[ Editor’s Note: This feature was commissioned as part of the RetroPitch 2017 event. ]
When we think about play, we think about engaging with a game. We use the controls and options made available to us in order to move from start to finish. This interaction is mechanical, but it’s dressed up in a memorable fiction: graphics, dialogue, music, story, setting, etc. We can think of mechanics as blueprints and the fiction as the way the finished product looks, sounds, and feels. Feeling a game might be subjective, but it’s true, isn’t it? We remember the games we play. When we do, we shoot to the fondest memory, our mind instinctively seeking out the best emotional state related to the experience. Interacting with a game’s fiction can cause us to be emotional, and that’s great! Thinking about games like this, how they might affect us, intentionally or subconsciously, positively or negatively is looking at games as emotional artefacts; and we, the players, as emotional subjects.
In 1990, Quintet released their first game: a city-building simulator called ActRaiser. In this, you play as The Master, a benevolent god who has to provide shelter, food, and happiness to their people. Keeping your faithful content and safe is a stressful, but ultimately rewarding task. Though, rewarding… how? With items, money, and level-ups, sure, but also with what’s happening on-screen! As you progress, your worshippers constantly shower you in love and organise feasts in your name. That’s so nice, isn’t it, being appreciated?
On the meta-level, that’s the game thanking you, the player, for playing it. In the early 90s, it wasn’t uncommon for games to put a little ‘Special thanks: YOU’ at the end of the staff roll. But Quintet makes this cross-boundary appreciation for the player a much more direct, consistent, and diegetic reward. ActRaiser set the scene for this. Their second game, Soul Blazer (1992) really captures it.
In Soul Blazer, you play as a hero sent by The Master (the same one!) to liberate the Freil Empire from the evil wizard Deathtoll, who trapped the souls of all living things inside of monsters. The first location you arrive at is barren, scarce, and lonely, with only one person left to be scared of your presence, waiting for their turn to be come. It is a sad sight, but that’s why you’re here: to save these people, absolutely, and also to restore their joy.
Excavating the lost souls, you uncover how the various beings interact with one another. A tree fondly talks about how visiting squirrels inform it about worldly events, and in return they are given its seeds. A tulip wonders who placed the boundary between dreams and reality. A goat misses her husband. These tableaus emphasise that every life, no matter how little, plays a significant role in their society. As a result, the sadness that Deathtoll caused goes much deeper than just loneliness or fear. He caused the symbiosis of people and animal, a harmonious system of autarky and wellbeing, to crumble. But thanks to you, these ecological utopias are being repaired.
Bringing back the puzzle pieces of these holistic worlds, the hero is granted the same hospitalities and courtesies that the rest of the NPCs used to provide for each other. The first person you rescue is the wife of the village elder, who allows you to make use of her room upstairs to rest up. The game seems to tell you, “Hey, good job! Let me give you a little present for getting this far!” It’s a mechanic that lets you heal up and save, but it’s presented as the cherishing sincerity of an older woman. It’s not supposed to be a transaction, you just ‘unlock’ such kindness with your own.
After bringing back a certain number of plants, families, and friends, the town theme changes from ‘Lonely Town’ to ‘Lively Town’, a more upbeat arrangement of the same melody. NPCs tell you that they’re happy, even with the traumatic memories of monsterhood still fresh. The world reflects your accomplishments and tangibly becomes a warmer place as a result. The areas you investigate are teeming with blossoming relationships, heartfelt stories, and philosophical questions (mostly from the plants). Be it through dialogue, graphics, or music, there is an incremental sentimentality tied to mechanical plot progression. As you move through the game, the game seeks to move you back.
Restoration is an important concept for Soul Blazer: it states that, in the fiction, there already was something beautiful. You get to bring that back, even partake in it. The game’s positivity is tied to the player experience and agency, but your place in the narrative isn’t egocentric. You’re responsible for rescuing the living world, but it does not exist solely in relation to you. It is about saving, but it’s also about getting to know what you let continue. The game takes its time, takes its place, to show you who or what this ‘everyone’ is. How gorgeous it is!
If we think about what this means in terms of development, affective design is not something that can be strictly accounted for. We can’t know what will make us feel an emotion! It just happens, lingering in between every component. The player-side positivity, that is to say, feeling good through play, is a by-product of the fiction of an autotelic, harmonious world. Such a vibe says so much about the mentality of the creative process. For Soul Blazer, the director envisioned a natural world where people and nature live together without environmental issues, the writers captured a sense of concern, care, and gratitude for the player, and the artists made sure everything looked like a friend.
Soul Blazer is a game about witnessing loss and trying to help in any way you can, and about what a joy it is to be part of something we call life. You, the player, act as a witness to the closure and happiness you bring about by playing. The game is a gallery of simple, happy communities, and it wants to bring you, the player, a similar kind of happiness.
Ruben can be followed on Twitter @urbanfriendden.