SPOILER WARNING: This essay contains spoilers for the entirety of Tales of the Abyss.
Since 1995, one of the most iconic RPG franchises in Japan—and, increasingly, with western audiences—is the Tales series. Each installment boasts high fantasy settings that dabble in magitech, references (if in-name-only) to mythologies from around the globe, and parties made up of fire-forged found families.
In ten years of playing Tales games, something I’ve come to learn is that the premise of each title is fundamentally the same. Our outcast hero engages in plot-catalyst shenanigans and must leave home. The core of our party sets out on a seemingly standard quest until a plot twist strikes, usually as a direct consequence of the hero’s actions. From there, the team must regroup with even stronger resolve to tackle the new, grander quest ahead.
Tales of Symphonia was the first real, sprawling RPG I’d ever played, and the depth of its characters and plot compared to the Sonics and Super Marios that dominated my childhood had me glued to my GameCube. The story tackled politics and religion, racism, and idealism versus realism while weaving an interesting narrative about characters with strengths and flaws. My obsession extended to badgering my friends to play it, too, and anxiously awaiting the next installment in the series, Tales of the Abyss.
Tales of the Abyss opens on the nations of Malkuth and Kimlasca, which have been on the brink of war for years, and Luke, a teenage Kimlascan noble who will one day become king. Luke is also an amnesiac who suffers from migraines and hears voices (side-effects of a kidnapping attempt seven years ago), and so he is kept confined to his family’s manor until he comes of age. His only ties to the outside world are his best friend and servant Guy and swordsmanship master Van, whose sister Tear attacks the manor to assassinate her brother. Before she can complete her mission, she and Luke are mysteriously blown away to a wetland teeming with monsters—and across the Malkuth border.
After Symphonia, with its vibrant cast of characters and heroic venture into saving the world, the opening chapter of Tales of the Abyss was not what I expected. In place of a human world seeking angelic regeneration, I was transported to a stuffy manor; instead of an impromptu battle protecting friends, my fighting tutorial was practicing on a dummy; perhaps most distressing of all, I traded in my altruistic idiot of a hero, Lloyd, for the spoiled, disagreeable Luke.
My skepticism wore off as the story continued. The gameplay was great, after all, particularly with an upgrade to the battle system that allowed greater freedom to move around than in Symphonia. Worsening relations between Malkuth and Kimlasca kept the tension high at all times, and the subplot about using magical technology to clone living beings piqued my curiosity. Luke and Tear meet Fon Master Ion (expectation: political/ambiguously-religious world leader; reality: a small child who cannot tie his own shoelaces) and become his guard while he investigates sacred woodland creatures, one of which becomes our mascot character, Mieu. The playable party rounds out with characters full of nuance and hints about dark secrets to come: big brother surrogate Guy; snarky necromancer colonel Jade; tiny, pigtailed bodyguard Anise; and the Kimlascan people’s beloved Princess Natalia. Our antagonists could be described as Bizarro incarnations of the heroes, right down to Luke’s equally-disagreeable doppelganger Asch the Bloody.
Luke himself develops his own dream of becoming a hero, but for the express purpose of being allowed beyond his manor’s walls, not for the good of anyone else. He refuses to admit that he’s ever wrong, complains about everything, and demands to be in charge despite having no idea what the political or social state of the outside world is like. I reveled in Jade’s ever-present sarcastic responses and related to the rest of the party’s exhaustion with Luke’s childish traits.
Of course, these traits also make him all too easy for Van to manipulate for the trademark Tales twist.
Hungry to prove himself, especially in the eyes of the teacher who has only ever praised and encouraged him, Luke follows Van’s instructions to harness the power inside him causing his headaches, which Van claims will help to clear poisonous miasma from the mining town of Akzeriuth. In actuality, that power is manipulation of the seventh fonon, the most difficult element to control in Abyss’ world, and Luke’s attempt causes the city to collapse in on itself, killing thousands. In the wake of the destruction, Luke clings to the hope that it wasn’t all his fault when Van twists the knife, revealing that Luke’s lost memories aren’t a result of amnesia but the fact that those memories didn’t exist to begin with. He is the successful result of human cloning—“Foolish Replica Luke,” in Van’s words.
Following Akzeriuth, the party turns its back on Luke. They berate him for his blind faith and selfishness and decide it’s best to leave him behind and continue their quest with the original Luke: Asch. With how much Luke had irritated me for the first chunk of the game, I figured seeing him get his comeuppance would have been a satisfying moment.
Instead, I was heartbroken.
Of course the first part of the game was boring; I was playing as Luke, and Luke was bored. The only life he’d ever known was within those manor walls, with hardly anyone to talk to and nothing to do. Of course he threw tantrums and complained; teenage appearance or not, he was seven years old. All this time, I’d been loathing a second-grader who was out of the house for the first time in his life and thought he was going to go on an adventure and become a hero that everybody liked. Every choice Luke had made leading up to Akzeriuth not only made more sense but dripped with heartache when the realization struck that he wasn’t a self-absorbed teen but a lonely child.
When Luke cut off his long hair and swore to become stronger, I took that as a sign that he would move past Akzeriuth much the way Lloyd moved past the tragedy of Iselia in Symphonia. Not so. While Luke does put his effort into the grander quest of Tales of the Abyss, he doesn’t charge ahead with pure heroic adrenaline. He mourns Akzeriuth and is consumed with survivor’s guilt. Once Luke rejoins the party, he shrinks away from Asch in every interaction, sure that he is, as Asch says, the inferior replica. Regularly he wonders if his friends wouldn’t be happier to be with the “real” Luke, or he worries that he’ll be abandoned as nothing more than a fake—and that he deserves abandonment. On more than one occasion, Luke thinks to himself or voices aloud that the world would be a better place if he didn’t exist.
My first time through Tales of the Abyss, I remember thinking, OK, the rest of the party is starting to understand, they’re forgiving him and moving forward, they’re appreciating him as an individual and not just Asch’s replica—why isn’t Luke? Why isn’t he bouncing back?
He wasn’t bouncing back because people don’t just bounce back from depression or trauma. Anxiety is an insidious emotion, always present and waiting for when you’re at your weakest. With Luke’s whole identity shaken and a period of all his loved ones turning their backs on him, coupled with the horror of being directly responsible for the tragedy at Akzeriuth, his self-worth is next to nothing for most of the game. His self-loathing doesn’t go away just because his friends say he shouldn’t feel it. Often times, no matter how sincerely other characters assure him that he matters, Luke just isn’t in a place where he can believe them.
As I came to the final act of Tales of the Abyss, I encountered some of the most important scenes in any video game I’ve ever played. Luke reflects on sacrificing himself to save others and admits that he’s afraid to die—and that he wants to live. His journey towards recognizing his own importance moves at a realistically slow pace, but Luke eventually realizes that his life is his own, and that his thoughts and feelings are valid. After months of the narrative spent reducing himself to only a replica, Luke’s relationships and experiences give him the courage to value himself. When he meets Asch face-to-face in the game’s finale, Luke says, “We’re both real. You and I are two different people…[I’ve] decided that I’m me.”
In the end, Asch and Luke both end up sacrificing themselves to save the world. The last scene in the game shows the rest of the party coming together to celebrate what would have been Luke’s twentieth birthday, his coming of age, and a mysterious redheaded hero appearing before them. Whether it’s Luke, Asch, or some merging of the two remains debated among fans today. Our parting moment shows the party members rushing to greet him, with our final reaction being Jade—the bitter former scientist responsible for the development of cloning technology—giving the stranger a small smile. I like to think that the person returning home is Luke, and that Jade, something of a father figure to him, recognizes him even from far away.
Each time I’ve replayed Tales of the Abyss, I’ve picked up on more and more details I missed the first time around. Even Ion points out that Luke is a kind person; Luke has nightmares about having to kill enemies on their quest; he insists on getting involved when injustice is afoot; he gets embarrassed when thanked and excited when praised. Behavior that irritated me in my first playthrough became endearing, and following Luke’s story again humbled me with the compassion I gained on subsequent playthroughs.
Re-playing the game again as a college senior facing graduation into the working world, I had a fresh perspective. The fear of facing a tough job market and my own worries about having pursued a creative field were concerns looking to the future, and so in many ways I connected to Luke’s anxiety. His character arc chronicles his self-recognition and discovering that he’s important as an individual. It felt like playing for the first time as I revisited his need to be a beloved hero, his crippling fear that he wasn’t as good as someone else, and his ability to overcome those hurdles.
Tales of the Abyss provides such an important protagonist in that Luke isn’t just an altruistic, always-does-the-right-thing hero. This is a character who teaches players that worrying isn’t weak and that anyone can discover the inner strength to rise above fear. It’s hard to put into words how important it is to have a protagonist who struggles with self-confidence but overcomes it to become a hero; players learn from Luke that they can become heroes, too.
“I am me,” Luke says, standing tall, and that’s all he needs to be to accomplish great things.