Heroic self-sacrifice is a pretty major part of storytelling, no matter which side of the ocean you’re on. 1 of the greatest and most inspiring acts of good that our heroes can perform is to give their lives for the sake of the well-being and happiness of others...it redeems villains, it cements the good and worth of minor characters, it makes unforgettable icons from our heroes. Heck, 1 of the most prevalent religions on Earth, Christianity, is based on the concept. The selfless greatness of a man or woman who gives up all he or she has for the sake of others, others whom he or she does not even personally know, is something which we are drawn to.
This fact, however, means that we may be a little too eager, sometimes, as creators and as audiences, to jump into this idea more than we should. Villain redemption through heroic sacrifice is so common that half the time it just doesn't make an impact, characters that the writers aren’t finished with can get axed off prematurely because someone wanted a dramatic moment which just means that they need to be half-assedly resurrected later, and sometimes characters kill themselves when a much simpler, non-fatal course of action was readily apparent.* And on the audience’s side, sometimes we’re too eager to get carried away and make more of heroes’ sacrifices than they’re actually worth.
Such is the case, I feel, of the sacrifice made by Sorey at the end of Tales of Zestiria (obvious spoiler alert here, by the way). From cruising through a few message boards and looking in on some conversations between Tales of fans, I’ve gotten the distinct impression that most players of ToZ view Sorey’s sacrifice as having the same gravity, tragedy, and nobility as any other RPG hero’s sacrifice possesses, like, say, Maxim in Lufia 2, or Tidus in Final Fantasy 10. And I think that may be just a tad of an overreaction to Sorey’s case.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I respect the sacrifice Sorey makes at the end of the game. He chooses to leave his friends and world, to chain his spirit to that of the god of Seraphs, so that Sorey can undertake the process of purifying said Seraph and save the world from the malevolence that has afflicted it for so long. This will take centuries to accomplish, meaning that Sorey is going to sleep through the chance to see the good that his actions have brought to the world, and will never again see his human friends again. It’s a heavy sacrifice to have to make, to be sure, and he’s a brave, heroic man to take it upon himself.
But all the same, to view this in the same lens as your typical end-of-adventure protagonist self-sacrifice is, I think, maybe to exaggerate its level of tragedy a bit. Let’s really look at what Sorey’s actually having to give up here.
First of all, the guy ain’t dying, in any sense of the word. It’s a known fact, going into the final battle, that for Sorey to do this is for him to simply be isolated for a few centuries. Barring some extreme outside event, Sorey will be waking up good as new once he’s done with this whole purification hullabaloo. And since he wouldn’t normally have lived centuries anyway, one can only conclude that this act will not shorten his lifespan in any way, like, say, going into a coma would (since one continues to age in a coma). There’s no ambiguity about this: he’s not dying. So that alone cuts down on how tragic this sacrifice can really seem--we rightly make a big deal of Yuri choosing to die for his love of Alice at the end of Shadow Hearts 2, because the understanding is that he’s, y’know, not coming back, but we rightly don’t make a big deal of Bleu/Deis going back to sleep at the end of Breath of Fire 1, because even though it won’t be for centuries, she will, eventually, wake up right as rain.
Of course, one’s simple physical and mental existence are not the only things one can give up, and the weight of Sorey’s sacrifice comes from what else he’s losing. By having to leave for centuries, as I said, it means he’ll never get to see his human friends again, and the world will be drastically different from what he knew. Well, that’s certainly a sizable loss for him, and it does make his sacrifice meaningful and heroic...but even then, I have to say, it’s not quite as heavy a thing he’s giving up as you might initially think.
Let’s look at the friends he loses in this deal. Is it tragic that he’ll never again get to hang with his BFF Rose, or see Alisha again? Absolutely! Very sad on both sides, especially for Alisha, since she doesn’t know what he’s doing in advance and thus has no chance to actually say goodbye to Sorey. But...besides Rose and Alisha, every one of Sorey’s meaningful relationships is with a Seraph. His lifelong buddy Mikleo is a Seraph. The friends he’s made on his journey, Lailah, Edna, and Zaveid, are all Seraphim. And all the people of the town in which Sorey has lived his whole life are Seraphim, too. Given Seraphim’s long, perhaps even outright endless lifespans, this means that nearly everyone in Sorey’s life that he really cares about will still be alive centuries later, when his life resumes! It’s tragic that Sorey will never again see Rose and Alisha, but this is a far cry away from giving up on all the people he loves; at least 2/3rds of them are going to be kicking around when he wakes up.
I feel like I did when watching that episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic in which Rainbow Dash is going through the stages of grief because her pet turtle’s going to be hibernating through the winter--like I’m expected to be devastated by a tragedy that isn’t happening. It’s unfortunate when you have to be separated from someone you care about for a while, but it’s not an adequate narrative substitute for death! It’s sad, but not THAT sad. That turtle’s gonna wake up in a few months just fine, and Sorey’s still gonna be able to continue all but 2 of his meaningful relationships.**
In addition, having to give up on his world, awakening centuries later to a world of countries and societies that he knows nothing of...that could be a big loss, for most characters. A lot of protagonists are defined by a love for their world, and their dreams and ambitions in life. But, uh...Sorey’s case is actually remarkably free of tragedy, here. Sure, it kind of sucks that Sorey won’t be able to witness the kingdoms of Rolent and Hyland as they enter a new golden age thanks to the efforts of Sorey and his friends, but...how attached can he really be to the world as a whole, honestly? Guy only left his super-isolated little Seraph town a few months ago! He hasn’t seen enough of the world to be able to really miss it. The only thing he might lose is his hometown, but his attachment to it seemed more based on his relationship to the residents of his community, rather than the place itself, and as stated above, they all have the potential to still be alive and kicking. Waking up in a new era is going to be little more than just the same experience of stepping out into a new world that Sorey had early in the adventure.
And finally, Sorey doesn’t have to give up on any of his life’s ambitions or interests. Although a decent character, Sorey really only has 1 interest and life dream: to explore ruins. Well, the great thing about ruins is that they aren’t going anywhere, especially not in RPGs, in which leftover locations from lost, legendary eras are usually somehow so perfectly preserved that every damn puzzle switch in the things still works over a thousand years later. So Sorey has every chance once the world’s saved and the land is purified to go back to his life’s passion of ruin-exploring.*** Hell, a few centuries later, there’s probably MORE of the things to go spelunking in, and there’s certainly going to be more history for him to read up on. This sacrifice of his actually does his hobby a favor!
So, ultimately, is Sorey’s sacrifice at the end of Tales of Zestiria sad, noble, and meaningful? Absolutely. I don’t want to imply that it’s not. But should we see it on the same level as other heroic RPG sacrifices? Not really. A character like Lufia 2’s Maxim gives up his life, gives up on a world he’s been a part of for a substantial amount of time, gives up a chance to raise his infant son, gives up on ever seeing any of his friends again. Sorey’s sacrifice just doesn’t compare to that.
* Flash Season 1 Spoilers: Dammit, Eddie, you didn’t have to shoot yourself in the heart to save the world! You could’ve just shot yourself in the balls instead, and actually lived to see Season 2! Hell, a stern promise to get a vasectomy might’ve been enough!
** Not counting the meaningful relationships that were forcibly ended by different circumstances. Sadly, Dezel and Gramps are gone, and I feel for Sorey’s loss on both counts, but those have nothing to do with the losses associated with his end-of-game purification sacrifice.
*** Why does he even want to, though? I don’t mean that archeology and history and all that jazz isn’t interesting, mind you. I mean that just about every ruin you encounter in Tales of Zestiria is incredibly basic and boring! Even by RPG ruin standards, ToZ’s dungeons are dime-a-dozen copies of one another with little to differentiate each from the last. It’s like Bandai-Namco outsourced dungeon creation to Bioware’s Dragon Age 2 team, or those clowns who programmed the dungeons in Conception 2. Just seems ridiculous to me that ToZ would make the passion of its protagonist and his besty archeology, and then put almost no effort into more than half of the historic sites you can visit in the game.