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In 2009, SquareEnix released a game which divided its fanbase down the middle, with half of gamers being staunch supporters of the title, and half being rabid naysayers. That game was Final Fantasy XIII. Fans of the game praised the gorgeous visuals, excellent combat system, and interesting new female lead Lightning. Critics derided the highly linear story, the drastic shift in combat mechanics, and the lack of character development. But one thing that a majority of fans and critics alike seemed to agree on, was that Hope Estheim was a whiny little brat who needed to take a long walk off a short pier. I, however, have never understood gamers' ire toward a character that I thought was at once incredibly engaging and highly realistic in his portrayal.
Who is Hope Estheim?
Hope Estheim, a 14-year-old native of Cocoon’s Palumpolum, is one of the youngest playable characters in the Final Fantasy series. A quiet, introspective, sometimes withdrawn, often emotional teenager, Hope is perhaps the least Final Fantasy-esque character to grace the series’ extensive roster of combatants. According to the game’s included booklet:
"Hope is a normal boy from a normal family whose childhood
on Cocoon can best be described as uneventful.
inexperienced in the ways of the world, and wont to turn to his
mother for protection, he is completely unprepared for the
turmoil into which his life is thrown when he is unexpectedly
caught up in the Sanctum's brutal Purge."
This may be the best description of Hope I can imagine, as it perfectly encapsulates his unique experience during the course of the game. All of the other characters are, in their own way, prepared for this experience: Lightning is a trained and extremely capable soldier; Fang is an intelligent, resourceful warrior willing to do almost anything to defend her companion; Snow is a strong, capable fighter whose loyalty and determination to save his fiancé are unwavering; even Vanille (another character who was intensely disliked in the game) is more prepared for this situation than Hope, having already spent time fighting a war against and pursuing the destruction of Cocoon.
But Hope, having lived a life of relative privilege in a wealthy district of a wealthy city, is actually pretty weak. He’s never experienced any serious hardship, had to fight for something he believed in, or had to stand up to an aggressor. He’s not a genetically enhanced super-soldier, he’s not the secret child of a powerful summon, and he’s not the exiled prince of a recently-invaded nation. Hope Estheim, it seems, is remarkably normal. And it is for this reason, I think, that he is so intensely disliked by such a vocal majority of the gaming community.
But Why is Hope Such a Crybaby?
Now, let’s take a moment to examine Hope’s situation. The child of Nora and Bartholomew Estheim, Hope’s home life is one which many people can probably relate to. His mother is a highly attentive, emotionally supportive woman with a genuine interest in her son’s happiness. From the beginning of the game she is presented as a woman who is willing and able to do anything necessary to keep her son safe, going so far as to pledge her life in his defense, and in the defense of the other Purge deportees. Indeed, it is this dedication to his safety that results in her death shortly after the start of the game.
Hope’s father, on the other hand, is painted from the beginning as an emotionally unavailable man who doesn’t seem to care very much for his son. Granted, this must be taken with a grain of salt, because it’s coming from a hormonal teenager, but I don’t think this portrayal of Bartholomew is unfair. Even Nora seems to agree with Hope that his father is somewhat distant. Because of this, when Hope’s mother dies, he is left with a perceived lack of any kind of emotional support structure.
Compound this with the fact that he is very shortly transformed into a l’Cie, and as a result a wanted fugitive destined for a quick death, and you’ve got the recipe for an untimely nervous breakdown. Hope Estheim, a child of privilege, has to literally fight for his life from that moment forward, in a world that is suddenly unwelcoming and against a people who would be willing to do anything to just feel safe again. Think about that for a second. The place he calls home, the only home he has ever known, and a place he has always been led to believe was a bastion of safety in an uncertain world, suddenly considers him public enemy number one – and is full of people who would do anything to kill him. He has become what he and the other citizens of Cocoon have been taught all of their lives to fear and revile – he has become a l’Cie, hated enemy of Cocoon, harbinger of destruction.
On top of all this, he is surrounded by other l’Cie, each one of them a complete stranger, and he has no idea if he can trust any of them. Everything he's been taught about l'Cie tells him that these people are to be feared -- and so is he. Driven only by an intense desire to inflict his revenge on Snow (whom he misguidedly believes is responsible for Nora’s death), he finds himself alone.
And all of this comes to a head when he and the other l’Cie fugitives are forced to escape from Cocoon, to make their way to Pulse, the hell on earth, the world below, a place they have always been taught to fear and loathe just as much as they fear and loathe l’Cie. In this brutal, unforgiving wasteland, where there is almost zero chance of survival, Hope almost meets his end at the hands of his Eidolon, Alexander.
So, when presented with such a weak character, one who is so unlike the typical Final Fantasy player character, why should we care anything about him? The answer is simple – in his weakness, he is possibly the most relatable Final Fantasy character ever.
What Makes Hope So Relatable?
In a 1943 paper called A Theory of Human Motivation, Abraham Maslow proposed a theory that we now call Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. According to the hierarchy, human beings go through a series of stages during which certain physical and emotional needs must be met to allow proper human growth. Now, while only the first stage of needs are necessary for physical growth, the remaining four stages are absolutely essential for a person’s emotional and psychological growth. In fact, it is generally held that a person cannot progress to the next stage until he feels secure in the previous stage, though this doesn’t always seem to be the case. Let’s take a look at the actual stages:
Taking the hierarchy into account, we can see that Hope’s behavior is typical of someone whose needs are not being met. He is unable to cope with the strenuous situation he finds himself in (at least initially), because his life has been so drastically thrown out of balance.
So How Does Hope Stack Up Against the Hierarchy?
Each stressor in Hope's life relates to a need that is not being met. At the most basic level, Hope is doing all right. He can eat and drink, he’s capable of breathing, he can sleep, and he can use the bathroom when necessary. Indeed, in the pre-game scenario, even his second tier of needs are being met: he’s got a home providing shelter, he’s not being abused by his parents, he goes to school, he’s healthy – he’s doing pretty well for himself.
But it’s the third tier that presents the first set of problems. Hope’s need for love and acceptance is not being met, at least not entirely. While his mother is highly supportive, Hope craves the attention and approval of his father, and he is simply not getting it. For this reason, he lacks the confidence and self-esteem he needs to reach the fourth and fifth tiers.
His situation is worsened by the events of the Purge. In a short period of time, he loses his both his mother and his home, depriving him (at least in his mind) of love and acceptance (the third tier); and shelter, resources, and security (the second tier). In one fell swoop, Hope is left quivering at the bottom of the hierarchy, unable to cope. From this point forward, he spends a lot of time seemingly going through the motions, operating on autopilot, driven only by his need for revenge.
However, when he eventually gives up his goals of revenge against Snow, and is thrust into the harsh world of Pulse, he is knocked down to the most basic tier, physiological needs. The sudden lack of shelter, of a sense of being safe and cared-for, brings Hope to his lowest point in the game. Hope loses hope, both in the sense that his optimism runs out, and that he has no clue what to do with himself from this point forward. It is in this moment that his Eidolon comes to him, and Hope is left with the choice to fight to survive, or to lie down and die.
This moment is the turning point for him. When his friends stand up for him, refusing to let him die at the hands of Alexander, he makes the decisions that will turn his life around, and set him on the path to meeting his psychological needs. His friends’ insistence that he not let himself die fulfills his needs in the second, third, and fourth tiers. When his friends stand up for him, this demonstrates that he has the security of body, the shelter that he craves. These people, he realizes, are a kind of family, and they take the place of his deceased mother, and the father he's had to leave behind. He has found love and acceptance in that these people believe that he can be successful. Through their display of camaraderie, Hope is able to defeat Alexander, gaining the confidence he's lacked all this time.
This brings us, of course, to the fifth tier, where individuals become the people they’re meant to be. Hope takes charge of his life, establishing a clear sense of the morality of other people’s actions. He recognizes the fal’Cie for the tyrants that they are, he becomes a creative and intelligent young man who adapts to situations quickly and who presents a unique perspective on events. He becomes a man who balances his thinking with his doing, one who is willing to risk it all to protect his friends and to save Cocoon. He abandons his prejudice against his fellow l’Cie, accepting the fact that he is one of them, and that he has the power to write his own destiny.
It's interesting, if you think about it, that his journey up and down the hierarchy mirrors his journey from Cocoon, to Pulse, and back again. At his lowest point, he's been cast down to Pulse. At his highest point, he's found the strength he needs to return to Cocoon and fight for his freedom, to sever the chains of fate that bind him. I think that journey is a lovely metaphor for his personal growth as a character. Hope Estheim is potentially one of the most well-developed characters in the Final Fantasy series, and is, I think, one that should be looked on much more favorably than he is. Square’s portrayal of him as an emotional, sullen teenager is spot-on. I can’t imagine a more accurate portrayal of how a teenager might react when thrust into that situation.