Saturday, May 28, 2016

Fire Emblem 14's Inclusion of Homosexual Romance

A frequent criticism made against Fire Emblem 13, known also as Fire Emblem Awakening, was that the game incorporated a large selection of potential romances for its characters, yet of the literal dozens of potential love stories for its protagonist, not a single option for a same-sex relationship was given. The very legitimate argument was made by many players that in a game with emphasis both on character romance and great variety and choice in romantic options, to cut homosexuality out of the equation entirely was not morally acceptable in this day and age (and, for that matter, not even realistic, probability-wise). That is, in fact, the main reason that I have made it a point to avoid purchasing and playing the game. I’m not going to pretend I would otherwise have been chomping at the bit to try FE13 out--my feelings on the Fire Emblem series are mildly positive, but that’s about it--but there have been occasions in which I was reviewing what 3DS RPG to try out next, and deliberately vetoed that title for this reason.

Now, it does bear in mind that there is a reasonable argument to the other side of the issue: the reason that character romance was so important in FE13 was because the game’s plot significantly involved time travel from the future to the present, and the characters from the future were the children of the present time’s cast. So, essentially, the romance was important because it determined half the game’s cast’s existence. Thus, since heterosexual coupling can result in children and homosexual coupling cannot, there is a degree of sense in keeping the cast to heterosexual romance. Reasonable a certain, short point. Sadly, past that point are easily constructed workarounds that would have still allowed for same-sex romances which would not have caused the slightest hiccup in the game’s plot and the children’s existence, which will be detailed here a little later, so it’s still unacceptable.

Anyway, to whit, I made it a point not to support Nintendo with Fire Emblem 13 because their exclusion of same-sex love was not, ultimately, morally defensible. And because I had taken that stand on FE13...I jumped at the opportunity to buy FE14 when I learned that Nintendo had finally decided to do the right thing and include homosexual romance options for the new game’s protagonist. I bought FE14 the day it came out, all 3 paths of it, as well as all the DLC in advance. If I’m going to try to send a message by refusing to support immoral products, then I’d better damn well also make sure to send a message by strongly supporting products that are moral, right?

...Yeeeeeeaaaahhh. I might’ve jumped the gun a bit on this one.

Look, I’m sorry, but Fire Emblem 14? As Nintendo’s first (to my knowledge) real step forward in embracing the billions of human beings of sexuality other than hetero, Fire Emblem 14 can only be described as disappointing. And even that’s kind of a generous spin on it.

Alright, before I get into the negative, let’s at least acknowledge what Nintendo’s done right on this issue. Yes: Fire Emblem 14 has same-sex options for romance for Corrin, its protagonist. On 1 of the 3 paths of the game, a male Corrin can romance Niles, a male outlaw. On another path a female Corrin can romance Rhajat, a female sorceress (who is basically a reincarnation of FE13’s Tharja). And on the last path of the game, both Niles and Rhajat are available. So, yes: you can have your character fall in love with another character of the same sex in this game. And most of the benefits of the romance are the same: improved cooperation in battle, ability to share job classes, cute little scenes and sweet-nothings whenever you have Corrin stop by his/her personal home, a love confession scene, and so on. Good.

I’ll also defend Nintendo on 1 point of criticism, before I get to my own. I’ve seen some people say that it’s bad form for Nintendo to have had Niles and Rhajat as the same-sex romance options, because both Niles and Rhajat are considered very strange, in some regards deviant, people, so it kind of seems like Nintendo’s saying that it’s strange, in some regards deviant, to be attracted to members of the same sex. Well, this argument has a certain degree of merit, to be sure, but honestly, Fire Emblem 14 is filled to the absolute goddamn brim with bizarre weirdos who are heterosexually romanceable, too. Selkie’s a nut, Camilla is kind of disturbing, Odin’s a weirdo, Setsuna’s a space case, Asama’s just off, Mitama’s quite odd, Ophelia’s the same as Odin, Dwyer’s weird, Felicia’s at least a little unusual, Izana’s peculiar, Arthur’s a goofball, and Peri...goodness gracious, Peri. And frankly, a lot of the other cast members are strange in at least some small ways, too. Paradoxically, odd ducks are the norm for Fire Emblem 14. So I don’t know if you can really criticize Nintendo on the fact that Niles and Rhajat are pretty weird, because a LOT of the hetero options aren’t any more normal.

Okay. Now. My grievances.

First of all, let’s start with the obvious:

Two. Two. That’s how many same-sex romantic options you’ve provided, Nintendo? Fucking TWO? One for each Corrin gender? Yeah, that’s alright in a game like Dragon Age 1, where the total number of romanceable characters is 4 (5 if you count Anora, I suppose). But the number of characters in Fire Emblem 14 whom Corrin can be romantically involved with is, by my count, sixty-goddamn-seven. 67 to 2. Does that really seem fair to anyone? And let me point out that we’re ONLY talking about the love options for the protagonist Corrin with that number. The majority of characters in the game can also pursue romance with several other characters instead of Corrin, and what a shocker, they’re all strictly heterosexual ones. So we’re actually looking at, hell I dunno...150 heterosexual romances to 2 homosexual ones? 200 to 2? I ain’t spending an hour counting them all out, but trust me, an educated guess puts it up in that range.

Hell, even Niles and Rhajat, who I remind you are the sole characters who can be same-sex romanced by Corrin, have only heterosexual love options besides Corrin. Now you can make the case that this makes sense for Rhajat to some degree, because there’s some implication (most of which got translated out of the English version) that she and Corrin are reincarnations of Robin and Tharja from the previous Fire Emblem, and so Tharja’s obsession and love for Robin is so great that her soul retains it even in a new life. With that argument, you can then extrapolate that Rhajat’s love for Corrin doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with her basic sexual preferences. Fine. But the same can’t be said for Niles, so where’re his other same-sex romance options? He ain’t the type to hold back.

Here’s something to further compound the numbers problem. It doesn’t even make sense for the same-sex relationships to be restricted to 2. No, I don’t mean in the sense that it’s not even statistically likely to only find 2 bisexual (Niles and Rhajat have heterosexual partner options, remember) people in a group of 67, and no outright homosexual individuals. Although that is ridiculous. No, what I mean here is that it’s ridiculous for there to be only 2 potential same-sex pairings in this game when there are more than 2 non-heterosexual characters in the cast.

Yes. Yes, that’s right. There are characters besides Rhajat and Niles in the cast of Fire Emblem 14 who have differing sexualities, and yet neither Corrin nor any other character can pursue a same-sex relationship with them. The situation is just that bad.

First of all, you have Camilla. Camilla is a princess of Nohr, one of the 4 royal children of the country that adopt Corrin into their family and consider Corrin a sibling. Except Camilla, uh...she doesn’t...exactly...behave in a very sisterly manner toward Corrin. Well, I mean, she does, yes, she’s an incredibly doting and affectionate sister to Corrin, but, well, her focus on Corrin just goes waaaaaayyyy past the point of sibling affection. Look, I’m not gonna beat around the bush here: Camilla wants to pork with Corrin. She wants it Badly. Fire Emblem 14 is a game which gives you the option to have Corrin hook up with any of his/her adopted siblings (more on that weirdness in a moment), but Camilla is the only one where you can tell pretty much right from the get-go that she’s angling for that.

So what does that have to do with my point? Well, for starters, not a lot of interactions between Corrin and Camilla change at all for Corrin’s gender, including many which make Camilla’s obsession with Corrin reasonably explicit, so it’d be rational to infer that the attraction is there regardless of Corrin’s gender. But that in itself isn’t enough to prove anything, because this is true for other romantic support conversation chains in the game. But, BUT, there IS something more. In the Nohr path of the game, there comes a time when you defeat Hinoka, Corrin’s princess sister from Hoshido who everyone thinks is Corrin’s actual, biological sister. During conversation with Hinoka after she is defeated, Camilla stakes her claim as Corrin’s sister and kinda tells Hinoka to back the hell off, but then the conversation takes a turn for the...well, a turn for the Camilla, I suppose. She is her own adjective. Camilla says, and I quote,

“Now that I’ve gotten a good look at’re exactly my type. Cute and very beautiful.

“How lovely. Your embarrassed face, too.”

Now I’m not sure if Camilla’s saying that because she’s associating Corrin’s supposed biological sister with Corrin him/herself, or whether it’s just outright, honest attraction to Hinoka. But I am pretty sure of 1 thing: those ain’t the textboxes of a strictly heterosexual woman, there. Hell, to my knowledge, that’s the only time in the actual plot of the game (not the side support conversations) that Camilla expresses an actual attraction toward a character whose gender is static, so if anything, the strongest evidence we have for Camilla’s sexual preferences is lesbian, not straight. From the perspective of pure logic, you could argue that pairing her with men is less in character for her! So with it established in hard evidence by the game’s own main plot, with multiple supporting implications in Camilla’s interactions with Corrin (and her dialogues with Selena and Beruka, too), that Camilla is quite capable of feeling attraction for her own gender, why in the world would she not be another possible same-sex partner for Corrin? Camilla says and does the same stuff with Female Corrin that she does with Male Corrin, who she can get together with, and she expresses attraction toward another female character. Nintendo could have just included the same romantic conversation between Camilla and Female Corrin, changed virtually nothing save swapping “brother” for “sister,” and effortlessly had a little more same-sex representation in the game. It wouldn’t have required the slightest change to Camilla’s character whatsoever; hell, with her obsession over Corrin overall, it would have been, if anything, more true to her character.

And it isn’t just Camilla. There’s also the matter of Soleil. Soleil is the daughter of Laslow, a ladies’ man who constantly flirts with women and just as constantly gets shot down. Well, Soleil’s a chip off the old block in 1 way: she’s crazy about girls, too. And this ain’t a subtle thing. This isn’t like Camilla, where the pieces are obvious, but nonetheless require you to put them together. No, when asked about it, Laslow just up and states, plain as day, that his daughter’s interested in both men and women. Not only that, but her interest in the fairer sex is not just established, it is the majority of her character development. This is not just a trait of Soleil: the fact that “cuties,” as she herself calls pretty women, make Soleil’s knees go weak is THE trait of Soleil, the most definable aspect of her personality that the game harps on.

And yet, ALL of Soleil’s romantic options are male. Including Corrin! Soleil can fall in love with Male Corrin, but not Female Corrin. Not just that, but the way she initially gets her interest in Male Corrin is when she’s blindfolded and imagines him as a woman! Yet she’s not a love interest when Corin actually IS a woman! How do you even wrap your head around this kind of non-logic? HOW?

So yeah, not only is 2 same sex relationships in a game out of 150+ possible couplings so paltry that it seems insulting rather than progressive, but there are characters who canonically have sexualities that could have raised that number who were deliberately disregarded. That’s just awful.*

But I’m not done yet.

See, there’s another problem I have with this situation. Remember when I said that most of the benefits of heterosexual pairings for Corrin were present for the same-sex options? There is, in fact, 1 thing missing: Kana, Corrin’s child. See, under most circumstances, when you hook Corrin up with someone, you’ll unlock the party member Kana, Corrin’s plot-convenience-aged-up son or daughter. If Male Corrin marries Niles, however, no Kana (and no Nina, Niles’s daughter, either). Likewise, if Female Corrin marries Rhajat, no Kana.

“Well, that’s understandable,” you say to yourself, sensibly enough. “To conceive a child, you need a man and woman. That’s basic biology.”

Yeah, fine. I’ll grant you that. It relates to the argument for why everyone in FE13 had to be straight: can’t have kids without a mom and dad. Except there are some pretty simple, obvious work-arounds for that, which gay people have been discreetly employing for ages.

The first and most obvious being surrogate parents! This’d be easy enough to set up. Just make it so that once Corrin reaches S rank with Niles or Rhajat, and they confess their love for one another, the player’s given the option to choose another character, one of the opposite sex, who Corrin has an A rank with to act as a surrogate parent for Kana. It’s not like it’d break the challenge or whatever, you put in the effort to reach S rank with someone, right? Couldn’t be that difficult to program.

There’s another option, too. Let me point your attention back a couple decades, to an earlier title in this series, Fire Emblem 4. FE4 was, to my knowledge, actually the game that came up with this idea of pairing characters together to create child characters. But here’s the thing. In FE4, when you had 2 characters fall in love, their child would become a party member in the second half of the game...but, if you did NOT pair everyone off, you would NOT lose out on a party member. The role that the child character would have taken on would simply be filled by a completely separate character, some other freedom fighter with their own personality and history. Their stats and abilities wouldn’t usually be as good as the intended child character’s would have been, but you didn’t just lose out on a character entirely.

So why not apply a similar solution to the issue of a same-sex married Corrin’s child? Instead of completely axing Kana from the game altogether, why not replace Kana with a separate child character--an adopted son/daughter for Corrin? He or she might be without the stat growths and such that Corrin’s actual parentage would have conferred, perhaps, but at least he or she would actually exist. Because surface logic or no, withholding a party member entirely from a player because they had Corrin fall in love with someone of the same gender feels an awful lot like a discriminatory penalty to me.

There’s also the whole Soleil fiasco. Long story short, in the original Japanese version, Male Corrin’s support conversations had him secretly adding a magical powder to her drink that made her see him as a girl instead of a boy, for the purpose of helping her become more used to being in the presence of attractive women so it wouldn’t distract her on the battlefield. A side result of this, if a romance with Soleil was pursued, was that she fell for Corrin along the way. A big deal was made about this situation by a lot of people, because, when some of these conversations are taken out of context, they seem to be making the case of support for the horrible, degrading, oppressive practice of conversion therapy, and also, it was kinda date rape-y with the whole making-her-drink-magical-drugs thing. Well, the situation was blown out of proportions, by and large, because when read within context of all the other parts of the support conversation chain, it’s fairly clear that the writers’ intentions were innocent, and saying that it advocates conversion therapy or anything like that is a bit of a stretch.**

That said...even assuming nothing but the best intentions here, it’s still a case of poor judgment, at the very least, to portray Soleil’s interest in women as an obstacle in any capacity, and to then have the approach to helping her with this obstacle involve her ingesting mentality-altering drugs without her knowing consent. I mean, Jesus, Nintendo, it never occurred to anyone in the writing department even once that there might be some dangerous implications in that? Even with the understanding of the full story of the conversation path, it’s still more than a little questionable, and it just sheds one more negative light on Nintendo’s treatment of same-sex attraction in this game. If for no other reason than the fact that they would be so completely careless with this particular character and her sexuality!

What I just don’t get is why it’s such a difficult idea for Nintendo to get used to, this concept that there are people--more than 2 per every 67--who fall in love with others of the same sex, and live in happy relationships with them. What has taken Nintendo so long to make any kind of effort to acknowledge and incorporate these human beings into its stories?*** Is it stuck in that incomprehensibly idiotic mindset that there’s something morally wrong with love that isn’t heterosexual? Or maybe Nintendo itself doesn’t really buy into that rot, but doesn’t want to alienate consumers who do? I know there are plenty of raging morons online who have complained that even the pitiful 2 same-sex options in FE14 shouldn’t be present because they have such a poor understanding of their own religion that they think homosexuality is sinful.

Which is ludicrous in the context of Fire Emblem, particularly FE14, I’d like to note. If you’re going to get up at arms about anything involving the romantic possibilities of this game, homosexuality ain’t it. I mean, this is a game in which:

-Cousins can fall in love with the second generation characters, and you can have Male Corrin marry Azura (it’s probably the closest thing there is to a canon pairing for Corrin, in fact), who turns out to also be his cousin. Now, granted, cousincest actually is legal in more parts of the world than it isn’t, including many first world nations, and genetically speaking, it is, I believe, not actually particularly dangerous for genetics as long as it’s not done frequently. Still, you’d think this would be more inflammatory to people than homosexuality.

-Corrin can marry his/her adopted brothers and sisters from Nohr, with whom he/she has been raised for nearly all his/her conscious life, AND
-Corrin can marry his/her (spoiler) adopted brothers and sisters from Hoshido, all of whom have lived their whole lives mourning Corrin’s absence as their sibling. Either way, we’re talking about Corrin hooking up with a man or woman that Corrin has a firm mental perspective of as being a brother or sister, and vice-versa.

-Nyx, a woman whose body is cursed so that it stopped aging at what appears to be 13 - 15 years old, can be romanced by any one of a number of adult men in the cast, and have their child.

-Hayato and Elise, two characters who look extremely young for their age (and Elise also acts as young as she looks, if not even younger), also can be romanced by adult characters and become parents.

-Male Corrin actually admits to Camilla during his romantic S support conversation with her that he’s been attracted to her for some in, from a time before the game starts, meaning that he’s admitting to have been attracted to her back when he believed she was his actual, biological sister.

-Soleil hits on her own mom. And it isn’t subtle.****

-Selena can, by marrying Subaki, become the mother of the reincarnation of her own mother.

-Kana can reach an S rank support--that’s the romantic level, to remind you--with his/her own uncle or aunt. No, seriously, totally possible. Let’s say you hook up Azura with Kaden (any first generation male who has a daughter will do, though), which produces Shigure and Selkie, brother and sister. Now let’s say that your Female Corrin hooks up with Shigure, which produces Male Kana. It is possible, in this circumstance, to then have Kana and Selkie reach an S Support--and again, in Fire Emblem terms, S Rank = Love. That’s Kana, who is the son of Shigure in this case, and Selkie, who is, here, the sister of Shigure. And yes, most of the S Rank conversations with Kana are pretty innocuous, with Kana talking about being best friends with the other person forever, and the romantic implications being very light. But I’ve chosen Selkie for a reason in this example, because in Selkie’s conversation with Kana, they outright say that they like each other romantically, and will be girlfriend and boyfriend from this point on.

-Camilla. Just...Camilla.

-Female Corrin can marry and have a child with Gunter. Gunter, who is like 30 - 40 years older than her, and, just for good measure, clearly established to be a father figure toward Corrin.

-Male Corrin and many other characters can marry Peri, a real, actual psychopath who has the mind of a child and is basically a grinning murder machine.*****

Oh, yeah, I can totally see how you’d want to limit how much same-sex marriage you allowed in this blushing maiden, no, this pure, pristine nun of a game. Jesus Christ, looking at Fire Emblem 14’s romance scene is like playing Fetish Bingo, and people are complaining about having a tiny bit of homosexuality in there? Unreal.

Anyway, I think I’ve said my piece and then some on this. I appreciate that Nintendo moved toward doing the right thing with Fire Emblem 14, really I do. But 2 same-sex relationships out of something around 150 can’t even honestly be called a full first step, and not only is it just too little of a gesture, it also doesn’t even make any damn sense when the game features more than 2 characters who have same-sex attractions. Nor does it make any sense to be reluctant to add homosexual relationships to this game when so much of its heterosexual romantic content is downright weird and/or far more risque. And that, combined with the issue of being problematically careless with Soleil and giving no thought to alternative solutions with the Kana situation, makes for an extremely disappointing first foray into representation of alternate sexuality. I’m sorry, but ultimately, Nintendo dropped the ball on this. Again I learn the bitter lesson: never trust a company enough to buy something before you know what you’re getting.

* And I just want to add, there are also a couple of characters who don’t actually show same-sex attraction, but really should be same-sex possibilities for Corrin. I mean, let’s face it, Silas’s devotion and friendship with Corrin is so strong that it already seems romantic anyway, and basically is if Corrin’s a woman, so why not just have him also be an option for Male Corrin? The character’s practically written for it already; hell, it’d be a lot less of a stretch than the majority of pairing possibilities in this game. And Corrin’s fast and powerful connection to Azura is such that it seems, again, like a natural gateway to romantic love, and is the case for Male Corrin. Really wouldn’t have been any stretch for Azura to be a romantic option for Female Corrin, too. And that’s just in regards to Corrin--there are plenty of other same-sex possibilities that are practically already in effect with the secondary cast, too. I mean, I talk about Silas’s devotion to Corrin, but Effie just plain lives for Elise.

** I don’t even think conversion therapy is a thing in Japan to begin with. A quick bit of research reveals no indication that it exists in the country to any real degree (good for you, Japan!), so it seems all the more unlikely that you can reasonably interpret that as an angle here.

*** In an official, significant way, I mean. There’ve been a couple Fire Emblem characters in the past, like Heather in FE10, who clearly weren’t straight, and heck if the entire Legend of Zelda series doesn’t seem more and more queer every time I look at it, but this is still the first time anything like that has been outright acknowledged and shown in a reciprocated fashion.

**** What’s funny is if you’ve set it up so that Camilla is Soleil’s mother, Camilla will actually say at one point that Soleil has “clearly taken after” Camilla. Just further evidence that Camilla should have been a same-sex option for Corrin. And that she’s really, really weird.

***** Although to be fair, Peri’s romance with Laslow is actually pretty sweet and compelling. But, y’know, in general, getting married to Peri is like exchanging vows with Chara from Undertale.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Guest Rant: Soma Bringer's EX Dungeon, by Humza

Well this is just peachy keen: another guest rant, and not just less than a year since the last, but only a single month! To say that I am pleased would be a gross understatement; I sincerely love the fact that I have readers interested enough in this blog to submit their own opinions, and the fact that I get to read new and interesting perspectives from them, and, it must be said, the fact that I'm off the hook to rant myself for a day. Hey, I'm actually legitimately busy these days. To me, a small break like this is something to treasure.

Today's guest ranter is Humza, who is gracing us with his words for a second time, after his debut rant about Energy Breaker. Humza's a damned fine gentleman who's done me multiple solids in the past, from providing me with a particularly pleasing moment in my life to generously buying me Valkyrie Chronicles 1 on Steam. And the hits keep coming from Humza now with a new guest rant that covers another RPG I have yet to play, Soma Bringer!

Disclaimer: I don't own Humza's words below, and they don't necessarily reflect my own perceptions and opinions. I mean, they might. But I wouldn't know just yet, not having played Soma Bringer myself.

Soma Bringer's EX Dungeon

April 19th, 2016

Soma Bringer is one of the better known fan-translated RPGs for the DS, being developed by Monolith. It has post-game content that extends the story, which this rant will mostly revolve around (and, naturally, there are spoilers ahead).

The game’s ending (which is a core part of why these dungeons exist from a narrative perspective) shows that the characters Idea and Adonis both merge with Aletheia to stop the Visitors from harming people, which essentially means that neither of these characters would be seen again. The EX Dungeons all chronologically take place before the party reaches the final dungeon, so Idea hasn’t merged with Aletheia at this point. But she keeps her memories, so it’s possible for her to take steps to avoid her death.

With the history lesson out of the way, I have to say that the EX Dungeons are pretty bad, even when post-game content like this is generally weak. From the description above, one would assume that finding out how and why Idea managed to go back in time would be a core part of the concept, but this is not mentioned at all beyond the first few lines of dialogue in the first EX Dungeon’s prologue. If Idea doesn’t act on her knowledge of being unable to meet the party again, then there’s just no point in going through the dungeons. It’s entirely purposeless and retroactively detracts from her sacrifice during the ending, since her inertia suggests that she doesn’t care about her fate, thus making her sacrifice seem less sincere. Monolith probably wanted to subtly convey a message here, but as typical of them, they mistake withholding information with subtlety.

Instead, the EX Dungeons focus more on developing the characters’ backstories more. And that's a positive addition! Or, at least, it would be if it wasn’t handled ineptly. Most of the information that is given during the EX Dungeons is mentioned previously in the main part of the game, like how Millers rushed to save Forte after the latter fell off a cliff. The only information given that’s not covered in the main game is Einsatz and Jadis’ history of being bandits, and it certainly isn’t worth traversing 51 floors in a dungeon for this backstory. There are plenty of dungeons in the main game that lack story content, which would be repurposed to tell this information in a shorter amount of time without losing anything of value. The most damaging aspect for developing characters’ backstories is probably the sparse dialogue, though. In that respect, it’s a bit similar to Persona 3’s The Answer, where the majority of interesting content is at the beginning and end (except the EX Dungeon’s content is probably only half as interesting).

The EX Dungeons aren’t entirely irredeemable; the writers could have opted for an approach similar to Tales of Legendia’s Character Quests, where different party members overcome hardships while revealing some of their history in the process, and Idea eventually implements a solution in the epilogue that would stop the Visitors without her death.

Soma Bringer’s main story was decent, but there weren’t any qualities that were really worthy of note, so there aren’t any high expectations on the EX Dungeons to be much better. Even despite that, the EX Dungeons disappoints because it opens up new loose plot threads and regurgitates events from the main game, without enough dialogue to justify the traversal of 100+ floors in a dungeon*.

* I’m not joking about the total amount of floors exceeding 100. You can go to the bottom of this page and add up the amount of floors in each dungeon. The total is 115, which makes for bad pacing considering the sparse dialogue.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

General RPG Protagonists' Worldly Naivete

It’s been noticed by many players that the main character of an RPG is often an amnesiac, or comes from a very isolated/sheltered/completely alien community. Final Fantasy 6’s Terra doesn’t remember anything about herself for a good third of the game, FF7’s Cloud has suspicious holes in his memory which take most of the game to be filled, Shadowrun SNES’s Jake wakes up in a morgue with no memory of how he got there, Planescape: Torment’s Nameless One does the exact same thing, the protagonist of The Magic of Scheherazade wanders about without knowledge of his own identity, The Witcher series’s Geralt is trying through the whole trilogy to properly recover his memories after (I think, haven’t played the third game yet) an encounter with the Wild Hunt, and so on and so forth. Meanwhile, Jude from Wild Arms 4 comes from a village in the sky completely isolated from the rest of the world, FF10’s Tidus comes from a city that seems not to exist in the world he finds himself dropped into, Tales of the Abyss’s Luke is a sheltered rich boy who’s never been allowed beyond the walls of his family manor, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 and 4’s protagonists are both kids from out of town, every numbered Fallout game’s protagonist comes from a Vault, an isolated tribal village, or another time, the protagonist of Jade Empire has been raised in a village distinctly set apart from the woes of the rest of the empire, Star Ocean 2’s Claude is an alien, and so on.

It’s a cliche often called into question by RPG players, and poked fun at in parodies like RPG World. A lot of comments I’ve seen made about this common narrative choice over the years have asked, reasonably, why this is so prevalent. Certainly, these tropes exist in all other media forms, but RPGs seem especially fond of protagonists who lack much, or even any, knowledge of their world. Why is that?

Well, as far as the amnesia goes, it’s often more or less the same for most other stories that use the concept of memory loss with their protagonist--the character has a major place in the immediate history of the story, and the revelation of this place is meant to be a huge plot twist. It’s a huge deal when we find out the truth of the events of Nibelheim in FF7 and Cloud’s role in them, and the entire purpose of The Nameless One’s quest in Planescape: Torment is to understand himself and resolve the conflicts of his past--for either excellent story to function, neither Cloud nor The Nameless One can know the full truth of their histories; the entirety of the plot would suffer for it.

The amnesia device, however, is not always used solely for the purpose of plot twists and driving the story. You can rightly say that Shadowrun SNES’s Jake’s memory loss is somewhat important to the story on the whole, but it’s not absolutely vital to it. A couple of interesting twists and revelations come from it, but I think it’s fair to say that the game could have been told almost the same way if Jake had remembered how he was almost killed, and what he had been doing at the time, from the very beginning. Likewise, the story of Final Fantasy 6 would change somewhat if Terra knew herself from the very start, but not, I think, too terribly, at least not superficially. Terra still would’ve needed to be evacuated and hustled on over to the Returners, Narshe would still need to be defended and its Esper put into contact with her, and the issues of the Magitek Factory and opening the gates to the Esper lands would still have had to be addressed. So why is it still so prevalent even when not necessary for the overall plot structure?

Simple! For the same reason that you have the frequent major characters who come from some totally isolated or alien community: because RPG worlds can be too damned nuanced to get by without consistent narrative to explain them. Fantasy and fantasy/sci-fi hybrids, which I would say are the 2 most prevalent categories found in RPGs regardless of which side of the ocean they originate from, are interesting in that they very frequently involve a HUGE amount of lore for their setting. Writers like Tolkien and the peerless Isaac Asimov set high bars of world-creation early in what we regard as modern fantasy and science fiction books, and tabletop RPGs like Dungeons + Dragons and Shadowrun followed suit, slowly but surely building up multiple canons for themselves as they evolved over the years. And no matter how far we think the RPG genre may have moved from its early stages when it was so heavily dependent on Dungeons + Dragons, you can still see that heritage glow within these games as their writers continue to imagine entire civilizations, worlds, even galaxies, plotting out their histories, their mechanics, their peoples, and their cultures down to sometimes ridiculously fine details.

And sometimes, once a writing team’s done figuring the majority of their world out and tying it intrinsically with the’s a lot to handle all at once. So you need a way to communicate to the player all the important and creative details which you have so painstakingly constructed.

For example, consider Tales of the Abyss. At first glance, its world seems a pretty standard fantasy-semi-sci-fi hybrid. But as you go through the story, one detail of the world after another is dropped on you, and you start to discover that this game’s setting is ridiculously complex. What you think is the surface of the world is actually an elevated shell built around a planet’s toxic surface, held up by high-magic devices known as Sephiroths, for reasons involving the long and relatively complex history of the world’s major religious organization, which follows a reasonably creative doctrine of beliefs and has its own internal politics, even though it’s the mediating force between 2 warring nations whose histories, military strengths, and cultures are also reasonably detailed. Plus there’s a whole thought-out system of magic which is incorporated into the lore of the world itself, and this godlike consciousness of fate that hangs out in the planet’s core, and I don’t even remember what else; there’s a lot in there.

That’s a hefty paragraph’s worth of explanation right there, and that’s just a vague, incomplete summary of the major stuff! That doesn't even go into the nuances of royal heritage, national histories, the lore of individual characters and small villages, the makeup of the various militaries of the world, and so on. Imagine trying to make an intro sequence that explained all the necessary details of the world of Tales of the Abyss in a single go. It’d take a damn hour! No one would sit through or remember even half of it. What alternative is there? Well, have the characters of the game explain the relevant details as they go, naturally. You don’t need to know about the Sephiroths right from the start, nor most of that other gobbledygook. It only needs to come up when it needs to come up. But, of course, then you have the other question: why would the characters constantly be talking about things that most of them would already know about? If these are the facts of their world, surely everyone who lives on that world should know most of them. Maybe not everyone in the USA can tell you who Russia’s political leader is right now, or even find Russia on a map, but I’m pretty sure any one of them could at least tell you that the world is round and that oceans have water in them--and that sort of basic knowledge of simple world mechanics is some of the stuff that has to be explained in a game like Tales of the Abyss.

So how do you make it work? Make the protagonist (the only member of the party that you’re pretty much guaranteed to have around at every part of the story) someone who, for legitimate reasons, actually doesn’t know all the details of the world he lives in. Luke fon Fabre was kidnapped as a child, so his parents kept him in their manor for his whole life, sheltered from the world, and thus he knows virtually nothing about his world, not even the basics. It’s simple, it makes sense, and now, whenever a new part of the lore of Tales of the Abyss becomes relevant to the plot, Luke can have it explained to him, and the player can learn as well.* Easy!

How lesser would the twists and progression of Final Fantasy 10 be if Tidus already knew all he needed to about Spira, and we had nothing explained to us? How difficult would it be for us to acclimate to the considerable lore of the Hexer (Witcher) series if Geralt’s fuzzy memory didn’t require the people who know him to ease him back into his role? How frustrating and contrary to the pivotal idea of exploration would it be for us if the Vault Dweller, Chosen One, Lone Wanderer, and Sole Survivor already knew everything there was to know about their section of the Fallout world and could go straight from Point A to Point B on their quest?** How bland would the revelation of the land of the Unclean Ones in Shin Megami Tensei 4 be to the player if the party already knew all about it and had already mentioned it in passing?

Incidentally, while this is typically something that occurs with the protagonist, it bears mentioning that it’s not always the main character who fills this role. Sometimes a support character is used as the one whose inexperience allows for the explanations that get the player up to speed. Nina in Breath of Fire 5, Galuf in Final Fantasy 5 (who’s a double-whammy of foreigner AND amnesiac), and Elena in Grandia 2 are all members of the party who play this role as necessary, leaving the much more worldly protagonists free to, well, actually know something.

That said, obviously this is not always a necessary trope. Wild Arms 3 pulls an interesting half version of this in that everyone remembers recent times, but memories of the world past 10 years or so back are getting progressively fuzzier. It relates to a huge plot point that’s pretty neat. Still, until that twist, the naive protagonist schtick isn’t really important; WA3’s world is straightforward enough that you can just roll with it as it goes. Final Fantasy 4’s storytelling gets by just fine with Cecil knowing as much about his world as any bloke might be expected to. Radiant Historia tells its superior story even as Stocke knows more about the world’s lore than even an average guy would...and that game’s actually complex enough that a naive character for explanations wouldn’t have been amiss.

And it’s also not even necessary in the games where it does exist, sometimes. Frankly, I don’t think that Star Ocean 2’s world was complex enough that we really required Claude to be a Star Trek refugee to figure it out, and lord knows not a single other piece of that lousy game actually lived up to the idea of it being the sci-fi game it was touted to be. Likewise with the world of Wild Arms 4--the plot and lore was not nuanced enough to really need Jude to come from an isolated sky village. Now, you might point out that his origins also are an integral part of his character, so giving Jude an upbringing more connected to the rest of the world would have changed his personality fundamentally. And you’re probably right. But you know what? Any change at all to Jude’s character would have been just fucking fine with me.

There are also some cases where this storytelling device really isn’t enough. Fei from Xenogears comes to mind. Fei might have been from an isolated village, and partially amnesiac to boot, but the timely lore explanations that gave us still weren’t nearly enough to make sense of the pretentious, quantum physics plot circle-jerk that is Xenogears.

But anyway, yeah, there you go. You now have a long, boring explanation for why this idea keeps showing up so damn often in RPGs, and other stuff, but especially RPGs. You might have figured this all out by yourself, of course, but, well, I’m bored and I like seeing myself talk. Deal with it.

* Now that I think about it, The Legend of Korra did this exact same thing, didn’t it?

** I always found a slight annoyance in Fallout New Vegas’s Courier. There’s nothing, if memory serves, to suggest that the Courier should not know the New Vegas area adequately (he/she’s a damn delivery boy/girl, for heaven’s sake, that’s a job that requires geographical and cultural knowledge!), yet everything is (by necessity) introduced and spelled out the same as it would be to any other Fallout protagonist who actually has a reason for not knowing anything about the area. I mean, I guess you can say that the shot to the head could’ve caused amnesia, but I don’t think that’s ever actually stated or even implied by the game, and the Courier’s dialogue options frequently suggest clear memories of events prior to getting shot.