I think I might have a problem -- one that only seems to become more prevalent as time passes. It’s probably because I play a lot of video games, but I don’t think my “affliction” is linked to just one medium. Movies, TV, books, what have you -- time and time again, I find myself wishing things were different. That things were more to my tastes.
All too often, I find myself thinking that the main character is kind of boring -- and wishing that one of his friends was the story’s focus.
Take Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy 13 for instance. Now, I will confess with great honesty (and pride) that I absolutely HATE FF13 and everything related to it…which should be obvious by now if you’ve spent more than eight seconds on this blog. Plenty of people seem to like it and can argue towards its high points, and that’s fine. But I personally can’t stand it; I’ve written an inordinate number of blog posts either focused on what went wrong, or managed to work an example of what FF13 did wrong into a discussion (though sometimes it’s more to make a joke…sometimes). It’s way too early to decide whether or not LR will be any good, but even if it is -- even if it’s the fabled Final Fantasy that will restore Final Fantasy’s credibility -- I’m not sure if I want to get into the game. Ever.
I know I’ve said this before, but I’ll go ahead and say it again: I think I’d like FF13 and its little brothers a lot more if not for Lightning. Others think that she’s strong and cool and tough, and I respect their opinions (inasmuch as I can smile and nod politely and not think of certain jingles); I think that she’s petulant and wooden and outright boring. Looking back, I wish that anyone else in the cast was the star. Snow was your typical hot-blooded idiot, but he was at least (trying to be) driven and charismatic and optimistic. Why couldn’t he be the leader? Or why not Sazh? Surely someone with the unique perspective of a father could add a lot to the game; would making the leading man black be THAT much of a problem? Why not make Hope the star, and give a chance to improve upon his character by cemented development? Why not Vanille, not only because she’s the narrator but because she has a deep connection to the past? Why not Fang, who has Vanille’s critical knowledge (minus the kookiness) mixed with Lightning’s toughness (minus…well, everything else)? That’s not to say that any of the characters are fantastic, or that the game would automatically be better if it followed one of them; it’s just one of many possibilities.
That’s the key word: possibilities. Stories and characters are a means to explore possibilities -- what would happen if a world had Element X and Qualifier Y, or what Hero Z would say/do in the face of Adversity Q. It’s a chance -- a procedure, even -- to scoop up the building blocks of a character (or world, or plot, or any other story convention), mix them, shake them up, and serve on the rocks in the hopes of creating something that won’t lead to a night of puking and remorse.
But more often than not, I find myself suspecting that the procedure sometimes goes undone when it comes to a protagonist -- you know, the most important element in a story -- in exchange for familiarity and functionality. In the context of a video game, that’s likely a big factor both story-wise and gameplay-wise. In the interest of not picking on FF13 any longer, I’ll use Tales of the Abyss as an example.
I’ve gone on about the game in depth, but Abyss really does serve as a fantastic example of a main character’s effect. Its leading man is Luke fon Fabre, a midriff-bearing noble who lost his memory seven years ago; in the years since, he’s been confined to his manor, receiving teaching to re-learn everything (and I MEAN everything) he forgot, and his primary hobbies being lounging about and training in swordplay. Inevitably, he’s transported out of his comfortable lifestyle into the wilderness of an enemy territory, and thus his journey -- and typical progression into a world-saving expedition -- begins. Luke’s amnesia and sheltered nature means he doesn’t know anything about the world; it’s a chance to have the world’s mechanics explained to him, but more importantly to the player. And at the start of the game, he only has one special move (and a poor one at that); a nice little touch is that he only gains access to his super move after he starts reading and practicing to control his hidden power -- and well after that, the moves he learns start to take on magical properties.
Now, as I understand it, Luke has gotten a lot of flak over the years. He’s whiny, he’s emo, he’s a wannabe martyr…all legitimate complaints. I’m pretty tolerant of things like that when it comes to JRPGs, but Luke skirts the line between being a thoughtful, contemplative character and just being an annoying brat who loves showing off his midriff. It’s an uncomfortable position, and it’s likely that I’m being too favorable as it is. But you know who isn’t in an uncomfortable position? You know who I like seeing in action, and preferring over the lead? Luke’s best friend Guy, a servant who’s infamous for his fear of women, but more importantly for being level-headed, smart, a charmer, a tech junkie, a skilled (and cool) swordsman, and most of all a nice guy. (Incidentally, I feel like his character development involves him becoming unafraid to call his master an idiot -- likely a mirror of more than a few players’ wishes.)
The same goes for princess Natalia; I didn’t put much stock in her in my first playthrough of the game, but I’ve recently found her to be more engaging than ever, and certainly more than Luke. Her defining characteristic is that she’s a princess, and while that role would usually make her the designated kidnapping victim/love interest, in Abyss she carries political clout and a self-determined sense of duty -- one that rightfully earns love and respect, makes her a pivotal part of the game, expands the scope of your worldly activities, and offsets the fact that she’s kind of a haughty idiot. And Jade? Well…Jade is Jade. That is to say, he’s undeniably awesome.
Don’t get me wrong. Even with all the annoyances, silliness, and plot-related idiocy, I still like Tales of the Abyss. But I can’t help but feel like it’d be better (and better-received) if Guy or Natalia or Jade had the leading role instead of Luke. The main character is the lynchpin of countless stories; shouldn’t he/she be the most interesting of the lot? I know there’s a difference between thinking a main character is cool and thinking that the main character’s buddies are cooler -- and subsequently, thinking that the main character is worse by comparison -- but it happens with such frightening regularity that I’m starting to wonder if there’s an underlying issue. Are main characters, in spite of good intentions and a wealth of solid ideas, inherently less appealing than the other cast members? Is there some sort of curse that plagues them?
Well, yes and no, I suppose. Not every main character in a game is boring; speaking in terms of the Tales series, Vesperia’s Yuri Lowell is compelling and interesting; even though I prefer the “old man” Raven, I still think Yuri’s innately cool. Same goes for Graces f; the game and its ideas -- and its plot, and its resolution -- wouldn’t work if anyone besides Asbel was the main character. God of War wouldn’t work without Kratos, unsavory as he may be. Assassin’s Creed II wouldn’t work without Ezio. Bayonetta wouldn’t work without…well, Bayonetta. Mass Effect wouldn’t work without Shepard -- a special case, in that your input ensures (in theory, at least) that your interest/investment never wanes.
But for every example I think of to support main characters, I can think of three times more to decry them. Think about it: what if Dom was the star of Gears of War, not Marcus? It wouldn’t automatically make the franchise a masterpiece, but it would offer an interesting new perspective. Between the two, Dom is the nicer, more emotional, and more empathetic soldier. If Marcus as the lead is largely responsible for the series’ gruff, callous machismo, would Dom as the lead inject some humanity and spirit? Alternatively, what if Cole was the star? There was a glimpse of what could have been in Gears 3; what if we had a full opportunity to examine his inner workings? Barring that, what if we had his fiery spirit searing its way out of every pore of the game? Wouldn’t that be an absolutely perfect mirror of the players, many of whom are campaigning to create their own highlight reels out of their adventure? I suppose it’s a bit late to wonder now, but with Gears of War Judgment roadie-running ever closer to us, one can’t help but wonder what comes next.
I’m reminded of a Zero Punctuation video (as I usually am) from a while back that had a tangent dealing with the same issues. What would Mario games be like if Luigi had a more prominent role? In recent years, Luigi’s evolved into a sort of fast-talking coward, and a plumber who has his fair share of negative emotions. Why not give Luigi a chance to shine? Why is it so easy and rewarding to envision alternate possibilities? What if you played as Zeke instead of Cole? What if you played as The Arbiter instead of Master Chief? What if you played as Auron instead of Tidus? More importantly, why can’t I help but envision alternate possibilities?
OH GOD NO! NOT THOSE POSSIBILITIES!
Ahem. I’m not so bold as to proclaim that all the main characters I’ve named (and more) are automatically lame. But I want to try to understand why I constantly feel this way -- why I’m constantly more invested in the stories behind the second, or third, or fourth or fifth banana than in the first. I can come up with a few reasons. Maybe it’s because I’m a little brother; as Yahtzee suggested, there’s a sense of camaraderie and appeal. Maybe it’s because I’m usually playing the 2P role; in the case of Abyss, I used Guy while my brother used Luke, so it’s only natural I’d connect with the former. Maybe it’s because I put so much stock into ALL characters, and see what they contribute to the game -- like a jigsaw puzzle, or a band. Maybe it’s all in my head. Maybe I’m the one who’s cursed.
Or maybe it’s them. Maybe the main character is bland, and too closely-knit to certain stereotypes. Maybe their need to be comparatively normal and safe and functionally-sound limits their potential and impact. Maybe they’re annoying, or mopey, or needlessly angry, or stupid, or just plain boring. Who’s to say, really? And rightly so; one man’s hero is another man’s hemorrhoid.
I once heard the argument that JRPGs are supposed to cater to the tastes of Japanese players -- that is, the angst, melodrama, and histrionics are supposed to be “releases” of sorts for their players. He suggested that the Japanese social climate is one full of repression, and seeing something like, say, Tidus screeching about his father is supposed to be a stress reliever. Vicarious living, of sorts. Not being a native of Japan or too well-versed in the culture, I can’t say for sure if what he said was true, or just a theory of his. But…jeez, wouldn’t that just make a crap-ton of sense? I mean, there’s creating a character by way of creative vision, and then there’s just pandering to tastes and expectations. That’s not exactly ideal, in my eyes.
But in the eyes of others, maybe that is ideal. Maybe some protagonists -- some, not all -- are crafted to be appealing and normal and natural to the audience. Or more appropriately, maybe they’re supposed to be “welcoming.” The audience surrogate is a well-worn idea in fiction, so it’s only natural to have those running around en masse to help make those sprawling, complex worlds a little more digestible. That I don’t have a problem with (well, not as much). I think the problems start to come in when the protagonist is ONLY there to cater to the tastes of the audience. I’ve mentioned in the past that the three things I -- and others, no doubt -- like to see in a character are A) being interesting in some capacity, B) having a genuine effect on the plot, and C) developing so they’re not the same at story’s end. Point B is easy enough to handle for a protagonist, but I’m willing to bet there are plenty of times and ways for A and C to go wrong, along with any number of minor elements.
Now, this is probably more of an issue with video games (though there are exceptions) than anything else, but it seems to me like the more a lead character is geared toward being identifiable to/with the player, the worse off we get. It’s a delicate balance, to be sure; how do you reconcile role-playing with the role that needs to be played? Where do you draw the line between pandering to an audience and alienating them? Going back to Luke, I can’t help but wonder if the problems people have with him stem from him misaligning with the player’s wishes and will. Luke is wealthy and cushioned, and starts off as a whiny, immature, obnoxious brat; even if he appeals to Japanese audiences, in the eyes of westerners he’s a stark departure from what’s acceptable. And then what do you do? You’ve got a bad lead character (on the surface) that immediately drags the game down with him.
A lot of people will point to certain characters in a bid to name “blank slates”. And that’s a viable complaint with some protagonists -- a certain Spartan super soldier well among them. In cases like that, it’s the same problem as Luke, albeit on a different axis; rather than a protagonist who offends with every action, there are protagonists who offend with their inaction. It’s hard to imagine a character as anything but boring when they refuse to react to anything. Meanwhile, you’ve got characters surrounding him/her who not only bring new ideas to the table, but act and react in plenty of exciting ways. How are we supposed to care about these protagonists if they don’t do anything to deserve it?
I guess the “compensation” is supposed to come from what they do, not…well, what they do. Hear me out on this: we’ve all heard the phrase “actions speak louder than words” at one point or another, and that’s certainly something to be valued. Valued, but not prioritized -- again, what I want to see from a protagonist is more than a show of spectacle or theatrics. And I sure as hell want to see more than just the all-too-common slide from whatever title they held before into the role of Jesus Christ. Taking on the job of being a messiah isn’t automatically a problem, but it’s something you have to be wary of. It’s been done many, many, many times before, and requires its own stylistic imprint from its creator. More importantly, there has to be something more than just going from protagonist to savior (if at all). If there isn’t, then the end result is less than perfect. If the intent is to make a character that’s identifiable with the audience, and said character is lacking in even basic qualities, yet they’re supposed to be counterbalanced by things like being either an unstoppable one man army and/or a saint who makes the pope look like a street thug, don’t you think that comes off as a little disingenuous?
Maybe it’s just because I don’t buy into this whole “look how badass you are!” mentality of video games. I know I’m not a badass, or a saint, or a messiah, or a one man army, or any of that. And I don’t want the character I’m playing as to blindly hammer that idea into my head. The games I like the most aren’t MY story; it’s theirs. And I want the characters -- the lead, especially -- to act accordingly. I want them to stop trying to make me feel good and do what’s right for them, the cast, and the story at large. I’ll gladly play the role of an advisor or observer, but in exchange a protagonist should pull their own weight. Be a man/woman in their own right. That’s not too much to ask, right?
Now, let’s be real here. I’m not asking for every protagonist in every story to have their kookiness increased by eighty percent -- that’s only going to do more harm than good. But what we can agree on is that the main character -- by virtue of, you know, being the main character -- is THE most important part of the story. He/she needs to be more than just a means for vicarious living, or ticking off boxes in the plot checklist. I need them to be something better. Something substantial. Something more. And the stories that do are ones that, I’d argue, are the ones destined to be remembered most fondly.
But then again, I could just be talking out of my ass.
And that’s where you all come in. Let me know what you think in the comments. What do you think of protagonists? In general, are they good or bad? Ever find yourself wishing that one of the other cast members had the leading role? Why? Why not? Do you think there’s some problem that side characters don’t have? I want to hear it, whatever you have to say, whatever you may feel.
As for me…well, that’s enough ranting for now. I think I need to go see a gypsy or an exorcist or something.