The building blocks of our fictitious Heroes and Villains is something I’ve oft mused upon. What qualities make a Hero? It’s a fascinating topic, as is what makes a good Villain. Where these fiction tropes meet with reality and how different people want or expect their protagonists and antagonists to act, it’s a bottomless well. E Minor’s wonderful blog recently gave me more food for thought on the topic. E Minor mused on the good guy ideology in regards to Steins;Gate, and it got me to thinking more on the topic. This will be the first in a series of blogs discussing the different protagonists and antagonists we see throughout anime and its related media and my own thoughts on what I like to see and where these traits tie in with reality.
In case the title didn’t give it away, this first entry will be about the different Heroes and Villains in the Tales of franchise. I think it makes for an interesting study, because each game takes a substantially different approach to the leads and nemeses. Huge spoilers will follow (though kept to a minimum), so read at your own risk. Though that’s not to say this will be an impenetrable slab of reference, you shouldn’t need the context to read this post if you don’t mind the spoilers.
Lets begin with the first game in the series I played, Tales of Symphonia.
Our protagonist, Lloyd Irving, is still, in my mind, the archetypal Hero mould. He’s the Hero character played straight. Even at the beginning of the story, he’s brave, strong, self-confident, and caring. He grows a lot through the course of the story, but mostly he gains the experience and strength to realise his own ideals, his character isn’t altered in any fundamental way, that is to say, he has the basic qualities from the start. He plays the idiot Hero a little, but it becomes very apparent that he has a strong capacity for logical thought, helping to re-ground the rest of party in the final dungeon, as they each face their own demons.
Onto Tales of the Abyss.
Luke Fon Fabre plays the lead role in Tales of the Abyss, and he makes for the perfect Anti-Hero protagonist to contrast Lloyd. Lloyd was designated Hero first and foremost by his beliefs and personality, he gained the power to fulfill that role gradually over the course of his journey. Luke, by contrast, is the Hero by birth. His special ability, and role predicted by the score, which documents the entire history of the planet, past, present and future, give him the power to incite change. What really needs to develop for him to become a true Hero is his personality and beliefs. He starts off highly unlikeable, a spoiled, naive rich kid, with nary a care for anyone but himself. He’s selfish, petit, weak and stupid. Soon enough he is forced brutally out of his sense of entitlement, and made to face the real consequences of his actions, which starts him off on his real quest, to change himself.
Strictly speaking, developments fairly early on reveal that he is not, in fact, designated by fate to be hero, but these developments result in the realisation that he exists outside of the score, potentially the key to breaking it’s grip on the world, which effectively gives the same result. He is essentially born into a position of power.
Despite liking Lloyd more than Luke, I believe Luke is the better protagonist. His development over the course of the game is astounding, filled with poignant irony, real crises of identity, the struggles of rebuilding a shattered ego, and some actual existential insight. What’s more, his development is incredibly real and believable. When was the last time you can remember a game protagonist actually reverting at times, giving a non-linear arc?
Perhaps after Symphonia depicted a protagonist who needed to gain strength and experience, and Abyss depicted a protagonist who needed to change the very foundation of his being, a protagonist who didn’t really gain or learn anything at all was the logical conclusion! Ok, I’m being facetious here. I do; however, believe, that Yuri Lowell, the protagonist of Tales of Vesperia, is an inferior protagonist for being so static by comparison. He doesn’t really learn or have to face up to anything much, and he’s pretty much a badass from the beginning.
He does make for an interesting contrast in one way though. He plays Anit-Hero, but for a very different reason to Luke. Probably the most interesting part of Tales of Vesperia is the questions it raises on justice and vigilantism. Part way into the game, Yuri makes a decision that he will dirty his hands, and act outside of the law if that’s what it takes to execute his own sense of justice. He assassinates a number of antagonists who are supposed to be processed by the courts for their crimes, and generally takes a darker path to your standard RPG protagonist. Interestingly, he is probably the most loved protagonist in the franchise with Western fans, which just shows that people will happily take a cool character over a complex one.
Let’s leave protagonists for now, and talk about antagonists.
Starting again with Symphonia, we have have an antagonist, Yggdrasill, who is, for all intents and purposes, God. A being powerful enough to tear the world in half, and separate the two halves in different dimensions. It’s indicative of Symphonia’s whole style. It’s an epic conflict, painted in broad strokes. E Minor, in that article I mentioned at the beginning of this post, pointed out that often a protagonist is a protagonist merely by virtue of being characterised at all. Often we don’t get villains who are painted as real people, on the same level as the heroes, which may be because we don’t want them to be characterised well. Isn’t it just easier if we don’t have to empathise with the villain, and perhaps question who is actually in the right?
One of the things I really love about the Tales series is that the villains are always extensively characterised, and treated like real people. At points in Symphonia, I really did question if our protagonists weren’t just idealistic kids, looking for a perfect solution that didn’t exist. More than anything, Yggdrasill plays foil to Lloyd. This is a conflict of ideals as much as it a physical conflict, as is always the case with the Tales games. Free will vs Fatalism, Idealism vs Cynicism, Heaven vs Earth.
Again, Abyss’s antagonist is indicative of the whole narrative. Van is a character our protagonist is intimately related to from the beginning of the game. He is Luke’s sword instructor, and the only person Luke feels takes him seriously. He presents a much more human threat than Yggdrasill, and Abyss’s conflict is generally more grounded. Unlike Yggdrasill, he isn’t on an entirely different level to being with, he presents a threat through his strength, knowledge, and radicalism. He is a Nietzschean superman, excelling in every regard, and truly self-aware.
As much as I love the scale of Symphonia’s conflict, again I’d say Van is a superior antagonist. Not just is he more realistic, and hence associable, his interactions with your party are much more intricate, as you spend most of the game desperately trying to mitigate the effects of his plans, never really catching up enough to confront him on an equal footing until the finale. What’s more, as insane as his plan is, considering the stakes, it actually makes a lot of sense. He claims our heroes’ medicine is too weak for a world as sick as theirs, and he’s got a point, they really don’t know if what they’re doing can fix things, they just can’t accept his methods.
Vesperia’s Villain is too silly and poorly developed/explained to really warrant much of a mention here, and this post is already large enough, so I’ll leave it at that for now.