This week is E3, and I'm presently sitting at the SFO Virgin America terminal waiting for my flight to the U.S.'s biggest video game expo, so expect this week's posts to be a bit heavy on the gaming side. There is high-level nerdery to come; you have been warned.
As a writer for GayGamer.net this is going to be a "work" trip, so to speak, so I'm already thinking in polygons and frame rates and inclusivity and stuff. One topic that lodged itself in my brain and refused to go away was Square Enix's ubiquitous Final Fantasy series...and more specifically, how they almost always manage to make their supporting characters far more interesting than the main heroes and heroines directly charged with saving the world. No, really, let's take a look at a few examples:
Final Fantasy VII
The granddaddy that propelled the JRPG genre into the mainstream with jaw-dropping graphics, remarkably deep mechanics, and a storyline so think and convoluted that you had to play it thrice to get what was going on. It also had some seriously dull heroes, which is odd as Cloud Strife and Aeris Gainsborough are about as well known as Mario and Pikachu. Cloud spends virtually the entire game in an impenetrable sulky stoicism and wrestling with inner turmoil. Aeris is more cheerful, but still rather bland and never gets to develop because you don't meet her until a few hours in and then (17-year-old spoiler alert) she dies by the end of the first game disc. Given that you get roughly 8 hours of time with someone out of a 40-hour game, that's not so much a character as a compelling set piece.
Along for the ride in the game are Barret Wallace and Tifa Lockheart. Barret is a perpetual grump, but in an animated, entertaining sort of way. The founder of the eco-terrorist group AVALANCHE has a clear mission, a boisterous personality, and is fiercely protective of his daughter. He's not a deep character, but he's an interesting one. Tifa, conversely, is the eternal optimist. She's a childhood friend of Cloud's who actually acts like the two should have a substantial rapport, and for bonus points she's a kickass bar owner...in that she literally will kick someone's ass: her combat role is the unarmed fist-fighter. So you've got brooding pretty boy and milquetoast flower girl vs. hippie with a machine gun hand and martial artist shot-jockey. The winners are obvious.
Final Fantasy X
This was the PS2-seller and the first in the series to have full voice acting for its cinematic cut scenes. Once again, though, the secondary characters were more engaging and interesting than the primaries.
Leading the charge are temporally-displaced (sort of; it's a weird storyline, even for FF) Tidus, the perky Meg Ryan clone, and Yuna, the bashful yet elegant summoner on a journey. Tidus is likable enough, and there's a certain amount of "what's going on" in his personality that is necessary to act as an exposition conduit, but he strays way too far into the pretty-but-dumb territory. He's like Dug from Up, but without the sharp humor. Yuna, unfortunately, is just a non-entity, which is a shame given that the central plot revolves around her story.
Pan to the left a bit and you'll find Wakka and Lulu. Wakka's hair is enough to make him stand out, and being voiced by John DiMaggio (who is more recognized as the voice of Bender from Futurama) is just icing on the cake. Like Barret, he has pretty explicit goals and motivations and transitions really well from lovable doof to older brother to the grounded voice of reason. He compliments Tidus to the point where he outshines him. Lulu is Wakka's perfect counter. Stoic done right and extremely pragmatic, she's clearly the one in charge. Plus her dress is made out of belts. It's the perfect combination of high fashion and mid-90's goth.
Ok, this is cheating a bit, but it's still by Square Enix and it's Final Fantasy in all but its title. Magic things happen, crystals have to be found, the world is in peril, the whole nine yards...including boring primaries and colorful secondaries.
Unlike the other entries here where I've listed the 4 primary characters out of parties of 8 or 9, Bravely Default only has 4 characters. Still, two are clearly the primary while two are clearly the secondary. Agnès Oblige is the key to saving the world and is a complete wet blanket. The sheltered, naive religious adherent with strong-headed tunnel vision works for a while, but 30 hours in with minimal growth gets dull and flat-out unlikable. Her counterpoint, Tiz Arrior, is the farm boy hero...and that's about it. He's a good guy with some heroic drive and that's about it. The blasé voice acting for the characters doesn't help much.
Joining them are Ringabell (yes, that's his name) and Edea Lee. Ringabell utilizes the "mysterious past via amnesia" trope, but the one thing he does remember is that he's a shameless Lothario. It's a character flaw played for laughs often enough to embed it into his character, but not so often that you get sick of it, and just as you start to Edea swoops in to knock him down a peg. Edea is intricately connected to the wars going on across the game world, giving her a ridiculously deep backstory, and the back-and-forth she shares in verbal spars with Ringabell are more entertaining than they have any right to be.
There are exceptions to this trend: IX's Zidane was the most interesting character in the cast, while XIII was a snooze all the way through. It seems to hold true for most of the games in the series, however, even arguably with the online entries of XI and XIV. I'll be interested to see what Square Enix has on display this week and see if what they have to offer will present personalities that are as colorful as the cinematics.