Failure Fantasy, Part 1

Issue 239 of the Escapist is now available, entitled “Anti/Hero.” Below is the article I pitched for the issue.

NOTE: Due to circumstances mostly beyond my control, this article has been divided into two parts. Below is part the first.


Final Fantasy is arguably the most popular series of role-playing games from Square/Enix, and one of the selling points of a role-playing game is who drives the epic story forward. In some cases, this means the player fills in the blanks left open by the designers (i.e. Commander Sheperd in Mass Effect), while in others the player takes control of the lead character in a party. Given that developers want people to play their games, why do the protagonists of so many Final Fantasy games seem completely unlikeable?

A good protagonist is the cornerstone of a successful story. Take a look at Luke Skywalker, John McClain, Marty McFly or Frodo Baggins. Heck, even Kevin ‘Neo’ Anderson isn’t a bad protagonist in the first Matrix film. He’s as confused, shocked and awestruck as we are during the course of the story, before he and everyone else in the franchise gets railroaded into even murkier and more confusing references to the murky and confusing philosophy of Baudrillard. But in all of the above cases, you have someone who’s a bit of an everyman, someone with whom the audience can relate right away, who goes through trials and tribulations in a somewhat realistic and endearing way. In Star Wars, where it’d be all too easy for the special effects to take center stage as they did in more recent films (which I’ll touch on more later), Luke Skywalker is the beating heart of the narrative. Frodo Baggins, a short and reluctant individual, deals with his challenges the way most of us probably would. John McClain, a hard-nosed beat-walkin’ cop, shows us that one can be heroic while still being very human.

Bad protagonists, on the other hand, go so far as to unintentionally verge into anti-hero territory. Not because they break the law in the name of justice, but because they exemplify the antithesis of heroism. It’s a matter of degrees when it comes to Final Fantasy, so let’s take a look at the three biggest offenders, and see just how heroic these “heroes” really are.

Cloud Strife (Final Fantasy VII)

Courtesy Squenix

Cloud isn’t necessarily a bad guy. A product of the evil ShinRa Corporation’s SOLDIER program, Cloud’s past is something of a mystery even to himself. Still, he acts confident to the point of arrogance in his abilities up until the point of his nervous breakdown. He assumed control of the mercenary group ‘for the right price’ and after his breakdown is more concerned about protecting the planet by atoning for his sins. In both instances, his motivations are more selfish than selfless. He is at least loyal to his friends, especially towards the end, but the fact of the matter is he got off to a very rocky start.

I’m not entirely sure why people chose to follow him. Sure, his abilities were inspiring, and Tifa’s a childhood friend who never forgot the promise he made to protect her, but when we first meet him and see how he deals with the people around, he acts like a bit of a dick. Advent Children and other works have tried to make Cloud into something of an emo crybaby, but he doesn’t blame other people for his shortcomings over the course of the game. He just pretends he doesn’t have any at first. It’s only after personal tragedy that Cloud becomes more introverted and self-aware, but by that point the damage is done. He’s not the worst protagonist in Final Fantasy’s history, but he’s far from the best. At least he has something resembling character growth.

Squall Leonhart (Final Fantasy VIII)

Courtesy Squenix

Again, the word “emo” gets lobbed at Squall quite a bit. But despite his haircut, leather jacket and disposition, I wouldn’t go so far as to calling him that. He really isn’t an emo character. The problem is he isn’t much of a character at all. He’s an orphan dedicated to proving himself in the paramilitary academy called Balamb Garden, taking it upon himself to master the tricky and dangerous gunblade. Like Cloud, he’s self-confident in his abilities but there the similarities end.

His cold aloofness towards people around him is probably his most prominent character trait. While it’s understandable in relation to his would-be love interest, the whiny and insufferable Rinoa, upbeat Zell and gentle, intelligent Quistis aren’t able to get around his psychological armor. And don’t get me started on the whole issue of him pursuing Rinoa over Quistus. That’s even more outrageous to me than Cloud pursuing Aerith over Tifa.

It takes quite a while for Squall to finally warm up to just about anybody, including and especially his supposed love interest. He’s a bit more consistent in his growth than Cloud, but this growth is so minuscule and comes so late in the game that it might as well have been skipped altogether. With all the interesting things going on, from possession to dream states to travel into space and through time, you’d think Squall would act more as a cypher for the player and less as a completely blank and lifeless character in and of himself. Instead of allowing the player to impose choices and personality upon their representative in the game world, like Mass Effect or Dragon Age, Squall is just sort of there. You can’t influence who he is and how he acts, and while this would be fine if he had a personality for us to learn about, for most of the game, he has about as much personality as a block of concrete.

Tidus (Final Fantasy X)

Courtesy Squenix

Tidus has personality. It’s too bad that he’s such an asshole.

Tidus is a blitzball player drawn into the plight of the world called Spira by a malevolent force dubbed ‘Sin’. Gibberish aside, what Final Fantasy X brings us is a story of a young man, barely more than a child, transplanted from the world he’s known all his life into another place to which he has a mysterious connection. It’s full of foreign people speaking in strange tongues, but hey, at least they have blitzball.

Words used to describe Tidus include ‘cheerful’ and ‘sensitive’. I mostly saw him as whiny, narcissistic, dense and self-congratulatory. When the game begins, he isn’t very nice, he treats people around him badly and he’s worried primarily about himself. He’s also put into a situation with a female character, Yuna, and they just happen to fall in love because the script requires this game to be a sweeping romance I guess.

Tidus, in retrospect and given the wording I’ve paraphrased heavily from Confused Matthew, reminds me of someone.

Courtesy Confused Matthew

But at least Tidus didn’t commit mass murder.

To be continued…

2 Comments

  1. You know, of those three games, I’ve only ever finished FFX. And now that you mention it, yes, those lead characters are quite annoying. From what I’ve seen of the FFXI…whatever number they’re up to, it’s more of the same. I’ll take another DA:O over that junk any day.

  2. Strangely enough, I actually liked Renoa. I’m not saying she can’t be insufferable, I’m just saying I liked her. Then again, I’m used to being surrounded by huge egos and difficult people. Being able to deal with them is my superpower, I guess.

    As to the rest of it, I say this: Oh, good god YES. I have never understood why a series with such a huge following, whose games have such breadth and scope, seems to stumble through (or skip over entirely) character development like it is being written by a reject from Creative Writing 101.

    To put it in a very old-fashioned way, I prefer my men to. . .well, behave like men. Sensitivity and strength (or even badassitude) are not mutually exclusive ideas. After all, the term “warrior poet,” exists for a reason. Come to think of it, though, the problem is pretty simple: All of these characters are teenagers. I suppose expecting accelerated maturity levels from children of war is asking too much.

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