Turning the Tables in Tales of Symphonia: The Impact of Shifting the Player’s Perspective

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IGN recently put up a preview of Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World, a direct sequel to the Gamecube RPG. What caught my eye was this brief description of the plot. “One day Emil hears a calling and follows it into the mountains, where he meets Marta Lualdi, a 15-year-old tomboy whose mother was also killed in the unification of the two worlds. In a surprise twist, the characters learn that it was Lloyd Irving who was indirectly responsible for the deaths of their loved ones.”

Lloyd was the protagonist of the previous game, and who I most often chose as my primary character. What’s most interesting to me is that the two main characters of the new game want to hunt down Lloyd, the hero of the first game. I have yet to personally play a game that switches character perspective like this, forcing you to view the hero you once identified with as the antagonist, at least temporarily. However, I predict that there won’t be a deadly confrontation between Lloyd, Emil, and Marta, but one can always hope.

The only game I know of that does a similar perspective shift is Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn for the Wii, which Stephen Totilo wrote about on the MTV Multiplayer blog. He even compares the “moral quandaries” of Radiant Dawn to the critics’ darling Bioshock. In the strategy game, you spend many hours leveling up a certain group of characters. Later, you are in control of the heroes from the previous Fire Emblem game, and your enemies have become the characters you just finished strengthening and getting to know. That’s quite a surprise, and I wish I didn’t know about it, because I would like to play both of those games someday. Luckily, if you are patient and careful, you can combine those two forces without losing any characters.

Gamers often loudly complain about derivative, predictable stories in video games, and rightly so. I think there is no more powerful feeling than having your expectations denied, whether it’s through video games, movies, or just daily life. Why do I not expect Lloyd and Emil to battle to the death in Tales? Because based on my knowledge of both the Tales series and RPGs in general, the most likely scenario is that they will come to understand each other and join forces against a greater evil. Nonetheless, I would still love to see a cel-shaded fight to the death.

This issue raises some interesting questions. How should I feel about Lloyd when I’m now playing as a character searching for him to seek revenge? Do I accept the new perspective, or bluntly maintain that Lloyd is a hero and has done no wrong? More games should cause the player to question the motivations of the characters in the story, as well as our own motivations in playing the game. This perspective shift could work really well as a tool to surprise gamers and escape from tired narrative cliches. It also denies your expectations about what might happen, particularly in a game that’s typical of its own genre. I hope more developers follow these two examples, and take these changes even further.

I would love to hear some more examples of games with similar changes of perspective. What games have you played that turn the tables on you like Fire Emblem or Tales of Symphonia? How did that make you feel as a player who’s emotionally engaged in the game? I personally look forward to being more surprised by video game narratives in the future.

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