It has only been in the past few years or so that video games have been treating gameplay and narrative as two parts contributing to a greater whole. Historically, if a game wanted to make some kind of point, it would do so through its explicit narrative. Gameplay was just a bone thrown to the player to keep them engaged through the experience. Developers did not put much thought into how the act of playing the game might affect the ideas players find within.
Or so conventional wisdom tells us. The reality is that video games have been unified wholes for many years. It has only been in recent years that we have developed a critical language for describing that unity. I can think of no better example to prove this than Valkyrie Profile. Released in 1999, Valkyrie Profile is an exercise in thematic and aesthetic unity. The narrative, the presentation, and even the game itself strive to create an utterly bleak world you have no hope of affecting. However, this is not what lends Valkyrie Profile its power. What makes it powerful is that it does the impossible: it finds a solution. More specifically, it couples this dreary nihilism with a gameplay arc that clearly demonstrates a way for you to overcome this world’s despair. (To say that it walks you through this arc would not do the message justice.)
Valkyrie Profile’s overarching narrative is more or less a simple retelling of basic Norse mythology. Ragnarok is soon approaching and your job, as Valkyrie, is to harvest the souls of fallen heroes (einherjar) and train them to fight in the impending war of the gods. This narrative’s only purpose is to link together the smaller story that dot the game’s world. Each story comes together to a craft a very specific ethos. The most prominent examples I can remember include:
- The simple fact that several of the characters are adopted. This implies that they have been separated from their birth parents via some (presumably) tragic circumstance.
- Yumei is especially emblematic of this trend. The product of a union between two races (human and mermaid), she was shunned by both. In fact, her fellow mermaids essentially forbid her from expressing her emotions after her mother’s death. Yumei seeks her father on the surface, only to discover that he has been dead for several years. She only wishes to live happily with her parents, and eventually has her wish granted by dying.
- Platina’s story. She is a young girl, to be sold into slavery by parents who care more about decorum than they do about her. Platina’s friend Lucian convinces her to escape, but she dies along the way.
- Arngrim’s story. A mercenary scraping by a meager existence, his latest client tricks him into smuggling the country’s princess into enemy territory. Arngrim realizes his folly too late, and while he uncovers the conspiracy, he kills himself in the end. His country remembers him as a traitor.
The picture these various narrative threads create is startling. The world, according to Valkyrie Profile, is cold and indifferent to the people living within it. The closest thing to justice this world has is that eventually, people are removed from these terrible situations. They have no hope of affecting them for the better. How can they? Look at the world they live in. Especially in the early moments, the environments tower above the characters. Castles loom far above the city; churches stretch into the sky; the forest threatens to consume those who enter it. Naturally, such environments undermine people’s ability to act upon the world, since they look like ants compared to these structures.
Yet perhaps most damning is that the characters have no choice but to recognize these harsh realities. Platina demonstrates this perfectly. In her final moments, she tells Lucian, “I have too many awful memories. I just want to forget… Forget…it…all…” With her final words, she recognizes how futile her escape (and perhaps her life) really is. In death, she does not wish that her next life will be better. She does not see that as possible, given the pain she had previously endured until this point. Instead, she essentially wishes to erase her own existence, divorcing herself from the inevitable pain of living. This is how Valkyrie Profile introduces itself to the player, and it only spirals downward from there.
However, it is also worth noting that humans are not the only actors in this story. The gods also play their part. Yet for all the immense power they wield, they are just as vulnerable to the world’s whims as the humans are. They might not appear so at first. Many of the gods speak like a Homeric epic. They adhere to ritual and speak with grandeur, projecting a power that puts them well above humanity.
But this power is an illusion. Several key elements in the narrative undermine their authority. To some players, the developer’s choice of a Norse motif is an obvious one. In Norse mythos, the world will end at the hands of Ragnarok, a great battle where even the gods are fated to die. True, the gods are are aware of this, and take proper action against it. Odin sends Valkyrie to recruit einherjar from the world of the living, after all. However, this deed signifies a lack of self-confidence on the gods’ part. They only seek an outside solution because they do not believe they have the power to overcome the threat themselves. The game all but confirms their powerlessness midway through, when we learn that “Gods do not grow, but are static.” In this way, the world becomes truly hopeless. Of the two parties fighting against it, the humans can’t change the world, and the gods (by their very nature) are unable to find a power that can.
Understandably, giving up in the face of this threat feels easy. Actually playing the game only makes it easier. I do not mean this in the sense that the game offers challenging scenarios, like Dark Souls or I Wanna Be the Guy. I mean this more in the sense that what the act of playing the game portrays makes giving up easy, especially in contrast to the narrative. In training your einherjar for Ragnarok, you explore monster-infested locales and fight said monsters. The specific mechanics of exploration and combat are largely immaterial to the game’s ideas. Rather, their presentation warrants greater examination. Despite being released about fifteen years ago, Valkyrie Profile is one of the most visually engaging games I have played in a while. Each battle is packed with quick action and flashy 2D effects that demand your attention. (Valkyrie’s ultimate attack demonstrates this all too well.) Furthermore, exploration stresses action. You explore the world not through the top down perspective familiar to many RPGs, but through a side view reminiscent of Super Mario Bros. Finally, energetic, hectic music permeates the game, both in and out of battle.
This might sound like a stark contrast against Valkyrie Profile’s glum narrative, but that’s precisely the point. Remember, the world of gameplay is a world you can only enter through death. Because this world is fun and inviting, the choice between life and death becomes obvious. Where the narrative is bleak and hopeless, the game is exciting and fantastical. Moreover, it offers you the only hope of being able to change the world, as the only times we see characters affect the world is through their death. The conspiracy that takes Arngrim’s life is only undone when the princess’ dead soul urges Valkyrie to step in to save him. Likewise, Lucian is only able to reconcile his feelings for Platina after he passes into the next world. So to summarize our current understanding of Valkyrie Profile, it posits that the world is bleak and meaningless. We are unable to change this grim fact of reality, and quickly accepting it is the best option available.
Yet surprisingly, this is not the game’s message. Rather, it is only a premise toward its message. Valkyrie Profile finds a way to overcome its dismal world, largely through exploring Valkyrie’s character. Initially, she is nothing more than a servant to the gods. She has no identity outside her immediate duty. All of her actions and her expressions relate either to the duty Odin has imparted onto her, or to the situation immediately at hand. Yet as the game progresses and she begins to defy Odin’s orders, she is able to break free of her duty and slowly discover a sense of self. “But how does this relate to the world?”, I can hear you asking. “Does the game somehow use Valkyrie’s identity crisis to solve its own nihilistic tendencies?”
The simple answer is yes and no. The explicit narrative offers its own solution, but this solution is imperfect. It is too clean, hokey, and abstract to be of much use. It relies on Valkyrie harnessing the power of the bonds she has developed throughout her journey and using said power to change the world. Presented like this, the game’s solution relies on the assumption that Valkyrie has emotionally bonded with her einherjar over her journey. Unfortunately, we rarely, if ever, see her actually bonding with any of the einherjar. In fact, her character arc forbids such developments. First, Valkyrie’s slavish devotion to duty conditions her against seeing the einherjar as people. Instead, she is forced to see them as objects whose only value derives from their potential ability to fight in the upcoming Ragnarok. Second, were we to somehow ignore this, we would still be faced with the fact that Valkyrie lacks a self for the majority of the narrative. After all, this is her defining character trait, and the story’s eventual source of conflict. But without any self, she cannot hope to form meaningful relationships with anybody, let alone the einherjar.
True, Valkyrie Profile seems aware that this is a problem, and it attempts to ground her relationships in gameplay, instead. In addition to training einherjar through battle*, Valkyrie must also cultivate their personalities to Odin’s liking. This involves allocating points earned from battle to alter somebody’s personality traits. Over the course of the story, einherjar become braver, kinder, more confident, less narcissistic, etc. The idea is that because Valkyrie is actively bringing about such changes, she must necessarily come to know the einherjar personally. Through this, she should bond with them.
But as it is, this process is also too abstract. Because this system is grounded in gameplay, it cannot depict character development. It can certainly imply it, but depiction is beyond its capability. For that to happen, we would need narrative context that this game sorely lacks. With only a scant few exceptions, the majority of the character arcs end just after the character dies. Without any moments that directly show us a character being less selfish or more prudent, this method of developing character through gameplay loses its base. In turn, the narrative loses its base for the overt solution it presents.
Yet this does not mean that the game is without a solution. We must simply search elsewhere for it. Rather than look toward the explicit narrative and the ends that it reaches, we should instead turn our attention toward the gameplay and how the game reaches those narrative ends. Specifically, I refer to how the game formats itself. Valkyrie Profile is divided into eight chapters, each chapter consisting of 24 periods. Every action Valkyrie takes consumes at least one period. For example, recruiting einherjar uses about four periods (two to find them, two to go get them), whereas exploring dungeons uses about three (two to find, one to explore. In addition, Odin (through Freya) demands the player send up at least one einherjar each chapter with specific qualities. He could wish for a skilled archer, or somebody knowledgeable about the undead.
This established, the effects of the system are twofold. First, this format imparts a sort of rote repetition. The game devolves into a clear formula: find einherjar and dungeons; go pick them up and explore the world; groom at least one einherjar for Lord Odin; repeat for eight chapters. With the game telling everything that you need to do, there’s no reason for you to think outside the box. If anything, there’s all the reason in the world not to. Because scarcity frames the experience, all your actions in the world hold tremendous value. You become more aware of what you’re doing, and want to be more careful with what you’re about to do. These conditions easily scare you into complying with Odin’s orders, lest you waste your precious actions failing to achieve anything because you dared to push the boundaries.
It would appear that everything in the game is forcibly telling you to give up hope that things could be better. The narrative depicts a world where profound suffering is a fact of life that nobody can alter. The battles glorify death as the sole place in which joy can exist. Even the world inevitably degrades over time, as more monster-infested hellholes flare up while the old ones remain. But nobody ever said you had to listen. Indeed, it is only through defying what you are told that Valkyrie is able to grow as a person. That said, defiance is not easy. (Meaningful defiance, anyway. It is entirely possible to end the game by wasting your periods, doing nothing of value.) It requires a very specific set of actions, and the game barely alerts you to them. While you know that a third ending exists from the moment you select a difficulty, such information tells you nothing about the conditions to reach said ending. It’s up to you to figure them out.
Obtuse, yes, but it’s precisely that obtuse nature that lends this part of the game its power. Because the game only hints at the vague possibility of a happy ending, it requires great resolve to go out of your way (and against the game) to find it. In effect, the game is visibly empowering you to change things for the better. Even if this does not directly resolve the world’s myriad problems, it at least foreshadows their ability to be solved. After all, if you were able to break Valkyrie free of her duty and resolve this one problem in the world, what else is within your grasp? In addition, this ending is rooted in a tangible reality that the previous solution lacked. Valkyrie’s awakens to her true self not through some unforeseen plot element or predestined narrative arc, but through your conscious actions.
Thus, in Valkyrie Profile, we see two key things happen. First, both narrative and gameplay work together to establish an explicit theme. Many games both before and after have accomplished as much. But more than that, we see that in this game, the player has the power to negate this theme altogether. Moreover, this happens in a way that no other medium can replicate. The player does not overcome Valkyrie Profile’s ideas simply by reinterpreting what the game tells them (although this is certainly an option). Rather, they overcome these ideas through direct action upon the narrative. And this was as early as the Playstation era. To experiment with the interplay between narrative and gameplay like that would require a heady understanding of how video games function. Through this, we find that looking at titles from the past contributes just as much to our understanding of video games as does looking toward the titles of today.
*The battles might also depict bonding between Valkyrie and her allies. They encourage precise teamwork between all combatants, implying that they all come to know each other.