Welcome to the 1208-Bit Nerd Church Podcast, where nerd culture and faith intersect as we comment on the spiritual themes that “arise” in the different mediums that we nerds love. Today we’re taking a look at some of the insights brought to light by Bandai-Namco’s latest JRPG, Tales of Arise—which is hands down the most enjoyable RPG I’ve played in years. But hey—we can hardly talk about this game without spoilers, so if you plan on playing the game first, go do it and we’ll see you back here after!
Before we get to the themes, let me give you a quick review of the game. It’s no small thing these days for me to say that I loved an RPG. While I have played many throughout my life, it’s rare that I’ve finished any I’ve started over the last decade. This is partially because the grind usually wears me down—literally to the point that I have fallen asleep while playing RPGs. But the main thing that killed my enjoyment of the genre was the auto-battle function that some games have offered. Once I tried that function out, I realized that my battling was so perfectly predictable by the game, that I had become pointless. Since the main focus of the game was battles and it could do that without me, some RPGs really just needed me to walk around a map.
But Tales of Arise isn’t quite like that. Well it’s true that you’ll be tired of grinding against the same enemies over and over again by the end of the game, the combat system is consistently challenging and requires you to pay attention at all times. Miss a few too many real-time dodges and you’ll have exhausted all of your power on healing before you ever find a new campsite to recover at.
Tales of Arise is a good challenge. It was rare that I beat any boss without being just a few hits away from dying. Its story is also full of many secrets that keep you pushing through the grinding to the next twist. And it’s to that story that we’ll now turn.
Theme 1: Slavery and Racism
Perhaps the most central theme to this Tales game is that of racism and slavery and the many different forms it can take. On that topic, the game actually has a lot of insightful things to say—though I imagine that for some of us in an American context, the game’s lessons may possibly get washed out (or should I say, white-washed) by the fact that nearly all the main characters are white. With the many important conversations we’re having in America on slavery and racism and it’s ever-lingering effects, it may feel unsavory to have a bunch of white characters talk about the lessons they’ve learned as slaves—as though they might be talking down to non-white races that have endured it.
But it’s important to listen to any story based on the world the writers have constructed, and in this case Tales of Arise is not racism based around color, but racism built around magic. In Tales of Arise, the Renans are capable of magical abilities while the Dahnan, at least typically, are not.
Racism takes on a different scenario in the 5 different realms throughout the Dahnan world. In the first realm, Lord Balseph forces his slaves into a series of never-ending labor. They are subjected to task after task with only the most basic amenities keeping them going. Balseph’s treatment of his slaves feels reminiscent of the way the book of Exodus speaks of Pharaoh’s oppression of the Hebrews:
Exodus 1:11, 13–14 (ESV): “…they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens… So they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves.”
Of course, this form of slavery isn’t just ancient, but recent as well. After all, the American empire found its foundation on the back of slaves as white people oppressed black people to build their economy in some of the most disturbing ways imaginable. The Bible sees the work of the enemy in this kind of treatment of one another, which you can see not only in the fact that God goes on to liberate the Hebrews from their Egyptian slave-masters, but also in Exodus’ use of the Hebrew words lebenah (lay-bay-nah) and homer (Hhoe-mare)—that is, brick and mortar. The last time these Hebrew words surfaced in the Scriptures was in Genesis 11, in reference to the Tower of Babel which was built with lebenah and homer—brick and mortar.
While the Tower of Babel is seen by many to be a strange story about how God apparently hates skyscrapers, archeological studies have shown us that in ancient Mesopotamia, buildings that were described as having their “top in the Heavens” (which is how the Tower of Babel is described in the Bible) were buildings we refer to today as, ziggurats. These ancient buildings had stairs that led to a little room at the top. The idea was simple: Ancient people gathered that if they could build a room close to the heavens, perhaps the gods would stop by and then walk downstairs to meet them on the earth.
This, of course, was the real problem with the Tower of Babel. God had just restarted the world via a great flood that had wiped everything out, and here was the leftover humanity pursuing the false gods. And these are the same false gods that Pharaoh built his own brick and mortar kingdom upon in Exodus. These key words remind us that God is not behind empire, which in Pharoah’s time was built on the backs of slaves. Rather, God’s heart aches for the slave persecuted by the empire of the false gods.
But now let’s leave the very start of the Bible and jump to the very end. In the Book of Revelation, John spends a lot of time painting a picture of Satan at work in the ways of empire. This is, in part, because empire always tramples over others to the delight of its own benefit. John get this point across in a character he creates named, “Lady Babylon”. She is pictured as an unpleasant drunk woman, who is open to doing every immoral act in the book, all the while murdering any Christians who get in her way and drinking their blood like a vampire. Being a depiction of empire, she is very wealthy and her wealth was made on the backs of (to quote Revelation), “slaves, that is, human souls” (Rev 18:13).
There it is. Slaves. The Tower of Babylon at the beginning still alive in Lady Babylon at the end—alive in Egypt at the beginning, and still alive in America today.
This same kind of Babylonian oppression is pictured well at the hands of Lord Balseph in the first realm of Dahna in Tales of Arise—though it’s pictured even more severely at the hands of Almeidria, the Lord of the fourth realm. She is possibly the most disturbing lord in the game, who ultimately saw her slaves as truly nothing more than a means to an end. I mean, that’s always how slavery works, but in her case, she killed a whole crowd of slaves just to soak up their energy to boost her magic. For her, even the deaths of her slaves (and not just their lives) served as means to get what she wanted.
Now, of course, few video games operate pacifistically (shout out to Undertale!) and so Tales of Arise’s response to slavery is generally that of violence. Honestly, given the ultimate story they tell throughout the game and the themes they constantly address from beginning to end, the constant fighting causes some of the game’s main points to fall a bit flat. For example, there’s one part where you discover one of the main characters once killed someone, causing gasps among your party—and all you can think of during that scene is the hundreds of people you’ve slayed since the game started. I mean, I get it—it’s a video game, and such games typically revolve around combat systems, so I’m not gonna come down on it too hard—but it was kind of funny how standard game mechanics got in the way of messaging in this case.
Personally, Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount have convicted me to become what I often call, a “Jesus pacifist.” And what better example do we have of Jesus pacifism going face to face with racism than Martin Luther King Jr., who took the peaceful tactics of Jesus and put them to the test, proving that such techniques are far more powerful than some might have imagined. Had it not needed to be a playable video game, Tales of Arise might have told such a story itself, but as a video game, it’s filled to the brim with battles.
But fighting our battles the Jesus way requires us to think in the form of the cross. It’s unpleasant and often unsatisfying, but if God can sink to our level and put on human flesh, and then wrap a towel around himself and wash his disciples feet like a common slave would have done in his time, then changing the world the Jesus way is going to take some… creativity, to say the least. Simply oppressing our oppressors will not go on to change anything. It may change the power dynamics of a society, but it won’t change fabric of those dynamics like peaceful tactics will. And actually, the game does try to address that topic as well, which we’ll get into now.
Theme 2: The Domination Cycle
Let’s return to a character we already mentioned, Almeidria, the lord of the fourth realm. Now when you first arrive at the fourth realm, you discover that the Dahnan’s have chased Almeidria out of town and overthrown and killed the Renan’s who used to live there. Now on one side of the coin, this should sound familiar, as that’s more or less what you and your team have been doing throughout the game—walking into towns, killing their lords, and trying to change the power dynamics. That being said, kudos to the writers for scripting into their game a scenario that proves that redemptive violence doesn’t work (or for at least being willing to agree that it sometimes doesn’t work).
Not long after you arrive at the fourth realm, you meet Dedyme, the leader of the Dahnan rebellion and he is a complete tool. He doesn’t listen to anyone, he acts like a jerk, and he thinks he can do no wrong. Your team partially finds him repulsive because, in order to seize control of the realm, he had to set off bombs that killed his own people. And the more Dedyme talks, the more you realize he’s fueled by racism and hatred. The oppressed has become the oppressor and you quickly realize that there is no difference between him and Almeidria. He might be on the underdog team that we’re rooting for, but he plays just as dirty as the his enemies.
In his trilogy of books, “The Powers,” Bible scholar Walter Wink explains what he famously coined, “The Domination System,” and it’s essentially what we see at play here in Dedyme’s story. In his third book in the series, “Engaging the Powers” he boldly declares,
“Forcible resistance transforms itself into what it opposes. As long as we continue to justify violence as “Christian,” we will remain blind to our own captivity to the hypnosis of mimetic rivalry. We really do have to choose whether to continue to support the Domination System, driven as it is by the myth of redemptive violence. This is the great divide that separates the gospel from all the apparently compelling justifications provided by the ideological counterfeit of the gospel. Any religious message that promises that we can win in the terms laid down by the Domination System is apostate. Any theology that promises success, national supremacy, or victory through redemptive violence is apostate. Any piety that equates the gospel with getting ahead, being number one, or salvation through patriotism is apostate.”
Falling into the cycle of this domination system is pretty natural for most of us. To some extent, it’s even built into us. For example, when your amygdala goes into alarm mode it shuts down the part of your brain that is associated with relational connection, empathy, impulse control, self-reflection, moral judgment, conscience, and so on. It’s point in doing this is to help you survive in threatening situations, but the unfortunate side-effect is that it can make us less human towards each other.
Dedyme becomes the embodiment of the domination system. He is nothing but an amygdala on high alert. He’s justified the unthinkable and his hatred ultimately becomes his demise when he finds Almeidria and leads a huge crowd to burn her alive. Little does he know that he’s walking into a trap that will end up killing him and the entire crowd.
“Forcible resistance transforms itself into what it opposes.” How many times have you seen that happen? Leave us your story in the comments.
Theme 3: Empathy
When we get to the third realm, the game adds an unexpected twist. (Actually, all this game really is is unexpected twists. Wait… does that then make unexpected twists expected? I dunno, moving on—) After defeating the two evil lords of first two realms, we enter the third realm where things seem to be just dandy. Seriously—Dahanan’s and Renan’s seem to get along just fine here. But since the second realm had a crazy twist you end up being super skeptical of this third realm. I mean, what’s really going on in the background? There’s gotta be something, right?
You soon meet Dolahim, the Lord over this realm and he altogether seems like a pretty pleasant guy. Adding to his trustworthiness is the fact that his chief guard is technically a Dahnan slave and she’s devoted to him so much that she would die for him! Seriously, what’s the catch? Did Dolahim hypnotize everyone? Is there something in the water? Does this even qualify as slavery exactly? Well, yes, because it is the Dahnan’s who do all the hard work while the Renan’s take it easy and enjoy life, but the Dahnan’s seem so fine with it that you’re left with a lot of questions.
You eventually unravel the mysteries that went on to create this odd scenario in the third realm, but the game does something absolutely unexpected here. Lord Dolahim, the third boss in the game that you’ve come to test your skills against, agrees with you that things must change and then joins your party for the next 30 hours of the game.
Honestly, this was one of the most shocking parts of the game and probably the part of the story where the message of enemy-love shined brightest to me. I mean, sure, Dolahim was nowhere near as bad as the other lords, but he was just that—a lord. A bad guy. A boss even! And yet, he becomes your teammate.
Bad guys usually did horribly in our media—even our children’s media. Ratigan fell off the top of Big Ben in the Great Mouse Detective. Gaston fell off a balcony into a rocky ravine in Beauty and the Beast. Judge Claude Frollo fell into a pit of fire in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Mother Gothel rapidly aged and then fell out of a tower to her death in Tangled. Malificent was stabbed in the heart and fell off of a cliff in Sleeping Beauty. Clayton fell off of a tree and accidentally hung himself in the vines in Tarzan. The evil queen fell off a cliff and was crushed by a boulder in Snow White. Scar fell off a cliff and was ripped apart by hyenas in The Lion King. Shan Yu rode a firework into a building and exploded in Mulan. Sykes was run over by a train in Oliver and Company. Hopper was eaten alive by birds in A Bug’s Life. Ursula was impaled by a ship and then struck by lightning in The Little Mermaid. And Syndrome was sucked into an airplane engine in The Incredibles.
My point is, bringing a video game boss onto your team was a bold and unusual move in Tales of Arise. And it was also the perfect move for the game’s messaging; for it’s at this point that the game starts to ask the question, “What if we were able to look beyond race and other dividing lines and realize that deep down, we’re all the same: human.
This is actually important messaging in the Bible right from the get-go. It’s important to realize that the Bible is full of polemic—that is to say that it often tells stories in intentional ways to counteract the theological and spiritual messaging of the world around them. When we look at the writing of different ancient cultures, we realize that many creation stories were created to bolster the author’s race as “the race of the gods.” In that light, all other races were lesser-than or subhuman. You can imagine how this kind of thinking would make it easy for one race to treat another as slaves.
But from the beginning of genesis, the Bible offers a polemic against this thinking. It does not qualify this race or that race as “the race of God.” Instead, it claims that humanity as a whole is made in the image of God. Therefore, to be human is to be on the same level of playing field as the human next to you, regardless of where they land on the socio-economic ladder. And therefore, we should be a race full of empathy for one another at every turn.
After befriending Lord Dolahim, empathy becomes a central point in Tales of Arise and it follows all the way to the end. Dahnan’s and Renan’s start to get along as they grow to know one another and treat each other as they would treat themselves. They put faith and trust in one another and even offer forgiveness to those who have wronged them. The game even goes so far as to offer the final bad guy in the entire game forgiveness for all the wrongs he committed against humanity—another twist rarely found in any story outside of the cross of Jesus.
But the game finds this theme to be central to its messaging time and time again. So much so that the main character even has to clarify at one point that he’s not saying that the evil things people do are okay, just that he’s looking to understand what made them do evil things in the first place, empathize with their pain, and then forgive them for it.
This is a fair clarification, as Biblical forgiveness is not telling people that the evil they did was okay or that it was “no big deal.” Actually, forgiveness is often just the opposite: It’s the recognition that something wasn’t okay, and that it was a big deal. But then it’s making the choice from there to say, “Though you owe me a debt for what you did to me, I have chosen to forgive you that debt. You are free.” And perhaps we might add, “Go and sin no more.”
A little bit of empathy can go a long way and give us the space to humanize and forgive the people around us who are made in the image of God, just like us. This is important to do—after all Jesus requires us to forgive, so if empathy can help us get there, it’s a gift we should embrace. My favorite quote from Henri Nouwen perhaps says it best:
“Compassion grows with the inner recognition that your neighbor shares your humanity with you. This partnership cuts through all walls which might have kept you separate. Across all barriers of land and language, wealth and poverty, knowledge and ignorance, we are one, created from the same dust, subject to the same laws, and destined for the same end. With this compassion you can say, “In the face of the oppressed, I recognize my own face and in the hands of the oppressor I recognize my own hands. Their flesh is my flesh, their blood is my blood, their pain is my pain, their smile is my smile. Their ability to torture is in me, too; their capacity to forgive I find also in myself. There is nothing in me that does not belong to them too; nothing in them that does not belong to me. In my heart I know their yearning for love, and down to my entrails, I can feel their cruelty. In another’s eyes I see my plea for forgiveness, and in a hardened frown I see my refusal. When someone murders, I know that I too could have done that, and when someone gives birth, I know that I am capable of that as well. In the depths of my being, I meet my fellow humans with whom I share love and hate, life and death.”
What about you? Do you think you could have empathy for a heavy slave-master like Egypt? It might help to remember that before Egypt persecuted the Hebrews, the Hebrews persecuted Egypt. After all, Abraham, the man from whom all the Hebrews came from, had an Egyptian slave named Hagar, which is a play on the Hebrew word “ger,” which we translate as “stranger” or “foreigner.” And how did Abraham treat the Egyptian foreigner among him? As a means to an end. When Abraham and Sarah were tired of waiting for God to give them a child, they turned Hagar into a sex-slave of sorts. In their culture, a woman could use her slave as a surrogate and when the surrogate gave birth, the child would then technically belong to the slave-master. Despite doing what she was commanded, Hagar was ultimately hated by her master and sent off into the wilderness to die—twice. And it was there that God met her at her lowest points and sustained her life—Just as he would one day meet the Hebrews at their lowest points and sustain their lives.
In the character of Hagar, the Bible is foreshadowing what is to come in Egypt, and in that foreshadowing the Scriptures want us to remember that before Egypt persecuted the Hebrews, the Hebrews persecuted Egypt. Before the ways of Empire were found in them, the ways of empire were found in us. Therefore, we can’t point the finger at someone else without first pointing the finger at ourselves. Likewise, the pain in our own stories should give us reason to empathize with others and to see them as human. In fact, in the Bible’s legal writings, God often reminds Israel of their own story in attempts to get them to empathize with all of the overlooked people they encounter.
“You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge, but you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.”
Empathy is crucial to loving others, be they strangers or friends or enemies. We can either look in one another’s eyes and see the Image of God or we can grab some brick and mortar and build walls between us—or worse, persecute those who are different than us, ultimately giving rise to the domination cycle that lives both in our amygdala, and in the heart of Lady Babylon and her own slave-master, Satan.
And in that light, it should not be shocking at all that Revelation warns us,
“Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues; for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities. Pay her back as she herself has paid back others, and repay her double for her deeds; mix a double portion for her in the cup she mixed. As she glorified herself and lived in luxury, so give her a like measure of torment and mourning, since in her heart she says, ‘I sit as a queen, I am no widow, and mourning I shall never see.’ For this reason her plagues will come in a single day, death and mourning and famine, and she will be burned up with fire; for mighty is the Lord God who has judged her.” (Rev 18:4-8)
God will ultimately do to Babylon for her crimes what he did to Egypt for hers. Will we heed that warning? Or will we forget that we too were once slaves, crushed and persecuted by Jesus’ own form of Babylon: Rome. If we forget, we will become her.
There are more great themes in Tales of Arise that we could continue to hit on, but I think we’ve already said enough in this episode! Who knows, maybe we’ll return with a part 2. What themes did you see that we didn’t get into here? Let us know in the comments below!
1208-Bit Nerd Church is a church based out of Jackson, Michigan. We meet in a hybrid form both online and in-person on Mondays from 5:30-9:00 via our Discord channel, where we also chat online about all kinds of things throughout the week. Doors open at 5:30, our main game of the night starts at 6, spiritual conversation happens at 7:30, and we offer space for free-gaming after that until we wrap up at 9. You can come and go at your own convenience and you’ll find the link to join our Discord in the information. If you’re watching this on YouTube, then you know the drill: like, comment and subscribe to keep the conversation going. Or if you’re streaming this episode via our podcast, you can help us out by leaving us a review on whatever platform you listen to us on. Alright, that’s it for today’s episode! Catch ya on Discord!