To Model Lightning

This post contains full spoilers for Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII.

In Lightning Returns, Lightning is sent into the last days of a dying world to save the souls of people who remain trapped there. By Final Fantasy standards, this world is very small – four areas, two of them cities, only two open field zones. In a blunt but effective spatial metaphor, the world is a circle, and you can eventually run a loop around the whole thing.

The five parallel chapters that make up the core of the game revolve around characters from the earlier in the trilogy; Snow, Sazh and Fang from the first game, Noel and Caius from the second. In each chapter, Lightning encounters an old tension, a pain that her former comrade or rival must let go. She brings an awkward and often confrontational healing to each in turn, pressing her mission as saviour.

Throughout it all, she is haunted by Lumina, who sometimes seems to be a ghost of Lightning’s sister (and frequently primary motivation) Serah, and sometimes seems to be an avatar of Chaos, the power that is consuming the world. Lumina teases Lightning, casting doubt on her motivations and challenging her trust in the powers that have claimed her.

In the game’s finale, Lumina reveals that she is actually the part of Lightning’s personality that has been suppressed since the death of her parents. She reminds us – and as someone who hadn’t played the original game for five years years when I played LR, I’d completely forgotten – that in FFXIII Lightning has a speech about how she buried aspects of herself in order to become strong to look after Serah.

Unlike certain classic Final Fantasy heroes, Lightning’s denial of her past was at least in part a conscious choice, something she was and remains aware of. And Lumina’s revelation has a second crucial detail: unless Lightning reunites with her, becomes whole again, Lightning herself will be trapped in the dying world. The underlying assertion of the game is laid bare: that a nature divided against itself in self-denial, as Noel’s was, as Snow’s was, as Lightning’s still is, is a deathtrap.

 

Lightning, of course, because this is a story, reunites with her other half. So, in a substantive sense, it’s a new Lightning, a new Claire Farron, who survives into the new world shown briefly at the game’s end. This, as I understand it, is the Lightning who recently became a model for Luis Vuitton[1]. The interview that she gave to The Telegraph seems to back that up; at one point she says “I’m currently winding down after a long journey.”

A few people have suggested that the interview doesn’t sound like Lightning, or sounds a little cringeworthy, and to an extent I agree. It certainly doesn’t sound like the indomitable warrior Lightning of the video games, and the interview itself doesn’t seem to have benefitted from quite the quality of translation that the games did. But Lightning is a changed woman, and to me the changes feel about right for her story.

In fact, some of what Lightning said in the interview resonated for me very strongly, particularly “My clothes were nothing more than armor to stay alive; “dressing up” was a concept I’ve never had.” I’ve spent a lot of my life choosing things like clothing and food on a purely functional basis, a habit of self-denial that eventually became so pathological I ended up in counselling for it.

For me, this was grounded in repression of my gender identity born of the belief that I wasn’t ‘trans enough‘. And while I don’t want to reduce all of trans-ness to clothing, or assert that Lightning is trans – she encounters none of the social tensions that come from an ill-fitting birth assignment –this theme within her story powerfully captured a particular component of my own trans experience.

Lightning Returns, after all, uses clothing as a core mechanic in a way conspicuously absent from the first two games. In the first two, equipment is exclusively weapons and accessories, but in Lightning Returns, Lightning’s entire combat role and ability set are determined by the outfits she wears. The game incentivises collecting and experimenting with a broad and diverse wardrobe, which can be tweaked both mechanically and cosmetically.

And I have this scene in my head where Lightning, after saving the world, has kept all her outfits, telling herself they might be useful, and Serah walks in on her trying one of them on. “I, uh.. I just wanted to check I still knew how to use their powers.” “Lightning, it’s okay. You look great! Let me go grab you some eyeshadow-” “Could- could you call me Claire?”[2]

Yeah, it’s a scene rooted in a painful cliché of discovery and exposure for trans folks. But the idea that Lightning could go from that to modelling – and to saying, in an interview with a national newspaper, “It makes me feel excited… It is a thrill that I, who has faced my share of danger, have never experienced before,” – is a rare happy ending to the cliché.

I’ve argued before that a lot can be learned about heroism and masculinity from Lightning’s journey. With the benefit of these spoilers, I can say a bit more. Lightning’s sullen, insular soldier personality – the persona for whom clothes are nothing more than armour – is classically masculine in some crucial ways that the resolution of her story critiques.

For men, and particularly men growing up in the anglocentric academic tradition I was raised to, emotions and preferences are weaknesses to be suppressed. The idea that emotion is at odds with reason – and, with reason, the possibility of true, pure, perfect knowledge – has dominated this tradition and many of the specific cultures spun off from it since at least Plato. We see it still in the ‘reals before feels’ rhetoric of internet ‘rationalism’ and the clinical oppression of old academia.

In FFXIII, Lightning’s determination to suppress her pain, her frustration with her sister, with Snow and with the Sanctum, and ultimately with the Fal’Cie, leads to rash expressions of violence and driving the few people who might support her away. By the end of the trilogy, her self-denial has become so poisonous that it traps her in a dying world, a world torn apart by the Chaos it cannot control or comprehend.

Early in FFXIII, there’s a flashback to Lightning’s recent birthday. Serah’s attempt to throw her a party – with only Serah and Snow attending – ends in a disastrous row. Lightning’s only gift, from Serah, is a high-quality utility knife. It’s a stark illustration of how little there is to Lightning besides her soldierhood, how thoroughly she has suppressed herself. I may or may not have had birthdays a bit like this.

To see Lightning ‘proud to be chosen’, inspired and uplifted by the opportunity to express a self she seems surprised to have discovered, gives me hope. I feel like I, too, can be whole again, like I can escape the meaningless circles of functionalism and rationalism. Like there is a person – and specifically a woman – that I can be.

 

 

 

[1] There’s a very short view of the new world from orbit in the closing cinematic of Lightning Returns, and the coastline it shows looked suspiciously like the real Mediterranean coast to me.

[2] I assume it’s uncontroversial that Serah would be fully supportive.

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