Thursday, September 13, 2012

The cost/benefit relationship of hiring an NPC (Part I)

There are plenty of spoilers past this point, so if you haven't played FFVI (shame on you!), consider yourself warned.

Any roleplaying game worth playing will eventually confront players with optional side characters. These ancillary bad boys of the RPG world are as gruff as they are untrustworthy, and yet players are expected to blindly share their food, fires, and experience points with them while forgetting that they might be robbed or murdered in the process.

In a world where you can conjure apocalyptic magical fires from your hands and reduce enemies to cinders with a single thought, a certain suspension of disbelief for the plot is required... but is it really worth trusting these side characters when you know absolutely nothing about them and the game humbly requests that you trust them?

A prime example of this conundrum comes from Final Fantasy VI with the mercenary character, Shadow. Described alternatively as someone who would "...kill his best friend for the right price" or "slit his mama's throat for a nickel", you find Shadow in a bar at an early stage of the game and hire him to bring some much-needed muscle to your party.

Despite whatever misgivings your characters might have to Shadow's loyalties, the out-of-game description of his character lets players know that Shadow is a dependable, trustworthy soul equal in honor and nobility to any of the other characters encountered to that point...

... only, y'know, the exact opposite of that.

To recap: after being told that he would happily murder his mother and best friend for money and learning that he's about as dependable as Windows Vista, you invite the mysterious and murderous ninja to join your party because, hey, bestfriends trust everyone!

Shadow seems - and is - rather untrustworthy throughout the first half of the game, and will only join you in the early stages if you pay him 3,000 gold pieces first. Even after payment is made, Shadow will leave your party after a random number of battles, making him one of the most believable - and aggravating - characters in the game to deal with.

Still, despite the initial frustration, Shadow's backstory develops quite nicely in the second half of the game... assuming you don't accidentally kill him first.

As the first half of Final Fantasy VI builds to a climax, you learn that Shadow has decided to work for the evil empire because they pay him better than you ever could and offer matching 401k contributions on top of that. Ignoring his understandable loyalties, your characters fly up to a magical, floating continent just in time to see shit get real.

At this point, Shadow is probably reconsidering his career decision

The main baddy is killed by his insane second-in-command, who then assumes near-godlike control of the powers of magic. You're told in no uncertain terms that it's in your best interests to flee, and so you beat 16-bit feet back to your airship all the while forgettable about the turncoat Shadow.

After running for your life, you're given an option to jump back to your airship or wait. Most (sane) people will select "Jump!" right away, to put as much distance between themselves and the near-godlike lunatic who just killed his boss in front of their eyes. If you override your instinctual reaction to save your own ass and select "wait!" instead, you're presented with a second choice that allows you to hang back and save Shadow's life.

In many ways, this situation is the game's way of punishing you for distrusting a character who has taken every opportunity to be a dick and leave you hanging in the first half of the game. If you find yourself caught up in the excitement of running for your life at the end of Part I and forget that Shadow's behind you, then BLAMMO. Shadow (assumedly) dies, you never see him again, and you certainly will never learn of his complicated past backstory and implied paternity of another, lesser character from the game.

S-Shadow? Oh, I'm sorry... you just kind of remind me of someone I used to know, that's all.

Of course, even if you do wait for Shadow the game still has one last 'fuck you' in reserve. After rescuing Shadow in Part II of the game, he disappears (again) and waits for you in a mini-game area where you can wager items to fight monsters. If you wager a particularly rare dagger, you will have a chance to fight Shadow. Only after beating him will he (finally) come around and join your party permanently.

In the end, Shadow is a unique character with plenty of great skills and abilities to offer the party, but Final Fantasy VI makes it incredibly difficult to like or even trust him and will repeatedly punish you whenever you choose not to.

On one hand, that's rather masterful storytelling. On the other, it's a great reason to reassess the cost/benefit relationship of hiring a random NPC to join up with your group of heroes.