Theme Party: In the Beginning…
After my feature on ActRaiser I got to thinking about the overarching plot of the game, and of the longer running themes of Quintet’s SNES offerings taken as a whole. The one theme that really jumped out at me in all of the Quintet games was the idea of the creation myth. It’s exhibited extremely strongly in ActRaiser and its sequel, as well as in Soul Blazer, Illusion of Gaia, and Terranigma. Every one of those games, in some way or another, incorporates the idea of either creating or recreating the world from scratch, usually involving visiting places one at a time and restoring them.
It’s an effective plot device, and it creates a strong sense of atmosphere in all of the games. But I want to talk about why it works so well, and how each one of several of Quintet’s SNES games manages to vary the theme slightly in order to suit the personal story of the individual games. Between ActRaiser, Illusion of Gaia, and Terranigma, you get three interpretations of how the world was created or recreated, and three different ways the player interacts with the evolution of the world in the player character’s role.
MASTER AND COMMANDER
ActRaiser, of course, puts you right in the driver’s seat of the world’s birth from the very beginning. As the Master you are more than just a hero in the world’s creation, you’re the engine of it; your godlike actions cause the world to change from a monster-ridden hellhole into a place worth inhabiting. As I pointed out previously, the merger of the two styles of gameplay really helps express this. Everything you do as the Master is essentially cleaning up the world to make it worth living in, whether it’s going down to kill the monsters yourself, or utilizing miracles to terraform things around for the people.
So what makes ActRaiser’s creation myth work? Well, the whole game, for one thing. Unlike the two later Quintet games, the creation element here is the entire point of both the narrative and the gameplay; ActRaiser is a game about making the world, from start to finish. At no point does ActRaiser’s gameplay or narrative take the time to deviate from that driving point at all, unlike the Soul Blazer trilogy’s later entries.
There’s literally no way ActRaiser could have existed without the trappings of the creation myth, and so it relies on it on a much deeper level. This is what makes the game succeed: an instant sense of the scope of what you’re dealing with, and a complete refusal to ever deviate from the goal of cleaning up and creating a habitable world.
How could it have gone wrong? Well, for one thing, the game’s developers could have let it get wrapped up too much in other stories and personal elements in an attempt to humanize the Master. It’s precisely the Master’s lack of human qualities that makes ActRaiser work. I could very easily see how a misguided developer might have been tempted to try to bring the Master down to our level, but Quintet didn’t and ActRaiser is better for it.
THE FLUTE OF EVIL’S BANE
So after ActRaiser and its sequel, Quintet moved into the adventure RPG arena with Illusion of Gaia. A game that’s something of a Zelda-esque dungeon crawler mixed with RPG elements and a surprisingly compelling plot, Illusion of Gaia casts you in the role of Will, a young man out to discover his father’s legacy and the secrets behind some of the world’s most ancient ruins. Oh, and he fights with a flute. Yep.
Illusion of Gaia doesn’t seem to be about any kind of mythical world creation at first. It’s surrounded by the trappings of normal fantasy for a while, but eventually it becomes clear what you’re dealing with when you enter the first dungeon and starting hearing about Incans. Incans, you know, a civilization from our history. The revelations then continue: Mu, Angkor Wat, the Tower of Babel, the Great Wall. All of the game’s dungeons are embedded in our own cultural history, be they real or mythical, and it becomes clear that the game is about generating a modern world out of a fantasy one.
What makes the creation aspect Illusion of Gaia work? Will’s role as the protagonist and our eyepiece into our own history. Will becomes our gateway into the myth of our own world, and it’s very evident how well this works. Illusion of Gaia connects fantasy into reality, and as players we instantly identify with the world as our own, but because of the fantasy, we’re able to discover the magic and craziness behind our own collective cultural mythos. It’s a fascinating way to approach what could have been any other JRPG or adventure game of the time. By being a part of the recreation of a mythical world into our own modern one, we connect with our world on a level that would have been impossible in a purely fantastical setting.
Like ActRaiser, there are a lot of choices Quintet made here that could have easily gone wrong and squandered the whole thing. The biggest mistake they could have made would have been getting too heavyhanded about the whole thing really being our own world the whole time. It’s there if you’re conscious of history and human mythological background, but they don’t beat you over the head with it. The game only really bluntly tells you about the creation of our world close to the end of the game, and by that point at the climax of the story it’s an appropriately direct revelation. If they had taken that direct approach the entire time, it would have come across as hamfisted and forced, but they keep it to an appropriate level of allusion and leave it at that until the ending.
Terranigma is, in perhaps a thematically appropriate way, a forgotten thing. The final game in the Soul Blazer trilogy was never released in North America, but found an audience over here after its PAL localization made the emulation rounds in ROM form. In many ways, Terranigma is similar to Illusion of Gaia, but with something of an ActRaiser spin on it. Illusion of Gaia is about transition stages and moving the world from myth into modernity. Terranigma, however, concerns the recreation of a world from a forgotten ruin, much like ActRaiser revolves around turning a monster-ridden nightmare into a paradise.
Terranigma concerns the very purposefully named hero Ark and his journey into the blasted remains of the world in order to resurrect it and return it to a habitable state one area at a time. Terranigma is a fusion of Illusion of Gaia and ActRaiser in many ways. Like Illusion of Gaia, you play in a top down adventure/rpg environment, and the game concerns the journey of a normal human throughout trappings of our own geography and civilization. However, like ActRaiser, it concerns the cleansing and repopulation of the world, and the restoration of the environment to something livable.
Terranigma, then, represents the culmination of all of this. It’s Quintet’s last shot at the creation myth, the idea of a scion of civilization restoring the world to livability instead of a god figure swooping in from heaven to do so. Ark represents, obviously, Noah – he’s not an outsider bringing life, he’s the last hope of a dying race, sent off into the world to restore his own people’s glory and bring the world back to what it should be. Whereas Will represented bold progression from myth into reality, Ark represents a resurrection of a time long gone.
So what makes it work? Atmosphere. Terranigma’s world feels extremely bleak when you get into a new area, and it really sets out the direness of your task and the reason your mission is so important and compelling. Terranigma is a game about hope against the desolation of the world, and so it was absolutely critical to set the table the way that Quintet did. Ark’s mission feels desperate and doomed because of the world, and it’s what sets Terranigma apart from the earlier games.
It could have gone sour, too. If Quintet had chosen to make the world any less desolate or ruined, the game would have felt too much like a recreation along the lines of Gaia and not its own independent project. Instead, we have something that blends ActRaiser and Illusion of Gaia while still maintaining its own feel, and it makes an appropriate capstone to this sort of thematic run in Quintet’s games.
The creation myth here in these three games is compelling, and I think a lot of us may have missed how well Quintet managed to run this motif through so many of their games in such compelling, unique ways each time. ActRaiser, Illusion of Gaia, and Terranigma are all sort of forgotten gems, but in a way, that’s thematically fitting. Quintet’s not around anymore, but I hope someday, someone revisits this kind of thing in the same way, and manages to create a new world out of an old and forgotten one again.
ActRaiser can be purchased on the Wii’s virtual console. For Illusion of Gaia or Terranigma, you’ll likely have to take to eBay, and hope you have a PAL SNES on which to play the latter.