A lot of what I have to say will be an addendum to my most recent piece on The Border House so I guess go read that now (Filipowich, Mark. “Welcome to the Machine: The ambivalent tone of The Last Story.” May 5 2014.). Oh, and there are spoilers. Spoilers are everywhere.
The observation in that article is that The Last Story‘s central argument is that political power in an imperialist system only comes from exploiting others and can only in turn be used to damage society and the world. But before it ends, The Last Story turns around and frames the earlier abusive imperialism as a result of poor management. For so much of the game, the real “villain” is the system of oppression, those on top of it are just more efficient in how they exploit it. In the final hours though, it twists the narrative such that only a few overtly bad guys are the problem, not the structure that allowed them to rise to begin with.
The entire game is a process of the hero, Zael, yearning for more power to remedy his unfortunate lot in life, only for that power to then harm others. The solution Zael inevitably pursues is more power: if people are being hurt, than he reasons that it’s because he doesn’t have enough power. But the more power he gets, the more people get hurt. He doesn’t make the connection until he unknowingly leads an attack against unarmed townspeople. At this horrifying epiphany Zael realizes that power is structurally set up to kill the planet, violate the sovereignty of other peoples and perpetuate class struggles. So he makes off to destroy the literal device that drives his empire. And just before that ending resolves, The Last Story props the player-character up as the moral authority and unwrites the revolutionary undercurrent that flowed through it to that point.
This is emblematic of a trend in many big-ish to big budget videogames. They appear to want to say something—often enough they even say it well—but when the game’s purpose violates player agency or choice, more often than not games contrive some way for the player and protagonist to be in charge of the situation: PCs are reduced to a power fantasy to spare the player’s ego. The Last Story, for instance, depends entirely on the player simultaneously becoming a coward before his seniors and a monster to his victims. The plot demands that Zael become sympathetic, then unlikable before he becomes a desperate insurgent. But before the plot resolves, he learns his lesson and the status quo is restored. Nothing changes, but the player gets to be king, so we are to take that as a happy ending.
In my own experience of it, The Last Story enthralled me in the first four days I devoured it before getting whiplash on the fifth. The Border House has hosted some of my complaints with JRPGs before, but this is not the javelin of misogyny in a scene of Breath of Fire IV (Filipowich, Mark. “Sexism and Power Dynamics in Breath of Fire 4.” The Border House. Mar 13 2014.) and it isn’t the failure to voice unheard perspectives in Exit Fate (Filipowich, Mark. “The Perspective of Privilege.” The Border House. May 1 2013.). The Last Story forces a narrative in which the player is not culpable for the harm they’ve done. The player still gets to walk away the hero. The status quo is just and the oppressed are put back in their place.
I was annoyed because so much seemed to build on the narrative of power as dangerous, even to those who have suffered at the hands of the powerful (High, Andrew. “A Rock and a Hard Place.” Gamers With Jobs. Oct 11 2012.). Not only are the player’s mercenary ensemble orphaned, impoverished social pariahs but the war has left most of them with personal traumas as well. Syrenne is introduced as an alcoholic. While traversing the opening dungeon, she complains about getting shakes after going the night without a drink. She’s introduced with a compulsion/satiation cycle and her addiction isn’t quirky or madcap: she eases into her drink at the town’s main tavern and muses to Zael, “Another day at work that didn’t kill us.” She drinks in response to the danger she faces as a mercenary. The scene has particular weight given that she was nearly killed in an earlier cutscene. The implication is that she drinks to self-medicate: while working she’s in constant danger and her only form of leisure is to become and stay as drunk as she can afford.
Likewise, when the group’s leader and surrogate big brother, Dagran, settles into that same tavern, he’s seen sharpening his sword: Zael commends him on his preparedness but Dagran counters that he’s just trying to contain his paranoia, “I’ve got to keep my sword in top shape. I can’t relax otherwise.” Dagran knows he’s being irrational, but he’s still compelled to stay combat ready even when he’s away from danger. Again this is directly tied to his life as a mercenary, it’s all Dagran can do to manage his anxiety. He promises Zael, “I won’t make you live like this forever. The first chance we get, we’re moving up in the world.” When he elaborates on the job he’s lined up for the group, he promises “We can get out of this way of life. No more waking up every morning and wondering if that’s the day we die.” Dagran believes that the constant movement and fighting will end with their knighthood, but until he achieves it, he uneasily anticipates the next danger. Both Syrenne and Dagran clarify that their respective compulsions are a result of the mercenary life: one they are forced into by their poverty.
Yurick and Mirania are both aloof and distant, the former by his unhealthy anger management and the latter by her semi-feral upbringing and her resulting unrefined social graces. Neither has developed the emotional maturity to function among others, both are loners who become agitated and uncomfortable around strangers. They’ve grown up in wars they don’t understand and spend most of their time hiding from public spheres. Similarly, the player’s Zael is initially awkward and uncomfortable without Dagran’s presence and eventually confesses that he struggles with post-traumatic stress, having also started his mercenary career as a child. The only character that does not express a personal, marginalizing conflict is Lowell, a noble from a family defeated in one of the civil wars and even he’s lost his family and home to the war. In every case, the game makes it clear that every member of the band has been deeply affected by the wars, both collectively as displaced victims and personally as witnesses and participants.
Finally, there is an implied queerness in the central cast. Syrenne flirts with Mirania, Zael, and his later love interest Calista; the game also suggests separate sexual trysts with Calista and Mirania. Lowell and Dagran are overheard undressing and comparing cocks and cock related past times. Finally, the bond between Zael and Dagran carries romantic undertones.
When Dagran is in danger early in the game, Zael promises “I’ll save you this time, Dagran.” When Zael is then knocked unconscious, he awakens in Dagran’s arms, where he remains as they comfort one another. Moreover, when Zael meets Calista the scene plays out exactly as the flashback to Dagran and Zael’s meeting, with Zael now occupying Dagran’s role as the benevolent stranger approaching Calista as the sad lost soul sitting on the steps. The meeting between the heterosexual romantic leads is based on the meeting between Dagran and Zael, where the former rescues the latter from the streets to care for him. Granted, a lot of this is probably just fanservice, but Japanese pulp is typically more open to gender and sex fluidity than Western pulp (Ligman, Kris. “Queerly Anime.” Medium. Jan 23 2014.) and even if these relationships are never tangibly confirmed at the very least they’re easily shippable by design.
However, for all that the cast is pushed to the margins, they accept the mythology of the status quo. The Last Story is effective in how it introduces Zael as a shy but likeable person just barely into his adulthood. He’s too meek and awkward to be power-hungry. Yet the more power he accrues the more dangerous he becomes when he accidentally stumbles into greater influence. He never means to do anything but help people, but just by participating in the empire he’s increasing its toxicity. He keeps waiting to come into the right amount or the right kind of power: when he gets a vote things’ll be different, he justifies to himself. He means well and he sees the mistakes he’s making, but he’s too weak-willed to initiate or even demand quick change, so he waits while his surroundings corrupt him.
Another strong instance of a character accepting a harmful status quo comes in the form of Lowell. Lowell is the archetypal ladies man but his motivations are interestingly skewed. When the player meets him at the main tavern, he’s flirting with the woman behind the bar. Zael comments on his rejected advance, to which Lowell responds “My dad said something before he died. ‘If you see a pretty girl, you have to flirt with her. It’d be rude not to.’ My granddad said the same thing.” Zael responds, “My dad didn’t say that.” Lowell answers, “Then it’s a good thing I’m here. It’s the golden rule of being a man. I never break it. Not ever…it’s a big responsibility being a fine specimen of a man like myself.” This illustrates that Lowell does not try to seduce women because he likes it, he’s performing a masculine ceremony.
Furthermore, that he calls this “the golden rule”—which states that one should treat others as one wishes to be treated—signifies that he does not believe that those he flirts with (pretty girls) are his equals, they’re objects to perform upon to establish his masculinity. Furthermore, when Zael asks if he flirts with Syrenne, he responds that he only likes women, a slight against the hot-headed and “masculine” Syrenne. Lowell doesn’t like sex and he doesn’t like women, they’re chores to validate his sense of self and he’s not interested in how that affects others.
Of course, the game eventually vindicates both Zael and Lowell. After Zael finally rejects the system, the system is suddenly validated and Zael is propped up as the ideal overseer. Likewise, Syrenne undergoes a personality shift and Lowell tames the shrew. Dagran’s anxieties and the desperation to escape the underclass are forgotten so he can become a moustache twirling supervillain. Syrenne’s drinking is dismissed and made funny. All of this is especially frustrating, since the game’s subtextual design choices repeatedly emphasizes the inevitable misuse of political influence through the mercenary band’s rise to power.
The Last Story is washed in harsh light, colours are muted and dull. Everything seems coated in dust and fat flakes of pollen flutter through the atmosphere. If it were brighter and bolder, Lazulis would be beautiful, but it burns under a hard glare. Character costumes are not set and interchangeable armour sets alter character appearances. The more extensive the armour upgrades, the more detailed it becomes. Furthermore, the player can manufacture dyes to change outfit colour schemes (digression: customizable costuming improves any game). But in the game’s beginning, the cast is wearing shoddy and basic looking armour no more elaborate than a thick jacket with a pair of slacks and heavy boots. The starting dyes are range from off-white to off-black. Their clothing is ratty and the lighting makes it look faded and impersonal.
More colour schemes open up later armour becomes more elaborate when upgraded. This appropriately parallels the characters’ rising social standing; they begin to look ostentatious as the plot leads them up the social hierarchy. But because the lighting is so bleached, by the time I was able to dress my characters in the deep purple and forest green that I always use when I have the option, they looked out-of-place. The new colour options screamed in the dull colour palette, it was like watching the power rangers hop into an episode of Game of Thrones. But, again, it’s appropriate: ostentatious and flamboyant characters don’t fit with others in the world but progress up the social chain allows it. Further, mechanics also reinforce the theme of power removing one from the world.
The most efficient way of gaining money is to buy certain useless items when they’re cheap and sell them when they become expensive. These items range from raw materials like iron and animal pelts to foodstuffs like sugar and eggs. In the beginning of the game, these items are inexpensive and can be used in basic sidequests that do little more than acquaint the player with the city. However, later into the game, prices begin to fluctuate based on the player’s buying and selling habits and plot events. As NPCs explain, the more extreme price fluctuations result from the plot: the conquest of an island rises food costs, the campaign against the Gurak’s main continent raises ore costs. As the war with the Gurak progresses, the one they are shoehorned into fighting, prices rise accordingly and they reap the benefits. The player is able to sell these now functionless materials that they bought early on for massive profit margins.
The war inflates the prices of basic everyday necessities like food and manufacturing supplies and the player can exploit the war—the one that Zael is directly responsible for—to make money. The money, in turn, is spent on weapons and armour which will only be used to continue the war. The economy system is closely tied to the player’s momentum of the war in the plot. They are trading essential materials—food, clothing and refined ore—back to the community for wealth and weapons to further their own war.
Lastly, The Last Story plays uniquely for a JRPG. The player navigates with Gears of War-esque controls, popping in and out of cover to sneak up on enemies before rushing in and brawling in a more restrained Dynasty Warriors-inspired melee. It progresses similar to a sped up tabletop encounter (Davison, Pete. “The Last Story and the Art of Encounter Design.” Games are Evil.) where characters vie for position before wailing on one another. But early in the game, the player must manage their actions carefully. There is no attack button, to fight the player must direct the movement stick in the direction of an enemy to attack them. This means it’s difficult to escape when surrounded: Zael won’t duck and roll to safety, he’ll swing wildly until he carves a path away from danger. Early on, taking on too many enemies without a safety route spells doom for Zael or an ally.
But as the team levels up, gains more skills and learns abilities that change their positioning, fights get bigger and more direct. Combat is less about lining up a path and more about skill use. Zael no longer needs to use walls or positioning, he needs to charge through priority enemies. The change is gradual, but it’s absolute and it again reflects the change in tone. Where the mercenary band begins as cautious, imperilled grunts backstabbing their way through street brawls, they grow into knights that charge into excursions and brute force their way through battles. The Last Story effectively eschews nuance for power as the player progresses deeper into the game. This again reflects the change in the characters’ social standing. Where once they needed to circumnavigate complicated and dangerous situations, they now thoughtlessly charge into battle and dump their skills into an outnumbering and unskilled enemy front.
All of these elements appear to hammer home a narrative of misused power. Power comes only to those that exploit. So it’s frustrating when that reading is undermined. Particularly because it seems to undermine its narrative to empower the player. The player is forced to watch their weak-willed protagonist exercise increasingly overt displays of abuse. Similar to LA Noire‘s Cole Phelps, Zael appears at first to be a moral, scarcely characterized player-insert character on a sympathetic—even righteous—path. Yet the deeper into the plot, the more Zael deviates from what is in the world’s best interest. It’s significant when games wrest control of the protagonist away from players and it has great impact in character definition (Dinicola, Nick. “Playing the Persona in L.A. Noire.” PopMatters. Jun 10 2011.).
In Zael’s case, it illustrates that he’s willing to commit war crimes so long as he’s on the winning side. It’s not until he can directly parallel his unjust violence with the unjust violence he suffered as a child that he understands that there is no justice in the system: he cannot correct it and he cannot ignore it. But from a distance it’s obvious that Zael is turning into a villain much earlier than he acknowledges it, suspects it or even fears it. Tragedy is self-inflicted, and Zael’s solipsism drives him closer to the tyranny that most players will see coming. The catch is that the player must—by virtue of playing as Zael—suffer as Zael suffers.
Even if Zael gets his happy ending and wedding episode with Calista (which I’m not against in principle), he has to face his sins. But since the game breaks its back to legitimize the status quo, Zael never confesses because he never sins, it just looks like it. The challenges issued to the player is rescinded. To broaden this somewhat, this seems to be safer in mainstream games to create a backbreaking twist that absolves the PC of any wrongdoing to spare the player any proxy damage.
In conversations I’ve described Dragon Age II as possessing everything a game needs to be perfect, just arranged in the wrong order. The Last Story looks and plays a lot like a Japanese Dragon Age II (combat is similar, both take place in a single city-state, many of the locations even look alike) they share a familiar hypocritical forgiveness of their protagonists. Like Zael, Hawke is a thoroughly sympathetic victim of classism who rises in their society, only to create more victims of classism (Filipowich, Mark. “Choice, Apathy and Evil in Dragon Age II.” PopMatters. July 18 2011.).
No matter what happens, Hawke will always be the champion of Kirkwall even when they’re culpable in the city’s evils. Likewise, The Last Story backpeddles in service of the player’s heroism. Spec-Ops: The Line was manipulative and its delivery was pretty crude (Kazemi, Darius. “Review: Killing is Harmless, by Brendan Keogh.” Tiny Subversions. Nov 27 2012.) but at the very least it never tried to justify the protagonist. It didn’t water down its purpose to assuage the player.
I wasn’t in the room when the ending to The Last Story was written so I can’t substantiate that any prior themes were ignored for the player’s benefit. Hell, maybe all those prior themes were laid accidentally, but I don’t think that lessens their impact or the disappointment that comes with their abandonment. And even if I am just bitter that my reading of it doesn’t hold up, I’m still troubled and annoyed that it so casually defends a clearly oppressive system.
Not every game has to by revolutionary, hell not even every game has to treat revolution as the best means of change: not long ago I praised Phantasy Star for treating overthrow as something that necessitates movement within the system (“Mobility as a Weapon in Phantasy Star.” bigtallwords. Apr 25 2014.). Hell, Phantasy Star even ends with Alis being offered the throne, but in that case the resolution does not conflict with the lead-up. By virtue of communicating all games are necessarily political. The Last Story highlights the associations between the poor and the colonized and dismisses their oppression as the consequence of an anomalous lord, not the system that produced that lord. The politics of the other JRPGs I’ve analyzed for The Border House haven’t cheated nearly as audaciously. Breath of Fire IV had the player bring about peace by slaying kings and gods, hell Exit Fate ended with three conflicting monarchies dissolving and forming a democratic republic.
Not every game needs to be revolutionary if that’s not in its interests. But when The Last Story uses revolutionary language in a setting badly in need of revolution before putting down the revolution, it vilifies those that challenge the social order. The player and their character are never faced with their actions and they never have to instigate any real change.
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Further reading: Boccabella, Dathen. “Flying to the Stars: Themes of The Last Story.” GenGAME. Aug 3 2013.
Horsley, Rob. “The Romancing of Hironobu Sakaguchi.” Part 1. Part 2. Push Select. Feb 19; Feb 25 2013.
Higgin, Tanner. “So Far Away.” Unwinnable. Nov 6 2012.
Auxier, Tom. “The First Story.” Pixels or Death. Aug 21 2012.