Sunday, June 7, 2015

#91: Bravely Default: A Critique of the Old

(Spoiler Alert: This article contains significant spoilers for Bravely Default's story.)
Last year, Square-Enix released a game which garnered much attention from JRPG fans. Taking inspiration from the Final Fantasy games from the NES/SNES-era, Bravely Default was seen as both a return to form for fans of those games and a breath of fresh air for others who are tired of more modern RPGs. Along those lines, the game's main quest is very similar to those from its spiritual predecessors, Final Fantasy 3 and 5 in particular. At the same time, significant late game reveals can be seen almost as a critique of those very same plots.

When it comes to plot twists, the context behind them is often crucial in analyzing how powerful they are. Therefore, it is necessary to explain the initial premise of the story before I can discuss it further. Set in the fictional world of Luxendarc, Bravely Default begins when a catastrophic event causes the village of Norende to be swallowed up in a giant hole. At the same time, the four crystals of Wind, Water, Fire, and Earth have their light snuffed out by a mysterious darkness. The sole survivor of the destruction by this Great Chasm, Tiz Arrior meets the priestess of the Wind Crystal, Agnes Oblige. Joined by two others, and guided by the cryst-fairy Airy, they embark on a quest to awaken the crystals and save the world from the encroaching darkness. Along the way, the forces of the Eternian Empire attempt to prevent them from completing their quest.

If you have played a JRPG in the past 20 or so years, this storyline is probably going to be very familiar to you. Bravely Default deliberately invokes these tropes knowing that any seasoned JRPG player is likely to just accept them wholesale, without a second thought. Of course the light from the four crystals will be enough to stop the darkness and close the Great Chasm. Of course there is an evil empire out to stop our heroes. Players wouldn’t expect any depth, nor would they go out of their way to seek it. Knowing this, Bravely Default cleverly subverts this basic plot with an interesting twist.

Once the final crystal has been awakened, Airy informs the party that a Holy Pillar has emerged, and that using its power should cleanse the world of all evil, including the Great Chasm. When the ritual is completed, however, the actual effect is far from what was anticipated. The party finds themselves in an alternate, parallel Luxendarc. While largely similar to the one they hail from, there are numerous small differences between the two worlds. Some individuals live in different areas, while others have depth to their character that was previous absent. Still more who previously had no relation with each other have suddenly become fast friends or bitter foes. Unfortunately, the Great Chasm is not one of those differences, as it still exists where the village of Norende once stood. The crystals in this new world have also been lost to darkness. Suggesting that something might have gone wrong at the Holy Pillar, Airy recommends trying again by awakening the crystals once more. The party agrees since they cannot think of another option.
Gradually, the characters begin to realize something isn't quite right. While they continuously awaken the crystals and active the Holy Pillar, the result is always the same. Once more they arrive at another parallel world and once more they embark on a brand new quest to save it. Through the many exchanges and battles between our heroes and the forces of the so-called evil Eterian Empire, it becomes clear that their journey is self-defeating.
This is where important facts are revealed that change the context behind the player's actions. The party was never saving the world. Airy was, in fact, tricking them into doing the exact opposite. "Awakening" the crystals overloaded them with so much energy that they were spiraling out of control. Appearing as a Holy Pillar, this excess power was constantly being harnessed by Airy to rip holes in the fabric of space-time. Each time, these holes took the form of Great Chasms where the village of Norende once stood. With enough Luxendarcs linked together, Airy could use them to summon her dark god, who wished to devour worlds for power.
While it seemed at first like the Eternian Empire was trying to stop the protagonists because they are the designated bad guys, the truth is that they were just to stop them from making a terrible mistake. Almost 2000 years before the events of the game, an Agnes from a different parallel world had warned them of what happened to her. Just like our heroes, her friends were tricked by Airy into awakening the crystals, and she had attacked them all once they outlived their usefulness. Her wounds fatal, that world’s Agnes had just enough time to enter the Holy Pillar and appear to warn a future world of their eventual fate. This story, passed down from one ruler to the next even since, had motivated the Empire’s current lord to marshal his forces against the current party. There was no evil plan here. Like our heroes, they only wanted to do what they could to save the world, only they actually had the correct information, researched and retold for centuries.

With this plot twist, Bravely Default makes two big critiques. The first of them is of the very JRPGs of which it takes inspiration. In those games, the heroes rarely ever questioned the morality of the quests they embarked on. Scarcely did they so much as take a minute to analyze a situation to see if acting would even be the right thing to do. Their heroism is born more of moral luck than any virtue they may have. When pressed into an uncomfortable or unfortunate situation, the first person they speak to just so happens to have the same noble goals, and sets them on the path to do right.
It is just as likely that the protagonists talk to an individual with less noble goals. Such a person could quite easily use the party's ignorance to further their own ends. In Bravely Default, our main cast has the best of intentions in attempting the close the Great Chasm and save the world. However, like those before them, they had failed to understand exactly what they were getting themselves into, granting Airy the opening she needs to use them as pawns. When the forces of the Eternian Empire attempt to convince the team that they are putting the world in danger, nothing short of direct violence can get through, and even that does nothing to assuage their stubborn determination. These same traits are innate to many JRPG leads, and Bravely Default shows just how easily they are manipulated.

The other critique is aimed directly at the player. Over the course of the story, said player can awaken the crystals and summon the Holy Pillar a total of five times, yet only the first of these five are required by the plot. At that point, if the player is observant enough, they can attempt to sabotage a crystal awakening ceremony and stop Airy's plans, triggering an alternate ending where the dark god was never summoned. The player is not given explicit knowledge of this until the third cycle, where the protagonists themselves start to doubt their appointed task. Pressing on despite this knowledge will allow Airy to succeed, forcing the party to fight her god themselves.
Because the main plot allows the player to stop Airy in the second cycle, but only informs them of this in the third, it is likely that most (including myself), will voluntarily aid Airy even when they don't have to. Like the lead characters, the player will not even question whether or not what they are doing is right, blindingly going wherever they are told. Games like Bioshock have made similar points in the past, but it is one worth reiterating.

While Bravely Default uses the same language as and draws from older JRPGs, it uses them in a way that is more self-aware. It is able to criticize its spiritual predecessors in a way that, while not unique, forces the audience to think more about what they are doing and why. That alone sets it apart from other games in its genre. I hope Bravely Second is just as introspective as this when it finally comes to the west.

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