Tuesday, 8 September 2015

What the Hero Cannot Save the Princess From

Tales of Vesperia is the story of a young man going on an adventure with a princess, so of course, at one point, she gets kidnapped and he has to ‘rescue’ her. As this happens about two-thirds of the way through the plot, there will be some more detailed spoilers than are usually necessary in what follows.

The kidnapping happens shortly after the game’s sequence of big reveals plays out. We discover that Estelle, the Imperial Princess Yuri has latched onto, is the Child of the Full Moon, imbued with a power that threatens the natural order of the entire world of Terca Lumireis. Estelle, who is possessed of a compassion that borders on the cherubic, has already once said that if her power cannot be controlled she is willing to accept death for the sake of the world.

Yuri will have none of this. When the party work out, collectively, just how much of a danger Estelle poses, Yuri insists that Estelle not give up on the slim chance that they may be able to find some way to control her power. As he pressures Estelle, berating her for saying that she’s prepared to die if necessary, she cracks and runs off, seeking a moment alone to process her desperate straits.

The rest of the party give her space, spending the time discussing what might be done to help her. After a few moments, Raven, the shifty older dude who’s latched on to your party for as-yet-suspect reasons[1], complains he can’t follow the discussion and goes outside. When the rest of the party emerge later, both Raven and Estelle are missing.

It seems pretty obvious what’s happened. The only ambiguity is where Raven might have taken Estelle, and who exactly he might be working for. This prompts a search of the current town, which – if taken at face value – the game makes an oddly laboured affair, with some really awkward progress triggers.

The complicating factor in all this is that the town in question is the sky-city Myorzo, isolated and secret[3] home of the Kritya (basically Vesperia’s ‘descendants of the Ancients’ race). The only way out of the city is your airship, which is still docked. Eventually, you find an old, decommissioned teleporter which has been reactivated, and the guardian spirit of the city tracks its signal to tell you where to go.

Here’s where things get weird. When someone asks how the teleporter was reactivated, the party’s magic expert and expositor, Rita, specifically says that it could only have been Estelle’s powers that got it working. On top of that, when you follow the trail that the spirit identifies, you go to a location that there’s no sign Estelle ever visited.

Now, when you finally catch up to Estelle after blindly chasing another false lead, she’s definitely being held against her will, tormented and puppeteered by the current arch-villain to serve his ends. But while it’s unclear exactly how much power he has over her, what is clear is that the threat she poses to the world is contained.

What’s suggested, subtly but insistently, is that Raven, acting on the mastermind’s behalf, made some vague promise to Estelle that he knew someone who could control her power, and Estelle jumped at the chance. The mastermind’s solution is cruel and painful, but Estelle is still conflicted about whether she wants freedom – even during the rescue, she begs you to kill her.

Some of this – the cackling, sadistic villain, the tortured princess – could be chalked up to standard and regrettably exploitative video game melodrama, and it’s clear that Yuri himself reads it that way. It never occurs to Yuri that the Princess might not want to be rescued, or might be terrified of the implications of rescue even if she wanted it, or even that he can’t actually save her by rescuing her. He just chews his way through three levels of delaying tactics and diversions and rescues Estelle.

Rescuing Estelle, by the way, means fighting her as a mind-controlled boss; in the final phase of the battle, Yuri fights alone, without the rest of the party. On the way he’s accepted that it might be necessary to kill her to save her from Alexei – he’s willing to do that, even though he wouldn’t let her give her own life up willingly. All through this, he has no answer for the question of what they might do to prevent Estelle accidentally destroying the world.

Yuri’s actions and misjudgements come from two sources. One is his assumption of his own narrative, what I think of as ‘hero privilege’. While never as overt or self-aware about it as someone like Final Fantasy XII’s Balthier, Yuri understands both the structure of fairytales and the role into which he fits within that structure[4]. One of the key thrusts of Vesperia’s narrative is to highlight how inhuman this can be, how much we accept from heroes that in other contexts would be abhorrent.

But Yuri’s actions, and particularly his insistence that Estelle not ‘give up’ (i.e. accept death), are also part and parcel of his personal ethos. Yuri has a devotion to self-determination and authenticity that would do Sartre proud. Self-serving as his manipulations to prolong his time with Estelle are, it’s clear he earnestly believes that she wants and needs the adventure for her own sake.

Generally speaking, Estelle agrees, too. She speaks often of needing to find her own way. If she does indeed go willingly to Alexei, it is because she gives in to fear of the consequences of not doing so, fear that the cost of her freedom for others would be too high.

Yuri can embrace the existentialist life because he has very few social ties. For Estelle, as a princess and as the inheritor of a powerful mystical lineage, things are more complicated. The game eventually comes down much more on Estelle’s side; before you can go to the final boss, there’s another awkward sequence where you have to go around the world seeking the blessing of its various heads of state for your near-apocalyptic plan.

Rhetorically, Tales of Vesperia positions ‘hero privilege’ as a distortion of responsible interaction with society. Yuri is always willing to take responsibility for his actions, but he is never required to face truly horrible choices the way Estelle is purely in virtue of who she was born. There’s no question that Vesperia’s way of making this point exploits and objectifies Estelle, but its use of dissonant, ‘gamey’ surface to address Yuri is worth some attention.

This is not a game that hangs together well on the surface. Yuri doesn’t really get to be the hero, the rescue of Estelle makes no sense and the final act is unfocussed, confusing and disorganised. You can play this as a Video Game Story, but it won’t satisfy you.

The coherent narrative of Tales of Vesperia is buried under Yuri’s story; just as Yuri is blind to the harshest consequences of his actions, reading him as the hero blinds you to what’s really going on. In a way, this is futile, since the only players who are going to see this are already beyond the shallow engagements the game critiques, so it’s preaching to the choir, but it’s still a very competent use of the narrative to express theme.

[1] There’s a character like this in every Tales game and he’s always the worst[2]. Yes, Devon, that includes Alvin.

[2] Actually, in Tales of Graces, the role is played by Asbel’s younger brother, and the older dude who hangs around with you is pretty cool.

[3] There’s an essay in exactly how isolated and/or secret the city is, but I’m still puzzling that out.

[4] Vesperia plays this up by contrasting Yuri, the social drop-out, with his childhood friend Flynn who has joined the Imperial Knights and steadily climbed their ranks. That relationship is too much to get into here, as is Flynn’s relationship to Estelle.

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