It's that time again: time for me to rest on my sorry ass as though complaining about RPGs was something hard to do, and allow 1 of my readers to treat you all to a different perspective. And our guest ranter today is, once more, the esteemed and helpful Humza! Thanks yet again, buddy!
Disclaimer: As ever, I don't own Humza's words, and they don't necessarily reflect my own opinions and observations. Although I can say that his thoughts below are quite logical and compelling, and if I don't entirely agree with all of them, I do agree with most of what Humza says, and have adjusted my perceptions accordingly. He's a pretty convincing bloke.
In Defense of Young RPG Protagonists
March 22, 2017
It's a common complaint that lots of RPGs (especially Japanese ones) have protagonists that are too young to go on a journey to save the world. Most of the complaints seem to come from people that don't like JRPGs in the first place and someone like that probably wouldn't read this, but maybe it'll interest some of the readers here anyway.
The complaints seem to be centered around it being unrealistic for a group of teenagers to go on their quest* and that it would make more sense to replace the cast with a group of adults. Let's get the more boring defenses of them out of the way first...
This is probably the most common reason provided for why JRPGs commonly use young protagonists, since the main demographic of video games in Japan (and this genre in particular) are teenagers, and the players would presumably be able to relate more to the characters if both share similar ages and go through similar situations. For example, many teenagers gradually start to acquire more responsibilities (even if those responsibilities often revolve around spending more time studying and doing simple errands for parents) and young protagonists in RPGs usually have few responsibilities before their adventure. The type of responsibility differs (saving the world is a much more impactful burden in comparison), but a parallel could be drawn where the errands feel like a similarly huge burden in the players' minds, if some eisegesis is used (although I don't agree with that).
Easier to develop characters
It shouldn't be too hard to see how character development is easier to write for a younger character. In most cases, but not all, younger people are more easily swayed in their ideas and beliefs than older people. It's not profound or thought-provoking, but this quote by Miyamoto illustrates an example of that. Since older characters are more rigid, more drastic situations are needed for them to develop. This could lead to characters that finish their development earlier, as with Yuri from Tales of Vesperia, who (I'm told) becomes static around halfway into the game. It is possible to develop older protagonists well, like Stocke from Radiant Historia, but the main reason to choose an older character is used by writers seems to be (considering it's a commonality between older protagonists) so that they are more experienced in their field (both of the aforementioned characters being knights in renowned organisations), and using drastic situations to show that the character needs to progress could conflict** with the appearance of them being experienced, so it's harder to write. Stocke from Radiant Historia is portrayed that way (perhaps intentionally) when he falls to an enemy that doesn't have a huge significance to the plot.
More importantly, it's common (at least, from my experience and what I've heard from others, which is admittedly limited anecdotal evidence) for people to more actively develop their identity starting from that point, which weighs more heavily on the scale of character development than the amount of experience that characters have.
Fewer conflicts between gameplay and story
This kind of ties into the previous point about older characters normally being more experienced, but an experienced character has less reason to change and improve if they are capable of tackling the problem without a strong need for change. The traditional RPG leveling system is suited to characters progressively improving (there's probably a correlation that can be drawn between physical strength and the mental state of a character since both usually develop in RPGs) over the course of a game and this ties to characters getting more experienced (it's called EXP for a reason, so this is probably obvious...), which is hard to do with an older, more experienced character. For example, Shepard from Mass Effect is around 30 years old and one of the strongest characters in the setting, but it's easier than it should be for him to get killed by a low-level grunt during gameplay. (This isn't a knock against Mass Effect since the gameplay probably benefited from having the mission-based experience system it did and the problem isn't too noticeable, but you need to go through more mental gymnastics to make logical sense out of it).
I don't think any human being or group could be attributed as having saved the world, but there is some (rare) historical precedence of young people having accomplishing great things. The most common example would probably be Jeanne d'Arc, who helped the French army in a war with the English at 18 years old, which is almost comparable to the protagonists of the first two Suikodens, since they also lead armies to victory against another country. Alexander the Great has a somewhat similar story where he started engaging in (small) warfare at 17. Those RPG protagonists are still far-fetched compared to this, but they don't seem quite as unlikely considering what young leaders have done in the past. The setting in some of those RPGs is also technologically closer to the places the aforementioned leaders came from than it is to the 21st century, so the concept of adolescence may not be a limiting factor that exists in those worlds. (It's possible the concept might limit what adolescents are likely to accomplish since most young leaders I found were before the Industrial Revolution, but that might be offset by the increased life expectancy giving people more time to do great things).
I'd be interested in any comments on this since it strays from things I've usually written in the past, and I probably overlooked or got something wrong. Thanks for reading!
*It seems arbitrary to draw the line for realism at young people helping the world become a better place, and not at more unlikely things in RPGs, like magic existing.
**Most people seem to improve aspects of themselves when it becomes a necessity since the reason behind improving is much more compelling in that case.