If there’s one thing I remember the Phantasy Star series for, it’s its constant willingness to experiment with form. If there’s another thing I remember the series for, that would be its many stances on sci-fi conventions. The series has always been very good at incorporating these conventions into its structure and then commenting on them in a thoughtful way. I’ve written about this before concerning Phantasy Star Online, and Phantasy Star II is no different. Well, the message and tone are certainly different, but the level of control remains the same. Phantasy Star II maintains careful control over its structures to talk about the dangers of trusting too much of ourselves to technology in a very intelligent way.
This being a sequel, Phantasy Star II picks up a millennium after the events of the original Phantasy Star. Motavia, once a desert planet in the distant past, has now become hospitable through the saving grace of technology. A computer program called Mother Brain controls every facet of this Eden, from the weather to the law enforcement. In fact, it’s in this latter area where our story begins, as government agent Rolf is sent to investigate irregularities in the Biosystem. As he does so, he learns about the cracks in Mother Brain’s system and the price humanity pays for trusting in her. It’s the classic “those who trade freedom for security” parable that sci-fi noir narratives like Phantasy Star II have so often covered. And given how often the story’s been covered, it’s very easy to screw up. But I think Phantasy Star II avoids those pitfalls to deliver a powerful message. While its world isn’t idealistic, it doesn’t cynically lament modern technological developments, either. Nor does it suggest we return to nature or the old ways for their inherent value, even if they factor into the game’s ideas.
Rather, Phantasy Star II derives most of its strength from focusing on the psychological aspects of the freedom/security message. When we usually hear that message, we understand it to be a bargain that society makes out of fear. What makes that bargain untenable in the game’s eyes is that it only results in further fear and self alienation. The isolation of each major city on Motavia shows us that humanity fears death so much that they have herded themselves into cages. And the prevalence of cloning labs demonstrates that they’re willing to turn themselves into commodities if it means avoiding death. And Mother Brain’s systems aren’t even immune to the chaos they hope to alleviate, seeing how easily her robots take the Biomonsters’ place as generic enemies.
It’s a pretty damn effective approach for the narrative to take. Not only does said approach give the story a subtle emotional dimension, but it also lets the story attain a greater deal of nuance than it would be able to get at otherwise. The writers don’t dismiss the problems that led the people to embrace Mother Brain, but takes them seriously. So not only do the game’s criticisms of that choice become more persuasive, but the idea of our heroes breaking free of her embrace and taking charge of their own destiny begins to hold more weight. It’s not sentimental, but something with real value. Is it a perfect solution to the problems they face? Of course not. The game is happy to point out that destroying Mother Brain will cause untold war and suffering. And the ending doesn’t even confirm whether or not what the heroes did will work out. It leaves us only with this powerful moment at the end, telling us that it’s the affirmation of our own power that’s truly important.
How is the game able to resonate that strongly? From what I can tell, it has a lot to do with the careful control it maintains over symbolism and structure. That control is evident from the moment you start the game, where the title screen makes great use of color and composition to hint at the greater ideas it plans to develop. It only becomes more apparent when you start looking at Phantasy Star II as a video game. I haven’t mentioned it until now, but gameplay-wise, Phantasy Star II is a traditional JRPG. You walk around towns; you talk to NPCs; you buy items and equipment; you fight monsters through a turn-based system; and you explore dungeons, all to advance the plot. The battles do a good job of portraying a dangerous world that would necessitate something like Mother Brain, even if they get in the way of letting the story proceed.
This is to say that I’m a big fan of what Phantasy Star II does in terms of genre. It follows the JRPG mold perfectly, if only because it can tweak the genre’s conventions to fit its own scenario. We can understand this better by looking toward its predecessor: Phantasy Star. After all, they share similar premises: like Rolf’s fight against Mother Brain, Alis Landale and company fight to end the Emperor Lassic’s oppressive reign. Yet Phantasy Star didn’t advance much beyond typical JRPG motifs. All we knew about Lassic was that he was evil and ruled over everyone. Phantasy Star II, though, makes these advancements. It constantly references JRPG conventions, and each time it does, we get a better image of the world and what the game’s saying through it. Alis’ journey even becomes a legend of sorts later in the game; a model for rebelling against an overly controlling force. The result of these improvements? A richer world and more refined narrative.
However, it’s the environments that captured my interest the most. I hinted at their skill before when I mentioned the how isolated the towns are, and it manifests especially well in the many dungeons. People usually remember these dungeons for being confusing and hard to navigate. That much I won’t deny; the dungeons are a goddamn mess. But they’re not a senseless mess. In fact, this mess has an arc to it, foreshadowing and developing on whatever the game is addressing at the time. We begin with the decrepit and confusing structures like those in Shure, which puncture the happy image Motavia presents beforehand; move to the Dams, which test the heroes’ resolve as they become enemies of the state; and end the adventure on Dezolis, whose more readable layouts and natural serenity suggest an alternative to Motavia’s technocracy. The dungeons consistently reflect the game at its best: holistic, subtle, purposeful, and demonstrating a great command over mood and theme.
Conversely, the characters and the game’s handling of social issues represent the game at its worst. Outside the protagonist, we don’t understand a lot about the characters. We don’t even get many opportunities to know them; just a brief statement of purpose upon their introduction before the story just forgets their existence. They don’t stand in for greater narrative purposes; they only exist to fill space and make the battle system more intriguing (tasks they’re well equipped to handle, I must admit). Yes, the game is focusing on broader issues, but that doesn’t mean it can’t use these characters in service of them. Nei acts as a good model for this, in theory. She’s Rolf’s long-time friend and the one character the game sees fit to characterize. Not only does her development within the game’s systems give us a good idea of what kind of person she is, but the narrative also affords her several opportunities to express herself. The plot won’t even progress past a certain point if Nei isn’t allowed to speak her mind.
I just wish that the content of her characterization wasn’t so upsetting. One of the first things we learn about Nei is that she’s a Numan, a kind of cross between humans and Biomonsters. Numans face extreme prejudice from society that no part of the game even remotely reflects. Nei can talk to the denizens of Motavia just fine without them treating her like a lesser being. In fact, the planet’s various cloning agencies have no qualms about reviving this supposed abomination against nature.
Thus we are left with something between a noble savage and a petulant child. Nei exists not for her own sake, but for whatever purpose the narrative has concocted for her. Her relationship with Rolf, for instance, only exists to boost his moral reputation, and her death halfway through the story only occurs because the story needs evidence of how dark and twisted things are about to become. This doesn’t respect her character, and it doesn’t even work well as a death scene. Her purpose driven nature (in that the narrative invents her so she can serve only one specific purpose) and the sparse characterization in general rob her death of any pathos. While it lacks the exaggerated histrionics of Sarah’s death early in The Last of Us, that’s hardly a defense of Phantasy Star II. I won’t even address the gay comic relief that follows Nei’s demise.
So the game flounders when it comes to social issues. While we shouldn’t dismiss that failure, we should still consider all the things the game gets right. Not only does the game represent its themes so well, but it has so much to say about them. And in light of modern security controversies (the NSA), it’s surprising that this game remains as relevant as ever. It’s not enough to simply point out that there’s a problem. We have to remember what led us to the problem in the first place, something Phantasy Star II achieves beautifully.