[We tend to forget that every person will experience a game in a different way. We’re all unique people with unique pasts, after all. It was this consideration that bred the idea for this series. Like the name suggests, I’m going to use this series as a platform to simply talk about my experiences playing certain games in the hopes that you can share in the experience through my eyes. Please note that this will contain spoilers.]
Memory is a strange thing. It tends to retain some of the most random moments from our pasts, such as a fairly innocuous dream or the way your house looked on a particular day. It also works in some incredible ways; just look at the manner in which the brain connects memory and music. It’s something that scientists still struggle to understand.
However, there are also those experiences that stick with you for the most obvious of reasons. For me, one such experience was my time spent with Suikoden 2 on the Playstation. In some ways, the game was a typical RPG: the type of game that, by the time it was released in 1999, I had played many times before.
Regardless, many specific moments, decisions, and feelings that I experienced as I held that controller in my hand still remain clear in my mind: I remember where I was sitting, what I was eating, and most vividly of all, what I felt.
So let’s take a trip back to 1999…
As I always did with RPGs of this time, I entered my life-long nickname, Kauza, as the name of the game’s hero. Perhaps I can attribute this to a desire for escape; an angry father and drug-addicted brother often made things at home unbearable outside of my room, so when I was able, I tried as best as I could to completely insert myself into these games.
The opening of Suikoden 2 made it easy. Life seemed great: army life wasn’t so bad, and I had my best friend Jowy by my side: one thing that my real life luckily never lacked. Somehow, I was immediately in this character, despite the fact that (or, perhaps, because) he very rarely talked.
Things quickly changed.
My unit is slaughtered. My friend and I have no choice but to escape by jumping into the river below, promising to meet back here should we get separated. We didn’t get separated, however (at least not yet), and at the time I didn’t know the true significance of this moment. I let the game’s events take me where I needed to go, and it wasn’t until the game’s conclusion that I saw that moment for what it really was.
As the story tends to be in life, shit happens. Armies are formed, castles are built, and battles are fought. My own best friend, Jowy, now fights against me in the enemy army. Did our friendship mean nothing? Still, I must seek out new allies from all across the game’s world. I travel to distant towns, fight a lot of shit, and jump through some ridiculous hoops in the quest to unite the 108 Stars of Destiny: the vital allies that I’ll require if I’m to find victory get the best ending.
All the while, I decide (for some silly reason) to make my own soundtrack to the game. My current music taste compels me to choose No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom, an album that will remind me of this game for the rest of my life. In particular, my mind latches onto one song, entitled “The Climb” and the words “So high the climb, I can’t turn back now.” In the epic journey I’m taking (and the constant walks to the top of the castle), the song becomes the perfect soundtrack: both meaningful and appropriate. My time with the game is forever tied to that song. Thanks for that, brain. Still, it serves to make my feelings about the game even more intense.
I soon reunite with my sister Nanami: an entirely likable girl who consistently supports me. I choose to keep her in my party at all times, even when it isn’t mandated by the game. Perhaps it’s just my longing to have a normal sibling relationship, even a virtual one. But I come to care about the sister that I never had. Her presence—her constant support and companionship—is a necessary part of the game to me.
Soon, that world would come crashing down on top of me.
With my entourage behind me, I struggle through a pivotal section of the game: a long trek through a difficult castle. When I am finally treated to a cutscene after what must have been an hour or two, I breathed a sigh of relief; finally, I could relax. Nanami and I encounter Jowy, and words are exchanged.
Suddenly, we are ambushed, and the enemies fire upon us with bow and arrow. I’m given the following choices to respond to the situation.
As was the norm with the game, I knew that choosing the wrong one could have a negative effect. With responses as vague as this, I needed time. Which one would allow me to protect my sister? What’s the right choice here?
Suddenly, without having input a command at all, the dialogue box disappears. Nanami charges forward and begins to block arrows with her weapon.
However, the fourth one finds its mark, and Nanami falls.
What in god’s name have I done?
I hold the shaking body of the sister that I never had in my arms. I know exactly what has happened as her body goes limp. Even as one of my soldiers tells me that she’s still breathing, I know I’ve lost her.
Hell, I even remember going through the five stages of grief.
First, I told myself that the game wasn’t really killing off my sister. She’d be just fine. Even as the game confirmed to me that she was dead, I refused to accept it. The game would bring her back.
This is bullshit, I then told myself. The damn game didn’t even give me a chance to make the right choice. Why the hell did it put a time limit on that choice? It had never done that before. It’s not my fault; it’s just the shitty design of the game.
Wait, what if I just restart? Load my last save! It’s brilliant. If only I could trudge through the two or so hours that I would lose, then I could go back and make everything right. I could save her.
But, no. I wasn’t going to do that. I had just fucked up the only normal sibling relationship I had ever had. Why bother even finishing the game? What other important characters would I allow to die?
After sitting for minutes on my floor, staring at the screen with the controller in my lap, I finally decided to press on. Picking up the controller, I accepted what happened and vowed never to let it happen again.
[Later, I would learn that Nanami died no matter what I chose, and that the only way that she ended up alive at the end of the game was by recruiting all 108 characters in the game. However, at the time I wasn’t a FAQ monkey, and I wouldn’t learn this until my second playthough. Says something about gaming experiences and the use of FAQs, methinks.]
One last moment stood out to me. When I originally played though, I screwed up enough to ensure that I wouldn’t get a very good ending. And, indeed, I didn’t.
Still, I managed to learn what the best ending of the game was, and it sounded incredible. In essence, the main character and Jowy have a final confrontation at Tanzen Pass from the beginning of the game. If you’ve done everything right, and you refuse to fight Jowy here, you, he, and Nanami will leave their respective armies and start a brand new life. Just as they had agreed to do, they met back at that spot after getting separated, both physically and metaphorically. It’s the ultimate friendship story, and it’s one of the most memorable endings in any video game…
…and one that I never got to experience first hand. This was, of course, years before YouTube offered every game ending ever, and I only heard about the “good” ending secondhand. I imagined the ending in my head, playing it over and over and longing to experience it for myself. But I couldn’t. I thought back to my moment of inaction, and how it changed things forever. Now that I’ve actually seen the ending, it’s not quite how I had imagined it, but my damn if it’s not great.
More than perhaps any other game, I truly found Suikoden 2 to be a journey: not only one that involved progressing from point A to point B, but one that explored the journey of characters, how they change, and how their experiences affect them. Most of all, it was a journey that fully included me, as both a player and a human being.
I’m sure that no player experienced the game in the same way that I did. In fact, if I were to play the game again today, I know that the experience would be vastly different—and perhaps this is why I fear playing it again. For all of its faults, and for all of my mistakes, it was an experience that was simply perfect.
“This was the place where our journey began. How many hours have passed since we were first here?”
“Let's go, Kauza. Let's make this place the beginning of our journey.”