Magical Mondays: The Stagnation of Undine in Modern Tales Games

There are certain trends in media we’ve just become accustomed to over time, certain standards that become shorthand and we, as consumers, are either confused or intrigued when the media deviates or subverts from them. As a consumer of JRPGs, one of these staples for me is summon spirits.

Whether or not the group of main characters has a de facto summoner, it’s not uncommon to see the powerful, mythical beings called in to aid the protagonists with their unfathomable powers. Unsurprisingly, they typically take powers from the common elements—earth, fire, air, and water—while adding a few more esoteric ones such as light, darkness, and matter. I always look forward to seeing how these games try to put a new spin on these elements as well as the characters who personify them, but I can’t help but feel that some summon spirits end up stale in terms of direction. Namely, the summon spirit of water synonymous with the Tales series, Undine.

Tales of Vesperia UndineWhether you pronounce it oon-dee-nee, oon-dine, or some other way, the image that’s ingrained into the Tales’s fan’s psyche is a blue skinned humanoid woman with a trident. Really, this isn’t terrible symbology of the element of water, but after seeing water represented this way in so many installments, it led me to wonder why designers were so insistent on keeping with the trend. And, well, upon looking it up, I found a reason, but in my opinion, it only serves to reinforce that these writers were just being lazy.

Previously, I did a post on the mythology of sirens as they related to the similarly named race of women in the Borderlands series; I wasn’t intending on this post becoming something similar when I started it, but it turns out that game developers do more research than I do sometimes; not that they put it to much good use. In any county’s mythology, the undine don’t seem to have a particularly nice life. Taking from the Greek side specifically, the undine are derived from the Nereids, beautiful water creatures who personify the beauty and charity of the sea, who live in Poseidon’s realm. While the undines themselves are still beautiful and coded feminine, they lead much less happy lives. As it turns out, undines are born without souls and can only gain one through marriage to a human (presumably, a man). However, if her spouse is unfaithful to her, the spouse will die from the undine’s revenge, most notably stealing their breath fatally. Additionally, Celtic lore goes on to state that it is only through childbirth that the undine can gain a soul, but through gaining a human soul, she will lose her mythological powers.

Tales of Symphonia UndineFrom a more elemental point of view, again, Undine’s (the summon spirit, not the mythological creature) design is understandable since water itself is viewed as an inherently feminine element. In Indian culture, water is associated with the Hindu gods Chandra and Shukra, representing emotions/sensitivity and love/romance/sexuality respectively. While in Chinese culture and Taoism, water is seen as the element connected most closely with yin and representative of wisdom and softness.

Indeed, Undine is typically the summon spirit which bonds the others together in cooperation, such as in Tales of Vesperia where she is the one to keep the other summon spirits calm when they discover their true forms and purpose. Building on that, while Undine does have powerful magic, it’s not uncommon for her to have healing magic along with magic that damages enemies.

At the end of the day, though, the problem is that the game developers are attempting to combine all these things into one character. Usually this wouldn’t be a problem, but it’s the same combination of kindness and levelheadedness every time that makes me wonder why they chose “Undine”, specifically, in the first place. There is more than one water creature in mythology, even more than one that is feminine coded if that’s what you want. However, the interesting conflicts that could be brought on by giving a mythological creature a soul (when that creature should, mythologically, be soulless) are ignored. Not that it should be expected that a bit character—who is basically a magic spell that talks—would have this huge character arc, but out of the entire video game pantheon, Undine is typically the summon that takes the least amount of effort to recruit, and after games upon games of calm “well, you’re good people so I guess I’ll help” dialogue, it would be nice to see some level of depth or conflict to her character.

Aqua was a good start, but basically no one liked Dawn of the New World so lmao

Aqua was a nice change, but basically no one liked Dawn of the New World so lmao.

While other summon spirits, such as Ifrit, also tend to have a similar design, I still feel like there’s much more room for interesting interactions because they aren’t so written into a corner. Do I believe that Undine will be given another angle in the future? Absolutely not, but I’ll keep hoping.

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About Tsunderin

Greetings and salutations! Feel free to just call me Rin—we’re all friends here, or nemeses who just haven’t gotten to know each other well enough. I’m a video game lover from the womb to the tomb, and Bioware enthusiast until the day they stop making games with amazing characters that I cry over. And while I don’t partake as often as I used to, don’t be surprised to find me poking around an anime or manga every once in a while either. A personal interest for me is characterization in media and how women in particular have been portrayed, are being portrayed, and will be portrayed in the future. I’m not going to mince words about my opinion either.