Theme Party: The Outsider
STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND
Something I’ve been discussing with a lot of people recently regarding storytelling in games is the concept of the “outsider” protagonist. When I use the term, I’m referring to the idea that, in one way or another, the protagonist of the game is someone who has been transplanted into a different setting or group, and has to make do and adapt to his/her situation. I think when used correctly, there are a number of ways that this technique is effective, but that there are pitfalls to be avoided as well. In the inaugural theme park this week, then, I’m going to be examining two pairs of games that represent two benefits of the narrative device, with one in each pair using it to great effect, and the other coming up short.
THE PROXY PROTAGONIST
The first aspect of the technique I want to highlight is the use of the outsider protagonist as a vehicle for the player’s own unfamiliarity with the setting or situation. The games I’m going to be using here are Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy XII, which I think represent a great use of the technique followed by a lackluster attempt to replicate it. One of the things you’ll hear a lot about FFX is that Tidus, the player character, isn’t actually really the protagonist. I think it’s more apt to say that the game is Tidus’s story, but the “protagonist” of the game’s events is, in many ways, Yuna. Almost all of the game’s major plot events revolve around things Yuna does as part of Yuna’s quest to fulfill Yuna’s destiny to save Spira, the game’s world; Tidus is mostly just a tag along in terms of the actual substance of the game’s events. So why does the game put us in Tidus’s shoes instead of Yuna’s?
Because as much as Yuna is the main character, so too is Spira itself. So much of FFX’s narrative is reliant on a gradual unveiling of key characteristics of Spira and its history – aspects of Sin, the church of Yevon, the Summoners, the Farplane. If you’re going to tell a story about the setting as much as the characters in it, what’s the perfect vehicle for a gradual exploration of the setting’s elements? A character who isn’t from there. And so voila, we have Tidus. Tidus is transplanted into the game’s world at the start and has no choice but to go along with Yuna and learn about the nature of the world he’s in and the place he holds in it.
Picture FFX without Tidus and how much needless exposition there would have been about elements of the setting directed at characters who are already supposed to know them. Spira is a bizarre place with some really off the wall characteristics of which no native denizen of the world could be reasonably expected to be ignorant. Tidus, however, circumvents the problem as an outsider, which enables the player to instantly identify with him, as we share his ignorance and gradual discovery. We see Yuna and Spira through Tidus’s eyes, and it helps the narrative and the setting take shape gradually and deliberately, with points of exposition that are logical for someone in Tidus’s situation. Yuna’s the main character, but Tidus is the player. Without that eyepiece into the world, FFX’s setting would be much harder to convey in a way that makes sense.
THE TAG ALONG
When looking at Vaan from FFXII, it’s tempting to consider him the same kind of eyepiece for the player. Vaan is largely an outsider to the heavily political world of FFXII and doesn’t have a lot of knowledge of the finer aspects of the setting. Vaan is swept up in events and carried along with people who are almost inarguably the “real” protagonists of the story. But there are two significant things that make Vaan fail where Tidus succeeded.
The first is that Vaan doesn’t have any real personal stake in the outcome of the story beyond some kind of vague revenge for his dead brother. While Tidus was an outsider, his own personal story was still deeply connected to the main events of the game’s plot. His father went to Spira too and is heavily embedded in the world (in more ways than one). Tidus’s very existence is tied to the events occurring in Spira, even though it’s not immediately obvious.
Vaan, however, is like Luke Skywalker without his relation to the Force or Darth Vader. He’s a kid that got swept up in things, but there’s no destiny there and he doesn’t have any real connection to the world or the story beyond simply existing in it. There’s a lot of discussion out there about whether or not Vaan was meant to be the main character or even exist at all in the story, and it’s a popular theory that Vaan was created out of a desire to shift the protagonist over to a character more likely to attract a core demographic. Regardless, Vaan lacks the clear link to the plot of the game that Tidus has, and it makes him feel like someone who’s tagging along for the ride rather than someone who is deeply connected to these events on a personal level. Basch, Balthier, and Ashe all have compelling reasons and backstory, but Vaan lacks that connection to the world and the plot.
The second failing is that Vaan isn’t a real outsider to the game’s story. Tidus is from Zanarkand and finds himself in Spira, a strange and alien world to him with very odd customs and aspects to it that need explanation. Vaan is from Dalmasca and finds himself in…Dalmasca. With Tidus, the explanations for the obvious bits of ignorance he has for the details of the setting make sense and are necessary because Tidus legitimately has no way to have known these things.
With Vaan, details of the setting aren’t given a natural conduit because Vaan really should know all of this junk already, or at least enough of it not to need the plot explained to him as it unfolds. We can’t really connect with Vaan as a result, as he’s not like us, but still needs everything explained to him.
Vaan is, unfortunately, more of an attempt to half-heartedly recreate Tidus than a worthwhile character on his own merits. Tidus might be grating at times and a bit of an annoyance, but his role in the way the narrative unfolds is paramount. The player needs Tidus to make the game’s setting and plot unfold. Vaan is an outsider for no reason, and the player fails to connect as a result.
A TALE OF TWO PROVINCES
The second advantage that an outsider perspective lies in the ability of the setting to present itself to a player outside of the plot itself, through the simple act of casting the player in the role of the explorer or visitor. By making the player essentially a tourist in the world, the outsider becomes a vehicle for the player’s curiosity about the world, and enables that player to discover the interesting aspects of the setting for his or herself. The most obvious example of this, of course, lies in The Elder Scrolls series, and I want to specifically highlight its third and fourth installments, Morrowind and Oblivion, as my opposed examples of succeeding vs. coming up short.
There are countless places on the internet that sing of the brilliance of Morrowind. But what I want to emphasize here are two things: the nature of the player’s avatar in the world, and the nature of the world’s design itself, both artistically, and from a gameplay perspective. In all of these elements, Morrowind excels at creating a player character that is generated from outside, and then transplanted inside the confines of the setting.
I HEARD THEM SAY WE’VE REACHED…
The opening lines delivered by Jiub are perhaps some of the most famous lines in gaming, and it’s for a good reason. Jiub instantly tells you exactly what you are and where you’re coming into the story: you’re being brought here from outside on a ship, like an immigrant or a settler, and you’ve just arrived at your new unknown home. The game’s dialog reinforces this: “You finally arrived, but our records don’t show from where.” A clever way to segue into your character creation, but it reinforces the narrative element: you’re not from around here. Realistically speaking (absent mods), there’s no way to create a character that will be treated as he or she is from around here, as even if you create a Dunmer, the denizens of Morrowind will treat you like you don’t belong there.
Why is this important? Because it justifies why you’re so damn sucked into running around all over the island. The game instantly possesses you with an explorer’s spirit because it practically neeners in your face that you don’t know jack about where you are. The game, in a way, calls you a noob and challenges you to go out there and learn about the place and prove it wrong. It’s an almost irresistible pull and it’s what’s caused Caius Cosades to be repeatedly stood up by players for a decade. The world is out there, and you haven’t seen it. Get to it.
And what a world to see. The most immediate word that comes to mind when considering Vvardenfell is “alien.” There’s a distinctness to every city, every place; to this day, I can identify the culture or House that rules over a territory just by the architecture of it all. Morrowind is immaculately bizarre, not in a silly way, but in a way that pushes you over the next hill just to see what kind of craziness is on the other side. It reinforces the lessons of the game’s narrative that you are profoundly an outsider, but that if you play your hand right, you can embed yourself and become an immortal part of Morrowind, and at the same time, it can become a part of you as well.
TO BOLDLY GO WHERE EVERYONE HAS GONE BEFORE
Then there’s Cyrodiil and Oblivion. Take everything I said up above about why Morrowind works and turn it around and you’ll get how I feel about Oblivion’s attempt to use the same style of gameplay and plot devices. I don’t think Oblivion is a bad game, honestly, but the setting almost inarguably pales in comparison to Morrowind’s, and the visual impact of it all seriously suffers as a result.
So, I said up above that one of the reasons Morrowind works is that it casts you in the role of an outsider who is in the process of being transplanted to Vvardenfell, and that transplanting and alienation is what drives you to immerse yourself in the world. So what do we get in Oblivion?
You’re just some kind of dude in the jail, I guess. It’s never stated where you’re from or how you got here, just that you wound up in prison somehow until the Emperor showed up and bailed you out. When you get out of the prison, there’s no one challenging you to strike out into the world. It’s a beautiful image and sense of freedom when you escape the prison, but that’s all it is: freedom without drive. The world doesn’t care if you explore it, and doesn’t dare you to go out and look around.
On top of that, if you do go outside, there really isn’t all that much to see that you haven’t seen before. Morrowind drove you to adventure because Morrowind was a spectacle. It was strange and compelling and interesting. Cyrodiil is just bland. It’s vanilla western fantasy, idyllic grassland countrysides, and little hamlets and towns. Don’t get me wrong, it’s all very pretty, but that’s all it is. It’s not compelling in any way, and I don’t have any reason to explore the vast majority of it.
Even when the game does make you a stranger by transporting you to Oblivion itself, it goes too far in that direction. Oblivion isn’t a place to explore, it’s just a hell. It’s all red evil badguyness, and nothing interesting comes out of it. Oblivion in general just misses the point of the perspective Morrowind gave. It goes through the motions, but takes out all of the context that made those choices meaningful. As a result, the use of the player as an outsider is mostly negated; it’s unclear if the player is an outsider, and the game doesn’t make you feel like one in appearance or narrative, but the world still wants you to behave like one and wants to treat you like one by being designed to be explored and revolving most of the gameplay around that.
The outsider situation is, as seen above, a very useful tool in storytelling, especially in games, where the goal is in many cases to merge the player’s perspective with the character’s. The key is execution. By keeping in mind what makes the working examples in FFX and Morrowind above successful and the other examples in FFXII and Oblivion fall short, it’s possible to see how this narrative device can be used to great effect in the future.
Part One: Sprouting Confusion from the FFX soundtrack. The perfect sort of running melancholy track for Spira.
Part Two: The obvious choice from Morrowind’s title. Was there any other option here?
Photo credit: Square Enix for the two bits of Final Fantasy artwork, UESP for the Morrowind shots, and The Elder Scrolls Wiki for the bits from Oblivion. And Bethesda for the games themselves, of course.