I talk about Western games and game developers a lot on this blog, the most common one being Bioware. Despite my unwavering adoration for these companies, I admit it took a while to develop. My first love will always be the JRPG. Admittedly, from a Western American-centric mindset—which is the mindset I’m typically in—these sorts of games rarely ever come off as progressive or anything more than a fun romp through a fantasy world (with strangely religious undertones, as with my experience). Thought-provoking, sure, but not progressive. However, sometimes I’m lucky enough to find moments that give me pause and make me rethink my position of enjoying these games on a purely detached level.
Recently my brother and I started playing Tales of Xillia, the thirteenth game in the Tales series. For the most part, the game is standard fare: big bad is trying to destroy the world and our party of heroes have to stop them. One particularly interesting thing about this game, though, is that the player has the choice to decide between two protagonists, Jude and Milla. I love that NamcoBandai finally gave the option to play through the eyes of a female-presenting character while not punishing the player for choosing either of the two (everything is still accessible, some scenes are merely different due to their different perspectives). But this post isn’t about gameplay mechanics: it’s about characters!
As I’ve only just finished the first act in what looks like a five act game—I’m avoiding spoilers at all costs—I can’t speak with the wisdom of someone who’s completed the game. This won’t stop me from speaking on something that Xillia handles better than a lot of other JRPGs I’ve seen: the love triangle.
There is nothing more trite and needlessly dramatic than a love triangle, at least in its typical incarnations. Two women hating each other to further the leading man’s character arc, usually leading to the demonizing of one of the ladies involved? No thanks. It seemed like this was the path Xillia was heading toward with the introduction of the character Leia at the end of the first act. Leia is Jude’s exuberant childhood friend who is obviously in love with him, but Jude is too dense or too unwilling to comment on it. Her “rival”? The aforementioned co-protagonist, Milla. From the get-go, the game makes it abundantly clear that Jude has a massive crush on Milla and doesn’t exactly care for his old friend in a romantic sense. In all of his naiveté, he continuously speaks about how great Milla is in front of Leia. Honestly, if someone I knew wouldn’t shut up about someone, even if I didn’t have a raging crush on them, it’d get really annoying. I can’t blame Leia at all for her persistent annoyance at Jude, in this case. As you can probably surmise, it would have been ridiculous easy from here for Leia to start disdaining or even hating Milla. However, I think it speaks volumes for the character as well as the game writers that this doesn’t even cross her mind.
As much as any Tales game, or any JRPG for that matter, expounds on the virtue of friendship, Xillia tackles this from various levels. There’s always going to be that betrayal plot, or that “I don’t agree with what you’re doing, but I’ll try to understand you anyway” plot, but rarely do these types of games address such small inner party conflicts outside of small comedic skits. When a woman is jealous of another woman in the party, it usually manifests itself through conversations about bust sizes in the hot springs: definitely not the most nuanced approach. Yet no matter how obvious Leia’s jealousy is, she never considers it a fault of Milla’s. Rather, Leia works toward improving herself as a person as well as a fighter. In this journey, Leia actually relies on and learns from Milla. In the same vein, while Milla may not entirely grasp the situation, by no means does she turn Leia away. In fact, the two have a very compelling friendship and respect each other immensely. This is what a love triangle plot should be: a point in the story where two women (or people of any gender) realize their own shortcomings and work together to improve upon them, without worrying about the love interest. A scene that perfectly illustrates this happens right after Leia joins the party. Jude and Milla return to Jude’s hometown after Milla lost the use of her legs. This is because Jude is convinced his father, a skilled doctor, has a technique that can cure paralysis. There is a cure; however, it is extremely painful and requires the patient to feel the pain at all times, or as long as they wish to remain cured. Leia helps the two find the materials necessary to create the cure, despite being annoyed that she hasn’t been able to speak with her childhood friend/crush and that he keeps talking about how amazing Milla is. Once Milla is subjected to the cure, Leia realizes how strong the other woman is. All negative feelings towards Milla evaporate as Leia decides that she needs to work on becoming a stronger person herself—Milla becomes someone to look up to rather than an obstacle to overcome.
Honestly, that’s the most interesting thing: while Leia’s crush on Jude makes her realize where she could improve, it’s clear that her growth isn’t merely for the sake of catching Jude’s attention. Leia works so she can become a woman that she’s proud of, just as Milla is proud of her own abilities and traits. The romance becomes secondary, and that’s such an important thing to show.
Granted, like I said earlier I’m only about a fifth of the way into the game, but I don’t feel like this will change. These two strong women will keep encouraging each other to grow and overcome their obstacles. At least, that’s what I’m hoping. As the only two adult-aged women in the party, they’re really relying on each other for support as growing, dynamic characters as well as formidable female fighters—as shown through their end battle dialogues of Milla encouraging the less skilled Leia. I don’t want any spoilers, but I’m excited to see how their relationship matures as shit gets more real. Who knows? Maybe I’ll write another post after I finish the game, telling you if events unfolded according to my wishes. In any case, I’ll enjoy playing alongside characters that seem as done with this love triangle bullshit as I am.