Among the harshest criticisms lobbed at Final Fantasy XII is the alleged “pointlessness” of Vaan and Penelo. The argument goes that a pair of common street urchins don’t have much place in a story about high magicks, the clashing of gods and men, twisted political machinations and displaced princesses. There is, in fact, quite a lot to support this argument, not the least of which is this: it is Ashe, not Vaan, who is the main character of the story. It is Basch, not Vaan, who is bound by duty to support the princess. And it is Balthier, not Vaan, who has the means to provide her aid and hidden ties to the underlying plot to motivate him to do so.
When people say that Vaan and Penelo are “just sort of there”, that’s the context. It’s not at all an inaccurate statement. Vaan has little connection to the plot, the cast, or the game world itself — and Penelo has even less. The whole game would play out the same if they had not been included.
My counter-argument is this: their pointlessness doesn’t mean they’re without purpose. Vaan and Penelo exist to color the story in a way that otherwise would not have been available.
Let’s first contrast the kids with every video game and anime hero in history. Quick — which box do they fit into?
1) The “chosen one”, who learns upon embarking on his journey that he was somehow destined or preordained to do so, and furthermore that he is the only person capable of completing his task. (Ex: Cecil, Zidane)
2) The unlikely hero, who embarks on some unrelated journey only to become irreversibly entangled with the driving plot of the game, and who is then bound to see it through. (Ex: Bartz, Lightning)
3) The well-trained hero who was built from the ground up to embark on a journey to resolve some conflict, which the plot of the game is built around. (Ex: Squall, Yuna)
If you answered “none of these”, you’re on the right track. The vast majority of fantasy/sci-fi heroes fall into one of these archetypes… and that makes perfect sense. These genres are about the adventure first, and the people in them second. It stands to reason that writers would design the circumstances of the adventure, and then develop the cast by determining what kinds of characters would get caught up in it. Video games only compound the issue by requiring a hero the player can actually interact with.
These roles do exist in FF12, of course; Ashe is your #1, Balthier is your #2 and Basch is your #3. These three characters are required to move the plot in the direction it ends up going, and this would have worked fairly well if any of those three characters had been given the role of POV. The early game would have been quite a bit different, of course. If Ashe were the protagonist the game would have started with the Dalmascan resistance plotting to kill Vayne. For Balthier, things would have started with a daring smash-and-grab at the royal palace. Basch would have opened with a stunning jailbreak.
How FF12 actually opens, after the prologue of course, is with Vaan in a sewer killing rats, followed by an hour or so of Vaan and Penelo doing menial chores for their boss. The resistance, the burglary and the jailbreak all come later.
I think it’s worth noting that FF7, FF9 and FF13 open with a resistance, a burglary and a jailbreak, respectively.
The question in my mind is, what does FF12 gain by including the street rats? What it gains, in my opinion, is a sense of perspective that would otherwise be missing. FF12’s is a world where there is a very stark divide between the haves and have-nots. Knights, heroes and nobles sashay around the world in magickal chariots, compltely oblivious to the toil of the common people below them. Both Rabanastre and Archades have populations of forgotten and downtrodden citizens who live by scratching an existance for themselves in any way they can.
Rabanastre, in particular, has a lot of young orphans. The war with Archades took its toll, leaving as many children in the gutters as adults. Many of these children, Vaan and Penelo included, found themselves a place by making themselves useful to someone. The rest simply steal what they can from whomever they dare. Vaan and Penelo begin the game running odd jobs for a well-established merchant. It’s about the best life they can expect for themselves. All things considered, they’re pretty fortunate.
Right away, though, we learn that Vaan is unsatisfied with his lot in life. Much to Penelo’s chagrin, Vaan dreams of leaving the gutter behind and soaring on an airship, beholden to no one. Where Penelo is content enough to not want to move up in the world, Vaan merely lacks the opportunity. The first few adventures of FF12 are about how vaan attempts to create that opportunity for himself.
Even in that, though, Vaan lacks direction. He really has no idea how to distinguish himself. He knows he has to be able to fight, for example, but doesn’t have the means to undertake any formal training. What’s a street urchin to do? Well, grab a dagger and head down into the sewers, of course! An endless swarm of rats await. Note, too, that training on rats and other assorted sewer nasties is impressive in the small, limited world where Vaan lives. Among the rest of the street orphans Vaan is kind of a badass!
That’s how the situation must have persisted for a number of years, but Vaan is fast approaching the point where he’s not a kid anymore. As awesome as he is on his home turf, he’s still just a face in the crowd when Vayne Solidor comes to town. He’s even less than that everytime he looks overhead and sees the airships zipping past. At the end of the day, Vaan isn’t a hero, or a sky pirate, or much of anything really. His boss has another menial task for him, and Penelo has another lecture about how he should consider himself lucky.
Vaan’s decision to break into the royal palace doesn’t come to him in a vacuum. Rather, it’s the culmination of all his frustrations. It’s his recognition that he is very small in a world full of unimaginably large things. He has no direction and no plan — and why would he? He has no knowledge of how he’ll get in, what he’ll steal, how he’ll escape or what he’ll do if he can. When you’re as low on the totem pole as Vaan is there’s really no way you can plan for these things.
But just imagine: breaking into the royal palace and stealing a bag of gold. That’s a hell of a story any way you look at it. It’s probably the biggest thing a street rat like Vaan could ever do with his life. Succeed or fail, anything’s better than waking up tomorrow morning and doing Migelo’s laundry again.
That’s what sets Vaan apart from the rest of the Rabanastre underclass: he’s got just the right mix of courage, youth and stupidity to try and make off with an armful of imperial treasure right on the night of a great feast. That an assassination attempt and an unrelated break-in were planned for the same night are just an amazing coincidence. (From Vaan’s point of view, I mean. It makes logistical sense that both of these things were planned, independantly of each other, to go down on the night of Vayne’s arrival.)
One thing leads to another at this point, and Vaan becomes acquainted by people who exist on a much larger scale of events than he; namely Balthier, Basch and Ashe. Eventually Penelo is caught up in it too, necessitating Vaan’s involvement in at least one away mission. Upon completion of that mission, though, the kids are free. Ashe, Basch and Balthier make arrangements to continue on; they have continents to move and planets to conquer. It’s at this point that Vaan and Penelo are no longer complicit in the plot.
Vaan does, however, have his foot in the door. Nobody bats an eye when he decides he wants to keep on with them, and why would they? He’s proven his worth to Balthier and his virtue to Basch. He’s not slowing anyone down. Another sword arm is always welcome. Even Penelo, who would much rather just go back to her comfortable gutter, has gotten a taste of the world Vaan wants to belong in. Her decision to tag along with him comes from a place of concern for her friend, and the rest of the cast is correct in not begrudging her that.
So now the team is heading off across the Sandsea towards the Tomb of Raithwall, and millions of FF12 players spend the next 70 hours waiting for the other shoe to drop on the whole “Vaan and Penelo” issue. Surely they wouldn’t have opened the game with rat-slaying and errands-running unless the two characters doing it ended up being somehow important, right? We’re going to find out that Penelo is Larsa’s twin, or that Vaan exhibits some mysterious control over nethicite because of some heretofore unknown Occuria lineage residing within him. Or something.
But none of those things happen, so those millions of players were all like “wut”.
That’s the chain of events in many story-driven games, though, and Final Fantasy games in particular. Your adventure starts off pretty well grounded as you travel place to place delivering messages, retrieving items, and slaying monsters. Eventually the plot switches up and becomes more focused on ancient magicks, lost artifacts, and otherworldly powers. Entering that back half of the game, the player wants the first half to be justified, and so his heroes must have some connection in order to survive the transition. This is why Terra is an Esper, Cloud has a lifetime of false memories and Tidus is whatever-the-crap Tidus is.
Vaan and Penelo serve a different purpose, though. Getting a view of Ivalice from the bottom up is poignant in its own way; it offers us a perspective on the game world we don’t usually get. The player knows, of course, that before the story is done he will be zipping around on his own airship and launching cosmic attacks at three-story-tall dragons. It’s hard to imagine doing those things, though, during a cutscene of Vaan staring in wonderment as he stands in the shadow of a passenger airship. He can’t imagine a chain of events that would get him aboard such a ship, let alone behind the wheel of one, and let alone behind the wheel of one that’s being chased and shot at by Imperial forces.
And of course, that effect becomes poignant again in the endgame, when Vayne’s final intentions for Dalmasca become clear. The life Vayne hopes to erase in order to see his dream realized is quite literally the only life Vaan and Penelo ever knew. It’s a life the player has spent a significant amount of time with. And most importantly, it’s the life the two of them are going back to, specifically because neither of them is a destined hero or lost princess.
So that’s my answer: I like Vaan and Penelo as characters for all the reasons their detractors despise them. The twist is that there is no twist, and they are just a couple of ordinary kids who rose to the challenge of extraordinary circumstances. They’re the hobbits who offered to carry a ring. I don’t deny Vaan and Penelo are “just sort of there” for most of FF12’s plot — what I take issue with is that being a bad thing.