I have to admit that while Lightning Returns is definitely my favorite entry in the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy it does indeed take some getting used to. Don't get me wrong. It's beautiful, brilliant, and I'll never get tired of Lightning stabbing things, but in many ways it's very far removed from what I love most about the series in general.
One thing that I found particularly jarring was Lightning's role as, well, a sword-wielding Messiah. For all intents and purposes she's a pink-haired Jesus who comes to Earth to save mankind from the devil. It's one of the things that had me calling the game Devil May Cry: The RPG.
The appearance of a monotheistic god, who is actually called God and is clearly modeled on the Judeo-Christian deity, is a great shock. Not because I'm a rabid atheist who wants to abolish the Lord from all aspects of my life or anything. It's just that in the olden days such a thing would never have occurred in a Final Fantasy released in America.
Back in the olden days there was Nintendo, and pretty much that was it. Sure, there was and will always be competition, but in the '80s and '90s if you wanted you game to be played it had to be on the NES or SNES. There just wasn't any other way to have a mass-appeal title, and Square Enix (Squaresoft at the time) certainly wasn't going to miss out on that boat.
Nintendo had a very important job when it began, rising the entire video game industry out of the ruins of a massive collapse brought on by a glut of low-quality games. To combat this the company instituted the official Nintendo Seal of Quality, which told consumers that the game had been thoroughly vetted by Nintendo to ensure it wasn't another E.T.: The Video Game. That dedication to quality is one of the reasons we still have video games today.
In order to maintain the widest possible audience in the United States Nintendo of America became a somewhat ruthless agent of censorship. There was to be no profanity, nothing even remotely resembling nudity and no references to tobacco or alcohol.
And no Jesus or God.
The Japanese have always had no problem adding Judaeo-Christian mythology into games any more than they do throwing in other Gods. Japan is like a modern day early Rome in that way. Nintendo of America, though, was the ultimate in politically correct secularism, and even refused the Seal of Approval to openly religious games.
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This took many forms. Duck Tales had to remove crosses from coffins, for instance, but Final Fantasy IV and VI saw their share. The Holy spell became inexplicably White or Pearl, the Pray command became health or was outright removed, churches became clinics, and so on.
Things have loosened up considerably, of course. The fight over censorship was decided back during the days of the two versions of Mortal Kombat. With Nintendo of America's rigid enforcement of censorship standards no longer as powerful, Squaresoft moved onto the Playstation and by Final Fantasy VII concepts like Holy were allowed in American releases.
Still, such allusions remained relatively minor parts of the games in my experience until we arrived here in Lighting Returns, and I'm not sure it's entirely for the better. Japan doesn't seem to have the deep-seated divide over religion that we do in the United States. I doubt there's a Japanese version of Religulous for example.
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Lightning's quest in the end of days becomes something like a video game version of the Left Behind series, and that brings with it a lot of baggage to a gamer's heart. It makes us associate play with tales of religious zealotry gone wild, a subject that is constantly in the news. Is it sad that the inherent worth of the storytelling tropes of Christian salvation stories is lessened by that association? Yes, but that doesn't change the fact.
When I went to visit the office of On the Level Games we talked about how they were being forced to use a different approach when developing for the Nintendo Wii U because even to this day Nintendo is still keen on being the family-friendly system. I asked one of the developers whether they resented being made to avoid swear words and the like. He told me no, because the restrictions made them more creative. They couldn't use their first idea.
I honestly believe that the policy used in earlier Final Fantasy titles forced the games to make more universal stories and in the end better games. There's nothing wrong with a Christian video game or Christian stories. If they made Actraiser 3 tomorrow with all the explicitly Christian stuff put back in I'd be the first in line to buy it. Final Fantasy is supposed to be more than one god or one world, though. The willingness to embrace a more mono-theistic bent seems very limiting.