Tales of Symphonia: Game or Story?



Caption: Gorgeous 2 minute opening!


About 35 hours later, I (and my roommate, but mostly me) have completed the first of two discs for Tales of Symphonia. Aside from Pokemon, this is the longest game I have ever played. It is originally for the Nintendo GameCube (though was eventually made for the PlayStation 3) and is part of a series known as the Tales Series. It’s an anime-style RPG where, like how I understand most other RPG’s to be, you’re given a series of missions as the game progresses, you fight enemies, level up and customize your characters, and accomplish the missions. This was a new gaming experience for me and I’m not sure what I think about it. What I can say for sure is that I discovered very quickly how much this particular RPG relies on plot, that the characters are incredibly well-developed, and that the gameplay gets really repetitive.


Before I started playing, my roommate said “when you play Tales of Symphonia, you live for the cut scenes.” That may be true for her, but considering there are only two short cut scenes in the first 35 hours of gameplay, I found this to be untrue for me. No, what makes this game so compelling is the plotline. It’s the equivalent of reading a book with an amazing story, but you can’t read it all in one sitting because you actually have other things to do. I don’t mean this only in terms of the fact that I can’t sit there and play it for hours on end because of homework and other external activities, but also because of the gameplay. There were times when I did enjoy walking around Sylvrant or Tethe’alla (the two worlds in the game) battling various monsters, and it’s kind of nice because they’re represented on the map rather than invisible like they were in the Final Fantasy game we played. You can choose to avoid some and some choose to avoid you.

Most of the time, however, I found myself annoyed with the gameplay and wanted to get back to the story more than anything else. I’ll give the best brief summary I can without giving away any major plot twists (because, trust me, there are a lot and I’m not even finished yet). Basically, there are two worlds, Sylvrant and Tethe’alla. They’re separate worlds in a sense, but when one world is in devastation, the other one thrives. In each world, a Chosen is born, and the Chosen in the deteriorating world goes on a journey to awaken the goddess Martel. The game begins with Colette as Sylvrant’s Chosen, but the main character is actually her best friend, Lloyd Irving. She, with the help of Lloyd and a few other characters, is the first Chosen to complete the task, but, if you haven’t already guessed, things don’t go as planned. If you would like to know more about it, click here. This all said, I want to move into a discussion on what Tales of Symphonia actually is. Before this class, I would have been satisfied with calling it a game hands down, but now I’ve questioned it. It seems to me that this RPG is just a slightly advanced and visually interactive mode for storytelling. From my understanding, most of them have pretty generic gameplay. What makes them different, though, is the story and the plot. I almost want to call it interactive fiction rather than a game, but I really can’t deny that there is gameplay: the battling, the puzzles to get in and out of buildings, and some other small things. But the gameplay doesn’t affect the outcome. Even though I haven’t finished it yet, I may have taken a look at the ending. The outcome is based on the character’s relationships. How do you control that? Well, for instance, there are circular “shinies,” as my roommate and I term them, that, as a character, you can decide to enter or not enter. If you enter them, it begins a confrontation between two characters and gives you a choice on how respond.

"Shiny" Talk
“Shiny” Talk

So if my character Lloyd was given the option to talk to Colette and it seemed like something was bothering her, I could have the option of asking her what’s wrong or leaving her alone. In that way, if you took out all the gameplay and made it a game designed like Depression Quest, or made it a text adventure, it would sort of be the same thing, or it could have the same endings, at the very least.


Anyways, I decided to look for articles about RPG’s and found “Roleplaying Games vs Storytelling Games“.  He makes an argument here that roleplaying games are based on associated mechanics, which he defines as any action that is made as the character.  So choosing choosing how to proceed from entering into a shiny, when given an option on how to respond, is an associated mechanic and therefore is role-playing.  Storytelling games are based on disassociated mechanics, which he describes as mechanics that control the narrative.  Well… shinies do that, too.  He explains that it gets fuzzy.


Whether there’s a distinction or not, I do know that I view Tales as a game with more story than game.


Update: So I just finished the game.  It was about 43 hours of gameplay without any side quests.  Just so you know, though, if you want to complete the game in total total, it takes about 217 hours minimum.  That’s completely bizarre and unimaginable to me.  Anyways, now that I’ve finished, I was able to look it up in more detail.  I found out that I misunderstood the alternate ending: the ending does not change.  It will always end the same way, and therefore the narration remains the same.  However, the character relationships do still kind of matter if the player cares about it.  You have the option of avoiding/turning away certain characters, becoming closer with certain characters, and in one case (I won’t name names), how you act toward this character determines whether they betray you and die or not. According to the author of the above essay, it is a role-playing game: you play the role of your character in terms of how you choose to treat others, which is very interesting.  My new conclusion is that I understand why it is considered an RPG, though that still doesn’t change my personal opinion that it is more story, and now I think even more so, because, well, there’s almost nothing more important in a story than characters and their relationships.


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