August 26, 2011

The leading man

This is an ode to Balthier, the leading man of Final Fantasy XII.

I may have lied. This not really an ode. And Balthier isn't really the leading man of Final Fantasy XII. But he almost was, and he almost is, and this may be an ode to him after all.


Balthier remains my favourite character from Final Fantasy XII and he is also one of my favourite FF characters of all time. But why? Let's find out!

"Hmph. I daresay I've soiled my cuffs. If a dungeon's waiting for us at the end of the night, it had best have a change of wardrobe."

An important factor in Balthier's lure is the overall quality of Final Fantasy XII's game design. Despite numerous shortcomings it's truly a great game. The mechanics work well and give the player a lot of space to experiment. I think Margaret Robertson's post Final Fantasy XII, Wasting your time the scientific way over at the late Offworld blog sums up a lot of what's so great about the game. Specifically this passage hits very close to home:

Simply getting to watch a complex and beautiful machine do its stuff is captivating. What FFXII does is give you the chance to build that machine, and then stand by like proud parent and watch it go. Tweaking Gambits lets you take incremental steps towards perfection. Each time you try a new technique or set a new priority you get closer to the ultimate goal of being a perpetual killing machine, a super-efficient, zero-emission, friction-free engine of domination.

That's the very essence of what's so great about the game's mechanics. They are crunchy and tangible. The mechanics are not just sets of causes and effects running in the background, smoothed and simplified for the player's convenience. No, the core of the game's mechanics are felt viscerally at every junction, and are open for the players to experiment with.

The most tangible of the mechanics is the Gambit System: the programmable battle AI you endow each of your characters with. Through the Gambit System, the player has total control over what each party member will do in almost any given situation. You can create a Vaan who charges head-on towards any enemy, or a sly and ruthlessly effective Balthier who stays back and rains down barrage after barrage of projectiles and magic upon the monsters. Or you can equip Balthier with a gigantic hammer and have him smash monsters left and right at the head of your party. There are guidelines, sure, but very few hard limits. Through the License Board, a character advancement system of a sort, the characters can be further modified to your liking. My Balthier, for example, leaned rather heavily on strong magic and healing spells instead of raw physical strength and attack skills.

What the Gambit System and License Board do is they allow you to add your own flair to the predetermined characterization of the party members. And that's important! Player input is important in player-character interaction in all games, but it's especially important in FFXII because of the way the game's story is shaped and told. FFXII places emphasis on an epic story, operating on a scale that doesn't really include the characters. The characters of FFXII can seem distant because - unlike most other Final Fantasies - the game's story is not really about them. It's about bigger things, events of glacial scale and framing. The characters are merely operators in a chain of events so large that their individual story arcs tend to get lost in all the drama. In short, they are not driving the story.

The malleable nature of the characters is certainly something that makes Balthier, Vaan and the rest of the gang feel a lot more personal and distinct. The way they are open to player modification makes them more real, more defined. A very good case in point is Penelo. She is a nice addition to the party, but since I had no great interest in her as a character (and neither did the developers, if screen time and characterization are anything to go by), she would have remained totally uninteresting for my whole playthrough had I not had the option to actively create some personality for her through the Gambit System and License Board. True, even then she's merely a fun customizable doll to hang gambits on, which is not a very flattering thing to say of a character, but nevertheless the game mechanics managed to make her interesting even when her fundamental characterization didn't. The mechanics elevated Penelo enough to make her memorable, which shows just how powerful a tool player input can be when used for characterization. Making an unappealing character into an enjoyable one via game-mechanically enabled player-driven characterization is quite a feat.

But then, Balthier has something more to him. Something that makes him more than simply game-mechanically enjoyable. To find what that is, we have to look past the mechanics and observe him in the context of story and narrative.

There's a very persistent character role in many of the Final Fantasy games, as well as in many other games. The role most likely has a sprawling entry over at TV Tropes (everything does), but I've accustomed to calling it the Second Man. I use the word "man" because, at least in Final Fantasy, it's usually a male character that holds this position, and also because the role is most often filled with someone whose characterization leans quite heavily on the character traits often associated with masculinity and manliness.

A character occupying the position of the Second Man acts as a compliment to the leading character. They might be physically more powerful than the lead character (at least in the beginning of the game) and act as kind of mentors and teachers, but also as friends and accomplices. In a sense the Second Man is often someone well-informed of things such as the game world and the game's mechanics. Second Men are at times used to provide tutorials and act as stand-ins for the game developers, pushing the player character forward wherever and whenever needed. Of course, as the game progresses, the influence of the Second Man tends to wane somewhat. The exact role and function of a Second Man varies from game to game, though, so this is not really a very tightly defined character type.

The most stereotypical Second Men in past Final Fantasies are by and far Zell from FFVIII and Wakka from FFX. They both represent the "jock". A sporty, somewhat slow guy with a lot of power and a heart of gold. Final Fantasy VII's Barret also exhibits very similar tendencies, acting as a boisterous employer-come-sidekick. And of course there's also FFXIII's Snow, the insufferable lump of a bro-dude who would surely be the most hated character of FFXIII if not for Vanille. In essence, the Second Man is the stereotypical alpha male of the player party, who is usually shadowed by the less stereotypically masculine (and, as time goes by, more powerful) player character. The player character, in the end, has more control and authority, but the Second Man tends to act bossy, especially early on in the game. (As an interestign side note: The relationship between the player character and the Second Man often borders very close to the tsukkomi/boke dichotomy of Japanese comedy.)

The Second Men vary greatly, but what remains the same is the role they play in the player's party. The Second Man is someone who is almost as cool as the protagonist, but with either under- or over-developed characteristics that mark them as less desirable (or perhaps less identifiable, as the two so often go hand in hand). Zell is noisy and seems to irritate great many of his peers, and Wakka has enthusiasm to spare but is gleefully simple-minded, for example.

The Second Men seem to be catalysts for doing various things. They rush out to meet impossible odds, they don't believe in things they see, or they believe in them blindly. They are all about doing, going and moving, and are determined to drag the player character with them. (The same also goes in reverse: in games where the PC is rushing straight into danger, Second Men tend to be cynical and doubtful, balancing the lead character's youthful enthusiasm with a more reserved composition.) In a sense, the Second Men are very straightforward simplifications; characters that resist becoming full and rounded because they are created with only the very simplest of outlines in mind.

Balthier should be FFXII's Second Man. But he isn't. He's as close to a Second Man as it gets in FFXII, yet he isn't one. (You could, of course, argue it's actually Basch who is the Second Man of FFXII. I think he's too detached from Vaan and, well, from everything else as well to fill that role, but I admit he exhibits some of the relevant characteristics.) Balthier is impulsive, rash, and is overly eager to make the jump to the unknown. But where the Second Man tends to be almost-but-not-quite as cool as the protagonist, Balthier is actually totally on par with Vaan. Balthier's impulsiveness has a dangerous, calculating flair to it: he's not just doing whatever he thinks is for the best, he actually has a plan. In FFXII Vaan is the one who wants to blindly crash into danger, and Balthier is the one who, though entirely as eager, actually seems to be in some control of the situation. Yet Balthier isn't really the kind of cynical reverse-type of Second Man described earlier, either. He is far too involved and active (or optimistic) for that. His eagerness matches Vaan's, and rather than acting in a complimentary role he always seems to be stealing Vaan's show, vying for the title of the, in his own words, leading man. Or, in more game-mechanical terms, Balthier is constantly aiming to become the player character.

All in all, it's an interesting (and long-due!) role-reversal where the archetype of the Second Man is broken and reconfigured, and also where the protagonist's traditional position as the supreme hero is challenged.

Vaan: Who are you?
Balthier: I play the leading man, who else?

It's this play between Vaan and Balthier, and their relation to the status of leading character, that makes up for a large part of FFXII's, and Balthier's, allure. Vaan is of course the real intended main character of the story. His point of view is the one the story follows and his journey from a street urchin to an almost real sky pirate is the most obvious character development arc in the game (though Ashe's travails easily match Vaan's). But while Vaan is the intended protagonist, Balthier doesn't come very far behind. He takes the lead as often as Vaan, Ashe and Basch do, and in terms of characterization, he isn't at all behind the others. Though the limelight belongs to Vaan and Ashe, Balthier contributes to the story in notable quantities.

Vaan and Balthier work remarkably differently as characters, however. The traditional FF hero is someone who sets out to do something (Cloud hired by the Avalanche, Squall graduating and getting work, Tidus enlisting as Yuna's bodyguard), and ends up tangled in something a lot bigger (Cloud with Sephiroth and the whole identity-shaking business, Squall with evil sorceresses and forgotten pasts, and Tidus preparing to destroy Sin and, ultimately, facing his father). The basic story is about increased personal investment (Cloud transforming from a cold mercenary to someone who actually cares about people and the planet, Squall finding ways to communicate with other people and trust them, and Tidus solving his father issues), and is usually related to the deepening relationship between the male and female leads (Aeris as the sort of a personification of the Planet, Rinoa getting involved with the power struggle of the sorceressess and otherwise in need of rescue as well, Yuna's travel becoming more emotional along the way as the true element of sacrifice is revealed).

What's common with many of the FF plots is that the protagonist sets out to do something that leads them into getting drawn sort of accidentally to the tumults of the actual, bigger, plot. The protagonists develop stronger resolve and reason for their actions only after the plot has significantly advanced.

Final Fantasy XII does things differently. Vaan goes against the prior protagonist model in that he is actually very determined to fight the empire from the beginning. He doesn't need to be drawn into anything bigger because he is already actively seeking out trouble. Vaan has his reasons for getting invested: he hates the Empire and probably harbours something of a crush for Ashe, too (even if that doesn't go anywhere). For Vaan, the whole business with the Venat and Occuria is a tangent blossoming out of the overarching narrative about warring nations. Vaan starts out with smaller goals and gets drawn to the big mysteries only later on, sure, but defeating the spooky god-creatures and their control over Ivalice is penultimate to defeating Vayne and stopping the threat of war, and freeing Dalmasca from the long period of occupation. Vaan's ambitions, desires and goals need not change during the story. Vaan need not change as the result of his actions, nor of the actions of others.

"I’m only here to see how the story unfolds. Any self-respecting leading man would do the same." -Balthier's answer to Basch as to why he's tagging along.

Balthier on the other hand does the classic FF protagonist thing by having initially no great interest in the central plot elements, but getting dragged along nevertheless. Whereas Vaan is motivated by his inner desire to topple the empire, protect the people and so on, Balthier is in it for loot and adventure, and only later admits that things are getting personal as well as professional. His sky pirate bravado starts to crack when the plot arc with his father is introduced, and at the end of the game he is obviously a changed man, though still retains much of his bombastic ways. To writ, Vaan has an agenda, while Balthier just tags along on somebody else's quest. Balthier's initial agenda is something totally unrelated to the story at large (he's out lootin'), and his investment in the game's plot deepens as he becomes more emotionally attached to the other party members, and as his personal past is revealed and linked with the main storyline. In terms of their place in the narrative of FFXII, and in the context of traditional FF leads, Balthier reminds a PC a lot more than Vaan does.

All along while playing Final Fantasy XII, I had the feeling that Vaan was the one in whose place I inserted myself, the one through whom I operated in the game world, the interface if you will, and Balthier was the one I emotionally related to. Balthier, as a character, is a lot more resolved and stern than Vaan. Vaan has the drive and motivation to challenge the Empire, yet Balthier is the one I felt most strongly drawn to. In cut-scenes, Balthier seems to be the one who comments on things, whereas Vaan is used mostly when someone has to say something obvious or funny, or when the occasion clearly calls for the player character to participate in the action. In a sense, Balthier was what I expected from the protagonist of a Final Fantasy game, and Vaan was more of a... I don't know, a viewpoint?

This whole Vaan/Balthier thing and FFXII having a binary lead character dynamic shouldn't of course come as a surprise. When Final Fantasy XII was in the early days of development, Balthier was actually going to be the main character. As the legend goes, it was thought that Balthier was too mature for the core audience of FF, so they made him into a party member and created Vaan to answer the needs of the hypothetical average FF fan. Apparently one of the arguments flinged over the desk when Balthier was axed was that Vagrant Story didn't do particularly well. Except it kind of did, but maybe it didn't do, you know, Final Fantasy well. And Vagrant Story definitely had a more mature protagonist, who, now that I think about it, bears some resemblance to Balthier, even though their personalities are very different. The executives mused that having a more mature lead would cause less than optimal sales, and so Balthier had to go, being replaced by a younger, more feminine hero. I don't know how much of this is true. The developers have been vague about the particulars of the game's troubled development, and all I know are bits and pieces of information the real validity of which I have no means of checking. It seems legit, anyway, but should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Despite the game design drama, Vaan and Balthier actually compliment each other very handsomely. Whether it's an accident caused by the divided protagonist creation process or an intended dynamic, Vaan and Balthier really feel like two different sides of one character. They are essentially the one and the same, only tuned differently. Vaan is nothing more and nothing less than a younger, less experience Balthier. Vaan has the ambition and panache of Balthier, but lacks Balthier's finesse. Balthier has more cunning, more self-restraint and more sense than Vaan, but he still retains Vaan's boyish charm and impulsiveness, even if it is lined with a cynical edge.

In Final Fantasy XII's character dynamics, Balthier is more like the traditional leading character and Vaan is more like the enthusiastic Second Man, yet the game would suffer if either character was missing, or their roles reversed. It's interesting! And fresh in the context of Final Fantasy!

"Princess! No need to worry. I hope you haven't forgotten my role in this little story. I'm the leading man. You know what they say about the leading man: he never dies."

The final component that makes Balthier into something more than just another character in the player party is the game's writing, and the way it fits with all the other elements of the game.

Final Fantasy XII has superb writing. Yes, the plot is kind of iffy on more than one occasion, and many of the characters are either vague non-characters or totally irrelevant for both the plot and the player. But the overall epic yarn is sound, and though the characters remain secondary to the scenery and to the greater plot structures, they nevertheless are written pretty well. I simply enjoy learning new things about them, and I love to hear what they have to say about the world they live in.

The dialogue flows easily and the inter-party dynamics, though limited, offer insight and enjoyment. But what this has to do with Balthier, really, is that the game's good writing is especially obvious in his characterization. The clash of protagonists is cleverly written into his character: Balthier is conscious of his position as Vaan's rival in the race for protagonisthood, which is evident in his habit of constantly emphasising himself as the leading man during cut-scenes. The plot's reluctance to elevate any of the characters to the status of a clearly defined protagonist only lends more power to Balthier's bravado. His act is not merely cocky egocentrism, but actually an honest attempt at fulfilling the one role clearly missing from the game. He doesn't fill it, of course, but the attempt sure warms my heart. Seeing the game acknowledge Balthier's aspirations compliments both the game's overall writing as well as Balthier as a character.

The previous 3000 words essentially boil down to three primary reasons for why I like Balthier:

  • He has the support of an innovative game design which allows players to experience the kind of Balthier they want.
  • He surrenders to a delicious competition with Vaan for the role of the game's protagonist.
  • He has backup from the game's writing that seamlessly meshes with the aforementioned vying for protagonisthood.

In short, Balthier has a strong personality backed up by the game's story and endorsed by the game's mechanics. He broke free from the traditional supporting role he apparently was meant to inhabit, and managed to settle himself somewhere between the Second Man and the Protagonist. Obviously I like his personal history and overall character design too, but what truly makes him stand out is the way he has unhinged some of the most entrenched tropes of Final Fantasy.

Despite all his bravado, Balthier isn't the leading man of Final Fantasy XII, not really. But that's exactly what makes him so interesting. He almost was, and he almost is, and that uncertainty is one of the most titillating experiences game characters have ever given me.

August 02, 2011

Review: Ghost Trick

I finished Ghost Trick 6 months ago and loved every second of it. After revisiting the game today (It’s amazing how much free time you have when recovering from pneumonia.) I realized the love hasn’t gone anywhere, and as such I though I ought to mention it in some way here, in the vast reaches of the internet. If you haven’t played the game yet, I urge you to do so. It’s beautiful.

The following post is based on a review published in the Finnish magazine Japan Pop, issue 2/2011. I’ve made an attempt to avoid spoilers, so it’s safe to read even if you haven’t played the game. (Avoiding spoilers makes it rather cursory, but it’s a price I’m willing to pay when reviewing a game that’s so delicately dependant on its mysteries.)

Mens Sana in Corpore Sano
A sound mind in a healthy body

The opening act of Ghost Trick focuses on a murder. This is not unusual in fiction, I know. Except, this time the one who dies is Sissel, the game's protagonist, which stirs things up from the get go: Who was just murdered? The protagonist, sure, but why? What did he do?

Sissel. True to the game’s lead designer’s love for puns, Sissel’s name derives from the japanese word シセル (shiseru), which is the katakana form of the word 死せる (shiseru, to die). This in itself is quite punny, but it gets even better! Shiseru is also a conjugated form – the potential form, to be exact – of 資す (shisu, to have a hand in; to play part in something). So, Sissel’s name means both dying and influencing. Note that by writing the name in katakana, Takumi obscures the exact meaning, thus incorporating both interpretations under one name, which is very fitting for Sissel.

Luckily, the universe is merciful and lets the unfortunate hero stay within the mortal realm until daybreak. Within this time limit, Sissel must unravel the mystery of his own death as well as help a whole bunch of other people who are related to him and his murder. The details of the situation are left somewhat vague, however, as Sissel suffers from the most frequent of game protagonist maladies: amnesia. He has no memories of himself and is totally clueless about the rest of the world as well.