Themes of Sacrifice in Tales of Symphonia

Hey, just a warning, we’re going weapons-free on spoilers here.

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The Tales series of video games intrigues me in a variety of ways. There’s the relatively unique combat system, the fantastic way they integrate your character’s random conversations, and their balls-out methods of world-building. What I usually appreciate most after I turn off the game, however, is the way they make a point of deconstructing a fantasy storytelling trope or cliché with every game they make. It’s really interesting to me, both as a writer and as a video games consumer, to watch them build towards a really rote story then twist it around completely, providing a fresh and new take on familiar material. That they do this so reliably is really a testament to their strength as creators. Every game takes something so overrun in modern fantasy storytelling that it makes most people try to scoop their own brains out with a spoon and runs it through a unique lens, analyzing how that trope would work in situations far removed from its typical element. Even as far back as the Super NES era, they broke new ground by giving their obviously evil genocidal villain sympathetic motivations in Tales of Phantasia, then followed it up by breaking down the traditional damsel in distress love interest in Tales of Legendia, the chosen one in Tales of the Abyss, the anti-hero in Tales of Vesperia, and used Tales of Symphonia to take down the commonly held idea of…. uh…. erm….?

Yeah. That’s always been a problem. Tales of Symphonia is probably one of the most important games in the Tales series. In terms of gameplay and characterization, Symphonia moved the series so far into the modern age, and is probably the reason most gamers in the west even know of the franchise today. It is a game that definitely earns its place as one of the best of the series. However, that quality has all been carried by the strength of its characters and the quality of its gameplay. Its plot, on the other hand, is generally regarded as unoriginal, rote, and cliched. Cliched! The game’s often accused of being the very thing the Tales series is founded on circumventing. And most oddly, nobody can agree on just what, exactly, Symphonia’s supposed to be deconstructing. The idea of the chosen one seems to be the most common guess, but Tales of the Abyss hit those notes a lot better, and besides, the way Symphonia handled it, having a member of the church find out the church kind of sucks, is way common in its own right. Also, spoilers, I guess, but come on, seriously, it’s a religious institution that plays a major part of the plot in a modern day video game. Those things are just evil by default. Others have guessed it breaks down the traditional stubborn moron lead, but I haven’t seen those that posit that offer much in the way of evidence towards that hypothesis. More minor estimations I’ve seen include breaking down racism, the goodness of humanity, heroism, and dudes in speedos. Everyone’s sure they’re deconstructing something, but nobody’s sure what that is. It could be they’re breaking down several things in a lot of small ways. Or it could be that they’re focusing on one subject, but doing it so subtly that nobody’s picked up on it. I recently did another playthrough of the game, and this time, I resolved to devote the full force of my big sexy brain to figuring it out.

Turns out, I didn’t have to work so hard. As you may have suspected, everyone in the world is stupid. Including me, until now. And you, too, because you’re reading this post and have just received enlightenment. Seriously, this post will gain you entry into nerdvana. See, Tales of Symphonia does cover a lot of modern fantasy tropes, but there’s one that it focuses on above all others. And it’s not subtle at all, given that the characters will absolutely not shut up about it. Tales of Symphonia as a whole, is all about Sacrifice.

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Personal sacrifice has played a part in storytelling literature since way back with the blazing Epic of Gilgamesh. Since the mid-3rd millennium B.C., or possibly even before, we as a race have been fascinated with the heroes who are willing to lay it all on the line for the good of others and the villains who have been willing to risk all for their own sake. Those who are willing to give it all up to achieve their goals make for strong, satisfying characters, no matter what side of the alignment line they’re on. In 5000 years of storytelling, we’ve always treated sacrifice the same way. Sacrificing yourself for the sake of others is good, sacrificing others for the sake of yourself means we should be telling your mother or something. And yet, Tales of Symphonia turns that all on its head.

Sacrifice factors into either the backstories or the arcs of most of the characters you get in your party, as well as showing up in a lot of the events that occur over the course of the plot. Blazes, the world of Sylvarant itself, with two different worlds forced to ‘sacrifice one another in order to survive’ as the game calls it over and over again plays into this theme so very strongly. The theme’s most prevalent in two instances though; the character of Colette, the character of Lloyd.

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Of the two types of sacrifice I mentioned earlier, the idea of sacrificing yourself being good, and sacrificing others evil, Colette really takes on the former. Colette is Sylvarant’s Chosen One, a being marked from birth and raised with the knowledge that someday the heavens are going to call to her and she’s going to have to go be Jesus. Since she was born, she knew that someday she was going to have to sacrifice her soul in order to save her world. That’s a duty that she takes up readily, out of love for everyone else in her world. And that turns out wrong. So wrong. This most apparently presents itself in the fact that the organization forcing her to go be Jesus is actually the big evil of this game and her sacrifice of herself is actually pretty bad for mankind. The theme lasts in her longer than the first act twist, however. See, Colette’s known that she would need to sacrifice herself all her life, and has developed a full-on complex because of it. She is constantly suffering throughout the course of this game, and she never tells anyone, always bearing her burdens alone and in silence. After all, that was how she was raised. She’d lived her life knowing she had a dour fate but that she and she alone could handle it, and she’s just learned to live that way. It causes so many problems for our group. She suffers alone, and in silence, letting her injuries and maladies grow to the point that your team often has to drop everything to save her. In many circumstances, Colette causes more trouble to your team than any of your adversaries. She is more than ready to sacrifice herself for others. And that is a very, very bad thing.

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Then there’s Lloyd, our viewpoint character of this piece. He runs into trouble early on, get’s some destruction indirectly caused through responses to his actions, and vows that he will make it so nobody will ever be sacrificed for his sake again. He uses pretty much those words, too. That vow is a big sticking point with his character for almost all of the game. And the plot, as well as several of the other characters hammer it into him over and over again that that’s just not possible. No matter what he does, no matter how much he tries, it is impossible for him to avoid collateral damage in his fight against evil. His actions set of a series of events that destroy towns, that drown innocent prisoners, that get people killed for his sake. This reaches its height near the end of the game, where two of your more pragmatic members privately make the decision that they are ready to give their lives to make sure Lloyd gets a shot at the big king wicked, entirely because he has the best chance of succeeding in battle against the bad man. And they almost do give up the ghost to get him through. Lloyd causes a lot of people to suffer in his quest to right the great wrongs of his world. He knows that, and it eats away at him. Yet, while the game never presents it as a good thing, it is absolutely clear that this is a necessary thing. The only way to save everybody in this world is to leave a few of them behind. Lloyd sacrifices a lot of others for his sake, and while it’s not a just thing, it’s something he has to do so that all may live.

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11 responses to “Themes of Sacrifice in Tales of Symphonia

  1. Interesting! I’ve played every tales game that had a us release and symphonia had always been the one whose story never felt cohesive for me. Now I’m interested in a replay with this in mind. Great article

    • Thanks! This thought does do a lot to make all those moments where the team has to drop everything and deal with Colette’s problems that she never tells anyone about a bit more sensible, at least on a meta level. It helps a lot with several other events, too. That said, there’s still a few janky plot points in Tales of Syphonia that I can’t quite explain away just yet.

    • The series really has come a long way since then. And they’re still putting out at least a couple games each hardware generation, so it’ll almost always have something current if you ever decide to splash into it again.

  2. Playing Symphonia felt like actually being with some friends, they look out for each other on a level I rarely get to enjoy in games even the Tales series. Recently playing Xillia and NOBODY is hugging the little girl who found out her parents are dead, HUG HER YOU ASS. Seriously felt so detached at that moment.

    • Xillia’s still on my to-be-played list, so I can’t really speak to that, but yeah, Tales of Symphonia was really good about making you feel the relationships between characters. Having your first three be childhood friends was a really good way to kick it all off.

  3. Great write-up, almost makes me want to give the Tales games another chance. The only one I have managed to beat is Xilia, as I don’t like the combat system they use. Shame cos I love that they use anime graphics and the cut scenes full of party banter are funny.

    • Yeah, if you don’t dig the combat system, there’s not much getting around that. Some games you can just suffer through for the story bits, but combat tends to be a pretty big part of the Tales games.

    • That’s a good thought. I’d be really interested in seeing how theming in video games compares to other mediums. I imagine video games would be a bit skewed from having a much higher proportion of entries be combat based in other mediums, but I’d like to see how that shakes out.

      • That’s a good point too. I’s imagine sacrifice is a theme that pops to mind easily for video games, just because most of them involve fighting in some way, Now hard to make the leap from fighting to death to sacrifice for the characters.

        Would be interesting if they used personal sacrifice in a different way some time. Instead of the sacrifice being death (which is most usually is), they could have to sacrifice something else.

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