What Makes a Great JRPG? - Part 3 - Characters

I touched a bit on characters and their development in my previous blog posts, especially Jowy and his transitions throughout the story of Suikoden 2. If you didn't check out the first 2 parts of this series, take a look at the past posts in the side bar to the left. When it comes to characters in JRPGs, there are typically criteria for creating a solid character base. Are these characters well developed? Do they continue to grow during the (typically long) story line? Are these characters relatable? How do the characters feel in combat? I'll explore these questions and more!

Square's Final Fantasy VII has some of the most memorable characters in JRPG history

When we discuss JRPGs and characters, the first thing to come to mind is the main character, or protagonist. The main character of a JRPG typically takes one of two forms. The first being a protagonist who is silent outside of the dialogue option of the player, or even completely silent. This allows the player to become immersed in the title by simply putting themselves in their shoes and create the player character's personally themselves. Good examples of characters designed this way are Riou from Suikoden 2, Ryu from Breath of Fire and of course Crono from Chrono Trigger. This type of main character may have a bit less character development due to a different form of narrative, but ironically enough, a main character of this type can create the characters around them even stronger. We'll discuss this a bit more later. The second type of protagonist is a narrated character with pre-set lines and actions, with their own independent personality separate from the player. Obviously, this form of protagonist is a bit simpler when it comes to story telling, but more often then not, is capable of telling a story with a stronger narrative. Examples of this type of protagonist include almost every Final Fantasy main character (Cloud, Tidus, Zidane, Vaan), Hiro from Lunar 2, Dart from Legend of Dragoon and Sora from Kingdom Hearts. Now, I believe there can definitely be a grey areas (Yu Narukami from Persona 4) and the context of games can also make one type of character much stronger over another. I believe if Riou from Suikoden 2 was a scripted character, Suikoden 2 would be a less powerful game.

 Regardless of the form of narrative, the protagonist in a JRPG needs to be meticulously and carefully designed and written for a few reasons compared to other games. The first being time. The player will be spending an incredible amount of time with this character in a narrative focused game, and if the player feels that the character is boring, weak or even stupid, the immersion is lost or becomes a chore. Imagine if Cloud wasn't a badass or if Yuri from Tales of Vesperia wasn't as level-headed as he was? I have dropped JRPGs mid playthrough due to being unable to deal with/really disliking the protagonist. The main character of a JRPG called Enchanted Arms, Atsuma, is a prime example. I found Atsuma to be an absolute moron, dealing with problems in such a ridiculous way that I simply could not bear to spend 50+ hours controlling him. He wasn't even a little bit relatable! Not only was Atsuma difficult for me to bear, the supporting cast wasn't much better. Sometimes, this can be used as a tool of character development too! Luke from Tales of Abyss is an absolute jerk to everything and everyone and genuinely unlikable for the first half of the game, but slowly matures, and as the player the transition is a lot more potent. This is a great example of harnessing time to create a great sense of immersion.

He's referring to players of his game...

The second major reason for the extra care in JRPG protagonists is story telling through mechanics. I touched on this slightly in my storytelling section of this series. Not only do JRPGs focus on storytelling, and their characters developing in these stories, they also include combat. Not only does combat typically tie in directly with the storyline and the struggle of the main characters, it acts as a point of action in all the heavy narrative. Combat in JRPGs is always interesting because a lot of JRPGs do it completely differently, as it is the most creative freedom the developers have when focusing on an excellent story. Typically JRPG combat is very heavy with a relatively high learning curve (Xenogears, Persona, Final Fantasy Tactics and even Pokemon) but some titles choose to go with something a little simpler (Final Fantasy 7, Legend of Dragoon, Chrono Trigger). Combat allows you to participate in a physical struggle alongside the protagonist and the perfect metaphor for this structure is the experience bar/leveling system present in most JRPGs.

Xenogears has a complicated yet fulfilling combat system

The experience bar represents how much more experience is needed to level up, obviously. We've seen it in almost every single RPG, western, eastern, video or board game, it doesn't matter. It's a measurement of the battles we've seen, our progress in the game and even our current strength. Since the beginning of RPGs it's been a staple, and in my opinion it's the absolute pinnacle of storytelling through mechanics and character development as well, on a basic level. As your character progresses and grows in their story, combating enemies, experiencing all sorts of things and finding the resolve to carry out a difficult task (a typical occurrence in JRPGs). Obviously our character "level" is a representation of strength, learning new techniques, magic and even summons as we get stronger but next time you're playing an RPG consider the storytelling through mechanics aspect as well. You get more experience from boss fights and rare encounters, just like we become more experienced and wise due to our hardships.

Outside of the main character, it's also critical that JRPGs develop a strong supporting cast. In JRPGs you tend to see a ton of archetypes show up, due to tried and true character interactions. The goofy one, the smart one, the bad ass, etc, etc. However, these archetypes can go a lot deeper. Persona, a game series completely centered around the main character and his interactions with NPCs and even other party members hit the nail on the head when it comes to a strong supporting cast. Each character helps develop and motivate the player character as well as the player and balance out the party combat wise. Connor, LAN Mob's resident Final Fantasy IX enthusiast, says FF9 is incredible when it comes to characters and their relation to the protagonist. Connor states, "If you can connect with Zidane (the protagonist) you can connect with the entire cast. They all have some sort of semblance of Zidane, or Zidane has a little bit of all characters in him." If you're interested in Connor's analysis of Final Fantasy IX, just ask 'em! Or maybe he'll post a blog about it someday! Overall, whether it be party members or other NPCs, these characters help fill out the world and create a sense of immersion via companionship.

One of my favorite JRPGs in terms of support characters, Lunar 2.

Lastly, I'd like to touch on one of the most and usually underappreciated characters in any JRPG: The Villian! A basic concept, albeit people need reminding of it sometimes. What would Batman be without The Joker? A well written villain or even anti-hero gives, not only the protagonist, but the player as well, another reason to move forward. Whether it be a villian like Luca Blight from Suikoden 2, who is basically pure evil, or a complicated enemy like Yggdrasil from Tales of Symphonia. It's one of those aspects of JRPGs which always tends to be interesting, sometimes the main villain isn't even a person, like in the case of Legend of Dragoon, where the "villain" is an absent god. It's important to have something to fight for, especially when it's in the form of a person.      

Suikoden 2's Villian, Luca Blight, is one twisted dude.

Ultimately, players will find characters that speak to them in all sorts of ways for all sorts of reasons. One person's favorite protagonist could be another's least favorite, and that's a beautiful testament to the power of story telling when it comes to creating immersion in this genre. I love Connor's respect for Zidane, and his love of Final Fantasy IX in general. JRPGs have such an incredible amount of depth played out through their characters in an incredibly unique way, in an already incredibly unique medium. It's something else.

Whats you favorite protagonist in JRPGs? Why? What about villians? Let me know in the comments below? I'll start it off!

Favorite JRPG Protagonist

Fei Fong Wong from Xenogears

Favorite Non-Protagonist Party Member

Scias from Breath of Fire IV

Favorite NPC

Drippy from Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch

Favorite Villain

Luca Blight from Suikoden 2

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