For the April '08 Roundtable (see http://blog.pjsattic.com/corvus/ for more details) the chosen subject is “Variations on a Theme” asking what you find unifies all your favorite games. I have some thoughts on game mechanics, music, and art, but since it's what really fires me up, I'm afraid I'm going to limit it to story here.
I've written a little bit about the fundamental concepts I'm a fan of, but I'm going to push all that aside, and talk about an archetype. That archetype is: the main female character of the Japanese RPG. I know what you're thinking, “That's too vague to be an archetype”. Well, permit me to explain. Obviously, not all characters can be lumped into this category, but you'd be surprised what it does cover.
Imagine the following character: A woman, fairly young, of noble birth. She possesses some combat prowess, but doesn't enjoy fighting. She is often lost in thought, and is more passive and introspective than those around her. She is not terribly secure in herself and her abilities at the beginning, and frequently this insecurity is defused in the form of her being huffy. She is not that physically strong, but is very intelligent. When she fights, she tends to use magic, but beyond the magic that many people have, it is suggested that she has some special power that remains largely untapped for a majority of the game. When she is forced to bring this power to bear, you discover that it is very different from anyone else you've seen so far, and that that power is primarily used for healing, rather than conflict.
Sound familiar? I could waffle, but let's cut to the chase:
Terra – Final Fantasy 6
Aeris – Final Fantasy 7
Rinoa – Final Fantasy 8
Dagger – Final Fantasy 9
Yuna – Final Fantasy 10
Elly – Xenogears
Nina – Breath of Fire (pick anyone you want)
Elle – Terranigma
Marona – Phantom Brave
Rena – Star Ocean 2
Kara – Illusion of Gaia
Lufia – Lufia and the Fortress of Doom
Mist – Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance
Zelda – Legend of Zelda
Luna – LUNAR: SSSC
Alma – Final Fantasy Tactics
Schala – Chrono Trigger
It's possible there are more I've missed (these are just from games I've played), but the point is made. Very few of these entries are perfect: Terra doesn't really affect the outcome of the final few hours of the game with her powers, Marona isn't of noble birth, and Schala isn't actually the main female character, but the correlation is far too significant to deny. This is an archetype that Japanese game makers have relied on since I was a young boy playing games.
It's possible that, pointing out the similarities between these characters, some of you feel cheated, like the conceptual design for the later characters was lazy, not bothering to design a new character, and merely re-hashing old concepts. I, for one, do not feel cheated at all. I am a big Joseph Campbell fan, and strongly believe in the power of archetypes in storytelling. Just because a game tells the same story we've heard a thousand times before (redemption, love, triumph over evil), it doesn't make it any less satisfying when we see it. Likewise, just because we've seen Terra in the orphanage, holding the kids in her heart, doesn't make it any less touching when you see Elly slice open her finger to feed the monster at the wels plant.
Much of good storytelling, storytelling that provokes a cathartic release, is based on the power of these characters that bypass all issues of particularity in a story. We want a fresh and interesting take on a character, but unless it ties back to something that we can understand, and relate to in our lives, the emotional power is lost.
So then, perhaps you are willing to grant that something like this has always existed in some form or another in storytelling, but I hardly think that Jung elucidated the “Japanese RPG Female Character” archetype in so many words. So then, when did this combination of the warrior, wise woman, mother, and priestess begin? I have my theory, but I welcome all thoughts on the matter.
In 1982, as a part time job, Hayao Miyazaki started drawing a comic about a Princess of a small country in a post apocalyptic world. The manga was called Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, named for the minor character from the Odyssey. Miyazaki cited two primary inspirations for the character, Bernard Evslin's translation of the Odyssey, which expanded on the original princess's character significantly, and a Japanese story of an insect loving princess from somewhere between 800 and 1200 in Japan. Nonetheless, Miyazaki's portrayal of this character (and later in the 1984 movie of the same name) is the first record I can find of this archetype. She is born as the princess of a periphery country, and is skilled in the use of arms, but has a strong pacifist streak. She is thoughtful, introspective, and seems to exist on a mental level separated from all those around her. Finally, though the manga and film differ on this subject significantly, she is clearly possessing of some sort of quasi-supernatural power that allows her a deeper understanding of the world around her.
So, what does this mean? Since I'm such a strong believer in the power of archetypes, it only seems appropriate that I want to know what archetype I'm appealing to when I write, and even more, know what the history of that archetype is. To do otherwise seems something like trying to write a monster movie without watching the original Godzilla...
I've only played so many games, so if you know of any really good examples, or want to hear my reasoning for any of my 17 examples, leave me a note or drop me a line.