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I ended up being pleasantly surprised by Lightning Returns. The previews for it looked strange, almost indecipherable. Everything from the combat to the tone of the story seemed radically changed from the past games in the series. It looked like an entirely different kind of game, one that might not contain what I had liked about the last two games. I bought it with no small amount of trepidation, wondering if I had just wasted my $60.
After I started playing, however, I couldn’t put it down. Few games manage to enthrall me as completely as Lightning Returns did; I couldn’t stop playing until I had consumed all the content it contained. While I greatly enjoyed just about everything about the game, what really impressed me about Lightning Returns was its world. It seemed standard and somewhat boring at first, but a certain side quest made me think about the world in a different way–hell, in a way I have never thought about any game world before.
To help you realize the meaningfulness of this side quest, I first need to give you a bit of information about the world of Lightning Returns. After the events of Final Fantasy XIII-2, an entity named Chaos has began to overtake the world. Anything it touches vanishes into nothingness, never to return for the rest of eternity. Every day, this darkness creeps ever inwards, claiming another town or village in its inexorable march towards annihilation. Eventually–inevitably–Chaos will devour the entire world.
For those who manage to (temporarily, at least) escape Chaos’ dark clutches, there are a few side effects to this new world. No one ages, meaning death only comes to those who receive bodily harm or fall ill. Everyone has also become infertile, unable to produce any new life to replace the slowly dying population. Because of these side effects, the only humans who remain after 500 years of Chaos are those who managed to be careful and lucky enough to survive. This remaining population waits uneasily for the end of the world, when all humankind will simply cease to exist.
Now that you understand the world a bit, let’s talk about a girl named Luka. While she looks like a child, it’s important to remember that she has lived just as long as anyone else at this point–500 years and change. Luka stands outside the South Station in Luxerion (one of the last cities in the world) and sells her tears to passersby. Through her quest, you learn about her past: an acting career, an unrequited love and his unfortunate death, and a new profession–selling tears to those who can no longer feel after such a long life
It’s a very simple quest, one that plays out automatically. You simply visit Luka four times, paying her increasing fees each time, and the quest progresses naturally. Luka realizes she cannot cry for herself anymore, her heart just as hard and uncaring as those she cries for. Lightning’s cruel but honest words draw Luka’s tears out, and the girl realizes that crying for money hurts her ability to cry for herself. She vows to never sell her tears again.
It’s a touching quest, with some excellent voice acting by Luka, but its meaning is not really why this quest became so consuming for me. It’s not why I went back to see her at any cost, even when the game’s explicit time limit made doing so difficult. I went back to see this girl again and again because of the questions her story made me ask about the world of Nova Chrysalia.
How do children who never age and never grow up adapt and fit into adult society? Do they live with their parents for centuries, or do they eventually leave the nest and learn to live on their own? Are they given typical adult jobs when they are deemed “grown-up” enough to work? Should they still be called “children” or “little girl/boy” if they are hundreds of years old? These were all questions that went through my mind as I spoke with Luka and heard her story.
However, there was one question in particular that I couldn’t stop thinking about: could (or should?) it ever be acceptable and normal for an adult and a child to enter a romantic relationship? Luka mentions her acting teacher, an older man that she admits to being in love with. According to her, he never returned her feelings. As Luka says, “Even though we spent decades together, he never stopped treating me like a child.” Did this man actually feel the same way and was just afraid to act due to the taboo nature of such a relationship? Or was it impossible for him to see her as anything but a child due to her bodily appearance?
Thoughts about this topic plagued my brain for days on end after finishing this quest. I wanted–needed–to know if there were any other examples of this type of relationship in the world of Lightning Returns. I went back and forth on whether or not a society like this one (or myself, for that matter) could eventually adapt to the idea of a taboo relationship such as this. Would a “child” be able to attain emotional maturity without going through puberty first? Is it really pedophilia, just because one person is in a child’s body, if both parties are over 500 years old?
These are strange questions, I know, but I couldn’t stop myself from asking them. I had known that no one aged in this world before talking to Luka, but it was her story that made me stop and consider what that really meant. I started to ponder questions like the ones I mentioned above and think about the world of Lightning Returns on a grander scale. Instead of thinking of the world as a game, I began to imagine it as a real place with real concerns and moral considerations. Trying to understand this fictional world and its people was an intense fascination I couldn’t easily let go of.
I’m not the kind of person who usually gets invested in a world like this. Most of the time, I blow through games so quickly that I don’t even stop to consider what it is I just did. Lightning Returns didn’t let me do that. It offered up a side quest so engaging and fascinating that I stopped dead in my tracks. I was no longer concerned with finishing the game; I wanted to understand it and the world it had hinted at but not fully explained. After Luka’s quest, I can never look at a game world the same way again.