More important than the leading man

Games are supposed to give us a playable hero to identify with – a central figure who is just that little bit stronger, smarter, sassier, and generally better than everyone else created to support them. They’re designed to be the first person you notice on the cover and when playing they’ll get all the best lines and the lion’s share of cutscene reaction shots, because they alone matter and everyone else mostly exists to help this person – this digital stand-in for your own amazing self – be as incredible as the long-awaited prophecy surrounding their birth tells them they are.

Final Fantasy XII gives us Vaan. Vaan. The poor penniless street kid obliviously bedecked with huge lumps of turquoise, ornate jewellery, and fancy armour. He’s not strong. He’s definitely not smart: at one point the game spends an entire cutscene dwelling on how stupid he is for asking a grown woman of exceptional beauty and apparently advanced years her age. And he’s not the secret prince of a forgotten kingdom or hiding an awesome power guaranteed to blossom at exactly the right moment in the most spectacular FMV sequence you’ve ever seen either. He’s nothing more than what he appears to be when we first meet him; an orphaned teen, the same as so many other Rabanastre children – a commonality that instantly demolishes a potentially tragic backstory other tales would have mined for emotional trauma until the very end – who wants to do a lot of very little, engage in petty theft (sorry, “liberate Dalmascan currency for Her people“), think no further than five seconds into the future, and while away his lazy days dreaming of becoming a Sky Pirate with no particular idea of how to go about it and in his circumstances no realistic chance of succeeding either – he may as well dream of becoming a spacecop (or a dinosaur).

And what’s worse than Vaan and his infamous (and now remastered out of existence) abs? Penelo. Not only is she ordinary but she’s sensible too, holding down a boring informal job for a local shopkeeper and telling Vaan off for being an irresponsible hypocrite during her introduction. She exists to keep him down, to stop him – and by extension, us – from doing anything fun, her disapproving humphs landing like lead balloons when compared to the wider cast’s easy-going charm and fascinating lives. Just look at them: There’s the disgraced knight of a fallen land, the dashing flirt with the tragic past, the would-be queen of an occupied kingdom, the magic-sensitive bunny warrior woman, the well-spoken prince sneaking off in search of the truth – screw these bland kids and their generic NPC-like personalities, why are we wasting our precious time with either of them?!

We “waste” our time with them because they both have a well-defined purpose, one employed by storytellers across all mediums for millennia: Vaan and Penelo exist to play the role of the audience surrogate, their lack of experience the perfect excuse for the better travelled and more educated members of the party to explain what would within the setting be everyday customs and occurrences without it sounding unnatural. “Ah! The Franglescip 4000! A handy tool and just the thing I need to perform some emergency maintenance on the Whoopcube, which as we all know is very important because it powers the entire ship!” is the sort of awkward dialogue you can end up with when two kids like these aren’t around to say “What’s that for?” or “How does that work?” for our benefit. They also let us know how to react, and their sincere “Woah~“s whenever something amazing’s happened let us know that whatever we’ve just witnessed isn’t a common sight in this fictional society but something genuinely out of the ordinary.

But there’s more to it than that: they’re also the heart of the game, they’re the grounding factor that gives the more fanciful people and events in the story meaning. How kind and cultured would the “greater” members of the cast be if they spent a world-saving story’s length only associating with people as “special” as themselves? What use is a princess who only waves at her loyal subjects from a high balcony instead of actually engaging with the people she’s supposed to protect? Why even pretend the main party’s fighting for the good of the oppressed, the ordinary, and the downtrodden if the plot deems them unworthy of its (and your) time?

And what’s wrong with being ordinary anyway?

Nothing, as far as Final Fantasy XII’s concerned. Vaan and Penelo are rightfully deemed worthy of participating in this Ivalice-shaking tale by virtue of their existence alone even though in terms of the standard RPG character hierarchy they’re sub-nobodies with no special skills in a genre that constantly tells us the only people worth listening to or playing as are either blessed from birth with magical abilities or the right to rule over others, or otherwise supposedly “ordinary” people that soon turn out to be chosen by destiny, the descendant of a great hero, or just so happen to be best friends with the goddess next door. These two teens show us that a person’s value doesn’t have to hinge on having a backstory worthy of a mainstream superhero, not even when the people they travel with all fit that extraordinary mould. Vaan may begin the game ready to burst with undirected rage and grief over his older brother’s death but he soon learns – by himself – that letting go and moving on is the healthier alternative to his previous self-defeating path. He fixes himself, and he does it without any help from the mind-bending flashbacks or complete collapses of psyche and solo battles against phantoms of the past that usually go with a hero’s journey to mental wellness. Vaan may not be book-smart, but he’s clever enough to know that clinging onto the past won’t help him build a better future. Throughout the story his straightforward attitude is used to cut through Ashe’s royal pride and remind her of what she should be fighting for – a better future for her people, not her own bitter quest for vengeance under the paper-thin guise of “justice”. And what about boring old Penelo? She’s the plain-as-heck orphan who becomes firm friends with future emperor of the Archadian Empire Larsa Ferrinas Solidor – the same empire that took her homeland by force – and also learns much from her time spent in Fran’s reserved vicinity, the two developing a quiet sort of mentor/student relationship that neither portrays Penelo as stupid for not knowing much of anything beyond her home city’s walls (why would she when her daily life before the game began revolved around not starving to death?) nor reduces Fran to a motherly role. Her allegedly “dull” safety-first outlook on life is also swiftly shown to be entirely justified: Vaan did get thrown in prison by punishment-happy Archadian troops for causing trouble, and if Balthier and Fran hadn’t been there to help then that’s where he would have lived out the rest of his short life too.

Crucially Final Fantasy XII stays true to its belief that being completely normal is all it takes for a character to be worthy of an audience’s time all the way through to the ending. The closing scenes – presented mostly a monologue given by Penelo, the most ordinary cast member of them all – makes it clear that a year later; now Ashe has finally claimed her throne, Basch is busy protecting Larsa in his deceased brother’s stead, Balthier and Fran are off being charismatic and adventurous in nigh-mythical places, herself and Vaan are… not all that different to when first met them, living nothing more exciting than a better version of the life they already had in a city that’s back to the way it used to be. Why should they wish for anything else? Why set up a story where characters fight for peace and freedom if none of the cast are capable of living within that new and hard-won world?

Final Fantasy XII is a remarkable game for many reasons, and one of them is that it truly believes the “lesser” NPCs – the people – whether milling around its streets, selling potions in its shops, or offering small rewards in exchange for the completion of simple side quests, are absolutely worth the lengths you have go to to protect them even though they don’t wear fancy clothes or in most cases directly do anything that benefits you. It’s a tale that’s been written from a place of empathy and consideration for the oft forgotten, for the “boring”, for those who have to live in whatever’s left of the world those eye-catching warring nobles leave behind.

For Vaan and Penelo.

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