SPOILERS FOR: Chrono Trigger, Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, Final Fantasy VIII, Suikoden I and Suikoden III
Hello, beautiful and perplexed readers, I'm Tyler. And I've decided to embark upon an epic quest, filled with danger, mystery and love. But before that can happen, I should probably mention a few things. RPGs are riddled with overused ideas, this we all know. We also know that there isn't anything original under the sun. But have we ever questioned if there's anything original over the sun? That is what I'm here to discuss, in this five-part, episodic roll in the hay with role-playing games' most common and clichéd formulas. I intend to tackle a number of things, but even the most fantastic of journeys is started with the smallest step. With that in mind, let us begin with Episode 1: No Need for Heroes or Mysterious Evil Remix Party.
For ages the land of Dergaeat has been a peaceful place, clouded by the humble light of four magical crystals. Until one day... an evil empire from the south known as Evul Empyre invaded, taking the crystals for themselves to further fuel their selfish desires. In a town, on the outskirts of Dergaeat, a young boy is about to take part in a grand adventure. Guided by his late father's spirit, within the body of a mysterious dog, he will encounter strange and bizarre characters. Can he and his party defeat the empire, and the far darker force behind it? Only you, the player, can help them. Boring. If it isn't the world ending, it's something else. Well, actually no, it's usually the world that's at stake. The world, the princess, the everything. It's up to the hero to save them all!
Too many RPGs have followed a rather basic template from the very beginning: lone hero, random friends, great evil, save world/universe/existence/puppies. At this point, it's beyond trite. Only a few games take the bewildering leap into the fray of something different in terms of what needs rescuing and who's doing it. Disgaea gave us an anti-hero; Final Fantasy VIII gave us an apathetic hero. Even so, they were still heroes. Despite Squall's antisocial behavior, he eventually warms up and you (the player) begin making decisions for him as if he were the most gregarious freak on the planet. Thus, Squall becomes a hero. Rarely does the focus ever drift from him and his feelings (or lack thereof). All too often is the main character the hero, never is the main character the sidekick, or the villain, or God forbid some random villager. Many would argue that the very reason for that is you have to be the hero, and that the main character wouldn't be the main character if he/she were to be anything other than the hero. The game would hold no purpose otherwise. Even so, Laharl (of Disgaea fame) pushes even further than Squall by presenting the player with a non-heroic avatar, teasing you with the possiblity of becoming a villain (thanks, tuinte, you sexy fiend). But when I say "the main character being the villain," or "the sidekick," I'm more or less saying that you become the character in question. Since Laharl blurs the line between good and evil, he doesn't reach the level of darkness a villain is supposed to have, hence playing Laharl doesn't give proper insight to being the bad guy. You don't just see it through a hero's eyes or from a hero's perspective, as in the way Disgaea portrays the misadventures of the would-be Overlord. What I'm referring to is you take the role of the villain, or sidekick, and see it all from their point of view. Take Suikoden III as a brief illustration. You view the storyline as a variety of characters, including about as close to a "kickstand" character I've seen in Thomas. And for those who unlocked it, you even got the opportunity to see things from the supposed "malefactors'" angle. Luc's quest to destroy the Rune within him, and Yuber's chaos driven assist gave us a taste of what it's like to play the big evil. Let's take a look at a few examples, beginning with a little example of what I believe a "villainous main character" could be.
A fine example of a non-heroic character, let's just refer to him as "Orlack," would be a person capable of anything. Don't get this notion confused with "anything good." One of humanity's most simplistic emotions is hate. Thus, it can easily be seen and expressed through the right vassel. Rather than having a revenge-style character, one who requires hatred to further his goals and cleanse his soul, we see an individual who quite simply feeds on it. For the sake of argument, we'll say Orlack has no backstory. No memory, no family, nothing. Due to this, it's easier to see him as a hate-mongering war machine of a character. With nothing to attach him to human society, there's no need for him to adhere to such morality. Going with this statement, Orlack is now capable of anything. As previously mentioned, this opens up a world of possiblities in regards to his purpose in a storyline. As the main character, a simple driving goal can now be placed in terms of why he does whatever it is he does. Take for instance, he wishes to cause nothing but pure chaos. If a human is capable of such devilry, one must wonder what exactly goes through the mind of that particular individual. Now here's the catch, what if halfway into the story you discover that in fact Orlack is not in complete control of his actions, rather a pawn being controlled by a greater force of evil? What does that make him now? Well, depending on where the story shifts from there, it could be any number of things. We'll just assume he continues on his merry way, being a physical body of darkness. The plot could twist and wind, having him struggle to break free of his metaphysical captors, or rather allow him to destroy all before him. Regardless of which direction it could take, it would certainly not stop him from being evil. This is because through a later discovered backstory, the reason the darkness so easily dwells within him is due to his own corrupt soul. The death of his family, his village, and all those dear to him were his fault. And yet, he knowingly did it, for reasons known only to him. Which, of course, could be told through the story. Now, with all this piled up, you have to ask yourself something: could you possibly sympathize with such a character, one of pure hatred and endlessly, rolling darkness that couldn't understand or request redemption? Nor could the true evil behind it let him go, for that matter. While typically a connection is needed between player and character, I believe an interest would be just as required. Therefore, if Orlack were to exist in a game starring himself, I would see no wrong in riding it through. Especially if it allowed one to see through the eyes and mind of a real madman.
From here, let's flip-flop the introduction and view things slightly different. You're the evil empire, you're forming your dark army, and yet you're a puppet. You can't see the darkness controlling it all from behind the scenes, but you willingly slaughter countless innocents on your quest for the crystals. You confront the "heroes" on many occasions, and crush them with your team of unholy warriors, presented to you by a mysterious evil. After getting the crystals, thus completing your most devestating creation, you battle against the heroes once more. Now, here's the turning point. No one ever wants the villain to win, and in this case, I'd agree. But you see, imagine seeing all the things him and his army have overcome, you can sympathize with the fact that he's being controlled. Now, reconsider what you'd like to see, who's become the hero now? Some would still stick by the morality of the greater good, but for those who actually got attached to the villain may possibly say otherwise. We could even go a step further, and play as the unknown darkness. The game would become similar to a strategy game, biding time and selecting your pawns as you see fit. Being a powerful, evil force could very well be an interesting change from the simple dynamics of "good versus evil." Let's toss Laharl back into the mix. He's the heir to the thrown of the Underworld. He's evil, sure. This is shown throughout the whole storyline, but he's got a heart, as well. He's the perfect anti-hero in every sense of the word. As certain twists and elements are added to the plot, he changes a little as it all progresses. You see him unknowingly making strides towards being good, and even selfless rescue attempts. Depending on the relativity of the subject, evil could easily equal good. It's all a matter of who the "hero" is. It's really a broard term, isn't it? Hence, it fantastically falls into the perspective of things.
Now, many games have given the hero a sidekick, someone to keep them going, to give them that extra spirit they need to face great danger. Even books, such as the Lord of the Rings display the courage of the sidekick in Sam, Frodo's companion. In Suikoden, we see how powerful the devotion of a guardian can be. As a backstory, it's known that Gremio rushed to the Young Master's aid when he was captured by bandits. And due to that heroism, his face was permanently scarred. Ever since then, he's endlessly protected the young McDohl regardless of the situation. He even went so far as to sacrifice his life, so that McDohl would survive, when Milich trapped them within the prison and released flesh-eating spores. Oddly enough, you rarely see the hero making such strides. There have been occasions in which the main character has placed himself in harms way, and lost. Crono comes to mind. He gets utterly vaporized thanks to Lavos, and while you can bring him back to life, it's not as if you have to. Aside from that fine citation, such occurances are very few and far between. What is the line between hero and sidekick? It would appear the only difference is once again perspective.
So, that brings us to the final question: What makes a hero? What is a hero? In the most simplistic terms, a hero can be anyone. And I hope that, some day, there will be a game where you're the kickstand character out there saving the day. In fact, it doesn't even have to be the world they're saving or destroying. I can honestly see an awesome voyage, in which you play the companion of the hero, but something happens and now you have to save the hero. Or a game that sets you up as the great evil, overpowering anything good and true, in a relentless attempt to throw all into chaos. The possiblities of expanding upon the simple archetype known as "the hero" could, and should, happen. Just a little way to tell a story from a different point of view. Nearly every RPG could be reversed, and played all over again, if just the main character were someone else. Lastly, to amplify this statement, imagine playing all the way through Final Fantasy VII as Sephiroth. This is just one step in furthering the story of a single game. Who needs new tales, when a lot of them are only halfway finished?