A pickaxe chips away harshly at rock, held by a body with no seen face. The body’s clothes are barely rags, dirtied black and ripped at the bottoms. Sparks fly among the watchtowers of guards watching over groups of slaves working away at the mines. A woman falls to her knees, a child is threatened to be beaten for being unable to work. The new Tales of Arise isn’t just a nicer looking game, but the grimmest one yet for the series.
Anyone who has followed the Tales series for a while now can note that this is a new turn for the series, which typically holds onto a much brighter, more colorful and adventurous tone. The games have always told stories of massive journeys and complex political schemes. Tales of Berseria follows a girl hunting to kill her father who left her family for dead to become the ruler of the nation. Tales of Vesperia follows a former imperial soldier who helps a noble escape from the kingdom, battling all of his former comrades along the way. Tales always combines interesting character motives with smart world building to create an inspiring journey for the player to tag along, it’s just never been so dire as it is in Arise.
At this point it is so common for contemporary games to be drenched with gritty, grimy cynicism that I rarely feel the need to engage with that aspect of it—or with the game at all. Some of the most popular games in recent years, such as The Last of Us Part II, are deeply enmired in this aesthetic, and more largely, videogames love bathing their games with grit whenever they get the chance. Yet, what makes it so jarring in Tales of Arise is that the game still tries to maintain its series’ longstanding values of hope and optimism despite the grim new world it’s set in. It makes the grit palpable through its incoherency, like I am being served a burger I would normally order from a restaurant but a sauce has been put on that tastes strange in tandem.
Characters walk through towns filled with shacks and watch as enslaved citizens are cut down, then have a child-like conversation filled with joy about their favorite color. Important characters will pass away from fighting oppressive overlords, and shortly after the party will talk about how Shionne can’t stop eating.
In some ways I could see in these moments how Arise may have been aiming for character moments and plot that resembles The Fellowship of the Ring. During fights Alphis and Shionne will fling snarky insults at one another as they cut down zeugles. The party sits at campfires, relaying memories and quips over mouth-watering food. In a world where an overwhelming evil seems likely to prevail, a small ragtag crew that doesn’t necessarily get along come together to fight. In Arise, though, it all just feels dissonant rather than coherent. The friendly wonder that many fans love about the franchise still remains and the newfound grimness of the world clashes against it. What made The Fellowship of the Ring work was that it showed characters coming to terms with their own weaknesses when put face to face with their comrades. Not charming weaknesses either, but weaknesses that could bring the end of the world. Tales of Arise, in contrast to this, gives characters flaws but makes them out to be something cute or likeable and doesn’t make the party’s contrasting moments more meaningful. Instead they exist in states of flux, swapping between dire hopelessness and cute jokes that don’t make much sense together.
Even if the clashing moments weren’t in the game and were simply isolated to the oppressive state of the world in which it’s set, Arise still wouldn’t engage with these subjects on the political level they present. Shionne’s discriminatory attitude towards Dahnans in the beginning of the game rarely brings up points of discomfort; it just comes off as “it’s just girls fighting.” And as the game goes on, the violence that the oppressive state of Rena has inflicted upon Dahna is attempted to be empathized with as the game attempts to show their own painful challenges. Thus the grim setting of the beginning of the game is not used to meaningfully engage with the unbalanced, oppressive nature of the world, but a shallow aesthetic to make everything seem really bad and legitimize the game for those outside of the normal audience as being more “mature.”
Part of the reason games take the “gritty” direction is because technological advancement in the games market encourages it. Rather than investing in experimental ideas of games, game designers (who are scraping by the edge of their seat or having their game refunded for not being designed around tradition) invest in recreations of reality. But these recreations are not reality, rather, they are apocalypses for the majoritarian games audience to indulge in and then obsess over in reality. Piles of corpses, burning buildings, and trauma-soaked violence give the impression that enough pain somehow validates the medium as art.
Considering this, it makes sense that Arise has taken on this grim and dark aesthetic at the turn of a new console generation, and for what is otherwise the most inventive game of the series so far. Tales has never been a series that moved much further from the JRPG enthusiast audience. However, Arise seems to have attracted a larger audience, selling in three weeks half of what some of the best selling Tales titles have sold in their lifetime. Grim and gritty sells, whereas values that have been longstanding parts of the series, like friendship, hope, and optimism, aren’t put at the front and center in Arise.
In an essay inquiring into the grimness of the modern superhero, Jackson Ayres theorizes that gritty aesthetics was the comics industry backlash to earlier eras of camp. During the silver age, superheroes were colorful, wore eccentric suits, and ended up in situations that were fantastical. This created an understanding that comics weren’t meant for anyone, but the juvenile reader. However, since there were still fans that found deep meaning in the medium, they later created darker works set in their idea of “the real world” in order to claim artistic and cultural legitimacy. Today, videogames still struggle with this same desire to be legitimized and grime and grit are one of the methods they use with hopes to achieve it.
While the conversation of whether games are art died a long time ago, the use of the language by corporate game culture has continued. As each technological iteration of consoles has created smaller hardware gaps with each succession, prestige has stopped being assigned to experimentation with the systems at play and become a series of TV studios creating dramatic setpieces sprinkled in open worlds for players to cycle through. Yet even if videogame developers want to be arthouse film studios or prestige TV producers, they can never escape that they are rooted in videogames culture and history, and that this goal comes from a desire for capital to grow larger than it already is.
This creates a culture of wealthy game creators in development, entertainment, and writing that begin to believe they have left the “juvenile” realm of games. These creators believe they have somehow transcended the form and created something special. Then when anyone criticizes them, they sic their unwavering salvationists to violently bring down silence.
While Tales of Arise is only a single embodiment of grit, and one of the less harmful instances of it, its absurd dissonance with the optimism many have come to know the series for makes it much more palpable. It asks us to consider why this trend has stretched so far as to sprout up in a series that it doesn’t fit with. Perhaps the grit of videogames isn’t the aesthetic of the product, but a part of a larger attempt to legitimize games as cultural capital, to foster it’s continued growth. This means just as grit is a very constructed look and tone in games, it’s also a constructed structure of power in games. Perhaps instead of videogames continuing to create these burnt down landscapes filled with the dying screams of a million rigidbodies they can check on those who are very real in their own communities. Then maybe we can decide if we really need another gritty videogame.
Waverly is a trans game artist and freelance writer. She has written at Uppercut, Into The Spine, and Fanbyte. You can find her on Twitter @hotelbones.