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CL's Treatises on Tales of Symphonia

Posted: Tue Sep 27, 2016 4:05 pm
by Apollo the Just
So, this isn't news to anyone, but I personally consider Tales of Symphonia to be the best video game ever made.

No, not objectively. Of course not. But personally.

And as I just recently finished my tenth playthrough and am starting my eleventh, I have a rather encyclopedic knowledge of the game's convoluted JRPG plot, enough to be able to finally look at all of the foreshadowing and parallels throughout the game and appreciate them. There are a lot of different thematic focuses that recur throughout the game, so I'm going to be looking at each of those in various megaposts when I'm feelin' it.

Essentially, this is an outlet for all of the essays I want to write about this game, and hopefully a conversation space for anyone else who has played it and wants to talk about it.

There are spoilers for basically the entirety of Tales of Symphonia here, so like, don't read if you haven't played this ten-year-old game, actually intend to, and haven't already had it spoiled for you? I guess?

I think one of the coolest things about Tales of Symphonia is its treatment of legends.

The game opens with a super cliche "once upon a time" creation story. The entire remainder of the game is then spent exploring the truth of that legend, and how it came into being.
Once upon a time, there existed a giant tree that was the source of mana. A war, however, caused this tree to wither away, and a hero's life was sacrificed in order to take its place. Grieving over the loss, the goddess disappeared unto the heavens. The goddess left the angels with this edict: 'You must wake me, for if I should sleep, the world shall be destroyed.' The angels bore the chosen one who headed for the tower that reached up unto the heavens. And that marked the beginning of the regeneration of the world.
There's also a passage from a book in the Tower of Mana stating that Mithos the hero helped smite and seal away the evil half-elf Desians who caused the war.

Contrast that with what actually happened:
  • There was a giant tree that was the source of mana.
  • A war caused it to wither away.
  • Mithos "the hero", bright-eyed and idealistic half-elf protag, ends the war at the holy grounds where the giant tree once stood.
  • Martel, beloved sister and companion of Mithos, is killed by a racist human.
  • Mithos goes ****.
  • Mithos fuses Martel's soul with the Great Seed (all that remains of the Giant Kharlan Tree), splits the world in two to permanently separate the warring factions, and links the summon spirits of both worlds to allow mana to flow between them and to trap the Great Seed - preventing its germination and protecting Martel while limiting mana usage and preventing the further development of magical weapons of mass destruction.
  • Yeah, a lot went down.
  • Using the cruxis crystal technology developed during the war, Mithos and his companions become "lifeless beings" - souls who live on via their gems and who essentially possess their own bodies - and present themselves to the world as angels.
  • (This is the same technology that allowed Martel's soul to be preserved without a body.)
  • Mithos invents a doctrine naming his sister as a goddess, and uses his servants - half-elves drawn to Cruxis after experiencing discrimination, who also use cruxis crystals to look like divine angels - to spread the message, puppeteer the church of Martel, and control marriages to produce a Chosen of Mana lineage of potential vessels for his sister.
  • The production of more cruxis crystals to create more angels is carried out via the "angelus project," which evolves exspheres into these gems. The desians (Cruxis's lower henchmen/pawns) work to awaken exspheres and produce cruxis crystals in their human ranches.
Pretty much.... everything else after the first 2 points is made-up doctrine based on Mithos and his sister; a twisted version of history propagated by Mithos's underlings to further his plan. There is a historical truth behind each mythical name and symbol, from the hero to the goddess to the angels. This historical truth has been manipulated over time to a completely different form, and that new form is the lore of the land as it exists in ToS.

[I would like to add here that it's not treated as if Mithos and Cruxis have sole control over how myths and legends form: attributing the Kharlan War to half-elves and Desians is something that Mithos would never do, but is a result of the severe racial tensions in the world... ironically, those that Mithos fought so desparately against before they resulted in his sister's death. But he certainly played a major part in shaping this particular story.]

And yet, the fact that people believe in this story lends it its own sort of truth. The belief in a goddess named "Martel" is not meaningless. At the end of the game, from the spirit of the Great Tree, as well as Martel - Mithos's sister - and the hundreds/thousands of souls sacrificed (as chosen, as exspheres, etc...) in Mithos's plan to resurrect her, a new spirit named Martel is born to watch over the reborn tree. The goddess, hailed by the Church of Martel and originally made-up in the image of Mithos's sister, comes into being.

Another example of how myths and legends are complexly portrayed in this game is toward the very beginning, when you are searching for the Seal of Wind. The Town of Asgard has its own legend:
One of Asgard's central features is its stone dais, where Cleo III once held a ritual to offer a sacrifice to the Sumon Spirit of Wind in order to quell a storm that had raged for a week, and the altar was made for the spirit.
As a result of this legend, whenever the seal weakens, someone is offered as a sacrifice to quell the anger of the Summon Spirit and prevent another calamity.

[This little story is also clearly meant to tie in to the central theme of sacrifice, but that's an entirely different megapost for a future day.]

Contrast, again, to what actually happened:
  • Evil wind demon caused a raging storm
  • Cleo III, Summoner king from Balacruf (where the actual Summon Spirit is located), forms a pact with the Summon Spirit of wind
  • Cleo III uses the Summon Spirit of Wind to seal the evil wind demon into the stone dias
Again, the symbols are all there in Asgard's version of the legend, but their true nature has been twisted and the truth has taken on a new form. The Summon Spirit used to quell the calamity was mistaken for the calamity itself, and the dias sealing away the demon is interpreted as an altar to the Summon Spirit of Wind.

(...As a slight aside, even more interestingly, Balacruf has its own legend inscribed in the walls of its mausoleum -- that Cleo III became as one with the Summon Spirit of Wind when he died.)

This stuff pops up again and again. Encountering legends and learning of the historical events that birthed them. It's so interesting to me how multiple versions of one "truth" - the real people and events that really transpired, and the elevated myths and legends that hold meaning to the people who believe them - exist at the same time, and often encounter one another over the course of this game. After hearing about Mithos the Hero, savior of 4,000 years ago, you literally meet him (and kick his ass multiple times). I would argue that Mithos and his alternate self Yggdrasill embody and symbolize these two versions of his truth.

One of my favorite instances of discerning "truth" from myths is when Botta is expositioning the **** out of the Great Seed. The party expresses disbelief, believing that the Great Seed is a legend, not actually real. Botta explains that it does exist, and Genis asks if it's the same as the Great Seed described as the soul of Mithos. Botta laughs, stating "now THAT is a fairy tale."

Myths and legends may be different from their historical origins, but ToS argues a compelling case that this doesn't make them any less real. When the Tower of Salvation disappears because Cruxis has a malfunction when things start going to ****, Kratos brushes it off because he knows it’s just a visual malfunction, and therefore it’s not a big deal. But Raine points out that it /is/ a huge deal because the Tower is a symbol of hope and salvation for the people of Sylvarant. Its disappearance has political consequences. The symbol holds real power and meaning, regardless of the intention behind its creation.

Given this as a recurring topic in the game, I think it’s incredibly interesting that the events you play - Lloyd’s journey, and the rebirth of the tree (which Lloyd names Yggdrasill) - are undoubtedly going to be the subject of legends in the distant future. The creation of the Yggdrasill Tree, which will certainly be a subject of both historical and religious study for the denizens of the united world, is something you experience as a current event. After seeing time and again how mythological figures are based on real people and events that have been changed and elevated over time, and encountering the world’s most beloved ancient hero in the flesh and learning what his story really was… you get to witness Lloyd’s story as it happens, leaving you to wonder how it will live on in public memory. Because it surely will.

As will Mithos Yggdrasill... he will live on, not as the tyrannical leader of Cruxis, nor as the hero who smited the half-elves... but as the tree, a symbol for a united world and the protection of those who face discrimination.

[Ranty, somewhat-related conclusion: that’s why I think the tree’s name is so important. It allows Mithos and Martel to both exist together as beloved symbols of protection and acceptance. It gives them a role in the world they fought for but weren’t privileged enough to claim. Lloyd naming the tree protected by Martel “Yggdrasill” was one of the most meaningful things he did over the course of the game. So I'M KINDA PISSY THEY DON'T SAY IT OUTRIGHT AND YOU HAVE TO INFER IT FROM TALES OF PHANTASIA]

In ACTUAL conclusion -- I really love how the game opens with a mythological story based on Mithos’s journey, elevated beyond its historical truth, and ends with the player experiencing the rebirth of the tree featured in the original myth. It really drives home the parallels between Mithos and Lloyd, and emphasizes how those who are immortalized as heroes and legends lived real lives as real people.

~~~~~~~tune in next time for Treatise 2: On Life and Lifeless Beings! (maybe)~~~~~~

Posted: Tue Sep 27, 2016 4:07 pm
by X-3
I thought Persona 3 was your favorite game

Posted: Tue Sep 27, 2016 4:08 pm
by Apollo the Just
either one is my favorite game depending on what month you ask me about it

Posted: Tue Sep 27, 2016 5:34 pm
Persona 3 and ToS are pretty good, it's hard to pick between them. I guess ToS edges a win just cuz.

Posted: Thu Sep 29, 2016 1:08 pm
by X-3
Putting aside my joke post, this is a very interesting analysis, CL, and it made me think about how legends are treated in another series. I'm looking forward to reading more.

Posted: Thu Sep 29, 2016 1:24 pm
by Marilink
shoot, I feel like I should wait until I finish my current playthrough before reading this.

CL, can you remind me in a spoiler-free fashion why the **** the Desians matter? Are they just Half-Elves? Because right now in the game (I'm in Asgard) they're literally just the Evil Evil that Evils all over the place, and it's been so long since I've played the game that I actually can't remember if their history gets any more interesting or complex than that.

Just a simple "yes, there is more to them" or "no, they're basically just the Antagonistic Antagonists just cuz" will suffice for now.

Posted: Thu Sep 29, 2016 1:30 pm
by Apollo the Just
"yes, there is more to them"

Also, you should probably finish your playthrough first, because otherwise this will probably just spoil everything you've forgotten and then be talking about stuff you don't remember lmao

Posted: Thu Sep 29, 2016 1:32 pm
by Marilink
k. That's actually really good to know.

The more I play through this game, the more I am remembering that I remember absolutely nothing about this game past the first hour and a half. Except that Kratos is Lloyd's dad. But I only remember that because CL said it like two weeks ago. I had forgotten that, too.

Posted: Thu Sep 29, 2016 1:33 pm
by Apollo the Just
[spoiler=really huge spoiler, the biggest]snape kills dumbledore[/spoiler]

I apologize in advance if your playthrough is ruined in any part by the 8,000 spoilers I posted on my facebook timeline during my most recent playthrough. Not really that sorry though

Posted: Thu Sep 29, 2016 1:36 pm
by Marilink
It's OK, the majority of the time it was just things like "BUT GENIS BUT LIKE IDK WHYYYYYYYY" so I didn't get much spoiled for me

Posted: Thu Sep 29, 2016 1:44 pm
by Apollo the Just
^ Come on, that's surely an exagg-


Ah. OK then, carry on.

Posted: Fri Sep 30, 2016 6:59 pm
by Marilink
So, just got done at Ozette for the first time, currently saved in the Mine. I had a thought about the plot twist after the first portion of the game.

You know, it almost seems like that realization about the Desians and Cruxis comes too late. For the first 10 hours of the game, I was really only progressing for the sake of progressing. Yeah, World Regeneration, blah blah...but I could already tell that was a massive red herring. I had to deliberately chase an obvious red herring for so long that the payoff of the Desian/Cruxis reveal was more of a "man, finally" than it was a "HOLY CRAAAAP," y'know?

That's not to say it isn't a good plot point. It's a very good plot point, and I'm excited to keep going. But to have that crucial carrot-dangling plot reveal happen ten hours into the game? Just felt a little late to me.

Posted: Fri Sep 30, 2016 7:14 pm
by X-3
I can't agree. Before then you get several senses that things are much more complicated than they appear. (ie: Yuan, Sheena) The twist at the tower just hammers things home by changing the status quo forever.

10 hours is pretty early for a JRPG, too. In terms of length, 10 hours in ToS is like Act 1 of 5.

Posted: Sat Oct 01, 2016 7:09 am
by Marilink
You're not wrong. I might just not be conditioned for JRPG length anymore these days.

Posted: Sat Oct 01, 2016 7:15 pm
by X-3
Well, I think most people are the same. It doesn't help that the genre has stiffer competition for time investment than it ever used to.

Posted: Mon Oct 03, 2016 6:01 pm
by Apollo the Just
I think I'm just very used to JRPG style storytelling. It's a convention in the genre to have the games start out with a pretty basic premise, with hints here and there alluding to something more complicated, and then the ~real plot~ starts about 10-20 hours in depending. They have novel-length convoluted stories to tell, so they introduce you to the setting, characters, gameplay, and history via a straightforward storyline with a simple goal, and then using that facade they slowly introduce elements referring to what the game is actually about. Pretty much every JRPG ever does this (for example, even Ace Attorney games - which aren't very typical-JRPG-y in a lot of ways - don't actually tell you what the "plot" of each installment is until the final case in the game, they just have plot points and characters from earlier cases bring things up as foreshadowing).

I'm kind of the opposite of you, in that I prefer a story that takes 50 hours to tell and 10 hours to get into if the outcome is going to blow me away. I have more motivation to play a 70-hour epic like Persona 3 than a short game that's easy to get into, simply because I get wholly invested and get a lot more out of it. The payoff is worth it in my mind.

Also, can you imagine going into Tales of Symphonia and right off the bat they reveal that Cruxis and the Desians are one in the same? It would undermine the whole purpose of having you go on this quest as the Chosen serving the angels of the Church of Martel, facing off against the evil Desians. They introduce them separately, because you are meant to rever one and despise the other. They're constructed as opposites, so of course they need to have the player experience them as opposites before eventually revealing their connection at a later time. It's the first major indication of the nature of exactly what you're up against: "I am Yggdrasill, leader of Cruxis... and the desians." Welp, holy ****, I think I know who the final boss is, also I can't believe I am facing off against a giant organization with an army of angels and an army of desians. NEAT.

[Oh, and not to mention.... usually there's a lot of significant dialogue that you don't know is significant when you're first playing, because you don't know the whole story behind why things appear as they do vs. how they actually are. So one of the reasons I don't mind re-playing games like ToS where some argue "the plot doesn't start until 15 hours in" is that in those first 15 hours, there is a lot of content that you miss the first time around when you don't actually know what's going on. I love the first part of ToS because there's a lot of REALLY INTERESTING foreshadowing, etc, that is given an entirely new context once you know the full, real story. There's a lot hidden there; it's not as though the first part of the game is entirely divorced from the rest.]

Posted: Mon Oct 03, 2016 6:29 pm
by Marilink
I'm certainly on board with big, hard-hitting, unpredictable plot reveals. And I don't necessarily think the placement of that reveal is a bad one. I think my main gripe is that the carrot dangled to get you there isn't really compelling enough.

You're right about the beginning of the game having a lot of significance later on, with tons of foreshadowing. The payoff wouldn't be as awesome if you didn't have that false understanding of what was going on. But in the case of TOS, the World Regeneration was just a little too cursory and rote for my taste. I dunno.

Posted: Mon Oct 03, 2016 6:59 pm
by Apollo the Just
That's fair. I'm afraid I disagree, since the whole thing seems "cursory and rote" because it literally is a contrived ritual meant for a purpose far removed from what you see at the time, which isn't revealed until much later. That's kind of the point, as I see it.

Not to mention that when I was playing this game the first time, even though it wasn't my favorite part of the game (noT ENOUGH ANGST YET), I still thoroughly loved it - it never felt like a chore to play. I wanted to know what happened next, what would happen to Colette, where the journey would take us. Honestly, if a game ever starts feeling like you're progressing for the sake of progressing, you're probably better off playing something else which you will love. Games are supposed to be fun. It's not as though ToS becomes an entirely different experience after the reveal(s), so if you didn't particularly enjoy the beginning you probably won't super enjoy the rest of it. No harm in putting something down which doesn't appeal to you; tastes differ after all.

[[Disclaimer: I don't intend to put any words in your mouth about your enjoyment of the game, and I'm certainly not saying you can't be critical of games you play, but I just hope you're not feeling like you are resigned to put up with the "bad" parts of the game to get to the "good" parts of the game, because if that's how you feel I'm just afraid you'll spend it mostly dissatisfied and underwhelmed... in which case you might be better off playing something that appeals to your tastes / which will actually be fun for you.]]


e: sorry ML. I still have an inability to let anyone say bad stuff about ToS ever without getting salty. No criticisms allowed. ((This hasn't changed about me whatsoever over the course of the last 10 years.))

Posted: Mon Oct 03, 2016 8:03 pm
by Marilink
don't get me wrong, I'm thoroughly enjoying this game, and I know I enjoyed it my first time through as well!

Posted: Thu Oct 06, 2016 4:03 pm
by Marilink
Btw, just finished the game and really enjoyed your first post. I look forward to more!

P.S. Sheena is best girl