Making Lightning Strike Again: The Recycled Tropes and Weird Fiction of ‘Lightning Returns’

Lightning Returns hits a rare sweet spot that recycles enough ideas and pushes them to such an extreme that it finds novelty in nostalgia. Its identity is its lack of identity.

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII references several other games in its first few hours. Lightning must gather the souls of a dying world (Valkyrie Profile) on behalf of a divine but untrustworthy benefactor (Legacy of Kain); a clock ticks down to the doomed hour (Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask), and our hero helps locals solve their personal troubles (Persona) before returning to her base safely located in a ripple in time (Chrono Trigger). Lightning swaps out powers and outfits on the fly (Final Fantasy X-2), most of the game consists of side missions that she can approach at her leisure (Elder Scrolls), and her resistance to a corrupt leader gradually prepares her for her fight against the apocalypse (every videogame ever). Later on, references to films, comics (both American and Japanese), and even more games emerge before the game finally settles into a rhythm of its own. Lightning Returns hits a rare sweet spot that recycles enough ideas and pushes them to such an extreme that it finds novelty in nostalgia. Its identity is its lack of identity. Lightning Returns is a cacophony of allusions that builds rather than creates.

There was a time when a Final Fantasy game could be judged on its own merits in isolation from the rest of the series or its genre but that was before The Pixies broke up. Since then, every Final Fantasy is played in reference to every other entry in the series. It can be compartmentalized into subcategories based on console, setting, creative team, or whatever else, but the series is nonetheless a mosaic more than it is a sequence. It’s possible to just play one without any context, but anymore — as a result either of marketing or fan culture — each game invites its player to the series at large. I mentioned in my review of Lightning Returns that the series is best when it compresses as many ideas into a game as possible to study what comes out of such experiments. The problem is that after so many experiments, patterns emerge, and when patterns emerge, the pioneering spirit fades away. Lightning Returns, however, doesn’t dig deeper, it just recombines all the best material from the last twenty years of pulp fiction.

In the first hour, Lightning bursts into a mardi gras party to have an anime battle against monsters from Egyptian myth. The player then navigates a rudimentary platforming course while learning real-time menu combat. After the battle, Lightning returns to her base in heaven, where her sidekick operates sophisticated spiritual bat-computers. Finally, the game at last begins in earnest at the scene of a ritualistic murder by cultists of an ancient religion. The tone and pace shift fast enough to cause whiplash. It shouldn’t work, but it does because it plays with the boundaries between familiar territories. I began my review by calling Lightning Returns “the Moulin Rouge! of turn-based anime dress-up fighters set in a neo-noir biblical allegory,” and I think the description is appropriate.

2001’s Moulin Rouge! is a flamboyant musical of the absurd, where Ewan McGregor’s Christian and Nicole Kidman’s Satine argue the merits of love through the vehicle of 1970s pop ballads, and Kylie Minogue cameos as a singing green liquor fairy. The cast overacts, the sets and costumes are obscenely elaborate, and characters literally outgrow their surroundings to dance and sing among the stars. But as much as it parodies the outrageous pomp of French cinema and romance fiction, it endorses it as well. The truth, beauty, liberty, and, above all, love that Christian swears by isn’t scrutinized. It’s championed. The film presents the tropes and practices of a brand of fictional styles in their most extreme forms with the goal of unshackling them, not deconstructing them. Similarly, Lightning Returns scoops up a plethora of video game design and story conventions to celebrate the chaos that comes out of them. It celebrates the ungrounded campiness that comes out of the tradition. Using familiar tropes permits weirdness and inconsistency.

Another recurring parallel that struck me while playing Lightning Returns is Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples’s graphic novel series, Saga, a fantasy space opera about two soldiers from opposite sides of an intergalactic war trying to protect their newborn daughter. Saga features magic spells, robots with televisions for heads, aliens that speak in colors, planets that hatch spacefaring wyrms, unicorn bisexuals, a disemboweled ghost babysitter, and trees that become rocketships for those who earn their trust. It’s a bizarre mess of tropes that completely sidesteps scrutiny. To stop and ask why there are dragons or why this character can’t speak unless she detects someone lying defeats the point. Saga is the interplay of a myriad of sources, all of which are, again, mashed into one another to create something new. It allows the fiction to be plausibly unsubtle and unnatural. It’s allowed to be weird and high concept and stylish. The reader has already seen most of these tropes and therefore knows how they function: Saga never has to stop and explain itself. It can just say what it wants to say without nitpicking over whether or not it makes sense. It’s liberating when fiction can just be what it is, especially for video games.

Like indie RPGs, Breath of Death VII and Exit Fate, it often feels like Lightning Returns’s design team dropped a cluster bomb on someone’s JRPG library and fashioned something out of the wreckage. Both of these games lean heavily on their shared traditions. Breath of Death creates a landscape of console RPGs, both as a retrospective of the form and as an earnest appreciation of it. Breath of Death is aware of its silliness, but it meshes recognizable components in new ways to demonstrate its point. Its self awareness frees it enough to play with the canon that it’s drawing from (Mark Filipowich, “‘A Game of Chess’: Breath of Death Is The Waste Land of Video Games”, PopMatters, 23 April 2013). Exit Fate on the other hand makes numerous connections to past JRPGs to establish expectations before breaking away for its own purposes. It invites and exploits nostalgia to amplify the impact of when it defies expectations (“Further Thoughts on Exit Fate, bigtallwords, 25 May 2013.). Like both of these games, Lightning Returns recycles old video games to fashion its own voice.It builds on the establishment like Breath of Death does, and it exploits expectations like Exit Fate.

It’s not just fun to watch a well-worn trope played out in an unnatural environment, but it bolsters an artistic point. It isn’t just refreshing to see Lightning as heavenly savior play detective in a den of ninjas. It means something. There’s no bonus points for seeing how silly it is. It’s obviously silly. The bold new direction of the latest Final Fantasy is backwards. I’m not sure who gets the biggest compliment from the comparison, but like Moulin Rouge!, Saga, Breath of Death, and Exit Fate, Lightning Returns is best when it’s overdone, when it doesn’t make sense, and when it’s allowed to just be what it is. Although the game gradually settles into a fairly straightforward RPG with straightforward questing (“The love of my life has gone missing, and I just found this comfy spot. If only a hero would appear!”), it’s most fascinating when it adapts the vestigial design philosophies of classics in the genre.