Final Fantasy XII, in my opinion, could easily be one of the better Final Fantasy games out there. As part of the Ivalice Alliance—games that take place in the world of Ivalice—the world it gives us is rich with history, religion, and culture. Sadly, the game is nowhere near as popular as others in the Final Fantasy franchise, and it unfortunately doesn’t have the best execution either. Its biggest problem comes from its choice of protagonist: Vaan.
FFXII opens with the Archadian Empire invading and annexing the small country of Dalmasca. The situation is made all the worse when the Dalmascan king is murdered after signing a treaty declaring Dalmasca’s surrender. Following this murder, the Dalmascan princess Ashe fakes her own death. While in hiding, she vows revenge for her father, her country, and most of all, for her late husband Prince Rasler who died in battle. Now, with a band of Dalmascan loyalists by her side, Princess Ashe forms a rebel group that spends the next two years sabotaging and attacking the Archadian forces still stationed in within her country.
As events unfold, Ashe and her friends set out on a journey to find a stone made from something called Nethicite. Nethicite is a magical gem of sorts that Ashe can use to destroy the empire and free her people. But something much more sinister is at play. A group of immortal creatures called the Occuria are responsible for manipulating the Archadian empire and its enemy, the Rozarian empire, into war. As Dalmasca is located between Archadia and Rozaria, it became the battle ground. Wishing to use Ashe’s grief over her country’s lost sovereignty, her husband’s death, and her father’s murder, the Occuria orchestrated the war. They, as powerful immortal beings who have been around forever, are responsible for shaping the history of the whole world, and they believe that if humanity is not under their control it will only lead to disaster. They maintain their control by destroying civilizations that have reached a certain technological advancement, which Archadia has done.
As such, they spend the game manipulating Ashe with a ghostly illusion of Prince Rasler and encourage her hatred toward Archadia so she will use the Nethicite. In the end, though, Ashe remembers that Prince Rasler was not the kind of person to seek such destructive revenge and realizes that his ghost isn’t really him. She spurns the Occuria, destroys the Nethicite, and manages to save her country with the help of her friends. Dalmasca’s sovereignty is restored and she takes her rightful place as its leader.
So what does all that have to do with the story’s protagonist Vaan? Well, nothing.
It has nothing to do with Vaan, and that’s the problem. There is literally no reason why Ashe should not be the main character. It’s not necessarily a bad idea to tell a story about a hero from the perspective of someone else—Final Fantasy X did the same thing with Tidus and Yuna. Tidus was our protagonist, even though it was Yuna’s story. But Tidus still had a role to play. His own personal conflicts tied in with Yuna’s and he had his own stakes to worry about. His story lent itself to Yuna’s and both character arcs were strengthened as a result. So while Yuna was the hero, Tidus ended up being an important part of the narrative, and Final Fantasy X would have suffered and drastically changed had Tidus not existed.
That is not true for Vaan. Vaan is almost entirely removed from the narrative at large, and while playing the game I often found myself wondering why his character was even there. Or why more effort wasn’t put into giving him a reason to exist. Vaan is an orphaned teenager whose older brother and caretaker was killed during Dalmasca’s invasion. As such, he hates Archadia and he wants justice for the things he and his country have lost. That’s all well and good, and he could have been a very interesting character. But his story and conflict wraps up after the first few hours of gameplay. When we are introduced to Vaan, we learn about the grudge he holds against Archadia. He longs to be free of Archadian rule and wishes that he can help take back what Dalmasca has lost. As such, he gets the bright idea to break into the Dalmascan palace and steal from the Dalmascan treasury—as if Dalmascan royal property belongs to him or something. I don’t get it either.
Unfortunately for Vaan, he breaks in on the same night the rebels mount an attack. While attempting to escape, he runs into Ashe, but they’re both captured by Archadian forces. It’s a little after this point in the game that Ashe becomes a playable character and Vaan is shoved into the background and given no development. From here on, the story focuses almost entirely on Ashe and her conflicts and Vaan literally becomes one of the most useless characters plot-wise. He receives little to no lines, his own personal motivations are never expanded upon, and he rarely takes part in important plot-related conversations, so we don’t really learn what he even thinks about what is going on with the Occuria. And if he does manage to form an opinion about something, other characters will normally either tell him to shut up or ignore him entirely. What we do learn about Vaan is that, unlike Ashe, he wants justice, not revenge, so at no point in time does he ever agree with destroying Archadia. We watch Ashe struggle with her decision on whether or not to seek revenge, but we don’t see Vaan go through anything similar, even though his own personal opinions conflict with Ashe’s. Despite the fact that he is the protagonist, the game literally ignores the fact that he and Ashe have conflicting views about revenge.
As a result, Vaan’s character remains the same for the entirety of the story. He starts off as an annoying teenager who has dreams of becoming a skypirate and getting justice, only to still be an annoying teenager who has dreams of becoming a skypirate and getting justice at the story’s end. Unlike Ashe who still mourns for Rasler, Vaan has already accepted his brother’s death. So he doesn’t struggle with the same moral dilemmas that Ashe does. I imagine that Vaan was chosen as the protagonist since he is supposed to be a viewpoint character and someone the audience can easily relate to, but since we learn little to nothing about him, that becomes a difficult task. Ashe is the character we end up relating to, because Ashe is who we end up caring about. Her conflicts are easy to get invested in and we want to see how her story unfolds. Her moral dilemma is interesting, and we want to know what the narrative has to say about the differences between revenge and justice. I have played this game three times now, and yet I still don’t understand why Ashe wasn’t the main character. There is actually a reason Vaan was chosen to be the protagonist and not Ashe, but it’s not a very good reason. FFXII’s executive producer Akitoshi Kawazu said:
Vaan in particular is obviously a little bit younger than the series is used to and there are a lot of people on the development team who aren’t necessarily feeling like this is the right character—it does kind of clash with the other characters and environments in the game. But, traditionally for the Japanese RPG market, you start out with a young, inexperienced character who grows throughout the story so, to an extent, having the lead be this younger immature character that is undeveloped is somewhat expected. (x)
I think that in this particular case, the people on the development team were right. Vaan is not a good main character, and instead of being concerned about what was expected, the studio should have been concerned about telling a good story. What makes all this so horrible is that Vaan could very easily be more included in the narrative and given purpose. Final Fantasy XII sets him up as having conflicts he needs to solve and gives him his own personal ambitions. For the first few hours of gameplay, he feels like a real character, but that character is just not allowed to grow at all.
While this is certainly a failing on Final Fantasy XII’s part, it thankfully doesn’t ruin the narrative. Yes, boring protagonists suck, but Ashe and even the other playable characters are interesting enough to carry the story forward and keep you invested in what’s going on. Even Vaan’s character isn’t entirely unsalvageable. Had the writers spent a little more time with him, he could have easily been a great part of the story—but as it is, he’s just not. He’s simply a footnote in Ashe’s story.