In “Driving Off The Map”, James Clinton Howell asserts, among other things, that Metal Gear Solid 2 uses both its narrative and interactive forms to characterize Raiden and establish theme. According to him, Raiden is only able to achieve autonomy when both he and the player abandon their failed wishes to reenact the scenarios of the original Metal Gear Solid.
Why do I bring this up? Because I think something similar happens with Bravely Default, and the relationship it establishes between player and character. It offers very similar genre and mechanical deconstructions, albeit with one very important difference. Both games force their heroes to transcend their own narratives, but in Bravely Default’s case, the heroes don’t achieve a greater sense of self because of it. Quite the opposite, in fact. Bravely Default uses this narrative device to force the characters to confront their lack of autonomy and identity, and that their only existence is as player puppets.
More specifically, the game achieves this through its world repeating mechanic (which I’ll explain shortly). I’m going against most perceptions of Bravely Default, which criticize said mechanic as filler with no narrative value. In actuality, this is where the game develops its strongest arguments, everything before that establishing premises. The story starts with a familiar fairy tale plot: four heroes (Tiz, Agnes, Ringabel, Edea) are called up from obscurity to restore the four crystals that govern nature. It’s a tale reminiscent of older fantasy RPGs, borrowing every trope that they were known for: a destroyed village, a broken bridge, an evil empire, etc.
Yet more important than these early tropes is how the game initially frames the player’s relationship to the four heroes. Although the player controls their every action, (s)he has every reason to assume that these characters hold some existence outside him/her. For one, each character has some sort of backstory that precedes the player’s introduction to them. Examples include Tiz’s farm life or Edea’s life as a child of the Eternian Empire. Likewise, they all have their own reasons for embarking on the quest, like Ringabel’s search for his identity, or Agnes’ desire to end Crystalist oppression. Because these are incidental to the player’s goals of either restoring the crystals or becoming better at playing the game, (s)he has every reason to see these characters as more than just avatars. It was with these assumptions that the player formed his/her understanding of the world and his/her relationship to it.
And it’s precisely this understanding that the world repeating mechanic serves to deconstruct. After the player finally restores the four crystals, Airy (the fairy guiding the heroes on their journey) guides them to the Holy Pillar. She implies that entering the pillar will end their quest. Only the opposite happens: the heroes are sent back in time to the beginning of their quest, and asked to reawaken the crystals and enter the Holy Pillar again. This cycle repeats itself several more times before the story comes to an end.
Many players likely picked up on how this deconstructed at least the player’s mission and the RPG tropes that previously defined the story. Yet what most people missed was the effect this plot device has on the player characters. The narrative grounding that gives the heroes their own identities slowly loses relevance with each world skip. Each one distances them from the very world that they want to rescue, as the people within each new world are always imperfect copies of the ones they know. Meanwhile, each new battle makes the heroes stronger, thus better tools for achieving the player’s goals. This pairing is not coincidental. It suggests a causal link: that their identities decay because of their increased utility as player avatars.
The sidequest to obtain the Conjurer asterisk illustrates this most clearly. (Again, I’ll explain what asterisks are shortly.) Yulyana (the person holding the asterisk) requires that each hero visit and speak with their loved ones in the world they currently occupy. He essentially wants them to see the lives they could lead in this world if they chose to give up their quest. But as we’ve already established, this isn’t an option for them. Even presuming they could get back to their own world, it holds nothing for them. The men of the group have nowhere to go back to; Edea rebelled against her father (and the society he leads); and Agnes is the last surviving practitioner of her dying and unpopular religion. The only option they have (and the one they take in the end) is to continue their quest. In doing so, they embrace what they’ve always been: blank tools by which the player might achieve his/her own ends.
I mean “always” quite literally. The characters were always destined to this fate, specifically because their relationship with the player required it. It all comes back to how the characters gain new abilities; through the asterisk system. For those who don’t know what it is, imagine Final Fantasy V’s job system, only with more narrative grounding. Certain villains carry certain asterisks, which the player can obtain by fighting said villains. Each asterisk allows a character to take on a new job (Black Mage, Knight, Ninja, etc.) and learn the abilities tied to that job.
However, none of these jobs take into account a character’s individuality. Edea’s secluded life as a priestess doesn’t bar her from becoming a thief or a performer, and a country boy like Tiz is perfectly comfortable becoming a salve-maker or a spiritmaster. In addition, Bravely Default provides no mechanic by which the characters might express their unique individuality. In fact, their end-goal of saving the world denies them that opportunity, since it requires the player to make the most of the job system. Where the narrative slowly introduces the possibility that the characters have no existence outside the player, the asterisk system confirms it from the start.
Again, this only arises because of the relationship they share with the player. The story’s villains illustrate this most clearly, partly because they share no such relationship with the player. If anything, their initial role in the story is to confirm the player’s conceptions about the game world. Where the heroes fight for their own selfless cause, many of the villains are either overtly selfish, wrapped up in a greater scheme, or both. And where the heroes combine their individual abilities as part of a team, the asterisk holders almost always fight the player alone, making limited use of their own asterisk abilities. The game is sending a clear message: that the heroes the player controls occupy a unique position within the world, and that it is because they hold this position that they are fit to save the world.
Yet as the world skips come into play, these arguments crumble into nothing. Where the player had previously assumed that the villains had no existence outside their narrative role, that very same narrative begins to undercut the assumption. Characters like Khamer/Profiteur and Ominas/Heinkel/Barras aren’t just in these lands to perform a job. They have personal friendships with one another that transcend those jobs. This even applies to asterisk holders that the player would never assume hold any relationship with each other, like Jackal/Praline and Yulyana/Mephilia.
It’s important to remember that both the asterisk system and the world repeating mechanic actively prevent the heroes from experiencing these kinds of relationships. Thus, the player’s assumption about the game prove to be false. What (s)he had assumed to be a restricting force for the villains (the generic narrative) actually becomes their means of realizing their unique individuality. Meanwhile, the same narrative the player had assumed granted the heroes individuality now traps them in their role as player avatars. They cannot claim any benefit from their role, either. They cannot save the world. They cannot fully express themselves. They cannot even claim fullest use of the asterisk system. Later fights against the asterisk holders see them using the same teamwork and strategic ability use that the player had assumed were exclusive to the heroes.
At this point, it should be clear how the game views the relationship between player and character. In its eyes, such a relationship stifles true autonomy, as the player characters can never free themselves of such a relationship. These developments are certainly enlightening in comparison to Metal Gear Solid 2, which argued that this very kind of relationship actually enables autonomy. They open our eyes to the various ways games can facilitate identification, and the implications for whatever form the game chooses.
What results do Bravely Default’s choices yield? I believe the ending can explain. During the credits, it is revealed that Tiz had not actually survived his home village’s destruction. An unidentified celestial being had chosen his corpse as a vessel for saving the world. So it feels quite appropriate that as the player finally leaves the game, so, too, does the force that once animated Tiz’s body. The only evidence the celestial being leaves of its activity in this world is Tiz’s lifeless corpse.