Everything About Tales of Symphonia - Part I: In Defense of Lloyd Irving

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Spoiler note: Any spoilers beyond the early moments of the game are either marked or are not major, especially out of context. I think this should be safe to read if you plan on playing it; I took special care to make sure it was.

I'm a fan of the Tales franchise of JRPGs. I've written several times before about various games in the series: there's a post detailing my first impressions of Tales of the Abyss, a criticism of the free-to-play money sink that is Tales of Link, and more recently I wrote about the trope-driven relationships in the series, especially in Tales of Hearts. I've spent a lot of time talking about Tales games, but haven't actually touched on my favorite entry very much. My favorite Tales game, shared by many Tales fans, is Tales of Symphonia, released for the GameCube in 2004.

I don't remember what got me so excited for this game prior to release. I distinctly remember a preview in Nintendo Power that I poured over a thousand times, though. Why that particular preview captured my interest so effectively, I'll never know, but either way I was excited for the game to come out. I remember going from GameStop to GameStop with my mom on the day of release, only to be told they were sold out at every one. I remember checking the bigger stores, like Best Buy and Wal-Mart to similar effect. I couldn't find the game anywhere. We resorted to ordering it online, which meant I couldn't play it right that second, but I appreciated my mom taking me all over town to look for it with me, so I didn't complain. As a twelve-year-old, not complaining took a lot of effort from me.

Anyways, once I got it, I played it obsessively. It came out in the summer, meaning I had no school to occupy my time, and was free to play the game for hours and hours on the tiny CRT I had in my bedroom. I loved it. I loved the characters, I loved the story, I loved the plot twists, I loved the battle system, and I loved how many hours of game it had for me. I played it again immediately after finishing it, using the robust New Game Plus system present in every Tales game. I explored every sidequest, and completed most of them in my time. Since then, I've gone back to the game every couple years and enjoyed it thoroughly.

More recently, however, I was trying to sell my friend on the game, and it made me doubt myself. Was the game as good as I thought it was, or has nostalgia clouded my judgement and made it impossible for me to dislike it during these repeated playthroughs? I decided to play through it again, this time trying to keep my critical eye more open so as to see the game a bit more for what it really was. And you know what?

It's a fantastic game! There were even some parts of it that I hadn't realized were as good as they were, since I had usually been playing it on autopilot until this playthrough. There are criticisms, sure, but there is so much to like in Tales of Symphonia that it's hard to dwell on those sticking points for very long, even when trying to dwell on them.

Insert obligatory jab at Colette here.
Insert obligatory jab at Colette here.

The number one thing that makes Tales of Symphonia so fantastic is the colorful cast of characters. They tend to fall into pretty specific character archetypes, but they are excellent examples of those archetypes, and serve to remind you why those archetypes are so commonly used in the first place: they're engaging. When done right, anyway. Other Tales casts have failed on this front in many ways, and make it clear that those archetypes should be avoided in a lot of cases, too. But ask anyone their favorite thing about Tales of Symphonia, and they'll almost certainly tell you it's the characters.

They're great. There are other things to love about Tales of Symphonia, but the endearing cast is what really stands out to most people, myself included. There are some characters who are weaker than others, but on the other hand, a few of them have character arcs that don't adhere to the expectations you might have for their particular archetype. They're extremely fun to watch, and the way some of them grow and change is both legitimately interesting and emotionally resonant.

Lloyd starts out pretty cocky.
Lloyd starts out pretty cocky.

Since the cast of Symphonia is so standout, on this critical playthrough, I kept an eye out for the various things that motivate them; what causes them to behave the way they do. I also looked at who each character was at the end of the story as opposed to who they were at the beginning. Today, I want to focus on Lloyd's arc, and discuss the ways in which I think it succeeds, and how I personally relate to his growth as a character.

Lloyd Irving is the main protagonist of the story, and we generally see the world from his perspective. As far as archetypes go, he fits the "stock shonen hero" description pretty closely. He's not particularly smart, but he has a strong sense of justice that guides his decisions and earns him the respect of others. He's also cocky, and believes in his sword fighting abilities, nearly defining himself by them.

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At the beginning of the story, Lloyd is a kid. He hasn't grown up yet because nothing has forced him to. His first moment of self-doubt comes at the appearance of a swordsman whose skills far surpass his own. The swordsman, a mercenary named Kratos, tells him flatly that he's unskilled. Lloyd has to face the fact that he may not be as talented as he thinks he is.

This is something that I've been dealing with for years, now. I grew up convinced that I was special, and smarter than everyone else. Adult life has proven to me that I'm not actually all that special. I might just be above-average, or, god forbid, average-average. The test scores and positive feedback I got in school haven't actually translated into anything that matters now that it's over. The creative things that I'm passionate about are done so much better by other people that it's hard to think anything I create has any value at all. The realization that I am not a special snowflake has been the hardest part of growing up by far.

Lloyd's immediate reaction to this blow to his pride is anger. He thinks Kratos is full of himself, and doesn't know what he's talking about. However, some stuff happens that causes him to doubt himself for real, and after that, he slowly starts to accept it.

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You see, Lloyd screws up. His strong moral compass leads him into a conflict with the evil and aggressive Desians, a group seemingly dedicated to making life hell for everyone around them, usually through extreme violence. By rashly trying to save someone in front of him without a thought to the consequences, he directly causes innocent people to suffer at their hands. He breaks the treaty that kept his village, Iselia, safe from them, and the Desians make sure he knows it. They burn half the buildings down, and kill anyone they happen to come across along the way. Lloyd can't deny his role in causing the tragedy before him. On top of that, the person he was trying to save was turned into a monster, and Lloyd was forced to kill them in order to protect himself and the other villagers. He and Genis, his friend who rushes in to stand up for him, are banished by the mayor, and he accepts the punishment without a fight, wracked with guilt over the fate of the village.

When I was growing up, I spent a good, long while convinced that my actions didn't have consequences. Eventually, I was forced to admit that they did, and that I had managed to nearly ruin my life thanks to my reckless behavior. Learning that I wasn't invincible was hard, but I could live with the fact that I was going to have to suffer if I made a bad choice. What was harder to come to terms with was the idea that my actions might have been hurting people aside from myself, too. Letting go of the sense of invincibility was important for me to grow up. Acknowledging that other people were hurt by my behavior was exponentially more difficult, but also made me a much better person. I always wanted to be a good person, even in my worst moments, and this has gotten me closer to that goal. It's not a betrayal of who I was to renounce the things I did as a teenager; it's actually just another step towards being the person I wanted to be back then.

Lloyd spends a long time, if not the entire rest of his journey, trying to atone for what he did. He makes mistakes along the way, a lot of mistakes, but Tales of Symphonia is a story about learning how to learn from them. And yeah, I typed that correctly. It's not about learning from your mistakes. It's about becoming a person who can learn from them. And that reflects my experience growing up more than a lot of stories about the subject do.

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Part of Lloyd's growth only happens because the tragedy at Iselia forces him to doubt himself. He has to accept that he's not perfect, and there are countless things for him to improve on. One of those is his sword skills, which he used to feel downright cocky about his talent for. He's reluctant to ask Kratos for guidance, as he still has lingering resentment towards him, but eventually does ask how he can become a better swordsman. Kratos lectures him about his many flaws, which puts Lloyd on edge, but he listens anyway.

Lloyd's swordfighting abilities improve as he matures emotionally, too. After a harrowing fight with a Desian leader, a young girl the Desians captured finds out about the tragedy at Iselia, specifically hearing about how he murdered an innocent civilian during the whole affair. She doesn't know that this civilian was turned into a monster, nor does she learn about Lloyd's attempt to save them. She is left with only the parts of the truth that make him out to be a bad guy, and refuses to be saved by him, instead returning into Desian custody out of defiance. This sticks with Lloyd; to him it's another consequence of his reckless actions in Iselia.

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While the group mulls over this event, Genis tells everyone the whole story behind the events, hoping to save Lloyd some face and defend his honor. Kratos weighs in, saying "Incompetent good intentions will only bring tragedy." Genis gets angry at this, and tries to step in to defend Lloyd again, but Lloyd says it's fine and admits fault, promising to never forget the suffering his actions caused. Kratos nods and indirectly praises him, commenting that the strength to acknowledge and remember one's mistakes is just as important, if not more important, than physical strength. Much later in the story, when Lloyd finally figures out what he believes in and what he wants to do, Kratos tells him that he's grown strong. By that point, Lloyd has grown up enough that he no longer needs the validation, and simply muses on whether or not he's actually gotten any better. Lloyd has accepted that he will never be perfect, and as such has become truly strong.

Another aspect of Lloyd's character, his naïve idealism, stems from his strong sense of justice. He believes in a world where nobody has to suffer needlessly, and hates the idea that anyone should have to be sacrificed for the sake of a greater good. He searches for solutions that don't ask him to weigh anyone's life over anyone else's, sure that there's always a better way.

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One of the reasons he feels this way, though, is due to the events of the "Journey of Regeneration" he accompanies Colette on. At the end point of their journey, he is told that [Spoilers for about 1/3 into the game] Colette is actually going to have to sacrifice herself in order to complete the process of world regeneration they've been working towards. He tries to stop it from happening, but when a threatening Kratos asks him if he would save her over the rest of the world, he falters. Colette loses her ability to feel emotions and becomes lifeless as a result. Lloyd regrets this instantly, and spends the next leg of his journey trying to repair the damage his choice caused to Colette. This moment obviously sticks with Lloyd, and he passionately refuses to sacrifice anyone else again. [Spoilers end] Moments of character growth like this are fantastic. At the end of the game, you can trace everything about Lloyd back to specific moments and decisions that caused him to think about things differently. He becomes strong, and he has defined beliefs that he does not waver from again.

"At that moment, facing the decision between Colette and the world... For a split second, I chose the world."

Lloyd rubs some people the wrong way as a protagonist, but I love Lloyd because his story is the story of someone trying to become a good person, and acknowledging that they might not have been before. Lloyd's path to redemption mirrors my own. Acknowledging my mistakes and accepting blame for them was something I used to struggle with. I always clung to the belief that bad things were everyone else's fault, and being mad or sad about that was one of my core motivators. Clawing my way out of that despicable victim complex was hard, and I wound up feeling guilty for my many previously ignored transgressions and moments of unkindness all at once, for months. I still feel lingering guilt over a lot of it today, years after I first started trying to take responsibility for my mistakes. Lloyd doesn't start from the downright backwards place I started from, but I still felt a connection to him watching him go through some of the same things I have.

This aspect of Lloyd's character arc is not something I would have, or even could have picked up on while playing through the game as a kid. In fact, this last playthrough was my first time playing it with the perspective I have now. I always liked Lloyd before; he was a hero who believed in his ideals and saved the world as a result of that. I was a punk-rock teenager, so I was all about clinging to ideals, even misguided ones. The more important aspect of his character, which I failed to notice, was the way in which he developed those ideals. Blindly adhering to ideals without ever questioning them always lead him to tragedy, and it wasn't until he started doubting himself that he was able to become the hero I saw him as.

I have a lot of fondness for Lloyd, which is not a sentiment I've seen expressed very often. Usually his well-meaning idiot demeanor turns people off instantly, which is totally understandable. On top of that, the arc I've described here isn't the most overt or obvious, and may actually be little more than my own personal interpretation of the way his character develops. Even if I'm mostly just projecting here, on a surface level it's still a plot about growing up by being willing to acknowledge your own faults. That's a story worth telling, I think. And since Lloyd is the conduit through which this story is told, I'm pretty inclined to like him.

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I'll probably go deep on several of the other characters from this game at some point, if not all of them. Look forward to it!