Double Life of Infinite Undiscovery
In my mind, Infinite Undiscovery is the greatest Japanese RPG of this console generation.
Truth be told, it is the only JRPG I’ve played this generation. Winner by default.
Okay, I lied. I did try Eternal Sonata for about two hours before deciding not to play it anymore: I fought one unwinnable boss encounter, then killed a real boss, and then ran into random encounters with angel goats that could kill me in two hits. I realized I needed to grind a few levels to continue, and I thought to myself: “They still do this shit?” Unwinnable bosses are lame, because they encourage you to waste your time (and mega-elixirs) trying to win. Grinding is lame, because it’s a sign of exploitative, lazy pacing. Infinite Undiscovery has no unwinnable boss encounters, no need for farming or grinding, and no fast travel. I’ve written about fast travel before—I don’t think it’s an unalloyed evil, but (following Forrester’s description of the negative effects of an interstate system in Urban Dynamics) I hold that it encourages lax world design and “game sprawl.” For proof, play Morrowind and Oblivion back-to-back.
Infinite Undiscovery features a tightly designed world map with numerous paths between key areas and a healthy dose of backtracking. Backtracking can be done well—in Dead Space, for instance, it worked because new enemies and hazards were added whenever the player had to pass back through a space—but usually it’s done poorly (for instance, I don’t fancy how Metroid Prime handles it). Infinite Undiscovery handles backtracking passingly, but they blow it in the end with this miserable, albeit entirely optional, “Seraphic Gate” dungeon that forces you to run back through a masochore mashup of most of the maps from the actual game on brutally-hard mode… with only one save point. My favorite ancillary design choice for this game is how the menu is implemented. When players enter a menu, the game doesn’t pause itself. Instead, the player’s party forms a circle and sits cross-legged as if around a fire. In this state they are vulnerable to surprise attack, but as this is a hack-and-slash RPG you can almost always see enemies coming. The best part about this is that you can craft things while sitting in the menu; a cook character can heat up a kettle inside the party’s circle, and then the party can share the benefits of whatever food items you create with each other. Little touches of social realism like this are often sorely lacking in Japanese RPGs.
Here is where I’m going to do something I don’t usually do: a strictly narratological analysis. Despite most accounts (including those of the creators), the title of the game actually does make sense; unfortunately, the meaning can’t be explained without giving away the secret of the connection between the game’s two protagonists, Capell and Sigmund. This is where you stop reading if you care about spoilers.
One of my running questions throughout the game was: “Is this a game about privilege—an escapist fantasy for the oppressed?” Characters called “the unblessed” are chastised and evicted from major cities simply from a coincidence of their birth—they were born during a new moon and thus did not receive a mystical brand called a lunaglyph from the god Veros, who watches over the world from his palace on the moon. The rulers of each city-state in Infinite Undiscovery are called Aristos, men and women who have shuffled off their mortal coil and been resurrected as avatars of Veros’ lunar energy. “Meags,” or humans with lunaglyphs who aren’t worthy of ascending to the Aristo-cracy, receive gifts such as they ability to light dark spaces but are vulnerable to becoming “vermified.” The moon on which Veros lives has been chained to the planet by a mysterious cult called the Order of Chains, and as the moon draws nearer it begins emitting lunar rain. Lunar rain feeds the energy of the lunaglyph inside a meags’ body, and as lunar energy accrues within them they will either die (if they are weak) or become insane, invisible monsters (if they are your party members). Only the unblessed can see Vermiforms, but only meags can hurt them.
As it turns out, Veros is in fact an evil god on par with FFVII‘s Jenova: the chains are of his own creation, and he seeks to collide with the planet in order to destroy it, thus freeing himself from servitude as its patron deity. Meags are incapable of damaging a chain, as both they and it are imbued with lunar energy. Only an unblessed hero, an unlikely eventuality due to their chastisement and poverty, has the potential to free the world from Veros’ influence. As it turns out, Capell and Sigmund “the Liberator” are two such unblessed heroes.
The relationship between Capell and Sigmund, a secret unraveled near the end of the game, raises a more pressing question: “Is this The Double Life of Veronique: The Videogame?” For those unfamiliar with Krzysztof Kieslowski’s work, The Double Life of Veronique is one of the Polish master’s later films. It precedes Three Colors (his trilogy on the values of the French Revolution) and follows closely on the heels of The Decalogue (a Polish television miniseries on the Ten Commandments and contemporary life). These films were all scored by the Polish composer Zbigniew Preisner. Preisner’s music is important in creating the oppresive atmosphere in all three of the works, but in Three Colors: Blue and Veronique it is absolutely vital, because these films are both about musicians. Wikipedia summarizes the plot of the Veronique much better than I ever could, so:
The film follows the lives of a young woman first in Poland, Weronika, and then a young woman in France, Véronique, both played by Irène Jacob. Though unrelated, the two appear identical, share many personality traits, and seem to be aware of each other on some level, as if they are doppelgangers, but except for a brief glimpse through a bus window in Krakow, they never meet. After Weronika sacrifices everything in the pursuit of a singing career, Véronique abandons her own similar goal because of poor health and attempts to find an independent course for her life, while becoming involved with a manipulative man who is fascinated by clues to her double nature. The man is a puppeteer and maker of marionettes, helping raise the questions that are central to the film: is there such a thing as free will, or is it up to a creator of some kind, or is it just a matter of chance that one acts and thinks as one does?
Capell and Sigmund appear physically identical, they are both unblessed, they are the same age, and they are both skilled flautists. Throughout the game you constantly wonder about the secret origins of Capell’s birth and subsequent orphanage. Capell is something of a layabout; because of extensive bullying by meags early in his life, he has no ambitions. He seems content to play the part of a penniless, wandering musician. Sigmund, on the other hand, is “the Liberator”; he has raised an army tasked with the goal of destroying the chains and the mysterious Order behind their creation. He has forsaken his musical abilities and pursued an independent course for his life (much like Veronique), but the process of destroying the chains has begun to weaken his body (again, much like Veronique). Capell and Sigmund are separated by combat prowess and the pitch of their voices. Although physically weaker, Capell can use the power of his flute to weave a few somewhat useful (though largely neglected) magical auras. A major turning point in the game comes when Sigmund dies and Capell takes on his mantle; then, later, Capell’s voice grows cold and deeper following a tragedy, and he begins developing the battle moves that only Sigmund once possessed.
The intuitive answer to the connection between Capell and Sigmund would be that the two are twin brothers separated at birth, but, as it turns out, Sigmund is actually Capell’s father. Sigmund was once an Aristo, the king of a fallen city-state that the Order of Chains now claim as their home. His former life essentially ended when his wife gave birth to Capell under a new moon: two Aristos had just given birth to an unblessed. The queen committed suicide for shame, they sent the baby away to die in the wilderness, and Sigmund sought to free himself from his bondage to the cruel lunar god. Sigmund underwent a ritual to remove the lunar energy from his body, requiring a corporeal regression to the state he was at the moment he first received a lunaglyph: he became a baby again (hence the name Infinite Undiscovery), the same age as his estranged son.
Thus, the god Veros becomes an inverse of Veronique‘s puppeteer boyfriend. Sigmund commits the greatest ontological act of free will by divorcing himself from this divinity. Kieslowski leaves the connection between his protagonists to a metaphysical riddle about our supposed uniqueness as individual people, while the creators of Infinite Undiscovery make the connection between its doppelgangers literal through their narrative twist of reincarnation. My question for you is: how could the creators of this game not have drawn inspiration from that film?