.journal 2002.09.04

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Fictional characters, real emotions

Now listening to: Final Fantasy VII Reunion Tracks
Now reading: Sylvia Plath, The Collected Poems
Now playing: Phantasy Star II (Genesis)

What is it about some fictional characters that make us fall in love with them so much?

I mean, from our childhoods we have these ideal characters foisted upon us. Santa Claus, who rewards the benevolent with presents on Christmas morning. The Tooth Fairy, who rewards us for going through the distress of losing a tooth with cold, hard cash. The Easter Bunny, who hides eggs and baskets full of chocolate because … I don’t know, I didn’t grow up Christian so I didn’t live through these things like a lot of you did.

The thing is, these characters aren’t “real”. The Christmas presents, the tooth money, the eggs and chocolate, they all come from parents or guardians or whatever. So as we grow up, we’re taught to cast these childhood notions aside, to be real. Why babble on and on about Santa Claus when you can idolize Sammy Sosa, someone who’s hip, someone who’s hot, someone who’s … “real”? And so it goes that Santa Claus and his lot are consigned to the other side of that great generational gap, between the four-year-olds and five-year-olds, and those who still believe in Ol’ Saint Nick are labeled “babies” and shunned by the older kids.

But what’s “real” and what isn’t? Are we really to say? My father was always straightforward with me when I was growing up that it was him and my mother who were putting all those presents underneath the Christmas tree in the living room, all those treats in my stocking. But as to whether or not Santa Claus existed, my father provided me with the answer that more kids need to hear: “No one really knows.” I mean, really, with as vast and as wide as this universe is, and with as little of it as we’ve charted with any kind of accuracy, who knows that there isn’t a real, living, breathing Santa Claus out there? His name may be Santa Claus, he’d look just like the Norman Rockwell-esque renditions of him we all grew up with, and his nose may be a giant leech that will grab onto your throat and suck your life dry, but despite that he’d be Santa Claus.

And really, haven’t we made Santa Claus real enough? I’m not referring to all the guys who stuff pillows underneath their shirts and put on red coats and have children snot all over them every December, although that’s certainly a ready physical indicator of what I’m getting at. What I’m trying to say is, with all the hope and dreams and desires children put into Santa Claus (a process that happens to you again when you become a parent, or so I’m told), don’t all those intangible emotions and wishes effectively make Santa Claus a “real” person to us all, beyond any blas� December holiday advertising or trickery?

I mention this because I’ve observed this process in many different forms throughout my life, and it can happen in all shapes and sizes. Actors and actresses get identified with a character they’ve played so much that they begin to be referred to as that character. Even when a character has no human incarnation (such as a literary figure), people still identify with the character enough to give the character a “life” of sorts. I’m not talking about the basketcases who can’t separate William Shatner from Captain Kirk here, because I’ve seen perfectly “normal” people do this as well.

One thing I recently read from someone else on this topic points to something I probably realized on a subconscious level a long time ago, but wasn’t consciously aware of until now: if people care enough about a character to make it “real”, then it’s a mark of an expert writer. I mean, it’s not too difficult to create someone who goes through a lot of tragedies, but it’s exponentially harder to make a reader actually care about that character, to be silently hoping the best for this character as you witness what happens to him or her. And as a writer, it only makes sense that I would study this phenomenon, because if I could ever duplicate it in my own works, then I know I will have done the job I wanted to do.

I had some success with that in the short story I wrote for my Creative Writing class this past summer, but I don’t feel as though I can speak to that process from the writer’s side with clarity. But I’ve witnessed the process occurring with other people, and I’ve even felt it myself. To be honest, that’s why I’m writing this entry now, because last month I felt it twice, and even though I know what I’m about to say may seem strange to some, looking at it from the perspective I’ve just described, it makes enough sense to me.

The first episode happened a few weeks ago, when I picked up Oh My Goddess!: The Adventures of Mini-Goddess DVD 4. I know I talk about Oh My Goddess! a lot on my site, and naming Belldandy and Keiichi as the top two animated characters of all time in my blog recently raised a few eyebrows, I’m sure. I don’t think I could find words that could justly describe Belldandy and Keiichi, but in a nutshell, despite Belldandy being a Goddess First Class, and despite Keiichi being the most fortunate man on the face of the planet, they are both still very humble, very human, very … real.

I spoke earlier about how creating a character that people can feel for is the mark of good writing. By that benchmark, Oh My Goddess is the greatest story ever told, at least in my increasingly humble opinion. Watching the final episode of the original OVA brings me to gut-wrenching sobs every time, even after seeing in countless times. The climax just gets hold inside of me and I’m just begging and pleading with all I have that things work out in the end. Even though I’ve watched the end so many times and I know how it ends, I still get so involved in the characters, so involved in the story, that the emotions I get watching the last episode are just as vivid as when I first watched it years ago.

But I guess more than that, Belldandy and Keiichi are characters I can identify with, more than any other fictional characters I’ve ever known. I’ve never been one for having role models in my life (with a half-exception for Bj�rk), but Belldandy and Keiichi are role models to me. If I could live my life with Belldandy’s patience and benevolence, and Keiichi’s humility and charity, then I know I’d be a good person, and I would do good for everyone around me.

Anyway, the fourth Mini-Goddess DVD came out last month, and unlike the Oh My Goddess! OVA or movie, it’s more light-hearted fare, definitely not the tear-jerker sort of stuff. (Although “Rainy Day” from DVD 3 is about seven million kinds of awesome regardless of that.) But I was still saddened to watch it. Mini-Goddess comes to an end in the fourth DVD, and not only is it the end of Mini-Goddess (originally produced five years ago in Japan), but it’s also likely the last Oh My Goddess! anime that will ever be produced.

I don’t want to bore you all with details, but Oh My Goddess!‘ creator, Fujishima Kosuke, is a motor nut. I mean, he just loves the stuff. Hence he tends to devote a lot of time to two other series, You’re Under Arrest! and eX-Driver, both of which feature pairs of female police officers with more machinery to play with than the combined pit crews of the Indianapolis 500. Not only that, but as enduring as Oh My Goddess! has been, Fujishima-san has a more profitable franchise in Sakura Taisen. So Oh My Goddess! gets stuck in the middle, and only about eight hours of Oh My Goddess! anime has been, and likely ever will be, produced.

Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. The Oh My Goddess! manga, first published in 1988, is still going strong, and will likely go down as one of the longest-running manga titles in history. But despite that, I, and many others, still pine for more anime to be released. As great as the manga is, I was first exposed to Oh My Goddess! as anime, and to be honest that’s how I prefer it. There’s just something more magickal about it, whether it be Inoue Kikuko’s perfect portrayal of Belldandy’s voice, or the superb soundtracks (even music from the last episode of the OVA can get me to cry). So there’s this bratty part of me that wants to throw a temper tantrum until Fujishima-san acquiesces to the production of more anime.

More than that, though, in a way, it almost feels like I’m losing Belldandy. I mean, like I said, I consider Belldandy to be a role model, and now all of a sudden I’ve watched likely the last moving pictures of her that will ever be produced. I still have all the old DVDs to go through, and I’m collecting the manga as religiously as my college-student budget will allow, but as for something new on my television screen with Belldandy on it, it’s likely never going to happen. And that really saddens me.

And that would take me to the other fictional character that’s been on my mind recently, Aeris Gainsborough. With the five-year anniversary of Princess Diana’s death recently, I’m remembering what all that led to. First Final Fantasy VII came out, and I was so eager to play it, but I ended up more absorbed in Princess Diana’s funeral instead. Then “Candle in the Wind ’97” came out and caused all the stores to open at midnight for its release, but while everyone walked out with that, I walked out with Björk’s Homogenic instead. So in the wake of this big tragedy (and I was somewhat of an anglophile at the time), the greatest video game of all time and the greatest album of all time get dropped on my lap. Funny how that works out.

Anyway, Final Fantasy VII came out, and it was pretty much the only reason I bought a Playstation in the first place, and given all the press the game had received, I was incredibly eager to play it. The game was great, although for few years there I thought that Final Fantasy IV was still the better game. It was only relatively recently that I realized Final Fantasy VII simply is the better — the best — all-around game. And while I respect other people’s opinions on the matter, no one is going to change mine.

In all that press, of course, no one really thought to conceal the big-time spoiler about the middle of the game. I mean, it’s probably ridiculous of me to keep hiding it like I do, because it’s pretty much the biggest non-secret in video game history. But for those who haven’t played the game yet, and have somehow not heard about the big secret, I guess I’d like to keep the mystique intact.

It’ll be kind of hard to describe why I like Aeris so much without revealing that secret, but I don’t know if it really matters that much. I guess I see Aeris as kind of a “spiritual sister” of Belldandy’s, someone who is very similar in nature to Belldandy, though from strikingly different origins. And because Final Fantasy VII is so well-written (despite the amateurish translation it received), I feel the characters are more fleshed-out than even those in the best representatives of other media, like movies or television.

Let me just say that what I’m concealing about the midway point of the game only increases feelings for Aeris. As a writer I can tell you that the plot device used is one of the “easiest” ways to draw emotion out, and for that reason I didn’t want to list Final Fantasy VII above Final Fantasy IV for the longest time. But in the end, the plot device still leads to the most memorable moment in video game history, something which has just as profound an effect on me as the last episode of the Oh My Goddess! OVA, and for that reason I finally decided that yes, Final Fantasy VII is the greatest video game of all time.

The thing is, Final Fantasy VII’s fanbase stretches so far and wide that you get some pretty strange behaviour. Notably, there is the great debate between fans of Aeris and fans of another character in the game, Tifa. The Aeris vs. Tifa war is pretty much the video game equivalent of Kirk versus Picard, Joel Robinson versus Mike Nelson, tastes great versus less filling, and so on. Quite honestly, I was involved in enough of those silly disputes in my pre-.org online life, and I don’t want to get involved in them again. Let me just say that I prefer Aeris, but I have nothing personal against people who prefer Tifa and I don’t want to get involved in debates over which of them is better.

Sometimes, though, the debates happen whether you want them to or not. To wit, over the past couple of months GameFAQs ran a single-elimination tournament to determine the greatest video game character of all time, at least as chosen by its readership. Those of you who keep tabs on my blog know that I’ve written a couple of FAQs for GameFAQs recently, and this idea seemed like an interesting one, so I thought I’d participate in the voting. (I tried to participate in the balloting, but my browser glitches up whenever I have too many drop-down menus in a page for some reason.)

Right from the start, though, I wasn’t liking the way the thing was run. The initial bracketing was … well, let’s just say I really didn’t agree with it. I mean, there were all of these characters from SNK fighting games, but only two characters from the Street Fighter series (and with all the dumb T&A fighters in there, how could they not put in the greatest female fighter of all time, Chun Li?), and the lone Mortal Kombat representative was Scorpion, when Sub-Zero developed far more as a character throughout the series. All these PC FPS characters were seeded really high, but are they really “characters”? To me they’re just a bunch of polygonal penii who run around shooting things. Occasionally Duke Nukem will botch a movie line or two, but is that a character? And there were so many outdated characters on the list (CATS, Pitfall Harry) and so many RPG characters that deserved to be on the list (Vivi, Auron, Rikku), that from the start I knew something was screwy.

But anyway, Aeris made the tournament, although only as an eleven-seed. (Whatever.) Tifa didn’t make the tournament, so I thought right away that the Tifa contingent would sabotage Aeris’ chances and get her voted out first thing. Barring something like that happening, I knew that there wasn’t much chance that Aeris would win the whole tournament, and looking at how the bracketing was set up, I would have been okay with Aeris losing to Crono (from Chrono Trigger) in the Elite 8.

Only that didn’t happen. I was surprised that Aeris got into the Sweet 16, but there she went down, fairly convincingly, to Solid Snake. And I’m like, what, the, fuck. I mean, I’ll admit I haven’t played that many first-person shooters, but I’ve played Metal Gear Solid, and I even own Metal Gear Solid 2. And I’ve never been that good at either of them, but fortunately I’ve been able to watch other people play them, so I understand what the hook is for some people.

But in all honesty, is Solid Snake really that great a “character”? I mean, the whole idea behind the Metal Gear Solid series is that Kojima Hideo’s trying to bring the whole Hollywood action-adventure thing into video games, which is a great idea. In execution, though, it just doesn’t work out. Hollywood action films have been bereft of substance for over a decade now, and the number of good stories that are coming out of Hollywood these days is basically zilch. That’s why I think the earlier Final Fantasies (4 through 7) worked so well, because they weren’t trying to be movies, they were trying to be fairy tales, and video games are more conducive to that sort of storytelling.

Getting back to Solid Snake, because this is what I’m on about, isn’t he really just another faceless fighter? From all the Metal Gear Solid gaming I’ve seen, I get no real sense of motivation from him; he just does his special ops thing for no reason, and although the plot develops, he himself doesn’t. It reminds me of those plethora of Jean-Claude Van Damme or Steven Seagal movies; no one gives a damn about the character either of those guys plays, because no one wants to see a character, they just want to see Van Damme or Seagal kicking ass. Contrast that with the Die Hard trilogy, where I can actually get a feeling for who John McClane is; I’m not just seeing Bruce Willis on the screen, because although Die Hard‘s plots have never been the thing of great folklore, they still do a good job of making me care for that McClane fellow.

When it comes down to it, I just can’t understand why people would choose Solid Snake as a better character than Aeris. Maybe it’s sexism (only three other females made the Sweet 16, one of which was the very anti-feminist Lara Croft). Maybe the anti-RPG amoeba were trying to band together to strike a blow against an RPG considered by many to be the best of all time. (I’ll get back to that later.) Maybe the people who visit GameFAQs aren’t as smart as I was giving them credit for. But to see Aeris fall like that … it would have been worse if she’d fallen to, say, Duke Nukem, but it still depressed the living hell out of me.

After that I kept an eye on the tournament, though at that point I wasn’t giving the end result any credence. And sure enough, one-by-one all the other RPG characters got picked off, usually in heavy, intensely-contested voting. And if you went to the GameFAQs messageboards, or other messageboards concerned with video gaming, the reason why was evident: there was an anti-Squaresoft conspiracy. People were calling in favours all over the place, trying to get rid of Aeris, trying to get rid of Cloud, trying to get rid of Crono, trying to get rid of Sephiroth. And it’d be easy for me to say that these people were making too big a deal out of a stupid contest, but given all this rambling I’ve been doing for the last several paragraphs, that would make me even more of a hypocrite than I already admit to being.

So when it came down to the finals, all the scheming had paid off. The Nintendo fanboys won out by sheer persistence, and got a Mario-Link final. And I’m not going to question the popularity of either the Mario or Legend of Zelda series; I’ve played most of the games in them and love them all dearly. But as great as Miyamoto Shigeru is in developing video games, as far as characters go, he hasn’t done jack. I mean, Mario and Link developed more as characters in their 1980’s cartoons than they ever have in any of their video games. Save Princess Peach, save Princess Zelda, save Princess Peach, save Princess Zelda … it just goes on and on and on, the story just remains the same. Why do they do it? That was a rhetorical question, because there is no real answer. They’re both basically a collection of sprites or polygons just saving the princess, without any real meaning.

And all throughout the fanboys’ recruitment of extra voters for the GameFAQs contest, and their revelry in their results, the same thread just kept coming through: “Those RPG games are so boring.” Is this what this sugar-lowed pop culture has led us to? That people can’t be bothered to sit through actual character or plot development, that they just need that instant gratification? “Save the princess? I’m on it. Understanding why Cloud starts caring about his missions? ZZZZZZZZZZZ.” These trends have been evident in movies and pop music for a long time now, and you’d think that the trend would hold true for video games. But with the popularity of the Final Fantasy games I thought there was enough of an undercurrent that enough people would actually care about expanding what the notion of what a video game was, that it wasn’t just about going from level to level and pressing buttons, that video games could be used as vehicles for great storytelling. And I thought that sentiment would especially hold true at a site for video game FAQs, considering RPGs basically created the whole video game FAQ genre.

I don’t know. Someone once told me that the whole world could tell me I was wrong, but in the end I may still be the one that’s right. But that’s really no consolation when the things you care about so much get forgotten, or dissed, or people just don’t care about them like you do. Even if it is something as seemingly insignificant as fictional characters, because if a fictional character means enough to you, it truly does take on a quality that goes beyond fiction, into reality. You just want to hope that people see the same qualities in the things you love that you do, and that if enough people see those qualities, then it will actually lead to a kind of enlightenment, that people’s lives really will get better because of these great works. So when they get shoved aside for the fad of the day, or some other brainless piece of dreck, it hurts.

So I don’t care what the readership of GameFAQs says, Aeris Gainsborough is the greatest video game character of all time. And I don’t care what Fujishima Kosuke wants to do with cars and stuff, the world needs more Oh My Goddess! anime and it needs it now. And I respect your opinion if you think otherwise, but don’t try convincing me of it because it just won’t work.

Everyone take care and be well. I’ll see you all around.

— Sean

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