Friday, August 26, 2011

He's ok as long as he's not the leading man.

I have finally come to terms with Vaan and realize that he is a good choice of a character in Final Fantasy.

Hold on now.  Before you take up your pitchforks in rebellion, or ask David to commit me to a mental institution, allow me to elaborate.

Over the last few months, I've played through the story mode of the second Dissidia game, and short bouts of Final Fantasy Tactics A2:  Grimoire of the Rift.  Rather than cringing every time Mr. Painted-On abs took the screen, I was chuckling at his appearances.  It wasn't until a particular conversation with David yesterday, after a stint with FFTA2 that it hit me:

I was able to tolerate, and even like Vaan this time around because he wasn't the main character of either game.

While it's extremely popular to dislike Vaan due to Final Fantasy XII, in reality, he is a solid character that shines most as a supporting character.

To explore this idea more fully, we're going to take a brief look at FFXII, while also looking at his appearances in other games.

Final Fantasy XII (Spoilers abound, so be careful)

We've talked about the backstory behind the development of Final Fantasy XII in previous posts:  In short, the game we received was not the game we were supposed to get.  While any creative endeavor is rarely to the artist's full satisfaction, Final Fantasy XII is a special case.  Yasumi Matsuno, the original producer and co-director left the project midway through.

One can only speculate on the number of things that might have been different if Matsuno had stayed on.  One thing that numerous sources have made clear is this, however:  Vaan was not originally intended to be the main character.  In fact, both Vaan and Penelo weren't even created until later in the development cycle, with the former being cast as the lead in place of Basch.

Really, this shouldn't come as a surprise to almost anyone who has played the game.  Something about the pacing of the narrative in the game feels off, and even a little slow at some points.  It's like Vaan was copied and pasted into the game in a way he didn't belong.

Dig back into your memories of FF12 and consider how the game might have flowed, however, if Vaan wasn't forced in as the lead, however.  Certain scenes would have had more of an impact if Basch were the lead:  For example, Gabranth's betrayal of Vayne at the end would have been a much bigger deal.  His subsequent death in the ending would have had more of a meaning, rather than leaving us wondering "Wait, did he really die?".

"You guys go focus on what's happening outside.  I'm sure I'll be fine."

The possibilities are numerous, but let's move onto where Vaan actually works:

Dissidia 012

Dissidia is not exactly a masterpiece in storytelling, admittedly, but it manages to work pretty well for a crossover.  Here, Vaan's story is simply one slice of a larger tale.  His story mode manages to be fairly amusing:  He runs into Terra and manages to break her away from Kefka's control.  He even manages to outwit the villain in an amusing way before escaping with the girl.  It's a lighthearted fare that induces a few chuckles while containing a bit of action.

But not the kind of action this screenshot implies.
See?  He's not trying to steal the limelight.  He's not forced down your throat.  I was initially displeased when he was announced as a pick for Dissidia 012, but I ended up actually enjoying him in the story.  It didn't hurt that he was actually a good character in battle, too.

Final Fantasy Tactics A2

In FFTA2, Vaan makes a cameo in a few of the storyline missions before joining your team alongside Penelo.  The events of A2 take place some time after FFXII, so Vaan and Penelo have achieved their dream of becoming Sky Pirates.  The game's narrative strikes a balance between showing that he's grown in some ways since the ending of 12, but curbs it enough so that he's not as awesome as Balthier (because let's face it, that wouldn't be believable at all).

Yet it's enough to make him an interesting addition.  Plus, it doesn't hurt that they gave him a cosmetic change that makes him look awesome:

It's amazing what the simple addition of a shirt did for this kid.

Concluding Thoughts

Dissidia 012 and FFTA2 highlight the fact  Vaan just doesn't have what it takes to be the leading man in the series.  It underscores a more important point too, however:  Consider that Final Fantasy XII is part of the Ivalice world, which has spawned games that are known for graver themes in their stories.  Consider that one of the larger criticisms of the handheld Tactics game is that they appear to be too "childish" (though if you look at them carefully, there are some pretty dark things going on there).

Casting Vaan as the lead in one of these stories does not completely remove the gravity from the situation, but forcing him into the central part of the narrative does much to dull the potential of the tale.  Placing characters like Vaan in supportive still allows them to shine, maintain significance in the story, yet not take away from the overall plot. 

After all, even the most annoying, or lackluster lead can be salvaged with the right supporting cast doing what they do best:

Because if Jade was the main character, everyone would be dead.

Square-Enix would do well to remember this the next time they think their actual main character can't hold up story.

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