This is an article which may cause some eyes to roll, but hopefully it will also cause some of you to smile nostalgically and nod. After compiling last week’s list of villains, I began thinking about which heroes I like, and I found myself being immediately reminded that video game heroes suffer from stereotypitis, and blandosis. How many pretty-boy, emo kids with Daddy issues are there in games? The answer is too many to count. The same can be said for wide-eyed innocent youths who just want to follow in their parents’ footsteps, or regular schmoes who have heroism and adventure thrust upon them out of the blue. Through the years, though, one hero has always stood out to me, rising above his own stereotype. That epic hero’s epic name is …. Justin? Yes, Justin. Not exactly a name fit for the ages, but there you have it.
Justin is the hero of Grandia 1, and was poured from the “wide-eyed innocent youth who just wants to follow in his parents’ footsteps” mold. Game Arts was actually quite unabashed when it came to playing up Justin’s typical origins and motivations, I mean they named him Justin for starters. Justin. The name itself reeks of being just an average kid. I think what makes Justin work so well, though, is the fact that the developers knew how cliche Justin was, so they embraced it, refined it, and actually made Justin’s saga believable. Let’s face it, folks, most of these wide-eyed youths embrace being a hero far too easily, become much too good at fighting much too quickly, and all in all grow up entirely too quickly, making their entire adventure wholly unbelievable. So often I find myself playing a game and wondering how on earth this or that character can be performing these epic deeds, but not with Justin.
Justin is a slightly rebellious youth from the town of Parm, who we initially meet running willy-nilly through the streets with his best friend Sue, looking for “Legendary Items” to aid him in the duel he must fight for little Sue’s honor. Of course, he and the other local children are merely playing a game using pot lids as shields and aprons as armor. To most of the children adventure games are just a childish pastime, they believe that the entire world has been explored and all of the adventures have been had, but not our plucky little hero-to-be. He still dreams of sailing to the new continent, joining the Adventurer’s Guild like his father before him, and exploring the unexplored.
To make a very long story short, Justin encounters a holographic projection named Liete who bids Justin to travel east to the mythical Alent, where he will learn the secrets of the world. Along the way to Alent he does the usual hero things, saving villages, foiling The Forces of Evil (a military group called Garlyle) and falling in love. Pretty standard fare for an RPG hero, but not what you would expect your average kid to be capable of. What makes Justin and Grandia so great is the fact that the developers understood this, acknowledged this, and built it into the game.
There are moments where Justin fumbles, where his youth, inexperience, and accompanying big mouth get him into trouble. He often escapes danger through sheer luck, or because his enemies do not yet see him as anything more than an amusement, not a threat to be taken seriously. To The Forces of Evil as well as the player, he’s just a kid. As the game progresses, though, Justin slowly learns how to be a hero, he becomes more brave, more self-reliant, and essentially grows up and into the role of a real hero. It is all very gradual, very natural and therefore very believable. The game starts off small and gradually builds up to more dangerous adventures and more impressive deeds. Eventually every player has a moment when they stop and realize how far Justin has evolved.
Certain moments really stand out to me as I think back on the game so many years later. One such moment which I think really exemplifies the realistic way the game treats being an RPG adventurer is a moment after Justin has sailed across the ocean, crossed a continent, and scaled the wall at The End of the World. Using an ancient, magical device he needs to send Sue back home to Parm. A portal opens through which the streets of Parm can be seen, where they used to play their dueling games. It dawns on the player and characters alike how far Justin has come, geographically and personally. Grandia is not a game where you can just click a button on a map and instantly go back home. Once you cross certain points you simply cannot go back, and it really makes you realize what a big deal it is to cross an ocean or a continent. You realize how much Justin has been through, and how it has changed him.
So many RPGs fall short when it comes to the character development of the hero. We are usually introduced to them, and are expected to accept them at face value and not question how or why they can accomplish the wonders that they do. Grandia was refreshingly different in that regard. They set Justin up to be doubted and questioned by the player and other characters. He is really not taken seriously by most of the people he encounters, and is treated like the child that he is until he actually proves himself. Seeing Justin grow into his role as a hero was a truly wonderful experience, and it is a shame that more games do not give the player that joy.