Monday, May 9, 2011

The Twilight Saga is Actually a Bad RPG (Part I)

Do you remember the time when role-playing games (RPGs) and action games with role-playing elements were imported and mass-produced with the fury of a thousand game developers? Consoles were dropping in price and becoming more widely accessible, and with the continued success of series like Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior, the Legend of Zelda, Phantasy Star, Secret of Mana, Earthbound, and Pokemon (just to name a scant few), everyone was looking to lap up that cash cow's sweet money-milk. Of course, this meant many games were clones of their predecessors, and then the clones would get cloned, diluting the qualities that made these games enjoyable and popular in the first place. There were specific elements, though, that were typically present in a successful RPG; Stephenie Meyer's popular Twilight saga is another attempt to capitalize on these RPG elements. Included in this post, you will find out how one author turned her hungry eyes to the video game world and changed the literary realm.

Part 1: Insert Protagonist Here

Element 1: The Empty Hero
Especially true for the older RPGs, these games typically have a protagonist with little background or personality. This makes it easier for the player to assume the role of the hero, and truly get satisfaction from winning the game. For example, in the original Dragon Warrior, the hero is some fellow in blue armor the king calls upon for help. Link in The Legend of Zelda was just a boy with a great destiny. In the Pokemon franchise, the player's character is a blank canvas, with no built-in preference for certain Pokemon, no specific drive, and no distinguishing qualities that aren't given to him by the player. Frequently in this type of game, the protagonist never even speaks, or only speaks when the player selects his or her dialogue. When a game's protagonist is fleshed out a little better, it is typically with generic archetypes and behaviors that will relate to the game's player base. For example, in Final Fantasy VIII, the hero, Squall, is an average student with a crush on a pretty girl who is dating a guy he does not like. In a teen-rated game geared toward male players, this is a pretty easy role to relate to, even for those out of school, who can recall their own pasts.

Now let us look at Twilight's protagonist, Bella Swan. Bella is an average girl with no remarkable traits. She exhibits typical teenage behaviors, such as shyness, awkwardness, and a desire to be independent from her parents. We get very little physical information about Bella, leaving the reader to comfortably try on this new protagonist much as a player starts building their own hero in an RPG. Bella's dialogue is very stiff (even stiffer for those of you who skipped the book series and jumped straight into the movies) and predictable. Her reactions to situations are bland and muted, letting the reader fill the wide gaps in personality with their own emotions. In short, she is that Pokemon trainer who stares blankly at Professor Oak and only answers "What is your name?" when the player has decided. But much as players enjoy filling the role of "Pokemon hero out to save/enslave the Pokemon world," readers enjoy filling the role of "totally average teenage girl everyone is in love with." Just as one can't realistically expect to wake up one day and find a Bulbasaur parked at the foot of the bed, one can't expect a century-old vampire to camp out and watch them sleep, but that doesn't stop one from pretending.

Element II: The Hero Must Quest
Link could have let the call of destiny go to voicemail. He easily could have said, "Naw, man, Hyrule is cool and all that, but I'd rather let some other guy go have all the fun." The Pokemon trainer could have feigned Poke-Allergies and spent his pre-teen years getting an education and romantically pursuing his neighbor's big sister. Yes. The Pokemon trainer could have been an average guy, going to prom, working a 9-5 desk job, and coming home to screaming children. But there is some mysterious quality about video game protagonists that pushes them to bravely venture into situations most normal people would not have dared to try. Some have a rare, magical quality about them (such as Earthbound's Ness) and some just have extraordinary courage (such as Mario; he could have stuck with using a plunger, but instead he decides to save a princess) or just sheer dumb luck. Regardless of the cause, the protagonist must have a special trait that drives the game's plot.

Bella, like most game heroes, exhibits just enough tenacity to investigate situations others would not venture into, which leads to her being placed in the center of the action. Many average teenagers would avoid any student who said along like, "I'm dangerous!" or "I could kill you," and they might even report to the school guidance counselor that the oddly pale and malnourished boy is making death threats. Bella, however, has about as much desire to take Edward to guidance as Mario has desire to take a plunger to the palace's porcelain throne. Instead of reacting like any other teenager, Bella further pursues Edward, driving her into the events that comprise four long volumes of vampire drama. Then, the readers discover that not only does Bella possess an unusual desire to be torn apart and eaten by sullen Cullens, she also has some magical brain-powers that render her immune to vampire magic. And thus, the RPG hero cycle is completed - the books' protagonist possesses abnormal reactionary behavior and special powers.

Element III: The Hero's Family?
An absent father, or even an absent entire family, is another common theme in RPG heroes. The Pokemon trainer's father is non-existent in the original games, and many of the sequels feature either a fully absent father, or one who is too busy with his own work to be present most of the time. Frequently, the protagonist is an orphan, or just has a sibling or close friend as their familial tie. There are various reasons to employ this tactic. It makes it easier for young heroes to venture out of town (would the Pokemon trainer have left his home if he had a father figure other than an elderly professor obsessed with Pokemon? Would Ness have fulfilled his destiny if his dad wasn't too busy to take him out to the park more often?). It also emphasizes the weight of any loss the hero faces. As an orphan, Squall of Final Fantasy VIII has few ties to the world, but as he grows attached to the character Rinoa, he has a much stronger desire to rescue her and prevent the loss of his one important person.

In Bella Swan's world, she is lucky enough to have both parents in her life. However, her mother has a man in her life that isn't Bella's father (her parents are divorced), which does not sit well with Bella, especially when it comes time for them to move. Rather than continue to take advantage of her mother's kindness, and remain safe with a roof over her head and meals on her plate, Bella decides to suddenly impose on her bachelor father, Charlie, who has been happily living as a police chief in a small Washington town. Bella claims closeness to her mother, but typically only keeps up through a few e-mails peppered with falsehoods. She overall disregards her father, referring to him by his first name, which effectively strips him of his role as "dad," and does not blame her mother for taking the young couple's small child and walking out on her husband many years back, though Charlie never displays any behavior that would warrant this situation. In this case, Bella's absent parent situation makes it much easier for her to sneak off to study and get physical with vampires, much as the young Pokemon trainer has no trouble leaving his worrying mother behind to go catch monsters. But it also creates a situation where Bella's father, perhaps craving the respect neither his wife nor his child have bothered to grant him, is eager to please Bella. He is very accommodating, providing her with a vehicle and granting her the "space" she demands in hopes he will eventually receive interaction from his child beyond "I made you food. BRB, VAMPIRES."

Well, that concludes part one of my tirade about Twilight's popularity, and how much of it has been pulled right out of our beloved video games. Soon, there will be a second part, detailing more facets of the saga, such as setting and outside character elements, and their relation to RPGs.

I hope this has been an enjoyable read for you. Please remember that most of what I write is in jest, and I am not genuinely convinced Stephenie Meyer was playing Final Fantasy and thought, "This would be cooler with teenagers and vampires and TEENAGE VAMPIRES." But I do have to say that after writing about Charlie Swan, I actually felt emotion towards a Twilight character that didn't involve nausea. To be specific, I felt quite a bit of pity for Mr. Swan and how, despite his best efforts, he lost his daughter to whining bloodsuckers and teenage lust.

1 comment:

  1. After reading criticisms of Twilight, I am starting to crave for a Twilight rpg, in which I could step into Bella's shoes, and do it better than she.