I tend to experience roleplaying in Final Fantasy games the way I experience dreams: on the one hand, I'm often inside the skin and POV of a fictional person, experiencing their adventures through their eyes, and on the other, I'm a "lucid dreamer," aware that I'm not really in that person's body, and that I can choose what happens to them. So for me, Final Fantasy games with vividly-realized characters help aid in the immersive experience, and I'm quite happy with the participation-in-a-movie style of roleplaying that's come to dominate the franchise.
We reached this stage of roleplaying games gradually. We had a lot more freedom when all characters could do is wander around, whack bad guys and collect loot. It's much harder to program a game so that the player has full freedom and control when characters are able to talk, perform complex actions and interact with each other. Therefore, over time, we've lost a lot of the character customization and non-linear roleplay of older games.
The balance between player autonomy and game script has always been a difficult juggling exercise, ever since graphics began to become photo-realistic. We had MYST, where the well-developed main characters are mostly trapped offscreen to limit interactions with our mysterious protagonist. SCHISM had other members trapped in an alternate dimension so that we couldn't talk to them directly, only leave messages. There have been various methods used to explain why we can't engage in direct conversation.
Final Fantasy, instead, took the "scripted story" route, with preset bits of dialogue triggered when we talk to this or that NPC, and somewhat randomized bits of dialogue between PCs. For a long time, Final Fantasy still let us rename PCs and (rarely) choose dialogue options that dictated different outcomes, but the plot arc and character roles and backstories were set.
With the advent of voice acting, Final Fantasy soon gave up on the old custom of letting us rename the lead character (at least), because calling Tidus "You Know Who" was too silly (and too Voldemort-like). The final loss of renaming broke that sense of claiming and making one character our own stand-in, our surrogate role and POV within the game. Accordingly, in FFXII and XIII, we had a cast, rather than a party, and there was no longer a designated lead: we chose whom to identify with, or could choose to identify with none and simply act as puppetmaster. That never troubled me, because I'm a storyteller and enjoy putting myself into the headspace of characters I'm writing or strongly identify with, but it's a slightly different gaming POV from the "you are the lead character" approach that one had in FFV and VII through X.
This actually gave me pause. I've gotten so spoiled to the modern connotation of "RPG," which means "play a character or characters designed by someone else," that I forgot that real old-school roleplaying games -- which I played from the 70s through early 2000s! -- meant designing and playing your character from scratch; the GM provided only the external environment and events, refereeing your adventure, and leaving character designs, dialogue and roleplay entirely to your imagination.
So when I picked up FFI, I thought, "FFI's Warriors of Light are cardboard characters who don't speak -- I'll be bored if I play this game straight, so I think I'll loosely borrow characters from another old game I like." Essentially, I was doing crossover fanfiction, inserting Breath of Fire III characters into Final Fantasy I. Why did I automatically reject the freedom given by this earlier style of RPG, which I used to play back in the 90s with Might & Magic and other PC games? What if I had played FFI as Lassarina did, inventing her party and characters from scratch, imagining their dialogue and enjoying the greater roleplaying freedom afforded by FFI?
I suppose it's because one of the strengths of the Final Fantasy franchise -- at least when I got hooked it, which was in the VII-X era -- is that it tended to create appealing parties a bit like the cast of a favorite TV show. I liked getting to know the characters and watching the dynamics between them. That was part of the game, a voyage of discovery of people, not just of the story and the world. I couldn't have come up with characters as interesting as Auron and Fran and Fang on my own, and I enjoyed discovering them. Or perhaps I could have...but the great thing about those characters is that they were thoroughly embedded in their worlds, sometimes establishing and then exploding tropes (see: Vanille, OMFG Vanille). Ceding character control like we had in FFI allows the game designers to present us with greater character complexity and story arc. So there are positive as well as negative trade-offs as games become more linear and characters become more defined.
Interestingly, recent gaming titles -- MMOs and more sophisticated single-player RPGs -- have begun to let us do what we could do back in FFI (although I failed to do it): design our own protagonists, and have the game's AI adapt to our choices such that we have a lot of scope for inventing part of the story. Oddly, I haven't tried any of those games yet.
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