Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
Deconstructing the Brooding Hero
When people think of PS1-era RPGs (Final Fantasy VII and the like), among the first things to come to mind is the characteristically brooding heroes. To use a more literary term, we might describe them as Byronic Heroes, burdened by dark and often unclear pasts and characterized by a gruffness that could be described as rude. This trope, while certainly not a new idea, was particularly popular in the late 90's, and its liberal usage is often one of the foremost points of criticism for people looking back on the likes of Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VIII (especially when trying to argue that Final Fantasy VI or Final Fantasy IX is a stronger game). An interesting Kotaku article recently examined the behavior of Final Fantasy VIII's protagonist in context of how it reflects societal views of masculinity and femininity. It's a good read in general, but one of the more interesting takeaways for me was the observation that Final Fantasy VIII's other characters are remarkably forgiving of the protagonist's rude, isolating behavior. There is a tendency to overlook that as you are playing the game, as the protagonist is the hero of the story and we expect him to grow and develop as a character, eventually overcoming his flaws and becoming a better person--which he does--but that expectation should not necessarily be shared by the other characters within the game. In most games (particularly older games) with similarly brooding heroes, though, the other main characters are infinitely patient, sticking with the hero regardless of what he may do or say.
That's not to say these games are bad, of course--it works as a storytelling mechanic and can be quite uplifting in games like Final Fantasy VIII to see fundamentally good people helping a troubled individual through a rough emotional time. Final Fantasy VII, by contrast, gets away with this by having all of its characters be impacted negatively by the dystopian setting and each responding differently; the protagonist's rudeness isn't all that much worse than the veiled bitterness or outright cynicism expressed by much of the rest of the cast. That said, you would expect this sort of negativity to create a great deal of social tension, and that's something RPGs rarely explore. Most such games operate off of the assumption (likely a holdover from tabletop RPGs) that the main characters are stuck journeying together for better or for worse and that no one has the potential to get frustrated and leave. In that context, forgiving behavior makes a bit more sense, but it still comes off as missing a potential layer of nuance.
And Then There's Luke
With that background in mind, I'd like to turn to Tales of the Abyss, a game released for the Playstation 2 in 2005, well after the period in which Final Fantasy VII and similar games were dominant. I once saw the Tales of series described as the "fast food" of RPGs--accessible and enjoyable, but without much lasting value. (This same comparison also likened the Megami Tensei franchise, of which my fondness is well-documented, to "brussel sprouts" in that they tend to be less outwardly appealing but more valuable in the long-run, which amused me considerably.) I mostly agree with that assessment--the Tales of games are definitely fun, but they aren't games you'll think much about afterwards--with the exception of Tales of the Abyss. Abyss's writing is on a noticeably higher level than its related games, and while there are a number of things about the game that are intriguing, I'd like to focus on its protagonist: Luke fon Fabre.
Luke is a young noble in Abyss's world, and he doesn't get out much. Unlike your typical adventure-craving fantasy hero, he also has no desire to see the world. He's deeply cynical, thoroughly self-interested, intensely mistrustful of all except his teacher, fundamentally lazy, and a coward. This is, of course, highly unusual for a fantasy hero, but it echoes the brooding protagonists of the PS1-era RPGs I discussed earlier--and Abyss draws much from those games, including its overall art style, so the similarity is likely intentional if not pointedly so.
Due to an unfortunate sequence of events, Luke begins traveling with the game's heroine, a soldier named Tear Grants; his servant, Guy Cecil; and a few other characters. Guy mostly plays the role of the long-suffering infinitely-patient friend, as usual, but Tear and the others do not. They specifically call out Luke's rudeness and poor behavior throughout the early game, refusing to allow it to stand in the way that most RPG characters would. Rather than reform, Luke doubles down on his cynicism and behavior, until about a third of the way through the game, when Luke makes a significant mistake that costs the lives of several thousand people, all of the other characters (including Guy!) finally abandon him. There is no endless forgiveness in hopes of improvement, and the other characters don't automatically assume that Luke is redeemable. They believe what he shows them, and what he shows them is not good. Even Guy's initial patience is born of obligation and personal objectives rather than out of a general good-natured-ness, and I think there's a biting irony in the fact that the only character who behaves as most RPG characters would in placating the protagonist is a hired servant of the hero.
After Luke's key mistake, there's actually a section of the game where the other characters continue on their quest without him--and the player follows them, rather than the actual protagonist. This whole sequence, complete with the party's abandoning of Luke, is exceptionally interesting because of how it applies meaningful consequences to the poor behavior characteristic of brooding protagonists. The other characters go off to try to save the world and the protagonist is, essentially, uninvited, kicked out due to his poor choices and foul attitude.
And Now the Character Development Means Something
After a bit of time spent wandering the world, Tear ends up returning to the place where Luke is staying, and Luke pleads with her to forgive him and to give him a second chance (complete with the symbolic gesture of cutting his long hair, representing a shedding of his past life and worldview). Tear eventually concedes, and Luke rejoins the main characters, albeit under close scrutiny and with a good deal of social distance now placed between him and the others.
Over the course of the game, he grows as a person and eventually redeems himself through unselfish acts, in typical fantasy form, but Luke's initial fall--and especially the fact that it lasts for a large portion of the game--makes his redemption much more impactful. In the case of a game like Final Fantasy VIII, the protagonist never really has to feel the consequences of his actions, which makes his eventual growth nice to see but not particularly weighty. While Squall at the end of Final Fantasy VIII is a better person than Squall at the beginning of Final Fantasy VIII, all of the other characters treat him more or less the same, which somewhat devalues his internal journey.
In Tales of the Abyss, by contrast, Luke's choices and behavior have a real impact throughout the entire game, and his character growth ripples out through the world's network of social connections to affect much of what happens over the course of the narrative, at times positively and at times negatively. In a genre of game where protagonists are often similar and somewhat shallow, Luke offers a complex, rich character who is enjoyable not because of his successes but because of how he moves past his significant failures. It's a character arc that's quite rare in video game protagonists, and it makes Abyss stand out as a singularly impactful game.
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A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition