The early Phantasy Star series had a complicated history when it came to their non-numbered games. When Sega deemed a Phantasy Star project important enough to become part of the main story, they were capable of making thoughtful games with readily identifiable voices and a deep thematic base. Move to the peripheries of the Phantasy Star canon, however, and this guarantee becomes much spottier. Sometimes, you get games like Text Adventures, which meaningfully complement the source material while putting forth their own views on the world. But you’re equally likely to get something like Phantasy Star Adventure, a game that rehashes very basic sci-fi fantasy conventions because it has nothing to say with them.
And as is the case with Phantasy Star Gaiden (the last game in the Complete Collection), you end up with generic games that stumble into sufficiently deep thematic material completely by accident. On the surface, the game appears to eschew the dark futuristic trappings of its peers in favor of something grand and heroic; more like Dragon Quest. Yet’s it precisely because of how adamantly the game clings to these traditions that it’s able to create an experience that’s out of line with what those traditions might suggest. Despite Gaiden’s fantasy trappings, the world it presents us with is bleak, mundane, and almost entirely lacking in heroism.
Much of this has to do with how the game is presented. Taking Gaiden on its own terms, it seems the story isn’t that interested in staking out ground beyond the fantasy themes and conventions it employs. If anything, it’s happy to confine itself within this space. The narrative reads like something out of a children’s storybook: two youths (Mina and Alec) are sent from their secluded village to rescue Alec’s father from a group of bandits. Their quest slowly escalates to world-saving proportion as our heroes collect mythical treasures like the Scroll of Truth, revive long dead heroes, and ultimately take down the monster threatening the land.
Perhaps because of this grand-scale mode of narrative, the elements that make up that narrative are left underdeveloped. For example, we know very little about the social/political/cultural/etc. character of the world these characters explore. Were it not for the monster’s impending destruction, you’d wonder what sort of existence the people in these towns led. The heroes themselves aren’t much better; at best, we only understand them through their relationships with other characters (Alec and Mina are foster siblings, Dirk is the old man who controls a nearby sluice), and at worst, they’re little more than archetypes used to advance the story.
Yet all this changes when you consider how the game begins. Where most video games either let you experience the events within the game firsthand or cast you in the role of a distant, objective observer, Phantasy Star Gaiden goes another direction: it implies that a speaker is relaying this story to you as you play it. I say “imply” because unlike other games that use this technique (Final Fantasy Tactics, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time), Gaiden never stresses its own use that much. All you get is an unspoken narrator briefly bookending the story with their own commentary.
Still, this light touch was enough to spark some important questions in my mind. Who is this storyteller? What is my relationship to them? How am I interacting with the story that’s being relayed to me? Am I doing it through play? How does this change the story’s form? By identifying my experiences in the game as the product of some untold speaker, the game as a whole is no longer a fixed object. It’s subjective and fluid, and it allows an entire proliferation of meaning. Any vagueries I encounter (which are bound to be a lot, considering this game) become opportunities either for the storyteller to adapt this story for a specific player, or more likely, for the player themselves to make their own meaning out of the tools that they’ve been presented with.
Granted, there are still specific details in the game limiting what meaning it’s possible for the player to make, but within these bounds, Gaiden offers players a lot of freedom to make whatever they want out of their experience. What I made of my own experience was this: the story I’m told is a parable about children’s journey into adulthood, one that adults tell their kids to prepare them for the life they’re eventually going to lead. This reading makes sense both within the story itself (maturation is a recurring theme throughout the story) and in the context in which the game was originally played (adults made this game for children to play in their free time).
Taking this idea to its natural conclusion, though, paints a harsh image of what children should expect in their futures. Gaiden’s vision of adulthood isn’t one of empowerment, where children shed the last vestiges of immaturity and gain the strength they need to take on the world. It’s of a duty, one that’s thrust upon the individual because the world they inhabit won’t allow anything else. Not that this is the image that greets you when you first start the game. In fact, the secluded mountain village you begin your journey in actually feels intimate and familiar. People go about their daily lives in these streets, and everyone you meet is happy to help you in any way they can. Once you step outside this safe haven, though, you find yourself dropped into a hellish, unforgiving wilderness. You can barely take a step before monsters pounce on your heroes and rend their flesh from their bodies, forcing you back into the hometown you’re fated to leave if you want to advance the story. What’s more, it’s a process that’s constantly repeating itself the further you push into the world. (You can avert that difficulty, but only by contradicting the game’s premise and staying as close to the first town for as long as it remains viable for leveling.)
Brutal as these encounters are, what I find especially upsetting about them is the context they happen in. These monster battles occur in the hills just outside the town where the protagonists grew up. How did they see these areas before there were journeys to worry about? How many days did they spend playing in those fields as children, unaware of the dangers lurking beside them? Whatever the answers are, they may no longer hold any relevance for the characters’ lives. Maturity has forced them to re-imagine these spaces as dangers to be overcome, with threats always hiding just out of sight. Not only does this hyper-awareness of the world distance the protagonists from the playful joy they experienced in their youths, but it also prevents them from ever returning to it.
What kind of life is left for our heroes to lead? One of constant, arduous work. To use video game terminology, you’re required to grind excessively (fight the same monsters over and over again) to make even the smallest sliver of progress. The term is meant to highlight how playing the game becomes repetitive and unenjoyable, but I also see grind as marking the moment when playing the game has become laborious, IE when play becomes an act of labor. After all, grind is used to describe both scenarios for very similar reasons. Because this labor stands between us and some goal we want to achieve (usually acquiring the money we need to continue living), we see it as compulsory, yet we end up feeling unrewarded because the work isn’t fully engaging our physical or mental faculties.
I see Gaiden relying on this exact logic, accidentally or not. There aren’t a lot of story events standing between you and completing the game, so to keep the game from being too short, Sega made sure you’d spend the vast majority of your time grinding monster fights. However, you’re not fighting for experience like you would in similar games; you’re fighting to gain the money you need to survive in this world. I mean that in a very literal sense: unless you have the most up-to-date equipment, you stand very little chance of damaging your enemies, much less surviving in a fight against them. In this way, the game subtly encourages you to understand yourself in purely economic terms. You budget out your turns in battle and your plans to raise money outside it. How long can you go without needing to return to town to heal? And with some of the more powerful enemies only paying out enough money for a single inn visit, is the spot you’re grinding in conducive to your needs?
This is the existence Phantasy Star Gaiden says will comprise most of your adult life: constant work under a cruel, all-encompassing system that threatens to negate your progress at any moment. There’s not much pride to be had in a life like this. Any heroic ideals the game originally connoted have long fled the experience, only to be replaced with a sort of dismal resignation. By the time I reached Cablon’s Castle (the final area left for my heroes to explore), any pretenses that I was on a fantastic quest to save the world evaporated as I fled every fight, desperate to vanquish my last rival and be done with this tedium for good. And for a variety of reasons, there’s no real escapism to be found in this game. In my experience, I spent days on end (separate play sessions across literal days) mindlessly mashing buttons just to get by, and in a fantasy I’d ostensibly chosen to be a part of, no less. Not even other people seem to derive much joy from this experience. The walkthrough I used offered me tips like:
- “Leveling up and getting new equipment and magic is vital in this game. In fact, it makes up the majority of the playing time. Just do it.”
- “Don’t buy equipment or magic that you can’t use yet. If the item you want won’t be able to be used until you’re several levels higher, you may be better off buying something else.”
These hints seem in line with the mundane realism that my own experiences with the game provided. In fact, they remind me a little bit of Yuuyami Doori Tankentai, a much later game that would also focus on young protagonists unable to escape the oppressive reality around them. Yet I also spot some significant differences. The main characters in Yuuyami Doori begin and end the story as youths, so all their suffering is understood only through this lens. But more significantly, in Yuuyami’s case, the oppressive character to the protagonist’s reality was the product of a very particular cultural moment; namely, the sense of isolation created by modern Japan and its willingness to sweep weighty problems under the rug. This isn’t the case with Phantasy Star Gaiden. Its reliance on generic fantasy tropes, its vague use of those tropes, and the oral tradition reading from before imply a certain universality behind the game’s messages. Where Yuuyami alludes to the possibility of escape from its dismal hell, Gaiden bluntly tells us that this hell is the only life we’ll ever know.