Posted on November 11th 2018
I thought we were done with Tales of Symphonia.
Nope, let us take some time to go back and review this game as part of the Video Game Gender Survey Project! Maybe then we can be free...
Please know that this page is going to be full of unmarked spoilers for Tales of Symphonia. Also, if we cross-link to our previous ranting review of this game, it will also be full of unmarked spoilers, so click with care.
The main character
In Tales of Symphonia, the main character whose point-of-view we are following throughout the story is Lloyd, who is male.
While the game has some mechanics that make it seem like you have an option regarding who is the main character, in reality, the main character is always Lloyd. For example, you can freely (and most likely accidentally) switch which party member represents you as you walk around as in the overworld. However, this change is, in almost all cases, simply cosmetic: with few exceptions, the NPCs will continue to address Lloyd even if he's not visible on-screen, and this character will still be able to use the Sorcerer's Ring by holding out their hand even though the ring is notably on Lloyd's finger. This gives the feeling that you are always playing as Lloyd, but sometimes he's in a costume of the other characters.
There are a few places in the plot where the team needs to split up and Lloyd maybe won't be present in one team or the other. However, most of the time, you end up playing as both teams separately, so the fact that Lloyd is not in one group or the other hardly matters.
There's also one point where Colette needs to travel alone to a part of the room only she can access in order to move a box to help out the others. This only happens once, and after Colette pushes the box, she is reunited with the party - so you play as Colette alone for a grand total of maybe 30 seconds.
All this is to say, Lloyd is the main character, and there is no way away from that fact.
That's not necessarily a bad thing. As stated in the introduction, I am not advocating that every character of every game needs to be female in order for it to be feminist. I believe there should always be games where the main character is a set character who is male, and there should also always be games where the main character is a set character who is female, there should also always be games where the main character is a set character who isn't male or female, and there should also be games where you make your own character or have some level of choice with regard to the main character, and all these should be possibilities that games should continue to be, with a healthy mix of each. Tales of Symphonia is one of the games where the main character is a set character who is male. What is frustrating in this particular case is that the game seems to have wanted to offer the player some flexibility in this regard, but they only went like quarter-way and still ended up with the main character being a set character who is male.
It is also super frustrating to think about Lloyd's role in the story. As we ranted about at great length previously, while Lloyd is the main character, he initially is presented as being not the most important character. His friend Colette is the Chosen One, and so you play the game as the friend of the Chosen One who helps her along her journey. This twist seems extremely interesting and innovative, and is what drew us into the game in the first place. However, the further along the plot you go, the less important it is that Colette is the Chosen One, and you will find more and more that Lloyd makes all the decisions and Lloyd gets all the glory and Lloyd becomes the hero that saves everyone and everything even if it makes more sense for other characters to have done some of the things that Lloyd does. It feels almost like Lloyd stole his role in the plot. There is a whole party of characters, but in the finale, it is all about Lloyd, Lloyd, Lloyd.
The party members
The nine playable party members of this game have pretty decent gender representation: four playable characters are female and five are male. Notably two of the male characters, Kratos and Zelos, cannot be in the party at the same time (except for possibly one dungeon). So, the party's gender representation is almost half and half, but not quite.
|Male Playable Characters:|
|Female Playable Characters:|
Male Playable Characters
Duke Regal Bryant
Female Playable Characters
However, this survey doesn't just stop at playable characters. For Tales of Symphonia, we took note of every character with a "name" -- as major as as Yggdrasill or as minor as the Elven Storyteller. We didn't cover the unnamed town NPCs because, in the beginning, we deemed it too hard to distinguish and keep track of the tiny, far-away models. Much later, we discovered Zelos' ability to flirt with women of any age, which makes it clear which characters are female (and, by exclusion, which characters are not), but by then we were almost at the end of the game, so certain places were no longer accessible for us to go back and make an accurate tally of these nameless NPCs. If we ever replay Tales of Symphonia again (we sure hope not) we'll make it our mission to record them too.
But for now, we can look at all the characters with a "name" (or at least a "name" in the dialogue box):
|All Male Characters:|
|All Female Characters:|
|All Other Characters:|
|Aska||Male||Plot-Mandated Not Playable Ally||Summon Spirit|
|Celsius||Female||Plot-Mandated Not Playable Ally||Summon Spirit|
|Chief Igaguri||Male||Plot-Mandated NPC||Human|
|Colette Brunel||Female||Plot-Mandated Playable Party Member||Angel Human||16|
|Corrine||Male||Plot-Mandated Not Playable Ally||Man-made Summon Spirit|
|Duke Regal Bryant||Male||Plot-Mandated Playable Party Member||Human||33|
|Efreet||Male||Plot-Mandated Not Playable Ally||Summon Spirit|
|Empress Aisha VIII||Female||Mentioned||Human|
|Fairess||Female||Plot-Mandated Not Playable Ally||Summon Spirit|
|Fake Colette||Female||Plot-Mandated NPC||Human|
|Fake Genis||Male||Plot-Mandated NPC||Human|
|Fake Raine||Female||Plot-Mandated NPC||Human|
|Farah Oersted||Female||Unlockable Boss||Inferian||✽|
|Frank Brunel||Male||Plot-Mandated NPC||Human|
|Garr Kelvin||Male||Unlockable Boss||Er'ther||✽|
|Genis Sage||Male||Plot-Mandated Playable Party Member||Half-Elf||12|
|Gnome||Male||Plot-Mandated Not Playable Ally||Summon Spirit|
|Governor-General Dorr||Male||Plot-Mandated NPC||Human|
|High Priest Auguste||Male||Optional NPC||Human|
|King Cleo III||Male||Mentioned||Human||✽|
|Kratos Aurion||Male||Plot-Mandated Playable Party Member||Angel Human|
|Lloyd Irving||Male||Plot-Mandated Playable POV Character||Human||17|
|Lord Botta||Male||Plot-Mandated Boss||Half-Elf|
|Lord Kvar||Male||Plot-Mandated Boss||Half-Elf|
|Lord Magnius||Male||Plot-Mandated Boss||Half-Elf|
|Lord Rodyle||Male||Plot-Mandated Boss||Half-Elf|
|Lord Yuan Ka-Fai||Male||Plot-Mandated Boss||Angel Half-Elf|
|Luna||Female||Plot-Mandated Not Playable Ally||Summon Spirit|
|Martel Yggdrasill||Female||Plot-Mandated NPC||Half-Elf|
|Master Crowley||Male||Optional NPC||Human|
|Maxwell||Male||Optional Not Playable Ally||Summon Spirit|
|Mighty Washington||Male||Optional NPC||Human|
|Mithos Yggdrasill||Male||Plot-Mandated Boss||Angel Half-Elf|
|Ms. Grace||Female||Optional NPC||Human|
|Mylene Wilder||Male||Plot-Mandated Mentioned||Human|
|Noishe||Male||Plot-Mandated Rideable Ally||Protozoan|
|Origin||Male||Plot-Mandated Not Playable Ally||Summon Spirit|
|Pastor Piccaring||Male||Plot-Mandated NPC||Human|
|Presea Combatir||Female||Plot-Mandated Playable Party Member||Human||28|
|Princess Hilda||Female||Plot-Mandated NPC||Human|
|Professor Napbosa||Male||Plot-Mandated Mentioned||Human|
|Raine Sage||Female||Plot-Mandated Playable Party Member||Half-Elf||23|
|Sephie||Female||Plot-Mandated Not Playable Ally||Summon Spirit|
|Shadow||Male||Plot-Mandated Not Playable Ally||Summon Spirit|
|Sheena Fujibayashi||Female||Plot-Mandated Playable Party Member||Human||19||✽|
|Undine||Female||Plot-Mandated Not Playable Ally||Summon Spirit|
|Unnamed Adventurer||Male||Not Playable||Human|
|Unnamed Blackjack Dealer||Female||Optional Boss||Human||✽|
|Unnamed Coliseum Receptionist A||Female||Plot-Mandated NPC||Human|
|Unnamed Coliseum Receptionist B||Female||Plot-Mandated NPC||Human|
|Unnamed Dean||Male||Optional NPC||Human|
|Unnamed Elf Boy||Male||Plot-Mandated NPC||Elf|
|Unnamed Elf Elder||Male||Plot-Mandated NPC||Elf|
|Unnamed Father of Dorr||Male||Plot-Mandated Mentioned||Unknown|
|Unnamed Father of Presea||Male||Plot-Mandated Mentioned||Human|
|Unnamed Gnomelette 1||Male||Plot-Mandated NPC||Gnomelette|
|Unnamed Gnomelette 2||Male||Plot-Mandated NPC||Gnomelette|
|Unnamed Gnomelette 3||Male||Plot-Mandated NPC||Gnomelette|
|Unnamed Gnomelette 4||Male||Plot-Mandated NPC||Gnomelette|
|Unnamed Gnomelette 5||Male||Plot-Mandated NPC||Gnomelette|
|Unnamed Grand Priest||Male||Not Playable||Human|
|Unnamed Grandmother of Lyla||Female||Not Playable||Human|
|Unnamed Head Fisherman||Male||Not Playable||Human|
|Unnamed Junk Collector||Male||NPC||Human|
|Unnamed King of Tethe'alla||Male||NPC||Human|
|Unnamed Maid A||Female||Optional NPC||Human|
|Unnamed Maid B||Female||Optional NPC||Human|
|Unnamed Mayor of Asgard||Male||NPC||Human|
|Unnamed Mayor of Iselia||Male||NPC||Human|
|Unnamed Mother of the Elf Boy||Female||Plot-Mandated Mentioned||Elf|
|Unnamed Mother of the Little Women||Female||Optional NPC||Human|
|Unnamed Pope of Tethe'alla||Male||Plot-Mandated NPC||Human|
|Unnamed Priest||Male||Not Playable||Human|
|Unnamed Priest of Iselia||Male||Not Playable||Human|
|Unnamed Storyteller||Other||Plot-Mandated NPC||Elf||✽|
|Unnamed Student B||Male||Optional NPC||Human|
|Unnamed Unicorn||Other||Plot-Mandated NPC||Unicorn||✽|
|Verius||Male||Optional NPC||Summon Spirit|
|Vice-Chief Tiga||Male||Plot-Mandated NPC||Human|
|Volt||Male||Plot-Mandated Not Playable Ally||Summon Spirit|
|Yutis||Female||Plot-Mandated Not Playable Ally||Summon Spirit|
|Zelos Wilder||Male||Plot-Mandated Playable Party Member||Human||22|
For a game so focused on Elves and Half-Elves and the conflict between them and humanity... there are surprisingly few Elves and Half-Elves. In fact, there are more dogs in our table than Elves and Half-Elves combined. This is in part because there is a cute but meaningless sidequest where Colette names the dogs, so dogs are oddly featured. There are two whole worlds where the top political consideration is supposedly Half-Elves, but there are so few of them. Ah, well, this a discussion for another time.
The Summon Spirits
Back the topic of gender representation, we specifically wanted to point out the case of the Summon Spirits.
|Male Summon Spirits:|
|Female Summon Spirits:|
Male Summon Spirits
Female Summon Spirits
Not only are there fewer female Summon Spirits (even with Sylph split into three entities: Fairess, Sephie, and Yutis), but they are much more limited in the forms they can take. You can see it already in just their face portraits, but let's look closer at the full official art.
First the male Summon Spirits:
Volt, the Hammer of Godly Lightning, appears in-game as a sphere of crackling electricity with eyes. If you look at the official art, you can see that, growing out of the strange claw-like structures inside his form, there four disembodied hands holding an orb of power. Volt is hardcore.
Gnome, the Servant of Mother Earth, is a giant round mole-like creature. He is very cartoony overall, with exaggerated non-literal expressions and simplified, almost plushie-like shapes. He holds a shovel as a not-very-subtle symbol of the earth element he rules. He also has a big red bow on his head that spins around like a propeller. He speaks rudely and informally, and he is very genre aware, making him a comic-relief character.
Efreet, the Ruler of Hellfire, is a demon with broad shoulders and a ripped upper-body, with a lower half that tapers down to a genie tail, looking something like an eel made from hardening lava. Efreet has four horns on his head, and ragged wings, and a cape, and monstrous three-fingered hands, and glowing wrist-protectors, and some sort of ornaments on his chest that make the glowing coals of his nipples look like glaring eyes. So that he can glare at you with his angry face and also with his angry nipples.
Shadow, the Envoy from the Dark Abyss, emerges from shapeless blobs of darkness. He can be split into multiple pieces and scatter, or come together as whatever shape he wishes. He seems to primarily use the form of a vaguely humanoid blob with an almost featureless face except for his notably glowing eyes, a snake-like neck, a highly-detailed manly chest, and a fluid base upon which he oozes to move. In battle, he changes his long arms into the shape of weapons to attack -- the official art shows him with his middle finger tapered to a long and dangerous point. Around his waist and shoulders he has large, spiky, levitating metal armor, and his belt features a giant glowing eye.
Aska is a manifestation of the sun, in the form of a two-headed rainbow phoenix-dragon. One head has red eyes and the other has blue eyes. His feathers shimmer from gold to red to blue, and the tips of its wings form a semi-circle of floating magenta crystal blades.
Origin is the Ruler of All, who has the form of a young man with four arms, each holding a sword or a spear. His upper half is pale and has stunning yellow hair, while his lower half is scorched purple-black and covered in thigh-high purple lightning boots. Over his shoulders, he wears armor shaped like two spiders, his back is arrayed with burning feathers, and around him spins a circle of levitating crystals. He is designed as the all-powerful deity that rules every element, and so merges the design motifs of the other Summon Spirits.
Maxwell is the Ancient Ruler of the Elements and the Summon Spirit of Birth. He is portrayed as a wise, elderly patriarchal deity with robes and a long white beard and a staff and a mystical book... all riding on a hovercraft that spins like a circular saw.
Verius is the Summon Spirit of Heart, appearing as a rainbow kitsune with flaming feet. Verius's role in the game is as a small unlockable cut-scene, so the developers apparently didn't invest too much in his official art.
Now the female Summon Spirits:
Undine, the Maiden of the Mist, is in the form of a busty woman with blue skin covered with tattoos, long flowing purple hair, and fishy fins on her head. Her lower-half looks like a flowing skirt, and she wears armor on her shoulders and her hips. Levitating water swirls around her. The official art shows her in a twisted pose, nipple-less boobs on full display, as she wields a sword made of water.
Celsius, the Disciple of Everlasting Ice, is in the form of a woman with pale bluish skin covered with tattoos and short black hair in a cyan headband. She wears a halter-top crop top and a loin skirt, each with golden edges that match her bracelets. She also wears boots that seem like a consideration for warmth in the snow, except that her skin is mostly bare. While she rules the ice element, there's nothing that particularly evokes ice in her design, except her skin color and maybe the diamond motif on her sash and the fact that she should be freezing but isn't. The official art shows her in an extremely contorted pose from below, so that we can simultaneously see up her skirt at her butt and also see both of her breasts at the same time.
Sylph, the Heavenly Messengers, is a single Summon Spirit made up of three entities, all in the form of fairy-like girls with pale skin, pointy ears, colorful hair, and wings. Sephie has teal hair and six feathery wings; she wields a sword, and she wears a green leotard with yellow tattoo-like markings and indigo gloves and thigh-high boots. Yutis has purple hair (worn with a big blue bow) and butterfly wings; she wields a bow and arrow, and she wears blue leotard with purple tattoo-like markings and purple gloves and thigh-high boots. Fairess has pink hair and cloth-like wings; she hides behind a giant shield, and she wears a green leotard with orange tattoo-like markings and orange gloves and thigh-high boots. I want to note that their leotards are tight enough that, with how Sephie and Fairess are posed, you can see their navels and crotches, and even the edge of Sephie's ribcage. Yutis has a more flying-forward pose, but you can nevertheless see both of her breasts and both of her buttcheeks.
Luna is a manifestation of the moon, in the form of a busty woman with pale skin covered with tattoos, long flowing green hair, a halo, and sitting on a literal crescent moon. She holds a magical staff that also has a literal image of a crescent moon at the top. She wears a criss-cross halter top that is essentially just strips of fabric to cover her nipples. She also wears a long flowing skirt that sits just barely above her vagina; the end of the skirt becomes the night sky, trailing stars. The official art shows her at an extreme angle from below, so that we can simultaneously see the under-boob of both her breasts as well as a full... moon... of both her butt cheeks, even with dramatic highlighting from the glow of the crescent moon that she is supposedly sitting on (although if she were sitting on the moon, shouldn't it be at least partially obscuring at least some part of the butt-cheeks?)
So overall, the male Summon Spirits are all dramatically different from each other, ranging from very humanoid to very animal-like to very amorphous and everything in between. They come in all different colors and have very different features from each other. Meanwhile, I was able to start every description of the female summon spirits by saying they are in the form of a woman or girl with pale or blue skin (omg, blue skin!) and tattoos or tattoo-like markings! With the male Summon Spirits, I can describe them as a shape of four hands holding an orb of lava, a monstrous demon with eye nipples, a mole with a propeller-bow, an indistinct being of darkness. With the female Summon Spirits, they are all definitely humanoid and dressed in (scant) clothing, with the only aspects of note are what they are wearing or what they are holding. They themselves are just... beautiful women with tattoos. They all have human faces, human hands, human chests, and either humanoid feet (either barefoot or even going so far to wear literal shoes!) or else their feet are left ambiguous by a skirt. They all have hair, and even have hair bands and hair bows. The most interesting is Fairess who, in-game, usually holds a giant shield in front of herself. But that's really not saying much at all, and, behind that, she is also an essentially-human fairy.
Couldn't even just one of the female summon spirits have been a little bit different than being essentially human with tattoos?
Also, all the female Summon Spirits are designed and dressed to titillate the presumed straight male player. How low does Luna need to wear that skirt, how high up does the slit of Celsius's skirt need to go, how tight do Sylph's leotards need to be, how much skin needs to be exposed? The male Summon Spirits don't even really need to wear clothing: they don't have any naughty bits, so nothing needs to be covered. The female Summon Spirits need their scanty clothing to veil the naughty bits which do indeed exist. Origin is a naked Ken-doll with nothing sexualized about him. Maxwell is the most humanoid of the male Summon Spirits and he wears robes, in a completely non-sexualized way. In contrast, Luna has to wear a skirt because you need to know that her vagina does indeed exist and it is under just this one tantalizing piece of fabric. The male Summon Spirits can be non-human, or even humanoid and completely naked without being sexualized. The female Summon Spirits are all humanoid, and all sexualized, and therefore all must be wearing some sexy clothing.
Looking at the official art, the male Summon Spirits are clearly powerful and mighty beings, posed to exude confidence and superiority (except maybe Gnome who is allowed to be silly - which is a good thing and adds variety). But with the female Summon Spirits, the official art poses them not to evoke respect toward these supposedly powerful beings, but rather to achieve maximum boob, butt, and midriff visibility. The official art is going to show you the entirety of Luna's ass and highlight the curve of where her vagina is, even if it requires her to simultaneously sit both on and in front of the moon, Escher-style.
Couldn't even just one of the female summon spirits have been designed with something other than the male gaze in mind?
The Summon Spirits are supposed to represent and rule a particular element. With the male Summon Spirits, Efreet is made of flame and lava, Volt is made of lightning and claws, Shadow is made of Darkness and spikes. With the female Summon Spirits, the best it gets is with Undine, who conveys her water element through having fins and with random water swirling around her for no apparent reason, and I guess Sylph is the air element because, uh, wings (nevermind the other Summon Spirits with wings). Luna is only able to convey her element via props, and the design of Celsius fails to convey her element at all.
Since there are two Summon Spirits of Light, let me specifically point them out once more. Aska, the male Summon Spirit of Light, represents the sun by being a dragon-phoenix (mythical creatures both linked with the sun). He has glowing feathers and a radiant halo-like semi-circle of crystals around him that evokes the idea of the sun's rays. Then, compare with Luna... She is the female Summon Spirit of Light, and is supposed to represent the moon... but she's sitting on a literal crescent moon. She's not the moon, she's a woman sitting on the moon, holding a moon-shaped staff and wearing a skirt with stars on it. Aska is the sun. Luna is like, doing gijinka cosplay of the moon (and holding a replica of the literal moon to make sure you get it). The game juxtaposes these two Summon Spirits of Light and calls them equals... and the difference in attitude behind their designs becomes super glaring.
Before you think that I consider the designs of the male Summon Spirits to be amazing, no, I don't. They still are really obvious and boring, and if I was in charge of Tales of Symphonia, I would have probably sent them all back to the drawing board to try again. But compared with the atrocious designs of the female Summon Spirits, the designs of the male Summon Spirits are masterpieces of character design.
I guess what I am trying to say is, if the female Summon Spirits were characters in something else all on their own (why am I imagining Undine, Celsius, Sylph, and Luna all as roommates in a sitcom?), they would have ridiculously sexist clothing and gross official art, but the other problems wouldn't exist. But if you put the female Summon Spirits in the same game as the male Summon Spirits and tell me they are all the same type of supernatural being... that is when the other problems arise. You can see that the developers didn't think the shape of a female Summon Spirit could stray in any way from being an obviously female human form that is pleasing to the male gaze. They did not dare to make them too much like their element or too far from being human, because that would make them less fuckable. It's not important that they convey their element or that they seem powerful -- the most important thing is how hot they are. The contrast with the male Summon Spirits is what makes the sexist designs of the female Summon Spirits really stand out.
One last thought is about the presentation of the characters in Tales of Symphonia that you are supposed to distrust.
Yggdrasill is the primary antagonist of the game. He has the power to choose whatever form he wants for himself, and this is what he decided the leader of his secret organization should look like: an adult bishonen with pink glowing wings, tight revealing clothing, and long flowing golden hair.
Depending on the player's choices, Zelos might end up betraying the party and joining forces with Yggdrasill. While Zelos is human and can't just pick his form like Yggdrasill does, Zelos is actually deeply depressed, but attempts to mask this by presenting himself outwardly as an attractive bishonen playboy, dressed in fashionable and flattering pink clothing, showing off his long flowing red hair, flirting with literally every woman in both worlds, and even hitting on Lloyd as well.
In the first part of the plot, Sheena joins the party, although it's unclear if she really can be trusted. Sheena is the party member with the most cleavage on display, as part of the outfit she dons in her role as a spy. It is also stated that Sheena is something of a tom-boy (although this is told-not-shown and there's no real evidence of any tomboyishness that we can see?).
So all the characters that the player is supposed to at least temporarily mistrust... go against the usual gender norms and are sexy. Because embracing your own sexuality and defying gender norms are signs of being deviant and dangerous.
While the player is supposed to be suspecting that there is a traitor in the party (because that's the formula of the Tales series), there are two characters that the game never really casts any real doubt upon: Lloyd and Colette. They are also both the most gender-conforming and virginal characters of the game. Hm.
Looking at the counts, Tales of Symphonia gets close to parity with the playable party members, but falls into the trap of having about just one-third female characters overall. We can also discuss how the game's plot employs some gross tropes in the role of the main character, in the design and presentation of the female Summon Spirits, and in how untrustworthiness is signaled to the player. Blech.
- The Models Resource of Sylph ripped by Roxas358, giving us a clearer view of Fairess's face.