Magical Mondays: Dawn of the New World and A Different Brand of Magic

I wanted my first Magical Mondays to be some closer look at a magical system that I’ve come to know well over the years. I wanted my first one of these posts to be about… well, magic. And this is still about magic, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not the flashy kind of magic—not the kind of magic where I can set fire to a pile of hay with a flick of my hand, or the kind of magic where I would be able to manipulate your thoughts in a certain way. This is the kind of magic that wriggles into your head and sits there, making you wonder if this magic is actually plausible or if it was just terrible writing or bad translation on the source’s part. For those that have played Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World, you probably have a pretty good idea of what I’m talking about, but for those who are unfamiliar, allow the main antagonist, Richter Abend, tell you what I mean.

Yes. This stupid sentence—“courage is the magic that turns dreams into reality”—is what has been bothering me. In general, it’s obvious that this is meant as a platitude in the same vein as “you can do anything you put your mind to”. Many games have the same sort of one-liner that gives you the theme or driving force of the game and its characters. Yet the difference between those games and New World is while in other games this theme may be stated once or implied, in Dawn of the New World this sentence is repeated over and over and over again, so much so that the sentence has become a meme in the Tales of community. With so much repetition, the sentence becomes more than a theme; it’s so prevalent that it’s as if the writers want their audience to take it literally. So fine, let’s see how courage is utilized as a magical device within the game, or if it’s even used at all.

Dawn of the New World stars two main characters, Emil and Marta, who embark on a mission to restore balance to the world after the events of the first game. However, Marta is being chased by a well-equipped military black-ops team (or its medieval-ish equivalent) and Emil, who has been emotionally and physically abused his entire life, has no idea what he’s doing in terms of protecting himself from both military and magical forces. Unsurprisingly, Emil wants his life to change for the better, so when faced with the decision to stay in his hometown or embark on a journey with Marta, one of the only people who had ever shown him kindness, he takes his first step on that magical journey of courage and ventures off into unknown lands with this mysterious girl. This happens within the first twenty minutes of the game. Now, that might not seem like a lot, and for a Tales game that could easily rack up 100+ hours of total gameplay easily twenty minutes is nothing, but Dawn of the New World is incredibly short. Especially for a Tales game. What this means is that given its roughly forty hour storylength, the narrative is not given enough time to explain itself. What this also means is this beginning scene is really the only scene I can consider to show Emil asserting his true courage—since he’s the one the infamous line is intended for, he’s really the only one I’m judging it by. And by the parameters we’re given, I guess it fulfills what we’ve been promised. Gathering his courage for that one moment, Emil experiences his dream of being respected and valued. However, the narrative itself completely ruins any victory the audience can gather from this. Why? Well… because of magic. Actual magic.

Tales of Symphonia 2 BannerAfter this one scene, Emil devotes himself to becoming a “Knight of Ratatosk”, so named for the spirit they must awaken to bring the balance they seek. Doing so makes him stronger, but only because when faced with a dangerous situation he can’t overcome or a tough decision he can’t handle, Emil is taken over by another personality. This other personality is revealed to actually be Ratatosk, as opposed to awakening some latent, more violent side of Emil. So while Emil did take the first step with his courage to escape his previous situation, the inclusion of Ratatosk completely halts whatever magic the courage was giving him by stripping Emil of his agency and making the story more about the spirit than the boy.

Then, to make the story even more confusing and its theme even less important, at the end we discover that Emil isn’t actually who we think he is. Emil had actually been a vessel for Ratatosk the entire time, his form based off a boy that Ratatosk had killed previously. Given this information, Emil’s decision at the beginning of the game could, in fact, be written off as him not being able to refuse going along with Marta: even if he didn’t fully remember who he actually was, Emil would still be compelled to go with her, not because of any courage, but because he subconsciously knew she held the best chance for his (Ratatosk’s) revival.

We've been lied to! Having red eyes really does indicate strength!

We’ve been lied to! Apparently red eyes really do indicate strength!

At the end of the game, both the Emil and Ratatosk personalities try to sacrifice themselves so the world will achieve balance. Again, even though Emil’s agency has already been destroyed, this could be seen as another act of courage. And again, the significance that could have lent credence to courage being magic is thrown out the window by its own narrative. You see, Dawn of the New World is a game with multiple endings. That means Emil’s/Ratatosk’s sacrifice could end up saving the world and giving Emil that better life, or not meaning a damn thing depending on what choices you made in the game previously.

Dawn of the New World desperately wants its audience to believe that courage is the magic that makes the world better, but it does everything in its power to stop its own message. The game was apparently rushed out the door to bank on the success of the first Tales of Symphonia game, so the rushed story and hurried plot points are understandable. No matter how understandable, however, repeating a line over and over again doesn’t make it true, nor does it make the audience believe in it any more. In terms of Dawn of the New World, courage was no magical catalyst that gave Emil the power to achieve his dreams: it’s a failing that I will probably be bitter about as long as Richter’s words haunt my mind.