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.
I’m going take advantage of the bottomless well of melodrama of this medium and smugly declare that “THE JRPG IS DEAD!!!” and that Lost Odyssey was the genre’s swan song. Of course, JRPGs still exist (Schreier, Jason. “The Year in JRPGs.” Kotaku. Dec 21 2012) and are still released fairly regularly (Wallace, Kimberly. “What’s Coming for the JRPG in 2013.” Game Informer Jan 22 2013). However, JRPGs aren’t the killer apps that they were once were. It’s silly to think of that as the “death” of anything, but it’s an attitude one encounters. Lost Odyssey was released at an interesting period: a year after the divisive but well received Final Fantasy XII, while Final Fantasy XIII was still highly anticipated and, perhaps most significantly, it was the first big test for Hironobu Sakaguchi’s Mistwalker Studio after the good but safe Blue Dragon. It was the first big-budget JRPG endeavour in the age when JRPGs could no longer exist as big-budget endeavours.
It was a time when the classics had been classified and modern hardware stripped most of the genre’s charm away (Filipowich, Mark. “Finite Fantasy: The Problem with JRPGs.” PopMatters. Jun 12 2012). Without letting this turn into a review, Lost Odyssey was a commercial disappointment but one well worthy of its cult following (Izod, Paul. “Lost Odyssey Retrospective.” Zero 1 Gaming. Jan 28 2013). It has some failings but none that are so spectacular that it detracts from its qualities. But Lost Odyssey is of particular interest to this series because of how it juxtaposes loneliness with community.
In the opening scenes, the game appears very much to be a story about an immortal, amnesiac man named Kaim. The game has chosen its central protagonist in the way that Xenoblade Chronicles is centred on Shulk or Na no Kuni is centred on Oliver. The opening scene treats the player to a spectacular display of Kiam’s warrior prowess followed by a tutorial of the game’s turn-based combat. Through these joint events the player sees Kaim single-handedly obliterate an armoured division. The intro scene paints Kaim as a silent, stoic master of war. Standard fair. Lost Odyssey tells the player that this is Kaim’s game before they even learn his name. Even in the following hour, Kaim is the focus of the slow-burn world-building. Everyone is fascinated by Kaim; his military superiors and even his country’s leaders become fixated with uncovering his story. Lost Odyssey‘s first hour paints Kaim—and the player’s control of him—as the most important thing in the world.
However, after the first hour, Kaim meets an immortal amnesiac woman named Seth. Lost Odyssey plays on the expectations of its tropes, establishing the player as the brooding, lone-survivor of a steampunk nuclear attack with a mysterious background only to reveal only an hour later that they aren’t alone. Everything that makes Kaim special, all the features that prop him up as the hero of the story, he shares with Seth. Seth has no memory of her past, she was present in the same battle and survived the same catastrophe. She too is immortal. Kaim is introduced as the prototypical JRPG hero, only for another prototypical protagonist to show up. Then another one. Then another one. The mystery of how Kaim could survive such a catastrophic event is immediately and unquestioningly resolved: he’s immortal. More than that, he isn’t the only immortal. Including Kaim, four immortals ultimately end up in the party.
The game begins from Kaim’s perspective and creates a sense of mystery and power about him. But the game undercuts its established expectations by introducing Seth, a character with the exact same features. The game doesn’t have a single protagonist, it has many. Seth’s introduction shatters Kaim’s surface uniqueness. It’s Seth that reveals that there are at least another two immortals in the world with the same origin.
Kaim’s immortality isn’t a mystery and he isn’t alone. From there, the party’s goal is to uncover the two immortals’ memories. The motivation is fairly self-evident for those invested in the journey: “I want to know me.” The goal is understandable but still one of self-interest. Kaim and Seth (and the other immortals that they recruit) are initially motivated by the common but independent goal of learning more about themselves. But the successes in their journey only come when party members come closer as a group. The more they function as a family, the greater the party becomes and the more memories the immortals recover. They become greater as individuals as they grow closer. These characters, in trying to find themselves, become a part of a functional group. Finding one’s self, in Lost Odyssey, is tantamount to finding a place in a family.
When I say that the stages of Kaim and Seth’s journey fold them into a family I mean that literally: the party is composed of relatives, mostly literal ones but figurative ones almost as often. Kaim’s first memory to return is of him rushing toward a pre-teen girl falling from a cliff. We learn that this girl’s name is Lirum and that she’s Kaim’s daughter. Kaim’s journey for self-discovery becomes a journey to discover another person. When Kaim finally finds her on her deathbed, he also meets Lirum’s two children—Kaim’s grandchildren. The journey again changes from self-discovery to supporting the young family members in the party. The orphaned grandchildren (who aren’t as annoying as everyone says they are) join the party so that the increasingly emotionally intelligent Kaim can care for them.
Next Lirum’s close, sisterly, friend, Ming—whom the kids call “Aunt Ming”—joins up and reveals herself as another immortal and therefore connected to Kaim and Seth. Kaim’s immortal wife (and the kids’ grandmother) Sarah and Seth’s own (now elderly) son round out the family members of the party. In the end, the party is made up of a husband and wife, their grandchildren, their surrogate aunt, and another mother and her son. Furthermore, the game establishes that the four immortals are connected group by a shared history. The party becomes a family and the more they act like a supportive one the more competent they are in achieving their goals. The only members who aren’t initially a part of the family, Jansen and Tolten, are easily exploited because of their isolation and they’re only able to succeed in their goals after they’ve been accepted in the group.
Both Jansen and Tolten are manipulated by the game’s villain, Gongora, to work against the party at different points in the game. Jansen is the party’s comic relief; he takes his first staggering steps on his journey with Kaim and Seth while drunk, teetering between three giggling prostitutes. He is the lecherous slacker of the team. He’s also a paid spy for the villain. From the outset, his isolation from others props him up as morally corrupt because he’s more interested in his own material gain and hedonistic satisfaction than anything to do with his colleagues. Unsurprisingly, his time with the party softens him and he renounces his employer to join the party in earnest. Even so, his self-interest is what leads to his being manipulated and it’s only in discovering the group that he becomes a trustworthy person.
Similarly, Prince Tolten is ripe for Gongora’s exploitation because he is cut off from others. Tolten is the figurehead of Uhra after his father handed legislative power over to an elected council. After his father’s death, Tolten is a respected, influential but ultimately powerless symbol for his country’s progress. More importantly, he has no family and no friends. Gongora becomes close with Tolten to reinstate and usurp the throne. Tolten goes along with Gongora because his isolation from others makes him vulnerable. Gongora is easily able to take advantage of Tolten’s naiveté and his need for approval because the prince has no community, no support network to protect him from predators like Gongora. When Tolten finds his way into the main party, they start addressing his insecurities and pressing him to fight back against Gongora’s new regime. Tolten is exploited as a lonely young man lost in his father’s shadow. Tolten’s empowerment and security with his identity only comes when he finally finds a place in a group.
Lastly, Gongora is a suitable foil for the party’s growing ability to cooperate. Much like Fou-Lu stands opposite to Ryu’s party in Breath of Fire IV (Filipowich, Mark. “Plural Protagonism Part 1: Breath of Fire 4.” bigtallwords. Apr 2 2013). However, where Fou-Lu is driven—justifiably, if the game is to be believed—by his purely destructive agenda, Gongora’s true motives are driven by a need for more power and influence. Gongora is a megalomaniac. He overthrows the burgeoning social democracies of his steampunk world and supplants them with old monarchies, putting himself at their head. He restores an imperial system of government, where all power falls to one person, then he becomes that person. Gongora isolates the immortals of the main party by erasing their memories and manipulates those in the party that are susceptible by virtue of their individualist personalities. He isn’t very round or deep, but he doesn’t have to be. Gongora operates through his uninhibited greed; he works alone, playing his enemies’ mistrust off one another to get what he wants. For most of the game, Gongora is considerably successful, but his only successes come against those that are isolated from one another, and he’s ultimately undone by the party at the apex of their relationship.
As should be expected, the group’s power through cooperation is reflected in the mechanics. The whole team is simultaneously controlled by the player, each character has hard strengths and weaknesses that must be coordinated. These attributes are to be expected of a turn-based RPG, but there are a number of ways that plural protagonism is further reinforced. There are two rows to distribute a team of up to five combatants. The more health the first row currently has, the higher the defence of the back row. Given that only two of the eventual nine members are heavy melee fighters, most of the team functions better in the back row. The powerful but frail spell casters need heavy fighters to shield them while the heavy infantry types depend on constant support from the mages in the back row. The trick to succeeding in the especially difficult combat is balancing the interactions of both combat rows. The team’s positioning dictates how they interact and each individual is responsible for keeping the squad functional. Without the front row, mages fall almost instantly; without the back row, the team lacks the damage output and support skills to sustain itself.
Furthermore, the relationship between the mortal and immortal characters makes a stronger case for how important character interdependence is in Lost Odyssey. Immortal characters tend to be better in combat than mortals are. Should an immortal fall, they’ll rise again in a few turns, their combat stats are higher on average and they’re capable of learning every skill and action in the game. Conversely, mortals are locked into their own tech trees and their health is more difficult to sustain, though they make up the more specialized combat roles. However, there’s a relationship in how the different types of characters progress. Mortals gain skills by reaching higher levels, but immortals are only able to learn skills by equipping items or from “linking” with a mortal, which teaches the immortal student the abilities that the mortal character learns naturally. Although it might seem better to build a team of only immortal characters, without improving the mortal characters the immortals will eventually be stuck with obsolete skills. The player must keep the mortal members of the party at higher levels or the immortals will be unable to learn most of the skills in the game. Moreover, while there aren’t any generalists in the party, the mortals tend to have more rigidly set combat strengths. The best healer, the best rogue, and the best “shadow” mage are all mortals. A party consisting of only one or the other type of character is incomplete. Characters depend on one another to grow and to fill both broad and niche roles.
Finally, the game unites the narrative and the mechanics in the “Thousand Years of Dreams” sub-plot/quest. Perhaps Lost Odyssey’s greatest innovation is its use of written fiction to reinforce its theme of isolation versus community. “Thousand Years of Dreams” is a short stories series written by Kiyoshi Shigematsu and translated by Jay Rubin. The stories chronicles the millennium of Kaim’s youth: they are the memories he’s lost. When the player happens upon certain scenes or locations, they trigger a memory locked in Kaim’s mind. This is the titular “Lost Odyssey.”
The Odyssey is an epic poem by Homer that chronicles Odysseus’s decade-long journey home from the Trojan War. Lost Odyssey isn’t necessarily evoking Homer—the word Odyssey refers to any long and eventful adventure—but it’s usually associated with journeys home, like Odysseus’s. Lost Odyssey ultimately becomes a journey for the immortals to find and return home, but the “Lost” portion refers to their shared amnesia, their loss of purpose and identity. The “Thousand Years of Dreams” (an equally appropriate title for the game) illustrates the home that’s been lost and the hopeless journey they’ve separately suffered looking for a place and purpose that doesn’t exist.
Each of these memories is communicated by a short story accompanied by music, background images, rolling text and changing fonts that mime what is going on in the story. It’s effective for the same reason that Twine games are effective (Anthropy, Anna. “How to Make Games with Twine.” Auntie Pixelante). The stories are told with written words assisted by minimal visuals, sound effects and music. These short stories relate some key events in Kaim’s life: the battles he’s fought, the children he’s raised and outlived, the places he visited (Schreier, Jason. “The Remarkable Short Stories of Lost Odyssey.” Kotaku. June 28 2013). However, the player has no interactivity in these scenes: they may read and absorb the memories or ignore them. These are “lost” adventures and chapters in Kaim’s life, where Kaim often seems like a totally different person than the one that the player controls in the rest of the game.
The stories take place in the same world and features the characters the player has gotten to know, but there’s a distance between the Kaim of the past and the Kaim in the game. However, this is not a symptom of poor writing: these stories are about loss, about Kaim’s inevitable—sometimes cursed—survival in a world that he can never leave, no matter how many loved ones he watches move on from it. This is a jarring shift in media from the interactive, active JRPG about a group coming together to the deeply personal short stories about a man surviving alone. The player is supposed to absorb these different forms in tandem to get a more rounded understanding of both (Hancock, Michael. “Gamer Profiles: the Split-screener.” Medium Difficulty. Apr 17 2013). This is where the medium becomes the message.
The written word is an isolated art form. It is not experienced in an auditorium or a theatre. One doesn’t engage with a short story in the company of others. Being a reader with company doesn’t improve the experience in the way that having someone to attend a show with or have a non-playing spectator in a game can improve the experience (Filipowich, Mark. “Oracle and the Non-Playing Character.” bigtallwords. Apr 28 2013). Lost Odyssey becomes a deliberately lonesome art form to illustrate how isolated Kaim is for the majority of his unnaturally long life. The player becomes an inactive reader, independently experiencing the lost memories of their avatar, long after they can have any influence over them and long after the implications of the events have been reached. The player experiences Kaim’s loneliness in the loneliest art form. This is even more the case for the two stories focused on Seth’s life.
Unlike Kaim’s experiences, Seth’s two stories are narrated from the first person. Where Kaim has a third-person-limited narrator to guide the reader through his history: Seth is all alone to her story and reflect on her past. Her two-part story tells of her days as a pirate, falling in love, giving birth and ultimately giving up her son, Sed (who reunites with her in the third disc of the game). The player/reader experiences Seth’s history from inside her own mind. Seth directly narrates her own experience being captured by rival pirates and locked in a cave. Her greatest fear is realized: she’s forced to live alone and her salvation comes in the form of an angel that rescues her and becomes, in her own words, “irreplaceable partners, friends, companions…family! [sic]” (“Seth’s Dream Part 1 Transcript.” Lost Odyssey wikia). She recalls her successes, her one failure that led to living her deepest horror and finding happiness in another prisoner. The “Thousand Years of Dreams” tells the story of people surviving a millennium of loneliness to finally find salvation in a family. The game’s events are the ultimate salvation for these characters, they at last wake from their thousand years of dreaming into a supportive, familial group.
The game provides a context for the short story series. As beautifully written as the short stories are, the actions of the player ties them together and provides a hopeful ending. The game is the steady process of the characters becoming a family, the convergence of two different media structurally tells the story of isolated people cooperating for a common, mutually beneficial goal against a purely self-interested enemy. What begins as a goal for self-discovery organically becomes a goal to find and keep a family. This family only succeeds when they’re able to coordinate against the challenges they face. But much of the impact of their coordination comes from the short stories that illustrate just how cut off they were from others. The isolation they endure in their thousand-year lives becomes particularly meaningful through the independent act of reading, not the interactive, spectator-friendly playing.
The game illustrates plural protagonism—the idea of the collective-as-hero—through more usual ways of guiding a collaborative group, through a self-interested foil as an enemy and through party driven combat and narrative, it also uses the structure of storytelling to illustrate the party’s journey. It may lose some players in the gap it leaves between classic and innovative conventions, but much of its appeal comes from just that sense of being alienated from what’s come before. The game’s sense of plural protagonism comes from creating something new with old pieces.
Further reading: Le, Nam. “Lost Odyssey – A bit of its rich philosophy.” My Vision. Aug 19 2010.
Wood, Bryant. “Game Narrative Review – Lost Odyssey.” Game Career Guide. Aug 27 2009.
Burn, Sunny. “Lost Odyssey, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the JRPG.” The Princess in Another Castle. Sep 2 2010.
Molloy, Patrick. “A Look Back on Lost Odyssey.” VentureBeat. Nov 4 2011.