Well here’s a series I haven’t worked on in a while. With so many things to focus on, time gets away from you–something these gentlemen know a lot about.
Let it never be said that Square-Enix doesn’t know its literary canon or character tropes. The wise old mentor is a stock character seen throughout world literature, a prominent classical figure and a recognized Jungian archetype. This elderly man uses his years of experience and wisdom to guide the heroes in their journey, and direct them to the lessons they need to learn in order to survive and prosper. While this archetype appears in Final Fantasy less often than some, it has had definite staying power, first emerging in Final Fantasy V and subsisting through Final Fantasy XII.
However, Square-Enix’s version of this character deviates from the standard. While he does have an aged wisdom (despite the fact that he rarely tops 40) that comes from a vast wealth of experience, it is a solemn knowledge that arises from one place: his own story, where he acted as the young hero and ultimately fell. He then returns as the Failed Hero, helping and guiding the next generation to do what he could not—but with a hint of something less solemn to him. Prominent characters in this archetype are Vincent Valentine (FFVII), Auron (FFX), and Basch fon Rosenburg (XII). Other notable examples include Galuf Baldesion (FFV); Cyan Garamonde (FFVI); the non-playable Cid Kramer (FFVIII); and Sazh Katzroy (FFXIII), who shares similarities with the Failed Hero but better fits the Sad Clown archetype.
At the beginning of the party’s journey, the first thing one notices about the Failed Hero is . . . he isn’t there. Always one of the last group members to join up, the Hero often doesn’t arrive until after the bulk of the entourage has been assembled. Even in later installments, when the Hero is one of the first characters to appear onscreen (with Auron and Basch making their debuts in their games’ earliest cinematic sequences), the Hero then promptly disappears, only to meet the party at a much later date.
This set-up allows the player time to familiarize themselves with the world, story, and characters of the present before introducing the past, because that is what the hero does: a stoic and serious man, he is quickly established as a person connected to important moments in contemporary history. For Vincent, it’s his relationship with Lucrecia, a colleague of Hojo’s and the eventual mother of Sephiroth; Auron has his time as the guardian of Yuna’s father, Braska, alongside Tidus’ father, Jecht; and Basch is famous (and infamous) for being one of the king’s most trusted knights during the war for Dalmascan independence. Always serving in a position of guardianship, the Hero is a well-recognized figure, even a household name in the case of Basch; this fact strongly ties him to a specific period in time, when he was in his prime and most prominently in the public eye. Further, the Hero brings somber wisdom to the party, representing a critical knowledge that the party needs in order to understand their mission.
However, there is a reason his wisdom is somber: when he was the hero of his own story, the Hero fell from grace, often for reasons outside his control. Vincent was unable to rescue Lucrecia from the fate imposed on her by Hojo, instead becoming one of the scientist’s experiments himself. Auron could not save Braska or Jecht from dying in vain, and was killed when he attempted to confront the perpetrator. Basch, a loyal servant of Dalmasca, was unable to defend the king and was framed for his murder. Despite their strength and dedication, all three men failed to protect their charges and collapsed under weight of circumstances larger than themselves. Each also experienced an alleged death, with Vincent being shot by Hojo, Yunalesca cutting down Auron, and Marquis Ondore announcing Basch’s execution for the crime of high treason. However, they ultimately survive through experimentation, ghostly revival, or political intrigue to join the party as significantly different men.
The Hero brings that with him when he stoically slides his way into the group’s company. Attaching to the already established party after being dredged up from a coffin or dungeon of solitude (with the exception of Auron, who strolls into battle alongside the heroes in all his clean-shaven glory), these characters carry with them the weight of their failures, along with deep-set insecurity and a profound sense of inadequacy: Vincent believes his seclusion is punishment for his inability to protect Lucrecia; Auron tells Tidus that changing nothing was the sum of his personal story; and when asked if he would feel shame at the prospect of Dalmasca allying with Archadia, Basch answers, “I could not defend my home. What is shame to me?”
Characters in this archetype will usually only admit to their unfortunate pasts when pressed—Basch doesn’t reveal that he was framed for the murder of the king until a furious Vaan confronts him, and only as they draw close to Yuna’s ultimate demise does Auron admit his sense of loss when he couldn’t prevent Braska from meeting the same fate. Instead, he remains stalwart and acts as a grounding point for the party, a face of experience that has been laid low by the very evils (Shinra, Yevon, Archadia) the party now seeks to defeat.
However, the Hero’s impassive misery is not the extent of his character, nor is he wholly lost. Where other party members can get caught up in their own drama or be overwhelmed by the task before them (the Clown, for instance, will usually be the first to suggest retreat in the face of great adversity, and the Perky Refugee tends to crumble at least once), the Hero remains steadfast in his commitment to helping the group succeed. He is arguably one of the most driven of the party’s members, his downplayed nature masking the drastic measures he takes to move the party forward. Vincent, for instance, emerges from decades of sleep to pursue and destroy Hojo; Auron leads the charge in the battle against Yunalesca; and Basch willfully threatens Marquis Ondore so the party can be arrested and placed on the same prison ship as Ashe in order to rescue her.
Really, even after all the suffering he has experienced by the time the story opens, the Hero is perhaps one of the most hopeful people in the party. Despite his own failure, he has enough faith in the new generation that he is willing to put himself in the line of fire to help them. While this may not be as big of a risk for Auron and Vincent, resting the completion of their ultimate goal on the shoulders of this ragtag bunch says a lot about their belief in their companions.
This belief seems to be the source of the Hero’s patience with other characters, particularly the main protagonist. While patience might seem like a generous word, his willingness to guide the hapless male lead (a description that fits Cloud—particularly in Advent Children—Tidus, and Vaan quite accurately) despite the youth’s doubts and moods speaks to the Hero’s diligence and composure. He is tolerant of the Perky Refugee despite the annoyance she causes him, only treating her sternly to get a rise out of her. He finds camaraderie in the Jaded Beauty, as they have both suffered great loss and withdrawn socially as a result, though the strength of that relationship has deteriorated somewhat by FFXII. The Hero also sometimes establishes a strong connection with the Lion based on some shared commonality: extended lifespans for Red XIII and Vincent, warrior lifestyles and feelings of banishment for Kimahri and Auron.
However, more than anything else, the Hero values his goal and constantly strives toward achieving it. That is the main reason he joins the party in the first place, and when the evil that destroyed his life has been defeated, his failings are, if not erased, redressed. His purpose realized, he vanishes: Vincent once again takes to a solitary existence, Auron allows himself to be Sent by Yuna, and Basch dies in name, taking on Gabranth’s identity. Although his presence can still be felt (and he does return in some capacity, from Auron’s brief voiceovers in X-2 to Vincent’s main-character status in Dirge of Cerberus), he largely fades into obscurity, leaving the continued protection of the world in the hands of his allies.
The Failed Hero is, ultimately, a relic of the past. A hero in his time, his fall signals greater problems to come, from the slow destruction of the Planet and the advance of Sephiroth, to perpetual annihilation under Sin and the loss of Dalmasca’s independence. While his failure is more emblematic of these troubles than the cause of them, he nonetheless feels himself to be responsible, and shoulders the burden of their repair. He is the last of a noble old guard before the encroachment of corruption; his life becomes focused on undoing what he could not prevent; and when that is complete, he allows himself to fade away, even if he is never truly gone.
As much as the Failed Hero is the wise old mentor trope, he is in equal part the ronin—a samurai who has lost his master and lives an aimless life of shame. While death can free these characters from their dishonor, they are robbed of the opportunity early on—but then, maybe robbed isn’t right word. Vincent is kept alive through Hojo’s experiments and Basch is imprisoned, but they do not choose to end their lives even after escaping captivity; Auron does perish but returns, and as a human rather than a mindless fiend, signaling great conviction. Although this may seem confusing given the Hero’s pride and solemnity, Basch explains the meaning of their actions well: “If I could protect but one person from war’s horror, then I would bear any shame. I would bear it proudly.”
These men may have been brought down by their enemies, but they are not defeated: they choose to live, driven by the desire to right the wrongs they were unable to prevent before. Knowing they cannot do it alone, they guide and enlighten the new generation. When they are finished, they disappear, content in the knowledge that they have atoned for their failings in at least some way. The world they leave behind is better for their guidance and wisdom, and their honor is regained—even if only a few are around to see it. That is enough for wise old warriors like them.