Tales of Xillia: Establishing the World as More than Just a Backdrop – GUEST POST by Craig Bachoo
(Spoilers present for Tales of Xillia)
Tales of Xillia is a sci-fi fantasy Japanese role-playing game.
It was released in Japan in 2011 and brought to the west in 2013. The Playstation 3 game follows two lead protagonists, Jude Mathis and Milla Maxwell as they discover a hidden weapon central in a plot to overthrow a nation. The uncovered weapon threatens to disrupt the balance between humans and spirits, and jeopardize peace within the entire world of Rieza Maxia.
Jude and Milla’s quest take them all over Rieza Maxia, uncovering secrets and plots posing a danger to the very fabric of the world, all while encountering colorful individuals who join their efforts, and battling unique adversaries along the way. Whilst these series of events are typical for japanese role-playing games, Tales of Xillia takes an approach to its story which highlights the world as integral for the occurrence of the plot. By putting this level of detail and importance into the world of Rieza Maxia it makes the world more than just ‘a setting.’
Throughout this game the writers and developers have carefully stitched the philosophies, landmarks and cultures of this world into the fabric of the game, both in its story and gameplay. Thus, without Rieza Maxia, there would be no story for Tales of Xillia.
As a writer one may come to see there is usually an inverse relationship between plot momentum and world building. Therein, establishing lore and world building may come at the cost of slowing down the story being told. This can be seen in many fantasy stories with an ‘epic’ scope. Whilst Tales of Xillia has the benefit of being a video game, which allows the player greater control of the story’s momentum, it utilizes various techniques to reiterate the significance and uniqueness of its world at each step. These techniques can be used by writers to conciliate the loss of story momentum that comes with world building.
Utilizing the nature of the word ‘aesthetics’, a writer can create individuality by placing a greater emphasis on the minutiae of their settings. What color are the roofs on the houses? How do the people dress? What are the other structures fixated around the location? Does the rolling fields have specific rock formations, passing herds or flora? How does it smell? Achieving this descriptive world-building for most writers, may lead to meanderings in the story.
However, taking a moment to understand and realize the purpose of the setting can go a long way in preventing the writer from stalling the story’s pacing whilst narrowing on which descriptive details work best at the moment. This can lead to the avoidance of lengthy, run-on paragraphs, instead allowing for pepperings of descriptions as the story continues forward.
Tales of Xillia begins its story in the city of Fenmont where the two protagonists meet. At the beginning of his story, Jude Mathis is trying to find his teacher, Professor Haus. He attends medical school within the city and his first task lets the player take control to explore Fenmont in search of Professor Haus.
Once the player leaves the school building, they are treated to a cityscape under the blanket of perpetual night and lit by glowing trees. The entire city has a soft appeal to the eyes, with a bronze coloring to the walkways, railings and most buildings, all lined with a touch of gold. Due to it being a consistent night time, the atmosphere is mostly calm with just the quiet bustlings found in cities. This immediately stands out to the player, building intrigue as the story begins to unfold.
Following along the story, the game then brings the players to the Kijara Seafalls. Whilst this location stands between one plot point and another, it is around these parts Tales of Xillia begins to introduce the player to the concept of ‘spirit climes’, the reason for the unique characteristics of many locations. The mountainsides and rocks around the seafalls take on a turquoise and royal blue hue to the stone, omitting drab grays that are usually seen in rockwork. The stones also hold the shape of curving, pincer-like claws, all due to the spirit climes.
The captivating fixtures the player must climb through and duck under throughout the Seafalls are followed by a quiet hamlet-like location, Nia Khera. Here is a quiet vibrant green, grassland hill intercut with little streams and patches of flowers here and their. There are domed houses crafted from smoothe, vibrant woodwork where the denizens revere and worship the game’s other protagonist, Milla Maxwell.
In its opening hours, Tales of Xillia ensures that each location is as stand-out from the others as it can be.
From a visual perspective, it begins this endeavor with the use of colors. The bronze in Fenmont is lined with gold lighting; the Kijara Seafalls are bright, with optimistic blues; Nia Khera is vibrant but calm with its greens and browns. Each settlement described also hosts a population dressed distinctly in alignment with the theme and purpose of the location.
It is clockwork for writers to describe a town or city with stonework or brick houses, cobblestoned roads and the like. In the writer’s mind it is clear and distinct to them. However, that may not be the case for the reader, whereby the only distinguishing factor of one location from another, may just be the name. Hence, taking a little extra time to plan, in addition to identifying the purpose of the location can aid the writer in creating something stand-out.
INTEGRATE YOUR CHARACTERS WITH THE WORLD
Much like other jrpgs, Tales of Xillia, hosts a cast of diverse and layered characters throughout its journey. In the beginning of the story Jude and Milla encounter a mysterious mercenary, Alvin who had been secretly following them for a short time. Soon afterward, the trio rescues Elize, a strong mage girl previously sequestered in a basement for much of her recent life.
Whilst in typical adventure stories it is common for the main character to encounter the supporting cast as he ventures to new locations, and the characters all become single-mindedly plot driven, this creates the problem whereby all the backstory given to new cast members may quickly become a footnote as the story continues.
Thus, by taking the time to weave a location’s story purpose with a character’s identity, it brings a level of intimacy between the cast, world and plot. This technique goes beyond saying where the character is originally from and taking some paragraphs to simply describe their upbringing or feelings toward the location.
The best example of this done by Tales of Xillia is in the character of Elize. Whilst introduced in a slightly disturbing way in the village of Hamil, Elize’s next bit of major characterization comes later in the game when the player visits the locations of the Xian Du and then the Labori Hollow.
Upon visiting the small city of Xian Du, in the crevices between two sweeping mountains, the player meets a woman, Isla, who, when learning Elize’s name, now appears nervous around the girl. From there, the player eventually makes their way to the Labori Hollow, a grim looking canyon colored in dark blue and purple hues with dilapidated bridges and rusted iron doors. It is in this location the player learns that Elize was brought here as a child to be experimented on in macabre and terrible ways, all in the name of science and research. Once the objective in the Labori Hollow is completed and the party returns to Xian Du, it is soon revealed that Isla had been the one who had trafficked Elize.
The way in which the story sends the player ping-ponging between the locations not only solidifies them visually in the gamer’s mind but now adds another thread to the fabric of these settings. This being the connection the locations have to one of the beloved characters in tandem with the settings themselves.
Hence by tying the characters personally to the locations that will come in the future of the story to subtle plot points given earlier-on, it creates an unravelling sensation to the story which makes each location feel more than a simple rest-stop.
RETURN TO YOUR SETTINGS
Going from Xian Du to the Labori Hollow, then back to Xian Du isn’t the only instance of retreading one’s steps in Tales of Xillia. At multiple points in the game the player is required to revisit old locations. It is on these second go-arounds the story begins to unfold even further, layering the world upon the forward moving plot rather than keeping it as a background basis for world-building lore. Beyond the example previously stated, a major story moment comes when Jude and Milla return to the starting city of Fenmont to confront King Nactigal.
By allowing natural story progression to occur which involves returning to a previously established location, one is now equipped with a familiarity to the mechanics of the established world. On revisiting Fenmont the player views it with an enhanced perspective of Rieza Maxia, the lore, the politics and other dynamics. Though in many cases, the novelty of a new location in a story can instill a sense of wonder, it is the sense of familiarity that creates depth in one’s relationship with a world.
Upon revisiting Fenmont, the player is now accompanied by a character named Rowen Ilbert, a sophisticated, wizen older stewart with a proficiency in the art of combat. From the moment of meeting Rowen to now, the player comes to learn he was a prominent figure in the Rashugal army and close friends with King Nactigal in his youth. At this point tensions in Rieza Maxia are at a tipping point and the party must now confront the king about the experiments he has been conducting on unwilling people and his possession of a world devastating weapon–the Lance of Kresnik. The battle, a flurry of colorful artes and attacks is palpable with learnt history which gives it more credence than a simple action spectacle.
Hence Tales of Xillia now not only allows players to see Fenmont in a whole new perspective but also pivots the starting location on another major story point, making the places in the world of Rieza Maxia weigh even more.
INTRODUCE ANOTHER WORLD
Perhaps this may be a stretch and one’s own story may not need another world yet, the introduction to this plot point in Tales of Xillia turned the story on its head and changed the way in which prior dilemmas were viewed. By doing so, the player is given not only an all-new setting to explore but it also begins a game of ‘compare and contrast’ in their minds. This paradigm shift is an ongoing effect which engages the consumer at a subconscious level and pulls on their intrigue more and more as things are revealed.
Following the events in the city of Fenmont, the cast of Tales of Xillia finds themselves duped by the King Nactigal’s right hand man, Gilland who has been masterminding a plan for the Lance of Kresnik. It is during a waging war where the party struggles against the king of the opposing nation, Gaius Outway, that the Lance is unleashed. This tears open a schism in the sky, opening a way to another world, Elympios. Upon the opening of the schism, dozens of Elympion warships descend upon Rieza Maxia, having already been lying in wait. The established world of Rieza Maxia, and all the player has come to know about the world of Tales of Xillia is about to be changed.
Whilst there is a sense of novelty instilled by introducing an entirely new world in one’s story, a greater appreciation for the initial world setting may be established within the consumer by this introduction. Though not every story brooks the need for another world-and the decision to take this step should not be taken lightly-it can also evoke emotions such as loss, reverence and nostalgia within the consumer. The varying degrees of each emotion depends on the occurrences within the story that lead to introduction of the second world setting.
Although the cast is thrust into this entirely new setting, it was previously learnt that our long-time ally, Alvin was originally from Elympios. Thus, a character whom had already been integrated into the settings within Rieza Maxia, is now given an additional layer, that now serves as a guiding hand in this unfamiliar territory. The party bonds, and more story revelations are uncovered answering questions established in the early parts of the game such as the dilemma of how spirits are treated with enslaving spryix technologies.
But also, new conflicts arise. With King Gaius now the ruler of the entirety of Rieza Maxia, he sees it as his duty to eliminate Elympios to prevent further abuse of the technologies for the safety of Rieza Maxia. The party—all fishes out of water in this new world—must now decide where their allegiances lie.
Although an entirely new world is introduced into the story, Rieza Maxia is not forgotten. In fact, Tales of Xillia continues to bring the first setting forward with the story, further instilling it into the plot. By doing so, the game ensures that Rieza Maxia is never seen as an after-thought and thus never fully becoming a backdrop to the conflict at hand.
Thus, through the ongoing paradigm shifts in the consumer’s mind by the introduction of the new world, the character integration of the first and new world, and the weaving of the setting with the plot, the player never fully leaves Rieza Maxia despite having left Rieza Maxia.
It should be noted that the points illustrated throughout this essay are not apodictic. There is no one way to craft one’s story and at the core a writer should tell the story they want to write. These notations are just advisable tips that may enhance the established world in a given story should they be applicable.