Faithful reader Ecclesiastes brought up a subject for conversation the other day that arose from my SMT Persona Social Link Comparison rant: dogs in RPGs. I noted in that rant that Persona 3's Koromaru's character was inadequately developed, and that dogs in RPGs generally get a bad deal like this, which I have also mentioned more than once in the past. So you can thank or blame Ecc for this one.
Animal characters. In RPGs' never-ending mission to create the most bizarre and colorful diversity in their casts possible, they often make use of non-humanoid characters to fill out the playable character list. And hey, in theory, it's a good idea--adding in the personality and pathos of a different species to the cast could be refreshing and reflect well on the other characters' development. But in practice, it's pretty much always a severe disappointment.
Now, before I go any further, I should probably explain what I mean by an "animal character." Because when Ecclesiastes was talking to me about it, he wondered what I thought of Red XIII, from Final Fantasy 7, who, while not nearly as well-developed as several others of the game's cast, seemed to be a character of decent depth. And this would be a good example...if I counted Red XIII as an animal character. But he's not.
Look. It's like this. If it talks like a human and it thinks like a human, it's a human character. If Red XIII had been humanoid in FF7 instead of a red dog-lion thing, absolutely nothing significant would have needed to be changed for his development. His personality, his issues, his concerns, his approach to situations, his responses to and relationships with others, his thoughts, his speech, every major mental aspect to him is sentient in a human capacity. He is a human character that happens to have been placed in a non-human body. His physical differences from the others can be considered, in terms of the audience's perspective, at most to be a cultural difference. He is not an animal character. As far as I'm concerned, if it talks the talk of a human character, it IS one.*
Now, Koromaru in SMTP3? Dogmeat in the Fallout series? Puffy in Grandia 1? These are animal characters. They generally exhibit a level of intelligence that animals do, they act as animals do, their concerns and interests are bestial (though in a tamed way). They don't talk, they don't ponder their family's past, they just do animal stuff.
Unfortunately, actual animal characters rarely get adequate character development. Now I DO understand that there are limitations of what I can expect from an animal character. And I am not expecting much, I honestly am not. But I do know that there can be SOMETHING beyond what I see all the time. Koromaru's actually on the higher side of RPG animal characters, in that we have an actual, understandable reason for him to be with the team, and he does express emotions, within the capacity you'd expect for a smart and devoted dog. But they still could have developed his canine personality more than they did, and given his development stronger consideration--the loss a dog can feel after the death of their owner can be a remarkably powerful and touching thing, and we didn't get very much on that from Koromaru. A little, yes, but only enough to cement his place, not enough to explore it.
And it IS possible to make a good animal character; I've seen it before more than once. Maybe not in RPGs yet, but that means nothing. Off the top of my head, Kaw, the crow from Lloyd Alexander's Prydain books, fits the bill. Kaw is a character throughout the books that is lively, curious, and continually mischievous, yet also noble and brave. He does talk, yes, but only in as much capacity as any crow might, no more intelligent than you would expect a crow to be (as long as you ARE aware that they're very, very smart birds). It's through his actions, not his dialogue, that you get a feel for his character, and while he doesn't grapple with self-doubts and coming of age and so on like the characters around him, he DOES exhibit playfulness, pride, loyalty, bravery, and other traits and emotions that a pet raven might. Alexander gives Kaw a personality that distinguishes what kind of crow Kaw is, but not one that distinguishes him from being a crow altogether.
I mean, I GUESS there are some examples in RPGs where actual animal characters are handled well enough...some of the animals in the Suikoden series aren't really any less characterized than most of the other characters in the game, I guess. And I admit that in Secret of Evermore, the main character's dog is actually exactly right. I mean, all they really portray is a nosy, playful mutt that the main character is utterly incapable of controlling, a dog that causes way, way more problems than it's worth. But it IS Secret of Evermore, which is a humor RPG--you can't reasonably expect powerful emotion and philosophy, just good laughs. And on that, the dog delivers in a good, canine capacity. So...I suppose that there is ONE well-done animal character in RPGs at present.
Nonetheless, having an animal character that's written well for a humor RPG is not exactly the same as having animal characters that fit well into your standard, more serious and thoughtful RPG (even though I do love a good humor RPG). Why couldn't Persona 3 have gone that little bit extra with Koromaru, instead of just dropping his character development after his introduction? Why doesn't Dragon Age 1 do anything with its Mabari Hound? I mean, the game does some work to set up his breed's traits and tout them as really awesome, so why is it when you get him that he's little more than an extra body that pees on trees? Why is it that neither of the Fallout series's Dogmeats is ever given any sort of personality beyond following random strangers in Vault suits? If Flammie is going to turn out to be such an important part of the plot's finale in The Secret of Mana, shouldn't they have given it more than 5 seconds and like 2 lines of other characters' text to create a character for it? And the list goes on.
Animals DO have personalities. They CAN feel certain powerful emotions, and exhibit distinctive character traits. But they don't act the same as us, and they don't react to things and think about them the same way as us. There IS potential there for an animal character with strong depth--you just have to know how to show that depth WITHOUT forcing a human mindset on the creature. And unfortunately, I've yet to see an RPG get it right in any serious capacity.
* I can make an exception on talking when it's, like, one single time during a plot-relevant moment. Say like Bahamut Lagoon, where there's a moment near the game's end where this guy psychically hears the minds of the dragons that have traveled with the game's protagonist through the journey, and relates the dragons' love and devotion. That's a one-time thing, and it's a special circumstance, not just the animals deciding to open their mouths and deliver a diatribe. The rest of the time, they don't give any particular indication of human-level intelligence, so they still count as animal characters.