Adolescence is one experience we all can relate to in one way or another. Stories abound about this, the most awkward time of life, but never have I seen it so vivid than in JRPGs. Most take on the classic plot line: adolescent male leaves a familiar surrounding for a bigger life. You can’t throw a rock in the JRPG section of your favourite video game store without hitting a game with this sort of hero. So why are they so widely used, and what makes them interesting even after all this time?
Most main characters in JRPGS very rarely reach past eighteen. They find themselves answering the call to adventure at a very young age. We have to suspend our disbelief with more than just the heroes of these games, since their worlds are filled with magic and wonder which we are forced to take as the status quo. Then, we are given an adolescent hero, rather then the trained soldier, or the experienced mercenary. When a huge dragon comes to attack (which they often do), how far are we meant to suspend our disbelief? I do not think any mother in their right mind would let their child out on a dangerous quest. But that may be what separates fantasy from reality.
What does fit are the gameplay mechanics. In RPGs we grind and grind until we are high enough level to defeat an enemy. We get stronger and stronger, and learn more abilities. Isn’t this some big metaphor for growing up? As the adolescent gets older, he becomes better equipped for combat. He can wield more powerful weapons, and take down more fearsome foes. You start by attacking slimes or sewer rats, but as you get stronger, behemoths and giant mechs become more of a challenge, rather an impossible battle. Where there was once some stuck up little brat, a hero is born. This shows in character development as well. Characters begin immature and full of angst, but as they travel, they become more mature and begin to understand their meaning in the story: They become ‘adults’.
Final Fantasy XII’s Vaan is a great example of this. The story begins with a homeless war orphan, whose tasks consist of errands, but soon finds him accelerated into a political drama who grows and matures into a great warrior. A lot of people do not like Vaan’s character in this respect as at the end of the day, he’s just some young kid with no real place in the world. But isn’t it more than that? Vaan seems to be one of those characters you could yank out of a game and not have the story change. However, being considerably younger than the other characters and of that social ranking, it is amazing that he is put into that situation. He’s mindless, but he manages to become part of this world, and eventually grows up by the end. And above all, if you level him up enough, he has the highest overall stats in the game: enough said.
As English speakers, we do not tend to have a focus on adolescent heroes, but we have to remember at the end of the day that JRPGs are not made specifically for us as a market: JRPGs are made for the Japanese; and not just any Japanese, but for young males, or shounen. No matter how much we old folks like to rant, these games are made for younger generations. There are a variety of JRPGs with themes that really suit players in their late teens/adult years, and the later Final Fantasy games were made with an international market in mind. But I’ve discovered that if the main protagonist is younger than eighteen, then chances are that it was aimed towards that demographic. Kids in the west particularly enjoy Call of Duty (who are remarkably good at the game) a lot more than a good RPG, but in Japan, the scenario is entirely different.
I’m not sure whether or not I’m overly fond of playing out the story of some little boy. I’m 21 now, so the adolescent warrior did not connect to me as much as it did when I was 14. However, with age comes wisdom. You begin to understand different aspects of the game a lot better. There is still potential to connect with the character, because as I stated before, we all grow up. At the end of the day, the adolescent hero is at times a very untrue stereotype. These days especially, the hero is aging. This isn’t a good or bad, it’s just a choice. Maturity is one form of character development, so I’m not complaining. We all love a character we can connect with. It is easy for someone of the same age to connect with a character, whether you’re ten of fifty, we can still make that connection because we have had similar experiences: I haven’t found myself fighting a pack of wolves, but the bullies at my old school were equally as fearsome, but compared to my Vice-Principle, Ruby Weapon has no show.