Recently I have been playing two games from the Legend of Heroes series; Trails in the Sky and Trails of Cold Steel. Both have impressed me with their storytelling decisions; although their stories may not be those of the most novel characters, and their settings at first glance do not seem significantly original, a number of fine details make the games stand out as a quite different approach to well-worn ground. The games make use of their protagonists’ inexperience in a way that does not immediately suggest some world-changing destiny and thanks to more leisurely pacing provide a much stronger sense of a coming-of-age story. Any development into the resolution of a nationwide conspiracy thus becomes a political awakening as much as a heroic destiny.
Trails in the Sky‘s “first chapter” acts as a kind of extended prologue for the much longer and grander-scale second chapter, yet in its own right it is an interesting introduction to the world, characters and culture. It is effectively a whole game of world-building, with its two central characters learning about the world around them within a semi-gamist narrative framework. The setting and story is predicated on the existence of the “Bracer Guild”, a kind of general militia, charitable organisation and odd-job merchants which aids each town and region. The heroes are junior members of this guild driven both by the desire to pursue their missing father but also to tour the nation and qualify as fully-fledged members by proving their dedication. As a result, the game takes them to each major population centre in a kind of systematic grand tour; each place offers a major plot which may build towards the arc plot, and a number of smaller quests to aid the townsfolk. This is not significantly different to other RPGs mechanically; each quest hub offers a plot quest and a number of optional tasks. However, it feels distinctly more fitting in-setting owing to the guild device and the heroes’ role as trainees; they must walk everywhere to learn the local geography (rather than simply travelling from station to station), perform menial and undesirable tasks and generally get to know the people they have enlisted to help and serve.
Self-improvement in RPG terms – the acquisition of wealth, experience and knowledge – is given a logical in-universe meaning. The protagonists are leaving home for the first time and have to learn how to do their jobs, hence the tutorialising (and then the decision being left to the player as their representative as to how much assistance to give, how to fit it around other responsibilities and so on). The subtle detail here is key; a lot of fantasy worlds work on the cliché of an “adventurer guild” offering bounties and quests to travelling explorers, but often this simply creates a dissonance; in Mass Effect the tension is between being intergalactic postal service and fighting a massive war, while in Trails in the Sky the tension is between, say, helping a school prepare for its open day and delivering dinner to a lonely old man. Even when Trails becomes more serious – with arson and kidnapping cases needing investigation, for example, the scope is still small. This makes even these small quests – which would be sidequests in many RPGs – meaningful. Trails lives by its depth of characterisation – recurring faces are always welcome, but each town offers a new set of personalities to meet who will dominate over the side-quests and main quests there. In this way, the game avoids having a fixed party or free choice of party member for much of it; the protagonists travel with whoever has most expertise at the time, and not all of the relationships are immediately friendly. It is a game about being the lowest-level adventurers, and yet a game about realising the importance of the little things.
A key feature of these quests is the inexperience of the heroes; they end up outsmarted by villains, unable to move past bureaucrats and sometimes just out of their depth and forced to resort to shouting and threats of violence to get things done. The feeling of powerlessness in a world that seems increasingly unfair and wrong (as the arc plot develops) works against the usual dissonance of extreme player-led competence from the start. Estelle may be good at hitting things, but her work requires a lot more than that. This is similar to Cold Steel. The latter game is set in a different part of the same world and a different timeline – an industralised empire mentioned in rather hushed terms in Sky, where instead of Bracers the majority of work is done by landowners’ private armies and military trainees. The ethos is the same (as the protagonist realises) but the focus is different. Yet there is the same emphasis on powerlessness and inexperience. The cast are all students rather than apprentices, the first mixed-class form in a prestigious (yet socially segregated) boarding-school, and all put to the test to teach them to overcome classism, distrust of each other and inability to work as a team. The world is immediately, as a result, more wrong. This is a place where the elite actively abuse their power, where social divisions are deep-rooted and violent and the political situation is variously corrupt, inept or divided. Here powerlessness is not simply running into one hardline officer who steals the credit for a bungled raid on a kidnapper’s lair, or finding a client simply will not listen to reason, it is a corrupt local army trying to frame the party for their lord’s political gain.
The protagonist of Cold Steel is an amiable blank mid-point of a person, someone who claims to be born without status, adopted by the nobility and with little direction in life save a determination to do the right thing. As a result he ends up the de facto errand boy of the school, helping everyone evenly and trying to make sure his class does not fall apart. Thus his gameplay is as rigid and routine as Sky‘s, but with a different focus. Cold Steel‘s chapters are divided into the errands and bonding section, the combat practice section (involving a maze beneath the school and then a practical exam) and then the “field study,” similar to Sky‘s town visits. This almost sounds like a Persona game but the truth is much less stressful (and as a result more credible). Persona is spreadsheet-like in its time management; the player must balance time-critical missions, numerous social links, multi-stage sidequests and more to the point where a “perfect” playthrough sees the hero have three girlfriends, four part-time jobs, perfect grades and a questing career involving popping inside his television once a month to kill monsters for hours on end. It is an unconvincing, artificial kind of social simulation where the game is more about time management and resource management than anything else. Cold Steel gives a fixed amount of character vignettes, a fixed amount of questing and a fixed progression – the emphasis is on the routine, the lack of influence and money that a student might have. As a result playing Rean’s life out feels more student-like than, say, playing Persona 4. And, because of this, the high-school setting and the blank cipher protagonist become more believable in-universe, much like Estelle’s inexperience in Sky made its low power level and influence feel right.
What both of these games with low-power protagonists do is make the escalation of the plot all the more effective. Rean mediates his way through life and so when things get serious, he simply acts like normal with the preservation of his class’s safety a priority. When Estelle is out of her depth, she applies what she has learned to the unfamiliar situation. The games offer very closely curated plot development, but this allows for more consistant, less dissonant characterisation.