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 plot...it’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.