- GUEST WRITER
A LOVE LETTER TO SUIKODEN II
This article contains spoilers for Suikoden II.
Suikoden II (known as Genso Suikoden II in Japan) is loosely based on the classical Chinese novel Water Margin, where heroes of all backgrounds come together to form the “108 Stars of Destiny” and rebel against the government in the name of justice. The novel itself is one of the great works of Chinese literature, along with Journey into the West and Romance of the Three Kingdoms, in fact, the latter portions of the novel were likely completed by the very author of Romance, as he was a student of the author attributed for beginning the work.
Suikoden II, unlike any games based on Romance or Journey, only borrows the basic motifs of the 108 Stars of Destiny and rebellion against an unjust authority from its original work, and from there it creates a game-world of immense depth, with not only an over-arching story, but a thought provoking narrative. In Suikoden II the story centers around two best friends, torn apart by war, and in the end, they come to very different conclusions on how to end what they both see as a needless conflict. All throughout, the narrative of “destiny” comes into play time and again: “What exactly is ‘destiny?’ and can it be altered? or are people bound to its will?” The differing paths that these two friends take give the player two different opinions on the nature of warfare itself, and by extension, two different outlooks on life.
It is not an exaggeration to say that this game clearly attempts to provoke the mind of the player, as well as their heart. Of course, it is up to the individual to decide how well the game succeeds, but the fact that as far back as 1999, when the game was released, the developers were trying to achieve such an ambitious task is proof that they wanted to say something more to the player than had been said in most games to that date. I am reminded of the words of the great filmmaker, Terrence Malick: “always respect the audience.” Suikoden II undeniably respects its audience, and treats the player like an intelligent human being.
If I could count the number of games that I have played that treated me -the player- with respect and intelligence on my fingers, then I doubt I could count the number of games I have played that treated me as a mindless drone on a calculator. Games of the latter nature can be fun, but to me the difference is clear: I would rather be engaged on an intellectual level than on a reflexive level. I have no love for the common schadenfreude of many modern games; to take pleasure in the suffering of others -even in a strictly fictional game world- is not to my taste. I will admit that stealing cars, running over pedestrians, then driving off cliffs into the nearest river can be quite fun, but I often forget these experiences soon after I leave the sandbox world they inhabit. While the experience of playing Suikoden II has lasted with me for more than a decade.The basic difference in design philosophy between Suikoden and many modern games can be simplified to this: modern games encourage the player to indulge, and Suikodenencourages the player to think.
This, I believe, is at the core of many of the current problems of the industry. Video Games are still an art form in infancy, and Suikoden was one of the many games of its era attempting to make some sense of this new form of communication. Lately, though the technology and the means by which game makers can communicate to players have greatly increased, it seems as if the games themselves have nothing to say, no questions to ask, and no ideas to share. While we are now capable of photo-realistic graphics, there seem to be no pictures worth taking, as the only pictures worth taking are always the ones we will remember from time to time, even when we are not looking at them.
A great writer can create images with words, as vivid as any picture, and while the shooters, guns, lens flares, and military vehicles come and go, it is the story and characters that make a memorable experience. In Suikoden II the characters themselves range from the outwardly noble, to the openly greedy, from idealists to realists. From the cowardly, to that peculiar type of bravery that borders on madness, and even a number of characters that can only be described as either insane or brilliant. This is universal, on all sides of the story’s conflict, the main character’s own army contains more than a few seedy or just simply absurd characters. Even Luca Blight, the person who can most be called the game’s “villain,” is revealed to be a product of an unspeakable act of cowardice and violence, and in his madness, he seeks to revisit that violence on those he sees as responsible for his trauma. Certainly, Suikoden IItakes a psychological approach to its characters, with even the villains being treated as human. The same holds true for the protagonists, as few if any are portrayed as blankly good, without a reason to compel them into the conflict.
The game’s music also reflects this diversity. From stirring orchestral pieces to flute and harpsichord melodies and an organ fugue, it is difficult to believe that all of it was composed by one person, for what was a surprisingly low-profile Playstation release. Miki Higashino’s beautiful soundtrack still stands as my favorite game soundtrack of all time, and in many ways was her defining work in the industry. More than any other game, Suikoden II showed us what was possible on the CD-based consoles.
At the turn of the millennium, the next generation of consoles was released, beginning with the Sega Dreamcast, and on into the Playstation 2, Xbox, and Gamecube. The RPG -while still selling well as a genre- found itself becoming stagnant. The success of games like Final Fantasy VII can be a double-edged sword, with artists and publishers alike attempting to reproduce artistic and financial success by blankly reproducing elements found in the successful game. This is when a genre can literally succumb to what we call the “generic.” But, the Suikodenseries itself has -from the first game- made it a point to defy the generic, if not its genre entirely.
The most obvious case of Suikoden defying genre is in the plot of the games. Never, at any point, does anyone threaten to destroy the world. In fact, the conflicts depicted in the games occur on a theater-level, involving only a handful of nations at most. The antagonists of the games have no desire for world domination or any other overtly evil motive, but instead, they feel that what they are doing is necessary. Any kind of melodrama in the plot of the game is added just so it can be later deconstructed or eventually deepened. None of the games’ main characters find themselves involved in a romantic relationship of any kind, as there is a war going on, and they have little time for normalcy in their lives. Even characters that are romantically involved with one another tend to keep their private moments private, off the screen and out of the way of the developing story. Suikodendoes not require these types of melodrama to enhance the tension of the plot, as compelling characters and intelligent writing will accomplish this without the artificial inflation of romance or an end-of-the-world scenario. Any addition of this kind, when presented against quality writing, would just seem out-of-place and arbitrary.
Many of the other -and I believe the most valid- complaints leveled against the RPG is that of game play, specifically, the tedious and often unnecessary tasks of what we call “grinding and questing.” These elements are present in nearly every RPG, and in modern games, have found their way into other genres as well. Let me be clear: the only reason for these game elements is to artificially extend play time and to give the player a sense of what is often referred to as “avatar strength,” or rather, the feeling of accomplishment that the player can have when the character or characters they control grow stronger. These game elements are particularly prevalent in the MMO, as extending play time through arbitrary tasks and low-cost game play additions is central to the business model of MMO developers. Even as a fan of RPGs, I completely agree with some of the RPG’s strongest critics on these points. There is simply no other reason for these additions to game play. But of course, Suikoden II defies these game play elements.
While Suikoden IIcertainly has the traditional RPG level system, the way it is designed allows you level up virtually any character or group of characters with remarkable speed, and with up to six characters in your party at once it only takes a few minutes at most to get even a low-level character up to the task at hand. This leveling system is in many ways necessary, as the game has over seventy playable characters. A more traditional experience and level system would either force you to reuse the same characters over and over, or it would force the developers to dramatically lower the game’s difficulty. Also, considering that the player has a very limited inventory space, “grinding” for any type of item is not only time-consuming, but is actually discouraged by the game’s basic design. Certainly, you can grind for specific items if you wish to invest the time, but nothing that can be acquired this way gives any major advantage, and this game element seems intended more for a player’s subsequent play-throughs rather than for first time players.
There are no traditional “quests” in Suikoden II, either. The closest thing that the game has to this element is an optional level where the main character meets two people who appeared in the first Suikoden game. Completing this level rewards the player not just with some items and money, but also with greater character development for two characters that the player had hopefully met during their first journey into the world of Suikoden. There are no “quest givers.” There are no exclamation points over the heads of the townsfolk, no request boards. No one asks you to gather twelve “greater tortoise shells,” or other such nonsense. People go about their daily lives, and for the most part, all they ask of you is to the end the ongoing war as quickly as possible. The MMO-style quest is simply a way for developers to engage a player with as little investment as possible; they rarely serve any kind of plot function, and even of they do, it feels contrived and manufactured. Suikoden II‘s game play-time is entirely comprised of plot advancement or character development, and often both simultaneously. This enhances the tension of the game’s plot, of course, but feels so much more rewarding to me as a player.
And that is the best feeling of all, in the end. The game rewards you not with the visceral or subconscious rewards found in many modern titles, but with excellent characters that you grow to love, and a thought-provoking story that has stayed with me for fifteen years. These rewards prove that the game was made with the utmost respect for its player, and with the utmost artistry in the medium.
If you want to join an enthusiastic group of Suikoden fans, don’t hesitate to visit the Suikoden Revival Movement Facebook page