When I was a kid, I used to spend almost every summer at day camp. I'd ride the bus up across the Tappan Zee Bridge to upper-lowstate New York, where I was unceremoniously dumped on the grounds and told to go hang out with the other kids in my age group. We'd run around fields and go swimming and play basketball and just generally frolic around, being kids.
But I didn't want to play sports or hunt for weird animals in the lake. I wanted to think about video game characters. They were more interesting than the people around me. And since I couldn't spend all day in front of my Super Nintendo, I'd hang out with a small group of close friends and we'd all pretend to be characters from our favorite Japanese role-playing games. I was Shadow.
Today, I don't spend a lot of time pretending to be video game characters. But I do spend a lot of time thinking about what makes video game characters work.
See, the word "compelling" has become something of a buzzword in today's gaming industry, but it's a fitting adjective for great gaming characters. A good character is interesting, relatable, sympathetic, entertaining, and just all around badass. Even the silly ones.
But what makes a character resonate with an audience? Why do we care about the people we play? What makes us want to pretend we're them, even when we're away from our television screens?
Here are four potential explanations for what makes a JRPG character compelling.
(And, yes, these reasons can apply to all games, not just JRPGs. But this is a JRPG column. So.)
They're Really, Really Good At What They Do
As a general rule, human beings are attracted to skill. We're drawn to people who are capable of feats we can't accomplish, whether that's climbing up mountains or sorting through tax code. We're even willing to forgive or ignore a character's more despicable traits, if he or she is remarkable in some way. It's why we fall in love with the superstar thief, the hardened killer. The criminal mastermind.
Maybe that's why I dig Final Fantasy VI's Shadow oh so much. He might have been a coldhearted, nasty piece of work (who would "sell his own mama for a nickel," according to another character), but he was one hell of an assassin. He knew his shit.
Cloud Strife (Final Fantasy VII) is in a similar boat. He's whiny. Often annoying. But damn if he isn't one hell of a mercenary, capable of all sorts of near-impossible acrobatic moves and tricky sword techniques. He's got balls. He's willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish his goals, even if that means dressing up like a woman to do it. Why wouldn't any RPG fan want to be like him?
And there's that whole save-the-world thing. (Even if he couldn't save Aeris.)
They Have Genuine Flaws
We fall in love with characters we can relate to. And we relate to characters who share the same flaws and weaknesses that we do.
Look at Junpei, the bumbling goofball (and overall terrible student) who serves as one of your closest friends in Persona 3. He plays both comic relief and actual human being, showing the type of fear, humor, lust, and overall laziness that we can imagine we'd feel if we were in his situation, forced to battle demons after school every day.
Suikoden II's Jowy is as flawed as a character gets. His misguided beliefs about the inevitability of war wind up triggering a bloody, multi-year brawl that costs tens of thousands of lives. His mistakes cause nothing but heartbreak for your protagonist and everybody around him. But by the end of the game, we can forgive Jowy for what he did. We can forgive his transgressions because we see part of ourselves in his decisions—we totally understand that he plotted to take down an empire and stick himself in charge because he thought it was the only way to maintain peace. We can relate.
They Make Us Laugh
It's hard not to immediately fall in love with Estelle Bright, the peppy protagonist of The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky. She's the type of character who always has something amusing to say, no matter how dire the circumstances. She'll crack jokes in the face of dangerous bosses and insurmountable obstacles. You'd want to hang out with her.
Final Fantasy XII's Balthier, one of the most beloved characters in RPG history, is an all-time favorite because he knows how to make you laugh. He's a constant waterfall of charm, always offering some sort of witty quip or harmless sexual barb to lighten FFXII's overwrought tension. You might not want him around your girlfriend (or boyfriend), but you'd definitely share a beer or three.
The minds behind the various Mario RPGs have also mastered this idea, peppering their characters with warm humor that never gets old. Although the plumber himself never talks, his pantomimes and bizarre movements are as entertaining as it gets. You wouldn't mind sitting in an audience and watching him goof around for hours on end.
As in real life, we fall for JRPG characters who know how to keep us amused. We love them because we'd love to chill with them.
They Don't Have Voice Acting
Look, I went to film school. I've seen student movies. I know how tough it is to bring a character to life with nothing but a voice. And I know how many people fail at it.
But as disconcerting as it is to play a game without voice acting nowadays, a bad piece of vocal work does more harm than good. Grating, unappealing voices are a good way to turn an audience against a character and even a whole game. Just ask Infinite Undiscovery. Even when it's tolerable on the ears, voice acting drowns out the awesome tunes and tracks that make JRPGs really special.
Bad vocals can undermine just about every other aspect of a great game. They can make a game hard to sit through, embarrassing to play, and just straight-up unpleasant to experience. Can you think of a single great character with an awful voice actor? It's a shame more JRPGs aren't willing to keep quiet.
Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG. It runs every Friday at 3pm ET.