The Effectiveness and Prevalence of the Ensemble

In this article I’ll be discussing the ‘Ensemble’ trope in media, where different characters have to unite due to external circumstances/ threats. Usually five to eight of them, who bring internal and interpersonal conflicts which drives the storyline. Why is this trope so common, and what makes it so effective? Who does it resonate with? Will the author have another existential crisis? We’re about to find out!

One of the most interesting parts of analyzing and comparing media, is uncovering the constants. The common undercurrents that unite seemingly different stories and IPs. Since wrapping up my thoughts on Final Fantasy XIII, I’ve been feeling creatively uninspired. When that happens, I binge on new material until I find something that sparks that creative drive again. My latest binge included Persona 4 (both the anime and game), and I ended up powering through the anime in two days, in time for the game to come out for PS3. While I’m not going to get a tattoo based off the series, I really enjoyed it. So I asked myself why. One of the key elements was a trope that I was aware of, but never understood the prevalence of: The Ensemble.

The Ensemble trope is outlined in great detail on TV Tropes. I warn you now, this article links to that wonderful time-sink black hole of a website a whole lot. Essentially, the Ensemble is when a story features a group of protagonists where the spotlight is shared (for the most part). Often this group features different people from different backgrounds, all bound by some common goal. That’s what I’m looking at here, people coming together; not to be confused with an ensemble like from Game of Thrones, where the characters are trying to kill each other. More specifically, it’s the prevalence of a group of five to eight protagonists, which seems to be the ‘magic number’ for a successful ensemble. As well as the ‘Five-Man Band’, which is the foundation for many.

One glance at those links and you can see how many stories have groups like these. Each member has their own personality and role, usually with one acting as ‘the leader’ or directing the narrative, who form a group that is greater than the sum of its parts. This make-up is so common that off the top of my head I can list multiple properties that use these tropes. Virtually every Final Fantasy, Persona, and countless other JRPGs. Cartoons like Digimon, My Little Pony. Shows that kids in the 80’s and 90’s loved (and many still do) like Transformers, Power Rangers. And that’s just the stuff that I know.

As with many tropes, the question becomes: “Why is this used so widely?”. TV Tropes explains briefly that, “One of the first choices any writer has to make is how many protagonists will lead the narrative. Believe it or not, that number matters. Too many, and you can barely get attached to anyone, just one and you’ll never believe the author would kill them off.” But there’s more to it than that. There’s a few reasons why having an ensemble is so popular. They are…

>>> Drama

Conflict is the heart and soul of drama, and what better way to create conflict than forcing a bunch of strangers to work together. This is often done with a villain or plot acting as an external conflict, but not the focus.

With an ensemble, often the external threat only serves to facilitate conflict within the group. Persona 4 devotes most of its time to its characters hanging out, going on trips, having arguments, than it does on the murder mystery. The TV world, the Midnight Channel, those set up the conditions for the cast to unite, but as time goes on more and more episodes of the anime make little mention to them at all. The start of the series has the murder mystery front-row centre, but once Yu, Chie, and Yosuke are together the focus shifts. Now have camping trips, Yu’s summer job, Rise dealing with celebrity, Dojima being a complete ass and failure as a father. Every cast member gives the writers more personal drama. Yosuke’s trepidation around Kanji given his sexuality, Nanoto being forced into the beauty pageant and dealing with being female, etc. When combat does come, it’s often short and things refocus on the group dynamic quickly afterwards.

With the exception of the endgame. Which does wrap things up, but wasn’t as interesting as the rest of the series. The long monologues about why the villain does what they do, and why Humanity must be fucked up to “save” them, and basically the stuff you see at the end of nearly every JRPG ever, was well… the stuff you see in nearly every JRPG ever (as Arbitrary_greay pointed out).  Yu even fights a god, twice (the second time alone). You start to miss seeing Kanji become secure enough with himself to dress in drag, or the guys and girls fighting over time in a hot-spring. This isn’t unique to Persona 4. Many people (including myself) say Final Fantasy XIII got a helluva lot less interesting at Chapter 11, when the characters have worked out their differences and focus on the fal’Cie threat.

Entire episodes can be dedicated to exploring each character. When working with an ensemble, you can cycle through protagonists as an easy way to generate plotlines. The two parter “A Stormy Summer Vacation” shows the same events twice, but through the eyes of two different characters (Nanako and Yu). You have at least one episode dedicated to each character confronting their ‘shadow self’ (inner turmoil), giving them their ‘Persona’. In fact when a special power is involved, it becomes a convenient MacGuffin, and excuse to dedicate an episode to each character. Digimon is lord and master of the MacGuffin. First each protagonist has to unlock their Digimon’s Champion form, then you have the tags which need crests, then you have a couple Digimon’s Mega evolution. All the while the party is traveling together, dialogue bounces off one another, they squabble and make up, or separate temporarily because of arguments.

An ensemble of interesting characters essentially brings a built-in set of stories and themes to explore, along with the drama that comes when different people group up. It’s also the foundation for a lot of ‘character driven’ stories, and often exploring characters we know and like in great detail, is more satisfying than seeing them beat down another ‘villain of the week’ (which can still happen). Oddly, talking anime, I think Dragon Ball Z is less effective as an ensemble because the external threat is often all that’s focused on. For episode, upon episode, upon episode… There’s some character development, but most of it involves getting stronger to delay the villain from killing everyone until Goku shows up. So an ensemble isn’t always used or done effectively.

It’s worth mentioning that an ensemble is also fantastic for comedy. The same principal applies, when you have great characters together, you can have them bounce off one another and play with how they conflict, or team up. Poking fun at each other’s faults, trying to fill each other’s roles, or parodying each other are just a few options. This is the approach the most successful sitcoms take.

Nevermind the possibilities for romance, and the comedy and drama that brings.

>>> Belonging

Call it the ‘shotgun approach’, with six characters instead of one, you have six opportunities for your audience to relate. A key element of the ensemble is how different each character is, not only does this make for good drama, but there’s something for everyone. While you might not be really into the external conflict, an ensemble can usually find one hook to get you invested. Even an anti-hero needs to be likable enough for us to want them to succeed; when you not only like, but relate to a character, you really want to see them succeed. This is where I’d say it resonates, because it’s one thing to be a passive observer of something, it’s another to see a piece of yourself within it.

This is probably the reason why the ensemble trope is most common in media aimed at youth, particularly teenagers. A person’s teenage years are when they start experimenting with identities, and wondering what group they fit into. The ensemble is effective on three fronts here. The first, obviously, is that relating to a character makes one more invested.

The second is that youth are looking for rolemodels, and identities to emulate. Every character in an ensemble doesn’t only have their role, but it’s a role a kid might aspire to hold. It might be subtle, but kids often adopt style, mannerisms, demeanor of various characters, in a way to explore how that identity feels, fits in, and how others react. This is made easier in Persona 4 (for example) with its cast of high schoolers, who are facing the trials of growing up alongside gods and killer fog. They have their own personalities, and thus their own way of dealing with dating, home and school balance, making money, etc.  Yu’s friendly nature, coupled with his deadpan delivery and dry wit allows him to join many circles. Yosuke has to reconcile his desires versus his reality, and learn to embrace and develop his best qualities. Rise has no idea who she is past her public persona, and her journey is almost figuring out her personality from scratch. These are all different ways of relating to the world, and many could become a guide for a kid who’s just starting to figure themselves out.

The third is the ability to live vicariously. When the group dynamic as a whole is one that resonates with someone, it’s easy to imagine yourself fitting in. Asking yourself what you would do in that situation, who you’d be friends with, wondering what your role could be. Not only is this a way to figure out how you might relate to others in your own life, but it can also help with loneliness. If you’re socially isolated, and/ or still haven’t found your niche, there’s a lot of comfort in getting to fantasize and play in a world where you belong. The ensemble is a group that you might really want to be a part of. It’s easy to get lost in these worlds and relate a lot to the characters. There’s a reason why actors find that many people often confuse them with the characters they play. There’s a reason for OCs (Original Characters) in fanfiction. It’s not necessarily done out of loneliness, much like my previous point when you relate to a group you can start to sort out what you might be looking for in your life. Maybe certain characters and group dynamics resonate because they reflect something missing in your own life.

Admit it, you’ve wondered what your Persona might look like. I know I have. I’m still not sure of the specifics, but something tells me it’d be two-faced. At least the shadow version.

It’s not just youth that an ensemble can resonate with. Persona 4 is rated Mature. Let’s pretend for a moment that people adhere to the ESRB rating and so only people 17+ play Mature rated games. The fact that the game is targeted towards adults is a sign that people of all ages find meaning and value in an ensemble cast. I will say that the combat system, dating sim elements, and Rise Kujikawa’s midnight channel appearance are also draws, an ensemble cast is not the only reason why many people play Persona 4. Still, the character-focused narrative (where it takes about an hour before you see combat) is front and centre. JRPGs in general tend to stand on their storylines, with the game mechanics a nice bonus (or curse, depending on how much you enjoy them). Some people have argued that the reason JRPGs aren’t as popular as they were, is because other genres have gotten better at storytelling, taking away its largest draw. Some people experienced Final Fantasy XIII as a fan-cut film, rather than a game. Re-enforcing the idea that its the characters and narrative people are mostly interested in.

>>> Marketing

My Little Pony exists to sell toys. Nipping at the heels of ‘Belonging’, comes the potential to sell merchandise or people’s favourite characters. The wider the net, the more kids you can get to relate to your product, the larger your pool of potential buyers is going to be. Or at least interested parties with parents as potential buyers, but you get the idea.

What’s interesting is that while a lot of media tries to go for the ‘lowest common denominator’ in being as bland, samey, and inoffensive as possible, the Ensemble allows you to reach a wide market while keeping a clearer, more focused vision. It can stand in contrast with many films and games’ idea that you throw everything that’s popular into a product (which is treated as just that, a product) and market it to your 13-34 male demographic. The ensemble allows quirky, niche ideas to appeal to many different people.

Digimon might hay been a relatively ‘focused’ idea, with its relatively nerdy (read: male) focus of kids with monster companions fighting other monsters, but it set a place at its table for everyone. You’ve got Tai for boys to idolize, Matt for rebellious ‘no one understands me’ boys (and maybe younger self…) to relate to. Izzy’s the brains who usually saves everyone’s ass, and a draw for nerds. But you also have a strong female cast, Kari, Sora, and Mimi. The latter starts whiny and frightened, but eventually ‘took a level in badass’ and joined in some of the fighting beside her Digimon. Kari also gets to be a special snowflake in that her Digimon comes to her under unique circumstances, and used to be a villain who kicked the party’s ass once or twice. The show includes girls on the same level as boys. I remember it being quite popular with a large swath of kids, certainly not all of them, but far more than if the show had Tai as the sole protagonist.

Honestly marketing isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and really only becomes a problem when executives have blinders on, and think that there’s only one demographic worth marketing to. At which point they often throw everyone else under the bus in service to that demographic. I think Microsoft’s problem with marketing the XBox One alongside Mountain Dew and Doritos, while holding presentations geared towards 13-34 males, is that it becomes less appealing for others. For myself at least, I watched their E3 2013 press conference and left feeling like the console wasn’t for me. Contrast it with Sony’s presentation, which featured a professional blue on black colour scheme and presenters. Sony’s brand felt more mature and inclusive.

I would love it if someone marketed towards me, though. It would be awesome to walk through a subway station where every ad was for a film adaptation of Kushiel’s Dart (rated NC-17) that mentions the soundtrack was done by Nightwish. By all means, sell to me.

The ensemble cast allows you to market to a wide audience, while delivering a unique product. Say what you will about MLP: Friendship is Magic, but it was a intelligently written show, with some great humour and tight animation (at least while Faust was directly involved). It also managed to stand out against the usual crap that had been produced at the time and ignited a hardcore fandom (for better and for worse). There’s a lot of people outside of MLP’s key demographic that saw characters that resonated with themselves, and they got into the show in a big way. Many of them young adults with a lot of disposable income. It wasn’t the ensemble alone that did this, but I’ve know a lot of people in their 20’s who will still passionately defend why their favourite pony is best pony (even if the only correct choice is ‘Rarity’).

In all cases concessions are still made, MLP in particular was dictated by Hasbro’s marketing department. Digimon also existed to sell merchandise, and to capitalize on Pokemon. That doesn’t change the fact that we still got a few shows that were different and fresh, that still speaks to many people today. Probably in large part because those worlds invited so many people in, and had characters for them to relate to.

>>> Collectivism

This is more speculative than usual, but in writing this article I couldn’t help but notice that most of what I’ve talked about is Japanese. I don’t think this is a coincidence. I’m far from someone who seeks out Japanese media, so most of my viewing isn’t biased towards it. Instead, I wonder if the disparity comes from different cultures. Japan is traditionally collectivist, emphasizing unity of the people working towards a common goal. The West is individualistic, we pride ourselves on all being special snowflakes and often go to extremes to set ourselves apart.

This difference is reflected in the JRPG/ WRPG dichotomy. I don’t believe a JRPG is necessarily made in Japan, just like WRPGs are necessarily made in the West. Instead, each emphasizes collectivism and individualistic values, respectively.

JRPGs are linear, character-driven stories often involving a large cast of characters who form a party (often intent on killing god). Final Fantasy and Persona are prime examples of this. Everyone has their part, but rarely does one truly stand out to a large degree (usually; after all Lightning became the titular character by the end of the XIII trilogy). There is one path through this world, and people you must rely on in order to traverse it. Everyone might have their own talents, but they often compliment each other. You have your healer, damage dealer, support, etc. You often don’t have control over the name, look, and skillset of each character. JRPGs tell you a very specific story, and that level of freedom makes delivering an effective narrative nigh impossible. I also feel (from my limited understanding of Japanese culture) that the linear narrative reflects how there’s more expectations placed on how one lives their lives. On the whole, JRPGs reflect the values of a collectivist culture, and the Ensemble works really well in this context.

WRPGs are usually open-world, where you hand-craft your avatar, choose their abilities, and save the world single-handedly. The Scrolls Elder Scrolls series is the best example of this. In Skyrim you are the ‘Dovahkiin’, a chosen mortal blessed with the ability to shout like a dragon (which somehow allows slowing time, charming animals, and taking ice form). There may be party members, but they’re only there to help you be as awesome as can be. You can also play nearly the entire game without engaging with a single one. If there is a narrative, it’s often an afterthought as you’re encouraged to explore the world, join any groups you want (and end up running them), and generally do whatever comes to mind. The Fallout series is another example. There are WRPGs where you are part of an ensemble, Mass Effect comes to mind, although you could argue that Shepard is another ‘chosen one’ and still rises above everyone else.

This is why Dark Souls isn’t equated with Final Fantasy, despite both franchises being RPGs from Japan.

In western media and culture, the ‘lone soldier saves the world’ resonates more strongly than high school teens banding together to do so. It’s why our heroes, despite having a supporting cast, are still defined by themselves alone. Batman might have Alfred, Robin, Batgirl etc. but he’s still ‘The Batman’.

>>> Conclusion

A lot of this is theorizing and pulling quasi-intellectual discussion out of my ass, but the Ensemble has always interested me. I know first hand what it means to find a have a party member resonate, which had me exploring how I could/ better relate to people in my own life. All of the ensembles I’ve mentioned are from shows and games that I enjoyed either now and/ or as a kid. It’s been something that I’ve wanted to explore for some time, but it wasn’t until Persona 4 that I found myself able to articulate exactly why I think this trope works so well. There’s a reason why some tropes are so common, they’re very effective, and this is one of the most prevalent ones.

Here’s a playlist of funny moments from Persona 4 – The Animation, may it bring you happiness (and help illustrate my point):

Featured Image found in a user review of ‘Persona 4 ‘on Giantbomb.com

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3 Comments

  1. Arbitrary_greay

    Superhero worlds tend to produce some good ensembles every now and then, and it seems to be when they aim to introduce things to a new and younger audience, and in the past, usually through cartoon adaptations. X-men, both the original series and the newer X-men: Evolution. Justice League. And now, finally in live action, the Avengers. (X-men: First Class was kind of going in that direction, but really was about how such a group could so easily splinter, and the rest are, of course, the Wolverine Show)

    Otherwise, the primary genre in western media that seems to favor the Ensemble (where the cast explicitly works together and becomes a secondary family) in Science Fiction. Where fantasy tends to revolve around Chosen Ones, in scifi casts are often conveniently grouped in working crews, which easily facilitates such dynamics. Think Firefly, Stargate SG-1, and Star Trek. The other genre that tends towards a cast becoming a secondary family is Modern Fantasy/Supernatural, but usually in the Batman model, centered around a particular protagonist, although the ones that blur the lines with Scifi, such as Warehouse 13 and Fringe, can also have that working crew no-single-protagonist setting.
    Non-genre live action loves the romantic dramaz too much (and if not a form of crime procedural, lack a unifying goal) to not have their cast turn on each time and time again to have proper Ensembles.

    I think one reason that fandom, especially in tumblr and fanfiction arenas of fandom, is getting more and more vocal in their love of Ensemble dynamics (Such as, as you noted with FFXIII, casting them in domestic situations, AU or not. This was done so much with the very-tragically-toned Madoka Magica anime that some suspect the latest movie threw its hands up, going, “welp, HERE’S WHAT YOU WANTED” and had the girls working together in a fantasy space in a way they never did in the original series.) is because our consumption of stories is more focused on characters and interaction dynamics than strictly plot. This idea is outlined in detail in this series of posts. Shows where the plot services the character and their interactions, such as FFXIII, gain immense fanbases because they directly service those desires, and even shows where the plot is the main point, such as Madoka Magica, will have aforementioned fan activity re-purposing the characters for those desires to enjoy Ensemble dynamics.

    Nowadays, when I watch media where the story or moral is the point, even if I recognize how masterfully done the craft elements are, my enjoyment factor is most strongly dependent on how much I love the characters, which in turn is strongly dependent on the ensemble dynamics.

    • You make a really good point, and I realize that I forgot about science-fiction and how the Ensemble/ Second Family is more common. Firefly is a perfect example, and for more than just the one quote on the TV Tropes page you linked. The ending of ‘Serenity’ with Mal’s speech about Serenity (about it being a home, and more than just a ship) to River struck a similar chord. And X-Men is a strong example as well, so there’s certainly Western media that uses the trope. As I’ve said, I’m far from an expert with Anime, so I can’t speak about the Madoka Magia movies (although I’m familiar with the show through SFDebris’ review), so I’ll have to take a look at those posts. I’ll check out the movie when I get the chance as well.

      When you mentioned non-genre live action it’s funny, I just finished watching HBO’s ‘The Newsroom’ (not to be confused with the Canadian show ‘The Newsroom’, which I highly recommend for fans of dry wit and satire). How there is an ensemble present, but at many critical moments they sorta tossed that out the window in favour of romance that seems somewhat out of left field. It’s a little weird how its strongest aspects are when you have the ‘News Night 2.0’ team together, but it decides to dedicate far more screentime to certain relationships than it has any right to. I enjoyed it because of Sorkin’s dialogue heavy script, but the pacing hit a brick wall when they tried to shoehorn Jim’s relationship drama into the proceedings. Often at the expense of better drama they’ve set up when it looks like he’s going to fail.

      • Arbitrary_greay

        D’oh, I forgot Teen Titans and Young Justice in my superheroes section. The former is a little more straightforward about having a younger audience, but the latter had a lot of fans from the generation that grew up with Teen Titans and had maintained their superhero-cartoon fandom and love of ensembles.

        Live action drama suffers from a combination of romance being prioritized over other types of connections and a crippling fear of shipping bed death. So not only to friendships get shunted to the wayside for shipping, they get outright sabotaged for the sake of generating conflict.

        I think it’s not surprising that it’s our fandom generation that is coming around to supporting polyamory as a legitimate shipping solution, because we despise the angst of love polygons. Polyshipping is also an extension of loving Ensembles combined with the concept propagated in media and fandom that romance is the highest form of love, and therefore the perfect Ensemble is one that has evolved into a polyship. The most prevalent example that I know of is the Avengers, where it’s not uncommon to have everyone on the team, Loki, and a good number of the supporting cast (Pepper, Jane, Darcy, Coulson, etc.) in on the relationship.

        I would wonder if anime and its harems would have had an influence, (Tenchi Solution and all that) but there are plenty of western media examples with fans who never interact with Japanese media.

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