Friday, 19 August 2011

Character Showcase: Vivi

I consider myself a character designer by heart. In order to make this blog a bit less ranty, maybe I should sometimes talk about a specific character design that works for me. Why it works for me, how it compares to similar designs, and what we can stand to learn from them. It could be from anything really. A book, a movie, a video game. Something with at least some semblance of a narrative, or at least something featuring a defined identity.

It could be a spotlight for protagonists, or some of my favourite villains. Or maybe an under-appreciated background character. It won't always be very in-depth or long, but I can never underestimate my debilitating need to not shut up.

We'll start with a character whose small stature belies his significance to me:

"Vivi" is a black-mage from Final Fantasy IX. I could do a whole series of these Character Showcases on this game's cast. The worst team-member from this game is better than the best team-member from Final Fantasy XII. But this little guy is my favourite. He's a tiny little guy, mousey and shy. His efforts to be more outgoing and overcome certain anxieties hit the mark for me, but not nearly as much as his struggle coming to terms with his own mortality.

To really understand what makes a character great, you often have to listen to the notes they're not playing. Every other main character in FFIX is a fraud. They are all desperately trying to be something they're not, something they feel they should be, something others pressure them to be, or something they just want to be instead of themselves. Zidane tries to be the dashing, swashbuckling hero. Garnet wants to be able to fix everything hurting her country by herself. Steiner wants to be the loyal, unquestioning soldier. Eiko wants to be old enough to be the apple of Zidane's eye.

But it just doesn't work. Zidane is too complicated to be a romantic caricature. Steiner's moral centre makes him incapable of being a lap-dog to a tyrant. Garnet realizes that she can't bear all of the world's burdens on her own. And no matter how much she tries, Eiko will always be too young for Zidane(and his sights are already set on Garnet). These are people who flail themselves over and over against impossible ideals that don't suit them, that don't play to their strengths and in fact leave them more vulnerable.

But Vivi? There's nothing false about him. He's trying to be nothing more than himself, whoever that may be. His inner turmoil is wider-reaching. He is made terribly aware of his expiration date. As a manufactured being, he doesn't have long. He has the physical stature and personality of a timid 9-year old, but he's only been around for six months. He's not thinking about if he's uncaring enough to be romantic, faceless enough to be a good soldier. He's thinking about who we are, where we go when we die and The Meaning Of It All. For someone so young, those are some brave and terrifying questions to ask.

Despite all of this, the other characters often look to him for how to do it right. When Zidane wants to help Garnet, we see him literally asking himself: "What would Vivi say?". He is not simplistic, but he is straightforward. And friendly. This character may be incapable of deceit, dishonesty or cruelty, and if it were required he'd probably have to ask: "What would Zidane say?". Not because Zidane's a bad guy, but because Vivi has no frame of reference for that sort of thing.

And he's not just a good companion, he actually serves a strong purpose in your team. No one in the game is better suited for dealing with monsters who can take a lot of physical abuse from swords and daggers. There is nothing about him that is grating, lacking or impractical. And he's the only one who doesn't get to live long enough to see how it ends. You are a liar if you say there is an RPG character more huggable.

Vivi is a great character.



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