Soul Blazer forces us to confront a simple question: is it better to have a world or not?
At its most elemental level, this is a simple question of whether existence is desirable. This is also easy to answer: of course it isn’t. Non-existence does not long for existence. It does not long for the continuation of its non-existence either, it is true, but it is… content. It wants for nothing. Existence, meanwhile, wants non-existence. It may evince a certain contentment with its existence, and even a sort of crazed and paranoid desire to cling to this state of affairs, but its actions over the long game reveal a clear desire for annihilation. Such is the way with games; they constantly work towards their own end.
But this is not the question Soul Blazer asks. Indeed, it’s a meaningless choice, offered only to God on the occasion of the Big Bang. The reality is that existence has been chosen for us. The cartridge has been jammed into the top-loading slot of the universe and the power switch has been thrown. We may prefer otherwise, but it is not so. The only version of the question that can be asked given that is whether the continuation of existence is desirable. And given the nature of existence, this question is in practice whether the world should be destroyed or not.
At first glance this would appear to also not quite be the question Soul Blazer asks; the Freil Empire has already fallen to Deathtoll in it, after all; the world’s destruction is as inevitable as its existence. It would also appear that, despite this, the game has a straightforward answer: Deathtoll is, after all, named Deathtoll, and is the unambiguous villain of the piece. His consumption of the world is presented as an act of evil to be undone. The world, evidently, should not have been destroyed. But this is not as obvious as it might seem.
In truth, much as existence is generally a process of protesting one’s desire for existence while working inexorably towards its termination, Soul Blazer, for all that it suggests destroying the world is wrong, is fundamentally a game about doing so. The main action of the game is the systematic clearing out of six dungeons; dungeons that are created by Deathtoll as an alternative world to the one he destroyed. This already calls the straightforward analysis into question; Deathtoll is as much creator as destroyer.
But more than that, it casts the player as world-destroyer. A dungeon is just as much a world as a town, after all. Indeed, the main mechanic of the game – monster spawning tiles that the player must seal – combined with a sword swing that takes the side-swiping of A Link to the Past even further – means that dungeon clearing becomes a sort of tactical assault. One explores the dungeons and unlocks paths while endlessly finding places to stand whereby monsters can safely be picked off as they emerge. It’s systematic and tactical like genocide should be. So the game is one sustained act of destruction; indeed, this takes up far more of the player’s time than the recreation of the world does.
So the game does ask whether the world should be destroyed, and answers yes. But this is its secret question; the one it would, on the whole, rather the player not notice has been asked or what the answer is. Its ostensible question, however, is a third version of the overall question of existence: should the world be restored? And its answer is yes, almost exactly as its answer to “should the world be destroyed” is no.
Soul Blazer opens, after a brief tutorial about monster-fighting, on a desolate grassy plain that extends substantially in all directions. Each of the six levels begins as a similar wasteland; dilapidated house, or empty mountain palace. By sealing monster lairs, however, the player unlocks the souls of the people who once lived in the ruined world. Slowly buildings emerge from the soil. It is not just people, however; plants and animals return, all of them able to communicate with the player, who also steps into their dreams, dreams which then shape the world just as the monster lairs do. And gradually the world is restored.
There is no way to argue that the game was not a massive influence on me, then. Or, at least, there is, but it relies on the sort of unconvincing “I can’t actually find any causality so it must be a coincidence” argument that amounts to little more than a desperate rejection of the potency of magic. No, the rules of this little game of ours force my hand. I played Soul Blazer as a child, and as an adult I spend large amounts of time reconstructing lost worlds by tracing paths of dream and memory through their ruins. The implication is inescapable as death.
And yet the actual track that this necessarily existent link leaves through my own psychic history is itself a ruin. I cannot even remember exactly when it happened. The Super Nintendo era stretches through to 1996, but I had departed well before then, my interest in the console tapering off sharply in 1993 and 94. This was not a loss of interest in video games, but rather a transition of platform; I spent the late 90s as a PC gamer. Soul Blazer itself came out in late 1992, but I doubt I got it that Christmas.
The reason for this is that 1992 was the year my Uncle Phil got me a lizard because he was concerned that I would feel lonely following the birth of my sister. The result is one of my great party piece stories; an epic of death, resurrection, and no small measure of unease over having to feed my only semi-wanted pet live crickets. But the video game it’s associated with is The Curse of Monkey Island, and that doesn’t have a SNES version, so is outside the scope of this project.
But I’m at least reasonably certain that Iggy did not come the same year as my uncle’s decision to give all the adults in the family gifts on the theme of “romance.” So let’s call that Christmas of 1993; that puts me in sixth grade, after I’d started to periodically sell off piles of unwanted games at $10 a pop for NES, $15 for SNES (though I can’t imagine I sold more than one or two of those that early on), a decision that marked a fundamental shift in my understanding of video game culture as something deeply concerned with class.
My uncle’s romance-themed gifts were in many regards the setup to a joke. My mother has three brothers in addition to my Uncle Phil, and two got… I’m reconstructing here, but let’s go with chocolates or some nice wine or something. Whatever it was, it was the sort of thing that follows very logically from the theme of romance. My parents, on the other hand, got Soul Blazer. Roll on snare drum.
This caused an interesting wrinkle in my relationship with the game, namely that it wasn’t mine. Although it wasn’t as though it was especially meaningfully anyone else’s either. The idea that my father was ever going to play it was more than faintly ridiculous. I remember him beating Legend of Zelda back in the late 80s, but this basically marked the end of his video game playing. My mother was a slightly more plausible candidate, but her relationship with video games was by and large that she liked owning them as opposed to playing them. The household Genesis, for instance, was nominally my mother’s, and resided in her bedroom, but I am reasonably certain she never played it beyond an idle exploration of Sonic the Hedgehog upon getting it. The Super Nintendo, for its part, lived in the semi-finished basement, which served as my playroom. So while I don’t doubt the basic sincerity of my mother’s desire to play Soul Blazer, the idea that she was going to spend an extended amount of time in the basement in order to do so was similarly strained.
Nevertheless, my mother guarded Soul Blazer with no small amount of jealousy such that for some time nobody played it. I do not begrudge her this, more out of an aversion to the spectacle of a thirty-three year old man being angry about the level of access he had to a video game more than twenty years prior than anything. And beyond that, what grounds would I have? The game was, in point of fact, hers. Any decision to restrict access to it was inherently justifiable, and any objection based on the perceived unfairness of this could reasonably be countered by declaring the exercise a life lesson of some sort.
But within the game of childhood – and childhood is unmistakably a game for the child, structured around the same systems of aversion and refinement as a video game – the experience was revelatory, inasmuch as the resulting frustration sticks with me like the muscle memory of the game itself. What is striking about it in my memory is the inherent pointlessness of it – the fact that there was not actually any productive desire or motivation. Nobody actually wanted the game to sit shrink-wrapped for months.
Reconstructing the situation now my attention is drawn to a slightly different detail; the fact that the logic of private property that justified my mother’s actions could not have been used by me regarding the Super Nintendo itself, which had been a gift to me as surely as Soul Blazer had been to her. If she had attempted to play the game and I had responded by denying her access to the system on which to play it, the end result would have been the Super Nintendo being taken from me. Indeed, I was acutely aware of the fact that my access to the Super Nintendo was just as contingent on my mother’s acquiescence as my access to Soul Blazer. The rules of private property were ones that could only be used against me, as opposed to by me.
It is difficult not to see, in this, the seeds of later politics, or perhaps just seeds of a chronic inability to let things go. And there is something credible to this explanation. That’s the point of anchoring Gamergate in the crude numeracy of toy industry marketing techniques that saw Sega trying to outdo Nintendo in the boy’s market. How many of Gamergate’s seeds were sewn in the common dynamic of a younger sister annoying her brother via the strategic exploitation of rules governing the shared ownership of the video game console despite her marketing policy-forged comparative lack of interest in gaming? You can’t honestly say none. But with my sister ten years younger and no more capable of playing video games than the lizard, my version of this resentment was directed outwards at the ruling class. Such are the engines of history.
The result of all of this is that when I did get around to playing Soul Blazer, I had a decidedly odd relationship to it. It was not a game I ever would have sought out; these were the days when the ethics of video game journalism meant that Nintendo Power still had near-total authority on the matter of Nintendo games, a phrase that at the time was borderline genericidal. It had not focused on Soul Blazer, it was not from an established and respected company like Capcom or Konami, and it did not feature a known property. It thus might as well not have existed. Its appeal lay almost entirely in the shrinkwrap that sat between me and it for our several month standoff.
It was, however, a very good game. The aforementioned feel of tactical assault made for a satisfying twist on the classic Zelda dynamic, just as the “recover a town” dynamic was a pleasant variation on the RPG. It’s an unheralded classic of a game; the sort that nobody has bad memories of, but too few have any memories of. It was, in other words, a game that lived up to its shrinkwrap in my life, and that set roots deep enough to matter to who I am. I cannot deny the scale and grandeur of what is unearthed from these ruins.
What, then, do we make of this dance between creation and destruction that is its animating passion? It is the alchemist’s dance – solve et coagula – the familiar process of making history. But it does not offer any sense of direction. Nothing does in these labyrinths beneath the world. We see the root structures that nourish the world; the systems of power that make it what it is. But we do not find redemption in them. They are at best morally neutral, at worst innately diseased. As I said; it is not preferable that the world exist.
But we are once again in the vicinity of that lone line of flight out that we have found – the fact that these labyrinths do not just lie under our world. This is one of those idiosyncratically Japanese games; a cousin to ActRaiser, also from Quintet and Enix. Like that game it has a sort of quasi-Christian mythology; the player is a holy avatar of the Master, who is transparently God renamed to suit Nintendo of America. Deathtoll is equally obviously Satan, and the tragic story of Dr. Leo and the fall of man that is revealed in a series of dream memories over the course of Soul Blazer is a fairly straightforwardly Christian tale of temptation and moral weakness told through a generally European medieval iconography, with a few forays into other aesthetics where it’ll look cool.
But the actual ethos of the world, as opposed to its iconography, is manifestly that of the Buddhist-Shinto syncretism that dominates Japanese culture. This is a world where every tulip has an individual consciousness, where a cycle of reincarnation links all living things, and where the natural and spiritual worlds share geographies. This is its own world, defined on its own terms. But that is its appeal: it is not ours. It is a world made for psychochronography, and, yes, no doubt one that made psychochronography. A world that ought exist, and a secret history in which we may hide.
End of 1992