Note: This article deals with events from the Prologue and Chapter 1 of Trails in the Sky SC, as well as the ending of Trails in the Sky FC
Something I observed on Twitter today was that Trails in the Sky, despite working with quite limited sprite-based graphics has a strong emphasis on personal, intimate character details. This was embodied by the fact it has a set of sprite animations for characters hugging each other; as all cutscenes are done in engine, the repertoire of animations each sprite has limits what actions can be depicted in a cutscene and a good number of things such as sitting down or standing up are elided over with fade effects. Yet nevertheless there are animations for giving a character a hug, a very specific action which is used incredibly well to add a personal, emotive touch to numerous scenes – there is a storyline in First Chapter about an orphanage that is burned down, and so it is natural that there should be scenes of the matron comforting her charges.
But what brought this to my attention was a scene involving the protagonist, Estelle, returning to that orphanage and receiving a hug from the matron herself. At the end of First Chapter, as part of the sequel hook revealing the “true villains” of the story, one of the two central characters, Joshua, walks out on Estelle. It is a shocking scene, and an extremely good cliffhanger that makes the revelation of an organisation of masterminds personal. They had been setting one of your main party members, a character whose interactions with Estelle were cute and gradually building up to a sweet relationship, up in a Manchurian Candidate position and he realises this and decides the only fair thing to do is go into hiding. Of course, many games do this; splitting up the party by an enemy trick is a common technique of RPGs, and the characters move on and the plot continues with vengeance as a goal.
Trails in the Sky SC doubles down and redoubles still upon how much of a big deal Joshua’s leaving is; it is not, detachedly speaking, a betrayal – indeed, it is fear of one day becoming a betrayer, and guilt at past evil acts committed under mind control, that forces him to do it. But what it is, and what I think Trails reminds the player in a way few RPGs do, is a dearly loved character simply walking out of a person’s life; it is a friend being lost, combined with the knowledge they are still alive but must never come back until the villains are dealt with. The enemy have forced a couple apart, and that is the cliffhanger that sticks with the player at the game’s end. Their master plan for the world and the ancient superweapons is not yet clear. All that the player knows is that these are the people whose agents – and particularly the unthreatening, affable scientist who has turned up throughout the game – have made the character whose life they have been following lose her best friend and adoptive brother without killing him.
And, when the player begins SC, Estelle has not “got over it.” The game begins the morning of his disappearance and makes the player play through her inability to cope – her searching the castle to find him, disbelieving what he has done, her argument with their father about whether she should search for him, and then her deluded trip back to her hometown to see if he has simply “gone home.” The trip through the intro town of FC, with all the NPCs previously met congratulating Estelle on her success at saving the country from a coup d’etat and no enemies to fight, simply relaxing, pastoral music and the same friendly cast of locals that provided the tutorial before almost creates some hope for the player; a lesser game might well have simply had Joshua’s “disappearance” been a short-term thing and had the second game proper start with a reunion and determination to defeat the bad guys. Instead, Estelle reaches an empty house and realises her brother is gone for good.
That on its own would have been a hell of a prologue. But the game does not relent on showing you how the protagonist is a young girl who has been hurt by the villains on a level that does not simply lead to hotblooded resolve; the tutorial of SC is her absorbing herself in her work by going to a remote training facility to become stronger, and because there is still the possibility the game will be formulaic the “final exercise” – a staged hostage situation – feels like it could be a real chance for a dramatic reunion because the enemies used in the training exercise are reproductions of the villain’s agents. It is not. Estelle is still alone, but now she has to balance day-to-day work and tracking down the villains. Thus Chapter 1 begins, and the player is taken back to the scene of the first game’s second chapter, where the relationship that has been broken really began to form. And, things come to a head when Estelle returns to the orphanage and is reminded by Theresa, the kindly woman in charge, that another member of the disbanded party – the princess in disguise Kloe – has told her everything. The plot is now well underway, and the game is still reminding the player in scene after scene how what should be enthusiastic reunions and hotblooded missions to defeat a powerful enemy are just constant reminders of what has been taken away.
For this reason, a scene in simple sprite form of a kindly older lady hugging a young girl works so well. It is simply one scene among many of Estelle trying to come to terms with what has happened, but the fact that there are these scenes, and so many of them – to the point where they are shown to affect her ability to do her job makes this storyline – a central one in a way, but at the same time only a tiny part of the wider plot – feel rather less superficial than when some games try for a missing party member plot.