(I mean, it's not really a game you complete, but I think I'd like to declare my being finished with it)
So a while ago, I talked about the method that games use to explore certain ideas. The conclusion I was trying to reach is that a story's message doesn't have to be clumsily delivered through its plot or parroted by characters when you can use things like game mechanics and world-building and repetition of ideas (in other mediums these are called motifs) to influence the tone of the story and the lasting impression the player takes from it.
Vagrant Story is not the Holy Grail of gaming I once thought, but its script is still a benchmark for video games. The plot focuses on an infiltration mission and political machinations, but through its protagonist it explored the nature of human memory and its importance in forming one's identity several months before the Christopher Nolan's Memento would do the same thing.
Certainly, Vagrant Story was not the first game where the nebulous nature of a character's memories (or lack thereof, as many will remember how common amnesia was as a trope compared to now) were integral to the understanding of the story, but after Vagrant Story, I can think of plenty of games that put the nature of their characters memories, personalities, and identities front and center - especially where Square Enix was concerned.
In games like Final Fantasy IX, there was still some subtlety to the proceedings. At the game's outset, the mystery of Vivi's identity is planted, and finally bears fruit much later on when the difficult nature of Zidane's memories echoes the turmoil we've known to be growing within Vivi. It's a fitting payoff for such a long-term narrative, and answers are delivered in full at a decent pace.
In contrast, as the Kingdom Hearts games rolled on, all subtlety went out the window, and the nature of memory became the focus of the story. Though it's probably untruthful to say the games discuss the "nature of memory" so much as memories are just weird, malleable plot points. While games like Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy IX ask the player to consider how important our perception of events in the past are to understanding our present selves and the way we are understood by others, games like Kingdom Hearts asks... similar questions in much less helpful ways, mostly by using terms that don't reflect the complexity of the self. According to Wikipedia: "Roxas is a 'Nobody', a being created when the series' main character Sora briefly lost his heart during the first game of the series."
Games such as Valkyrie Profile: Silmeria, the Xeno- series, and... guh... The 3rd Birthday all consider memories and identities to be malleable things that can be lobbed around like softballs as major plot points. The thing about having confusing plots heavily focus on character's identities shifting and changing is that, after going through all the effort to keep it all straight in my head, the last thing I want to do is think about the nature of memories as they apply to me.
A digestible plot and satisfying mechanics keep my reptilian brain happy and occupied while my mammal brain considers the implications of the game's message. A complicated plot where I have to spend time drawing parallels between characters' predicaments and my own is order to make sense of the importance of the proceedings is a waste of brain activity better spent on anything more fulfilling.
Which brings me to Soul Sacrifice, possibly the only game to use malleable memories as a valid plot point.
Soul Sacrifice is a grotesque fairy tale. The premise is simple. You are imprisoned by an evil wizard with plans to sacrifice you when a magical talking journal bound in flesh slides into your cell and tells you that if you read and relive the events of the entries within, you will be able gain the powers of the long-dead sorcerers detailed, learn the nature of your captor, and defeat him.
I say that Soul Sacrifice is a fairy tale because the nebulousness of the world allows for a certain suspension of disbelief. You are told very little, so that when very strange and unlikely things happen, you say to yourself, "I guess that's how things are in this world."
This is a world were magic is not clean energy, but more like a nuclear weapon, leaving fallout about to mutate lands and beasts. Magic is an extension of the greed within every living thing, from trees to rats to children. Magic is constantly threatening to make things worse for everyone.
Only state-sanctioned sorcerers are capable of wielding magic safely, paradoxically for the purpose of eradicating the monstrous abominations created by magical radiation. Sorcerers are widely feared and hated as a symbol of violence and degradation, but are the only things keeping people safe.
The way sorcerers in particular are able to deal with monsters is through the art of sacrifice. They absorb the essence of fallen foes (who, in their weakened states, take on the form they once had, whether it be a mangy cat or a wrathful man) and seal it within their right arms. As a rule, sacrificing more foes makes the sorcerer stronger.
In doing this, though, sorcerers also takes some of their target's essence into them, their soul, the thing that is the sum of their experiences and feelings.
Absorbing a very powerful, very willful soul can affect the behavior and, YES, the memories of the sorcerer.
But you can save monsters, too. Instead of increasing your attack power through sacrifice, being a savior can boost your life and defensive power, as well as allow you to recruit allies to your cause. However, although saving some monsters can provide certain passive boons when saved, the rewards are often dubious (powers aren't as good, allies are dumb), and on the whole (at least according to the game's lore) authorities do not tolerate sorcerers acting as saviors, since they are contracted executioners, not judges.
Still, as the one in the field, you have the choice. Every time you fell a monster, you can choose to either save it or sacrifice it.
What's great about the story is that rules of a sorcerers duties are set forward very early on. Sorcerers kill monsters, and they sacrifice them, becoming living silos of malice. You take these rules for granted. The game keeps you so focused on killing monsters and getting stronger that, after a while, you don't think twice about the nature of what you're doing, and the progression of the story becomes secondary to the progression of the challenge. As with any diligent sorcerer, it becomes a numbers game. How many of what kind of monsters do I need to kill to get enough powers to kill that next monster?
By keeping the player focused on the mechanics of play, the game frees itself to influence the player's thoughts from behind the scenes, rather than awkwardly confronting them about the game's "point" via cutscene. In Soul Sacrifice, the mechanics drive the player forward, but they also connect directly to the nature of the story and the plights of the characters. The way that a single decision annihilates all other realities, the way we value or cast aside things based on their usefulness, the ways in which growth may transform us or make us more like who we truly are.
When the game finally reveals its hand - when the nature of the relationships between the very small cast of characters starts to slide into focus - that's when you finally start to think about the implications of what you've been doing. Not because the game begins navel-gazing and actively discusses the nature of itself, but because you are put in a situation where you can't help but wonder what it means.
Soul Sacrifice does this in the same way every good game has done it. At the game's climax, you are asked to do something you've done a thousand times before, but for an entirely different reason that puts your entire experience up until that point in a different perspective.
And while the ending does indeed come down to a binary decision, I am pleased to inform that neither ending is truly good or bad - or, well, I didn't think so. Though I felt that one ending was, dare I say, more poetic and more in keeping with the tone of the game than the other. Believe or not, this dopey, macabre little game, like a fairy tale, has a very beautiful moral. From the creator, Keiji Inafune:
My own life story has been the inspiration of this game. I was put in a lot of situations where I had to make tough decisions. I learned that things don’t go well just because you want to be famous or rich or a better person. You have to constantly think what you’re willing to give up or sacrifice to make things happen.Sometimes I feel like the importance of a story can be broken down into an equation. (Decisions made x frequency) / time = importance, or something. The more time you spend thinking you understand something only to find how wrong you were always seems to pack an emotional punch, no matter the situation.
Time, however, is also Soul Sacrifice's draw back. As glad as I am that I played it, it's hard for me to say that it's truly a great game because it is exceedingly repetitive. I literally stopped playing for a few months for that reason. Often times you'll find yourself asked to do missions very similar to those you've done before with very meager rewards. These rewards do build up over time, but they don't feel as essentially fulfilling as other similar kill-thing-and-receive-loot games like Monster Hunter or Dragon's Crown.
But, hey, there's a new version coming out. Maybe then I could suggest this game unequivocally. Until then, Soul Sacrifice is probably the best boring game I've played all year.