Recently, I’ve been drawn in by Final Fantasy 13 and its universe. I’ve written two articles on the subject so far, and before diving into my review of 13-2 proper (coming once I actually beat it; I’d like to avoid another repeat of what happened to me with 13-1), I have to add just a little bit more to my opinion of FF13, its characters, plot, and setting.
After I “completed” FF13 (read: gave up on the first phase of the final boss and watched the ending on Youtube), I took a few days to let the game percolate in my mind and to try and wrap my head around the story. I also took to the fan wiki, and searched for things like “FF13 plot analysis” on DuckDuckGo.
Small side note: don’t use Google. They’re corporate and super evil and anti-privacy. They’re helping China develop state surveillance software. Using DuckDuckGo is praxis. Having a Proton mail is praxis. Using Linux is praxis.
The net result of my searching and thinking is that I discovered that FF13 is actually part of a larger universe of games that Square is calling “Fabula Nova Crystallis”. This includes not only the FF13 trilogy, but also FF Type-0 and FF15. I currently own the entire 13 trilogy (working my way through gradually here), but not those other two. For one thing, I don’t own a Vita (who does?). And I previously had very little interest in 15, knowing it mostly through the real and official ramen memes, and it being some pretty boy road trip whatever, with a mechanic hanging half out of her clothes. I’d also heard of it because it was apparently missing key pieces of its story on release that had to be either checked out in multiplayer (disgusting) or patched in later. Overall, not a recipe for some killer app that I had to check out. But it’s on my radar now.
I also learned that there are elements of 13’s story that don’t really get explained until 13-2 and 13-3 (Lightning Returns), or if you did all the missions and unlocked all the “analects” datalog entries, which go a long way to explaining some things, particularly some of the stuff that so confused me in the final chapter.
So, rather than dive into all that spoilerific stuff and get ahead of myself, I decided to wait and let 13-2 and 13-3 tell me their stories, and then try to fit everything together based on that. I might even check out Type-0 and FF15 down the road, just to see what they add to this universe. The reason I’m doing that is because, at the end of the day and after letting everything about 13 settle down in my mind, I’ve decided I really like this universe’s setting. This Fabula Nova Crystallis stuff. It’s interesting to me!
What I’ve been able to glean so far from letting 13-1 sit a spell in my head, and from glancing at the wiki for what I missed, has been pretty instructive. I’d like to take some time to write out just what the heck happened in 13’s story, both to help others who might be confused and need an additional perspective, and also to help myself get it straight in my own head. I’ll try and keep this as brief as possible without being confusing. After summarizing the literal events of the plot, I’ll give (briefly) my thematic reading of the text.
Phase 1: Early Mythology Stuff
A long time ago, the world was created by the Maker, a god in the Gnostic demiurge sense. The world of Fabula Nova Crystallis (FNC from here on in) is divided into a physical world and a spiritual one, the latter of which is called the Unseen Realm. Apart from the Maker, you’ve got two other gods called Pulse and Lindzei. After doing all that Making, the Maker leaves. Where did he go? Somewhere else, nobody knows. Or maybe he’s asleep, or something.
The physical world mostly centers around a planet which Pulse made (I think? maybe the Maker made it), which its inhabitants call Gran Pulse. Pulse and Lindzei want daddy Maker to come back, and they each go about trying to figure out how to make that happen in different ways: Pulse focuses on the physical world, and Lindzei on the spiritual. However, they both make lesser (but still hugely powerful) beings called Fal’Cie to help them in this.
It’s important to realize that Pulse and Lindzei are fundamentally opposed, and see the solution to bringing back the Maker in fundamentally different ways. They’re both looking for something they call “Etro’s Gate”, which is their word for the “door” that the Maker left the world through. Pulse believes this to be like an actual physical door, whereas Lindzei thinks it’s more metaphorical or spiritual.
So, Pulse’s Fal’Cie kids do things like tunnel through the ground (Atomos) or fly around in the sky (Dahaka) looking for the door. But Lindzei’s Fal’Cie have a different idea. They think that bringing back the Maker requires a ritual or a sacrifice to open a spiritual “door”, and rather than finding the right location, it’s more important to find the right sort of ritual.
It’s not super clear in 13-1 whether the Maker left to go be in the Unseen Realm, and Etro’s Gate is what connects the physical and the Unseen, or whether the Maker is supposed to have gone somewhere else entirely, some third place outside of either. It also seems as though Etro might actually be the Maker, just based on what we’re told in the first game. But that’s not actually the case, apparently.
Phase 2: Humans, Etro, and Cocoon
“Ragnarok took wing; made to smite Cocoon, and thereby deliver us our everlasting peace. But Her Providence would not let it be. The Goddess pitied the fools who so blindly bowed to Lindzei’s will, and so She robbed Ragnarok of power, putting the l’Cie to an early crystal sleep, Focus yet incomplete.”
“Her Providence sought nothing. Her Providence made nothing. She but looked on, silent in Her sorrow. The Goddess pitied mortals, destined as they were to die, and so She deigned to intervene in the hour of their greatest peril. She averted cataclysm that was to be, and put to rest the ones who would have robbed so many of what time fate had ordained. Her compassion did not end at this. The Goddess pitied also those subjected to that fate of Focus, crueler still than death. To them She sent Her messengers, to deliver hope when all was lost.”
“Children of Hallowed Pulse scour earth, searching substance for the Door. Those of Fell Lindzei harvest souls, combing ether for the same. So have I seen. The Door, once shut, was locked away, with despair its secret key; sacrifice, the one hope of seeing it unsealed. When the twilight of the gods at last descends upon this world, what emerges from the unseeable expanse beyond that Door will be but music, and that devoid of words: the lamentations of the Goddess Etro, as She sobs Her song of grief.”
Those three Analects entries are the only information we really get about the other divine being of FNC, Etro, in FF13-1. This sucks, because it turns out, Etro is absolutely critical to the events of 13-1’s plot. The short version is, Etro pities humanity. She’s a death goddess, and rules over the Unseen Realm. I’ll cover particular things she does as we proceed.
Anyway, Lindzei’s big plan is to gather humanity up into a place called Cocoon, where they’ll be shepherded and kept comfortable and allowed to flourish. The idea being, once there’s enough people, they can be killed en masse as a sacrifice. That sacrifice will get Etro’s attention, causing her to open Etro’s Gate. Lindzei thinks this will bring the Maker back (this is part of why it’s easy to get confused in 13-1, because it’s not clear whether Etro is or is not the Maker from what we’re told). And because Lindzei thinks this, Lindzei’s Fal’Cie think this and work to bring it about.
The problem is, Lindzei’s kids (aka Sanctum Fal’Cie, Cocoon Fal’Cie) can’t actually complete this mission. Because they were created to serve and protect humanity, they aren’t allowed to hurt them; kinda like Asimov’s Laws of Robotics. And Lindzei, being an invisible god-type thing, can’t intervene in the physical world (which is why they had to make Fal’Cie in the first place) to do it themselves. So they have to plot and scheme ways to make this happen indirectly. Pulse’s kids aren’t so constrained. Their only concern is finding the Gate, so their actions seem less comprehensible to the people of Gran Pulse (the planet, not the god).
Meanwhile, Pulse’s kids aren’t happy about Cocoon either, because Lindzei stole a bunch of Pulse’s people and resources to make Cocoon in the first place, and did so by lying to the people that they’d be kept safe. So, that’s a thing.
Cocoon’s Fal’Cie are all coordinated in the complicated actions needed to shelter and preserve humanity by one named Eden, who draws its power from another Fal’Cie called Orphan. Day to day events are run by a religious organization called the Sanctum, which is led by a Primarch (the pope, basically). At the time of FF13-1’s events, the Primarch is a Fal’Cie called Barthandelus pretending to be a guy named Galenth Dysley.
Phase 3: The War of Transgression
Just like the gods made Fal’Cie to do their bidding, the Fal’Cie make l’Cie to do theirs. l’Cie are humans given incredible power to accomplish a task with a time limit. As far as we know, new Fal’Cie don’t get made anymore, and the gods (apart from Etro) have all kinda left. But new l’Cie get made a lot. The task a l’Cie is given is called their Focus.
l’Cie are given a “brand” like a tattoo that advances through 13 stages, signifying the time limit the l’Cie has to complete said Focus. It can not only advance over time, but also in times of mental stress or intense emotions. If it advances all the way, you turn into a Cie’th. A Cie’th is a monster, basically. If you complete your Focus successfully before that happens, you turn into crystal and go to sleep for an indeterminate length of time. At some point, you can theoretically wake back up and even be branded again for a new Focus.
After a long time as a Cie’th, you eventually lose all will and motive power and turn into a Cie’th Stone, stuck in place. However, some Cie’th have strong enough wills that they instead turn into super-monsters called The Undying. Another thing is that, if a l’Cie wavers in their purpose, a being called an Eidolon appears from inside them. Eidolons try to kill the doubting l’Cie, and it’s left up to interpretation as to why exactly they do this.
It’s suggested by Lightning that this is a motivational tactic to get the l’Cie back on track, and the Analects suggest they’re sent by Etro. Nothing in this paragraph is super critical for the main plot, however. It’s also another example of how there’s no objective reference for the literal truth present in the game, everything is told to us through the words of an interpretive, subjective source.
One of the first big pairs of l’Cie that got made by Pulse Fal’Cie, several hundred years before the events of FF13-1, were Fang and Vanille. Their Focus was to destroy Cocoon by killing the Fal’Cie Orphan, and they very nearly succeeded, taking a huge chunk out of Cocoon in the process. Their attempt was called the War of Transgression (note that this was named by Cocoon historians), and it culminated with Fang turning into a highly destructive beast called Ragnarok. Ragnarok seems to be another kind of Eidolon (maybe?) that any Pulse l’Cie can turn into (maybe Sanctum l’Cie have their own version, who knows). It can even encompass multiple l’Cie, as Fang and Vanille enter into the transformation together in 13-1’s ending.
However, as we read in the Analects, Etro took pity on the humans of Cocoon, who would have all died as a result of Fang succeeding. So, she intervened and sealed Fang’s transformation, which results in the scorched l’Cie brand we see her bear during the game. Etro then forcibly turned both Fang and Vanille into crystal, putting them to sleep. It’s not stated explicitly whether Fang’s success would have resulted in a sacrifice large enough to bring back the Maker in accordance with the Sanctum Fal’Cie’s ultimate goal, or not. We don’t really know how they feel about Etro’s intervention here. We do know they spin the story into something else, claiming that they defeated Ragnarok in battle when they actually didn’t.
What’s interesting about this intervention is that it immediately raises questions about the whole stated risk/reward structure of being a l’Cie, but I’ll get to that later.
Phase 4: The Next Few Hundred Years
In order to rebuild the damage done to Cocoon in the War of Transgression, the Sanctum steals more resources from Pulse. They pull up huge chunks of the surface world to use as raw materials. This is also cover for them bringing up the Arks, which are like Pulsian war factories containing lots of killer robots (no, it’s not ever really explained what these are for). These stolen chunks are called “Pulse Vestiges.” 13 seems to think that every new thing needs its own proper noun, which is one of the sources of plot confusion.
One of those Vestiges contained the final resting place of Fang and Vanille (sleeping as crystal statues courtesy of Etro), which also happened to contain a Pulse Fal’Cie called Anima. The whole thing was made to look like a coincidence, but in retrospect was absolutely part of the Sanctum Fal’Cie’s plans all along. They knew they had access to some Pulse l’Cie that had very nearly completed their plan for them, so they wanted to bring them aboard Cocoon and keep them close. They also brought up the Arks and the Fal’Cie Anima as backup plans, basically. Either they could rely on Fang and Vanille completing their Focus when they eventually woke up, or they could stoke the fears of the populace toward Pulse using the Vestige and its Fal’Cie within, or that Fal’Cie would make some new l’Cie to replace Fang/Vanille. Whatever happened, it would be win/win for the Sanctum Fal’Cie.
Meanwhile, on Pulse, things declined rapidly. Over the next few hundred years, the Pulse Fal’Cie made enough l’Cie from the populace that it becomes a problem. This was probably a direct result of the failure of the War of Transgression, in retrospect. The Pulse Fal’Cie got desperate and started making l’Cie willy-nilly, sending people after all kinds of weird monsters in an effort to find or create someone as strong as Fang and Vanille were, someone else who could bear the Ragnarok transformation and complete that original Focus. They obviously did not succeed, given the many Cie’th and Cie’th Stones scattered around Gran Pulse when the main party arrives later.
A bunch of time passes. All the Pulsian societies die out entirely. A seaside town called Bodhum springs up on Cocoon, near the particular Pulse Vestige containing all that spicy stuff from before. More time passes.
Phase 5: The 13 Days of Fate
We’re almost to the actual events of the playable game, hooray…! The events here are revealed out of chronological order at various points during the main story mission of the game, for dramatic effect. This is cool and everything, but here’s a straightforward, mostly-chronological retelling to help us get the essential facts straight. I’m doing this from memory, so some things might be slightly out of order. However, for the most part, the events of the 13 Days just kinda all need to be there; the order only matters for some of them.
There are two main threads or groups of people involved in these events: the people of Bodhum, and what happens at the power plant.
In Bodhum, there lives a lady named Claire Farron (who calls herself Lightning) and her sister Serah. Lightning works as part of a local police force. Serah has a boyfriend named Snow Villiers, who is the leader of a local group of kids (NORA) that hunts monsters unofficially and generally gets into trouble and hangs out doing punk kid stuff even though they’re all grown-ups.
One day, Serah is out and about and explores the Pulse Vestige because… of reasons? Apparently there’s some other piece of lore material called “Day Zero” that explains why, but I haven’t read/played/seen that (is it a game? a book? I have no idea). She gets branded as a l’Cie, presumably by Anima (?), but tells nobody at first. People on Cocoon are taught to fear Pulse l’Cie and everything Pulsian in general, so she doesn’t know how to handle this event at first.
Fang and Vanille also wake up around this time. Fang has lost her memory of everything that happened then (maybe due to Etro’s forcible cancellation of her transformation? it’s never explicitly stated why) but Vanille hasn’t. Vanille pretends to also have lost her memory, however. Fang proposes that they go attack a random Sanctum Fal’Cie to see if that jogs their memory as to what their Focus could be. They’re from Pulse, after all, so their Focus must have something to do with fighting against Cocoon in some way. The two of them proceed to a nearby power plant.
Sazh Katzroy, a civilian airship pilot grieving his dead wife, also happens to be at this power plant with his son Dahj. They’re taking a fun trip together to try and forget. Sazh lets Dahj out of his sight briefly. Consequently, Dahj wanders off and just so happens to be the closest non-l’Cie human to the power plant’s Fal’Cie when Fang and Vanille attack it, and so the Sanctum l’Cie brands Dahj a l’Cie in a useless attempt to defend itself. Dahj is subsequently taken away from Sazh by the authorities, who run tests trying to figure out what his Focus might be, since he’s a kid and it’s not clear. Fang has Vanille run away and is captured by the Sanctum as well. She ends up in the hands of a branch of the Sanctum military called “the Cavalry”, helping their leader hunt down other l’Cie for his own purposes, but that doesn’t really come up until later.
Vanille ends up back in Bodhum. I think she probably wanted to just meet back up with Fang at the Vestige or something, since it’s the one place on Cocoon she actually knows. Vanille and Serah run into each other by sheer coincidence, and have a little chat. Vanille feels guilty that Serah is branded l’Cie because of her own failure vis-a-vis the War of Transgression, basically, but this goes unspoken between them.
Serah tells Snow about being branded, tries to break up with him to keep him safe. He refuses, vows to protect her and even help her with her Focus. However, what that Focus is is unclear. (Noticing a pattern, here?) Together, the two of them tell Lightning about the branding. However, they do this during Lightning’s birthday celebration, and she gets pissed and handles it very poorly. Serah’s gift to Lightning on her birthday is a cool new knife, which becomes important later (when it becomes a kind of symbol of Lightning’s forceful attitude, to Hope).
Sazh is allowed by the Sanctum to hang out with Dahj at the Bodhum fireworks show, so they get some brief time together then. Lightning, Snow, Serah, Vanille, and the NORA people are all there as well. There’s also a kid there named Hope, hanging out with his mom on vacation. However, it’s at this time that Barthandelus (remember him?) calls for “the Purge”, publicly revealing the existence of the Pulse Vestige, Anima, etc., and packing everyone currently in Bodhum off to be sent to Pulse in concentration camp trains. Except they’re actually secretly going to kill all of them outright. Snow and Serah try to run at first, but Serah ends up trapped inside the Vestige. Lightning volunteers to be Purged in a last-ditch attempt to save her, and that’s where the game actually starts.
Phase 6: Final Fantasy 13’s actual plot
This is the most straightforward part of the story, and is the only part that’s shown in gameplay. Everything else is extrapolated from datalogs or shown in cutscenes and flashbacks that don’t get revealed until much later, and then it’s all out of order.
Anyway, here’s an extremely condensed sketch of the plot. I encourage you to actually play the game and see it for yourself. Plus I don’t feel like rehashing every second of every scene here, since this piece is long enough as it is, and I still want to talk about the thematic reading after I finish this sketch.
So there’s a lot of other stuff that happens, but the main plot thrust of FF13-1 is the story of Barthandelus manipulating Lightning and her crew into killing Orphan to try and call back the Maker. Once they’re branded l’Cie, he takes steps to help them become stronger so as to be able to accomplish this. First, he throws wave after wave of Sanctum troops at them. Then, after fighting them to test their strength, he guides them into an Ark that he keeps below Cocoon’s capital city Eden so they can grow stronger fighting their way through it. Then, he sends them to the surface of Gran Pulse, where there’s lots of crazy strong monsters to fight. Then he fights them again, deems them ready, and brings them back to Cocoon. He baits them with more Sanctum troops and opens the Arks to let loose what appears to be a Pulsian invasion force onto Cocoon. He also baits the aforementioned Cavalry into attacking Orphan through some more deception and trickery involving their leader and Pulse-phobia. He has Eden (the Fal’Cie, not the city) guide them to where Orphan is, fights them one last time, using his own death as the catalyst to wake Orphan up in fighting form.
The party defeats Orphan out of necessity, and so Cocoon begins to plummet to the surface, threatening to enact Lindzei’s ultimate goal of opening Etro’s Gate by killing everyone. Fang and Vanille become Ragnarok again, and this time use its power to shoot some lava up and around Cocoon from Gran Pulse even as they turn to crystal, making a huge lava-y crystal-y pillar thing that catches Cocoon and holds it up, safe and sound.
During these last desperate moments, Etro intervenes three more times. First, she cancels Fang’s transformation again, when she’s trying to use Ragnarok to kill Orphan and fulfill her Focus. She does this due to being tortured by Orphan/Barthandelus and the rest of the party turning into Cie’th.
Second, Etro intervenes to return the party to their normal forms after they’ve become Cie’th. And finally, she returns the party to normal (and removes their l’Cie brands!) when they turn into crystal after the battle and the formation of the crystal pillar. All except for Vanille and Fang, since they need to remain crystal in order for Cocoon to stay held up by their pillar.
I’m glossing over literally all of the character drama, Cid Raines’ part in everything, just a lot of stuff. So, all of this isn’t the entire story, but it is the entire central plot.
Phase 7: The Themes
For me, 13-1 is primarily about the nature and consequences of choice, particularly the defiance of authority. It’s secondarily about abandonment and guilt.
There are a lot of things that happen in 13-1 that call into question the nature of the whole l’Cie/Focus… thing, as it’s initially told to us. The game puts substantial effort into showing several cases that are exceptions to the rules we’re given.
We’re told that l’Cie are given a Focus, but in practice, most of the l’Cie we meet either have no idea what their Focus is, or they’re given a vague dream that could mean a number of things.
We’re told that l’Cie who fail to complete their Focus in time become Cie’th, but Vanille and Fang keep their Focus for hundreds of years without turning, whereas the rest of the party become Cie’th at a very convenient time for Orphan to use that to pressure Fang into becoming Ragnarok. Cid Raines begins to turn Cie’th seemingly deliberately, to make himself stronger while fighting the main party. As far as we know, only l’Cie can become Cie’th, but Barthandelus forcibly transforms the whole Sanctum army into Cie’th simultaneously during the final invasion.
We’re told that l’Cie who complete their Focus successfully become immortal sleeping crystal statues. However, Fang and Vanille initially become crystal not due to completing their Focus, but due to intervention by the Goddess Etro. People can turn back from being crystal, both naturally given enough time and also due to more divine intervention. Cid transforms into a crystal after already being partially Cie’th, and is later said to be “resurrected”, implying that his crystal sleep was actually death.
Basically, we’re given a set of rules that are proven over time to be increasingly arbitrary. What this leaves us with is a sense that none of it matters, and we can and should simply act according to our conscience. Several times, the party resolves themselves to save Cocoon, which should run counter to their Focus as Pulse l’Cie, but they suffer no real consequences from doing this. In fact, it’s the only way they can move forward and save everyone! The wider statement the game is making is the same: to act according to our conscience, and not to live “under Fal’Cie rule” (a metaphor for religious authority / the state / authority in general), following the rules we’re given just because we fear for our lives, because of “normality”, or because we’re comfortable there. The game tells us to break free of command structures, to deliberately not complete quests just because they’re quests, but instead to listen to our hearts and to the wishes of our loved ones.
The lack of clarity surrounding the concept of a Focus further points toward the seemingly-nihilistic-but-ultimately-freeing idea that life has no inherent purpose beyond what we imbue it with. That we should choose to live how we want, that nobody can tell you why you’re alive. That’s really interesting, in my opinion.
Secondarily, the game deals heavily with characters who have suffered losses that are (usually) partly or completely their own fault. Lightning drives Serah away with her anger. Sazh loses Dahj to the Sanctum, and ultimately to crystal sleep, because he lets him out of sight during their power plant trip. Snow tries to save Serah, but ends up delivering her right to the Vestige, where she is taken from him. Fang becomes Ragnarok to murder millions of people, and loses her memory. Vanille, meanwhile, has to live with the memory of what they’ve done, which is compounded by knowing she’s responsible for Sazh’s son’s branding as Sanctum l’Cie.
Hope is the only character whose initial loss isn’t really his fault. His mother tries to protect him during the Purge, and dies due to random bad luck. The part that is his fault is that he instead blames Snow for his loss. There’s also a certain amount of wallowing on his part in the early game.
The way the game handles these character arcs is one of its stronger points, and in the end, each gets their own way of resolving their loss and accepting the past to move forward into the future. So, I can’t neatly summarize it the way I can the game’s thematic statements on choice and consequence.
So! That’s FF13-1. I’m currently playing through 13-2, and I’m excited to write up a formal review of it, since (spoilers) the game is very, very good. There’s also quite a bit more lore/fluff that’s made clearer in 13-2 than it was in 1. Please look forward to that piece when it goes up, which will be… later. These games are heckin long. I hope this summary has helped you think about 13 as much as it’s helped me!