Monday, September 21, 2009

Ruined Video Game Worlds

Another world. Another time. In the Age of Wonder. A thousand years ago, this land was green and good. Until the Crystal cracked...

If you're a fan of Jim Henson movies (or the Crystal Method) you'll undoubtedly recognize those words as evoking the image of a world gone wrong. This list is about video game worlds and lands that were once good but have become corrupted and ruined either before or during the course of the game. There's nothing quite like being immersed in a nightmarish hellscape to increase the tension of a game or to evoke feelings of loss, hopelessness and despair. There are definitely more places I thought of than could fit on the list but the following are the ones that I think have the greatest impact either because of the sheer magnitude of their downfall or the atmosphere and feel of their ruinous nature. Honourable mentions go out to Fallout's world and Chrono Cross' Dead Sea.

5. Dark Land - Super Mario Bros. 3

Don't let the fact that this is in an 8-bit Mario game fool you, Dark Land is a veritable hell on earth. It's especially jarring given the overall benevolence of the rest of the Mushroom World. Here the Koopa tribe's weapons of war roam the land, sea and air. The country is filled with skulls, fire, lava, ash and consuming darkness, and some environments are entirely drained of colour. Basically, it's like the Mario version of walking into Mordor. However, in the final screen of the map, you are confronted with Bowser's castle, looming over the ruins of mushroom people structures. That's right; evidently, Bowser did not originally own the land he lives in. He invaded this area from wherever he came from and literally built his empire on the bones of his enemies. This is the horror that will befall the rest of the lands should you fail. It's even worse given that the mushroom people are non aggressive so this is basically an act of genocide on par with the Roman invasion of Dacia. Bowser seems to have lost his touch in later games but in this entry he was a vicious and cruel tyrant. When you fought him it was friggin' frightening as he throws himself about the room spitting fire, attempting to crush or immolate our hero. In the end, the only way to kill him is through a relentless torrent of fireballs or to let his murderous rage consume him and bring about his own downfall, much like Satan's attempts to escape hell cause him to be trapped there in Dante's Inferno. Epic and terrifying to say the least.

4. 2,300 A.D. - Chrono Trigger

Although you could say that the idea of this was lifted from Terminator, I still feel that this is pretty cool. In the year 1999, Lavos emerges from the depths of the earth and brings annihilation upon the planet. I think it was an interesting move to establish Lavos as a being beyond human comprehension so there is no way of knowing exactly what its motivations for this act are. It simply appears to be a fathomless act of genocide. 400 years later, the shattered remnants of humanity are still fending for themselves in the rubble. The feeling of loss is especially great as Chrono Trigger is a time traveling game, so you get to see the entire scope of the the world's history and see that it will all end in ruin. It's almost akin to a nuclear war: all the plans and dreams of humanity amounted to nothing because of a senseless act of colossal violence. It's also really cool that humanity is locked in a fight with a machine civilization (much like it was with reptiles in the beginning) but this is ultimately a pointless struggle. Especially in light of the fact that Lavos' spawn are wandering Death Peak, waiting to enter into space and inflict a similar fate on other worlds. It's a hopeless situation where all your actions are fruitless. No matter how many machines, mutants or Lavos spawn you kill, the world is still damned and no matter how many times you sleep in an Enertron, you're still hungry.

3. The Dark World - The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

Compared to the lush, green forests and fields of Hyrule, the Dark World was a blighted place, filled with withering grass, polluted water, lost souls and bizarre and monstrous creatures at every turn. Nothing was normal or peaceful and everything was hostile and grotesque. Apparently, this place once was the Golden Land: a divine and imperishable realm that has been corrupted by Ganon's acquisition of the Triforce and mastery of its power. One can only imagine how far it has fallen, and leaving the nature of the Golden Land to the imagination of the player was a brilliant move on their part. For all we know, it might never have born a resemblance to Hyrule and only took that on once Ganon's heart and mind shaped it. In this regard, the Dark World also proved to be a very interesting method of giving the player an understanding of the antagonist. This environment is a reflection of Ganon's heart and thus, you are basically walking through the mind of the villain during your quest in his kingdom. Fittingly, it is not over-the-top and completely demonic and horrifying. After all, Ganondorf may be evil but he's not a psychopath or Satan's spawn or anything. The Dark World is an appropriately dark, harsh, twisted, sick and diseased version of Hyrule. It's really telling of Ganon's nature when you are inside the Dark Palace and you see all the statues of his pig-like form grasping the Triforce. It's self-aggrandizing but also accepting of his true nature, and I like the idea that Ganon does not resist the change of form that he and the Golden Land underwent. Your prolonged stay in this nightmare really draws you further into the world and mythos of Hyrule, and (although I love the Ocarina of Time to death) delivers an experience that I would argue is more dark and disturbing then that offered by any of its successors.

2. The Demise of Nosgoth - Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver

Although some of the games have found commercial success, the Legacy of Kain series seems to have only reached cult classic status as a whole. However, I count myself as a member of the cult, so the majority of you who haven't experienced these games will just have to take my word for it. The feel of Nosgoth in Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver is truly like no other. The background to the story is that Kain chose to plunge the world into darkness at the end of the previous game and began an empire of vampires that ruled Nosgoth for a thousand years. During this time human civilization had been completely obliterated and most populations had been enslaved for food. However, this is not where the game begins. Oh no. You begin playing as Raziel, the resurrected specter of one of Kain's lieutenants, centuries after Kain's empire began to decline. In other words, things aren't going right for anybody. Humans, vampires and animals are all pretty much doomed. Since the fall of the empire, the humans have regained some strength and have built a solitary fortress from which they attack the languishing vampires. However, it's simply too late.

Wandering alone in a ruined and decayed land sparsely populated by mutated and decrepit vampires scavenging for food on a violent and mindless quest for vengeance is a uniquely lonely, perverse and enjoyable experience. Like in the Zelda games, the world is filled with structures and ruins that give a feeling of depth, history and richness to the environments. It's especially great when you meet the bosses, the freakishly deformed and often insane vampire brethren of Raziel. His conversations with them only serve to heighten your feelings of foreboding as you hear the boasts, curses and lamentations of Nosgoth's vampiric masters, twisted in mind and body by the ravages of time and isolation. Your experiences are also punctuated by your meetings with Kain, whose calmness, clarity and acceptance of the situation make things even more creepy. As an unmoving centre to this spiral of madness, I honestly didn't know if he was either supremely enlightened or the most insane of all of Nosgoth's denizens. If you play the other games in the series you get a sense for how Nosgoth's dark history has inexorably led it to this end, which only gives the sense of corruption more depth . In the words of Ariel: “Ghastly past. Insufferable future. Are they one and the same?”

1. The World of Ruin - Final Fantasy VI

I won't lie, I almost created this list for the sole purpose of putting Nosgoth and the ruined world of Final Fantasy VI at the top of it. One of the most powerful aspects of the World of Ruin is that the cataclysm happens during the progress of the game. At a point that gamers understandably assumed to be the climax, the true antagonist was revealed, the quest was failed and the world was plunged into chaos. The world has been utterly reshaped by the cataclysm: the location of most cities and landmarks have shifted with many areas completely destroyed or missing, and new geographical formations being raised. All plants, water and land have taken on a sickly hue and it is much more difficult for the planet to support life. However, the full gravity of what has happened doesn't hit you until you play for a few more hours and see how Kefka's actions have affected (or killed) every single person you had ever met in the game. Finally, at some point it occurs to you: this is it. There is no going back and there is no chance of the world being fully healed (at least not during the course of the game or the lifetimes of the characters). The only thing left to do is pick up the pieces and try to do the best you can in this sad state of affairs.

Unlike Zelda's Dark World, the ruined world is not some alternate dimension you can escape from. It is also not some horrible future that can be prevented. Nor is it like Nosgoth or the world of Fallout where the state of decay is immediately accepted because it is all the player knows. The only thing that I find to be close is the world of Xenogears when things get totally destroyed and virtually everybody on the planet is cannibalized to feed the resurrection of a god. But here, the ruin was more of an apocalypse. It happens towards the end and is part of the game's conclusion. Xenogears is awesome but it does not force you to live in the aftermath and go about your business, making you long for the return of a time and place that will never be again. Final Fantasy VI does exactly that. Moreover, it is the resolve that the protagonists find, to keep going in this world of ruin, that defines them as truly heroic.


Cole D'Arc said...

i have experienced all these worlds firsthand and could not agree more. You're right that people need to really pay attention to the details of certain worlds like Bowser's to truly appreciate the scope of their darkness. The order's just right too. i only wish i'd thought of it first.

Now I need to somehow get my hands on Soul Reaver again; I'd forgotten what a great experience it is.

on another note, have you checked out my playable FF characters list? i'd be interested to know your thoughts on it.

Bruce Burns said...

Thanks! I feel similarly to your FF characters list, although I don't think I could have made it because I find it to be a complicated issue.

For example, one character I might consider adding would be Cid from FF7. On the outset, you'd never imagine anyone other than Cloud would ever be the party leader. However, FF7 was all about the unexpected and seeing the old and world-weary Cid rise to the challenge is a really inspirational experience. He's got one of the most fitting theme songs of any FF character.

However, herein lies the problem that would be at the heart of my thinking: my list of top five characters would probably be made up entirely of FF6 and FF7 characters. This is obviously unfair to the franchise as a whole.

Vivi was an excellent call, and it's jogged my memory and made me want to finally replay FF9 after all these years. I think I'll like it better now as I'd have a greater appreciation for it's simple story (at the time I wanted another Xenogears or Tactics). It's supposed to cap off the FF tradition from 1-4 afterall. On a related note, you inclusion of Kain was a fitting acknowledgment of the early days while also being a character that still stands out even today. He's a great example of how trying to rewrite the wheel or make a character really avant-garde or edgy doesn't equate to greatness. Archetypes exist for a reason and Kain was a great example of one who also stood out.

However, I would contend that Terra might not be as weak a character as some find. Sure she can be on the annoying side, but I think her thoughts about not knowing what love is, to be interesting as they give voice to problems and feelings that are shared by others in the game, Celes included. It's just that it manifested itself in different ways in various characters (and in Terra's it unfortunately came off as irritating sometimes). Moreover, her path to answering that problem is atypical: Terra doesn't rush into some romance to get a man to complete her*, but she becomes the guardian of the helpless. [* This is not a comparison with Celes as obviously she came to an internal reckoning while in complete isolation and found Locke again later. Just a comparison with most female characters a la, the chick from Twilight.*] I know you could say that Terra's version of love is a maternal one (as the helpless here are children) but I think there is something of the virtuous knight protector in her as well.

Not that I mean to say I think your list needed these characters: obviously, you know their strengths as well as I. I'm just saying making a list would have been something I would have endlessly toyed with but never come to a conclusion on. I think your list was representative of the franchise while also giving the very best characters their due.

Cole D'Arc said...

I certainly don't think Terra is a weak character at all - i was just having a little fun at her expense there and your points about her certainly were never lost on me.

The thing is, I tried my best to do a "best" or "greatest" list rather than simply naming my favourites. All the mentioned characters are favourites of mine but some aren't necessarily top five favourites. And as far as "best" goes, Cid and Terra would both probably make a list of ten.

I didn't just choose the likes of Vivi and Kain to cover games besides VI and VII - i tried to take into account their actual impact on games that are still very strong in their own right if not quite as strong as VI or VII. As you said, it's a very complicated task but i gave it my best shot.

Cole D'Arc said...

anyway, i didn't mean to detract attention from this list which i think is awesome and i know the others will enjoy it a lot too. well done.

Bruce Burns said...

Oh no, I mean, like I said, everything I mentioned you already know. And I'm not sure if I'd even include Cid either. What I mean is that most of my thoughts about the best characters usually equates to my favorites. This has been a problem for me in creating these lists as, if I'm not careful, I'll be talking about the exact same stuff over and over again with little variety. It's also a tricky issue given that FF6 had such a strong cast that all play off each other so well. Vivi was an amazing character partly because he didn't have as strong a cast to play off of, so he had to be that much better on his own. Final Fantasy is a multifaceted animal and the viewpoint I often approach it with doesn't take into account the full scope of the types of characters and stories it has to offer. If I was judging other games by the same criteria, Wander (from Shadow of the Colossus) might not appear too special. But when I realise what sort of story he fits into, he becomes one of my favorites ever. Likewise, FF4 is a different kind of story, and Kain serves as an awesome heroic counterpoint within a classic heroic tale. Sort of a fallen knight like Lancelot (only way cooler because he doesn't commit infidelity and doesn't end up with the girl). So I know you weren't including them for the sake of doing it, but because of your appreciation for the scope of the FF series as a whole.

I'd be interested in hearing what Sam's favorites are because he said his list would be totally different. My list, if it ever got made, would mirror yours closely and I can't imagine a list of top FF characters without Celes and Cloud. Celes is so strong that she would outclass any other lead character from any other FF game (and the idea of not having her as the lead but part of an ensemble goes to show how mind bogglingly cool the whole idea of FF6 was).

Sam said...

I wouldn't be able to play by the rules originally set in the FF characters list.

I can't be objective enough to reconcile "fun to play/overall coolness" and "significance to the greater story."

Though now Bruce, I want to write such a list just for you. Do you still use your old email address?

Bruce Burns said...

Hey Sam! Actually, I haven't had access to my hotmail account for over a year now. You should probably sent it to me over facebook. I look forward to seeing your choices. You should start making up lists! We could use a touch of your unique taste for madcap tomfoolery.

Shane Patenaude said...

Great list Bruce. Definately an interesting topic and I can't think of any better entries for this list. Bowser needs to get back to his diabolical roots. I liked him more when he was unseen evil force you may never see unless you battle your way through hours of challenging platforming. Nowadays he's appearing 30 seconds into a Mario game and chatting it up like he's a slightly annoying neighbor and not a real threat.

RyHo said...

I've been behind in my Five-O-Rama reading, but I just took a look at this one and I had to make a comment.

I think that SMB 3 was a fantastic choice. When you first hit that last world in the game, it's so shocking. The rest is so bright. When you hit those three stages where the hand drags you down into them, for example, its shocking.

Also, having Nosgoth from Soul Reaver in there is amazing. I love the Soul Reaver franchise (I actually haven't really played Legacy of Kain), especially Soul Reaver 2. That world is so wretched and the storyline is so expansive.

Such a great list.