It's amazing that the most moving game I played last year wasn't one of the big-budget first-party titles on a current-gen system, but an obscure SNES RPG Kotaku readers first alerted me to called Terranigma. I've already covered the first three chapters of the game, but it's the final chapter that had me contemplating mortality, age, and what it means to come to terms with death. Heavy stuff for a game designed for kids.

Terranigma was the final part of the Quintet Trilogy that followed Illusion of Gaia and Soulblazer. The main protagonist, Ark, is given the task of reviving a world that has been destroyed after a brutal and devastating war between the light and dark. The 16-bit graphics and anime style are deceptively attractive and colorful, belying the somber themes that prop the narrative up. The SNES and Genesis era arguably had some of the best JRPGs of any generation, and in discussing the conclusion of Terranigma, I wanted to delve deeper into some of the things it did better than any of the other titles that make it stick out from the rest.

An Arc We Care About

Traditional story arcs usually take place within three acts or as in Gustav Freytag's theories, a five act drama. These arcs are more easily definable in films and books that follow the classical structure with the five parts being categorized as Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Dénouement. But games are harder to analyze and deconstruct, especially RPGs. Terranigma follows neither the 3 act nor the 5 act structure, but gives us 4 chapters and plays with the common tropes associated with RPGs in a fusing of religion, myth, and science fiction. At the same time, Terranigma's ability to transcend the traditional structure and incorporate myth is part of what makes it so resonant. Let's break it down.

  • Exposition (background information on characters and setting): Ark is a troublesome kid living in an idyllic village that is the last bastion of life on the planet.
  • Rising Action (a series of events that spur the character into the conflict): Through a mix of curiosity and defiance, he accidentally causes everyone in his town to freeze and has to rescue them by reviving the continents of Earth.

The Conflict is where things get interesting. In most RPGs, there's a very clear conflict and villain; Golbez in FFIV, Kefka in FFVI, Mother Brain in Phantasy Star II, Dark Sol in Shining in the Darkness and Shining Force, Lavos in Chrono Trigger, Saren in Mass Effect, your brother in Fable 3, and so on (although sometimes, the initial villain turns out to be a puppet of a greater one and there are also secondary villains). In the first two chapters of Terranigma, the conflict seems like it's less about a traditional villain, and more a story about creation and resurrecting life. Ark rescues the gigantic tree, Ra, from parasites, helping plants to repopulate Earth. Birds and animal life follow, with the culmination being the rebirth of human civilization. The Elder issues orders which Ark follows without question, and overall, the trend is a positive one as evolution takes its guided course.

In the third chapter, human society is flourishing. Even without a villain, humans wreak plenty of destruction on themselves. There is a disturbing plethora of death, pogrom, and tragedy. Human nature is the apparent villain. The quest here is to find "geniuses" who will help humanity advance, including personages embodied by NPCs like Eddy (Thomas Edison) or Bell (Alexander Bell). And that's when we find the traditional structure can't fully encompass the complexities of Terranigma because the conflict isn't as straightforward to identify. Instead, we have to turn to the Monomyth, or Hero's Journey theory, as described by Joseph Campbell, which tries to find patterns in narratives throughout history. If we frame the Monomyth within the four chapters, we can better understand why Terranigma's narrative is so compelling.

The Hero's Journey

There's 17 stages that Campbell describes in the Hero's Journey and while a given myth doesn't require all 17, the best often do. It's surprising, then, how much the Monomyth aligns with Terranigma's story. Take for example the first leg of the Hero's Journey which Campbell calls the Separation where the Hero is separated from his home or state of repose, forced or choosing to take action that embark him on his journey. That, in conjunction with the Call to Adventure in Terranigma coincides with the Exposition and Rising Action (Arks set out to save the world after he opens the box that freezes his city). The Refusal of the Call, usually spurred by insecurities or obligations, is when the protagonist tries to deflect undertaking the great task placed before him (think Luke Skywalker at first refusing to go with Obi-Wan citing his responsibilities). This doesn't happen in Terranigma because as Campbell explains: "For those who have not refused the call, the first encounter of the hero journey is with a protective figure (often a little old crone or old man) who provides the adventurer with amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass. What such a figure represents is the benign, protecting power of destiny." That figure is the Elder and Ark acts as a blunt weapon for his directives, slashing his way through his designated foes.

What does happen is a stage called Crossing the Threshold (a literal and physical space from which the hero can never return), represented when Ark jumps into a big gaping portal that takes him to the upper world, our Earth. There are also many Whale Bellies (a reference to the Biblical Jonah) that cause Ark to metamorphose in a "safe place," whether in a physical sense, as he grows more powerful, or his own awareness of who he really is.

We can get back again to the Conflict which coincides with the second leg of the Monomyth, but this time, with the Road of Trials category to help us navigate. This is because there isn't just one Conflict, but many on the "road" to becoming a hero, from helping the various villages to grow, to rescuing a tortured Christopher Columbus, and defeating sea monsters who are persecuting mermaids. Along the way, other elements of the Hero's Journey are seamlessly blended in, as in a Meeting With the Goddess, described as an unconditional love, which is the upper world's version of the woman Ark loved, Elle. In a twist, her life has been torn by tragedy and the trauma of her suffering has forced her to become mute. Ark helps her to deal with her pain, and their relationship evolves slowly throughout the game. There's even an odd take on the Temptress stage (a test that distracts the protagonist from their principal mission) with a young girl named Meilin who can conjure illusions and at the same time, falls in love with Ark herself. One of the most critical stages Campbell details, Atonement with the Father, has many manifestations: "The problem of the hero going to meet the father is to open his soul beyond terror to such a degree that he will be ripe to understand how the sickening and insane tragedies of this vast and ruthless cosmos are completely validated in the majesty of Being. The hero transcends life with its peculiar blind spot and for a moment rises to a glimpse of the source. He beholds the face of the father, understands—and the two are atoned."

Ark doesn't have parents and the closest thing to a father figure he has is the Elder. But what happens when your father is essentially the devil. Is atonement even a possibility? The horrors of those implications strike Ark, who doesn't know or understand why he followed orders so blindly. This is even worse than Atlas's "would you kindly?" in Bioshock because this is, afterall, the devil and you weren't brainwashed. Adding to Ark's woes, the Elder wants to replace you with a substitute son in the form of Beruga whose vision of immortalizing humans as zombies is as horrific as it is insane. By infecting the majority of people with a virus called Asmodeus that obliterates its victims into light, he only wants to leave behind those who are "necessary," a merciless cleansing that arbitrarily creates a world order of undead and dead.

But just when we, as gamers, assume we know where the plot is going (you know, stop the bad guy's crazy plot), events upend our expectations. Beruga is killed when the fan in his airship sucks him in. As Fyda, one of your compatriots, notes, "So Beruga gets killed by a machine he made… The greatest genius in history ends like that. Such is life…" Then, it's the Elder's turn to get his comeuppance. But he created you specifically for his own purpose which was to take over the world and in the final battle, his own creation, Ark, destroys him. Even Quintet, the developers of the game who make an easter egg appearance, are swept away by the Asmodeus virus when all of Neo-Tokio gets destroyed. All these conflicts foreshadow Ark's own end. After he saves the world he created, he's told by Light Gaia that the whole world of Dark Gaia and everyone in it will disappear, including him. His resurrection and Apotheosis are short-lived, even though as Yomi points out, "You're what humans would call a god." His path is wrought with tragedy and many friends sacrifice themselves so he can achieve his goal, as in the dark world Elle who loses her life while fighting to make sure baby Ark can survive.

The interweaving of these complex themes is a huge part of what makes Terranigma so distinctive. It's not just your typical "save the world" scenario. Ark's character arc transcends a personal quest into one that resonates as a classic motif in myths throughout time- only in death is there life. The ancient gods have to die to make way for the new ones, as in the God of War series, Wagner's The Ring of the Nibelung, and Stephen Donaldson's Gap Cycle. But there's also a warning against exploiting creation for personal gain, as in the case of the Elder who misused Ark for his own purposes. The secondary theme of protecting nature and the environment, a stewardship of sorts, is an important one, as evidenced by the relationships Ark forms with animals but is taken away with the advent of humans. I actually missed talking to my lion king, Leim. The message is also incorporated into the gameplay mechanic of the limited magirocks which are the only way to earn and use magic. There's a finite limit, a natural resource which, if used, are permanently gone. Ark is not omnipotent. Even he is bound by the laws of the world he helped create.

Dénouement

When the hero's journey is completed, there's usually a sense of satisfaction, joy at either being victorious or having been triumphant. Instead, Ark wonders if he would have been better off not even opening the box and bringing all the pain he does, including the death of the woman he loved. It's in this context that Light Gaia gives Ark a final day to freely roam Crysta before he will die.

That last day is bittersweet. It's not just Ark that's changed, but you, as the player. Knowing the game will end, the symbolic death of Ark also represents the end of your time in Terranigma. After the long journey, a mix of nostalgia and longing filled me as I went from villager to villager. They talked to me as though nothing had happened and everything was back to normal. I felt old, experienced, like my innocence had been shattered. The only other time I've felt age so acutely was in Metal Gear Solid IV where for a moment, you have a flashback to Solid Snake infiltrating Shadow Moses Island in Metal Gear Solid I for the PS1 I remembered when the primitive graphics were state of the art, now blocky and visually almost unwatchable next to a fully rendered Old Snake on the PS3. In the same way, Ark returns to the Elder's room and reflects on when he first met the old man and how much he'd changed since then.

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The final credits represent Ark's last dream. He becomes a bird and soars through Earth, looking at the civilization he helped create. Cities are populous at night, trains shuttle across the continent, and space ships are beginning to explore the stars. It's a beautiful climax that represents the final stages of the Hero's Journey; Master of Two Worlds (Light and Dark) and Freedom to Live where you are willing to give up your life for the world, no longer afraid of death. Ark's impending demise doesn't fill us with regret, but hope, because the civilization will go on despite your death and flourish. Terranigma lives on in our imaginations.

The Chorus

I haven't talked a whole lot about the gameplay and art in this piece because I covered those extensively in the previous two lists. One aspect I want to revisit is the music. Terranigma excels in the way the music complements the gameplay and story moments. There are both conscious motivations and the subconscious drives protagonist have, and in the classical Greek Chorus, one of their jobs was to let audiences know about the hidden motives and thoughts of the characters. In Terranigma, the two composers, Miyoko Takaoka and Masanori Hikichi, help shape the atmosphere, forming "a tapestry and a language that speaks just as powerfully as the story." They create the subconscious backdrop to this strange world and flesh out the characters. From the aforementioned Fyda's theme, who's willing to do whatever it takes to protect lightworld Elle because of a promise she made to her parents, to a flamboyant and bombastic Royd, the music tells us as much about the story as the dialogue. Framed within the game, the OST can embolden, excite, sadden, devastate, rejuvenate, and enlighten. Check out the rebirth of South America's music as a small sampler.

The End?

The final scene takes us to a house and we hear knocking. Light Elle answers it, wondering who it is. As she exits the door, the screen fades to a "The End." It's ambiguous, melancholy, and perfect. Has Ark reincarnated? Will he be able to end up with Elle and get the peace he deserves? A huge part of why Terranigma resonates so much with gamers is how much it syncs with the Hero's Journey in the art style, gameplay, and narrative. This is a story anyone, regardless of their background, can appreciate.

There's been a lot of change in my life over the past few months. When I first began playing, I lived in a different city, was in a different job, and was in a different state of mind. In many ways, the timing couldn't have been more synchronous. Ark's growth reflected the ambiguities and struggles of my own life, my own artistry. In the end, I'd like to believe he went back to what was most important to him and found meaning in that. The true enigma of Terranigma isn't just the fate of the planet, not even that of Ark, but us, the humans who survive and move on.

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Peter Tieryas is a VFX artist who just worked on Guardians of the Galaxy and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2. His novel, Bald New World, was listed as one of Buzzfeed's 15 Highly Anticipated Books and Publisher Weekly's Best Science Fiction Books of Summer 2014. A real big thanks to András for being supportive of this third piece! Peter scribbles about RPGs at tieryas.wordpress.com.