By Todd Ciolek
It’s hard to write a compelling story in the world of video games, where budgets, demographics, and pesky gameplay all take a cruel toll. Fortunately, it’s much easier to write a merely complex story. If you pile on the plot twists and preposterously broad revelations, the gaming public, used to low narrative standards in its entertainment, probably won’t complain too long or too loud.
However, there are times when games go to incomprehensible new heights in their attempts to shock the player or make a statement. And it’s then that these overwrought stories achieve a strange sort of brilliance, becoming shining masterpieces of unhinged plot mutilation. We’re taking a spoiler-intensive look at nine of these little gems of insanity and preparing ourselves for the angry responses about how we just didn’t get these literary wonders. But don’t think that we really hate any of these games. They may be stupid, but at least they’re memorable.
9) Sin and Punishment
Many old-school fans and hygienically deficient self-styled “hardcore gamers” know the developer Treasure for making action-shooter marvels such as Gunstar Heroes, Radiant Silvergun, and Ikaruga. Treasure is not known for crafting richly textured storylines, but that doesn’t stop the company from devising all sorts of bizarre plots to move their games along. Sin and Punishment: The Successors of Earth might be the most perplexing. You could blame an awkward English translation and some flat voice acting, but that’s too easy an answer. Sin and Punishment is really batshit crazy to the core.
It’s remarkable that Sin and Punishment‘s storyline is so complex, as its cutscenes run perhaps a half-hour in total. Within those 30 minutes there’s a tale of two teenage rebels, Saki and Airen, and their anime-girl mentor, Achi, taking on an international empire and the creatures it attempts to control. Along the way, Saki turns into an enormous mutant while Airen runs across Achi’s vengeful former friends, hallucinates herself forward in time, and finds out that Achi is, in fact, evil. It’s all utterly confusing from the game’s opening moments, which plunge the player into the thick of the conflict without bothering to explain what the hell Ruffians are or who Redan is. Maybe it makes sense if you’ve watched Evangelion twelve times through.
To further complicate things, Sin and Punishment was never actually released in America back when it hit the Nintendo 64 in 2000, and people who imported it didn’t have any translated instructions to give much-needed backstory about how Ruffians are rioting animals that were genetically engineered as food sources. Not that this really explains anything. Sin and Punishment came out for the Wii’s Virtual Console in America just last year, but it again lacked an English manual, so an even wider audience now has no idea what the hell is going on.
8) Tales of Symphonia
In terms of plot, Tales of Symphonia sticks to a basic RPG tale of kid heroes, self-sacrificing heroines, and evil angels. It’s incomprehensible not because of storyline contortions, but because of the game’s insistence on making up words at every possible opportunity. It’s one thing to flavor a fantasy setting with new terminology, but Symphonia can’t stop doing it or choose names that are self-explanatory. Conversations often devolve into talks about how the Desians made exspheres for the Chosen in the town of Tellamaruth but without a Key Crest. At least it’s delivered by the voice of Robin from Teen Titans.
This habit persists throughout the Tales franchise. Even the latest game, Vesperia, inflicts long explanations about “blastia” and “aer” and how these relate to “bodhi blastia.” No wonder the Tales games are prized mostly for their combat systems, which allow lots of button-mashing without forcing you to keep track of your blastia exsphere magical key crests bodhi desians aether syntho reconst flavo-fibes aaaaaaahhhhh.
7) Deus Ex
Only the staunchest, thinnest-skinned Deus Ex fans will deny that the game is convoluted, but many will argue that crazed structure is the point of it all. Deus Ex is so much a tribute to conspiracy theories and cyber-neo-future nonsense that it’s practically a constant parody. The game and its oft-derided sequel send secret agents to consort with the Illuminati, the Majestic 12, the occupants of Area 51, the makers of a pandemic virus, resistance cells, artificial intelligences, and the architects of that new world order that makes every right-wing militia member tremble in fear deep inside his Montana bunker. At its best, Deus Ex is a complex examination of the interplay between technology and politics. At its worst, it’s the sort of thing a teenager would write after a weekend of reading Bruce Sterling’s lesser novels and visiting too many UFO websites.
Deus Ex has the good graces to snicker at itself sometimes, though it also feels like an invitation to take none of its plot twists seriously. Attempts at straight-faced drama are further broken down by the cartoonish voice acting. The lead, J.C. “Subtle Initials” Denton, was given a monotone voice so that players could interpret it as they wanted. This backfired, as it’s hard to see J.C. as anything but a boring douche.
6) Star Ocean 3: ‘Til the End of Time
Let’s say you’re tri-Ace, and that you’ve made players sit through a few dozen hours of Star Ocean 3, which, despite billing itself as a sci-fi RPG, in fact starts off more like a forgettable Star Trek: The Next Generation episode where Data has clich?d adventures on a planet of uninteresting, medieval-age elf aliens whom Star Fleet is forbidden from influencing. How do you suddenly make such a game interesting? Well, you can start by swapping the tedious fantasy staple for a tedious space-opera staple, as the heroes escape a boring backwater Planet of the Elves and find that a mysterious fleet is bent on destroying the galaxy.
But why are strange beings attacking all civilized space? The answer requires a lot of endurance for science-fantasy claptrap, but it turns out that the entire setting of Star Ocean 3 (and by extension, the previous two Star Ocean games) is really an elaborate virtual-reality game played by the denizens of another dimension known as 4-D space. The heroes learn this after crossing into the apparently real world and learning that the Milky Way sector of this game is scheduled for deletion, because, as the prime villain puts it, they’re “just data.”
From there, the game sort of mumbles its way to a resolution in which the galaxy is saved and a proud statement about sentience is farted out. It might’ve been an amusing twist in a satire, but Star Ocean 3‘s big reveal comes across as a Matrix swipe, a desperate attempt to enliven a staid RPG, and an insult to the few people who’ve ever cared about the plot in previous Star Ocean games. Serves them right.
5) Indigo Prophecy
We’re reluctant to pick on Indigo Prophecy too much, as even the game’s director admitted that he made a mistake in the third act. The first two build up an imaginative adventure game driven by cinematic viewpoints, the protagonist’s degrading
mental health, and a murder mystery involving surprisingly realistic characters. Then the game whips out an ancient legend that grants the hero world-saving psychokinetic powers, and it’s all aboard the next bus for Dragon Ball Z City.
Some of Indigo Prophecy‘s appeal came from its mixture of supernatural events and gritty urban stages, but there’s a difference between showing ghostly flickers in a mirror and pitting your flying Neo stand-in against an ancient Mayan, who’s a few years ahead his civilization’s alleged doomsday of 2012. Add in some secret societies and a messiah child (minus a polygon Eddie Murphy to protect it), and you’ve got a game that can match any incoherent anime-RPG. At least there’s no evil angel boss.
4) Chrono Cross
In all fairness, Chrono Cross had the deck stacked against it by fans who steadfastly refuse to acknowledge even mild flaws in the original Chrono Trigger. As a big-budget sequel, Chrono Cross was bound to disappoint some people. So its creators, led by Chrono Trigger scriptwriter Masato Kato, decided to base it on the first Chrono Trigger follow-up, a digital-comic-adventure called Radical Dreamers, available only on the Japanese Satellaview service.
Yet Radical Dreamers was a short, straightforward story that Kato wrote just to fill a plot hole from Chrono Trigger, and it couldn’t possibly supply a 40-hour RPG. So Chrono Cross grew into an ungainly, acne-flecked teenager of an RPG. Like Radical Dreamers, Chrono Cross finds a young hero named Serge helping a half-crazy girl named Kid sneak into a mansion, but in Cross, Serge is now fighting for his own existence, having stumbled into an alternate dimension where he died as a kid. Instead of Chrono Trigger‘s time travel, Cross toys with two different versions of the same reality. And a race of dragons. And a futuristic city ruled by a computer thrown centuries back in time. And a cat-faced warlord with the world’s most elaborate Darth Vader secret. And plot twists that imply the deaths of several beloved Chrono Trigger characters, which is what every good sequel needs.
The game’s cast of over 30 party members oddly isn’t a hassle, as most of them have no influence on the plot. Yet the limited number of relevant characters allows the game to stack one inscrutable concept on top of the other, building a giant Rube Goldberg machine of plot devices so strained that Kato eventually gives up. Right before the game’s final boss, three ghost kids appear before the heroes and explain everything. And, in the most astonishing twist yet, the player just doesn’t care anymore. It’s a good thing you’re so damn pretty, Chrono Cross.
3) Final Fantasy VIII
The Final Fantasy series has supplied puzzling, unnecessary twists since the first game, in which the ending turns the first boss into the last one and pulls some time-traveling strings to fix it so that the heroes’ victory never actually happened–or DID it? This was the handiwork of then-noteworthy writer Kenji Terada, who clearly had to justify his paycheck after scripting variations on “and then they went to the fire cave and fought the fire boss” for an entire game.
Yet if we’re forced to pick on a single game in the series, we’re going straight for Final Fantasy VIII. It was billed as a love story, and that was perhaps the producers’ way of telling us not to look too closely at the rest of plot, which was apparently snatched off writer Kazushige Nojima’s desk mere seconds after he scribbled out some ideas on a Post-It. The result is a rough draft of a typical RPG plot about a band of mismatched teenagers saving the world, only these teenagers attend a floating high-school fortress and, due to the memory-corrupting monsters they summon, forget that they were all kids at the same orphanage (a plot point that’s introduced and forgotten about in the same scene). They’re also called on to defeat the pudding creature who runs the school, stop a bunch of monsters that pour off the moon, Terry Gilliam-style, and defeat a witch who wants to destroy time by compressing it all into one singular point of existence. As with Deus Ex, it’s best to take it all as a comedy.
There is, however, one benefit to poking around in Final Fantasy VIII‘s mess of backstories. It’s implied that the hideous final boss is, in fact, the game’s cutesy female lead, Rinoa, and that she became a temporal abomination in despair after the death of the game’s male lead, asshole Squall Leonhart.
2) Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
Yes, there’s no getting around it. Back in 2001, people complained about the stupefying mess that Metal Gear Solid 2 becomes by its finale. Then other people argued that it was all a superb and clearly intentional post-modern statement by pretentious auteur Hideo Kojima. Then the first batch of fans accused the second batch of being even more pompous lunatics than Kojima could ever become. Then the second batch claimed that they were just joking all along, and that Kojima liked them better and totally hung out with them on weekends. Then everyone lost track of things and just played Metal Gear Solid 3, which has a more conventional plot and a boss who shoots bees.
In light of the worn-out debates, we will simply acknowledge that Metal Gear Solid 2 suffered a serious case of trying too hard. Even if it’s a joke, there’s still a stunning excess of plot and a surfeit of cutscenes conveying it. It starts as a terrorist takeover of an offshore military base, but then there’s a doublecross, a talking ghost-arm, a sordid history involving child soldiers, a triplecross, quasi-incestuous secrets, a society of deceased Bohemian’s Grove members, and an awful lot of plot revelations that leave women dead. It’s fair to say that Metal Gear Solid 4 explains some of these puzzles in ways that could easily qualify that game for this list. But we’re going to wait four or five years for the arguments to die down.
Here’s our theory about Xenosaga: writer/director Tetsuya Takahashi and his wife/collaborator Soraya Saga had ideas for twelve different stories. However, their RPG Xenogears never got a sequel at Square, and they thought they’d only get the cha
nce to make one game after they took the semi-remake Xenosaga to Namco. So they threw just about everything into Xenosaga, inflating it into a six-game series. And this ensured that Namco would cut that series in half and boot Takahashi from the director’s seat after one game.
Let’s see…Xenosaga starts off in the far future, with the demurely nerdish Shion Uzuki testing out her creation KOS-MOS, a chaingun-wielding sex-droid who carries out Shion’s repressed desires by inadvertently murdering an obnoxious brain-eating space-marine commander when their spaceship is attacked by half-invisible space monsters called the Gnosis. But the dead guy is later resurrected in the service of a mysterious gray-haired kid who sits in his space room and plots the downfall of mankind. Also, Shion has issues about bio-robots because of her harrowing childhood experiences during the collapse of her homeworld, which was somehow tied to an ancient artifact dug up in Africa way back in the early 21st century, even though it was later found floating through space. There are aliens and conspiracies and a bizarro KOS-MOS (who should be good, but instead is just more overtly evil), and it all ties back to Jesus and Mary Magdalene. We’re not lying.
We haven’t even mentioned the evil space pope, the giant robots, the missing planet Earth, the trio of Freudian clone-brothers, the reverse Robocop cyborg who wants to become less human, the magical preteen robot girl, the psychological rape scene, the references to everything from Nietzsche to The Wizard of Oz, and the way the three main Xenosaga games radically changed their character designs with each title, in a desperate attempt to please both embarrassed American fans and Japanese fetishists. If Xenogears made sense like a pulpy, robot-filled Philip K. Dick novel, Xenosaga is a byzantine mindfuck from Dick’s later years, when he was convinced that aliens had proclaimed him the trans-dimensional savior of Planet Amphetamine.
Yes, Xenosaga deserves some credit for pursuing heady ideas in an subculture as inbred as video games, and it does make a valiant try at resolving many plot threads by its third and final game. Yet that’s no excuse for not getting it right the first time. And let us repeat: blue-haired Mary Madgalene androids.