I’m finally done! But there’s still quite a bit to go – sociopathy, mindblowing twists, and a bizarre intellectual elitism/anti-science combo, oh my! To start things off:
(“The initial surge of heat should destroy any remaining life on the Surface instantly… Then, the Cycle will be complete. It will send out the signal that everything’s ready. They’ll clean up the Surface, repopulate it, start a new Cycle, and… rescue me.”)
We finally get the reveal that, like everyone else, Tezkhra is a horrible person.
Let’s go over some things he said earlier:
“In the scope of your being… yes, I am [a god]. Yet, I assure you I am also an ally and a friend.”
This was a bald-faced lie. How do we know?
(“Although, given the state of the Watchers, I may have to finish the cycle myself…”)
Because he thinks this immediately after, and we now know what finishing the cycle entails. The fact that he even contemplates this option, so soon after saying the previous line, shows that all his friendliness was false. He never cared about these people; he always placed his own goals first, and was planning to murder them the entire time.
“You’ll accomplish little if you fixate on the end. Focus on today. Do not live a live of worry.”
Also, we now learn that this was not just the usual condescension of how dying is actually great and we should just stop struggling already. No, he was actively planning to murder everyone while he said this. When he said “Don’t fixate on the end,” he meant “Don’t fixate on the end I am delivering to you in five minutes.”
“I shall not hesitate to annihilate this entire structure if necessary. [The artifact] must be disabled. […] When I am through with it, you and the others may continue your engagement unhindered.”
He never cared about these peoples’ actual problems, or their conflict, only his own goals. I’m just going to say right now that disabling the artifacts was motivated by purely selfish reasons too, for reasons we’ll get to in a minute.
“If all goes well, we shall meet again soon.”
And this just makes no sense, unless he considers “all goes well” to mean he fails in his mission.
To his credit, he can’t go through with it – he tries psyching himself up to it, but eventually realizes he can’t bring himself to destroy the civilization he saw. This still is not enough to make me think he’s a good person, because you don’t get a medal for realizing that murdering a planet is wrong at the last second.
Now. In theory, this is fine. Tezkhra is supposed to be aloof and alien, so the reveal that he was a false friend plotting murder the whole time actually works well. What I take issue with is the lack of consistency. Why does he lie in such unnecessary ways? Why does he purposefully get their hopes up and pretend to be their friend? Why does he say nonsensical things like “we will meet again soon”? They gain him nothing, so he just ends up looking like a sociopath toying with these people for his own amusement. It’s possible he is trying to be polite and keep them placated for the time being, but personally, I feel like it would be nicer not to string them along and let them think their goals coincided.
I object to his change of heart too, for the opposite reason: The game tries to make it seem like a gradual change rather than a sudden one, which just goes weird places. The “ally and a friend” bit made it seem like he was already warming up to them back then, but someone who really meant that would not find himself seconds away from killing everyone; he should have dismissed the possibility long ago. I think the intention is supposed to be that he believed he was being purely cold and logical the whole time, and only now that he’s about to throw it all away does he realize how much he actually cared. That works, and is the more dramatic of the two options, but the text doesn’t fit it. When people deny an emotion, they try to go in the opposite direction, so if that’s what was going on, he should have shown forced coldness and distanced himself from everyone. What we see is the opposite – warmth and friendliness – which just makes it look false when placed against his true motivation. Possibly the idea was that he’s internally convincing himself to murder them but his true friendliness slips through when talking, but that is just not how people work. If anything it should be the opposite, really. Like many other characters, the behavior cues that attempt to foreshadow this are bizarre and unrealistic, which just makes him look manipulative and evil.
He returns to the Watchers’ room and opens a hidden door to reveal an artifact, which he deactivates.
“They had to communicate with the Watchers somehow. There must be a comm-outlet.”
He searches the room a bit before noticing an off-color floor panel.
He uses the blue thing to call someone.
Voice from Above: “Yeah? Who’s this? I don’t recognize your Header Info. Verify your H. I. tag number?”
Tezkhra: “Doctor Ransend?”
My, that doesn’t sound like a god at all! Turns out the gods are actually scientists from a super-advanced society, and the whole planet is part of an experiment to do…something. I spoiled this one back in Tez’s introduction; sorry, but I wouldn’t have been able to talk about much otherwise. It’s a good reveal, and it’s pretty clever to toy with the idea that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic by revealing a fantasy story to be a sci-fi one. This reveal, however, does not totally invalidate the fantasy elements: magic is still magic, and the whole point is that the scientists are trying to study it. I really appreciate that. Too often when stories do this, it’s to take all the magic out of everything because silly rabbit, fantasy is for kids, everything must be boring and mundane forever! But this retains that sense of wonder, mystery, and escapism while still being an understandable intersection of two similar genres that, in my opinion at least, actually makes things more interesting. Trying to analyze magic systems scientifically is always something I love to do, so seeing it happen in-story is really fun. I also feel like it’s a realistic portrayal of what would happen if we suddenly discovered magic existed in real life: scientists would study the heck out of it. (I believe there was a lively discussion to this effect on one of the Dresden Files posts.) Like Havan being the antagonist, it’s clever, mindblowing, and makes sense in hindsight. (Still weirded out by Fell’s telepathy in chapter 2, though.)
Ransend is shocked, because everyone thought Tez was dead. Tez explains about his resurrection by throwing some jargon around; apparently they refer to magic as “latent energy”.
Tezkhra: “Put Marie on. Is she somewhere close?”
Marie: “Who is this? State your H.I. tag at once.”
Tezkhra: “Hmm. Hello to you too, Marie.”
Marie! She’s the best character from the prequel. She says he ran off without a word and nobody knew where he went, to which he replies that he did not want to be followed. He doesn’t elaborate further (maybe the developer wanted to leave himself wiggle room for that scene), but completely shifts gears to start talking about the Watcher project and “Potential Latent-Sensitive Environments“. They instantly know exactly what he’s talking about and speak as if they know the details of the project, which is, sadly, inconsistent with the prequel. Apparently the planet he’s on is one of these environments, which is bad because he’s interfering with the project. He says he crash-landed, explicitly contradicting his later assertion that he totally meant to do that, but he could have been lying then. He also lost five “emitters” in the crash; these are the artifacts he’s been disabling. There’s a bit of a plot hole there: he counts the one in the Watchers’ room as one of the five, even though it sure looks like something the administrators put there and not something he lost in the crash.
He starts nerding out about how this is the planet the scientists were looking for, there’s so much latent energy and it’s so cool but you have no idea because the Watchers died.
Marie: “Dead?! Dammit, how did that happen? You know how expensive they are to replace?”
This, again, implies they are directly involved with the project, but according to I Miss the Sunrise they are not. Might have made that game more interesting if they were…
They ask if Tez meddled with anything; his silent response speaks volumes. Before they can chew him out he changes the topic (he is really good at that) by talking about Mahk. He was part of their group, and disappeared in pursuit of Tez before going native. Everyone thought he was dead (and now he is) – pretty dickish of him to not even send a message back, but maybe he was worried people would come after him and nuke everything. Tez uses this as an awkward segue to wax philosophical.
Tezkhra: “He is but a Surface dweller now. He is one of them. Alone, in their own little world… We plant them upon the Surface, impart them with knowledge, and set them free. They think of us as gods. We create, we destroy, we give, and we take away… So, that is an acceptable explanation over the truth in their scope, don’t you agree?”
That sounds very pretty but wow, someone let the god thing go to his head. If he just left out the last line this would be a very poignant reflection on his actions, as he realizes that his simple science project had far greater consequences than he could have ever known. Perhaps it could even be an assertion that they need to be more considerate in the future. But then he turns around and says this is a good thing, that the dumb surface dwellers should just be kept cowed and ignorant forever, that this is the proper state of things. You can’t trust them to handle the truth, it’d break their little brains. That sounds like very, very creepy elitist propaganda to me.
Marie calls him out on this, though less firmly than I’d like (she just says he’s crazy, not evil). He counters with “Are humans so different? You created the immortality emitters to ravel the stars. What do you believe the first human to live a million years said to himself?” which is so far off the mark I’m going to assume he’s just doing it as a dodge. Immortality is only one component of godhood, and honestly I’d say omnipotence is by far the more important one. Also, from what we see in the prequel they’re disinclined to such emotional displays and chew people out when it does happen, so this just reads as pretentious nonsense with a side dish of science = playgods = evil rather than anything actually relevant. Maybe if I Miss the Sunrise turned out differently this could be profound, but after playing it this is just kind of weird.
Anyway. He thinks there’s only one more emitter to deactivate because he counted the one that obviously wasn’t his for some unfathomable reason, but he doesn’t want to go back even after finishing the job. Due to his interference with the experiment he’d be in trouble, and he’s gotten too attached to the surface-dwellers.
Marie: “What??? Y-you can’t! You’ll age! You’ll get old! You’ll DIE without the treatments!”
Tezkhra: “Truthfully… I have lived more in the last Surface-year than in any time before.”
And this is a point where the developer and I have a major divergence in our philosophies. The idea here is supposed to be that immortality is bad because it makes you not value your life and you never truly live or something. I strongly disagree with this, but perhaps it’s better saved for an I Miss the Sunrise review. My basic rebuttal would be that we don’t have immortality yet so this is pure speculation, and it’s rather disappointing (and unoriginal) to purposefully take the most cynical interpretation possible. Immortality might be bad, but we won’t know until we try – and honestly, is it really better to slowly rot away as all your physical and mental faculties fail you before dying a slow and painful death from some awful disease, subjecting all your loved ones to the agony of watching you fade away from them? To send the message that we shouldn’t try to change anything, that science can never make us truly happy, that we just need to shut up and learn to accept our miserable existence? Yes, it’s important to take new developments slowly and you have to consider the wider effects (scope!), but saying that the end goal itself isn’t worth pursuing is far too dismissive. It deters people from even trying, which can only stall progress.
Eh, maybe I’m being too harsh? Science doesn’t seem to be pure evil, because Tez then says he wants to study the magic energy on the planet. I’m not sure if he’s doing it for the practical applications – it could certainly improve quality of life – or just because SCIENCE! He only says “Do you see? This may be what they were seeking! It is like nothing I have ever seen. […] This new form of latent energy must be studied. I wish to do so personally. I’ll leave a log of my findings for when you arrive. Granted, I’ll be long gone by then. […] I do not wish to see it lost,” which is ambiguous. Normally I would say he’s doing it to help people because that’s typically what motivates scientists, and perhaps that is the intention here, but in hindsight of I Miss the Sunrise I am skeptical. A big theme there was the perversion of science and how the future scientists’ way of thinking is completely different from ours, which reflects badly on Tez here.
Ransend: “Lost? Wasn’t the idea of the Cycles to start over when Technology started cropping up?”
You know, it always annoys me when stories phrase it like this. Technology is not some abstract force that “crops up”, it’s measured by specific, discrete inventions, and they’re only concerned about one (space travel). Seems pretty premature to nuke the place when the best they have is a steam engine.
Tezkhra: “This Cycle would have succeeded, but for one flaw. […] People. People can’t be trusted with anything they do not understand. That is the problem. Unless people will understand and accept their own scope, they will never get along.”
Yep, that’s our final moral: trying to learn things and improve your understanding of the universe will turn you crazy (and evil), so just sit down and accept your lot in life. Don’t worry your pretty little head over what the people with a finger on the nuclear launch button are doing, just bank on their magnanimity and go about your normal life. Was the developer brainwashed by aliens or something? Just, Jesus. I thought the protagonists’ constant refusal to do anything was just lazy writing but no, that’s the developer’s actual philosophy: learning and doing things is evil. The reason Havan was evil wasn’t that he was a power-tripping sociopath, it was that he just wouldn’t accept that he wasn’t the chosen one after being strung along for years. The people pulling all the strings can do whatever they want, it’s on you to not rock the boat. For a story with an undercurrent of racial oppression to end on this note is completely tasteless and tone-deaf. Even if the developer isn’t actively trying to be racist, the fact remains that this is a rhetoric that’s frequently used to negate activists: God, why are you complaining so loudly, Minority X? Just shut up and know your place, it’s not ~within your scope~ to fix our hideously broken society, you have to leave that to the oppressors in power.
Gah. So then Tez tells them to find our what planet this is and strike it from the experiment list so it can’t be discovered. Initially I thought he was doing this because the experimenters would do something bad to it and he was trying to protect the people, but now…
Tezkhra: “It is best for everyone that I am forgotten as a dead man, not remembered as a traitor.”
…I think he’s just doing it to save his own skin. And huh, that sure makes their society sound like an insane technocracy.
Tezkhra: “How far back must we stand before we can see everything ahead of us, Marie? And… does that mean we must lose sight of what was closest to begin with?”
And here is the line that made me completely misjudge and misunderstand this game. This is what I wanted the scope theme to be about, but it seems to developer and I have different definitions of the concept. When I think scope, I think of the impacts our actions will have. What are the long-term consequences of this new chemical process? How does this affect people on the other side of the planet? How can we be certain that we are not a butterfly of doom, that our seemingly innocuous actions today will not have terrible consequences tomorrow? That is what scope is to me: looking at the big picture, not jumping to conclusions, pursuing the greater truth. Because there is always a big picture, in terms of both time and space, and perhaps if more people looked at it the world would be less of a mess. But at the same time we can’t look too big, or we’ll start tripping over our own feet and going ends-justify-the-means. That is a very important theme to consider and analyze, especially in a highly individualistic genre that often falls prey to small-scope logical fallacies.
But that doesn’t seem to be how the developer thinks of it. He thinks of it in terms of day-to-day life, where there are things bigger or different than us that we are physically incapable of understanding, so we should not even try. When people with a greater scope than you tell you something terrible is for the greater good, you should blithely accept it instead of asking questions and educating yourself. If you don’t, you are Havan, and deserve to be murdered by the true heroes, the good men who obstinately dug their heels in at every turn and whined whenever they were dragged, kicking and screaming, into actually doing something. This game presents an argument for ignorance, stagnation, and blind adherence to authority. Don’t look to the stars; you’d make the aliens controlling everything sad if you saw the wires and made a fuss. Don’t look off to the distance; you’ll never understand the weird people across the sea, so just stay in your corner and don’t interact. You can only look inside, into your own scope, as you ignore the horrors happening outside your window.
Now I can finally move on with my life.
Some final thoughts:
On one of the pokeauthors posts, someone in the comments noted that it’s very easy to write scenes. What makes writing truly difficult is the ability to string those scenes together into a coherent, consistent story, and people rarely realize this until they’re in over their heads. I think the developer fell victim to this. There are a lot of very good scenes in this game, but they exist in this morass of stagnant plotlessness. Even within their own arcs, there is only a token attempt to connect them together (hello si’shra warden), and the arcs themselves are not integrated at all. This also leads to character “arcs” being incredibly sudden and only taking place over one or two scenes before disappearing forever. The developer can write but he can’t plot, and this results in having two neat ideas that he couldn’t fit together. (This is also probably responsible for the horrible tonal dissonance in the ending scenes.)
I also think there’s a corollary to that: you can’t be subversive just for the sake of being subversive. I got the impression that may have been the case here – a lot of the side stuff, especially Falitza, makes me suspicious. Plotting doesn’t stop at having clever ideas, you also need to have the clever idea make sense in context. Stuff needs to have purpose, a reason for being there. A story is more than the sum of its parts.
I actually think there is a decent fantasy plot in here somewhere; I’ve ragged on the worldbuilding and characters constantly, but with a bit of polish and redirection they could work, as I outlined before. Honestly, you could cut out the Watchers and the sci-fi ending entirely without losing much – in fact, I would say it would actually make the plot tighter. The Watchers are little more than a distraction. Their plot isn’t a consistent, central piece of the story like it should be, it’s just this thing that awkwardly crashes into the end of each chapter before disappearing again. (The fact that they brush Fell’s portents of doom off so easily is very telling of this.) Because of that, there are already plenty of stakes and events in the plot already, since it had to stand alone. Ditching the occasional ~you are the chosen one~ nonsense to give the rest of the plot more room, or even just making them actual demigods, would have worked fine. You could even keep the subversive deconstruction aspects – as I discussed in the chapter 6 intro, the heroes have already made such horrible decisions that a mundane disaster is totally believable. The supernatural disaster is overkill and, honestly, makes things less interesting by distancing the heroes from moral responsibility. Developing the conflicts better and making the heroes’ actions explode in their faces for the finale instead would be truly “subverting expectation at every turn”, especially if the final, more permanent solutions were truly clever and played on the dissonance between narrative expectation and reality. It wouldn’t be as mindblowing and perhaps not as memorable, but it would be a stronger story.
But I do really like the sci-fi idea. The question is just how to integrate it instead of grafting it on to the end of the actual plot.
I think first of all, ditch the guild thing. It works for a plotless or episodic MMO-type thing, it doesn’t work for actual plots. Throughout the game it does nothing but hold the story back; you can really see the developer straining against the constraint before finally snapping and having chapter 5 proceed like a normal RPG, with the characters just doing their own things that make no sense as guild jobs. Since they are of course good protagonists and not lazy idiots, not being bogged down by odd jobs would free up the heroes to actually investigate the weird stuff going on instead of shrugging and ignoring it. That, then, becomes the focus of the plot: the heroes are approached by Fell early on, take her words seriously, and proceed to investigate her claims on their own. You could have mundane conflicts in places to spice things up but I don’t think they’re really necessary. It depends on the tone you want the story to have; both a seemingly-peaceful world you slowly discover to be a lie and the world falling apart around you as you learn the awful truth have appeal. Regardless, the focus should remain solidly on the heroes’ investigation. A conflict of goals like with Zaka vs. Fell would be interesting and fit well with the scope theme, but they should give both options due consideration instead of dismissing the more interesting one out of hand. Could lead to an ending fork, even.
Something that’s important here is the magic system. As-is, it barely features at all and is horribly under-explained, even in the Fortifel arc where it’s supposed to be the main focus. If we’re really serious about it factoring into the sci-fi story, that is untenable. It’s the crux of the plot, the entire reason for why the major players do what they do, and in such a case you can’t just throw scraps of generic fantasy jargon around and call it a day. We have to understand in no uncertain terms what magic is and what it’s capable of, because we need to know the stakes. Why are the scientists so interested in it, beyond the cool factor? What do they plan on doing with it if they succeed? What can they do with it? Show me why magic is important, don’t just tell me – even aside from plot reasons, that’s just more impressive. Showing that the magic is fundamentally scientific and observable would also be excellent foreshadowing, especially if players are encouraged to think scientifically about it themselves. Could even help perceptive players notice the Watchers’ powers don’t match up with what’s possible through magic!
This has a lot of potential for a truly subversive story with twists around every corner: The heroes will start to realize things don’t add up as they see the wires, eventually leading them to doubt their own perceptions of reality. Evidence mounts that their guides do not have their best interests in mind, and may even start to discourage them when they get too close to the truth – that’s creepy! They eventually learn the twist for themselves, and WE DO NOT END WITH A SPIEL ABOUT HOW THEIR LITTLE BRAINS CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH. Perhaps they don’t understand it entirely, but they understand enough to save their planet and use the knowledge to better their society. If the scientists stay evil, they are the final boss – perhaps Tezkhra even turns against you. If we change it to them being well-intentioned but misguided, we can stick with Havan screwing everything up and abusing the alien technology for his own gain. The final moral is not that we should stay in our bubbles, but that we need to break out of them to see beyond our own simplistic, selfish desires. This could even apply to the scientists themselves, who thought they saw the big picture but were really just as blind. The heroes discovering the knowledge for themselves and working from there just has so much more plot and pathos potential that I’m baffled the game decided to go the route of keeping the plebs ignorant while the puppetmasters smarm about how awesome they are instead.
And for the love of all that is holy, FEWER CHARACTERS. I actually find chapter 1 to be the best section on a character level, simply because the cast is small enough to allow everyone to interact properly. There’s fun banter and meaningful conversations both – you can really see people forming bonds and showing off different facets of their personalities. But after that it’s just quirkiness and flanderization. The cast just grows too fast to be manageable. There’s no deep development or interaction, just occasional lone skits of characters loudly displaying their sole character trait. Juggling a huge cast is an incredibly difficult writing technique, and I think the developer underestimated how exhausting it would be. You can see where he eventually went “screw it” and just made Dehl, Ques, Alito, and the current chapter’s side character the only ones with more than one line per scene. Plenty of people don’t say a peep in the later sections. A tighter cast would work wonders here; I really do want to see this group of diverse individuals slowly bonding as friends, not just be told that it happened sometime when I wasn’t looking.
But there’s only so much I can say. There is a plot here, but it’s simultaneously stretched too thin and compressed too tight to the point that it can’t actually do its story ideas justice. The problem continues to be that the story is missing huge chunks. There are some interesting ideas here, but they’re living in an aimless, disconnected mass.
Overall, this was quite disheartening. It seems everything I liked about this game all those years ago was just me completely misreading and misinterpreting it. Except Havan and Dehl, those two are still good.
So! I am never doing that again. Games are really not suited to this at all, I think; scripts just provide so much less room for analysis than narration. This whole review was a messy ramble and I think I cracked midway through. I am considering doing reviews of the other games in the series, but they will definitely not be this in-depth, and definitely not for a while. I’ll probably go back to just the occasional video game post, maybe a few books. Farla refuses to do The Name of the Wind after all, and that book is so very deserving of a thrashing.
6 June 2015 update: I’ve started reviews for other games in the series. Click the “reconstruction saga” tag below to see them.