A Rock And A Hard Place
[I am about to spoil The Last Story from a 10,000-foot-view level. I won't tell you the name of the last boss or that really funny line the one guy said after that cool thing happened, but some spoiler-y concepts will be discussed. You have been warned.]
"You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake." — Jeannette Rankin
War is the great devourer of souls.
Such is the pervading theme of Mistwalker’s newest game, The Last Story. It is found woven into the narrative, sprinkled over the fields, veining the tunnels, and tucked into the wardrobe at the back of the tavern. Not that war is a new concept to video games, of course, but it’s typically used as a framework for creating the traditional Hero’s Journey — war is the setting that makes the heroics of the individual’s story possible. But what about those heroes? What happens to them along the way? What is the cost of victory?
Ostensibly The Last Story revolves around the more traditional JRPG theme of a spiky-haired young adult assembling a rag-tag band of misfits that topple the great powers and save the world. And that’s here, make no mistake, with no real deviances from the formula save a happy lack of “kawaii~☆!” voice actors and fewer emo proclivities in the main character. It’s fine. It’s unremarkable. It’s probably what most official reviews of the game will focus on. However, focusing on the superficial story does a serious disservice to the setting Sakaguchi portrays.
War is an unavoidable constant in the game’s world, from the present day all the way back to the beginning of the history books. As a form of their original call to action, Zael (the protagonist) and Dagran (his best friend) both lost their families and entire villages to a recent war between the empire and unnamed outlying human settlements. These tragedies have driven them to become knights, in order to stop such a thing from happening again. Prior to that, nations have been at war with themselves, with others, and with a different race of beings. Even farther back, small tribes were constantly at war that threatened to consume the entire land until the ruler of Lazulis Island devised a weapon so powerful and horrible that he was able to quell all the warring factions into a single Empire.
On its surface this synopsis appears pretty typical for our pomade-soaked landscape, but The Last Story is not content with that static view. It gently urges you to look behind the props of the city, scratch the shiny new coat of paint off its denizens, and generally see how war is tearing the whole place apart. Let's take a look at three of the ostensibly good prototypical characters in the narrative and see how they're used to frame the destruction of war.
The Empire’s commander, General Asthar, is a kind and gentle man and a great leader. In JRPG and Hero's Journey terms, he serves as the mentor for the protagonist's journey, guiding and shaping Zael to become a better individual. The game truly makes you love him and what he stands for, and empathize with him very strongly. He is trying to save the land, to heal it. At no point in your dealings with him does it even cast a shadow of a doubt about his intentions or noble bearing. However, he's not there to merely serve as the mentor; he's there to point us back to the casualties of war.
Despite his kindness toward all in Lazulis Island, he is a general who has never lost a battle, so he clearly has a cold and calculating streak in him. Near the end of the game, it’s revealed that he was the commander in charge of the knights who savagely pillaged their way through Dagran’s village (and presumably Zael's, although this is never explicitly stated). The game uses Asthar's character to say that the noblest of men may succumb to the vulgarities of war, and commit atrocities of which they may not even be repentant. Asthar's role in the story is long over by this point, so we get no resolution to this thorny little issue: no tearful confession, no breast-beating screams. It’s just accepted as a cost of doing business.
The greatest, most "benevolent" man in the setting is the original ruler of Lazulis, and no one in the narrative seems to object to this opinion. In JRPG terms, he fills the same functional role as the ancient race of technologically advanced beings that leave ruins all over the landscape and an ancient power for the hero to harness to defeat the Big Bad Guy at the end — basically to give some depth to the world and to serve as a convenient deus ex machina to the writers. He's widely praised both by all learned scholars and in all the books you can find; after all, he brought a peaceful end to a very long and very bloody war. What's not to love, right?
Sakaguchi, however, has different plans for his narrative arc. See, the way he united the peoples was by creating the Ultimate Weapon of Most Totally Total Destruction™ that united all the lands and races under a single banner, presumably by threatening them until they cowered in fear. An Ultimate Weapon, once more, that you eventually discover is the whole reason the world is dying. The game uses the narrative framework of this man to turn us back to war, and at certain points prompts the player to ponder the difficult position he was in: the lose/lose choice that a man has to make between saving his own populace (and by extension, the rest of the world's) but eventually destroying it, or setting the potential for long-term survival against a high probability of near-term annihilation. In doing so, it beckons you toward the conclusion that the whole mess is hopeless; that there is no "right" answer when it comes to war.
Even the protagonist is not safe from the narrative's repeated refocusing on war. Zael himself becomes a knight to obtain the power to put an end to the atrocities he witnessed when his village burned, of women and children being slaughtered by jeering soldiers. He trains to fight those that themselves would fight to harm the ones he loves, and in that sense he echoes the above choice. Is it okay to cause harm of one kind to prevent harm of another? Is this why the fighting class, the knight, is held in such high esteem? Zael seems certain that knighthood is the correct choice at the outset of the journey, but becomes more and more shaken by it as the game progresses.
At the mid-point of the game he takes part in a raid on the Gurak homebase that could potentially put an end to the fighting (just like the weapon of 1,000 years ago), but something goes wrong. They bomb their way in to their city, storm the place, and ... discover that they've set fire to a city of women and children. The Gurak army has withdrawn, leaving its populace behind to be slaughtered. The knights willingly oblige, slaying the fleeing civilians mercilessly and bickering over their possessions. It is truly a detestable scene, and the player re-lives Zael’s flashback of the same thing happening in his own village.
Zael, willingly or not, has become a participant in the same horrible acts as his great mentor, and as the first ruler of Lazulis. These three men are not any typical mid-game "oh now we find out that the good guy is actually the bad guy and has been using us the whole time" characters; they are good people, through and through. But even their most noble intentions have very dire consequences, including perpetuating the very thing they're trying to avoid. The Last Story uses their moderately cliché story arcs to illustrate that war is self-perpetuating: Even those who would wield force merely to stop the violence contribute to its continuation.
The attentive reader will note that there seems to be a recursive theme of inevitability woven through these stories. The difficult decisions of the ancient patriarch influence the actions of the general, which in turn lead to a a perhaps inevitable and unwitting betrayal of beliefs of the hero. Part of the brilliance here is that the narrative illustrates not only that all are forced into unwinnable positions, but that the sins of the father, so to speak, are borne by the sons. As a result, the benevolent ruler, the benevolent mentor, even the game's own protagonist, all turn into the animals war creates, and add their humanity to the tally that war destroys.
Just as remarkable as what The Last Story shows us about war is what it refuses to show. You will find no ticker-tape parade, no triumphant return of heroes brandishing mementos of vanquished foes. At the end of the game, as you lay to rest the third form (naturally) of the final boss, all you’re left with is ... remorse. With a wish that things had turned out differently. The hero's "crossing of the return threshold" is here, and you are victorious ... right?
Depends on your definition of "victorious". The most positive emotion the game could be said to leave you with is relief. Traipsing Lazulis Island in the lengthy epilogue, you might wonder where the grateful populace is. Sure, they’ll throw a kind word your way if you stop to chat them up, but they are too busy to converse long. They are predisposed in backbreaking labor clearing away the detritus of war, wondering if their father will come home with the soldiers (or bemoaning the fact that he hasn’t), trying to figure out how to coexist with a race that has been a mortal enemy for a millenium, with varying degrees of success. The townspeople are busy picking up the broken pieces of their lives, the remnants of a protracted conflict between callous leaders.
There are no "winners" of this war; only survivors. The Hero's Journey has ended, but the journey of the rest of the world has just begun.
War is a recurring theme in video games, but so often it is used merely as the backdrop. For the Hero’s Journey to work, there must be an inciting event that requires a hero, after all. So often the real consequences of war are glossed over (or even idealized); heroes are born, and we go about our business. The Last Story turns it all around: It points the characters inward, leading their gaze and the player's to the inevitable loss of war. It uses its own characters to show that good, even great people can abandon their principles for "the greater good." That there is no winner in war. That everyone loses. It shows us that even when entered with the best of intentions, war can make animals of us all.