A while ago, I noticed something odd about a lot of my favourite video game characters. 95% of the time, at least when it comes to RPGs, they’re all healers. Whether it’s Raine from Tales of Symphonia, Calista and Mirania from The Last Story or Rosa from Final Fantasy IV, it’s white mage after white mage. Even in Tales of the Abyss, a game I really didn’t like very much, my favourite character is Tear, the game’s primary healer (and I don’t even like her all that much either!). I hadn’t really thought about it much before, but it got me thinking. Why is this? What is it about healers that I like so much?
Of course, some characters like Raine and Rosa are just inherently great; they have awesome personalities and they have quirky little traits that help give them that extra bit of depth. Raine, for instance, can be a little overbearing at times, but she’s responsible, clever and incredibly wise. She looks out for the group when no one else does, and she always keeps a level-head. So far so admirable, but then there’s her spectacular “Ruins Mode”. This happens whenever Raine and the group stumble across an ancient ruin, and if she gets even a whiff of differing stone textures or airborne mildew, she suddenly transforms from the prim, unofficial mother of the group to a complete archaeological fanatic, turning up the crazy meter to full capacity much to her younger brother’s embarrassment (and it’s even funnier in the anime).
It’s completely unexpected, something I didn’t see coming at all, but this is precisely what won me over about Raine– she wasn’t the boring, old, stuffy academic I’d expected her to be; she was exactly like me. I may not share her intense love for ruins, but the fact that she can obsess about something just as much as I can means I know exactly where she’s coming from. There’s a link there, and that endears her to me much more than her healing capabilities.
Rosa, on the other hand, isn’t quite so “out there” when it comes to weird character quirks (she was created nearly fifteen years earlier after all), but there’s still plenty that I like about her personality, particularly her unwavering loyalty to Cecil. I was completely taken aback when she risked her own life travelling across the desert in search of Cecil when he went missing at the beginning of the game, and while things like the lament of Tellah or the sacrifice of Palom and Porom certainly tugged on my heartstrings, they just can’t compare to the depths of Rosa’s courage. She doesn’t even know if Cecil’s dead or alive but she’s ready to put her life on the line for him, and if that doesn’t make you feel humbled, then I don’t know what will.
The same goes for Sharla from Xenoblade Chronicles, who I mentioned briefly in my last column on character empathy. She’s another fully-formed character whose spirit and determination in the face of adversity was an instant hit with me, so much so in fact that I flat-out refused to equip a lot of her ridiculously skimpy armour because I wanted to be able to respect her and take her seriously, even though the game was clearly trying to exploit her as a piece of gratuitous eye-candy.
But then I realised that some of my other favourite characters weren’t like Sharla, Raine or Rosa at all. In fact, they didn’t possess anything remotely fun or commendable about them in the slightest, and these were characters like Refia from Final Fantasy III and Yunita from Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light. Granted they do have some semblance of personality, but for all intents and purposes, they were completely blank slates who just happened to be my main healers due to their respective game’s interchangeable job system.
So how did they wind up being my favourite characters? There must be something else driving me toward liking these healers more than others, right? I mean, I don’t know about you, but I always feel pretty indebted to my healers. They’re the people who keep me alive, after all, and help me succeed in battle. Without them, it’s highly likely that I’d be best friends with every Game Over screen that ever existed (no offence, Game Over screens, you’re just not my type). It’s almost like I’m automatically endeared to them because they’re such vital components of my team. If I’m in a jam, I’m not going to turn to my tank or thief or that other party member nobody likes to rescue me. I’m going to turn to my healer because they’re the only person who can get me out of harm’s way and back to kicking righteous RPG ass.
There’s no way I would have survived my journey up the Bionis without Sharla.
Likewise, games like Xenoblade and Final Fantasy IV make you appreciate your main healers much, much more as you’re initially introduced to a character who only has very mild healing abilities. Shulk and Cecil may help you get by for the first couple of hours with their Light Heals and basic Cures, but you soon start realising that their magic skills leave a lot to be desired when you start facing stronger and more powerful enemies, especially when you’re short on physical fire-power too. So when Sharla and Rosa step in and take the weight off your shoulders, you can’t help but feel at least a little relieved and grateful to have them beside you.
But then another thing started bugging me. Would Refia and Yunita still be my favourite characters if I suddenly made another character my main healer? To be honest, nearly everyone in 4 Heroes of Light became a healer at some point due to the fragmented nature of the story, so why did I settle on Yunita as my favourite? It might sound strange, but I think a lot of it came down to who became my healer first. I tend to stick with my chosen classes rather than keep switching them around (unless I really can’t find a decent job for them), and Yunita’s role as white mage just seemed to stick.
The same thing happened in Golden Sun: Dark Dawn too. There may be a total of eight playable characters, with two aligned to each of the four main elements in the game (earth, fire, wind and water), but as far as I was concerned there may as well have been only one additional character– Amiti, the best water adept in the entire series– as the other three were just hugely inferior clones of the three main characters, Matthew, Karis and Tyrell. Are characters like this doomed to obscurity simply because of their stats? Seriously, who’s going to swap Matthew and his epically powerful Ragnarok ability for Himi, a much weaker earth adept who you only meet right at the end of the game and have barely any connection to whatsoever? Not me, that’s for sure.
Sorry Rief, you just didn’t make the final cut.
So is this what it comes down to? Stats? I must admit, when I’ve got several characters to choose from, I do tend to go for the strongest characters. I want the best team, after all, so I naturally pick the characters that will help me achieve my goals. Why should I bother levelling up Lucca or Robo in Chrono Trigger when I know that Crono, Ayla and Marle have much better stats and abilities? Similarly, as much as I love Syrenne’s comedy gold in The Last Story, her poor defence means she’s absolutely useless when it comes to fighting. I’m forever running around trying to revive her only to see her downed a moment later, and after a while that just gets plain tedious.
But where would a conversation about stats and character choice be without mentioning Pokémon? It’s the prime example of stat-engineered choice, at least when it comes to competitive battling. If you take a glance at which Pokémon the top international players use, you’ll soon see there’s a bit of a trend going on. The folks over at IGN even worked out that 53% of all players at last year’s Pokémon Video Game Championships had a Hydreigon. That’s quite a lot! Other top choices were Terrakion (43%), Amoonguss (34%), and Thundurus (33%). So much for Karen of the Elite Four’s infamous quote about strong and weak Pokémon only being a product of our own “selfish perception”. She’s half right though, as these truly skilled trainers do indeed win with their favourites (I assume…), but just how much of that choice is by design?
So the next time you find yourself becoming attached to a particular character, maybe take a few seconds to think about why you’re being drawn to them. Are they a healer? Are they a super-strong powerhouse that deals one-hit KOs every turn? Maybe there’s another reason why they’re awesome. Maybe I’m just over-thinking things. Either way, it’s not like it’s a bad thing to like strong characters. We all have our own reasons for liking one character over another, but maybe some games give us more reasons than others. Does this sound like the story of your favourite characters? Let us know in the comments below!