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Female Representation & RPGs - Editorial

InstaTrentInstaTrent OpinionatorRPGamer Staff
edited January 2013 in Latest Updates
Have you ever stopped to examine how male and female roles are portrayed in your games? Most keen observers would be able to point out inaccurate representations of woman throughout the gaming landscape, but one genre boasts a number of strong female characters.

Editorial!
"To tell you the truth, I like drinking tea and eating fresh vegetables, but that doesn't fit with my super-cool attitude. I guess I have to accept this about myself."
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Comments

  • PawsPaws BEARSONA RPGamer Staff
    edited January 2013
    I suspect I'll get flamed to the ground, but here's a crazy thought: video games are predominantly done by heternormative males (especially in Japan). I don't think they deliberately diss anything outside of that zone as much as they're just not thinking about it -thoughtless, just not in a cruel way.
  • QuinQuin ne cede malis RPGamer Staff
    edited January 2013
    Paws said:
    I suspect I'll get flamed to the ground, but here's a crazy thought: video games are predominantly done by heternormative males (especially in Japan). I don't think they deliberately diss anything outside of that zone as much as they're just not thinking about it -thoughtless, just not in a cruel way.
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  • flamethrowerflamethrower Member Full Members
    edited January 2013
    If you change the medium to "any medium there is," then one of the observations, that "female characters are sexualized," holds up somewhat. See the large body of evidence below.
    I feel that other media forms do not suffer from weak female characterization though.

    Evidence:
    Hollywood Homely
    Men are Strong, Women are Pretty
    From TVTropes
  • InstaTrentInstaTrent Opinionator RPGamer Staff
    edited January 2013
    flamethrower said:
    I feel that other media forms do not suffer from weak female characterization though.
    (1) TvTropes isn't a credible source to cite on the subject of woman studies.
    (2) http://bechdeltest.com/statistics/ - of the 3279 films listed on this database, only 53% pass the Bechdel test.
    "To tell you the truth, I like drinking tea and eating fresh vegetables, but that doesn't fit with my super-cool attitude. I guess I have to accept this about myself."
  • FudorahZubatFudorahZubat Monster Lover Full Members
    edited January 2013
    Paws said:
    I suspect I'll get flamed to the ground, but here's a crazy thought: video games are predominantly done by heternormative males (especially in Japan). I don't think they deliberately diss anything outside of that zone as much as they're just not thinking about it -thoughtless, just not in a cruel way.
    I believe this holds true for many RPG games, but definitely not gaming in general. Jiggle physics exist precisely because they were looking to sexualise the characters and most certainly not out of a lack of though.
  • kazrikokazriko Member Full Members
    edited January 2013
    Wild Arms 4 had a really good balance in this respect. Raquel was definitely the strongest character in the game, both in stats and personality wise.
  • smacdsmacd Full Members
    edited January 2013
    Given that a lot of developers are, as Paws puts it- heteronormative males, and we tend to play to what we know. Most men don't understand women and will freely admit as much (any who claim otherwise are liars). And given those points, I think its very difficult for men to create a strong female character that doesn't play into some biases or preconceived ideas. Then there are some that just want to play into what will get the best response from their target audience- teenage males. The problem is that when a game developer specifically targets female audiences, it usually comes across as being incredibly contrived and usually sexist- I mean, all girls want to play with Barbies and have a pony, right? Of course not, but what does a big group of men know?

    Maybe the solution is to get more women involved in the development process- the design of characters and stories, if not the actual software development portion. But this gets down to more of a science/engineering culture problem we have already.
  • DarkRPGMasterDarkRPGMaster A Witness to Destruction Moderators
    edited January 2013
    What I find hilarious is that it's not that hard to understand how a woman acts in public, nor how they act in private. To be honest it doesn't seem to be that different from how guys act.
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  • OcelotOcelot is not declawed RPGamer Staff
    edited January 2013
    smacd said:
    Given that a lot of developers are, as Paws puts it- heteronormative males, and we tend to play to what we know. Most men don't understand women and will freely admit as much (any who claim otherwise are liars). And given those points, I think its very difficult for men to create a strong female character that doesn't play into some biases or preconceived ideas. Then there are some that just want to play into what will get the best response from their target audience- teenage males. The problem is that when a game developer specifically targets female audiences, it usually comes across as being incredibly contrived and usually sexist- I mean, all girls want to play with Barbies and have a pony, right? Of course not, but what does a big group of men know?

    Maybe the solution is to get more women involved in the development process- the design of characters and stories, if not the actual software development portion. But this gets down to more of a science/engineering culture problem we have already.
    There are plenty of male authors who write excellent female characters. The problem is that a lot of game companies don't hire strong writers (or any qualified writers at all) and/or have a disconnect between writers and character designers. It's not difficult to write decent female characters if you have actual writers on staff and a general basic idea of how not to completely objectify women. The folks at ArenaNet have created an entire world full of diverse and not-offensively-written female characters, and that game doesn't come near to being the pinnacle of RPG storytelling. All you have to do is write a character who is a character first and a gender second, then dress her in an outfit that is reasonably practical for what she's doing.

    Japanese people know how to do this as well as English-speakers do. There are plenty of good female characters that I've played in Japanese RPGs, from the ton of 'em in the Suikoden series to Estelle in TitS to the girls in Persona 3 and 4. Overly sexualizing and/or making vapid/helpless female characters is a conscious choice on the part of developers on both sides of the world, and everybody can do better.
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  • Iliya MoroumetzIliya Moroumetz Member Full Members
    edited January 2013
    What I find most hilarious is that many of these so-called writers who bemoan about how hard it is to write believable female characters never seem to get the idea that they could save themselves a lot of time and agony by making a well-developed, well-rounded, and believable character first and THEN making them female. But no, they'd prefer the Aeris Gainboroughs and Rinoa Heartilys instead of the Terra Branfords and Celes Chere.

    True fact: FF6 passes the Bechdel test when Celes asks Terra about her power and how wondrous it is.

    Has any of the other female protagonists done the same? Possibly, as someone who hasn't played any of them in a long while, I'm unsure as to where XIII, XII, and X stand.
  • FudorahZubatFudorahZubat Monster Lover Full Members
    edited January 2013
    XIII passess the Bechtel test easily just between Lightning and Fang alone, X and XII do too if I'm remembering correctly.

    But I agree with Ocelot and Iliya, the big mysterious secret to writing a 'good female character' is to write a chracter first and worry about what's between their legs second.

    The very act of going 'oh noes we poor mens can't understand dem crazy womens' is kind of terrible and mysoginistic by itself. The female human is still human and going to act like it and vaginas aren't an alien transplant that turns 'human' into a different species. If you trully believe men can't understand women simply because of gender then you've alredy given up before you've even tried, and its rather dehumanising to both gender groups.
  • ClixClix Never Google Image Search Full Members
    edited January 2013
    Well, outside of FFVI...

    VII - I can't recall anytime Aerith and Tifa were together and discussing anything beyond Cloud; Yuffie never really interacts with anyone but Cloud. ...Um... does the interrogation and fight between Tifa and Scarlet count...?

    VIII - I don't think any of the female characters are ever seen interacting with other. ...Then again, most characters are not seen interacting with others, since it's such as Squall-centric game.

    IX - I think Dagger and Eiko mainly talk about Zidane; Dagger WANTS to talk about more plot-based events and her origins, but Eiko's too busy to be boy crazy and tends to hijack the conversation(s) to gauge if she has a shot with the teenager.

    X - Yuna and Lulu have a few moments together discussing Yuna's role as the summoner. There might have been a small scene with Lulu trying to discourage Yuna hooking up with Tidus, mostly because of any negative effects it could have on Yuna fulfilling her job. I can't recall Yuna and Rikku being shown together in a scene talking.

    XI - ...Passes with flying colors if your avatar is female. ;)

    XII - No one talks to each other in this game, period, for the most part, at least not on screen. The few exceptions are like 3-5, usually with a male-female set (though usually about the plot and not their romance, or anything, and most scenes with Ashe are about her own character drive and choices).

    XIII - There are some scenes with Lightning-Fang and Vanille-Fang that's focused on the plot. That said, Fang herself was originally written as a man, so take that as you will.
  • omegabyteomegabyte He's just this guy, you know? RPGamer Staff
    edited January 2013
    IX - I think Dagger and Eiko mainly talk about Zidane; Dagger WANTS to talk about more plot-based events and her origins, but Eiko's too busy to be boy crazy and tends to hijack the conversation(s) to gauge if she has a shot with the teenager.
    I think there might be some stuff with Freya and the other characters. And if you consider that Quina is (officially) female, there's some really weird stuff there too. Mostly food/frog talk, but still.
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  • riulynriulyn Member Full Members
    edited January 2013
    I always thought the problem with most female characters in games was the fact that they weren't really written to be characters but to fulfill roles instead. There are plenty of male characters who aren't well-written or well-rounded either, but the writers at least tried to make them characters and not just moving stereotypes.

    Sure, I love my strong female characters and would love more of them, but I don't mind "weak" female characters as long as they actually feel like characters. I feel like when game writers write "strong" females they take extra care to make them feel real, while with "weak" females writers don't know what to do with them (perhaps because they aren't movers and shakers) and they get no personality whatsoever.
  • JitawaJitawa Member Full Members
    edited January 2013
    Treatment of females is part of expanding of the medium I think. Part of the reason that Mass Effect has more traction with females than some other series is the relatively even-handed way they handle "fem-Shep". She winds up having more depth and is a stronger female lead than just about any other game out there. Even with romantic possibilities built-in, the treatment is typically very mature and doesn't sacrifice Shepard's character for the sake of that plot.

    I also think the treatment of female protagonists in games like Baldur's Gate (Nalia, Viconia, etc.) is pretty even-handed. I don't want to say it's bad in eastern games exactly, but the treatment of women in games like Xenosaga (as the article suggests), Star Ocean, or the sexualization in Shadow Hearts are... not winning awards let's say. In some games with some better treatment (Suikoden perhaps), the cynic in me thinks that it might just be a law of averages or effort to fill out the 108 stars with every type of female they can think of. The females in Persona are handled well, even though the meat of the game involves high school relationships - so that's saying something. The depth of females in the series proper (Nocturne, etc.) is even better.

    Games like Final Fantasy VI are a mixed bag in my opinion. If you go back that far in the medium, sexualizing characters is hard because of the graphics if nothing else. However, Celes and her maybe/maybe-not relationship with Locke becomes a plot-point, as does her dropping the general outfit to sing in an opera about her hero - which is also her musical theme in the game. Terra has an odd role as she's not human, strictly speaking, but a large part of her latter game role is taking over as a mother for children. I don't know that any of that is "sexist" exactly, but it wasn't what I'd consider trailblazing for females either. I say this while considering Final Fantasy VI one of my favorite games, and thinking VII almost certainly took a step back with the magazine ads focused mostly on Tifa's breasts in a skimpy top.

    Final Fantasy XIII did a better job than most FFs in providing a strong female protagonist that focused more on saving her sister than any sort of romantic inclination. Consequently, Lightning was one of the better liked characters to come out of that installment (How a game with just her will be handled remains to be seen).

    This is a good discussion to have I think. People steer away from these things sometimes to avoid getting into the controversial elements, but I'm glad to see any attempt at addressing it.
  • ClixClix Never Google Image Search Full Members
    edited January 2013
    Taking the Final Fantasy example, I think another issue, at least in with some more high-risk developers, is a reluctance to make female main characters.

    This is a tad ironic for FF, since arguably most of the series has starred female main characters since FFX. Yuna is by narrative role the hero by traditional standards, and parts of her personality even fit a classic chivalrous knight--but she is also fairly equal parts traditional Japanese feminine. To counterbalance this, Tidus is made narrator/PoV character, hijacking the hero role (though he at least is an important character in the plot, though more later on). The next offline game gets completely bizarre in this matter. Vaan is presented as the main character in a similar way as Tidus, but without any substance or rhyme to it. According to some mixed messages from the developers, Basch and Balthier were originally considered the main character. Regardless, at the end of the day, the plot itself is the hero quest of Ashe, the most important female in the game (and one of a handful with character development). Instead, Ashe is pushed aside by SE in marketing, unless they need her sex Asshe.

    Then we get to FFXIII, which does finally admit to starring a female character. ...Just the incorrect female character. Lightning is a pretty cool character over all, but she is arguably inconsequential, along with Snow and Hope (Serah is more important in the plot than her big sister). The story is about Vanille. It's not initially apparent, but it becomes so farther in, especially toward the end. It is her choices that matter. As such, her best friend serves an important role as part of Vanille's incentive for certain actions. Similar, Sazh is arguably more important than the other half of the party for the moral support and bonding her had with Vanille when they were together; Sazh was a foil to her, and she needed his example when making some of her own decisions later on. Now, according to the Ultimania, Vanille was going to be named main character after they wrote the plot and realized what had happened, but, because of the 2006 trailer, they kept with Lightning as the main character for consistent marketing reasons. Incidentally (or not, don't know), Lightning is a masculine character (hell, the MOST masculine character in the game) while Vanille oozes dangerous levels of girlishness, more so than Yuna did before her.






    P.S.: FFXI largely escapes this. The gender of the PC does not impact anything; regardless, the PC will be the main character. However, much of the series features prominent woman as the co-protagonists for different story arcs. The core plot of FFXI (the original Shadow King + Zilart Princes arcs) is a bit more nebulous with main characters, with more equal roles between Lion, Zeid, and Aldo, supporting the PC. However, almost every plot line afterward notably co-stars a female character with the PC (Prishe in CoP, Aphmau in ToAU, and Lillisette in WotG; can't wait to see if the trend continues for Adoulin). Furthermore, in marketing via Dissidia and whatnot, the face of FFXI to those outside of its fans is the female character Shantotto (who is largely an extra that's a complete scene stealer when she occasionally pops up in mostly non-important instances) and, to a slightly lesser degree, Prishe.

    P.S.S.: I am not terribly familiar with FFXIV, though in marketing, generic black haired Hyur dude seems to be the favorite.
  • InstaTrentInstaTrent Opinionator RPGamer Staff
    edited January 2013
    riulyn said:
    I always thought the problem with most female characters in games was the fact that they weren't really written to be characters but to fulfill roles instead. There are plenty of male characters who aren't well-written or well-rounded either, but the writers at least tried to make them characters and not just moving stereotypes.
    I could not agree more with this statement. More often than not, I think many video game writers approach female roles like they are slots to fill with stereotypical archetypes. They *could* take the time to flesh out the characters themselves and give them unique personalities, but it's much easier to give them one or two defining characteristics and leave them to collect dust throughout the plot.
    "To tell you the truth, I like drinking tea and eating fresh vegetables, but that doesn't fit with my super-cool attitude. I guess I have to accept this about myself."
  • retrodragonretrodragon Member Full Members
    edited January 2013
    I am loving this discussion, and in fact I finally am inspired to start up the Mass Effect games to see how Femshep plays. Personally, I have really enjoyed Lightning's character, although (as a guy) I wonder if it's because she is somewhat masculine...in any case, I really enjoy that she is a strong independent leader who has a take charge attitude. In fact, in FFXIII it is Snow's character whose rash actions seem infantile, while Lightning is the stalwart wise leader. I'm really interested in the notion that Vanille was the original lead character, and I can see plot-wise how this is true. But of course, gameplay-wise you are forced to use Lightning for the whole first portion of the game.

    The one comment I would make to add to the discussion is just to say that Lightning has become one of my top 5 lead characters overall, and as a guy that is pretty remarkable. I don't usually enjoy role playing as a female lead...I would think the reasons are obvious lol. But I really enjoyed her character, and I also enjoyed that she was not oversexualized. She was important as a person, and as Serah's sister, not just as sexual advertising.

    In any case, I think it's writing like this editorial that can make a difference in the future. Thank you so much for dreaming of ways to make my favorite medium even more successful:)
    Playing: Wild Arms 3, Kingdoms of Amalur Reckoning, Star Ocean First Departure
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  • InstaTrentInstaTrent Opinionator RPGamer Staff
    edited January 2013
    retrodragon said:
    In any case, I think it's writing like this editorial that can make a difference in the future. Thank you so much for dreaming of ways to make my favorite medium even more successful:)
    This comment. SO nice.

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    "To tell you the truth, I like drinking tea and eating fresh vegetables, but that doesn't fit with my super-cool attitude. I guess I have to accept this about myself."
  • watcherwatcher Veteran RPGamer Full Members
    edited January 2013
    I feel like Star Ocean 4 is giving the earlier games in the series a bad rap.

    I do long for the day when game makers retain pro-writers as a standard. Until then, I expect shallow characters of all kinds. I know on the guys' side of things I'm sick of seeing the lucky fool / idiot hero types, as much as I am seeing the ditzy klutz on the girls' side. And mega-boobs, I'll never get why those are such a fascination.
  • DarkRPGMasterDarkRPGMaster A Witness to Destruction Moderators
    edited January 2013
    watcher said:
    I feel like Star Ocean 4 is giving the earlier games in the series a bad rap.
    It is. Rena from SO2 was much better female representation, with or without you choosing her side of the story.
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  • coyotecraftcoyotecraft Full Members
    edited January 2013
    The test isn't really designed for video games. Most games have a limited cast and limit the point of view to one character so its a lot of 1-on-1 conversations. 2 female characters talking about something other then a man is suppose to show that character has depth and concerns. Most of the time, characters don't talk unless spoken to. When they do talk it serves to advance the story or give the player advice on what to do next.

    When it comes to appearances, I hate to say it but sex sells. In Square Enix's survey about the Agni's Philosophy trailer, one of the questions asked if I thought the character was attractive. Can't blame them. And even male characters get the same treatment. I mean, Serge in Chrono Cross, his stat screen said he was a 128lb, 5' 7" 17yo. In real life that would be scrawny, but in his rebirth scene he has Pecs and Abs like an Olympic athlete. Ladies show curves, Men show muscle.
    Women get mega boobs. Men get mega muscles.
  • FudorahZubatFudorahZubat Monster Lover Full Members
    edited January 2013
    I would just like to give a shout out, if I may, to one of the best females (and one of my favorites) in gaming.
    Alis from the original Phantasy Star. Her badassery was way ahead of its time (and if the jap. only remake retconed her in any way I shall choose to ignore it). *salutes*
  • TG BarighmTG Barighm Member Full Members
    edited January 2013
    And even male characters get the same treatment. I mean, Serge in Chrono Cross, his stat screen said he was a 128lb, 5' 7" 17yo. In real life that would be scrawny, but in his rebirth scene he has Pecs and Abs like an Olympic athlete. Ladies show curves, Men show muscle.
    This point is worth noting twice. We like to think of nerdy gaming guys sitting in their basements with their booby mousepads and blow-up dolls, but a lot of people forget women have sex drives too. In fact, I've run into a heck of a lot more female gamers who make decisions based on the attractiveness of characters. I'd say about 80% of the female gamers I have played with mentioned making decisions based on the attractiveness of their characters over anything else. It's more likely guys are less willing to say the same out of fear of being seen as shallow, but I still find it interesting how quickly women point out the attractiveness of characters.

    In the end, the vast majority of games are made to sell, and when you get passed the games designed to provide cheap thrills and appeal to focus groups THEN you get the games that are designed to be more substantial. Alas, this is a risky proposition. Just look at The Witcher 2. Apparently one of the major reasons the game didn't sell all that well is because a lot of people thought Garrett is f'ugly.
  • DravDrav A Serious Man Full Members
    edited January 2013
    Sometimes I wonder how The Witcher series has escaped the wrathful gaze of the social justice crowd, since they're basically exploitation fantasy games (complete with "edgy" rape scenes that only serve as motivation for the male characters!). Then I remember it was a PC game, and thus they probably didn't play it.
  • KiralynKiralyn Member Full Members
    edited January 2013
    TG Barighm said:
    This point is worth noting twice. We like to think of nerdy gaming guys sitting in their basements with their booby mousepads and blow-up dolls, but a lot of people forget women have sex drives too. In fact, I've run into a heck of a lot more female gamers who make decisions based on the attractiveness of characters. I'd say about 80% of the female gamers I have played with mentioned making decisions based on the attractiveness of their characters over anything else. It's more likely guys are less willing to say the same out of fear of being seen as shallow, but I still find it interesting how quickly women point out the attractiveness of characters.
    And there's also the aspect of those handsome/muscular/etc male characters as wish-fulfilment "I wish I was him" for male players.

    (Although, I have to say this about the "I can't relate to female characters" comment I see on various forums, especially in "do you play male or female" threads in games that let you create - like Skyrim. Personally, as a somewhat nerdy, out of shape, not terribly athletic/brave/bold/decisive male? I don't relate any better to the stereotypical no-neck, crewcut, uber-dude that tends to populate many games these days, either. Although this is more in action games than RPGs. It may be shallow, but as a hetero male, I like to play games with pretty female leads. Of course, I also like kick-butt Action Girl archetypes like Buffy/Xena/Sydney Bristow/etc in my movies, TV, and novels.)
  • randal77randal77 well well, look who it is Full Members
    edited January 2013
    Do you know what I would like to see some stats of? The most LIKED female characters, by female game players. And then the same thing by male game players.

    I can't help but think that a poll based on what people think is a "strong, female lead" might end up being slightly misleading, but again, I'd like those stats (separated by male/female game players again). To compare to the above.

    By the way, who do we consider a "strong, MALE lead"? I mean we're kind of implying that this goes without saying, but maybe we should doublecheck, first? I don't really consider Cloud, Squall, Tidus or Vaan to be particularly "strong" leads. I mean, Squall's as tryhard and insecure as you can get.
    Wait a second... If you're here, than that means... oh boy
  • omegabyteomegabyte He's just this guy, you know? RPGamer Staff
    edited January 2013
    randal77 said:
    Do you know what I would like to see some stats of? The most LIKED female characters, by female game players. And then the same thing by male game players.

    I can't help but think that a poll based on what people think is a "strong, female lead" might end up being slightly misleading, but again, I'd like those stats (separated by male/female game players again). To compare to the above.

    By the way, who do we consider a "strong, MALE lead"? I mean we're kind of implying that this goes without saying, but maybe we should doublecheck, first? I don't really consider Cloud, Squall, Tidus or Vaan to be particularly "strong" leads. I mean, Squall's as tryhard and insecure as you can get.
    It depends on what you mean by "strong". If you mean strongly written, I would put Tidus in there, along with Haseo from .hack//G.U. or Luke from Tales of the Abyss. Each of those characters show more than just machismo in their characters, and each one shows personal growth which I think is a sign of a good character.

    If you mean strong as in a physically and emotionally strong character as in Racquel from WA4 or Lightning from FF13, a lot of male leads in RPGs fall into that category, but not very many show a lot of depth of character. Racquel, at least, has more going for her than just her strength. If I had to pick a male lead that could act as her counterpart, it would probably be Yuri from Tales of Vesperia.
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  • TG BarighmTG Barighm Member Full Members
    edited January 2013
    And there's also the aspect of those handsome/muscular/etc male characters as wish-fulfilment "I wish I was him" for male players.

    I don't relate any better to the stereotypical no-neck, crewcut, uber-dude that tends to populate many games these days, either.
    It's probably just guys trying to avoid gay remarks, but I can't remember ever meeting a guy who made character decisions based on "wishing" to look like a certain dude; however, I've met craploads of guys who choose male characters because they think they look cool or because they like them (ie. badarse). This fondness is usually based on things like realism, neat weapon design, or costume design. Men also appreciate a good male character's decisive and bold attitude, depth of character, and stuff like that. Just look at Gears of War. It's hard to find anyone who appreciates the character design, yet they still like the characters. At least, everyone loves the banter when Cole and Baird are in the party.
    I don't really consider Cloud, Squall, Tidus or Vaan to be particularly "strong" leads.
    Nix Vaan. He wasn't really the leading man, remember? Actually, Balthier is a fantastic example of a great male character that isn't badarse or stereotypically goody-goody.
  • InstaTrentInstaTrent Opinionator RPGamer Staff
    edited January 2013
    TG Barighm said:
    Nix Vaan. He wasn't really the leading man, remember?
    I know many people are of the opinion that Vaan isn't a leading male because he does pretty much nothing for about 60% of Final Fantasy XII, but I would argue that he is still a fairly strong character. Disregarding the fact that his greatest aspiration is that of a sky pirate, he still had the motivation of his brother's passing to keep him engaged in the narrative.

    Not a central protagonist per se, but not nearly the vague, blank canvas that so many people make him out to be.
    "To tell you the truth, I like drinking tea and eating fresh vegetables, but that doesn't fit with my super-cool attitude. I guess I have to accept this about myself."
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