Friday, July 31, 2009

FFIV: Archetypes; Also: Moon Expeditionary Party

Two posts in one day! Maybe I'm going crazy, or maybe I'm just listening to too much FFIV music.

So to follow up on the OC Remix post, I wanted to talk about FFIV generally. It has a couple qualities that are interesting, and to contextualize them, we'll consider the game's role in Final Fantasy history (and thus JRPG history). The game represents a dramatic shift - that is, a shift toward drama!

See the original Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy games were almost like Western RPGs in that they really didn't have preset characters - the characters were just empty shells for you to move around and use in combat. In Final Fantasy you didn't even have to use any characters in particular - you could have a party of four thieves if you really wanted to (not that it's advisable...). These games had a story, but they were really about "look, you can explore dungeons!", much like the original D&D was.

Sequels started to add more established characters with established party roles, but FFIV took this to a new level, with a huge cast of diverse and in some cases multi-faceted (I know, shocking) characters, FFIV was the forebearer of JRPGs that focus on character development and convoluted plots.

So the interesting thing is the sheer number of genre-defining archetypes, both good and bad, that appear in this game. It's almost as if the developers realized that this was a direction all future games of the genre would be going, and decided to explore the possibility space in order to figure out what worked. The game includes betrayal, redemption, regicide, patricide, fratricide, genocide, suicide, love triangles, tragic star-crossed lovers, strippers, people who wear masks only to reveal that they're incredibly beautiful underneath, revelations about the origin of the protagonist and the antagonist, a captured useless girlfriend who ends up in your final party, characters who become substantially more powerful and useful just before they die, boss fights that you have to win so you can watch a cutscene where you lose, a last surviving member of a species that joins your party, instant adultification, interplanetary travel, vehicles that carry other vehicles, a sampling of every D&D class, and lots and lots of character death. This game has everything.

So if you want to know if a given story element will work in your RPG, a good rule of thumb is to think about when it happened in FFIV (and trust me, it happened in FFIV), and whether or not it made the game better. So moral dilemmas, yeah that was pretty sweet. Having your girlfriend spend a big chunk of the game tied to a chair not doing anything, not so much.

So the second interesting thing about FFIV is that it's one of the few FF games where I honestly believe that the characters in your party are special and are qualified to go save the world. FFVI is also ok in this regard, but otherwise...really, why is Butz (excuse me, "Barts") saving the world again? He's a random guy with a chocobo. Yippee.

So for the second half of my post, we'll be going through a mental exercise. Let's say you had to select a team to go with you to the Moon to battle an elemental force of destruction based solely on the character summaries I give here. Who do you take?

[warning: mild spoilers ahead]

1. Cecil (FFIV) - This guy is a half-lunarian who became a dark knight and captain of the elite fighting force the Red Wings. He eventually rebels against his own king's tyranny and ascends a legendary mountain to perform a purification ritual and become a paladin. That's right, he's both a dark knight AND a paladin, and his ancestors are FROM THE MOON. That's not only the most interesting background of any FF protagonist, it makes him a rather obvious choice for the mission to the Moon.

2. Rydia (FFIV) - She's the last member of a race of magical humanoid "callers", and a personal friend of Leviathan, the king of mythical creatures (on Earth at least). She can use both black magic and summon things. Also, she has hair that partially covers one of her eyes. Yeah, she's clearly going to the Moon.

3. Kain (FFIV) - It's not immediately clear why he's extraordinary, since his apparent backstory is simply that he's a soldier, but Cecil will vouch for him. What's more, he can jump really really, really this-is-a-good-technique-for-beating-bosses-with-a-countdown-timer-before-they-attack kind of high. He's in.

4. Rosa (FFIV) - Here's my big FFIV exception. Rosa's story is this: she's Cecil's girlfriend. Wow, that's special. She's also a healer, which makes her useful, but we can probably find a better one. You can see Cecil when he gets back.

5. Edge (FFIV) - He's a ninja. Pretty cool by itself, but in order to determine how useful that makes him, we have to apply the Law of Ninja Quantity, which states that the power of ninja is inversely proportional to their quantity. So how many other ninja are in FFIV? What's that, none? That makes this guy a maximally powerful ninja. Also, he can convince a paladin that it's ok to steal an airship because "the ship wants us to have it." Those are some skills we can use on the Moon.

6. Butz (FFV) - I think we covered this guy already, but here we go again. He ran across a meteor and decided to investigate, and somehow got caught up in a party that decided to save the world for no particular reason. He can only come if he's willing to wait inside the Fat Chocobo's belly.

7. Faris (FFV) - Now this character is more interesting - a cross-dressing pirate! Despite the inherent coolness of being a crossdressing's not obvious what they have to offer in particular, either. They're on the waiting list.

8. Cloud (FFVII) - This guy is a delusional terrorist who has somehow managed to convince himself that he was part of an elite fighting force when he wasn't. Yes, I know people think he's cool, but that's his actual backstory. Take your giant vegetable cleaver and go cook our heroes something, spiky-haired kid.

9. Barret (FFVII) - He's a guy with a gun instead of an arm. He's also a terrorist. That's about it. There's no explanation as to why this guy should be any better at saving the world than the mooks with guns you spend the game decimating.

10. Terra (FFVI) - She's a half-esper who was captured by the Empire and turned into a lethal weapon and a source of magitech research using a slave crown. She is the link between the human realm and the realm of magic, and the only non-FFIV protagonist to have a legitimate reason to be in a party that saves the world. She can also cast both black magic AND white magic, and wield swords, so we got our healer role covered in style. She's in.

11. Gogo (FFVI) - The other solid FFVI candidate, Gogo has spent an unspecified amount of time living inside an enormous monster. That's right, he literally knows what it's like to be in the belly of the beast. Also he can do everything...that's right, everything (he's a mimic by trade). I would definitely want to have this guy around as a wild card.

12. Locke (FFVI) - A good example of an FFVI character who probably doesn't have Moon chops. Don't get me wrong, Locke is very cool and stylish, but his background is that he's a thief (sorry, "treasure hunter"). Could be handy, but we already have a ninja, and when it comes time to fight an elemental force of destruction, what does he have to offer? Enthusiasm. He can join the ghosts that appear to cheerlead for the party before combat.

13. Squall (FFVIII) - He's a student at a school that's training kids to be commandos, or something like that. He also wields a gunblade, which is like a sword...with a gun inside it. I think the appropriate use for that weapon is to have Edge throw it at things. He's out.

14. Irvine (FFVIII) - Here's the depressing thing about this character: he's one of the more interesting characters in FFVIII. His backstory is that he's a sniper, but he doesn't actually like to shoot at people. I don't think we're going to be bringing someone to the Moon so that he can sit around and not shoot at things.

15. Zidane (FFIX) - This guy doesn't even have a backstory. He's a thief, like Locke, and his special characteristic is that he has a monkey tail. Why? I don't know! In theory that makes him non-human, but no one even seems to care that he has a tail, so I doubt it's an indication that he's part Moon-person. He's not coming.

16. Garnet (FFIX) - This girl is basically like Rosa, except she can also summon things and she's a princess. Those are nifty traits, but we already have Rydia on our team, who seems to be a lot more proficient, so this girl's out.

17. Tidus (FFX) - MAJOR SPOILERS [for remainder of Tidus description] Tidus is one of those characters that seems to have no particular reason to be important or part of the team, but is revealed at the end to have an inextricable connection to the force threatening the world with destruction. Also, he's a ghost. Potentially useful, but he's kind of specialized for the FFX world, and it's not like he has any special ghostly powers or anything. His special abilities include being good at Blitz Ball. I think we can move on.

18. Yuna (FFX) - Yeah, you'll never guess, she's another Rosa/Garnet. The main argument for her is that she's an important priestess of some religion. Again, kind of specific to the FFX setting - I don't see Zeromus really being intimidated by the ability to make people who are already dead rest peacefully.

19. Anonymous Hero (FFXI) - I believe the words I'm looking for are, "If everyone's super, then no one's super." This person is no better explained than the FFI heroes.

20. Vaan (FFXII) - He's an orphan who kills dire rats and dreams of being a sky pirate. He's not even a real pirate like Faris is. He's like Zidane, but without a tail, so we can be 100% certain that he's human and has nothing special going on.

21. Fran (FFXII) - She's a viera who wears completely absurd looking armor. That said, the outfit makes her very distracting, so she might be handy to have around as a decoy. She's on the waiting list.

And that's it. I didn't have time to cover everyone, but it's a pretty representative list of SNES-and-onward characters, and based solely on background story and powers they are claimed to have in the narrative, I really would choose the cast of FFIV (plus Terra and Gogo) to be my Moon Expeditionary Party. Apparently the existence of an explanation for how or why a given character is saving the world has been deemed unnecessary in recent FF games, which I think is unfortunate. Also note that just because a character didn't get to come with us to the Moon doesn't mean that I don't think they're cool (as in the case of Locke) - just that there's no particular reason to believe this character is qualified to save the world.

-Silent Ellipsis


Eleven said...

Does it really count as a moral dilemma if you're not allowed to choose? It's more "moral ambiguity", I think.

I really want to argue with "the most interesting background of any FF protagonist", but I'm not sure I can. Cloud's background is as complicated, at least.... If you don't restrict it to protagonists, though, Vincent has one of the best backstories out there (Dirge of Cerberus notwithstanding). Also, I'd be inclined to pick Freya (FFIX) instead of Kain. She's also a dragoon, but she doesn't try to kill you half the time. For that matter, Cid (FFVII) is also a dragoon, and he built his own airship (like every other Cid), and IS QUALIFIED TO PILOT SPACECRAFT. I think we have a winner.

Wait... can't summon? Did you play FFX? Yuna's stated career is "summoner". Not that I'm particularly a fan, but she definitely has the highest potential of any of the FFX characters. Still loses to Rydia, though.

Also, you forgot Edgar, the only person in a steampunk universe capable of wielding chainsaws. And he's the king of a submersible kingdom. Those are some pretty intense qualifications right there.

Overall, though, I'm inclined to agree. I wouldn't particularly want Yang, or Palom or Porom, or the spoony bard (though I would want Tellah, darnit!), but in the moon-trip dream team, FFIV characters would definitely be heavily overrepresented. There's been a marked trend away from epic heroism since the big turning point of FF6/7. It looks like FFXIII may finally provide some new alternatives....

Ellipsis said...

Oh, right, my bad on Yuna. And moral ambiguity is probably more accurate in the case of FFIV, but that I'll leave in.

And yes, we didn't have time to consider everyone (I mean, just going through the cast of FFVI would have taken a long time), but Kain is definitely the most replaceable member of my Moon Expeditionary Party, and Cid (FFVII) would be a solid replacement.

And Vincent is very awesome, but in FFVII he's presented as an optional side character. He's not particularly hard to find or anything, but he's a "a weird guy you can add to your party", whereas Cloud, Tifa, and Barrett are all core characters that you use throughout the game. That's just messed up in my opinion.

And yeah, the great thing about the FFIV characters that don't cut it is that they actually don't make it to the Moon with you. It's like the game is an extended reality TV show application process, and the last 5 left standing get to go to the Moon. That's how you know you've got the best party assembled, whereas in subsequent games you have a big cast of characters that are all still available for the final party.

And yes, Lightning looks like she might be the first protagonist in a while to earn a ticket to the Moon.