[Note from Dustin: We’ve got a special guest writer this week – Florencia Minuzzi from teawithflo.com. She also happens to be my partner in a new game design venture. As a writer, I felt she was more qualified to step up and talk about today’s topic: creating resonance between the player and the main character of a narrative game. Nothing is really spoiled beyond the first few minutes of the game, but if you prefer to play knowing nothing, then you’ve been warned. I’ll leave the rest to her.]
Thanks for the introduction, and for having me on the blog. Let’s jump right in.
After the anime-style opening and a few initial cut scenes to show me who the two main characters are, Tales of Xillia asked me whose journey I would like to follow.
I’m not going to lie. I knew the choice was coming, and I knew I wanted to try Milla Maxwell. She seemed more intriguing, and I know from being a fan of the Tales series what the Maxwell name might mean. Now that I’m at the end of her playthrough I’m more than happy about the choice I made for one main reason: I felt in sync with Milla for the entire game.
As her name implies, Milla is this Tales’ Maxwell (Lord of the Four Elements and Ruler of Spirits). This gives her a more removed perspective, where she sees the characters as ‘cute humans’ she enjoys observing and protecting. This mirrors the player’s perspective, where we watch with interest as the new characters are introduced, but not really feeling a connection to them from the get-go. Instead, Milla and the player are waiting for the other characters to prove themselves, to show what they can add to the party, rather than just assuming that everyone should team up and play along.
Her outlook is similar with regards to the world. Just like the player, Milla hasn’t experienced most of Rieze Maxia, the world Xillia takes place in. Rather than being shocked by everything, or pretend that she knows everything, Milla approaches the world with an open, curious mind, both absorbing the world around her and learning from the other characters. In the same way, the player slowly experiences the world and characters of the game, and both become more endearing as time passes.
A very palatable aspect of Milla’s journey is a more subtle and mature story arc than that of your typical main character (at least as far as Tales games go). She has a very strong goal which she follows at all times, whether other characters are there to help or not. Being older and more removed from the world she has fewer moments of self-doubt, and what doubts she might find in herself she uses to ensure she is doing the right thing, and continues moving forward. [Note from Dustin: And Milla manages to embody ‘Mature’ without being a gruff military veteran with a haunted past, always a plus.]
As a player, it was a relief to watch her follow her ideals, even when other characters were expressing doubt, and leading them to strengthen their resolve. How many times have we had to sit through a character’s agonizing speech asking why they are the ones chosen to carry the burden of saving the world, or why they must fight people they would rather not? All the while the player is shaking their head, knowing that the outcome isn’t going to change, so the character may as well get it over with sooner rather than later. After all, they’re just giving the bad guy(s) a chance to burn more small, inconsequential villages in the meantime.
Now, I don’t think everyone will necessarily relate to this point of view. I’ve called Milla’s outlook removed, and while that mirrors my outlook as a gamer, it isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. But to me, Milla was more my avatar than any of my Skyrim custom-made characters. I felt that I could leave the story to her, and she would be sensible and do what I would do in her place.
Someone is trying to escape but the party is too distracted to notice? Yep, there she goes, through the door in the blink of an eye. Something feels obvious to the player? Ah, it would seem that Milla has also noticed, and dealt with it before it became an issue. There was a certain feeling of being in sync with the main character that allowed me to enjoy the story without bashing my face against the screen, telling everyone to just talk things through, or whatever other things get shouted at video game characters on a regular basis.
Although this is even less objective, there were a few other things I personally liked about Milla. It isn’t often that a game gives me a strong, likeable female character I can relate to, and this isn’t diminished in the slightest by Milla only being a co-main character. This way, the people who feel they would appreciate Jude’s coming-of-age or hero’s journey can play as him, without anyone else having to make sacrifices.
The other point is that Milla is very fun to play. The Tales games keep switching up the battle mechanics, and in Milla they created a highly mobile aerial swordswoman with both close range sword techniques and magic, and well as standard second-long cast spells. The only thing she’s missing is healing, but I’m happy for the rest of the team to help (they all have at least one arte that can heal). There’s probably some kind of metaphor about her still needing the support of others, but I’ll leave that for some other time.
All Beginnings Must End
While I’ve rambled on, I hope I’ve expressed the reasons why I enjoyed playing as Milla, and the kinds of things one can think about when making an interesting, relatable main character. Start by thinking about the audience and making a character that is in a similar situation to theirs, one who doesn’t frustrate them with miscommunication or get sidetracked when the player just wants to continue with the story. If the character has their own, consistent reasons for acting the way they do and it doesn’t feel like an excuse to explore/save the world, and can represent a point of view that doesn’t often appear in other games, then all the better. When all the boxes are ticked the character can be its own interesting entity while still allowing the player to fall into their role – the best of both worlds. Have you been through Milla or Jude’s playthrough yet? Did you feel any kind of special connection, or was this just another JRPG in your list? Let me know in the comments.
Thanks again to Florencia, and thanks to you for reading.