Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Mapping out Fiction: The Appeal of World Design

Recently, I've been blazing through Trails in the Sky: The Second Chapter, the second entry in the Trails of franchise and an infamous victim of a serious development crisis during its localization. Supposedly the translation process behind this game led some of its team members to contemplate suicide. Damn. Many thanks for bringing such a great game over, but if you had to go that far, I feel kind of bad playing it. Hats off to XSeed.

Trails is highly appealing to me for many reasons, but perhaps my favorite thing about the game is in its highly detailed and intricately realized world design spanning multiple games. There is a storied history behind the Zemuria continent where each of the games take place, and each set of games in the series leads us to a different region of the continent, each with its own culture and atmosphere. Trails in the Sky has us in Liberl, a constitutional monarchy loosely based off of the country of Thailand, and throughout the first two games we are introduced to the different regions of the country and their various subcultures, such as the heavily industrialized region of Zeiss or the mercantile region of Bose. The game frequently makes mention of other nations, as well, with characters from these nations often playing a large role in the story and sporting marked differences from the Liberl natives in their attitudes and appearance. One of the big names dropped often is the Empire of Erebonia, an imperialistic, military minded country to the north of Liberl that seems to be a major world superpower. While Erebonia is referenced several times throughout the trilogy, it is only visited in passing, and even then we only see very tiny glimpses of its border regions close to Liberl.

The Kingdom of Liberl.
The other sets of Trails games feature a new cast of characters and are set in other parts of the world, with each set of games telling its own self contained story while also painting a much larger picture of the Zemurian continent as a whole. Trails to Zero and Trails to Azure are the second set of Trails games, taking place in the region of Crossbell, which was only briefly mentioned in Sky but nonetheless plays an important role in the overall world setting, lying between the two superpowers of Calvard and Erebonia. Erebonia is the setting of the soon to be released Trails of Cold Steel. The appeal behind this is that we've only heard of these countries in passing despite them playing such a major role in the world's history and politics, and to finally see them realized with their own culture, politics, and characters is immensely satisfying after only being fed breadcrumbs with off-hand info and cameo appearances. To see the world slowly realized through the perspective of different characters from different regions gives it a feeling of authenticity that cannot be achieved through a single set of eyes.

The known Zemurian continent. Click for full size.
The Trails series has multiple games set in the same nation, giving it plenty of time to flesh out that particular region of the Zemurian continent, allowing the player to become intricately familiar with its residents, culture, and history. No character, including each and every NPC, goes unnamed, and you'll often see them return throughout the various installments - you'll watch marriages struggle, you'll see little orphans learn and grow, and you'll meet old friends you made a game prior. This is to say nothing of the major characters (you'll know them if they have a portrait) who evolve gradually over the course of the story. Because the story is given so much time to be told over the course of multiple games, the characters' growth feels authentic and happens at a natural pace. You'll never see a character change their personality with a haircut. Tales of the Abyss fans will get that reference. I want to give specific examples, but I can't without spoiling the story, so you'll have to take my word for it - the characters feel as if they have a lot of depth to them, and this is truly impressive considering that they can be fairly trope-y at times. It takes a special kind of writer to pull off a character that's both a JRPG stereotype and has multiple layers to their character.

I'll write more about the intriguing world of Trails later, after I've had a chance to play Cold Steel, but the focus on world design reminds me of another now defunct series that did something similar. That series is Suikoden.

The title seen here,"Genso Suikoden," is the title of the series as it is known in the east. It was localized as simply "Suikoden" when it came to the west.
A big part of Suikoden's appeal as a franchise, much like Trails, is in its interconnected world, with each game taking place in a different chunk of that world. Since Suikoden I, the Suikoverse has been set up to an extremely vast and diverse place, with each country having its own unique aesthetic and culture. The direction Konami took post Suikoden V, with an alternate continuity set in a different world, was so disappointing to so many because it abandoned a world that is extremely well cultivated and not yet entirely explored.

Pictures here is the northern continent. Two other major continents exist that we know of - the southern and the western continents - but the northern continent remains the most fully explored, and is also the seat of the major world superpower, The Holy Kingdom of Harmonia. The "Arcadian" nation is fan named and is not mentioned in any games.
Let's take a look at the settings from each major game, in their order of appearance.

Toran Republic (Previously the Scarlet Moon Empire)

Located in the southeast central region of the Northern Continent, the Toran Republic is typically full of vast plains, dense forests, and mountains. In other words, it's a pretty standard fantasy setting. What sets it apart from much of traditional fantasy, though, is that it generally feels very sparse and humble, and lacks the sense of grandeur that you would expect from a fantasy setting. Castles and bustling cities are few and far between, and the castles and large cities that do exist are generally modest in size and splendor. The Toran Republic blends the basic concepts of fantasy with something akin to rural Asian society, with many of the towns you visit being mountain hamlets or small villages. However, there's also an elven forest and a city of dwarves, which is located in a mountainous region. Toran is a nice blend between medieval European fantasy and a rural Asian aesthetic.

Dunan Republic (Formerly the Kingdom of Highland and the City-states of Jowston)

Located directly to the north of Toran, Dunan's existence was hinted at in the first game when Teo McDohl was sent here to do battle with the City-states of Jowston. Dunan is not too different from Toran, and also tends to blend the European and the Asian; however, Dunan seems to show a stronger affinity for the European side of the equation, with university cities such as Greenland and bustling cities such as South Window. In addition, Dunan seems to be a slightly more mountainous region than Toran. The geopolitical landscape plays a much more significant role during the time that Suikoden II takes place than it did in the previous installment, as the game takes place within two opposing nations, as opposed to the rebellion against a single nation in the first game.

The Grasslands and Zexen Confederacy

Again, we have a game taking place within two different settings, and again, it is located to the north of the previous game's setting. The Grasslands are home to a sparse and rustic tribal society, and have a much stronger thematic focus than the settings of the first two games. Zexen is strongly influenced by medieval European society, complete with orders of knights and the concept of a nobility. The confederacy was founded by wealthy traders, and it shows; towns and cities in Zexen are very developed, and contrast strongly with their Grassland neighbors. The Grasslands gifted us with duck and lizard people.

The Island Nations

This time, we go south, all the way off the coast of the Northern Continent and into the sea separating it from the Southern Continent. The Island Nations are a confederation of loosely affiliated islands including the Kingdom of Obel and its surrounding neighbors. Most of this area is, not surprisingly, comprised of water. It also made for the worst, most tedious world map traversal in an RPG ever. The Islands Nations, also unsurprisingly, have a very "seafaring" feel to them, both in aesthetics and in the way it reflects in their society. Each island feels generally secluded from the other islands, although mountainous regions appear to be fairly common. The concept of royalty exists in the Kingdom of Obel, and while Obel appears to be the de facto leader of the Island Nations, it does not hold absolute power. Interestingly enough, Razril, which plays a central role in the plot and is the island you begin on, belongs to the Dukedom of Gaien up until the end of the game, and is not considered a part of The Island Nations.

Kooluk Empire

Located directly north of The Island Nations and directly south of the Scarlet Moon Empire, Kooluk shares more in common geologically with its southern neighbor, sans the gratuitous amounts of water. Its landscapes are rocky and mountainous, and the lack of color on its flag is an accurate representation of what its terrain looks like - misty and grey. Politically, however, Kooluk is more like Scarlet Moon, being ruled by an Emperor and existing as a highly militaristic society.

Queendom of Falena

The only location on the Southern Continent we get to visit, the Queendom of Falena, as its name suggests, is a matriarchal society. The concept of royalty and nobility runs deep in Falena, and the political machinations of the Falenan nobility are the central focus of the game's plot. The country is noticeably vibrant and lush, and possesses many rivers and a warm, temperate atmosphere. Travel by boat is fairly common. Most of the major cities of the Queendom of Falena are located on the Feitas River, including the capital, Sol-Falena. Beaver people make their home here.

The Holy Kingdom of Harmonia was visited briefly in Suikoden III, and was featured in the spinoff game Suikogaiden II, but much of it remains unseen and unexplored. Which is somewhat ironic, considering that it is by far the most influential country mentioned in the series. From the brief glimpses of it that we do see, it appears to be a country full of greenery, with extravagant architecture designed with a beautiful crystal motif.

My personal favorite is Falena, as it's truly an amazing setting with a great setup for a political Suikoden plot, what with its noble houses and all. They're all fantastic, however. The Island Nations are a huge pain to navigate in game, mostly because your ship is slow as molasses, but the overall high seas aesthetic is extremely appealing on a purely visual level.

A well built world is a rarity in games. Frequently we only see a tiny glimpse into whatever world the creators have cooked up, so it's always satisfying to find a series that takes its world building seriously, and does it well. Suikoden may be a lost cause with its mother company Konami renouncing the console game business, but the Trails series has been a breath of fresh air, and much like a successor to the Suikoden series in the sense that it has a detailed world spanning several games. Let's hope that the Trails series sees itself through to its conclusion!


  1. Great post (and nice headline). The worldbuilding in the Sen series is fascinating, I tip my hat to those who had to come up with interesting lines for all NPCs. I also find it refreshing how the concept monarchy isn't depicted in a negative light. I'm finding myself genuinely immersed in the world, speaking to all NPCs and even doing some sidequests whereas in other RPGs I just blast my way through. Funnily enough, I was in the middle of a Suikoden II playthrough when TitS SC came along, so it's on hold until I finish TitS first (which will take a long time, I'm still in chapter 3).

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