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The Curse of the Protagonist?


You know, Iíve been thinking. (Cue hellish organ chord and stroke of lightning here.) I think I might have a problem -- one that only seems to become more prevalent as time passes. Itís probably because I play a lot of video games, but I donít think my ďafflictionĒ is linked to just one medium. Movies, TV, books, what have you -- time and time again, I find myself wishing things were different. Wishing 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 storyís focus.

Take the recently-announced Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy 13 for instance. Now, I will confess with great honesty (and pride) that I absolutely HATE FF13. Plenty of people seem to like it and can argue towards its high points, and thatís fine. But I personally canít stand it, or anything related to it; Iíve 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 itís more to make a jokeÖsometimes). Itís way too early to decide whether or not LR will be any good, but even if it is -- even if itís the fabled Final Fantasy that will restore Final Fantasyís credibility -- Iím not sure if I want to get into the game.

I think Iíd like FF13 and its little brothers a bit more if not for Lightning. Others think that sheís 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 sheís 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 couldnít 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 sheís the narrator but because she has a deep connection to the past? Why not Fang, who has Vanilleís critical knowledge (minus the kookiness) mixed with Lightningís toughness (minusÖwell, everything else)? Thatís not to say that any of the characters are fantastic, or that the game would automatically be better if it followed one of them; itís just one of many possibilities.

Thatís 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. Itís 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 wonít 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, thatís likely a big factor both story-wise and gameplay-wise. In the interest of not picking on FF13 any longer, Iíll use Tales of the Abyss as an example.

The main character in that game is Luke fon Fabre, a midriff-bearing noble who lost his memory seven years ago; in the years since, heís been confined to his manor, receiving teaching to re-learn everything (and I MEAN everything) he forgo, and his primary hobbies being lounging about and training in swordplay. Inevitably, heís 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. Lukeís amnesia and sheltered nature means he doesnít know anything about the world; itís a chance to have the worldís 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. Heís whiny, heís emo, heís a wannabe martyrÖall legitimate complaints. Iím 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. Itís an uncomfortable position, and itís likely that Iím being too favorable as it is. But you know who isnít in an uncomfortable position? You know who I like seeing in action, and preferring over the lead? Lukeís best friend Guy, a servant whoís 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 playersí wishes.) The same goes for princess Natalia; I didnít put much stock in her in my first playthrough of the game years ago, but Iíve recently found her to be more engaging than ever, and certainly more than Luke. Her defining characteristic is that sheís 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 sheís kind of a haughty idiot. And Jade? WellÖJade is Jade. That is to say, heís undeniably awesome.

Donít get me wrong. Even with all the annoyances, silliness, and plot-related idiocy, I still like Tales of the Abyss. But I canít help but feel like itíd 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; shouldnít he/she be the most interesting of the lot? I know thereís a difference between thinking a main character is cool and thinking that the main characterís buddies are cooler -- and subsequently, thinking that the main character is worse by comparison -- but it happens with such frightening regularity that Iím starting to wonder if thereís 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, Vesperiaís Yuri Lowell is compelling and interesting; even though I prefer the ďold manĒ Raven, I still think Yuriís innately cool. Same goes for Graces f; the game and its ideas -- and its plot, and its resolution -- wouldnít work if anyone besides Asbel was the main character. God of War wouldnít work without Kratos, unsavory as he may be. Assassinís Creed II wouldnít work without Ezio. Bayonetta wouldnít work withoutÖwell, Bayonetta. Mass Effect wouldnít 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 wouldnít 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 seriesí 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? I suppose itís a bit late to wonder now, but with Gears of War Judgment glimmering on the horizon, one canít help but wonder what comes next.

Iím reminded of a Zero Punctuation video 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, Luigiís 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 canít I help but envision alternate possibilities?

Iím not so bold as to proclaim that all the main characters Iíve named (and more) are automatically lame. But I want to try to understand why I constantly feel this way -- why Iím 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 itís because Iím a little brother; as Yahtzee suggested, thereís a sense of camaraderie and appeal. Maybe itís because Iím usually playing the 2P role; in the case of Abyss, I used Guy while my brother used Luke, so itís only natural Iíd connect with the former. Maybe itís because I put so much stock into ALL characters, and see what they contribute to the game -- like a jigsaw puzzle, or a rock band. Maybe itís all in my head. Maybe Iím the one whoís cursed.

Or maybe itís 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 theyíre annoying, or mopey, or needlessly angry, or stupid, or just plain boring. Whoís to say, really? And rightly so; one manís hero is another manís hemorrhoid.

And thatís where you all come in. Let me know what you think in the comments. What do you think of game 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 thereís some problem that side characters donít have? I want to hear it, whatever you have to say, whatever you may feel.

As for meÖwell, I think I need to go see a gypsy or an exorcist or something.

*I don't...I don't actually know anything about drinks or alcohol or...or rocks.

- Thanks for reading! And remember -- if you want to see more content from me, anytime, anywhere, be sure to check out my blog. Give it a read, so we can all become heroes! http://cross-up.blogspot.com/

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About Voltechone of us since 10:40 PM on 02.06.2012

Long-time gamer, aspiring writer, and frequent bearer of an afro. As an eternal optimist, I like to both look on the bright side of things and see the better parts of games; as a result, I love a game with a good story and awesome characters...and anything that lets me punch the heresy out of my enemies.

I'm a big fan of Atlus' games, and I've enjoyed my fair share of fighters and RPGs. Just...please, keep Final Fantasy XIII out of my sight. It never ends well for anyone involved.

You can check out some of my game musinga/stories/random stuff at my other blog, Cross-Up. I've also got a TV Tropes thingamajig, and a web serial novel, too. Maybe my stuff here and there will be the start of things to come. Hopefully good things, but things all the same.

Be a hero. Check 'em out.

Cross-Up -- head here for posts on games, movies, and more
My Troper profile
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I Hraet You -- the over-the-top web serial novel...of love, maybe