Role-playing games have a long and storied tradition, dating back to the 1970’s when games were played with pen and paper in our living rooms. From their earliest beginnings, RPGs have drawn on a consistent set of familiar tropes to populate their perilous worlds – creating archetypes that can be found in RPGs far and wide. In this series, we examine some of the most common RPG archetypes, and delve into how they have been implemented across the genre’s rich history.
So far in this series, we’ve looked at two core archetypes found in RPGs. One, the Warrior, can be found in almost any role-playing game, as an essential element that is at times ubiquitous with the genre. Our look at the Merchant, meanwhile, showed how even characters often relegated to the background can provide rich storytelling and gameplay experiences in the hands of the right creator. Both of these archetypes have produced some of the most memorable characters in RPG history, and stand as shining examples of how tropes can be used to both fulfill and subvert expectations.
In today’s edition of RPG Archetypes, we’re examining one of the most important and, at times, most difficult to balance tropes in all of fiction (RPG or otherwise): The Hero.
When discussing this archetype, we’re talking about more than just “the protagonist of the story.” We’re talking about a specific combination of character elements that make someone not just the hero of their own story, but THE hero of the story, with all the associated baggage that comes along with it. We’ll look at how both classical and modern interpretations of the hero have been used over the years, how our understanding of what makes a good hero has evolved, and how developers have both succeeded and failed in making these legendary heroes relatable and fun.
The Man, the Myth, the Legend
The core essence of the hero archetype, no matter what medium you’re working in, is the sense of wish fulfillment they impart on the audience. Children tie towels around their necks and pretend to be Superman. They throw fake punches, kicks, and energy blasts at each other in an attempt to emulate Super Saiyan Goku. They argue over who has to be the villain, the sidekick, or whatever other throwaway character may be available in their game of make-believe, all so they have a shot at being the hero. The classical hero is everything we aspire to be. Talented, strong, gifted, and destined for a grander fate than regular men.
In the early days of role-playing games, the hero often stood front and center in the adventure. They came with a collection of talents and personality traits, all focused on making the player the most powerful and plot-relevant person in the room. Classic RPG heroes come with both excellent combat skills and an array of magic spells. They are brave, heroic, and ready to jump at the call when evil raises its ugly head. Oftentimes, they are the “one last hope” of the world, sometimes destined by fate to be the only one capable of defeating a grave threat. This combination of both talent and destiny form the core of the classical hero – someone who fills the wishes of every young boy or girl who wants something more out of life. They wish they were stronger, faster, and smarter. They wish they were destined for some great, heroic future. And with role-playing games, they got just that.
The early Dragon Warrior games on the NES are rife with this classical hero trope. In Dragon Warrior 1, the player character is a descendant of the great hero Erdrick, who once banished evil and saved the kingdom from ruin. Now, the player must set out to follow in their ancestor’s footsteps, honing their abilities and regathering lost artifacts to defeat the dragon lord. Over the course of the game, the player slowly builds up their skills, learns about the lore of the world, and continually upgrades their arsenal to take on progressively more difficult threats. Once deadly enemies become trivial as the hours go on, and the player is blessed with a sense of progression that is the core of any great RPG. This process is repeated in future Dragon Warrior games – along with a myriad of other titles in the early days of the genre – placing players in the shoes of the legendary hero time and time again.
An Exercise in Unlikeability
Of course, as RPGs have evolved, so have the elements needed to create a compelling hero. Modern RPGs demand more intricate narratives, complex and nuanced characters, and a winding plot with twists, turns, and surprises along the way. The classical hero – quiet, compliant, practically faultless, and a paragon of virtue – doesn’t quite fit the mold anymore. Whereas the more story-lite games of the 8-bit generation allowed players to fill in the blanks around their hero as they saw fit, the ever-expanding storytelling capabilities of later generations required developers to fill in those blanks themselves – and not always successfully.
As countless writers of DC Comics Superman (or Marvel’s Captain America) can attest, writing a story around a morally flawless and limitlessly talented hero can be a real challenge. These heroes are just as often boring boy scouts as they are role models. Real heroes aren’t flawless. They don’t always make the right choice, and they aren’t always the best equipped for every challenge that comes their way. Failure makes for a compelling story, as it forces our heroes to rise above adversity and show WHY they are admirable. For a story-rich genre like RPGs, the classical archetype quickly falls apart.
This problem is readily apparent in Fire Emblem, Nintendo’s tactical RPG franchise. Characters occupying the hero archetype in Fire Emblem games typically fall into two camps: First, they may be “create your own character” player avatars, with gameplay strengths and weaknesses defined by the player’s choices. Or they fall into the “Lord” job class, a central hero – usually from the nobility of some medieval kingdom, who has the save the world from a grave threat. Sound familiar? Unfortunately, the latter characters can often fall flat from a characterization standpoint. The Lords like Eliwood and Chrom are naturally gifted and always do the right thing, with their only mistakes rooted in the machinations and trickery of some adversary, rather than their own personal failings. They are, to borrow a literary term, Mary Sues. And of course the player avatars fall into a different trap, as despite their skills and appearance being defined by the player, they often can do little else to effect the overall plot of the story. They exist to create the illusion of choice and dynamism, without the reality.
Breaking from the Mold
The obvious answer to this problem, and one embraced by many RPG developers, is to abandon the classical hero archetype entirely. Modern heroes may be as varied in personality, temperament, and background as any other character in the story, while still clinging to the same gameplay mechanics found in RPGs of old. Contemporary heroes are still typically locked into the player’s party, usually have a good balance of stats that put them a notch above other characters in the game, and they still often take center stage in the game’s plot, being the brave and heroic soul who will save the world. However, many modern RPGs abandon the air of destiny, fate, and heritage, and instead embrace the literary hero’s journey – where the hero comes up from relative obscurity and achieves their status as savior through hard work and determination. They are not pawns of fate, but makers of it.
Personality-wise, you can still find a few common tropes in modern RPGs, particularly those coming from or inspired by Japanese culture. These tropes typically come in one of two flavors.
The first group is angsty and introspective, found brooding the background just as often as they can be found leading the charge against the great evil. The Final Fantasy series embraced this version of the hero archetype during its transition to 3D gaming, as both FF7’s Cloud and FF8’s Squall have been known to fall under this umbrella. While in his original game, Cloud can be just as sarcastic and chatty as he can be broody, later iterations on the character – such as those seen in Advent Children and the Kingdom Hearts series – embrace the quieter, melancholic version of the character with abandon. This kind of character can be found throughout modern RPGs, and draw players in by combining their tortured personality with what we can only call “badassitry.” The darkness becomes a lot more attractive when the character walking through it carries a man-sized sword on his back.
The second group of modern heroes goes the opposite direction, drawing inspiration from popular shonen heroes. These lovable, talented goofs come with all the same perks – amble physical and magical skill and the bravery the plot demands – but can also be bumbling, carefree, and outright stupid at times. Sora, hero of the Kingdom Hearts series, falls squarely in this camp. He’s fun-loving, caring, and sometimes a little absent-minded, but will also thrash uncountable hordes of heartless if it means saving a friend from danger. Protagonists in this same vein are found throughout modern RPGs, providing us with heroes who not only save the world, but have a blast doing it.
The Silent Protagonist
Of course, all of this is not to say that its impossible to succeed at playing the classic archetype straight. Some RPG series – Square Enix’s Dragon Quest chiefest among them – hang on the oldest trope for RPG heroes – the Silent Protagonist. Despite being surrounded by talkative (and sometimes voice-acted) companions, the silent protagonist keeps his mouth shut throughout the adventure, leaving it up the player’s imagination to fill in the gaps. While not as easily executed as in the NES era, these quiet heroes still work surprisingly well, under the right circumstances. The recent RPG/minecraft mashup, Dragon Quest Builders, uses a silent protagonist to great effect. Not only does the player get a some sense of the Builder’s personality throughout the adventure, but the game also frequently makes light of the trope in game, with villagers frequently asking why the Builder just stands around with “a dumb look on his face.”
Giving the silent protagonist a readable personality is ever the challenge, which can be overcome in a variety of ways. Outside of the statements made by surrounding characters, developers may also choose to have the hero mime certain actions to communicate and show their emotions. In Super Mario RPG, Mario will tell entire stories through pantomime, with great comedic effect. On the flip side, RPG developers will also use dialogue choices to help the player better craft a personality for a silent protagonist in their mind. KEMCO’s Dragon Sinker, for example, frequently gives the player the opportunity to portray the main hero, Prince Abram, as either the classic paragon of virtue or as some kind of bigoted fool. His elvish and dwarven companions may be treated with admiration or disgust, giving the player the chance to show Abram as either the driver of their character development or as someone simply dragged along for the ride against his will.
Of course, not every use of the silent protagonist is successful. For every Dragon Quest V – a game often lauded as the best in the series and great example of how to do the hero archetype justice – you get a Dragon Quest IX, where the hero has little more personality than “I like to help people.” Striking the balance for this and other versions of the hero archetype is an ongoing and ever evolving challenge for RPG developers, who must keep their heroes fresh while still making them HEROES. The demand for powerful and emotive stories and the desire for heroic wish fulfillment can often run at odds. The best developers know how to reconcile these needs into a cohesive whole, thus creating some of the best and most memorable heroes in RPG history.