I have seen a lot of varied opinions and articles about how the antagonists in Tales of Arise did not have enough screen time or any kind of backstory to justify their actions. While this kind of criticism is somewhat understandable, based on the stereotypical villains we all see in Anime and TV shows, I would like to argue here that actually showing more of them defeats the purpose of the story and the very thing it stands for, which is free thinking.
Tales of Arise is now available on PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One and PC. This article contains Spoilers for the whole game.
Ambiguity and Mystery in Japanese Culture
Before I delve into what the game is about, I need to address a bit how the Japanese mind works. In the Japanese language there is an integrated and overabundant concept in many words that can be summarized in the word Aimai (曖昧 ambiguity). Aimai is a state in which there is more than one intended meaning to each word, resulting in obscurity, indistinctness and uncertainty.
Many Japanese writers are often selective about the words they choose because it can imply more than one meaning they want to convey, and at the same time they leave some stuff unsaid or uncertain to encourage the readers to think more about what’s missing and come up with their own answers. This is also a part of why the Mystery/Honkaku genre is currently thriving in japan, because it works really well with their mentality of leaving things mysterious and vague on purpose.
A Slave to the Mind and a Reason to Live
The first thing we learn in Tales of Arise is about getting out of the slave mindset. Of course a lot of Dahna inhabitants are subjected to unjustified racism and slavery, but at the same time the story argues that there are many who does not want to think for themselves even if there is no oppression of any kind. They are very self-absorbed in their own misery and do not want to face the bigger picture, or wonder if there is any other possibility for them to live true to their themselves.
Not only do the inhabitants of Dahna feel like that, but even the Renans as well. They were born into a society that encourages the fight for solitude and power, and many of them are naturally aggregated under one lord or another. They don’t think much about these things came to be, or weather they are stepping on the lives of other people unconsciously in this predetermined system by some force they are not even aware of.
In that regard, no one is really different from each other, despite being born in different circumstances and class systems, ignorance is the same across all realms. Of course all of this is reflected in our cast members as well, who are suffering from what they do not know as much as what they already know. A big part of the story’s charm lies in deliberating over the unknown and making your own decisions and your own truth regardless of where the actual truth lies.
The Barrier of Knowledge in Tales of Arise
I would argue that adding more depth to the villains is right approach only if the game isn’t already aware of that. The most important topic in this game is not defeating some great evil ruler after listening to their overdramatic stories and ambitions. The main antagonistic forces the players have to defeat are themselves, their feelings of prejudice and hatred they hold in their hearts, and the past they are unable to move from no matter what happens.
This is why the cast members are always in debates and discussions over every aspect of the journey and everyone they meet. Many of them try to wonder and theorize not about not the character of the lord, but their influence over every aspect of the main five cities and their political structure. They know that they don’t know or don’t have the answers to everything, but since they learned that they need to come up with some satisfactory conclusions instead of waiting for them, they don’t obsess over not having knowledge.
The ambiguity is what made all of this possible. Not knowing can lead one to be lost in doubts and fears and self pity, but at the same time, our lives is not defined through the struggles we face, but how we overcome them. In reality, not everyone is going to behave in a convenient manner for you, and tell you their life story every time you meet. You have to build your own character and expand your horizons about how other people are living different lives, and weather they are actually that much different from you or not.
The Mirror of the Heart: Forgiveness and Maturity
That’s why I think none of the lords actually deserve more than what they got in Tales of Arise, especially Vholran. You already understood that he was not made into a lord by his own devices from discovering the truth behind Alphen’s past, and you touched a bit on how a lonely heart can get enclosed and hostile to any form of communication from travelling with Shionne. You might disagree with someone people, but it doesn’t mean they hate you because you are different, and that’s what Law had to learn.
You can see how the Renan system of rulership can cause discord and internal distress from the eyes of Dolhaim. It’s not farfetched that many lords have had to make sacrifices like him, and kill people who are dear to them for the sake of the goal they were raised to pursue. You already know how Renans can live blindly in bliss without thinking more about how right or wrong the system really is from Kisara, who was literally as blind as them all her life because of living in a false dream of equality and idealism.
As for Rinwell, her situation was a carefully planned foreshadowing to the irony of everything in the story. She thinks renans are incapable of rational empathy just because they are renans, and took a lot of time to open up the fact that not all renans are equal, only to find out that renans were originally dahnas and there isn’t much racial difference between both parties, hence there was no reason to hate a renan because they were born a renan without their choice, and it’s all because she didn’t want to face her traumatic past with a healthy approach.
Tales of Arise: A Story about the True You
All of that means you have no excuse, or no reason to not emphasize with the lords or understand them. Even after spending 30 hours with Tales of Arise the story still hands you new information and new perspectives about them and forces you to think more about your past actions and regret the things you could have done when you had the chance, and that’s why in the end Alphen forgives Vholran. It needs no words because simply they are the same in everyway after everything they have been through.
The main difference is Alphen decide from the start to think for himself, and see the world for what it is, yet remain true to his ideals and treat other people as they deserve, and not for how he wishes them to be. Of course the friends he met along the way and the experiences they shared were a big pillar of support for him, and he got lost in despair at some point, but the first main decision he learned from his mentor Zephyr still rings true during the entire story, and that’s in my opinion how the players should address the story as well.
The story of Tales of Arise is about extensive discussion and self exploration to all aspects of our life in a structured system. Any kind of written past will be detrimental to this direction, and honestly not very needed because the cast members acknowledge their limited knowledge, theorize and make decisions about how they should grow beyond the who they are, and how they should understand others no matter how little they know about them, because knowing yourself can be the greatest goal to strive for, and in my opinion, more than enough for the story and for our lives in general.