Optimism is not easy. This is something that most people don’t really think about. Most would consider optimism to be the default state of a person who has not seen enough of the world to know any different. There is a reason, after all, that the word ‘childlike’ is usually placed before the word and used to describe a state of naivetè that comes from inexperience. It is assumed by a great many people nowadays that once a person sees the world for ‘what it really is’, that person will, at the very least, shift from a perspective of ‘glass half full’ to ‘glass half empty’.
This manner of thinking is shown in video games a lot. As games strive to be a more ‘mature’ medium for storytelling, the settings and stories can, in a lot of cases, become very grim. Not that games are the only representation of these attitudes; dystopian fiction has enjoyed quite a run of success, and film has in recent years taken to deconstructing childhood heroes and showing their dark sides.
It’s refreshing, then, to experience a plot that shows that optimism is not solely a naive reaction, but can be a mature and informed choice that affects the way one views the world. And it is even more refreshing that this depiction of ‘intentional’ or ‘pragmatic’ optimism comes from a game that is in a great many ways a throwback to the same era of gaming that brought so many other evolutions to the kinds of stories that are acceptable in the medium.
Playing through The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky has been an absolute delight. My experience with the game could not have come at a better time. On a personal level, I needed to experience something that would let me know that the act of choosing to be optimistic is not a naive one. It is, instead, a show of the kind of strength that the world is in great need of in any period of time.
Trails in the Sky is the story of Estelle Bright, a member of an organization of civilian peacekeepers called the Bracer’s Guild. Members of the guild take on requests and responsibilities that include such things as personal protection, detective work, dangerous wildlife control, and the odd job or two. Anybody can post a request to the Bracer’s Guild message board, and that request will be answered with consideration to its relative impact on the local population. Which is to say that all requests are considered equally, but time sensitive requests and those that involve physical danger or community crisis would take precedence. As part of Estelle’s training, she journeys to each branch of the guild across the country of Liberl and shows that she can protect and defend the community while keeping the interests of the population at the forefront of her thoughts. In short, in order to be a Bracer, she must show that she understands what it is the Bracers do, and what it means to be one.
Bracers are a very important part of the society of the world of Trails in the Sky not just because of what they do, but what they don’t do, and how they do or do not do it. Bracers are a civilian organization that operates for the protection of civilians. They are not a military organization and they are not beholden to any country. In fact, the guild forbids its members from engaging in political or military operations with the exception of lending neutral support to ensure that local populations aren’t affected. They aren’t a police force, and they aren’t a militia. And yet, they are just as important to the well-being of the general population as any other pillar of society. Bracers act to protect people in danger, and the guild operates through a system of rewards freely given by those who wish to.
The very existence of the Bracers shows just what kind of world it is that they exist in. In order for such a system to work at all, there must be a kind of assumed goodwill. The Bracers must act honorably and it must be assumed that Bracers will act honorably. Similarly, those who the Bracers render service to contribute to the guild’s existence, so there is a level of assumed gooodwill from that direction as well. Above everything else, a Bracer is taught that the right choice must always be made. Thus, there is a balancing of the client’s wishes, the client’s well-being, and the well-being of the community at large. And when those things are in conflict with each other, it is assumed that a Bracer can be trusted to make the right judgment about what to prioritize.
Of course, it helps that both those within the guild and those outside of it have an ideal figure to look up to. That figure is Estelle’s father, Cassius Bright. As one of the highest-ranking Bracers in the guild, Cassius must embody everything that it means to be a Bracer: skill, courage, tactical intelligence, and wisdom. The fact that he does exhibit all these things and more is what gives the guild its credibility in the world at large. It also means that Estelle has some very gigantic shoes to fill in her own role as an aspiring Bracer.
Not that there is ever any doubt that Estelle has enough examples to follow. Despite the nature of the responsibilities of the guild, Cassius is a constant presence in Estelle’s life. It’s refreshing, really, because in so many stories parents are either dead or absent, especially when it comes to RPGs. In contrast, Cassius is a warm, caring father figure to both Estelle and to Joshua, the orphan boy that the Bright family took in at a young age. Even though tragedy has struck the family in the past with the passing of Estelle’s mother, the household is no less warm for it. Each member of the Bright family, whether by blood or by bond, is supportive and uplifting, and if the absence of Estelle’s mother is felt, it just serves to remind the Brights of the things that they have instead of causing them to mourn the things they have lost. Even though Cassius’s work causes him to be gone for long periods of time, and even though Estelle tends to make him the target of her sharp tongue more often than she doesn’t, the bond that exists there never goes away and, in fact, strengthens significantly over the course of the series.
This focus on family bonds continues throughout the game, and extends past the Bright family themselves. The characters that join Estelle on her journey all have some kind of family bonds that exist in their lives. Whether it’s the rough-around-the-edges former gang member that continually tries to make his old friends change their ways, or the princess who must balance her responsibilities as her grandmother’s heir with her desire to affect the world in a more personal manner, each one has someone in his or her life who they consider ‘family’ and who is a real presence. There is also a large emphasis on trust and mutual reliance. Sure, Cassius is a major part of Estelle’s life, but he doesn’t try to solve her problems for her. Instead, he sees her accomplishments and, as the story goes on, trusts her with more responsibility and eventually comes to see her as an equal.
While the emphasis on family is a major thing that separates Trails in the Sky from a great many other games, it’s not the only thing that sets the game’s plot apart from others. The way in which female characters are treated is also something to be admired here as well. While it isn’t that new of a thing for an RPG to have a lead heroine (Final Fantasy did have three whole games starring Lightning, after all), it’s the way that Estelle is protrayed that makes her more interesting. Estelle is a very flawed character in the sense that she has distinct flaws. She’s definitely not the smartest character, and she makes mistakes more often than she doesn’t. She’s physically tough, but is oftentimes more than a little hard-headed in her aproach to complex problems. However, her determination is also one of her greatest strengths, and the presence of her personal flaws just gives her the opportunity to grow and change over the course of the series. Compare this with, say, Lightning, someone who started her journey on top of her game and who, consequently, had all the emotional and personal development of a brick wall (love her to death, but even I have to admit it’s true).
Trails in the Sky is at its best when it focuses on the relationships between Estelle and the other women in the group. The amazing part of this isn’t even that those character interactions are present, the truly amazing part is how natural and effortless that inclusion feels. The simple act of including more women in the main cast means that the conversations just happen, and nothing about that development feels forced. There is a lesson there, I’m sure, though I’m not necessarily the right person to talk about it. What I can say is that the bonds between Estelle, her family friend Scherazard, the boarding school student Kloe, rival Bracer Anelace, and the young machinist apprentice Tita solidify into real friendship and devotion. This is something that fantasy and science fiction writing in general struggles with a lot, and it’s wonderful to see it represented so well in the plot of Trails in the Sky.
Of course, no plot is flawless and there were a few issues that I found along the way. One of the major ones is that two of the characters, Scherazard and her Bracer friend Aina, are very obviously functioning alcoholics. This is something that starts to show up in the first game as a preference for enjoying strong drink, but is taken to an extreme as the plot goes on and then, more often than not, played as the punch line of a joke. Of course, this sort of thing happens more than a little in various Japanese media, but it’s just so jarring in comparison to how well other things are addressed in Trails that it really stood out to me. The other issue has to do with the blatantly overtly sexual comments made by the character Olivier, a traveling musician and spy. Again, this may be chalked up to a cultural thing as Olivier’s type of character is a definite trope that is used in anime a lot. It’s just unfortunate that it’s carried over into this game as well, especially considering that most of the time the characters react to it by ignoring him.
Part of this can be explained by Estelle’s optimistic attitude toward the people around her. Rather than let a person’s flaws, no matter how egregious, define them in her eyes, Estelle seems to want to see the best in people that she considers her friends. Whether it’s her acceptance of Sherazard’s behaviors, her determination to see Olivier as a fundamentally good person despite his lecherous nature, or her tolerance of Agate’s rough edges or Tita’s adolescent awkwardness, Estelle’s reactions to her friends just serves to reinforce her optimism rather than diminish it. And sometimes it pays off as well, as it lets her help people who might need it. Sherazard’s addiction, after all, stems from events that happened in her past, and even Olivier’s lewdness starts to become so over-the-top that it seems to be mostly just a very unfortunately off-beat sense of humor rather than any attempt at seriousness on his part.
While Estelle’s optimism initially stems from a bit of naive thinking on her part, as her journey goes on and she sees more of the world, it becomes less of an automatic reaction and more of an intentional choice. The world is a harsh one, full of political machinations and wartime atrocities, and that’s even aside from the petty criminals and corrupt local authority figures. Estelle’s experiences could easily have left her jaded and distrustful, but when faced with that choice, Estelle chooses optimism. She chooses to believe in both her biological family and the family that she has found along the way. In this way, Estelle forms the core of the ‘intentional optimism’ that is present in the series as a whole.
It isn’t an easy choice to make, either. The people around Estelle don’t always share her outlook. At best, her friends give her optimism a bit of casual doubt, and at worst the villains try to completely undermine her attitude by showing her just how bad the ‘real’ world really is. Estelle is constantly faced with choices about who to save or when to save them. Oftentimes her choices reinforce the Bracers’ dilemma: whether to do what the client wishes, what is best for the client, or what is best for the community. Sometimes this ends with Estelle realizing that some people don’t want to be saved, or that someone is so obviously corrupt that they need to be punished in order to be rehabilitiated. When faced with these decisions, Estelle continues to make the choice to be optimistic. In her mind, the law of the land is just, the Bracers are wise, and people who commit criminal acts as a result of their circumstances (rather than an innate desire to do evil deeds) can be rehabilitated.
Each challenge to Estelle’s personal decision to choose optimism just makes it that decision a stronger one. That is just one more facet of the kind of optimism present in Trails in the Sky: the overarching theme of ‘strength through adversity’. If each challenge makes us stronger, after all, then the more powerful our enemies, the more powerful we become when we overcome them. Every challenge to our hope only serves to make our hope stronger in the end. The message that every darkness will make the dawn a brighter one is just the kind of message that I think the world needs. The context shouldn’t matter, and the nature of the challenge to our hope shouldn’t matter. Sure, life goes on, but it’s more than that. Life gets stronger. If we believe that people can be good, people can rise to that expectation even if they continue to have personal flaws that we don’t agree with.
In the end, that’s the kind of message that I needed to hear. Sometimes, I need to know that it is okay to be optimistic and that being optimistic is not a sign of weakness or of being naive. That is something that is very, very important to hear in a world that considers hope to be at best silly and at worst a weakness of character. The point of intentional optimism isn’t to ignore flaws or to to be blind to situations where others have bad intentions toward us. Intentional optimism is to know these things, to accept them, to be prepared to deal with them when they come up, and despite all of that to carry the certainty that people are fundamentally good. It is to know that the world can be better than it is, and that we can rely on our friends and family around us to help us do what we can to save the people we are able to.