For those new to the series, plural protagonism is based on this article I wrote for PopMatters. Plural protagonism occurs in a game when there is no individual main protagonist leading a group: the group itself becomes the hero. Each individual maintains their identity while contributing to the narrative in equal measure. Moreover, they are all controlled equally by the player and coordinate as a collective consciousness to overcome the challenges facing them. This narrative technique appears most prominently in JRPGs and this series investigates different JRPGs that feature plural protagonism in interesting ways.
The game that inspired the idea for this series in the first place, Breath of Fire 4, is one that—as I’ve recently written—is problematic in the way it negatively portrays femininity at times (“Sexism and Power Dynamics in Breath of Fire 4.” The Border House. Mar 13 2013.). However, in spite of its problems, it’s quite clever in how it communicates its central theme of cooperation. The game follows Nina and Cray in their search for the missing Princess Elina. Along the way, they come across the silent protagonist Ryu, who is quickly revealed to be a dragon, or Endless, a race of gods summoned to watch over the world. As more main characters get folded into the party, they’re swept up in the catastrophic events that change the world. Ultimately, these characters develop a bond.
By the time the whole team is together, it’s clear that they’d do anything for one another. Nina’s and Cray’s established relationship is constantly tested and when one of them needs rescuing, they immediately jump to do whatever is necessary to help. Ershin is a bundle of absurdities, but her devotion to the personalities that have driven her on her quest literally brings her back from the dead. Scias is a covetous mercenary with a stutter and social discomfort, but he becomes fascinated with what the party’s friendship and devotion to one another, enough to ultimately become a part of it at great personal risk. Ursula joins as a celebrated war hero and patriot, but she deserts the military she once worshipped to resist the way her country’s war machine so casually dehumanizes others. Ryu, the hero, is just there to bring them all together: He’s the MacGuffin that’s driving the narrative forward. But even he benefits from the party’s camaraderie: when the evil empire starts stirring up violence all over the world to find Ryu, his team refuses to hand him over. Not only to protect their friend, but their adversaries come in the form of a long string of self-interested, greedy people. By placing the party diametrically against such forces, the game implies that greed is the greatest threat to the world.
There isn’t really an antagonist in the game, rather there are numerous individuals and factions that keep rooting themselves in the party’s way. The common denominator that bridges these minor villains is selfishness. The enemy of the party at a given time is a vainglorious captain trying to claw his way to major, a ruthless merchant exploiting a situation for a few extra coins, a politician more interested in coming ahead in a treaty than protecting his people. Either that or it’s a faceless, apathetic hive of troops or machines just following orders. The player is constantly thrown off their path to do someone else’s dirty work. Often their efforts are undone, villains escape and innocent people suffer because greed is easier than generosity.
Ryu is not a “chosen one” and his allies are not there just to hold his hand while he completes his sacred mission. Rather, Ryu is the missing half of an already living god, Fou-Lu, and the party is constantly being told that they are becoming “a part” of some grand change that will shape the next age. There is no one character acting upon an inert world; the party is changing the world just by existing, by being the people that they are and moving closer to the source of that change. None of them are even looking to instigate any great world change nor can they see it happening until the fourth and final chapter. Their power and influence in the world extends to how they interact with the people in it, not in what monsters they destroy or what ancient curses they undo.
Mechanically, the game reinforces the theme of cooperation. Turn-based battles are acted out by a party of three heroes—familiar enough on its own—with the remaining three characters resting in the back row. However, even those not participating in exchanging blows play an important role. Characters in the back row will assist by making long-range attacks on the enemy or by casting healing spells to the front line at random prompts. Bosses are challenging, but the real difficulty of the game comes from the attrition caused by random encounters. Each battle leaves the characters ever weaker, it’s necessary to rotate the party around to keep all its members in fighting condition, every party member is constantly interacting with every one of their fellows.
Moreover, each character only loosely falls into traditional combat classes. Anybody with a passing familiarity with RPG classes is familiar with the Warrior-Rogue-Mage trifecta, along with the basic roles these classes are supposed to carry out. But the cast of Breath of Fire 4 does not neatly fall into one role. Nina is a logical mix of healer/mage and Ershin is as prototypical a tank as one could ask for, but that dissolves over time. The ability to learn spells from enemies or from masters—NPCs that alter how stats level up (another instance of the heroes depending on others to progress)—allows the player limited customization over each member’s role in battle. Moreover, character classes begin bleeding into one another: Scias is capable of dealing high physical or magic damage but he has low defence and mana; Ursula’s spells and attacks deal high damage to groups of enemies, but she’s less apt at attacking lone enemies; Cray has high attack but he alone learns stat-boosting buffs that enhance others’ abilities. Characters don’t specialize along predictable lines, which further necessitates that all members remain active in every battle. However, no mechanic illustrates the game’s focus on cooperation as well as the combo system.
During battle, spells used back to back without interruption merge and create new, exponentially more powerful spells. Attack spells of differing elements create otherwise inaccessible elements while spells of the same element deal additional damage for free; healing and beneficial spells used in conjunction increase the potency of their effects and spread buffs across the whole team. Even skills based on physical attacks contribute to combos in similar ways. Many enemies are impossible to defeat without relying on combo spells. Battle is most efficient and yields the most reward when characters coordinate with one another.
All of this stands parallel to the way that the game chronicles Fou-Lu. Unlike Ryu and co., Fou-Lu travels alone. While his incredible power is the first thing that players will take away from meeting him, there remains in the background continued reminders that he is an incredibly lonely man. He refers to himself in the royal “we” for two reasons: he is the God-emperor and founder of the Empire and he is a split entity separated from his other half. However, the royal we is also used ironically as, late in the game, Fou-Lu confesses that his immortal life has been incredibly lonesome.
Even Fou-Lu, “who art Endless, who art a God” cannot survive in the world without the help of others. In every step of his journey, despite his power, he’s wounded while escaping from an army and rescued by a benevolent stranger. It’s while in the care of another person that he opens up and reveals that his appearance in the world and his creation of the Empire was to bring the world’s disparate people together, but no matter what he did, self-interested factions continued to arise and make war with one another.
Like Ryu’s party, Fou-Lu is hounded by solipsistic individuals and exploited for growing attached to others. Unlike Ryu, though, Fou-Lu does not have a network to show him the good that people are capable of. As he approaches his goals he sees only greater instances of human cruelty. Whenever Fou-Lu experiences gentleness and empathy, it only serves to exacerbate the eventual cruelty that follows. Fou-Lu makes the calculated choice to destroy everything because, as far as he’s concerned, the world is better off without people in it. He remains sophisticated, cerebral and icy (appropriately, he’s associated with the ice element, further connecting him to coldness, isolation and death) as the events around him unfold but every encounter with a self-serving force drives him closer to his latent destructiveness. But again, he travels alone, even though he’s as hurt by selfishness as Ryu is, without a community around him he slowly metamorphoses into the narrow-minded, destructive kind of egoist that is apparently responsible for all the world’s problems. Again, the rules of the game further demonstrate his character arc.
As mentioned, Fou-Lu is incredibly powerful. He begins the game over 60 levels higher than Ryu. Battles from Fou-Lu’s perspective are empowering: they show the promise of what the main party may be many hours later into the game, but focused into one character. Fou-Lu has no class-specific weaknesses in combat, he’s universally strong. There is no one that he has to coordinate his attacks with, he just attacks. But where the challenge of the game from Ryu’s perspective is balancing a party that is constantly sustaining incremental injuries, the challenge in Fou-Lu’s battles is that he has no real means of healing himself. Incredible, though he may be, he has one shot to defeat his enemies. There is no redemption if the player makes a mistake: every move is crucial.
Moreover, Fou-Lu barely becomes any stronger throughout the game. He never learns any new abilities, he does not meet any masters that will develop his skills or stats. When the player meets him, he is all that he ever will be. Though Fou-Lu begins at level 63, by the end of the game it is unlikely that he’ll be over 66. Ryu’s party, however, will each have a level in the 50s when the game concludes. This suggests that, although Fou-Lu is quite powerful, he is as powerful as he is going to get. There will be no improvement for him, while the characters that have a tight bond will become worlds stronger than they were when they were introduced. At the end of the game, they are greater combined than Fou-Lu is alone.
Ultimately, the ending does allow some villains to get away with what they’ve done and it does imply that some virtuous people have died in vain. But whether the ending offers hope or despair is ultimately up to the player. Philip Armstrong provides an interesting reading of the game and its ending over at Gamespite (“Breath of Fire IV Yin and Yang.” Aug 16 2011.). But even though the duel endings contrast so vividly, the game itself does an excellent job of communicating the theme of group cohesion versus self-interest through the writing in its story and the grammar of its mechanics.
Further reading: Bartlett, Luke. “Media Analysis #3 – Breathe of Fire IV.” The Blog of the Decade. Dec 2 2011.
Auxier, Tom. “The way to strength is death.” Nightmare Mode. Oct 8 2010.
Duwell, Ron. “Ron’s Retro Review #5 – Breath of Fire IV.” Techno Buffalo. Oct 6 2013.