Monday 14 September 2015

Of Maps and Men

Right from the very first lines of the opening narration, Tales of Vesperia emphasises how wild and uncharted its world is. Towns are only safe because of vast and powerful magical barriers; few humans ever go outside, and those who do will be eaten by monsters if they can’t defend themselves. The failure of a town’s barrier is a cataclysmic event.

Given this strict binary between townsfolk and travellers, the game quickly sorts the player characters into the latter category. Yuri and Estelle are forced to flee from their homes into the wilderness. Before they go, though, they are given a map. Apart from the immediate area around the city, it’s blank.

Yuri and Estelle decide to fill in the map as they go; it updates automatically from this point forward. Shortly, they meet Karol, a young trainee monster hunter about to be thrown out of his guild for cowardice. Karol doesn’t have a map of his own, but takes over the role of cartographer when he realises how little of your map is filled in.

Later, your quest brings you to a forgotten shrine, Baction, where you find a dungeon consisting mostly of repetitive square rooms differentiated only by monster placement and cracks in the floor. Here, again, Karol is given mapping duties – this is the only dungeon in the game that has an on-screen minimap. Numerous skits and cutscenes emphasise Karol’s love of mapmaking, of which the most striking is when he says:

“Nothing calls to a man’s heart like the thrill of making maps!”

This is not a sentiment the other male characters share (Yuri responds, drily, “I’ve never had that thrill.”) Both Yuri and Raven emphasise a more familiar violent and promiscuous masculinity. Throughout the early part of the game, Yuri constantly trolls Karol for his cowardice, apparently with the idea that this will toughen him up. Later, when Karol does get to ‘prove’ his manhood by defending the rest of the party from a boss all by himself, Raven says, “Facing down challenges like that is part of becoming a man.”

But while Karol does fit or try to fit some parts of this image of masculinity – trying to be a monster hunter, carrying comically oversized weapons – his actual manhood is constructed very differently. It’s in his building a guild of his own, and developing its reputation through hard work and respectful business with other guilds. It’s in his interest in mapmaking and his (implied) willingness to step back and let others benefit from it[1].

In other words, Karol’s masculinity is sited in responsibility, and in engagement with community. What Karol seeks is not just manhood in himself but legitimacy, a place in society. For Yuri and Raven, masculinity is no such thing; one way or another, their masculinity is about the freedom of power and self-determination.

Karol’s love of cartography dovetails with his masculinity. As Kaitlin Tremblay writes in this month’s Critical Distance Blogs of the Round Table prompt:

“Maps… order and define spaces… They set a boundary to what otherwise feels vast and potentially limitless, a way to compartmentalise and therefore tackle the world.”

Where Yuri and Raven – along with most of the game’s other male characters – are erratic and chaotic, Karol’s is a masculinity of order and control. It is a masculinity that takes wild spaces and tames them, and this sounds like a good thing. At least, it sounds preferable to Yuri’s rampant individualism.

But control and categorisation are the subtle weapons of masculine hegemony. Yuri’s violence – and Raven’s lechery – may seem more dangerous, but many of the game’s villains are motivated by the desire to control, to keep people in their places. And, on the face of it, Karol’s maps only really serve those already capable of using the spaces he charts – since these spaces are dungeons and the hostile wilderness, only those who can already take care of themselves benefit[2].

Mapping the world, by implication mastering it, is an expression of privilege. Maps that go beyond the purely topographical – surveillance maps, maps of national boundaries or battlefronts – are often tools of power. We see this in the refugee crisis in Europe at the moment, thousands of people dying or being mistreated for the sake of lines on a map.

Vesperia doesn’t address this facet of maps directly. Its world, Terca Lumireis, is not really divided among nations, since the land outside the magical barriers is equally hostile to everyone. While there are occasional references to governance and military action, it’s basically never the focus of events. Karol’s maps are never used to express collective, institutional or hierarchical power.

The game does entrust the map to hierarchical power, though. When you complete the world map, the ‘reward’ cutscene and title go to Estelle, an Imperial princess. By this time, she’s already passed over the possibility of succession, but she remains an image of royalty – indeed, the supernatural legacy she inherits suggests her bloodline may be exceptionally pure.

What does she use the map for? In the cutscene, an NPC notices her looking at it and asks Estelle to tell her about all the exotic places she’s visited. Estelle, whose passion is storytelling, obliges, talking right through the night.

Maps can be tools of power, but they can also be souvenirs and reminders. Somewhere I still have the map of New York I bought on a trip there in 2004, because without a map I can’t fit the memories of those four frantic days together in a coherent order. Estelle’s use of the world map does more than that, arguably; it enables her to bring the now-tamed spaces of the wilderness to those not privileged to be able to visit them.

Whether this is enough to defang the map as a tool of power, I’m not sure. The game could be seen as na├»ve in suggesting that. But as a suggestion of a better way – not just for maps but by implication for masculinity – it bears some consideration.

[1] I’ll return to this point later, but the rewards for completing the world map all go to Estelle.

[2] It should be noted that not all such characters are male in Vesperia. In their own distinct ways, all three of the party’s female members are empowered to be outside the safety of the towns, but where addressed at all this tends to be framed as ‘unladylike’.

Written for Critical Distance's Blogs of the Round Table:

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