Tuesday, June 13, 2006

General RPGs' Odd Protagonists

When we turn on our machines made by Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft (if you're unlucky), Sega, or whoever and put in a new RPG, we have a pretty good idea about the character we're going to be controlling once the opening scenes, history lessons, and ear-agonizing beginning music videos are done with. We safely assume that the androgynous little freak in the bad clothes who walks around in circles to our grubby fingers' commands is going to be the main hero of whatever epic conflict and quest he finds himself in the middle of. This isn't ALWAYS the case, though.

For example, in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, the protagonist of the game, Marche, is NOT the main hero. The game doesn't seem to really have one; Llednar is probably the closest to being one. Marche is actually the main VILLAIN. He's a classic FF bad guy--his goal is to destroy the world for strange, outlandish reasons that just about no one else in the world agrees with. The only real difference is that, for the first time in SquareEnix history, Marche's outlandish reasons for world-conquering are actually GOOD ones, not just stupid and misguided like most villains with a "lofty" goal to their actions ("THE WORLD IS SO DARK AND PAINFUL SO I'M GONNA KILL EVERYONE TO SAVE THEM FROM IT BECAUSE KIDS TEASED ME AT SCHOOL LOL"). The point, though, is that, even if he does the best thing for the best of intentions as a very decent and well-developed person, Marche is nonetheless the game's villain rather than hero.

That's a rare quality for an RPG main character, to be sure (Knights of the Old Republic games don't count, either, because you have the opportunity to CHOOSE whether you're hero or villain). And it's done VERY well, exploring Marche's perseverence for his ideals yet doubts about his right to do so in such a quiet and complete manner that most people won't even realize he's taking the position of main villain instead of hero until you mention the idea to them.

Another interesting oddity in protagonism (is that a word? I'm claiming it as my own if it isn't already) can be found in Dragon Quest 5. Now, my opinion on the Dragon Quest games is pretty much the same opinion that I hold on bacterial infections. However, that doesn't mean the games don't have a few good qualities hidden beneath the bad.

Now, in Dragon Quest 5, your nameless, personality-less protagonist is, indeed, a good guy. He has some adventures as a kid, gets captured for slavery, escapes as an adult, has some more adventures, gets married, has kids, gets turned to stone for like 15 years, and then gets saved by his kids. But as heroic as this guy's actions, if not any words from him, indicate that he is, it's his SON, not him, who is the legendary main hero person who wields the legendary main hero person's sword against the demon king bothering everyone. From a perspective, the game's protagonist is just the random father of the game's main hero. Most of the plot could just be seen as a long backstory for the true (somewhat short) quest of the son.

The idea's not taken very far or developed (nothing ever is in that series), but it's still there, and still a neat concept with interesting potential that your character's role in a game could be no more than an accomplice of some sort to the game's main hero.

Another uncommon trait in RPGs is the choice of selecting who YOU want to be the protagonist. Games like Star Ocean 2, Live A Live, and Seiken Densetsu 3 give you the option of who you want to be the protagonist and main hero of the game, which is neat. Though it's rare that any major changes to the plot occur depending on who you choose, it's still a nifty idea to be able to choose who you think is the real hero material of a game. In the same vein, an RPG which has more than one protagonist is also an original idea, such as Final Fantasy 6. I've never been able to see anyone successfully prove that Terra and Celes didn't share the roll in that game.

There's really a lot game developers can do with their games just by switching the role their protagonist plays. Sure, it's fine to play through a game as the main character, and there's still plenty of potential for interesting and gripping ways to develop a protagonist as a main hero (Virginia from Wild Arms 3 is a primary and reasonably recent example of this), but there's a virtually untapped wealth of creative freedom to build a unique tale out of a protagonist who's not a main hero, or not the only one, for whatever reason. Game companies really oughta try it more often, because you can get really great results with a little creativity.

Monday, June 5, 2006

Tales of Phantasia's Characters

Y'all know the drill by now.

Cless: Cless is our main character. He's pretty solidly uninteresting, though admittedly to a much lesser extent than most of the meathead heroes I've noted in the past. Rather than being motivated by the goodness of his heart to do acts of heroism, Cless is more guided through his quest by the desire for revenge against Dhaos, who had his parents killed. This doesn't really lead him to be any more interesting than your standard hero with a one-track mind, of course--he still relentlessly leads his friends along into danger for the lofty ideal of Plot Demands It in virtually the same ways, he just has a more personal and ever so slightly more believable reason for it.

He also seems to be the jealous type when it comes to other people getting characterization. Whenever the idea that his sworn enemy might have some motive for his actions beyond Evil For Evil's Sake, Cless gets all defensive. It goes something like this:

"Hey Cless, I wonder why Dhaos is doing all this. Maybe we should try to think of what he has to gain from all this so we could better know how to--"


Mint: Mint is the nice, shy healer of the party. As per RPG Law, she becomes interested in the main character, doubtless enamored by his incredible ability to be an even more boring person than she is. Probably the only scene she ever gets where she stands out is the part of the game when she has to meet up with the unicorn so she can usurp its healing abilities for her own use, and even then, it's more just the presence of a unicorn there that makes the scene good, not Mint. Luckily for her, the unicorn gets attacked by demons and dies, so she doesn't have to deal with any qualms about killing it for its horn. What exactly she would have done had said demons not shown up, of course, baffles me. Perhaps she was going to shyly ask permission to saw off that piece of the unicorn's head.

Klarth: Klarth is an older man (by RPG standards, this means an age range of 20-24) who mistakes literature for weaponry and fulfills the team's vital requirement for someone who actually has a goddamn brain. He both explains the various magical phenomena that they witness and hear about, and usually gives them some direction on what they should do next to keep Cless from just leading them around in circles all day, waiting for Dhaos to show up. Of course, this minor virtue of character is almost entirely forgotten about Klarth, because the only thing anyone is ever going to really remember about him is that he once theorized that Arche would "fuck like a tiger."

Arche: When this jailbait half-elf isn't busy propositioning middle-aged sailors (what is WITH these half-elf kids, anyway?), Arche manages to be a kinda okay character with some actual development here and there.

Chester: Chester is a guy who falls in love with a girl that he doesn't like and joins you later in the game about 40 levels behind everyone else.

Dhaos: Remember back when I made the list of Star Ocean 2's characters, I noted that the 10 Wisemen's creators invented the cheapest cop-out of bad villain characterization ever by including a hidden scene in which it is implied that they might at one point have had some form of reason for wanting to be evil? I take it back. Dhaos has the cheapest cop-out of all villainy. See, for just about the entire game, Dhaos is just your uninteresting, super-powerful evil dude out to destroy and provoke protagonists into killing him. Cless's party continually wonders whether there might be merit into investigating Dhaos's reasons for being such a dick, and Cless continually tells them to shut their yaps, but that's about all you get for Dhaos's development. When you FINALLY get to know what was up with him, it's a small note made, in the ENDING, after he's already dead. You don't even get to hear Dhaos say it--all you see is him dying and saying he wants Cless and co. to know his motives, and then suddenly there's a scene change and you get to hear the heroes sum it up in about 2 sentences or so, and then just move on to other things. I mean, hell, why didn't the game just be honest about it and have Fei or Elly come in, sit down in a chair, and tell me instead? I mean, if you're gonna do a lame post-plot wrap-up scene, you might as well go all-out for maximum cheapness.