The Protagonist Role
I'll start this off with an image. This is one of the three promotional images where part of the group is featured at an actual location in the game, with Rose present in the background. This is the most obscure of the three because you only see Rose's silhouette from afar, with Dart, Albert and what remains of Capital Vellweb being the clear focus of the shot – I don't think I even noticed Rose the first few times I saw this image. But this is the image that the game manual chooses as its cover, and I must say, whoever was responsible for this has great taste because they've nailed The Legend of Dragoon with this choice. I'll come back to this further below.
(As an aside, I love this fan interpretation of a PS3 box cover for the game for the same reason; it uses a different piece of promotional art to convey the same meaning.)
I've always thought that The Legend of Dragoon could be considered both Rose and Dart's story, with the two of them being equally important as their stories unfold simultaneously and they help each other move forward. But it is also my opinion that it may just as well be Rose's story as seen from Dart's perspective, with him enabling hers to come to a conclusion – as the catalyst who sets out on a journey of his own and then gathers the right people around him. There have been JRPGs with dual and equally important lead characters in the past (not necessarily during and before the PlayStation era, because I don't know, but certainly since then), some of them more successful than others, though I think the one – perhaps the only one – that stuck with me is Final Fantasy X.
At this point, I'd like to refer you to Todd's amazing Tidus shrine Poltergeist, especially its beautifully written The Protagonist of Final Fantasy X essay. FFX can be regarded as both Tidus and Yuna's story or as Yuna's story narrated from Tidus' perspective (which is Todd's standpoint) – though the two aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. Tidus is definitely FFX' narrator and (as Todd lays it out) the narrator of Yuna's story, but his own narrative, development and involvement are so crucial to Yuna's journey and Spira's fate that FFX can very well be seen as a game with true dual lead characters and protagonists.
In The Legend of Dragoon, I wouldn't call Dart the story's narrator due to the lack of narrative voice even as he is the main character who you control on screen, and through whose eyes you see the events unfold. What's important to look at here is the distinction between the roles "main character" and "protagonist" that some works of fiction make. (The "narrator" is yet another thing if you think of books in particular, though the narrator's role is also usually assumed by the main character; video games usually don't feature a character as the narrator, if there's a narrative voice at all, I'd say.) Usually, the two are the same, which is also why the two terms are commonly used interchangeably.
Don't take the following as the definition of the two terms, as I'm sure it also depends on the circle and medium. The main character is the point of view character: This is about narrative presence. The protagonist is the one who drives the overall story due to the plot revolving around them, and the goal they pursue is also the goal of the overall story: This is about narrative significance and impact.
Dart is important to The Legend of Dragoon because he introduces the player to the concept of Dragoons (as he explores his new power), to the history of Endiness (as he has to piece together the pieces of the puzzle while searching for clues on the Black Monster and Lloyd), and to several of the other characters: He's been away from Serdio for a long time, so Lavitz clues him in on Serdio's current state and gives him a role in all of it, which starts his new quest. He hasn't seen Shana for five years, so they need to reacquaint themselves with one another. He's been looking for the Black Monster, whose story slowly creeps up to the player in Rose. He met Haschel at some point during his journey, and Haschel's past finds part of its conclusion in Dart. Without Dart being the point of view character, the many mysteries in the game wouldn't have unfolded as effectively and beautifully as they did.
But Dart doesn't drive the story. Dart may have many spoken lines, but he mostly just speaks in reaction to what's happening so that the group may advance to the next location; he actually doesn't receive all that much characterization or development. He's an observer who gets involved due to events taking place around him: Shana's abduction, the unleashing of Dragons that gets him saved by Rose, Serdio's war, and so on. Even the revelation at the end of disc 3 isn't about Dart specifically – as far as he is concerned, his father died. And out of the many revelations Zieg drops, him being Dart's father is the one that the player couldn't have seen coming at all. Again, Dart may not drive the story, but he is crucial because he happens to be connected to so many people who are at the center of these events. Following this, Dart is the game's main character.
Rose, in contrast, has determined the course of Endiness' story for the past 11,000 years, starting from the Dragon Campaign, and considering her involvement in it, it makes the world's (not just the continent's) history her own personal history. Rose goes through the most significant character development in the game, all plot points – which are introduced as separate, not connected elements at first! – eventually lead back to her: the Black Monster, the Dragon Campaign, the Moon That Never Sets, the Moon Child, the Divine Tree, "Emperor Diaz". Rose was a question mark from the beginning, whether as the first character who appears on screen after the opening, as the first person Dart meets in the game, as the one person who was already a Dragoon, or as the companion who has so much ancient knowledge to offer. Following this, Rose is the game's protagonist.
In the following, I'd like to illustrate Rose and Dart in their role as lead characters and how they affect each other as such (as a follow-up on the summary and analysis of their relationship in the story).
Click on the links to reveal the sections.
There are some things that are considered so basic for a typical JRPG protagonist that they are hardly ever the focus of a conversation, but for this particular topic, they provide interesting insight.
It's been briefly mentioned in Rose's Mechanical Design: Rose and Dart both have average stats, one with slightly better physical, one with slightly better magical attack. JRPG protagonists usually have balanced stats because they're the center of the party, the on-screen character, the character who features in most relevant story battles and the character who the player may not even be able to switch out. These characters need to be all-rounders who can fulfill any role – not as a specialist, but as someone who acts as the cushion of the party: the secondary damage dealer, the back-up healer, the back-up item user, and so on. They often veer to the physical attack side because physical attacks are usually the most reliable type of attack in these games, usually not affected by things such as MP cost or elemental affinity.
Some characters in The Legend of Dragoon have very elaborate Additions with difficult timing, bow users have none at all (which affects some players' enjoyment of those characters in battle). Dart and Rose's Additions are some of the easiest to hit. In Dart's case, I think that is intended, because Dart is the main character and Dart cannot be switched out, so the player should ideally be able to hit his Additions in every battle (since the Addition system doesn't appeal to everyone, and some have difficulties with it). In Rose's case, I think her balanced stats and the ease of her Additions provide arguments and allude to her protagonist role, especially in the early-game.
Speaking of stats, I've mentioned that the fact that you cannot switch out Dart and Rose's diminishing value in battles as the game progresses limits the amount of optimal party setups for the player. These things aren't unrelated: Because Dart and Rose are so similar stats-wise, Dart already fulfills the role of the party's all-rounder, which makes specialists the more appealing choice in comparison to yet another all-rounder. If one could switch Dart out, there'd be more great setups around Rose. If Rose had been mechanically acknowledged as the protagonist to that extent, one could also imagine a system where either Rose or Dart's presence in an active party is necessary once the story has reached a certain point (the end of disc 3).
Next, the weapon of choice for the vast majority of JRPG protagonists (who are also male most of the time) is clearly the sword. And lo and behold, Dart and Rose both wield swords – two-handed and one-handed ones respectively. It's not uncommon for a specific sword to gain tremendous significance in a JRPG's narrative, usually related to the game's lore, and for it to receive a power-up that benefits the game's protagonist. In The Legend of Dragoon, that sword is the Dragon Buster: ancient weapon of the Winglies meant to slay Dragons and Dragoons alike, their enemies in the old war. In the game, the Dragon Buster was used by Lloyd, a Wingly, to take Lavitz' life and to slay the Divine Dragon, but at the very end, Lloyd delivers the sword and the Dragoon Spirit to the party right before they face the final boss.
Dart receives the Divine Dragoon Spirit and is the first person to be acknowledged by it, his Red Dragoon Spirit now in the hands of its former holder, Zieg. Rose receives the Dragon Buster – the weapon that the Winglies once created to emerge victorious in the war against Humans. Rose, a Human, is the one best fit to wield one of the things that symbolizes the union between Winglies and Humans (the other symbols being the Divine Moon Objects and Rose's choker), as the one who has been standing with Charle for thousands of years. An argument can be made that the Dragon Buster is a one-handed sword, which doesn't fit Dart's fighting style.
Narratively, however, I don't think the two tools Lloyd delivers were a must (especially since he's brought back from narrative death just for that, which somewhat cheapens his already weak writing). Yes, Dart didn't have a Dragoon Spirit anymore, but Zieg and the Spirit were still at the scene (Rose is cradling an unconscious Zieg while Dart talks to each of his comrades before the last battle), and it's not clear whether or not the Red Dragoon Spirit would have still acknowledged Dart. The Dragon Buster is more than twice as powerful as Rose's best weapon up to that point, which gives her a significant power-up, but Melbu Frahma in his revived form is neither Dragon nor Dragoon, which means the special properties of the weapon aren't even called upon – and they're the reason why the weapon has been so feared (see: the moments of Lavitz' and the Divine Dragon's death).
Lloyd passing down the tools to both Dart and Rose (and unlike with Dart, Lloyd hasn't had personal moments with Rose!), in my opinion, really cements them being The Legend of Dragoon's dual lead characters.
One of the things I most appreciate about The Legend of Dragoon is the connection between Rose and Dart, their parallel growth, how their storylines eventually converge and how they advance as equals and as a united front from that point on. To examine this, it's important to start at the beginning – with the game's slogan and intro:
When the clash of swords echo,
The journey chasing the past ends and
The journey to know today begins. [...]
"You are free to sever the chains of fate that bind you..."
That's the essence of The Legend of Dragoon's themes and narrative as well as the narrative of its individual characters. Both Endiness, its species (Winglies above all) as well as the party members struggle with the past in some way, which is best seen not just in their motives to join the group, but in the game's formal trials in Aglis and in the final dungeon. Rose and Dart are at the front of that, since Rose is the most important character to the narrative and Dart is the one who pulls everyone along to unite all the journeys under one common goal.
With the game's theme in mind, Rose and Dart's narratives share so many similarities: It's a fire that took everything away from Dart (the burning of Neet), it's a fire that took everything away from Rose (the ancient war; if you watch the very first lore record, you will hear the term "fire" specifically – the anger of the people that sparked the war), but it's also the same fire that starts both their long journeys, and the fire in Neet is what eventually brings the two of them together, even if they don't know it at first. Both of them are survivors chained by the past as they cling to it, Rose in continuing to fulfill her role as the world's sole protector despite all the damage it does to her, Dart in his search for the Black Monster after having left everything behind. Later on, at the game's climax, they learn that they have both been abandoned by the same person: Zieg is Dart's father in the present and was Rose's betrothed in the past. It's no wonder only Rose and Dart are present in the video of Zieg's revelation, because his true identity and the truths that it brings affects the two of them – and only the two of them – personally.
Here's the difference: I've mentioned above that Dart is mostly clueless and doesn't receive much development. That's true when you look at the game as a whole, but it's also caused in part due to all of his development happening extremely early on – over the two first discs, in fact, which is when Rose is still keeping a low profile and is still held back by her frozen personality. Dart's development consists of learning to see past revenge and letting go of the Black Monster so that he doesn't miss what's truly important and what's already in front of him: the rebuilding of Seles, the reforging of his bond with Shana, and allowing himself to accept Shana's feelings as well as his own feelings rather than worrying that his quest for revenge will take him away again one day.
What's more, there are many people who help him realize that, most of all his dear friend Lavitz, who, despite not having known Dart for long, gives him very intimate, sincere and important advice without being asked: "You should pay attention to the present." (The significance of this is acknowledged by the game itself, as this scene is referred to when Dart pays Bale a visit in remembrance of Lavitz during the game's epilogue.) But perhaps as a foreshadowing of what is to come, there are other NPCs who seem to guide Dart with their parting words:
Dart, gazing at the truth sometimes brings pain, but you will be able to overcome it. Shirley, Disc 1: Temple of Shirley
You cannot change the past, however, you can face it. By facing it, maybe you can find out where you are from and where you want to go. Librarian Ute, Disc 3: Deningrad
By the time the group boards the Queen Fury on disc 2, Dart has already taken the lesson to heart: He's no longer out for blood, he just wants to understand so that he can leave it all behind. It's on the same disc that Dart accepts Shana's romantic feelings for him and finally reciprocates them. From that point on, his development comes to a standstill until he finds out that Rose is the Black Monster and decides to forgive her – because that is the lesson he has learned, because it is Rose who's at his side, not the Black Monster, because he understands why Rose did all of it, because he knows that Rose suffered just as much (if not more). Because that's what the game is about (well, part of it): Learning to see what is in front of you. Seeing how you can embrace the present so that you may change and ensure the future, rather than be held prisoner by the past.
The reason Dart's relationship page on this shrine is so long is because I cannot skip Dart's story when writing about Rose. While both Dart and Rose are trapped by the past at the beginning of the story, Dart escapes it far sooner than Rose. To me, Dart, who decides to put his quest on hold because he realizes helping to stop the war is more important, symbolizes the game's present, whereas Rose, especially with her history, stands for the game's past. When the game speaks of past and present colliding, I think of Dart and Rose, how Shirley predicted his role in Rose's development, how his passion and compassion instill Rose with new life, how he finds the answer to his journey in Rose and in the lore he unearths, all of which makes up Rose's history, how he is acknowledged by the Red Dragoon Spirit, a relic of the past, to fight at the side of a Dragoon of old in the present – and how they put an end to Endiness' long history of sorrow and sacrifice at last, together.
Dart grows before Rose and grasps the present much sooner so that, in part, he can show Rose the way later on – the way to finding herself by living in the present and appreciating it for what it is. That is why it is Dart who stands next to Rose in her final trial on the Moon That Never Sets, not because he himself is tried, but because he's reminding her of what's important.
I love the image at the top of this page because the viewer can see Dart's face, whereas Rose looks in the opposite direction, hiding her face from the viewer. Dart looks the present in the face by looking at his comrade, while Rose gazes at the past by looking at its ruins. Dart's presence in the game's promotional art is because he's the main character, but Rose being in the background everywhere takes on a different meaning the more you advance in the game: Rose lurking in the back is initially set up to convey her aloofness and detachment, but later on, it's due to her significance in the game's past and in the game's narrative as a whole. Rose has been present throughout Endiness' history, and she is ultimately the protagonist of The Legend of Dragoon's story.