Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:
Once upon a time God, in the form of a great tree, created a vast forest and gave birth to divine beings to help him populate it with creatures. The divine beings grew bored and wanted to create a “beast of knowledge” in their own image. God allowed them to do so, but only if they promised never to interact with it. A bird-god grew lustful and lay with these new people, bringing them the gift of love and the curse of doubt. In response God transformed the bird-god into a googly-eyed prankster. Another divine being traded knowledge to the new people in return for treasure, and so he too was cursed by God and transformed into a parody of his former divine self. A young goddess of the water met a young prince of the new people and fell in love. She gifted him fairy silk, but this drew the envy of his people now cursed with greed, lust and doubt. They slew the prince and ravaged the forest for more fairy silk, slaying the other creatures they met. With her dying breath, the water goddess asked the God-tree to curse humanity and strike them down whenever they grew too greedy or compassionless. God transformed the creatures of the forest into demons who set upon the people of the world, transforming their cities to forests and their sins into new demons. The few surviving humans live in small, isolated villages slowly disappearing whenever they forget to mind the forest gods.
This is the world of Jade Cocoon, one of many pokemon copycats from the end of the 90s. Unlike other games which copied Game Freak’s successful formula almost exactly, Jade Cocoon went out of its way to create a new world and a new story. They notably tapped Studio Ghibli’s Katsuyo Kondo to design the characters. While nearly every pokemon knockoff follows the story of a young kid trying to collect different kinds of X in order to win a grand tournament, Jade Cocoon’s story is much different. You play as a “cocoon master” whose job is to protect the village by capturing and purifying the “minions” of the forest. Each monster is actually a tortured spirit created from the sins and dark desires of humanity, and it is your job to capture them not as weapons, but to help relieve their suffering and restore the world to balance. In order to emphasize this fact, you gain no experience or money from fighting. The only way to gain strength is to purify spirits and bring balance.
You are aided by your childhood friend and forced marriage partner Mahbu. Mahbu is a woman of the Nagi tribe, a people who help cocoon masters in their duty at great personal cost. She is the one who actually purifies the creatures you bring her, and she does so by taking their anger and pain into herself to help them find balance. By doing this she becomes marked by painful, disfiguring brands and as the game progresses she will wear more and more clothing to hide these scars. The game opens with demons attacking the village and infecting almost everyone with a terrible disease. The disease can only be cured by purifying the forest, so the game forces you into a position where if you do not contribute to Mahbu’s condition by asking her to purify minions, you are letting other people suffer and die.
To make matters worse, the townspeople do not trust you or the Nagi people, seeing your ability to communicate with the forest and Mahbu’s increasingly visible curse a terrifying reminder of the community’s shared past sins. Rather than acknowledge their role, it is easier for people to project onto others. As time goes on, rumors spread. Eventually even those in the community you considered your friends will have turned against you and consider Mahbu’s people to be the true source of their suffering. As panic and fear leads the village to bigotry, the dark emotions and petty ignorance lead to ever fiercer creatures appearing. Everyone relies on the cocoon master and their partner to restore balance and deal with their complicity and their darker emotions, and in doing so they become blind to what they themselves could do. Throughout the game we see how this system is not sustainable, and that the pressure on the cocoon masters and the Nagi only leads to more suffering. A new system must be created where people can restore balance themselves. As this is a videogame, this new system turns out to involve making peace with your absent father so you can shoot dragons made out of feelings into Mahbu. Its not a great metaphor, but you can see how the backdrop at least does something different with the standard “boy collects monsters and fights stuff” model.
So we have a game where power comes not simply from fighting but from finding balance within nature and society and where values of cooperation and community are rewarded and emphasized. Sounds good on paper, but how does it work in practice? Sadly, the game falters in its depiction of Mahbu and how it deals with issues of gender. Mahbu is the single most important character in the game. She is the sole reason you are able to command monsters, and she does so at great physical and emotional cost. She is the character who actually does things, you the player essentially just enjoys her hard work. She is forced to marry against her will, suffers bigotry and prejudice, and finds herself navigating a difficult path between tradition and personal desire. Later on the game also reveals that she is the chosen one who will purify the world all at once and let man, spirit and god reunite by taking all their sins into herself and being reborn. She is the single most important person in the universe, and yet still she is reduced to damsel and NPC for the story of a male character. Even fantasy-anime-Jesus can’t catch a break if she’s a woman.
It would have been interesting to see the game subvert the expectations of the player by leading them to believe she was just another damsel to be rescued and wooed, only to later reveal to them that she was capable to doing things on her own terms. She may have been forced to marry you for political reasons, but what if she had her own agency and rejected the player romantically at the same time she continued to work with them and bond with them mechanically? Even more interesting would be to see the game from her point of view. After all, she’s the one doing all the work. What if the game were not about capturing monsters, but instead helping those monsters find psychological/spiritual balance and then commanding them to protect the hapless male character? The steps Jade Cocoon takes to subvert the pokemon-formula are too good to not take further.
All screenshots from the Let’s Play Archive.