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Whenever we sit down and play a story focused video game, it's often the intention of the developer to create a playable protagonist that, to an extent, the player can relate to. After all, if we're going to be controlling this character for at least a dozen hours of our lives, we should feel some sort of connection to them. And for the most part, developers do succeed at this; even if most of us cannot attest to being cowboys, post-apocalyptic survivors, or treasure hunters, characters like John Marston, Lee Everett and Nathan Drake have earned their way into the hearts' of gamers the world over for being easily understood characters that also have a level of depth that allow the player to find things they can relate to about them.
However, in recent years, I feel that that Japanese video games have struggled in this endeavor. To be fair, Japanese video games were the first to pioneer characterization in video games, with classics like Final Fantasy IV being the first games to propel their narrative and gameplay forward through the growth of deeply written characters. However, in recent years, Japanese protagonists, particularly in JRPGs, have been prone to falling victim to the same character tropes over and over, which makes their heroes far more difficult to relate to.
Of course, this isn't to say that Western games don't have their own persistent character tropes, just that in some regards, Japanese games fall back on the same character archetypes for their protagonists more often, impeding otherwise strong narratives with a hero that is difficult for the player to project themselves into.
This problem stems from Japanese developers often catering to a Japanese audience, who often yearn for protagonists that adhere to a young and inexperienced mold. However, this has the adverse effect of Japanese RPGs infrequently representing older protagonists and treating characters in their later 20's like they belong in a retirement home. A prime example of this can be seen in the beloved PS2 classic, Final Fantasy XII, which will be receiving a PS4 remaster this July. Final Fantasy XII stars a large cast of characters, many of which are generally well-received by the fanbase.... with the exception of the main hero, Vaan. This is because Vaan is in many ways a cookie cutter character, which the writers intended, as they felt it's normal for a JRPG to star a young inexperienced hero that grows over the course of their adventure, and it would be odd for XII to lack a hero that fit this mold. In fact, Akitoshi Kawazu, executive producer of Final Fantasy XII claimed that Vaan is meant to be a "Iyashi Kei," or therapeutic character; Square Enix believed that the target audience of Final Fantasy XII expected a hero like Vaan that adhered to the naive JRPG hero trope, which is what prompted them to create Vaan. However, this ultimately backfired when the game was localized and Western audiences took issue with Vaan.
Blonde? Check. Young? Check. Rote character arc about personal growth? Check. He's a JRPG protagonist alright!
Catering to the Japanese audience of Final Fantasy XII and creating Vaan ultimately harmed another aspect of the game, in that its own protagonist grew surprisingly irrelevant relatively early on. Other heroes Vaan encountered like proud Ashelia and the impossibly suave Belthiar play a much larger role in the narrative, and are simply more deeply written and interesting characters. But by casting Vaan as the protagonist simply to adhere to the JRPG norm, the game creates a frustrating dilemma where the player is meant to project themselves into the shoes of one character when other ones are simply much more relatable.
This is sadly a problem that many more modern JRPGs still cope with, a recent example being last year's 3DS hit Fire Emblem: Fates. Fates was a video game that released as three separate campaigns based on which army the player chose to side with in an upcoming war. It certainly wasn't a bad experience (I happened to enjoy the Conquest campaign quite a bit), but it was one that was severely hampered by its infuriating protagonist, Corrin. The predecessor to Fates, Fire Emblem: Awakening, starred a fantastic player avatar known as Robin, who was simultaneously an established character with an interesting backstory and demeanor. and a hero also left open to interpretation enough for players to project themselves into him/her.
I had high hopes Fates would offer up an equally compelling protagonist, but it dropped the ball, and dropped the ball hard. Corrin is frankly insufferable; he spends the majority of all three campaigns complaining and engaging in self-pity, and he has a baffling case of the "Batman complex," in that he refused to kill others, no matter how wicked they are nor how much of a threat their continued survival poses to his army. The game briefly alludes to this being a caused by Corrin's sheltered childhood, but doesn't sufficiently explore this aspect of his character enough for it to be justified, and I found myself far more often yelling at Corrin for his stubborn refusal to take a life than sympathizing with him. Which is problematic when Corrin is meant to be a malleable avatar through which the player interacts with the game's world and characters.
As with Final Fantasy XII, what frustrated me about Fire Emblem: Fates is that there were far more interesting and better written characters that would've made for much more compelling protagonists. In the case of the Birthright campaign, Corrin's older brother Ryoma, a proud and charismatic samurai, was a far more entertaining and relatable character than the confused, pitiful Corrin. However, the Conquest campaign especially could've benefited from a protagonist swap. For the uninitiated, the basic gist of Fates' Conquest campaign is that Corrin chooses to side with his adoptive family in an ensuing war with the land he was born in. In doing so, he must follow the orders of an ridiculously and atrociously evil king, in spite of his refusal to ever take the life of another. There are far too many times when Corrin had the opportunity to rebel against the king's wishes for the greater good or attempt to revolutionize the kingdom from within, but Corrin instead stubbornly follows the king's every command instead, and the player can do nothing about it, creating a disconnect between player and protagonist.
Conquest could've greatly benefited from having Corrin's adoptive older brother Xander as the main hero instead. Xander, being the son of the land's king and having fond memories of a time when his father wasn't so cruel, would be a more believable choice for a wholesomely good character that obeys the wishes of an evil man than Corrin. Yet as with Final Fantasy XII, a Japanese game developer created another young and inexperienced protagonist instead, likely due to the demand for this type of character trope among Japanese audiences.
One's a proud and noble samurai. The other's a prince who struggles to accept that his father is a cruel tyrant. But you don't get to be either! You're a whiny young JRPG protagonist!
Once again, I need to reiterate that this blog is generalizing a trend seen within Japanese video games. This isn't to say that Western video games are without protagonists held back by tropes, nor that there aren't any captivating heroes in Japanese games that break from the mold. Heck, Ace Attorney's Phoenix Wright, Catherine's Vincent Brooks, and Silent Hill 2's James Sunderland are just a few protagonists from Japanese games that I'd rank among my favorite gaming characters ever.
But far too often, Japanese video games, particularly RPGs cast the player as young and sometimes obnoxious protagonists that make it difficult as a player to imagine ourselves in their shoes and get engrossed in their compelling worlds. However, I do have hope for the future of Japanese RPG protagonists. This is because Final Fantasy, the series that gifted us such "winner" protagonists as Tidus, Lighting and Tiz Arrior and was at one point the biggest culprit of their protagonist problem, has recently righted their wayward ship. 2016's excellent Final Fantasy XV wasn't without its flaws, but it did offer up a cast of four main characters that are some of the most refreshingly fleshed out and likable faces Final Fantasy has given us in over a decade.
On the surface level, Noctis, the protagonist, appears to be another Cloud Strife-esque edgy young hero, but in actuality, he is more aloof and awkward than anything, and his growth into a king fueled by the support of his friends made for a very compelling and satisfying character arc that has made me place him among my favorite video game protagonists ever, Japanese or otherwise. A bit older than the teenage JRPG hero norm, Noctis also bonds with the other three characters in meaningful and heartfelt ways. On the surface level, Final Fantasy XV's party members seem to be more of the same JRPG archetypes, but in action, their chemistry and banter made them feel like real people in a genre inundated with the same recycled character molds, and the game's captivating look at male friendship has renewed my faith both in the Final Fantasy brand and to an extent, the future of JRPGs.
Final Fantasy XV's narrative starred characters who broke from the typical JRPG norms and focused on how their bonds evolved organically and realistically over the course of their adventure.
Ultimately, as long as Japanese audiences continue to demand JRPG heroes cut from the same mold, there isn't much I, a disgruntled Western blogger, can do to resolve the "protagonist problem" I have with Japanese RPGs. However, Final Fantasy XV's endearing cast has filled me with hope that hopefully, the many AAA JRPGs on their way to the West will continue to reject the traditional tropes seen in JRPG heroes and push the envelope a bit more, offering up more mature and wise heroes alongside the youthful and inexperienced ones, in order to ensure that the older audience that appreciates this genre can also find heroes to identify with.
Do you have issues with the protagonists of some recent Japanese RPGs? Or am I just being cynical? Sound off in the comments below, and happy gaming!