The Fall from Grace

I was visiting with my brother a few nights ago, and the topic of conversation turned to the anime/manga series Naruto. It’s a series that I followed for a while, but grew tired of after a series of rather asinine plot developments. My brother, on the other hand, has stuck with it because, in his own words, “I’ve come this far, might as well see how it ends.”

Naruto is a series that started out with a lot of potential. The premise, in a nutshell, boiled down to Harry Potter with ninjas instead of wizards. It followed a group of three young ninjas-in-training, the titular Naruto, his rival Sasuke and the brainy Sakura, as their normal schooling and training is disrupted by outside forces that have designs on their home village, a conspiracy headed by a group of powerful ninja exiles, most notably the evil, snake-like Orochimaru.

It wasn’t perfect, but it had a neat setup, some cool fights, and some interesting characters. But the series quickly began to fall apart when it shifted directions and took the character of Sasuke in a new direction.

Sasuke starts out very strong in the series; he’s well-established as a foil for the protagonist, Naruto. Both are young men with tremendous natural talent and gifts that give them a leg up on the competition, and both are orphans.

Naruto is loud, brash, optimistic almost to a fault and shunned by much of his community due to his background (long story short, Naruto has a powerful demon sealed inside of him, and people somehow view this as his fault), and has a reputation as something of a spaz and a screw-up.

Sasuke, on the other hand, is staid, quiet, confident and is viewed as something of a golden child by their community.

The two characters also have very different motivations. Naruto wants to eventually become the leader of his ninja village and earn the respect and love he’s always craved, but Sasuke is single-mindedly focused on one thing; revenge against his older brother, who slaughtered Sasuke’s entire family when Sasuke was a young boy.

The problem comes near the end of the first half of the series, when Sasuke, frustrated that he seems to have reached a plateau in terms of his power and skills, sees Naruto continually becoming stronger and surpassing him. He can’t see how he can possibly become strong enough to kill his brother at the rate he’s going, and so he makes a deal with the devil, accepting an offer by Orochimaru to become his apprentice and gain power from Orochimaru’s forbidden skills.

Everybody else knows this is a bad idea, since Orochimaru’s ultimate goal is to groom Sasuke to become powerful so he can possess Sasuke’s body and become even more powerful himself, but Sasuke seems convinced that he can get what he needs from Orochimaru and turn on him when the time is right (spoiler: he does).

A team of ninjas, including Naruto, try to catch up with Sasuke and stop him from leaving, but ultimately fail. Sasuke and Naruto fight, and Sasuke narrowly defeats Naruto, but does not kill him, and leaves to join Orochimaru. So far, so good; we have a basically good character who, faced with temptation, fails to resist, and begins to walk down a dark path.

The problem, then, is that the entire series begins to revolve around Sasuke in one way or another, to the point where his drama completely eclipses the main plot of the series. Naruto and Sakura (and whoever’s working with them at the time) become obsessed with finding Sasuke and convincing him to come home.

Meanwhile, Sasuke continues down his dark road, betraying friends and allies in his quest for greater power. He eventually does kill his brother, but in the process, learns that the massacre of his family was a hit sanctioned by military officials in the ninja village because his entire family was involved in planning a coup d’etat.

Rather than focus on hunting down the individuals responsible for this, or bringing his knowledge to the attention of the village and vindicating his family’s name, Sasuke decides the best course of action is to wipe out his entire village in retribution for his family’s deaths.

The problem with this is that, even though Sasuke is now attempting to commit genocide, none of his former friends or teachers are willing to turn their backs on him. And later, when Sasuke changes his mind (for extremely contrived reasons) and decides that his family would want him to protect the ninja village, nobody shuns him, refuses him, or tries to kill him for all the murder and attempted genocide he’s committed up to this point. He doesn’t even acknowledge that he was wrong, and nobody demands that he do so.

It’s unclear whether the manga author, Masashi Kishimoto, was trying to have Sasuke fall from grace and then redeem himself, or whether he was trying to have Sasuke continue his descent and become irredeemably evil and chickened out at the last minute, but what he ended up doing was trying for both approaches and failing at both.

At this point, Sasuke has done too much evil to be redeemed in the audience’s eyes; there comes a point at which a character can’t be forgiven for their sins, and Sasuke passed that point about fifty exits back.

Discussing this with my brother got me thinking; Kishimoto isn’t alone in this shortcoming. Many, many storytellers have tried and failed to do a “fall from grace” story well. George Lucas ruined the very successful story of Darth Vader’s fall and redemption with his Star Wars prequels, giving Anakin Skywalker no compelling reason to fall to the dark side and betray his fellow Jedi.

Several comic book superheroes have been subjected to bad falls from grace, including (but by no means limited to) Mary Marvel, Hal Jordan (Green Lantern), Cassandra Cain (Batgirl), Nightwing, Superboy Prime, Jason Todd (Robin/Red Hood), Magneto, Scarlet Witch, Hank Pym, Wolverine and the Invisible Woman. Even several video games have attempted this type of story arc and managed to screw it up.

So what is it about the fall from grace makes it so difficult to write and so easy to get wrong? From what I’ve seen, usually it’s a question of poor motivation for the character to fall in the first place; the inciting incident for the character’s fall simply doesn’t provide a believable motivation for them starting down a dark road that leads to them betraying friends, allies, and people who trusted them.

The whole point of a fall from grace, the entire reason the trope is compelling, is that we see somebody who is a good, moral person start down a slippery slope that leads to them becoming evil, for reasons that, in the beginning, seemed completely good or at least totally justified. If they fall for reasons that aren’t good enough, then it completely undercuts the greatness and morality of the character that made us like them in the first place.

One need look no further than the character from whom we get the term “fall from grace”– the Biblical figure of Lucifer. First among God’s angels, the best, brightest, most intelligent of all God’s creations, Lucifer begins to feel that it’s unfair that God created angels only to serve, that they can never aspire to anything better.

This feeling of injustice prompts Lucifer to instigate a war against his creator, which he loses, and he is literally cast down into Hell, where he is consigned to an existence of undermining God’s creation by tempting mortals and leading them down a dark path.

Were Lucifer not so good and bright to begin with, and were his reasons for rebelling not understandable and compelling on some level, that story would not have stayed with us for so long. This story, in all its subsequent permutations, warns us that even the most promising and good people, the very best humanity has to offer, can be tempted to do the wrong thing for the right reasons.

When we see characters start down a dark path for reasons that are inadequate or trite, those stories cease being cautionary tales about the best of intentions, and become awkward warnings about being stupid or overreacting. And that’s simply not what the audience signed on for.

The Root of All Evil

This year I did something that I never thought that I would do in my lifetime. In fact, if you had gone up to me five years ago and told me what I’m about to write, I would have laughed myself silly.

This year, for roughly ten months, I regularly volunteered with a local political campaign. For ten months, for between four and eight hours a week, I made phone calls and went door-to-door for a mayoral candidate.

I’ve held part-time jobs that I devoted less time to. I spoke to hundreds of registered voters from all walks of life, received reactions ranging from excited elation to irrational, angry tantrums that would embarrass a toddler. For ten months I did this, donating my time and sometimes my gas and my cell phone minutes.

And after ten months, last Tuesday night, my candidate lost.

I went through the usual reactions you’d expect in that kind of situation: frustration, anger, depression, a night of heavy (for my age, which isn’t that much anymore) drinking. But afterward, I realized something; even though we had lost, and after ten months of hard work I had nothing to show for it, I didn’t regret doing it.

Because after years of thinking about the world outside of my city, and years of thinking about leaving or not caring about where I lived, I made a stand. I saw something about my community that I wanted to change, that I wanted to make better, and I devoted the time and effort to making that happen.

Even when it was hard and exhausting and felt thankless, I kept doing it, because I wanted to make a difference. And while that may not sound like much, apparently it’s more than most people bother to do.

You see, the day of the election, I found out that only a little more than twenty percent of the registered voters in my city went to the polls. An election that would determine how the leadership in our city handled everything from street repair to crime prevention, and only a fraction of those eligible to vote did so.

That is absolutely disgusting.

Every day, it seems like all I hear about is how dissatisfied people are with the way our government, both local and national, does things. Corruption and incompetence are rampant, and nobody is happy with it except those in power. But apparently people aren’t dissatisfied enough with the status quo to take (maybe?) ten minutes out of their day to go to the polls and cast a vote to change it.

The average turn-out for national elections is down to below sixty percent, and it’s been declining with every election for the last ten years. And those are the numbers for Presidential election years. I shudder to think what the numbers are like during mid-term Congressional elections. If my city’s local election numbers are anything to go by, it’s no wonder that Congress is in its current sorry state.

I’ve never been particularly religious, but there is one Biblical quote that I have long held to be true: “Love of money is the root of all evil.” Recently, though I’ve begun to question that; love of money may be the origin of evil intent, but in terms of actual evil, of evil actions and evil deeds, there is another, far more applicable quote, often attributed to Edmund Burke, though I prefer the paraphrase originated by John F. Kennedy: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

I could point to a hundred different atrocities for proof of concept on this quote, but really, I need look no further than the current state of the United States government: to a Congress that will happily shut down our government and cost us billions of dollars to make a political point about a program that they were never going to be able to stop, to a Governor who refuses Federal economic stimulus money to make an empty political stance then begs FEMA for assistance in the wake of natural disasters, to a Mayor who does not waive his salary in the middle of a recession then promptly lays off police and firemen after running on a platform of public safety.

Money, or even love of it, isn’t the root of evil. Apathy is. The apathy of millions of people who refuse to even try to take control of their destiny, and by omission leave their lives, as well as the lives of their neighbors and fellow citizens, in the hands of the careless, the incompetent and the greedy.

Book Sale!

If you haven’t purchased Hero Worship yet, it is half-price (only $1.99 for a limited time), and you can download your very own copy of my debut novel on your Kindle reading device! From November 15th through the 17th, click here, join the event, and select Get Tickets to purchase your copy. Thank you for your support!

There will be a new blog post up soon. Until then, happy reading!


Less Is More

Recently, I’ve been listening to this excellent Final Fantasy VI remix album while writing, and between that and feeling under the weather from a lingering allergy-induced sinusitis, I waxed nostalgic enough to pop my copy of the game in and re-play it for the first time in more than ten years.

My relationship with the Final Fantasy series is…complicated. For many years, it was one of my favorite series of video games, and it made its developer, Squaresoft, synonymous with great role-playing games. But over the last 13 years, since the release of Final Fantasy X, the series has taken a serious and steady dive in quality; the stories have made less and less sense, the characters have been less and less likable, and the gameplay has become less and less…well, game-like.

I say this to establish my mindset in revisiting FFVI; much older, somewhat wiser, and deeply disappointed with the direction this series has taken in recent years. I was fully prepared to have my nostalgic bubble burst and be exposed to the game’s flaws and imperfections as though I had finally seen through a glamour.

And to be fair, FFVI isn’t perfect; it’s very much a product of its time, and that means that it suffers from its fair share of overused cliches and tropes, bugs and awkward translation. But in spite of that, the game, even its story, really does hold up beautifully.

And I think a large part of that is due to the way the game handles its story; for a game where all the characters are represented by sprites that look more like elaborate, pixelated Lego men than people, FFVI handles emotional, powerful stories with such a light, subtle touch that it’s truly astounding.

There are a lot of great characters in Final Fantasy VI, and many wonderful, subtle moments that I could discuss, but I think I’ll cut to the chase and examine what has to be my favorite character arc in the game, that of the relationship between brothers Edgar and Sabin, twin princes of the kingdom of Figaro.

The player’s first introduction to these characters and their backstory happens very early in the game. The amnesiac protagonist Terra and her ally Locke, rebels and fugitives from the Empire that serves as the antagonist force for most of the game, flee to the kingdom of Figaro, where they seek aid from its king, Edgar. Edgar, himself a member of the rebel faction known as the Returners, grants them safe harbor in his castle and invites Terra to look around.

During her explorations, the player (as Terra) encounters Edgar’s elderly Matron, who mentions that Edgar has a twin brother who ran away from the castle years ago. The player then sees a flashback of the two brothers in the castle library, discussing their father, who has fallen ill, and the talk of choosing a successor to the throne. Edgar storms out of the room, distraught, and we see his brother, who the game then introduces as Sabin, left alone in the library.

The flashback then ends, and the game proceeds apace for a while, with Edgar leaving the castle with Locke and Terra to meet up with the rest of the Returners at their base. On the way, the player, by talking with townspeople and civilians and doing a bit of exploration, learns that a martial artist named Duncan was betrayed and killed by his son, Vargas, and that Sabin, who had been training with Duncan, is pursuing Vargas, seeking revenge.

The player’s group eventually meets both Sabin and Vargas in the mountains, and after defeating Vargas, Sabin and Edgar are reunited, and Sabin offers his skills to help Edgar and the Returners in their cause. And for several hours of gameplay, this is all the game does to address Edgar and Sabin’s past.

The game focuses on the main plot, introducing several new characters and major developments, and the history between Edgar and Sabin is left untouched. That’s not to say that the two are complete nonentities at this point; the game does a good job of establishing Edgar and Sabin’s characters for us.

Edgar is a strong and beloved king, confident, intelligent, resourceful, and an unrepentant womanizer; while a capable fighter, he prefers cunning solutions to the problems he encounters. Sabin, on the other hand, is courageous, stalwart and headstrong, but humble; he prefers tackling his problems head-on and overcoming them via raw force.

But their past is left unaddressed for a long while, until, in the course of the game, the player returns to Figaro with both brothers in their active team. At this point, when the player has the characters stay the night at the castle, we see a scene of Sabin entering the throne room by himself and reflecting on the past, and a flashback explaining what happened when Sabin left ten years prior:

Sabin’s Flashback

We learn that ten years ago, Edgar and Sabin’s father died, presumably poisoned by agents of the Empire. Sabin, grief-stricken, is enraged by the immediate discussion of succession plans; we learn that the old king wanted Edgar and Sabin to both take the throne and rule Figaro together. Sabin, however, wants to leave the kingdom and seek his revenge. He wants his freedom, and encourages Edgar to run away with him.

Edgar, however, is more level-headed; he worries about what would happen to Figaro if both of them were to leave. So, he proposes a wager; Edgar will flip a coin, and the winner of the toss will decide what path they’ll take. Edgar flips the coin, and the scene cuts back to Sabin in the throne room, where Edgar enters.

We learn that Sabin won, and chose his freedom over the throne, while Edgar clearly stayed to serve as king alone. The two brothers sit on the twin thrones, reflecting on the past, and then share a toast to themselves, their parents, and their kingdom. Their past stands revealed to the player, and the brothers are fully reconciled.

And that’s all the story we get for Edgar and Sabin, but frankly, as an audience, it’s all we really need. We know their past, we know who they are, and we know that they’ve finally come to terms with what has come before. Both brothers continue to play an active role in the storyline, but from this point on, they’re established and relatively static characters.

And the beauty of it is that this entire backstory is fleshed out over the span of three scenes that take perhaps 15 minutes to play through. That’s 15 minutes of a game that typically takes 60 hours of play time to beat, told only through pantomiming sprites, 16-bit music and boxes of text.

It’s a hundred times more potent than if this backstory had been stretched out to eight times that length and told with voice-acted, CGI cutscenes, as it would be in a modern Final Fantasy title. The game doesn’t beat us over the head with this sub-plot, and yet, it’s one of the most memorable parts of Final Fantasy VI.

It’s a perfect example of an old story-telling adage: less is more. When a storyteller boils a story down to its essential components, without fluff and without dragging it out, they create something that is much more emotionally potent than if they had indulged in unnecessarily lengthening it with superfluous detail. A single, perfect moment or scene is worth more than an imperfect, full-length tale.