Save Point: Tales of Vesperia

Through years of reading, contemplating, and talking about stories, I’ve found that there are generally two kinds of people: those who seek to locate themselves in narratives and those who don’t. Some people can watch a movie or read a book or play a video game and not feel the need to identify with any given character. I’m not like that. I have never not sought to identify with someone, even a minor character, when I read, watch, or play. It’s something that has come naturally since childhood, simple as a reflex. I don’t know if one way of approaching stories is better than the other. I’ve just learned that I am definitely someone who looks to identify, consciously or not.

When I played Tales of Vesperia, then, I was temporarily faced with a dilemma. The Xbox 360 version of Vesperia has three playable female characters: Estelle, Rita, and Judith. I don’t always identify exclusively with female characters. As a kid, Luke Skywalker and Robin Hood were two of my fondest role models. But usually, I do find it easier to focalize through women. So, being faced with these three characters, I found myself wavering on whom I most identified with. Part of this may be because Vesperia develops its characters to the point that they transcend their archetypes, at least a little. Yuri—the protagonist you first meet and the default avatar—is a sword-swinging, stand-up guy, but he also believes the ends justify the means, causing him to butt heads with his best friend, Flynn, whose moral fiber forces him to play by the rules unfailingly. Small development, sure, but this makes Yuri a bit more interesting than a stock hero who unquestioningly abides by the ethics of an after-school special.

The same is true of Estelle, Rita, and Judith. On the surface, Estelle is the pure-hearted, naïve healer; Rita is the outspoken, hot-headed sorceress; and Judith is the mature, guarded big sister figure who in this case wields a spear. They get more development than that. They have their backstories, their personal crossroads, their moments of growth. But, in the end, just as Yuri is ultimately the sword-swinging, stand-up guy with a twist, I’d argue that these female characters do adhere to their archetypes, albeit with a twist, when we zoom out. The clichés aren’t helped by the fact that, among the optional accessories you can synthesize for the women, there’s an “Angel Outfit” for Estelle and a “Devil Outfit” for Rita. There’s no equivalent for Judith, though Judith’s default costume is bikini armor, so maybe that already steers her toward the “Sexy, Mysterious” character cut-out.

On the one hand, I wanted to identify with Judith. She was older than the other two, more worldly, and more jaded. She kept her cards close to her chest rather than putting her emotions on display. She was aloof, independent, and arguably the most farsighted of the bunch. Yet Judith was also a little too cool, a little too detached from her feelings for me to really connect with. That left Estelle and Rita.

For a long time, Estelle would have been my obvious choice. All through adolescence and well into my 20s, I was drawn to the healers, the princesses, the innocent types who saw the good in everyone. The ones who were naïve, yes, but who didn’t take that as an insult. The ones who wanted to make the world a better place and thought that compassion, infinite forgiveness, and patience were the ways to do that. In short, the idealists.

However, playing Vesperia last year, I couldn’t fully connect with Estelle. She seemed a little too precious, a little too sheltered, a little too, indeed, naïve. She was shocked by wrongdoing no matter how often she saw it. She had to be reminded again and again that evil did exist. Her naivete irritated me, even as I wished her views could be validated, could be proven legitimate not just in her fantasy world, but in our own as well. It would be great if idealism could go rewarded. And sure, sometimes it can. But my frustration indicated that something had changed in me. I couldn’t so easily slip into the role of the wide-eyed, smiling maiden with love in her heart for all.

But then, that left me with Rita. Rita, who was sharp-tongued to the point of being rude, assertive to the point of being aggressive. Rita who, unlike Estelle, saw the worst in people. The pessimist to the princess’s optimism, and in the game’s terms, the unsubtle “devil” to her “angel.” Rita was powerful, passionate, driven, and intelligent. She was also harsh and occasionally cruel. I couldn’t comfortably identify with that either. So I went along, alternating between the three characters in my mind and on the screen.

The longer I played, the more parallels emerged between Rita and me. Rita tries to do the right thing, even if she grumbles while she does it. She can earn a Ph.D. through a side quest; I just graduated last year with mine. Rita comes from “the city of scholars” and wants to contribute to her field, qualities that echoed my own reality. Rita can be difficult. But she doesn’t suffer fools gladly. The longer I played, the less sense it made for me to fight the similarities.

I think, when I was younger, I identified with the healers and princesses because confrontation felt too frightening. It felt easier to strive for unconditional love, to look for reasons behind malice, to invoke Humanist psychology and the argument that people are only bad because bad things have happened to them. That hate can be erased with enough patience and compassion.

That would be great, wouldn’t it? If it were really as simple as that? If we all just loved a little more and listened a little more and that could cure the world? However, I now believe that that is a privileged position. I’m all for love and compassion. But I’m also for drawing lines.

We live in troubled times. Or more accurately, times have always been troubled, but hate has been louder lately. I have asked myself repeatedly, “What will you do if you witness hate speech? Not what would you like to do, but really, what will you do, in the moment, in person?” To prime myself for confrontation is to push back against decades of socialization, of training to be “nice” and “polite.” But I am for drawing lines. I’ve come to a place where I’m comfortable placing the love of justice above the love of any sort of tenuous “peace” predicated on letting hatred slide. It may be easier not to speak up at the dinner table, the office, wherever. But that silence is not neutral. It is heavy with something we cannot, should not bear.

For a long time I resisted identifying with Rita. Estelle is so sweet, so full of hope. Judith is intriguing with her ambiguous, Mona Lisa smile. And both these women fight in their own way; they do work toward what is right. But Rita knows exactly where she stands and doesn’t try to conceal it. She’s not afraid to speak up or speak out. In this way, she became a sort of role model.

In the end, maybe it’s doing characters a disservice to try to flatten them to their most overt traits. Maybe it’s oversimplifying stories to try to locate oneself within them. I see parts of myself in all three of these characters, as well as Flynn and Yuri and others as well. But if stories serve, at least in part, as mirrors, I took something important from this game by reflecting on Rita’s fearless engagement with the flawed world in which she exists. Rita is not always “nice.” She is not always “polite.” But she knows precisely the answer to the question, “Really, what will you do?”