Wednesday, 11 November 2015


I am learning to cry.

Not learning to stage-cry. Not learning to perform crying, whether in honest fiction or dishonest manipulation. Not training a nerve pathway to bypass my emotions en route from brain to tear ducts (if that's how it works – I wouldn't know).

I am learning to cry when my chest tightens and breathing becomes difficult. Learning to cry when I have a reason to cry. Learning how to tell when I have a reason.

I am learning to cross an emotional wall that I don't remember building. I haven't cried a lot since childhood. I internalised early the idea that crying is weak or shameful, so that by the time I learned otherwise I had ruined the emotional pathways to doing so.

In my first nine years of adulthood I think I cried three times.

This is not healthy. I have spent the last year trying to re-engage with myself, to allow what I feel – which is who I am, really – to manifest in what I do and how I live. I've written a bit about it before.

Video games are helping. Virtual worlds are an emotional gym, albeit one I often stare through the window of rather than using. Like going to the gym, it takes an act of will and an openness to pain to engage with a game.

It's interactivity – I extend myself, and something responds. It's as interactive as any button-press, except that the buttons are inside me.

Okay, I freely admit that sentence is ridiculous. I'm using humour to restore emotional distance.

The inner button I'm pressing is the power switch.

Tales of Symphonia was maybe the first game to bring a tear to my eye, long before I realised crying was something I would have to learn. I can't now remember exactly what it was that got to me, but somewhere in Symphonia's convoluted turns, Lloyd and Colette were so alive that even I couldn't stay numb to them.

Don't Kiss the Prince

Not all tears are the product of sadness.

Emil, the hero of Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World, is one of the queerest characters I've encountered. He talks openly about how handsome Regal is, at one point suggesting the other man take to carrying a rose in his teeth. His struggle, both literally within the world and thematically within the story, is against his violent second nature, his 'Ratatosk Mode'. But for incongruous baggy trousers, his outfit is pretty much a dress:

(Somebody please buy me this outfit)
Marta, who accompanies him throughout the game, initially idealises him as her heroic 'prince', mistakenly believing he saved her life once. She pushes him constantly to play into a romantic fantasy. He resists the casting, even to the point that doing so drives him into Ratatosk Mode.

There is no noble core to Emil's masculinity, only the physical, verbal and emotional savagery of Ratatosk. And Emil feels this, deeply. He dreads this loss of self.

So I cried when, on the last night before the final confrontation, Marta went up on tip-toes to kiss Emil. I cried – or at least achieved a single, proper, rolling tear – because she accepted Emil for what he is, because she released him from her fantasies, because Emil was not required to be something he was not in order to be loved.

(Emil never protests anyone's use of male pronouns for him, or I wouldn't be using them)

It must be said, too, and I will try to say it with as little scorn for myself as possible, that I am easily moved by the simplest romantic resolutions. Emil is given this – and given it without cost to his identity, given it as an act of faith in his eventual freedom – without Marta or the game forcibly normalising him. However far it felt from reality, the assertion of the possibility felt powerful to me.

I cried at the end of Tales of the Abyss, too, even though that's a much more normative romance. I try not to put scorn on myself for it, but I really am a sap.

Turds in the Soup

It doesn't take much turd in your soup to ruin it. Once there's a turd in there, you aren't going to keep eating. It doesn't matter how good the rest of the ingredients are, or how carefully they were prepared.

There's an archetypal character in the Tales franchise that is a turd in the soup. In Tales of Symphonia, he's Zelos Wilder. Tales of Vesperia has Raven, Tales of Xillia Alvin and the latest incarnation is Tales of Zestiria's Zaveid.

A brief summary of crimes:

- Constantly hitting on female characters

- Forcing physical intimacy on other characters

- Responding to literally every situation with humour, irrespective of the mental and emotional cost to anyone else nearby
Pictured: turd
It's weird to me that these characters are such a consistent feature of the franchise (Tales of the Abyss doesn't have an obvious example, but Jade is close in some ways; I've written about the displays of masculine toxicity in Tales of Graces before). Tales games, if they exhibit any common feature, specialise in emotionally rich male characters, men and boys who feel and grow and communicate better than many real male human beings.

And yet, floating in the middle of every otherwise delightful soup, a turd. Tales of Xillia 2 almost fixed the problem by spreading the unwelcome behaviour across multiple characters. This had a diluting effect; to some chefs, absolutely anything can be seasoning.

Indeed, if we're really going to tell stories that grapple with masculinity as Tales aspires to, we're going to have to deal with this behaviour, because it happens, it's real. It's common, even. But playing Tales games is generally, to me, immersing myself in something better. It's participating in a world where that archetype doesn't feel realistic.

Zestiria is the best yet for this. The central theme is respect for the feelings of others. Maybe it's an unrealistic picture of a better world (maybe it isn't) but it's at least a consistent one.

Except for Zaveid's turdery. And while the rest of the cast are unanimous in their rejection of his behaviour, when the emotional tone of a scene has been tainted it is very difficult to restore. Too often, I cannot get the odour out of my nostrils.

If there's one Tales game I don’t think I'll ever cry at, it's probably the one I know best: Tales of Vesperia. It's just a little too cynical, and it concerns itself more with other emotions. Moral abhorrence, mostly.

A Tale of My Own

I sprinkled tears right across Tales of Xillia 2, but I think the superlative writing team would be surprised at where.

I didn't cry at the first grand sacrifice of the story. By that point I was more than a little distracted by upheavals in my living arrangements over the summer, having to take significant breaks from the game because I was away from my consoles. The longest of those breaks, over two months, broke the spine of the game's wider story despite my best efforts.

I didn't cry at the ending, responding to its cruelty with angry defiance instead. Between that and struggling with the bosses because of the break, I found it hard to engage.

When I did cry with the plot, it was in sympathy with Elle's tears. They served as training wheels in a way – we're conditioned quite deeply to be moved by the distress of children. It could be seen as manipulative, I suppose, though that depends a bit on whether you feel the game exploits Elle or whether her situation is treated with respect. There are definitely questions to be asked of Ludger's paternalism.

But mostly I cried about Nova. The circumstances that justify her presence in the game are a cruel mismatch for her personality and force her into a conflict with Ludger that just isn't fair. When it came to a head, and I realised that her displays of affection towards Ludger weren't just sprightly service manner, I was cored.

For the rest of the game, her periodic phone calls carry hints of the hurt she feels. Her attempts to regain good cheer ring desperately hollow. Her voice falters in greeting, her eyes drop away in parting.

I wanted the game's finale to reconcile them. For once, I found myself with a headcanon, something I'm never normally comfortable with. The game didn't deliver, but that wasn't why I cried. I cried because the part of my version of the story that the game allowed me to enact is the kind of thing I would cry at.

If I were able to cry.

I'm learning.

The Uses of Eyes

Which brings us up to the present day, and Tales of Zestiria.

I could talk about the story. That provides plenty of reasons to cry.

The plot, of necessity, is a tapestry of tragedies. The malignant power that provides the story's existential threat is a manifestation of human inhumanity – the tangible essence of a lack of empathy. Hero Sorey, whose defining advantage is the limitless empathy facilitated by an upbringing without spiritual or material want, can't save everyone.

I could talk about the masterful subtlety of the writing, or the moments when it breaks and the characters do too.

But one thing I've heard about, that I'd never managed before, is to cry for beauty. To be moved not by an emotion of my own or one borrowed from a story, but simply by a raw phenomenon, an experience without leverage of pain or triumph.

I can't quite claim to have achieved that, if achievement is the right word (and it is, but in the therapeutic rather than the Xbox Live sense). When the sun-haze and scudding cloud-shadows over the golden fields of Pearloats Pasture became too much to look at, when I had to look away, blinking, a little of that was the transformation of the place from my first visit to it, and everything it implied about what Sorey had achieved there.

But I cried for the low sweep of the valley, and for the beams of daylight I could almost feel. I cried for the breeze and the gentle swell of the music, for the view across the walls and rooftops of Pendrago and the towers of the great bridge beyond the hill in the distance, and for the wonder of motion, Sorey's divinely-empowered run eating up but somehow also reinforcing the miles.

I can't really express my gratitude to this series of games without gushing. There are other experiences I've learned from this year, too, and I'd gush about them if I got started. What I'll finish on is this: open your heart, if it needs opening, and give some Tales a try.

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