After introducing her topic in an episode of “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games,” Anita Sarkeesian begins with some variation of the following: “It’s both possible—and even necessary—to simultaneously enjoy a piece of media while also being critical of its more pernicious aspects.” I sense the phrase is meant as at least a partial vaccine for the notorious levels of harassment she faces but it’s nonetheless useful to keep in mind in approaching the things one is drawn to. That said, it’s also important to address problematic content without making excuses. Sometimes it’s possible to reconcile the value of a game with its uncomfortable material and other times it’s not. Right now a lot of writers are expressing disappointment and anger toward Metal Gear Solid V over this very problem (trigger warning for discussions of sexual violence).
A major problem with self-professed gamers is that they seem unwilling to parse the more nuanced avenues of pop art: they want games to be appreciated but Anita Sarkeesian is doing it wrong; Zoe Quinn is harassed for making a game about depression but Tetris is a miracle cure for PTSD. I’m preaching to the choir now but I bring this up because games reflect and comment on the cultures they come from: players take these experiences with them so it’s worthwhile to evaluate how these experiences might impact a person. It’s also important to know when a game’s problems outstrip its value. For about 20 of the 25 hours it takes to beat The Last Story, the game weaves an elaborate anti-authoritarian tale about the corrupting influence of power. Just before it resolves the plot, however, it snaps back and validates the status quo.
The Last Story was developed by Mistwalker studio, brainchild of Final Fantasycreator and thesaurus owner, Hironobu Sakaguchi. The Last Story initially seems to have a lot going for it: it presents a racist, totalitarian class structure and the downtrodden people trying to get by in it. The deeper into the game, the more influential the hero becomes and the more damage his behaviour causes. As stakes get higher it becomes clearer that the kind of political power he comes to command cannot be used for good because it is engineered to harm those unable to defend themselves: just power must come from outside to overthrow the current system. Then in the last few hours the other shoe drops and The Last Story reinforces the hierarchy it appeared for so long to revolt against.
To explore this in detail I’m going to have to spoil the major plot points of The Last Story, so if you’re planning to get around to it one day you might want to bow out now.
The Last Story follows a band of mercenaries in an unnamed empire (it’s ok if you want to take this moment to wipe the bits of your mind off the back wall) and their rise to prominence as knights under a power hungry count. The Last Story can be distinguished from other JRPGs in how it focuses on personal relationships among its central characters rather than on its fantastical setting. Though The Last Story is deeply interested in politics and world-building, these elements gradually seep into the narrative in service of the characters. As a result it’s effective at personalizing its politics: every change in the world is seen through the lens of the player-character Zael’s mercenary band. The perspective of the large world is limited to this small group of like individuals and its impact is felt only in the bricks of one city. It’s especially effective because the game is told from the perspective of oppression.
The main thrust of the plot is the band’s low social station and their struggle to escape their poverty cycle. The empire they call home is rife with corruption and internal conflicts. Civil wars, riots and rebellions break out constantly and mercenaries are used as lower-class front-line fodder. War is the engine that moves this empire and mercenaries are the fuel to keep it burning. Not only do townspeople resent and fear mercenaries for sustaining civil conflicts, but the mercenaries themselves never have enough means or opportunity to accomplish anything past lining up their next job. They don’t like what they do but it’s all they have to survive. Furthermore, each of them is personally displaced by infighting aristocrats.
Each has lost their homes and families to the wars and each of them are left with no choice but to keep fighting in the noble class’s power struggle. To survive, they must perpetuate the war that displaced them. But even though the cast are oppressed as orphans and homeless war refugees, they also endorse their systems of oppression. Not only are they sellswords that allow themselves to be used by the upper classes—albeit with no alternatives—their goal is to escape oppression by penetrating the inner circle rather than by dismantling the oppressive upper class.
The team dreams of becoming knights, who are not only spared many of the war’s dangersbut are respected in the social hierarchy. As The Last Storyprogresses, the cast’s standing in court rises and they find themselves party to greater evils. They become colonial agents benefiting from their roles in the ongoing cycle of oppression. Zael stumbles into a power called “the outsider” and it’s only through the outsider’s power—that is, one who is outside the current system—can one expect to change anything. However it takes a lot of fumbling for Zael to get there. He tries to apply the outsider’s power to the inside, he tries to belong in the system but in doing so he just hurts people. He’s more concerned with his own goal of becoming a knight and escaping mercenary life. The Last Story opens with team leader Dagran promising that they’ve found a job that will earn them recognition—and hopefully a knighthood—from the powerful count of Lazulis island, the empire’s commercial hub.
The count hires the mercenaries in response to aggression from the Gurak. The Gurak are a race of dark-skinned seafaring people who once cohabited Lazulis with humans. Long before the events of The Last Story, Lazulis was settled by human mages and Gurak engineers. The cooperative history between the two was erased by the empire after it expanded to Lazulis, drove the Gurak out of the island and appropriated their technology to build weapons. The mercenaries are called to help defend Lazulis just as Zangurak is elected first king of a now united Gurak people.The player and the team aren’t privy to any of these details at first, they’re just told that this could be the job that lifts them out of the underclass. The Gurak are subject to some orcing when they’re on screen, but the more the player learns about them, the more justified they are in attacking Lazulis.
The Last Story positions two groups of oppressed people against one another, the underclass mercenaries against the displaced Gurak. Zael, Dagran and the rest don’t care about the Gurak or their history, they just know that this is their best chance for a better life. If property and a paycheque means killing strangers then thems the breaks.They accept the system that oppresses them.
The first plot point in The Last Story is the love story between Zael and Calista. Most RPG romances take their time and resolve near the end. The Last Story uses its central romance as a spearhead. Zael and Calista flirt and have a moment under the stars and watch the sunrise together. It’s a little heavy-handed but it’s effective and it accomplishes everything it needs to. These two similar people develop honest, romantic feelings for one another.However,the privileged Calista comes across as naive for wanting freedom from the city in spite of the empire’s sprawling war and drought. Zael tells her about the things that he’s seen and tries to convince her how good she really has it. The only point which they can’t just agree to disagree is the gusto with which Calista approaches the world that Zael wants to escape. In the least surprising twist ever, Calista turns out to be the count’s niece and only living relative, who is arranged to marry an obnoxious nobleman.
When Zael meets Calista, his hands don’t have any blood on them. As far as the player can tell he’s a victim of circumstance trying to make a better life for himself. But The Last Story then establishes parallels between Zael, Dagran and the count in the ways they react to growing power. The Gurak hit the island and the mercenaries and Calista pursue their retreat on board a commandeered ship. Calista tries to convince the party to just leave the conflict and let the empire lay in the bed it made. But Dagran convinces the team to sail to the Gurak’s staging base and infiltrate it, hoping that a successful counterattack will earn the count’s good graces. The mercenaries want their knighthood and the prestige that comes with it and they aren’t concerned about who is left in the crossfire.
Dagran opportunistically dehumanizes the Gurakin pursuit of a personal goal just as the count sells Calista into marriage to cozy up to imperial forces on the mainland. After the team destroys the Gurak base, the count folds the mercenaries into an attack force to be used against the Gurak’s home island. To secure Zael’s loyalty, he promises him that after successful attack he reconsider Calista’s marriage arrangement. Zael makes a commercial deal to attack a third party whom he has never had any dealings with in order to secure the right to Calista’s body without her even being present for it.
Zael, the weary underclass workman, transforms into a human rights broker the instant he’s welcome at an influential man’s negotiating table. He feels just awful about it, doncha know, but he still makes the agreement. Calista implores Zael not to deal with the count: she tells him about the suspicious murder, imprisonment and exile of the count’s enemies over the years. We see that her initial “naive” yearning for adventure is a cover to mask a very tangible fear for her safety. She directly tells Zael that sliding into the count’s pocket will undermine their liberty and eventually get them killed when their value has diminished. However, Dagran reminds Zael “this could be our only chance.”
Zael loves Calista enough to participate in an ethnic cleansing but not enough to listen to her experienced advice; he wants to escape the lower class enough to trap others in it but not enough to resist the central figure responsible for propping the class structure in place. When the band discovers a giant cannon that will exterminate the Gurak, the count demands that they use it. Zael asks why it’s necessary and the count responds that the dying land and scarce resources make imperial expansion necessary. To colonise the Gurak’s lands (Zael actually uses the word “colonise”) a second time in their history is reason enough to appease Zael’s suspicions. The count explains that droughts and famine in the mainland make it impossible to sustain the empire’s population: taking the Gurak’s fertile land is the only option. Zael isn’t a diplomat but he approves absolute genocide before he recommends trade, renegotiating terms with the empire or anything shy of mass murder and land acquisition. He does this because he would rather have approval within the existing social order than create a new one.
Two plot twists shed light on the weapon the band discovers: the first is that it only responds to the outsider’s power, the power Zael fell into at the game’s outset, and that the weapon is the source of the land’s decay. Thus, Zael, “the outsider” who was himself an outsider to the dominant social order when he found it, is the only person capable of firing the weapon; second, the planet itself is dying so long that this weapon exist. The symbolism is blunt but it’s effective: this device exists solely to colonise and its existence will kill the planet; the outsider may destroy it or they may be welcomed in and operate it. As the count orders Zael to start up the device, Calista begs Zael not to use the weapon. The count strikes her and Zael engages it.
The weapon is used to colonize and by existing it drains the planet of its life-sustaining properties. Knowing how dangerous the weapon is doesn’t stop Zael from using it anymore than seeing the count—a demonstrated liar—attack the woman he bought. At this point Zael is no longer “the outsider.” He endorses and validates the classist, imperialist system that persecuted him just a short time ago. His cognitive dissonance plagues him and he promises he’ll do better next time, but he never does. He only harms and betrays more people in the interest of moving up in the world. More influence does not make him more able to protect others, it does the opposite.
After every quest Zael awakens in his new room at Lazulis castle staring at the glowing “mark of the outsider” on his right arm burning brighter and brighter, as if to remind him what his real power is as someone from without, someone capable of justly revolting. According to The Last Story up to this point, pulling up your bootstraps and doing what you’re told makes you a part of the problem, Zael cannot be an outsider and a part of the system, seeking approval from an imperialist entity means killing other people while remaining an outsider means resistance. There is no middle-ground.
The first thing The Last Story does is establish that Zael and Calista are in love with one another. Then Zael orchestrates a marriage to her outside of her presence and when he finally has leverage over the clearly evil man behind everything he acquiesces to elevate himself in the status quo. Zael controls a weapon of colonialism that is literally destroying his world and he uses it because that’s the cost of living the dream. He loves Calista, but says nothing when her uncle hits her; he knows the count is a liar, but he keeps his promise to him anyway. He doesn’t mean to be such an awful person: he promises that he’ll be careful but the game illustrates that power cannot be used carefully, it marginalizes people and kills the planet.
Zael uses the device in an attack on the Gurak mainland. It’s then revealed that the count wasn’t targeting a military base, but a civilian city. Zael combs through undefended halls while the knights he aspires to join haul treasures and artwork off children’s corpses. Flashbacks of Zael’s own burning hometown pepper scenes of the knights looting the Gurak city. At last Zael can no longer deny the evil he’s been participating in: he sees himself as the same breed of monster that forced him along the mercenary’s path to begin with.
Zael abandons the attack but back in Lazulis Castle he’s celebrated as the hero that brought the “vast quantities of wealth” into the island’s possession. Zael’s crisis of faith at last moves him to act. He confides in Dagran, “Don’t you feel anything…? This meaningless conflict will only get worse!” who retorts, “When have we ever complained about getting mixed up in meaningless conflicts? The only difference is that now people will appreciate you for it. If you do well you can expect to be rewarded.”The mercenary band have always been a part of the system, the difference is that Dagran realizes it and he’s happy to at last benefit from it. Zael, for all his opportunity to upset the status quo, authenticates the cycle of oppression—the cycle that he is a victim of—with his complacence while Dagran justifies and legitimizes the band’s abuses. The farther into the game, the more awful Zael becomes, the more he loathes himself and the more high society adores him. It’s not until Zael’s knighting ceremony that he realizes what a dunce he’s been. He renounces his title, rushes to Calista and the two make for the weapon’s core to destroy it.
If the game ended here, Zael would be an oppressed member of the underclass serendipitously elevated into an influential position. He’d be the representative of a power significantly called “the outsider” responsible for a device that colonizes others and kills the planet. Using the outsider’s power to enforce the status quo creates more suffering while using it to smash the status quo upends the oppressive authority. In a moment of clarity, he sees the damage he’s done and finally rebels by breaking down the colonial apparatus responsible for killing the planet and upholding the oppressive regime.
But the game doesn’t end that way. Just as Zael and Calista are about to smash the weapon’s power source, a Gurak fleet shows up with a duplicate of Lazulis’s weapon. The weapon on Lazulis island isn’t a synecdoche for the imperial throne anymore because the colonized forces have one of their own. Zael’s rebellion is treated as an overreaction because the Gurak really are the barbarians the count warned them about and they really do need to be put down.
The outsider’s power isn’t necessary to upset the system, it merely needs to be controlled, because if you don’t control the outsider than another more dangerous one might show up. The count just wasn’t the right person for the job. Dagran’s betrayal—a doomed inevitability—is revealed not to be a result of his slipping into corruption, but a plan he had all along because he wanted vengeance or some shit. King Zangurak is not leading a revolt against his oppressors,he’s an overreaching upstart looking to kill all humans because he’s mean. Finally, Zeal is made the new sheriff in town because of his demonstrated, ingrained moral integrity.
A general and war hero earlier tells Zael “power is best used by someone with the strength of heart to use it.” The line comes across as suspicious—as it should—because it comes from a career warrior: someone who has only ever known a system that rewards conquest. But the game validates him, Zael has the strength of heart so he gains power. It completely reverses the revolutionary narrative that The Last Story wove during in most of its play time.
The game damns the status quo but only for not shuffling the pieces around when needed, not as something naturally toxic. The game’s plot and tone underwent major changes during development, which could account for the whiplash in its themes. Even so, The Last Story turns on its heels to give Zael and Calista a wedding episode and a happy ending.
So, to return to where I began. The Last Story doesn’t just prod its player with a few problematic devices, it totally upends itself to play it safe. It demands action and change while vilifying complacence, only to change its mind and empower the player-character as the sole, intuitively moral agent deserving of absolute authority. It’s difficult to pardon The Last Story’s flaws. It begins as a pretty damning observation on class and turns back to hide beneath the status quo. The instant it says something it shuts up and tries to just be a game. Perhaps its ideas are just better than its execution, but that still doesn’t explain or excuse the cowardice with which it doubles back on the themes it spent so long piecing together.
The problem with The Last Story is that it establishes an argument and thoughtfully reinforces it, only to retreat before it can finalize its claims. It illustrates a more prevalent problem in games: The Last Story demands respect, but it shies away from communicating anything of substance. It’s important enough to be about something, but it would rather comply than challenge. It’s great to be aware of a game’s pernicious aspects, but it’s also necessary to be aware when a game is more pernicious than not.