In 70 AD, the Romans sacked and burned Jerusalem. This was at the end of a several year long siege, which had left the inhabitants dying in the street from hunger and thirst. Josephus, mediator for the Romans, wrote that 1.1 million people were killed during the siege and a further 97,000 were enslaved. The city was sacked, the Second Temple was razed, and after a flood of violence and death almost all that was left was of Jerusalem was rubble. The people of Jerusalem had earnestly believed that their God would never allow them to fail, and yet no one had saved them meaning that either God didn’t care about them or someone hadn’t been righteous enough. Neither were comforting thoughts. For the surviving citizens, the destruction of Jerusalem, the mass death and horror that accompanied it, the fact that no god had intervened, and the seemingly hopeless future that awaited them was a spiritual and philosophical crisis like none had seen before. The effects on the Jewish and Proto-Christian diaspora reached far beyond the remains of the city. Based on these events, poets wrote the Book of Revelations, a highly allegorical story that was not meant to depict the future, but rather to help people of their present understand what had been lost and redefine what their world should become. It is one of the most famous works of post-apocalyptic fiction, though its far from the only one. Today the end of the world is still a common theme in all media, including videogames. Either you’re trying to prevent it or you’re dealing with the repercussions of someone trying to cause it. Very few games capture that idea of the end of the world as a philosophical revelation, instead focusing on the destruction and death. One game which does deal with this side of apocalypse, Legend of Mana, deals with the concept by having the apocalypse happen long before you begin the game.
Nine centuries ago, the Mana Tree burned to ash. The Mana Tree is the spiritual source of all desire, both in its positive and negative aspects. The Mana Tree represents love and hate, empathy and oppression, imagination and greed, creation and destruction. The war that destroyed the Mana Tree was not the last war to touch Fa’Diel. Several centuries of war passed as sages, kings and villains fought for the scraps of Mana. Armies of thousands strong died, wyrms devoured whole cities, people turned against their own families, lands were scorched bare, and holes to other dimensions dragged people away forever only to replace them with horrors. After centuries of war and death, the survivors gave up all dreams and desire rather than continue risking the dark aspects of Mana. Fa’Diel no longer had dreams, desires, stories or thoughts. Nothing could change, nothing could live or die, no stories could be told, and Fa’Diel was in stasis. For all intents and purposes, Fa’Diel might as well not even exist.
The game begins with your character selecting a tiny part of Fa’Diel to “rebuild.” You receive magical artifacts that, when placed on the map, transform into new lands. At first it feels like you are creating the world, but the more you experience, the more it becomes clear that Fa’Diel already exists, and that you are not so much creating it as revealing it. However, that line is often blurred. It exists because you experience it, and is created through the experiences you create. Every player’s map of Fa’Diel will look different, but at the same time, every player’s Fa’Diel has always existed in whatever form each player was going to create.
The Fa’Diel your experiences reveal is sometimes a sadly empty world, despite its beauty. Villages and cities are significantly underpopulated, a remnant of just how many lost their lives in the previous wars. The world alternates between feeling like a blank slate with no history, and like the sins of the past are hanging over everyone like a knife. Fa’Diel begins as a world crippled by ennui, where everyone struggles to make sense of what has value and how to examine the past and future.
While the creator of the Seiken Densetsu (or Mana) series, Koichi Ishii, was still on hand to direct, Legend of Mana is a radical shift in tone and content. This is almost entirely due to the game’s producer, Akitoshi Kawazu, taking a large and active role in the game’s creation. Kawazu is most famous for creating the SaGa series, and for his games often being intentionally obtuse or confusing in regards to both the gameplay mechanics and narrative. This has made him something of a polarizing game designer, but I find his work incredibly interesting and compelling. Even his failures are interesting because he takes such pain to create new systems and experiences, often informed by ideas from art and stories outside of games. A big theme of Kawazu’s oeuvre is discovery. Specifically, letting the player discover how the game works through experimentation and chance rather than explaining them. This can make the games difficult, but ironically they can be more difficult or frustrating for long-time gamers than for new ones. Almost every SaGa game requires you to learn specific rules and ignore expectations of what a “jrpg” should be. Players who try to force a SaGa game to be a Final Fantasy may give up in frustration.
Some of the less successful SaGa games punish players for not figuring out their arcane rules, or at least expect the player to be willing to restart and play again from the beginning regularly. Legend of Mana learns from their mistakes, and as obtuse as its systems are, players who don’t or can’t figure them out can still play without worry. A perfect example of this is the item-creation system. Creating and modifying weapons and armor requires learning an extremely complicated system of honest-to-god system simulated fantasy chemistry that is NEVER explained in the game. Learning which chemical compounds react to which and how requires a combination of experimentation and copious note-taking. The reactions are never simply linear either, as certain variables late in an item’s construction may have a different result depending on seemingly unrelated items used early one. You can create insanely powerful weapons with a wide range of magical powers, but only by knowing enough about fantasy magic chemistry to concoct complicated and lengthy recipes and formulas. However, none of it is necessary. You can easily complete the game without making a single weapon. The system is there for players eager to dive into the laws of Fa’Diel’s magical molecular physics, but never punishes players who couldn’t care less. Equally complicated are systems for raising monsters, programming AI for golems and growing odd crops with names that were probably hilarious before being translated into English.
Kawazu’s fondness for handling game mechanics in this manner, and in leaving much of it up to the player to figure out on their own through repeated experimentation, is reflected in the game’s narrative as well. There is no central plot to Legend of Mana, rather a series of smaller quests. Three major story arcs exist, only one of which needs to be completed to reach the end of the game, and there are dozens of smaller stories to learn. Almost none of these stories or quests are about you, the protagonist. Rather, your protagonist often acts as an observer. Your character changes the world by observing it, and while you’re always somewhat removed from the other characters and their stories, your presence is what allows others to trust themselves to desire again. The world reconnects to Mana because the children who inherited a post-apocalyptic fantasy world are allowing themselves to dream and desire. The conflicts in this game are less to do with battles between good and evil and more to do with conflicting desires and experiences.
Very little of your adventures relate to the destruction of the world. Only a few characters you meet are old enough to remember the conflict, and their own thoughts are focused more on the question of what comes next than on rehashing old battles. Your only real clue into the wars of the past are books of history, which slowly fill up with details as you play through the game. The backstory is complicated and convoluted considering how none of it directly impacts the story. You can read the entire creation myth of Fa’Diel, the history of what destroyed the world, and pick up random facts about the nature of the world which are never brought up in the game. For example, the reason why everyone you meet is some kind of anthropomorphic animal, plant, object, mythical creature, or combination of the four is because humans of Fa’Diel change forms based on their experiences. Everyone you meet is a human, from the penguin pirates to the bartender made of puzzle pieces. They just look different because the post-apocalyptic Fa’Diel is still deciding what it wants to be and look like, and so people’s shape is in flux physically as well as philosophically.
One of the many optional things you can do in Legend of Mana is return home after each quest is completed and tell the story to your housemate Li’l Cactus. While the cactus at first seems unresponsive and immobile, after you tell it a story and leave, you’ll see a quick scene where it gets up, walks over to its secret diary, and writes its own version of the story it has been told. Like the other mechanics, this will mostly likely be a surprise discovery and require multiple playthroughs to get all of Li’l Cactus’ diary entries. When you read over Li’l Cactus’ version of your adventure, sometimes he’ll get things right, sometimes he’ll have misunderstood, sometimes he won’t believe you, sometimes he’ll get caught up in some small and unimportant detail, and sometimes he’ll just do his own thing. You’re creating the next mythology for this world, and Li’l Cactus is the next generation, interpreting it and deciding what it means to them. Li’l Cactus is providing clues for how the player can interpret the seemingly unconnected events and quests. Your response to each individual quest combine to form your overall reaction to the piece as well as reflect your philosophy.
The game doesn’t judge what that reaction is, far from it. Throughout the game we see a repeating theme, that it is better to trust in the possibility of love, empathy and creation than to avoid risking the possibility of hate or destruction, and that it is better to be honest than to deny yourself. Love and friendship will not conquer all, this is clear from several of the quests, but giving people the freedom to choose love and friendship is the only way to actually get that result. The closest thing the game has to outright villains are anyone who tries to force others into a task or belief, or anyone who hides their own feelings and beliefs with convenient lies. Escad hides his jealousy behind religion and socially-acceptable racism, Irwin gives Matilda the freedom to choose her fate and she chooses something other than his exact wishes and he becomes wrathful, Sandra takes away the freedom and lives of others to keep someone she loves alive but caged, Larc gives up his freedom for power and is unable to remain himself in the process, Roger hides his poetry and creative side and forces the Dudbears to work for work’s sake rather than for their own expression, and of course Nunuzac hides the secret to reviving the Mana Tree and almost dooms the world to ennui and entropy rather than risk someone’s desires creating another war. In the end, there is no grand battle between good and evil (the final boss almost feels like a narrative afterthought, a meta “oh I guess we need to have a final boss here” event that only serves to reiterate the duality of imagination), and the only thing that is changed is that the world is now free to continue. In the end, this means our protagonist must leave the world (or perhaps it is just that we leave the protagonist) as Fa’Diel cannot become anything other than what it already was as long as we are observing it. We create a space for new stories we will never be told, and our own story with Fa’Diel ends.
The end of the world is not the end of all things, just the end of a point of view. In our world of nonstop zombie explosions and doomsday fantasies, its easy to forget that apocalypse is defined first as revelation rather than simply destruction. Legend of Mana leaves room alongside its confusing “Streets of Rage meets SaGa Frontier and covered in Jim Henson’s version of the D&D Monstrous Manual” design for players to have their own revelations.
Screenshots and animated gifs are from the Let’s Play Archive
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