Gender Tropes in JRPGs (Part 1)

Among my favorite types of video games are JRPGs (or RPGs in general) – “Japanese Role-Playing Games,” for those unfamiliar. I play for the beauty and depth of character and story. I find that no matter how corny the dialogue or cliché the characters, these are the games that I will always play to the very end because I can’t get enough. Similar to my guilty TV pleasures—including but not limited to Desperate Housewives, Pretty Little Liars, and Degrassi—I can’t get enough of the drama and suspense involved with a good, gripping JRPG.

However, along the lines of the “cliché characters” I mentioned earlier, it’s hard to not notice a pattern emerge when you’ve played enough of the characters. I will not be so naïve to presume that I’m the first (or second, or third…) to notice the archetypes that appear in most, if not all, of the mainstream JRPGs that exist these days, but I wanted to take a new spin on things and perhaps examine the “less-than-PC” nature that exists in quite a few of these games when it comes to the types of characters represented, and my personal opinion of whether they make a positive role model or an offensive monstrosity.

Due to the long nature of my original article, however, I will be splitting this up into two parts. This first will include the character archetypes I consider to be the “main” characters of the games, while the second will feature more secondary (while still prevalent in every JRPG) roles.

Protagonist Examples: Tidus (Final Fantasy X), Fayt (Star Ocean 3: Til the End of Time), Lloyd (Tales of Symphonia), Crono (Chrono Trigger), Dart (Legend of Dragoon)

First off, I’d like to begin by stating that most of what is going to be mentioned herein will likely apply to protagonists outside of the realm of JRPGs and even the realm of video games altogether. For some reason, although we are definitely moving toward the right direction with NON-heterosexual-white-cis-male protagonists in games and stories, we are doing so at a snail’s pace. However, we should appreciate the strides being taken for what they are.

That aside, I tend to find that the Protagonist (here with a capital ‘P’ indicating I’m referring to the archetype as opposed to the general definition of the word) is ultimately rather boring. He—and it is always a ‘he’—is often a privileged but brooding white male who is suddenly thrust into chaos when a major change affects his life, be it the destruction of his home town and murder of his friends, an upheaval from a life he’s always known, the awakening of an inherent ability deep inside him, or some other crazy turn of events, this character is never quite prepared for what takes place to set his story in motion. In addition, he usually has a name (such as Crono or Fayt) that is a VERY obvious indication of his importance and perhaps some other strange feature that sets him apart—strange hair color seems to be a really common one, but although the character is the only person with that hair color in the game sometimes, it never gets mentioned as being strange by any other characters. I’ve also seen the hair color be different from every person in the game except one other person who turns out to be SPOILER ALERT the Protagonist’s true father…as if we couldn’t see that one coming from a mile away.

All in all, setting aside the fact that this character is always a straight white male, I don’t have any particular problems with his “generic” do-gooder nature. I believe the purpose of this cookie cutter personality is to allow you as the player to project your own nature onto him, but sometimes he’s just TOO good and naïve. Sometimes, you just want to strangle him and say “NOOO. Trusting the enemy is NOT worth it to save this random person you just met! They will probably turn out to be evil and betray you anyway!” or “NOOO. You do NOT have to help this shopkeeper obtain 10 hides of various monsters! We are literally trying to save the world; we don’t have time for this!”

Also, he will always fight with a sword, no matter what technological advances the character’s world has access to. Always a sword. ALWAYS.

Love Interest Examples: Yuna (FFX), Sophia (Star Ocean 3), Colette (Tales of Symphonia), Marle (Chrono Trigger), Shana (Legend of Dragoon)

This character (always a female because as we said above, the Protagonist is always a straight white male) will be either “royalty” of some sort—a princess, the high summoner’s daughter, the “chosen one”/ritual sacrifice—OR the Protagonist’s best friend from childhood. Regardless of her origins, however, she will be even MORE of a goodie two-shoes than the Protagonist somehow. She is ALWAYS a healer too because god forbid we allow women to do anything more than support their male counterparts, and when they do have power, it’s never the actual Love Interest’s power; it’ll be the power of beasts she is able to summon or an inner magical ability of some sort as opposed to the raw strength of her male counterparts.

Back to her martyr complex, however, the Love Interest will always put everyone above herself, usually without even giving anyone else a choice. She knows better than everyone what could be best for the world after all—which usually involves her own sacrifice for a temporary solution. I’ve always found this character to be largely ignorant and short-sighted. She believes her life means virtually nothing compared to everything else in the world, but considering her ability to heal her own party members, and the power of the team as a whole, why would it not occur to her (until explained, of course, by the much more logical/rational male Protagonist) to try something else for a more permanent solution? Instead, she chooses to accept everything at face value and rarely thinks for herself.

This character is (arguably) one of the historically worst types of characters in JRPGs in terms of a role model. Because the Love Interest is weak and constantly in need of saving and/or protection by the male protagonist, she ends up falling into the worst kind of anti-feminism stereotypes of the weak woman. Thankfully, times are changing, and so are these characters, but changing them overnight would merely throw off the entire “equation” for a successful JRPGs, so the changes are gradual.

Bromance Examples: Wakka (FFX), Cliff (Star Ocean 3), Zelos (Tales of Symphonia), Frog (Chrono Trigger), Lavitz (Legend of Dragoon)

This character is often highly shipped by LGBT communities with the Protagonist…or maybe that’s just me (does no one else think Dart and Lavitz are more in love than Dart and Shana?). Either way, he tends to be the strongest physical attacker of the group (while the Protagonist tends to be more powerfully balanced overall). Due to his brute strength, he also tends to be the dumbest or simplest character of the crew as well, leading to him also playing a large role in comedic relief. Typically, this character is one whom the Protagonist will meet during his adventures, but in some cases, he has known the character for a long time. One way or another, the two will form an extremely close bond, hence while I call him the Bromance.

The major downside to this character is his demeaning or womanizing attitude toward all female characters. He often has many romantic or sexual misadventures and, due to a lack of intelligence or his misogynist nature (or a combination of the two), he tends to get slapped a lot. However, he means well, and there’s nothing he wouldn’t do for his friends and teammates.

All in all, this character is typically higher up on my list of favorites. He’s loyal, funny, and despite his flaws, he means well to all, and who could find fault in such a friend? Plus, erotic fanfic of Bromance and Protagonist…so…there’s that.

Overall, we can see that many stereotypes persist in JRPGs—the strong and stupid male, the privileged white man, the frail and irrational woman. However, I would posit that this is not due to some sort of antiquated notion of how men and women are meant to react (though that’s a valid viewpoint considering societal views of gender in Japan), but rather an over-the-top representation of these characters in order to achieve a higher rate of retention and engrossment. Everything in this world is dramatic and exaggerated, so why not have these archetypes be so as well.

In fact, there are many instances in which the Protagonist acts irrationally or does something morally wrong to further the storyline, and his inherent “good” nature helps to emphasize these moments, highlighting growth and change over time. Similarly, the Love Interest might have a moment where she must save the Protagonist or defend herself, and that scene becomes extra exciting because it’s unexpected for her character. Instead of thinking of these characters in the extreme sort of “She CAN’T take care of herself” or “He will NEVER be a romantic,” the writers want you to consider the fact that people can change and surprise you, and although stereotypes exist, remember that we should not make assumptions even on specific things we have already experienced with that specific person.

Tune in next week for an analysis of the Badass Female Powerhouse, the Young Female Comic Relief, and the Stoic, Older Guardian!

on October 3, 2016

Nick is a mid-20s so-and-so who was foolishly given a platform on which to write. He enjoys video games, video games, and more video games.