Trails in the Heart
Trails in the Sky series has a one overarching theme: Everyone deserves a second chance and can achieve to be a better person. This is supported by three pillars: unyielding optimism, collective achievement that is born from genuine faith and solidarity of people, and the game’s ability to go truly dark without feeling edgy or making the narrative feel too grim And the game excels at this so well that if told without context you wouldn’t even probably believe those moments are from the same game. Let’s have a deeper look at game’s main narrative themes, how it is able to keep an emotional balance throughout story and what really communicates to me personally Obviously I will give away minor spoilers but I will avoid giving away very specific details and twists. And my focus is once again is on the first two games.
Obviously, redemption comes with an inherent belief of people choosing to do good, but optimism in Trails in The Sky is not just implied, it is vowen into the every part of the universe, such a degree that makes most far-fetched things seem reasonable.
The optimism is reflected in the protagonist herself, Estelle Bright, even signified in her name. She is a pretty much optimistic-energetic-girl archetype, but the writing carries this so well, her character becomes completely relatable and admirable. She carries the theme of hope and redemption all by herself, and is succesful at making people around her happy, succesful at making other’s find their good sides; exactly because of her naive beliefs. Modern narratives love to torment such characters and make them more jaded, but here, no matter how much dirt is thrown at her, and a lot of dirt is thrown at her as time goes on, she is always bright. Willing suspension of disbelief rarely becomes that literally willing, because even most pessimistic among us wants to believe, at some deep level, there is a possibility of better things. Playing archetypes straight until to point they became endearing is one of the greatest strengths of the Trails writing. A literal beacon of hope becomes a fully fledged character, as the game never shies away from evil, the ugly realities and complexities of reality, yet the ideal is also always reachable. Dawn always follows the darkness.
Sincerely Good Church
Anti religious themes are pretty common in RPGs and it makes sense considering the main audience and makers of these games. The corruption, the fanaticism, the outdatedness, the inherent abuse in a strong hierarchical organization like the Church, gods being jerks, rebellion all are well established narratives. Trails in the Sky is unique in it’s depiction of religion, not only it is a mostly force of good, but also avoids implicit endorsement of its stinky parts. Septian Church, the dominant religious organization in the game is like, even better than how most religious organizations wants to be seen in people’s eyes.
- Despite being the dominant religion, no intolerance towards minority religions is to be seen. Even full syncretism is fully welcome, and when the lack of existence of a religious war at lore is taken into account, it can be safely assumed the religion is at least has spread mostly peacefully across the continent of Zemuria.
- Priests mostly are sincerely fatherly and wise, less interested in how an individual lives their religion and more in spiritual guidance and help.
- “Heresy” is not about mere theological disagreements, it is only reserved to genuinely evil magic and wanting to reach to divine power, which is proven to be dangerous to the very core of the world itself. The only character that called “a heretic” so far is also the most irredeemable character the series.
- The doors of the churches are open to everyone and people just pray at their own accord, no pressure from their community or an inherent guilt tripping in their religion.
- The church is sincerely helpful to people. Handling the early education, medicine, a support network in times of crisis, uses it’s influence to peace between nations.
- While being fairly rich, being somewhat secretive and having much cultural and social influence, they strictly don’t hold, nor aspire for any political power. What makes this really idealist is that this doesn’t stem from a history of secularization like in real world — quite the opposite, by the start of the game their actions in their recent wars actually increased their influence — they are just plain not interested in anything besides advocacy of peace and possesion of dangerous artifacts whatsoever.
- Unsurprisingly the only difference between a pious person and less pious person is how often they attend prayers or how much they mention Goddess in their speech. religious conservatism doesn’t exist here. The Church is not interested adherence of strict gender roles, how people dress, how much beverage they drink or even homosexuality in any way. On the other hand, there are no characters that dislike religion either, everyone is just chill about it in general.
The Septian Church is a representative of how series treat politics in general. An optimistic liberal view of the world but not from compliance to status quo or ignorance to structural issues, but an inherent trust individuals to overcome this issues with solidarity and giving people a chance. In fact, if it took its observation to the neccesary conclusions and didn’t rely on individual ethics that much, the game could be much radical.
But the series chooses to fully stay commited to redemption, and ends up being painting a profoundly liberal world. Liberalism is dominant political system so it’s not surprising that so many works just accepts it and this usually just makes me roll my eyes, but here it doesn’t feel ignorant, just naive and hopeful about power of people, because liberalism in the game is actually good at realising its ideals.
For example, Liberl is ruled by a constitutional monarchy but this doesn’t create a systematic problem. Royal family are just good people who work hard for their nation and become an image of solidarity, and not in usual in-the-blood nonsense, they have the environment to be good, game points out, and they become good, even the more jerkish ones among them becomes better in time. The royalty are never too unapproachable, always having humility and grace.
Let’s contrast this with another story that has an idealist depiction of a monarchy, The Lord of The Rings. The lore of Tolkien shares the same ideal of selfless monarch but its kingdoms are destroyed by the strife that monarchies are naturally bound to. Tolkien accepts the problems in monarchy but still insists on his ideal somehow, effectively breaking his own ideal. Trails in the Sky doesn’t fall into that, its main assertion of individual goodness results in acceptance of monarchy. The game is more idealistic about humans than any system itself and the setting happens to have monarchy as the system.
This is best seen in economics. The game’s great technological breaktrough, Orbal revolution is an idealistic version of the Industrial Revoultion. Orbal energy is much more efficient, capable and clean than anything in real world, the technological progress of two centuries is achieved in merely couple of decades, even sometimes more advanced than our world despite dominant early 20th century aesthetics. We never see any harsh worker conditions, sure some people are richer than others, but we never see true lifelong poverty, most people are able to afford a decent life. The good capitalism myth truly is actually realized here.
I mentioned a few paragraphs earlier that, the story could be easily more radical. We can see for example Bracers Guild being mostly horizontally organized. There is no singular upwards organization, there are different ranks you can get sure but, you don’t really gain any real administrative power, you will just get more difficult tasks and your personal feats will be recognized. Local chapters are interconnected but autonomous, overall no one is truly coerced into do something in there. Similarly, the main factory in the Zeiss city has a traditional organization nominally but it’s far more relaxed, works for genuine advancement of humanity over profit and has well ethical standards. What I am getting at is, with even slightly more radical outlook and slight tweaks, Liberl could be easily written as a socialist utopia, because it believes in collective achievement as much as individual goodness. This is why it makes me slightly sad in retrospective but at the same time I can’t get angry at developers: As I said in the monarchy section, the game doesn’t really assert system of capitalism as an ideal, nor says religion in itself is good or bad, but just takes this as a given and believes humans can achieve good, if they just believe in each other any system can be good. Personally I find this type of idealism endearing, and it also serves the game themes well.
The main thing that makes this idealism endearing is the games’ emphasis on collective effort and reward, which is rare among RPGs and even games in general. Power of friendship is a commonly used trope but here it’s taken one step further: the power of solidarity, solidarity of not only your party, but your entire organization, everyone you know and even entire country at large. This achieves a few important things.
- First, it gives your accomplishments a sense of weight, and makes non playable characters feel fleshed out, as I talked more about it here.
- Second, it really makes overall peacefulness of the game more grounded. This is best seen in the cliché of being able to walk into people’s houses freely, it totally makes sense here; you aren’t taking anything anyway and people don’t have much reason to distrust each other. Liberl is, overall a peaceful country. I mean, even its aristocracy relinquished their titles peacefully. This also achieves so that when the game becomes more darker, it’s disruption is seen more directly, in the same way a stain on a bright white cloth attracts more attention than large amount of dirt on a pale-gray one.
- Third, it is really what sells the narrative of the game. No matter how lighthearted, even cheesy the game can come across, inherent belief in people makes its optimism grounded and even realistic. It’s easy to get idealistic when your game revolves around only few characters and when you can look at isolated cases which is deliberately built to make player think in a certain way. But by taking it’s optimism into a real source we can both relate and continuously search in our everyday lives, people. When people stand together every crisis can be solved, any adversary can be defeated, no matter how mysteriously and inhumanly strong they are.
Mixing Up Dark and Light
All this is well and good, but you need sins to redeem from to talk about redemption. Despite how optimistic the game is overall, when the game takes its own gloves, it really does get dirty, on a vey personal level, without any shock value from graphics, just through character’s deeply relatable issues. How well the game is able to play with your mood, and how it can talk about child abuse realistically and make you read a book about how to talk to cats in the same game is achieved in following ways:
- Gameplay rhythm. Dungeon exploration+battle/story/some quest cycle really gives a breather room to the events. The pacing of narrative is just dense enough to give you tension and relaxed enough to fit to gameplay speed and give place to warm, funny, wacky side events.
- Relatedly, the progression of events also fits the change of moods. The game starts very humbly, as a very low-tension adventure which might feel slow to some players, but how the game increases the tension is important to achieve an emotional balance and keep the optimistic air, and when you stay around enough to game becoming truly serious, it will pay all the more because you spend so much time with characters, twists feel all that impactful when the game made you use to the peaceful atmosphere, your adventure feels truly grand when you actually went to your more low-key everyday life.
- This combines with good character writing, and especially good minor NPC writing, it really feels good, as if you are in a slice-of-life story sometimes, great adventures are cool and all but, sometimes personal stories even small anecdotes can feel tingle your heart-strings. Sometimes you just want to laugh and cry alongside them. Even saving a country can feel just a part of witnessing character’s lives rather than “main important thing”
- The length of the game also contribute to this. Personally I like dense, to-the-point stories quite a lot, content-oriented narrative design in contemporary gaming started to feel old when I spent 300+ hours on Skyrim. But here, extra content feels all the better, not only Liberl is a nice place to be in and the characters are interesting enough to spend more time with them, everything you do feels so integrated, from gameplay, to quests. Also the harmony between different elements in the game makes everything you do much more connected and less just for the sake of game, or even worse, for padding. It’s really delightful to see that the developers actually respected to the players’ time and were careful to make your every action meaningful whether that action is slaying snails, talking to a minor NPCs in a house, fishing mini-game or uncovering a massive conspiracy. Trails games are one of the few series that is so long — each passes 60+ hours — and are deserving of the every single of hours they demand.
- Of course, we can never discount music. The soundtrack truly excels at guiding your mood, as I talk about it here.
The End of The Arc
These three main pillars serve to really serve to make all the redemption arcs (the two gamse as a whole are a large redemption arc, will just throw that one out) effective, rewarding and warm. And in turn, the importance given to redemption feeds into the optimism itself, rather than relying on “inner good” or “inner evil”, the game values being better over anything else, which also really ups the quality of character writing; the characters are really the product of their environments as much as their inner personalities. This is above all else, what makes the game truly uplifting. At its core, Trails in The Sky series is a long poem to praise the human heart.
When you want explore the human society and still come of as idealistic, how can you achieve it? Most media will just lean on status-quo, which makes either their exploration or their idealism superfluous. So the other path is embracing ugliness in its totality, like in A Song of Ice and Fire series, and still be careful to not to give in cynicism and overall be hopeful about change. But, as we saw here you can make your narrative shine like the sun and still keep your vision open. Trails in the Sky might not have the sharpest political commentary, but it makes you feel good, it makes you hopeful. This fundamental feelings often miss today when so much of media devotes themselves to “greater” issues, genuine warmness is just as much as art as deep ideas, and one a lot of people needs more.