I have a complicated relationship with Illusion of Gaia. It’s, sort-of, my favourite SNES game. It’s also a game that makes me profoundly uncomfortable, and has some bad memories associated with it. Replaying it now, I also see that it’s also a poorly produced game, but one that’s trying to do a lot of things and even does some of them well.
|Illusion of Gaia - From GameFaqs User SSCloud99|
I talk a lot about the game in this one, so if you feel sensitive to spoilers go play it now (or watch a Let’s Play). It’s only a dozen hours or so long.
Illusion of Gaia is an interesting game in a lot of ways. It has a much darker story than a lot SNES games (or a lot of modern games, I guess), including a deep look at slavery and the economic realities that lead to slavery, gambling, especially with human lives, death, the impact of humanity and industry, as well as how humans react in the face of unstoppable change.
Like it's first cousins, Soul Blazer and Terranigma, Illusion of Gaia is a save the world narrative in which you might be destroying the world as much as you might be saving it. Quintet, seems to be interested in trying to tell a more complex story than a lot of its contemporaries. They also were very good artists and all of their games have really pretty sprites. The art is certainly one of Illusion of Gaia’s strongest points.
One factor of the game is that it almost has an environmentalist message, but doesn’t. I think this is one of the factors that makes me uncomfortable with the game ( the same message in Terranigma makes me uncomfortable there as well). There is absolutely a message that humans are destroying the world and that “man’s inhumanity to man” is a driving force of that destruction. At the same time there’s a message that any amount of destruction that humans can bring to bear is nothing when compared to the destruction that the comet will bring to earth and that further the very existence of that comet drives human cruelty.
This complex message is coupled (and delivered) with the fact that you are on a mission to “save the world” but you can’t. You have no capacity to save the world and you’re told, fairly early on, that the best you can do is destroy the world in a better way than the comet will.
The story telling in the game has always made me uncomfortable, as I mentioned and the fact that the game is also quite hard (at least in some respects) redoubled that discomfort leaving me with a very conflicted opinion on this game. It’s scary, (as a kid, possibly terrifying) unsettling, and hard but also interesting and beautiful. The sprite work is some of the best on the SNES and the animation is very rich compared to almost any other game in the genre. All of that combined is why I think this is a game from my childhood that has really stuck with me.
|A self sacrificing pig|
The game also has some drawbacks, especially when replaying it as an adult. It’s very poorly translated, with a lot of errors not only in the text, but in the text attribution. It has a very confusing switch in narration between a character in the game, a character in the future telling the story and an omnipotent narrator. It’s difficult to tell if that’s a stylistic choice or a further factor of the poor translation. The game play is also a little lacking. You interact with the world by whacking it (mostly with your flute, sometimes with your sword, occasionally with your … plasma?) and there’s not too much to most of the combat or puzzles. Still having replayed it (with a great deal of nostalgia) I think it’s a game worth taking a look at for its story and its style.
If you’re interested Illusion of Gaia is also the first entry in the 16-bit Gems series by Roo at Clan of the Grey Wolf and his videos also offer an interesting view on the game.
As mentioned above, I’ll be talking about the whole of the game (and not necessarily in order) so if you’re sensitive to spoilers, here’s your warning that there will be some.
Things I Liked
The story of Illusion of Gaia is better than you might expect. It's not a literary epic, but for a video game from the mid-nineties, it's enjoyable.
It's especially good considering that it's a story that starts out with a hero suffering from amnesia (also one that's a recent orphan). The good news is that our hero's amnesia only covers the a small portion of his life, particularly the events that lead to him being an orphan. This leaves us with a hero who wants to understand what happened to him and one that wants to live up to the legacy of his parents.
Beyond being an interesting character, our hero, Will, also serves as the story's narrator. I like Will as the narrator, because he brings some colour to the story, and the narrative is inflected with the enthusiasm of a young adventurer.
The story is also more interesting than your average save-the-world plot might suggest. In particular, I don't think you're saving the world at all. Our hero and his friends are travelling the world, and doing what the need to do to investigate Will's parents’ disappearance, and then doing whatever needs to be done for the locals, but their journey doesn’t have any promise of saving the world. In fact, they’re basically promised that the world will be destroyed whatever they do, they only get control over how.
The story is also driven by the character arcs of all of our hero's friends. Each character undergoes a process of becoming more mature in at least one aspect of their lives and Will helps a lot of them, at least a little each. Lance and Lilly’s romance is a good example (where will actually has to complete some mechanics to help them), but there are more, such as Neil’s acceptance of responsibility taking over his parent’s company (the largest slave trading concern in the world) or Kira becoming more aware of the plight of people in the world.
I also think that the game’s story is very good despite the fact that it’s missing an antagonist. The comet, Dark Gaia, is technically your antagonist (also your final boss), but at the end of the day it doesn’t actually do anything to you directly. It’s coming, it will destroy the world and you can’t stop it (and you don’t really). I think as an allusion to global warming, it’s an interesting tie in. It’s happening, your only option is how to react to and mitigate it.
The other potential antagonist in the game is the Jackal, the “Bounty Hunter” that pursues you for most of the game. The drawback for the Jackal is that until the very end of the game he never appears on screen. You get references to him, he leaves his mark a few places and roughs up your grandparents, until your Grandmother fights him off with a Poisoned Marsupial Pie (I … don’t know how that works) and you get words that he’s pursuing you but you don’t actually see him. When you do see him you kill him with an automatic flute solo … so his end is a touch anticlimactic.
|Death by Flute|
So you’re primarily driven though a plot, kicked off by a comet that doesn’t really care about you, and pursued by a non-present enemy. You end up following the plot at least partially because of the “but thou must” structure of the game. It seems like a slightly stronger antagonist presence might increase the tension in the game a little and pull the story a little tighter.
The last thing I liked about the story in Illusion of Gaia’s Story is the way it address some serious issues in an adult way. It addresses slavery, gambling, suicide, selflessness, the end of the world and the question of what a person even is. Some of that gets a little submerged in the North American version of the game, but they are still present.
I actually think the slavery aspect of the game could have been used to a strengthen the story a touch. There are several NPCs including King Edward, the Vampires and the Rolex Company (Neil’s Parents) are involved with the slave trade, it would have been interesting to see these different forces interacting more alongside the rest of the story. Even then I think the game does a good job of discussing the topic.
The game also embraces some of the other uncomfortable topics. One thing that struck me is that no one knows you’re on a journey, no one cares about your journey and no one even knows that the end of the world is coming. So in towns you get the feeling that the world doesn’t care at all about you. This may not be unusual for SNES games, but I feel like Illusion of Gaia steering into that a bit.
While I think the story is the best part of the game, the art, music and game design are also really good.
The art is very detailed and well animated, especially when it goes to the playable sprites. The game is actually able to use different animations in Will’s hair to indicate the solution to certain puzzles, which I think is a good thing. Other sprites might not be as detailed, but hey are always bright, interesting and evocative of the different cultures that inspired the game’s dungeons. I also absolutely love the fantasy world map and the way you move across it. I spend a lot of time as a kid imagining how cool all of the places in that world had to be.
|A pretty game - From GameFaqs user Shotgunnova|
The music has that SNES RPG quality to it, so it’s good (like I’d tell you anything else). That being said, I really do like the music. It’s very bold and like the art, very evocative of the cultures the game is based on and very evocative of the different emotions that the characters (or you the player) are feeling. The title music and the game select screen music both touch my nostalgia strongly and a lot of the other music is very good at making the hair stand up on my arms and making me want to smash things with my flute. The game also uses a couple of very pure flute melodies as tools within the game and those melodies have stuck with me ever since I first played this game.
The last thing that I really liked is level design. While the combat is a touch uninspired, the combat levels themselves are very well created. They have a lot of verticality to them, which is reinforced by the design choice to let you see lower levels of the dungeon from higher levels. Beyond that each dungeon (and actually most of the towns too) is developed to be a unique experience and give you new and interesting things to do each place you go.
They also do a good job of using the three protagonist characters (Will, Freedan and Shadow). Levels often involve needing to switch between the three, especially later in the game, which requires you to revisit parts of the level and interact with them in ways that you haven’t before. As a kid it was also really cool to be able to switch from little kid Will to giant, awesome Knight Freedan and then cosmically powerful Shadow.
Things I Didn’t Like
As I mentioned some of the production values of the game are a little low. The translation is one of the leading problems and if the story wasn’t as good as it is, it might have totally broken the game. Fortunately that isn’t the case, but I do think to really enjoy the game you have to take a step back from the literal text on the screen.
The other big place where I think the game really falls down is the special item collection to play the optional special boss at the end of the game. The gems are used through the game to give you rewards and some extra powers, but to get the secret boss, you have to get all of them.
The problem is that the gems are missable at certain points and some of them have random positions. If you didn’t know you were looking for them you wouldn’t find them all. Sadly this means that you can’t really play the game intending to get that secret boss, without a guide and if you didn’t have a guide you might not ever know that there was a secret, due to the random positioning. You can tell that the game’s designers (or at least the North American localization team) knew this was a problem because the game’s manual includes that full guide.
Finally, I don’t like the way the game balanced. In general the minions throughout the level are not that hard, but the bosses tend to be much harder. Particularly the first boss Casoth and late game Mummy Queen . Now, as usual I’m happy to accept that I ought to “git gud” but I still feel like the difficulty the present is very uneven.
|Castor - my mortal nemesis - From GameFaqs User The Mighty KELP|
Things I Noticed
Illusion of Gaia is quite short and linear but as John Friscia points out in his article, it’s a game with no filler. While even compared to Terranigma and Soul Blazer it has even fewer moments of choice for the player, I don’t think that’s as much of a detriment as it might be. I think the linearity lets the story telling of the game stand more strongly.
In every game there’s a struggle between how much story the creators want to tell and how much story they want to let the players tell. Illusion of Gaia sits very definitely on the creator’s story side of the equation (you can suggest Lance impress Lilly with a necklace, flowers or a kiss, but in the end he’ll do all three). In order for that to work, you have to tell an interesting enough story for the player to keep playing (reading) and you have to ensure that the gameplay is fun (or compelling) enough that it’s worth it for the player to keep playing along with the story. I think Illusion of Gaia manages this and the shorter length of the game means that you’re never doing anything that isn’t a beat of the story.
Things I’d Include in a Game
For Illusion of Gaia, this section fell into two questions for me: How do you push this game to be better? and What can you take from it to strengthen another game?
The answer to that first question, I think is mostly focused in the quality of translation. I think if you could retranslate the game and simultaneously avoid Nintendo’s very strict rules of the 90s you could tell the same story more clearly and reinforce the interesting points such as the discussion of slavery or gambling.
|A menace we should have fought more - From GameFaqs User The Mighty KELP|
The other factor would be to make the story slightly tighter around the threats to you. I mentioned earlier that there’s no real antagonist to the game. I’m not sure that you need someone chasing you (more directly) or someone pulling strings against you, but a plot that ties the different evils of man together as a counterpoint to the greater evil of the comet might really give the story that little bit of oomph it needs. Or, it might make it melodramatic and over the top and cheesy.
On the other hand, there’s the question of what to take from this game. The first answer I have to that is the art. Illusion of Gaia is (part of) the reason why I hated so many games visually in the 3D era. Don’t try to squeeze in an extra few polygons, squeeze in hundreds of more beautiful sprites! I know it takes a long time and a lot of work but I really think the beauty of the SNES pixel art is not to be forgotten.
Next I think I’d take the level design and especially how they use verticality to show you other parts of the world before you get there and I think the level of attention to detail in the levels (as with the art) is also very important.
At the end of the day I don’t usually spend this much time thinking about games I don’t like. So you shouldn’t be surprised when I say that I think it’s worth playing Illusion of Gaia. I think it’s an interesting example of storytelling in games and I think it’s lot of fun to play. I also think it’s a beautiful game and a great example of why my nostalgia for the SNES is as strong as it is.
I think there’s a lot of space in games for different types of games. Games that are all about how you feel when you play and games that are all about the story you make as you play and games that are all about the story that you get to see as you play. It’s nice that we have that flexibility and I’m really happy to support Illusion of Gaia as one example of a great story that you get to experience while you enjoy smacking floating heads and giant mud men with your flute (that’s not a euphemism if you haven’t played the game by the way, Will really does fight everything with a flute).
Also you should have pie. Like, a few times a month, pie is good, but more to the point I can’t think of another game that celebrates pie this much, nor uses it as a weapon. So seriously when you sit down to play this game, make sure you have some good pie on hand. Grandma Lola would be pleased to know you cared.