I've bashed this game's gameplay sufficiently in another article, and now I want to discuss the far more interesting side of the game. Get ready for a long post. My memory's lost a lot of detail, and I had to look up some reminders to write this, but I want to get this written before my memory fades even more. I have so much to say about this story.
The game's intro introduces the world of Cocoon: a floating world above the underworld of Pulse, a dangerous land filled with dangerous people who have tried to destroy Cocoon before (as soon as I heard this I predicted that the people on Pulse are perfectly normal and have been told the same thing about Cocoon). Both worlds are overseen by a number of fal'Cie, which are essentially gods with mecha bodies. The fal'Cie of Cocoon use their power to provide food and electricity to the people and to some extent oversee the government. When fal'Cie come in contact with humans they can brand the human as a l'Cie, who gains magic but must complete their Focus, a mission vaguely hinted at, within some amount of time to avoid becoming a Cie'th - turning permanently into a monster like a Hollow from Dark Souls. The Cocoon fal'Cie, being benevolent, haven't done this since they needed l'Cie help in the invasion hundreds of years ago, but according to legend "l'Cie who fulfill their Focus turn into crystal and gain eternal life".
The game opens with a narrator voice saying "The Thirteen Days after we awoke were the beginning of the end", and probably a little more I don't remember. We'll place the narrator as Vanille as soon as we meet her, but the meaning of these words doesn't become clear until much later. The story starts.
I forget exactly what order the opening scene reveals these things in, but a Pulse vestige - a giant artifact from Pulse - is discovered on Cocoon and (everyone having been told Pulse is the worst thing ever) people are terrified that just coming into near contact with it might have turned some people into Pulse l'Cie. So the government of Cocoon, the Sanctum, orders the purge, where they intend to deport thousands of citizens who might have been in contact with it to Pulse. And of course, that's a death sentence given what these people believe about Pulse, but the Sanctum is selling like it's a humane civil safety measure to win public support.
I really like the artistic depiction of the city as it shows the purge bus. Someone really knew what direction to take a Magitech fantasy world. I've never seen anything like this.
The first characters we see are two people on the purge bus: Lightning, a former soldier, and Sazh, an apparent comic relief character we'll learn a lot more about later. Lightning breaks out and starts fighting the guards; she frees a bunch of other prisoners including Sazh and you get your first tutorial battle controlling them against a Sanctum mecha on top of the train. The feminism is pretty strong already; you can tell it's no coincidence that the woman is a badass while the man is as much a sidekick in personality as he is in every other way. But it's fine, there's nothing wrong with having this dynamic and they're not glorifying double standards or anything (yet - they will later). Lightning and Sazh defeat the mecha and see that they aren't the only ones fighting the Sanctum: there are battles elsewhere in the city.
Cut to the other group of characters so far. Thousands of civilians are being sent to their death by the government, so a paramilitary group called NORA - we find out what that stands for much later in the game - are putting up a fight. It shows their leader, a young man named Snow, taking down some Sanctum troops with his buddies. I don't remember if it's Snow or Lightning or both, but some group of characters at some point reflects on the bitter irony of murdering thousands of Cocoon citizens to protect Cocoon. The people's fear of Pulse - which has been cultivated by the Sanctum - has led to them killing each other even with no solid evidence of danger. It's easy to think that you can kill others who haven't done any wrong in the name of safety when you're not the one being killed or having your family killed, but when you're on the other side, you realize of course it's still murder. This is very similar to how taxation works, especially prorgressive tax - seems wonderful and fair until you're the one being forced to give up over half of your fairly earned income.
Snow asks his gang "What's our motto?" and they reply "The army's no match for NORA!". He proceeds to give a speech to the scared victims and family members. I really like what happens here. NORA is hopelessly outmatched, so Snow asks for volunteers to take up the weapons they got from the soldiers they just defeated. A couple of strong-looking men volunteer, and when there's one left, so does a woman named Nora. What I like is that Snow lets her but doesn't treat it as normal. Snow is neither a mouthpiece of progressive agendas nor one of the sexists who validate them in real life by turning gender roles into something more than they have a biological basis to be. So he asks once for confirmation, and she says "Moms are tough". Now, let me explain something.
If she had said "Women are tough" I would have considered this feminist hogwash. But "Moms are tough" is completely different, because motherhood isn't just a superficial trait - mothers have chosen to go through the intense pain of childbirth. So I think it's fair for her to say this. (She also appears to be single which adds to it.)
I think after that it cuts back to Lightning and Sazh, although again I'm not sure exactly what order some of this happens in. Lightning and Sazh aren't in this to save civilians so much as they are for their own escape - or so it seems for now. They make it to the end of a bridge. Lightning reveals her GravCon device (which looks like a magical thing she has but I think it's supposed to be understood to be technology, since only l'Cie and fal'Cie have magic) which she intends to use to levitate down to the bridge below. Sazh argues about coming with her, she wants to leave him behind but Sazh grabs on to her anyway - she's his only obvious way off this broken bridge - and unable to handle the weight of two people, the GravCon device breaks. So they have to take a detour and find another way out.
That's another scene that handles the morality well. The writing of Sazh and Lightning's interaction is almost as if the writer understands the moral conflict here! Even after being a nuisance to her own ends and breaking her device, Lightning doesn't treat Sazh as an enemy, because she knows how it looks from his perspective. They continue to work together.
Cut back to Snow, whose group is beset by heavy Sanctum vehicles. If I remember correctly a rocket launcher is seen on the floor at some point but Snow can't get to it or something. Snow gets knocked back by an explosion, and the gunship is about to kill him but Nora shoots it down with the rocket launcher. She says again "Moms are tough" but ends up knocked off the bridge by more explosions later. Before she falls, she gives her final wish for Snow to find and save her son (I forget what the wording was but she doesn't name him). Snow escapes, and makes it back to the civilians, troubled by the thought that he has to protect a specific person and he doesn't know which one.
There's something magical about this opening to the story. Besides the beautiful artwork, the story resonated with me in a way I didn't expect even though it doesn't explore any major themes that have particular significance to me (except rebellion - but tons of stories, maybe most, do that). It did someting very few other stories have done well: the basics. It takes the most obvious and widely used template - "An evil army is killing civilians and the heroes try to save them but are outmatched" - and makes it feel like the people in it actually matter. I don't entirely understand what made this opening so good, but it's the polar opposite of Mass Effect 2, which played with a similar theme of "save millions of innocents from murderers" and made absolutely no emotional impact out of it by never showing you the fear and suffering of the victims or putting anyone you care about on the line (until the final mission, which was by far the best part of that story). Obviously it's an important plus that the writers killed Nora. Showing a heroic person die in the fight makes it mean something where most other stories don't. But there's a lot more to it, because I was really into the story even before that.
Maybe it has something to do with the diversity. It follows so many different characters so far and shows them all fighting the same enemy even though they're so different and probably no two of them would be friends. It highlights the common ground. You know, it's kind of silly but here's a fun proverb I just made up: Diversity is unity.
The scene cuts and introduces two more characters, Hope and Vanille, a teenage boy and girl. Hope is quickly revealed to be the woman's son. When he finds out she died protecting Snow, he blames Snow for her death and wants to find him (it's unclear at this point what his intentions are). But at some point the camera shows that Snow has succeeded in escorting as many victims as he could to safety, so he sets off to use a Sanctum flyer - a personal helicopter - to reach the Pulse vestige itself, which is nearby as it's about to be dropped into the chasm to Pulse. We find out he's trying to save someone named Serah, his fiancée, who's trapped inside. We'll find out how that happened later. But Hope hijacks another spare flyer, joined by Vanille, who we don't know anything about yet but she's advised Hope to go talk to Snow about his beef, and takes off after Snow. He manages to pilot it into the vestige (it's a giant structure) and crashland.
Lightning and Sazh also end up going to the Pulse vestige. I don't remember what Sazh's motivations are or if he's just tagging along with Lightning, but we start to get some dialogue here hinting that Lightning has a guilty past and she reveals to Sazh that she's here to rescue her sister Serah, who is in fact already a l'Cie. Sazh tries to tell her that if Serah has been branded a Pulse l'Cie then there's nothing they can do to save her and they should go. Lightning gets angry at him and says, "Just say it! Everyone who's a l'Cie or who might ever become a l'Cie should be purged!" I love this exchange because it shows how the Sanctum kind of has a point if what they're saying is true, but they're still wrong. It doesn't make it okay to give up on a person. Sazh ends up sticking along and helping.
Hope and Vanille get cornered by monsters (there are several on the vestige, I don't remember if they're Cie'th or just random JRPG monsters) and Snow joins up with them and helps them out. Hope, shocked by being resuced by the man he's mad at, is unable to say anything and the three of them meet up with Lightning and Sazh. They find Serah, who turns into crystal (not a Cie'th) as the legend says she should upon completing her Focus... but "turning to crystal and gaining eternal life" appears to mean "being trapped sleeping in a crystal forever and thus effectively dead". Snow thinks she must be alive, but Lightning takes it as the fal'Cie betraying its promise.
This is the scene where the misandrist trope of asymmetric violence rules first shows up: as Lightning and Snow argue about how to interpret what's happening, Snow starts talking about how he's promised to be Serah's forever and this hits a nerve and Lightning punches him in the face and knocks him over. This first time isn't terrible though because it was at least kind of portrayed as an emotional outburst. It'll get worse.
The group goes further into the structure to find the Pulse fal'Cie that branded Serah, named Anima. It looks like a mecha with no outward sign of sentience. Snow begs it to free Serah and offers to take her place as l'Cie, while Lightning says, "Fine, you just keep grovelling, like this thing gives a damn what we want!" She attacks the fal'Cie. It's the first boss fight, and ends with the Pulse fal'Cie branding them all as l'Cie and ensuring their survival as they fall into the Chasm when the vestige is shot down by Sanctum.
The separation phase
The l'Cie awake in a different part of Cocoon; a sort of frozen-over lake (I think in retrospect it was crystal but I thought it was ice at the time) having all shared a vision of the mythical monster Ragnarok destroying Cocoon. They assume this is their hint at their Focus and start to argue about what it is. The obvious assumption is their Focus is to destroy Cocoon given they were branded by a Pulse l'Cie, but Snow argues that it's to protect Cocoon from Ragnarok, which does kind of make sense since Serah turned to crystal right after telling them to save Cocoon. At first, Lightning doesn't even want to try to figure out their Focus. She says "I don't take orders from fal'Cie", intending to stand by this even when it will get her killed for no good reason. After their argument the group sets out to look for Serah.
They find her, still crystallized, and Snow tries to break her out of the crystal. The surrounding conversation is the second time Lightning assaults Snow. It's much worse this time; it's even less defensible and if I remember correctly she hits him twice this time. Still no one sticks up for him. I really considered dropping the game here. And I was almost glad I didn't, since this is the last occurence of sexism.
Since they're being pursued by the Sanctum (who know they're Pulse l'Cie now), everyone else leaves, but Snow chooses to stay with Serah and keep trying to break her out of the crystal. Hope hangs around for a while, Vanille urges him to talk to Snow, saying, "If you don't say it now you might never get to say it". Hope doesn't and leaves with Lightning and the others.
The following phase of the game is really long and the plot gets a bit slow, but the l'Cie keep running from the Sanctum and they spend most of the chapter divided into Hope + Lightning and Sazh + Vanille. Snow is captured by the Cavalry, a special branch of the Sanctum military. He meets Cid Raines, the leader of the Cavalry, and Fang, his apparent second-in-comand who is also a Pulse l'Cie. Cid tells Snow that he's planning to free the people of Cocoon from fal'Cie rule and wants Snow to help him find the other l'Cie so they can do it.
Sazh and Vanille just plan to flee as far from the Sanctum as possible, while Lightning wants to go the Cocoon capital and kill the fal'Cie Eden, sort of the main one, for revenge. Hope decides to follow Lightning on the belief that that path with all the fighting will help him become strong enough to face Snow.
I don't remember what point each of the Thirteen Days is reavealed at, but throughout the story - and mostly during this phase - there are flashbacks that reveal a lot about the characters. You find out that when Serah was branded by the Pulse fal'Cie, she thought to break up with Snow for his sake, but Snow convinces her he still wants to be with her and he'll help her figure out her Focus and avoid becoming a Cie'th. Eventually, Serah told Lightning as well, but Lightning actually thought she was lying as an excuse to marry Snow (I don't remember how that worked but this is what the wiki says). Serah and Snow tried to go back to the Pulse fal'Cie to ask it for guidance, but this was between when the Sanctum found the fal'Cie and when the purge happened, so the area was restricted. Snow helped Serah escape Sanctum troops, but she ended up being taken by the fal'Cie and trapped inside the vestige. Snow was forced to flee.
Later, when Lightning found out Serah had told the truth, she turned herself in to be purged to get a shot at rescuing her. You also find out Sazh is a single father and his son Dajh was branded a l'Cie by a Cocoon fal'Cie, and was taken by the Sanctum for study on the claim they'd help him find out what his Focus is. I don't remember it from an article I read to remind myself Sazh also turned himself in to save his son; Dajh isn't at the purge but Sazh has a theory that his Focus is to destroy the Pulse fal'Cie and is hoping to complete his Focus for him.
Some time later, you find out from a Thirteen Days flashback that Vanille has been lying to everyone else: she and Fang came from Pulse and were Pulse l'Cie long before everyone else. Their Focus was to turn into Ragnarok and destroy Cocoon. Fang actually did turn into Ragnarok, but she failed to destroy Cocoon and she and Vanille were turned into crystals. They awoke hundreds of years later when the vestige containing the fal'Cie Anima, who branded them, was moved to Cocoon and Anima de-crystallized them. Fang's l'Cie brand got somehow frozen, meaning she didn't have to worry about timing out and becoming a Cie'th anymore, and she had lost her memory of the Focus. Vanille lied that she didn't remember either. They started looking around on Cocoon for a hope of curing Vanille's l'Cie status.
Finally, it's clear what the Thirteen Days are: the thirteen days between when Vanille and Fang awoke after failing and when the game started.
Vanille's plan of keeping the memories of Ragnarok secret backfired when Fang suggested they attack the nearby Cocoon fal'Cie, Kujata, in the hopes it would stir their memories or something. Dajh was there, and Kujata panicked being attacked by Pulse l'Cie and branded Dajh.
In the present, Hope and Lightning do a lot of fighting and Hope becomes more confident. They discuss their motives a bit more. When Lightning finds out Hope wants to kill Snow, she tries to convince him that the Sanctum is responsible for Nora's death and not Snow, but Hope doesn't buy it; he wants to make both of them pay. For the moment, Lightning doesn't really press him about the fact that he intends to murder an innocent man. This is where it's revealed that NORA stands for "No Obligation, Rules, or Authority".
They head to Palumpolum, Hope's hometown, on the way to Eden. While they're there Lightning has an emotional breakdown as she realizes her plan is bad and she's done a bad thing bringing Hope into it. She says something like, "I've been a fal'Cie slave all my life, and so when they betrayed me, I didn't know what to do, and so I just fought and fought to distract myself". She tells Hope he has to forget about killing Snow and Eden and talk to his dad, which is convenient since they're already in Palumpolum, and find a way to set his life straight. She says he can't lose hope (yes, the name thing comes up). Hope doesn't have a good relationship with his dad and hasn't seen him in a while. He gets mad at her.
One way or another Hope and Lightning get caught and overwhelmed by Sanctum troops... but saved by Snow and Fang. They end up reseparating into Snow + Hope and Lightning + Fang as they run and fight and some more. Hope continues to work with Snow for a little longer.
On Fang and Lightning's side, Fang confesses to Lightning about her and Vanille's role in causing Serah's fate, and Lightning slaps Fang.
I like this scene for showing albeit too late that Lightning's habit of physical violence toward allies isn't about sexism (although that still doesn't excuse no one else sticking up for Snow). If I remember correctly, an excerpt from the conversation goes like this:
Fang: How about you? Feel any better now that you hit me?
Lightning: It didn't change anything.
So maybe Lightning learned why she was wrong that day :)
Hope finally does try to kill Snow. The conversation here is really good. Here's the full cinematic I used to refresh my memory:
Hope: Snow, what do you plan to do? I need to know.
(Snow talks happily about how he's still sure he's going to save Serah and Cocoon and "have himself a big, happy family".)
Snow: Even if you're l'Cie, you've got to keep fighting.
Hope: And what if that gets people around you involved?
Hope: What happens when your actions end up ruining someone's life?
Hope: What if someone dies? What then, Snow?
(Snow starts to have flashbacks of all the people who died under his command, but doesn't realize who Hope is.)
Hope: How do you pay for what you've done?
Snow: I can't! I can't, alright?
Snow: There is nothing that can make something like that right again. When someone's dead, when someone's gone, words are useless.
Hope: So that's it? People die and you just run away?
Snow: I know! It's all my fault! But I don't know how to fix it. Where do you start? What do you say?
Snow: ... All I can do is go forward. Keep fighting, and surviving, until I find the answers I need.
Hope: There are no answers!
Hope: You're running from what you deserve!
Snow: Then why don't you tell me what I deserve?!?
Hope: The same fate!
Hope nearly kills Snow, but a Sanctum gunship attacks them, knocking Hope unconscious, and Snow saves Hope from it and gets them both to safety. When Hope wakes up, he finally gets over his murder quest.
Meanwhile, Sazh and Vanille have escaped Sanctum troops for the moment and gone sightseeing trying to distract themselves from their fate. Their side of this story was a lot less interesting for most of it, but eventually Sazh decides they're never going to be able to fix their problem, and he's going to turn himself in to the Sanctum for a chance of just seeing Dajh again before he dies. Vanille tells him she knows who's responsible for getting his son turned into a l'Cie and that he can't give up without getting revenge. Of course, it's not a very good plan because she has nowhere to go after that without incriminating herself.
But the Sanctum finds them just then, including Jihl Nabaat who's a representative of the branch holding Dajh. They brought Dajh with them, who is pleased to see Sazh but turns into crystal immediately upon the reunion. Jihl reveals to Sazh that Dajh's Focus was to capture Pulse l'Cie, and that Vanille and Fang (although he hasn't met Fang yet) are the ones responsible for Dajh's fate. Sazh very nearly shoots Vanille, but says "Lotta things can be excused. Shooting kids ain't one." Then he puts the gun to his own head, the scene fades black and you hear the shot.
I was so shocked, but impressed. Were the writers really going to have a main character commit suicide?
No, of course, they didn't. Later the scene cuts back to them and shows that Sazh shot next to his head after the scene faded black, and he says, "Why can't I do it? I've got nothing left to live for!". This is worse than the writers saying Vanille saved him with her healing magic, or even contriving a way for him to come back to life. Oh dammit writers... why didn't you just not play the gunshot sound before? The scene would've been fine, but no, you felt the need to literally lie to us about what happens in your story. I lost a lot of respect for the writers that day.
Hope, Lightning, Snow, and Fang meet Hope's father, Bartholomew, Hope informs him that Nora's dead and reconciles with him, Lightning reconciles with Snow, and Cid shows up and picks up the l'Cie, telling them about Sazh and Vanille's capture.
The rebellion phase
They board the Palamecia, the royal flying ship that has the human king and their captive friends on it. The six reunite and end up confronting the king, who turns into a fal'Cie - Barthandelus. The fal'Cie have been ruling humans directly all this time; even the human king was one of them.
Before and/or after a fight, Barthandelus reveals that Serah's Focus was to gather the rest of them so they could be branded and given the Focus to destroy Cocoon. Specifically his plan is to kill the fal'Cie Orphan who's a single point of failure for keeping Cocoon from plumetting down to Pulse and killing everyone on Cocoon. Presumably due to an artificial magic system rule, fal'Cie can't kill each other directly; they're bound to use their own power to uphold Cocoon.
The Cavalry's also attacking the Palamecia at the same time, and the ship sustains heavy damage. I think what happens is Barthandelus arranges for the l'Cie's escape, and they end up flying a ship that they crash into - once again - the middle of nowhere.
They meet Cid Raines, who's been made a Cocoon l'Cie as well, and he reveals a little more about how Barthandelus orchestrated everything that happened so far, and how he (Cid) is now going to kill them to stop them from completing their Focus. He fails, and turns to crystal (not a Cie'th), despite defying his Focus.
The l'Cie all resolve to follow Cid's example and defy their Focus to save Cocoon, even if it gets them turned into Cie'th. All except Fang. Fang intially says she'd rather led the worn burn then let her friends become Cie'th. She takes a lot of convincing.
If I remember correctly Fang reveals at some point that intense emotional distress can progress a l'Cie's brand, causing them to become a Cie'th sooner. This will be important later.
There's a lot of filler gameplay where the l'Cie end up on the lowerworld of Pulse for a while, kill a few minor fal'Cie, and do a bunch of other fighting without much plot advancement, but when they meet Barthandelus again, they get a little more exposition about how the reason he wants to kill so many people is to bring back the Maker. It's not explain what's with the Maker or why killing so many people at once is the way to do this, but that's what's happening. Barthandelus also reveals that he's now tricking the Cavalry into trying to destroy Orphan. The l'Cie had better go stop it.
The l'Cie arrivein the capital, do an enormous amount of fighting, and then come to the entry to Orphan's cradle. At the door, members of Snow's gang that haven't been seen since the opening show up with artillery to blast it open for them.
I was so happy to see those minor characters reappear. And even better, Snow asks them "What's our motto?" and the writers get it right. They respond, "Fal'Cie are no match for NORA!"
It was such a perfect scene seeing the line get changed appropriately. If I remember correctly I almost cried a little bit here.
The party enters Orphan's Cradle. The environment artists did as good a job here as they did with the opening. The place looks appropriately gradiose and magical. And then the l'Cie find out... Barthandelus turned all the Cavalry to Cie'th! He was just using them to get the l'Cie to come so he could use them to destroy Orphan. I don't remember exactly what the logic behind this was, but I remember thinking it made sense at the time. I still believe it did. I must've just forgotten something.
The Unfortunate Ending
The l'Cie battle Barthandelus, who's there also, but unfortunately he fuses with Orphan so it's impossible to kill him without killing Orphan. During this, Fang actually gives in and turns into Ragnarok. And then the horror of seeing this happen finishes off everyone else's timer and the others all turn into Cie'th.
I was really impressed when I saw this. Not only did I think the writers had the guts to go for a tragic ending for a story that needed one, but this ending in particular was foreshadowed: Fang's been the least certain member of the gang all along. She's remarked multiple times at this point how she "ain't kiddin when I say the world can burn if that's it takes to save Vanille", and she was the only one who took a lot of convincing about their goal. It would've been such a beautiful ending if Fang's weakness killed everyone.
But no, alas, the writers didn't have the guts. The cinematic breaks the rules of the story. The others turn back into humans somehow and they destroy Orphan, and when Cocoon falls Fang and Vanille use their Ragnarok powers to save Cocoon, which is complelely unsatisfying because if that was an option then none of Barthandelus's plan makes sense. It was communicated to the player that you're bound to the fal'Cie's will when you turn into Ragnarok otherwise this whole plot collapses. In the final cinematic, not only does everyone survive except (ambiguously) Vanille and Fang, but Serah and Dajh are decrystallized with no explanation, and it's a happy ending.
I have to say I think it's not a good story. The ending killed it. This story set up the theme of hopelessness from the beginning, from the synopsis on the box to the whole idea of being a l'Cie to dialog all throughout the game, like the time when Snow remarks "Maybe I will become a Cie'th, but before I do I'm going to make Serah proud". And in the end the solution to everything was, seemingly, "believe in yourself".
I still kind of like the story though. There were so many parts of it that were so right. I still think if it had been made a movie I'd be recommending it (given what the alternatives are...)
One thing I love about this story is that state authority is never really legitimized. It's not an an actively pro-liberty story or anything but it leaves open the option. Thank you, Square Enix.
Fuck people who criticize this game for being linear. That's the fucking point. Nobody ever criticizes a novel for being linear. You can't criticize Final Fantasy 13 that way; you can only argue that this entire genre shouldn't be a thing.