Although Narcissu isn’t the first visual novel to come from Stage Nana (that honor belongs to the obscure Summer Album), it’s definitely the first visual novel that drew people’s attention to the doujin group. So popular was this melancholy narrative about two terminally ill youths that it spawned a sequel just two years later. Or, rather, a prequel: Narcissu Side 2nd. Its narrative is a layered one; one that shares a curious relationship with its predecessor. For as much as it echoes the first game, so much of what it does also works outside that game’s original scope. Moreover, I see that tension as speaking toward a compatibilist drive at the heart of Side 2nd. The game doesn’t want to abandon or overwrite everything its predecessor has to say. It just hopes to acknowledge those things that had fallen out of its sight.
Now because so much of the game builds off what the first Narcissu does, I want to start off by noting the similarities these games share. They’re frequent and run fairly deep, reaching as far as the narrative premise itself. Where Narcissu was a melancholy narrative about two terminally ill youths escaping a hospital, Side 2nd is also a melancholy narrative about two terminally ill youths escaping a hospital. The only difference is a single character: the cheerful and gregarious Himeko instead of a generic guy.
But to return to the similarities between the two games, we see that Side 2nd is just as interested in grave existential truths as the first game was. As was the case with Narcissu, Side 2nd spends most of its time looking at its protagonists dealing with how small and insignificant their existences are. I phrase it like that because as tempting as it is to read the characters in terms of death (they’re dying from terminal illnesses, after all), that’s not the only force that’s acting on them. We also have an impersonal, apathetic world to consider. For the first game, this manifests through police and family members making no attempt to track down these two kids who escaped from the hospital. Here, it manifests through ordinary people (family members, middle school students, hospital staff) enjoying a kind of normalcy the protagonists can no longer participate in. Yet in spite of these differences, the effect remains the same: the characters have to confront the fact that not only is the world not interested in their existence, but that it will continue just fine long after their deaths. The answers the characters find, what those answers entail…these are the issues that lend Side 2nd its emotional force.
What distinguishes Side 2nd from the first game is how it approaches said issues. It’s a subtle change, yes, but one that has a notable impact on the game anyway. Despite its relatively grounded storyline, Narcissu never showed that much interest everyday lived experiences. Some of that comes down to setting: after the first couple of chapters, the protagonists spend the entire story in a car, limiting what they can do. Yet so much more of it comes down to a choice of focus. Narcissu was more concerned with its broad existential themes, and its characters were tools the game could use to explore them. That’s why Setsumi and her male counterpart never felt like they were anything more than two individuals occupying the same space: because that relationship formed a contrast the game could work with. And no matter how much of Setsumi’s psyche the game exposed you to, you never saw her as anything more than a literary archetype.
While I wouldn’t say that Side 2nd completely abandons that approach (really, it’s only moving from Ovid to Ouida), it’s definitely less interested in archetypes than the first game was. The game’s use of multiple contexts can attest to that. Our view of these characters isn’t limited to one particular situation, or even how they react to it. It expands outward, grounding them in personal relationships and a relatively detailed world. We see Himeko discuss religion with her friends, and Setsumi play on some monkey bars as she wonders what her life would have been like she hadn’t contracted this illness. In short, we understand them not as static objects, but as fluid and ever evolving beings, moving them away from archetypes and toward being full characters.
This isn’t to say that the game can’t use those characters for larger purposes, or that they don’t fulfill a process like archetypes would; just that they’re active in all these processes. Even knowing the characters are powerless to change their fate, you still get the impression that they’re reasoning things out and making choices for themselves, rather than silently contemplating things as they float about the world. On some level, that lends their stories that much more tragedy, since we see how these characters slip into the pit of despair. But given how much of Side 2nd is divorced of drama and overt thematic structuring, I think the game really does have a genuine interest in everyday experiences. If only a little.
Anyway, I think we can see just how much things have changed by looking at the only constant between Narcissu and Side 2nd: Setsumi. Granted, there’s a lot of overlap between these two Setsumis: the quiet withdrawal, the guilt she feels for causing other people to suffer just by existing. But this being a prequel, there are also some important changes. For one, she’s only just recently started walking down this path, so she’s not as resigned to her fate as she’ll end up being. More important than that, though, is her failure to recognize that she has a self in the first place. So much of her dialogue laments how her disease has eroded any chances she has to exercise her identity; how her friends have forgotten her out of convenience; and how she can’t enjoy a normal life anymore, no matter how desperately she wants to. Yet as readers, we’re in a good position to recognize that in some way, she does have a self. We see her performing small feats all throughout the story, like identifying croquettes and pushing back a little against Himeko.
In addition to making Setsumi a more active character, these features open a fissure between how she perceives the world and how we perceive it. In other words, the story provides us the tools we need to question Setsumi’s conclusions. And in a roundabout way, this ends up lending credence to the game’s argument that there’s value in living within a limited existence. That’s a value Setsumi can’t see. She’s so focused on the “limited existence” part that she requires other people to spur her into living with that existence, and even then, she doesn’t really recognize it as living. If we were bound to her perspective, we’d be just as focused on the looming specter of death as she is. But by giving us some way to question her, we move away from that focus on death (which, the game says, should spur us into living in the first place) and toward the actual living part. Granted, this fissure also introduces the idea that we may not be able to recognize whether or not we’re living, returning us to the same nihilism that Narcissu tries to distance itself from. Nevertheless, there’s still that ray of hope.
And on the other end of the spectrum we have Himeko. In one sense, her early character demonstrates to us how someone like Setsumi comes about in the first place. Yet in another sense, she’s a distinct character from Setsumi. We see the same tension between reality and perception with her that we saw with Setsumi, but with far more psychological nuance than the latter. For as extroverted as Himeko can be, her outgoing behavior belies a melancholic outlook on life. Yet unlike Setsumi, Himeko’s sadness isn’t caused by death (at least not entirely), but by inadequacy. Where the former only comes up in passing, the latter receives far more attention from the story, whether that’s Himeko lettings her friends drift away from her, or not being able to comfort a young girl who’s doomed to an early death.
Turning back to the present, her character feels caught between acknowledging that she can’t repair these mistakes and using those around her to dull the pain. That’s why she’s so quick to form a relationship with Setsumi: because this young girl allows her the kinds of opportunities she either threw away or couldn’t get to work. And that’s also why she expresses such an interest in other people: because the everyday rituals associated with socialization give her some way to convey/hide the pain she’s carrying with her. While the game acknowledges these kinds of actions as selfish (something Himeko would agree with), I don’t think it necessarily construes that selfishness as bad. Hers is just a different response. Maybe it represents the kind of healing and moving on that Setsumi never gets to enjoy. All I can really say about Himeko’s character is that it is complicated and layered.
I’m aware of how limiting it can be to look at Side 2nd only through the lens of the first Narcissu, especially when this game provides me an opportunity to overlook that one. Nor do I want to come across as saying Side 2nd only has as much value as the previous game will allow. But in light of all the parallels between these two titles, I see a lot we could understand about this game by putting the two in communication with one another. Even the title can attest to that: Narcissu Side 2nd. It’s a game that looks at Narcissu from another angle; one that can elaborate on whatever points that game left blank, and one that can find worth in the things that game ignored.