救う(SHE SAVE)

When writing about games that consist only of boss battles, the general rule is that one presents those games as intense, difficult struggles. Titan Souls has been variously described as “comparably difficult” to Ori and Bloodborne, “a stiff challenge[…]to lose yourself in”, and as a game “requires patience, a keen eye, reflexes and skill – and the ability to accept that you will die a lot”. Furi has received a similar treatment.

However, I believe this rule misunderstands what draws people to games like these in the first place. Their appeal lies not in their ability to challenge us, but in their ability to ease our minds. Their heavily goal-driven nature gives us clarity and purpose we might otherwise struggle to find on our own. Moreover, with our minds set upon a single task we’ve devoted our entire being to, that task comes to occupy all our immediate thoughts, clouding out others that might prove too burdensome. What are these creatures, why do I fight them, what impact will their death have on the world – if these questions exist within the game, then I only consider them outside the fights that define it. Within those fights, my mind is set on defeating the enemy before me.

657260_20170715155542_1救う(SHE SAVE) takes this logic to a peculiar extreme. A Japanese indie game recently released on Steam, the game is starkly minimal. It provides us a main character (a young pink-haired girl), various antagonists (fantasy creatures the game identifies as Dragons), a setting (four distant pillars the game plasters into various locales), and not much else. We don’t know who the girl is, what the Dragons are, or why they two must fight. (The Steam page isn’t of much help; it only restates what little we already know.) In fact, all we really know is that the two must fight. Although the Dragons each have a wide array of offensive and defensive maneuvers (most of them exclusive to that Dragon), the girl only has a few moves at her disposal: a swing of her sword, a shield to mitigate damage, and a healing spell.

As simple as 救う(SHE SAVE) appears on first glance, a closer look reveals that simplicity creates ambiguities the game struggles to deal with. On the one hand, I understand my situation completely. The featureless environments and the lack of anything besides myself and a Dragon attacking me make it clear that I must, at the very least, fight against the Dragon for my own survival. On the other hand, the only reason I have such a complete understanding of the situation is because with all my thought funneled directly into action, I have few if any facts with which to understand the world around me; no grounding beyond the fight before me. Ironically, the game pares away that information for the same reason many other games do: to fix our attention on the fight even more and augment whatever feelings of intense urgency were already there.

Yet the extremity to which that tactic has been taken produces different, counter-productive results. With play just as sparse as the environments I navigate, the fight against any given Dragon ends up a very flat experience. There’s no arc to the battle, and no real sense of interplay beyond reacting to the Dragon’s attacks. It’s just a clumsy, straightforward, impossible to predict process of healing and hitting when you get the rare opportunity to do either. On a few occasions, 救う(SHE SAVE) manages to break free of this conundrum. Encounters become one part elusive, one part arbitrary as the whims of a capricious Dragon force you into a reactive and ultimately powerless position. However, such occasions are too erratic and the gameplay too fixed on the moment for any of this to be used reliably.

657260_20170716181506_1We might also consider what little motivation we’re given to engage with these creatures. The closest hint we’re given – an achievement for each Dragon called “She saved ______ Dragon” – suggests that, in slaying these monsters, the girl is releasing them from some sort of harm. In addition, it suggests that this release is as cathartic form them as our fight with them is for us. Initially, all that stands out about this reasoning is how self-serving it appears. Not only does it provide us a handy justification for our actions, but we don’t have to interrogate that justification, either.

Interrogate it, though, and you find the saving motif brings up several assumptions the game isn’t prepared to defend. (Examples include “life is suffering and death a release from it” and “the Dragons’ violence stems from a corruption the heroine frees them from.”) Some of that is because the Dragons are unstable symbols: are they just fantasy creatures, or are they symbolic manifestations of the world itself à la Shadow of the Colossus? Once the game crosses the halfway point and it starts putting you in encounters with several Dragons at once (regardless of setting), it becomes clear that 救う(SHE SAVE) prioritizes the mechanical challenge inherent in the Dragons over their potential narrative/artistic/thematic value. In light of the erratic nature of those challenges, however, this reading must also collapse.

What does this leave us with? The short answer is, “Not much.” The longer answer, though, is a bit more complicated. For as sincerely as 救う(SHE SAVE) presents its own material, the absolute lack of meaning throughout the game and its refusal to clarify much of anything deny the game the grounds on which its sincerity can shine through. The result is a game so absurd, so bereft of context, that it seems to highlight its own artificiality. We see before us heroism divorced from any reality that might make it heroic; enemies we find ourselves in conflict with simply because they exist to be put in conflict with; a cycle whose repetitions quickly fall into empty ritual; flat projections snaking through 3D space, as though the world before us is a world of only shadows.

In some ways, this almost appears satirical of the very things 救う(SHE SAVE) wishes to uphold. Its format speaks to a certain amount of focus and clarity of purpose, but the presentation/execution repudiate that while supplying little of their own. In other ways, the game comes across as surreal for reasons I’ve already described. Personally, I feel it appropriate for both possibilities to exist at the same time. Such indecision leaves us right where we started: with nothing more than the fact of the game’s existence.

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