in gaming, as how players can empathize with the characters determines a large portion of their enjoyment. It also opens up more discussion about the seemingly arcane practice of narrative design, drawing attention to how elements such as characters and point of view reinforce design ideologies. With a new Final Fantasy on the horizon, it will be interesting to see a sole woman lead or a male-led ensemble cast.

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