Mushroom Soup For The Pixelated Soul
One of the longest-running debates with Final Fantasy fans is whether or not Final Fantasy VI has an established protagonist. Those who subscribe to this theory do so under the pretense of the game routinely switching party leaders, thus giving players a variety of character perspectives. For those who do believe the game to feature a central protagonist, they often give that role to Terra; it’s hardly a stretch, given how much of the overarching story revolves around her, not to mention that she is present in both the beginning and the end of the game (even if players choose not to recruit her during the World of Ruin).
But there also exist a third group of people who insist that both Terra and Celes share the lead role, both because of the parallels in their character development, but also because of how the game puts Celes in the lead role during the second half, even taking Terra’s place during the final encounter with Kefka, where all of the recruited party members fight back against his claims of human despair with their individual hopes…shortly before fighting back in the more traditional sense.
Regardless of which theory you subscribe to, the discussion of which Final Fantasy characters are best suited to have the leading role in their respective games is an interesting one, which is why I’ve decided to form my own list of characters who I believe may work as alternative protagonists…and possibly better, in both the narrative and thematic sense.
1. Rydia (Final Fantasy IV)
This one is a bit of a cheat, as I personally feel that Cecil fits the protagonist role in Final Fantasy IV perfectly. Despite being one of the early games in the series, as well as the second one to feature a story with developed characters, Cecil’s tale of betrayal, redemption and revelation is still heralded as one of the all-time greatest in RPG history.
However, it is worth thinking about Rydia’s own role in the story, and how closely it mirrors Cecil’s. The two of them first meet in the middle of a violent tragedy that is the result of the actions of the Kingdom of Baron. Though Cecil did have a hand in the destruction of Rydia’s village and the death of her mother, she is quick to forgive him and vows to stay by his side during his journey to fend off against Baron’s forces. At a certain point, Rydia is separated by Cecil and the rest of his party to undergo training with the Eidolins, where she later reemerges older, wiser and more powerful.
Rydia’s growth, both spiritual and literal, neatly mirrors Cecil’s own transformation from Dark Knight to Paladin. Like Cecil, she learns to shed away her own insecurities, emerging more mature and more powerful than she was at the beginning of the story. And like Cecil, she also receives support from her fellow party members, whether it be the motherly love given by Rosa or the more romantic advances from Edge.
If nothing else, Rydia deserves to be acknowledged as the second most important character in FFIV’s story. Her encounter with Cecil not only starts off their respective stories, but in a gameplay sense the two are tailor-made to work together; Cecil’s Paladin ability to protect target party members works in Rydia’s favor, as he guards her from enemy attacks while she continues her incantation to summon a powerful room-clearing Eidolin. This gameplay mechanic also fits in nicely with Cecil’s vow to protect the young Summoner, further cementing her importance in both the story and Cecil’s own personal growth.
It certainly makes more sense than putting Kain in the secondary role, considering how for most of the game he’s either missing or brainwashed.
When will Rydia get logo recognition?
Final Fantasy V is another game where fans may debate over who the established protagonist is (in the case of FFV and FFVI, let’s pretend for now that Dissidia doesn’t exist). On the surface, Bartz would seem the unquestioned main character, as he is the first character players take control of and is also featured in the original game’s box art. It also helps that FFV has a much more basic and cliched storyline compared to FFIV, making it only natural that the adventure-seeking hero (who first comes into the scene to rescue Lenna, a princess and literal damsel-in-distress) would be classified as the protagonist.
But in a narrative sense, Lenna has much more stake in the storyline; the very beginning of the game starts off with Lenna receiving the task of investigating the Wind Crystal, the very action that kickstarts Bartz’ journey and eventual meeting with the other party members. There is also Faris, the pirate captain who holds two secrets: her gender and her familial ties with Lenna. Aside from Galuf and Krile, the latter who becomes a late third act addition, Lenna and Faris are the only characters to share a relationship in the story, and both have their own separate-yet-equal reasons for taking part in the journey. Bartz, meanwhile, only tags along because “adventure”, and possibly “cute girl”.
Consider how much more interesting Faris is as a main character; though she severed her ties with her family and kingdom, she feels duty-bound to help her sister restore the Crystals. In fact, while Lenna continues to fall under stereotypical moments of peril, Faris is often seen as the one who comes to her aid, moreso than Bartz in fact. There is also the matter of character development, what little there is to be had in FFV’s sparse story; while Bartz undergoes a pointless flashback and an even more pointless acknowledgement that he is the “chosen hero”, Faris’ growth is much more personal as she learns to accept her birthright, not because of duty but because of her repressed love for her family. She even goes so far as to undergo a physical change (albeit briefly) by accepting her role as one of the two princesses of Tycoon, which means ditching the androgynous pirate garb for a royal dress that brings out her repressed feminine charm. Though Faris is less-than-enthused about this change, it does signify a spiritual and physical growth of the character, just as Final Fantasy IV did prior.
It should be noted that this is also the last bit of character interaction the game offers before turning into a player-controlled fight to save the world. With all the notable scenes beginning and ending with the two sisters, they might as well get recognition as the protagonists for this game.
Gilgamesh’s story is a continuing epic spanning multiple Final Fantasies
There is probably no Final Fantasy protagonist who receives as much hatred from fans as Marche from Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. Tidus, Vaan or Lightning have nothing on the frequently memed protagonist of FF’s GBA debut, who is frequently seen as a douchebag who stops all his friends and crippled brother from enjoying an objectively better life at Ivalice on the grounds that none of it is “real“. For anyone who actually played the game to completion, there are much bigger justifications for why Marche couldn’t just let everyone live in blissful ignorance, but in the end it is hard to root for a guy who takes away a child’s ability to walk and another child’s wish to reunite with his dead mother.
Which is why the story of FFTA would have worked so much better by making Ritz the main character. The problem with Marche is that he leans too far into one side of the moral argument, while Mewt (the established “antagonist” of the game who rules over Ivalice with a resurrected facsimile of his dead mother) leans too far toward the side of denying reality.
Ritz, on the other hand, sits squarely in the middle of this ongoing feud. While she initially embraces Ivalice like the majority of the cast, she is eventually swayed by Marche to undo the spell that changed their world into a living breathing Final Fantasy (which honestly continues to sound incredibly cool no matter how many times Marche whines about it). This likely has to do with her reasons for wanting to live in a separate reality to be rather flimsy: she just wants to have a different hair color.
However, because Ritz doesn’t have such a strong stance in this conflict, she works better as a protagonist who wants to enjoy the ongoing quests and party gatherings without stressing too much about the how’s and why’s. The real reason this change, works, however, is because it would also put Marche in a non-player role, which would further improve him as a character. Rather than being someone who constantly pontificates about the necessity of embracing reality over fantasy, imagine if Marche was a character that Ritz would frequently have conflicts with; then, during a late-act twist, he reveals his reasons for wanting to dethrone Mewt: because the Ivalice that Ritz has been living in is a complete lie, as are the people she had formed strong friendships with. A shocking revelation like that toward a character without a strong ideology would prove much more effective, as she would be left to wrestle with the decision of helping Marche or Mewt, rather than immediately coming to the conclusion that FFTA’s original protagonist made. From a narrative standpoint, it would prove much more interesting than the game constantly spoon-feeding you the “evils” of living in a fantasy world.
It’s a pretty well-known fact that Basch was originally planned as the protagonist for Final Fantasy XII, only to get passed over for Vaan (whether focus testing groups favoring the more effeminate design of Vaan over the rugged and older Basch had any impact toward the decision is considered more speculative than objective). I have written before how Final Fantasy XII’s troubled development wound up leaving a large chunk of the original design and vision left in the cutting room floor, but this one simple change of protagonists is probably the most unfortunate.
Consider how quickly Vaan’s storyline is resolved and how little it matters in the grand scheme of things; he comes face-to-face with Basch, who has been accused of murdering his older brother Wrecks, only to learn that it was in fact Basch’s twin brother, a tired cliché that even soap operas don’t use anymore. Vaan accepts Basch’s testimony all in the span of two cutscenes, and he just hangs around for the rest of the adventure because…”adventure”, I guess.
Imagine if Square had stuck with the original plan and passed the role from Wrecks to Basch instead; we would know about the whole twin brother frame-up from the start, which would turn it from a flimsy twist into a narrative crutch. Imagine taking on the role of a formally imprisoned knight whose name has been smeared in the mud, with a story so ludicrous that no one would ever believe it. It would be like The Fugitive: we know that the hero didn’t make up the story about the one-armed man, but everyone else would either be dismissive or skeptical over such a fake-sounding defense.
The notion of playing a protagonist who is wrongly accused and hated by virtually everyone around him brings to mind Final Fantasy Tactics and its main character, Ramza. This was probably the influence that Matsuno was going for, which would have made for a far more interesting narrative in FFXII. Even if this version of the game suffered the same fate and had its storyline and concepts cut mercilessly short, the premise would have at least survived a big longer rather than players forgetting what Vaan and the party’s main goal was in the first place.
Final Fantasy XIII continues to be one of the most divisive entries in the series (possibly the most divisive), but there is one thing that the majority of fans tend to agree on: Lightning was the best character in the game…which is why a lot of fans have also grown weary over Square Enix milking the heroine’s popularity for all it’s worth.
As for the rest of the “Not Lightnings”, most fans will show support for Sazh and Fang but utterly condemn anyone else. Whether it’s Snow’s insufferable optimism, Vanille’s almost-sexual squeaks and squeals, or Hope’s…youth…FFXIII’s cast of party members receive almost as much flak as the game they starred in (or the sequels in which they partially starred in).
Which is why my final choice for protagonist swapping may end up the most controversial of the bunch. In a decision that many may deem ludicrous, I have realized that Vanille would have made a far, far better protagonist for Final Fantasy XIII than Lightning. If you haven’t flipped over your nearest table in a rage over that claim, keep reading for my reasons why.
First, consider the narrative stakes both characters possess: Lightning starts off the journey attempting to break out her sister Serah from the shackles of Sanctum, only to end up failing to prevent her fate as a l’Cie. Lightning and the other party members are then branded as l’Cies and spend the rest of the game fleeing from their pursuers. For much of the story, Lightning is a soldier on the run, doing her best to keep everyone alive for as long as possible and defying both her enemies and her fate.
Vanille, on the other hand, is the very reason this whole mess started in the first place. She was the one who first came into contact with Serah, resulting in her branding as a l’Cie, an event that takes place prior to the game itself and told in flashbacks. Through various other revelations and events that I won’t get into detail over because it’s both lengthy and confusing, she and Fang are tasked with destroying the world, but choose instead to stand by their friends and put a stop to the main villain’s plans. Needless to say, both the beginning and the outcome of the story rests on Vanille and Fang’s shoulders, while Lightning is merely the muscle tasked with seeing them through on their journey.
It’s a known fact that Lightning has been described as a “Female Cloud”, both by the developers and fans. While the latter use that term mockingly, the former use it to describe their creation process toward Lightning and FFXIII in general.
Consider the following, however: if Lightning is the Female Cloud, then Vanille may in fact be the Female Tidus.
Both are characters who begin their journey waking up in a new, vast and unfamiliar world, with no knowledge of the culture around them. The only clue both of them have is that they are indirectly tied with the very troubles of these worlds, a notion that they choose to keep secret for fear of persecution. Both also put on a false personality to mask their inner struggles, attempting to come across as the life of the party while caring little for how ridiculous they may come across. And during the big climax of their respective stories, both face off against the very gods that seek to destroy their worlds, and both end up sacrificing their very existences in the end in order to save their newfound friends.
One of the biggest complaints about FFXIII is how little the game explains its world, terminology or even characters to the player. This is a stark contrast to FFX, which uses Tidus as an avatar for learning all of the various customs and cultures surrounding Spira. It is through Tidus that players learn about Guardians, Summoners, Sin, Fayth, Fiends and dozens of other terms without breaking the overall narrative. If players had assumed the role of Vanille right from her awakening, we too would learn about the world of Pulse and Cocoon just as she learns it.
Putting Vanille as the main lead also puts Fang as a secondary lead. Whether you’re part of the fanbase that ships the two characters in a romantic light, having Fang act as Vanille’s protector throughout the game would still be a refreshing dynamic, as the last female duo to share such a role was Lenna and Faris. This in turn would also make Lightning look better as the silent battle-minded soldier, a decision that ended up getting huge amounts of praise with Mad Max: Fury Road.
Obviously, the execs at Square Enix realized that marketing a Female Cloud was a far more popular decision than Female Tidus, but had they chosen to go this route, we may have ended up with a far more cohesive storyline with Final Fantasy XIII, and very likely a better game with a more appreciated cast of characters as well.