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by Paul Elliott
Every story needs a hero. Well, perhaps not every story, but the majority of all stories have a primary character, a protagonist. In RPGs, the heroes tend to follow very consistent lines of characterization and abilities. As the author of the editorial "A Boy and His Sword," Endarire Elward, points out, the hero is almost always a male human, usually fights with some sort of sword, and generally has limited magic. I would like to build on these ideas by looking at the trends in the personalities of RPG heroes. Furthermore, I'd like to consider why these trends exist and whether or not they are a good thing for gamers.
In the modern RPG, 99% of main characters have one of three different personalities. There is the "Mute Hero," the "Boy Becoming a Man," and the "Anti-Social Hero (or Anti-Hero)." Some characters only fall under one category, but many overlap (ex.- Squall is an anti-social hero, but you could argue that he is also a boy becoming a man...and for that matter he doesn't have a lot to say either). Let's look at each one of these types of character, analyzing the reasons behind the clichés and the way that they affect the games.
THE MUTE HERO - The mute hero has his basis in the earliest days of video games. There wasn't enough dialogue for the hero to say anything. The main character had zero characterization because the game had no need of it. Plotlines were minimal.
Additionally, the mute hero allowed for the player's imagination to create a personality for their hero. This was one way that old console RPGs connected to their roots in pen-and-paper RPGs. Ultimately, the hero became the 'any man'--every player could imagine that he or she was the protagonist.
Even after the advent of heavy characterization in RPGs, some games have continued to use the mute hero. The best example of the modern mute hero can be found in Chrono Trigger. I know that I, personally, was convinced (and still am convinced) that Crono's personality is exactly like my own. He doesn't need any dialogue; I just imagine what I would say if I were him whenever the '...' came onscreen.
The mute hero has advantages and disadvantages. While it creates a character devoid of personality and extremely cliché, it allows the player to take on the hero's role and become more immersed in the game. This is probably a personality type that will endure in RPGs.
THE BOY BECOMING A MAN - 'Coming of age' stories are one of the most common sort in literature, especially in fantasy. It all goes back to the old legends, such as those of King Arthur, rising up to be a great king after pulling the sword from the stone as a boy. Therefore, it would make sense that RPGs would start characterizing their heroes as youthful protagonists that become great warriors by the end of the tale.
A LOT of RPGs have used this idea, to the point at which it has become very cliché for the genre. Some well-known examples would include the Zelda series, Lunar 1 and 2, the Breath of Fire series, Phantasy Star 4, and hundreds of others to one degree or another. Chances are that your all-time favorite game has a hero of this type.
There is nothing wrong with this sort of character. Seeing your hero grow up and become powerful is a significant element in RPGs (why else would characters have levels?). Unfortunately, far too many of these 'coming of age' heroes are generic and uninteresting. If, however, the game designers can get past this stumbling block and put creative spins on their characters, there is still much room in RPGs for the boy hero who becomes a manly warrior.
THE ANTI-SOCIAL HERO - This is the most recent addition to the ranks of protagonist stereotypes in RPGs. The anti-social hero was pioneered, to a large degree, by Squaresoft in order to give a more complicated personality to the heroes of their plot-heavy stories. While Final Fantasy 7 and 8 are best known for their anti-social heroes, there are traces of this character type going back to FF4's Cecil and FF5's Butz.
Nonetheless, Squall and Cloud are the most striking examples of this character type. They are almost anti-heroes at the beginning of the story, particularly Cloud. They act like jerks, avoid the other characters, and don't have much to say (making them 'semi-mute' heroes). As the story progresses, they are forced to confront their mental and social problems. At the grand finale, we see a hero that is very little like one who began the game. Squall is a more extreme example of this than Cloud; he goes from a character that loves no one to a character who has found true love. He has become a lion.
Many people have complained that they don't like heroes with mental problems. Others claim that they can identify more with Squall or Cloud than any other video game characters ever made. I, personally, think that Final Fantasy 7 and 8 did an excellent job of proving that a very realistic, dynamic character can make a huge difference in making a game into a work of art. While the anti-social hero shouldn't be overdone, I think that it has a lot of potential in the future.
The important thing that the addition of the anti-social hero has done for the RPG world is to prove that experiments can work. Hopefully, this is a sign of things to come. While, as I've stated before, there are good reasons why these stereotypical personalities are used and reused, game designers should feel free to follow Squaresoft's example and experiment with their heroes.
I look forward to the future of RPGs. The lines between entertainment and art are becoming more and more blurred. Characterization is a resource that game designers are just starting to tap into, especially with the main character. There will always be a place for the stereotypical heroes we love, but I hope to see more and more protagonists that bend the rules and do something truly original. Long live the mute hero, the boy becoming a man, and the anti-social hero! Long live the creative heroes of the future, too! That's all, folks...
Note: I hope that I've said something worthwhile here. These are just my meandering opinions. If you have any additional points or counterpoints, I'm open to suggestion.
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