What’s the best way to look at the biggest show on television at the moment? Through a 20 year old video game, of course, writes Sam Brooks.
This post contains spoilers for Suikoden II, which you absolutely don’t care about. This post contains no spoilers for Game of Thrones, which you absolutely do care about.
The very first thing that happens in Suikoden II is a sign of the brutality to come. You play as Riou, who has joined the Unicorn Brigade of the Highland Army with his best friend, Jowy. You chat for a bit, and then go to sleep. Immediately, you’re woken up by a sudden attack from the enemy army. As you flee, you run into Luca Blight, the Prince of Highland, and you find out that the attack is not actually from your enemy, the City-State, but by Highland itself. Highland massacred their own troops – their youth brigade, no less – in order to violate a peace treaty and go to war!
This happens in the first ten minutes of the game. Also? The game looks like this:
In the following 30 hours of Suikoden II, Luca Blight will burn down villages, torture helpless civilians, threaten to kill an infant, poison his father and execute people at will, until finally being brought down in a hail of arrows, whereupon he declares himself to be the true face of evil. Our protagonist will also nearly be executed himself, be betrayed by his best friend in the world, witness his sister get shot down in a rain of arrows, participate in a cook-off where half the participants ritual suicide, and watch many, many people die.
It has a similar depiction of brutality as a little show about incestuous dragons: Game of Thrones.
It’s not just the brutality that makes it similar to Game of Thrones. There’s a huge scale and incredibly detailed lore to Suikoden; even by the second game there were so many crossovers of characters and narrative that it played less as a sequel to the first game and more like its second half. There are many, many characters. There are massacres. There is war. There is betrayal. There are even dragons!
For me, the main difference between the two works, other than the fact that you’ve heard of one of these things and definitely do not care about the other, is that I find one of them compelling as all hell and the other one to be extremely offputting.
The Suikoden series, which I’ve written about before, is maybe my favourite video game series. Based on Water Margin, which is my second favourite 14th century Chinese novel, these games tell the stories of evil empires, wearied resistances, and wars brutal and bloody. Beloved characters die, and even more beloved characters betray you. They are emotional rollercoasters, and I have ridden on them many times. I recently replayed Suikoden II, dusting off and dragging out my PS3 for the honour, because that’s the most recent console that it’s available on, and found myself enjoying it as much as I did when I played it as an incredibly dorky thirteen year old who loved Chinese literature.
On the other hand, I stopped watching Game of Thrones about two seasons in, and I stopped reading the books at around the same point. It’s not that I thought the show was bad, or the books were poorly written, and I didn’t do it from a place of faux-moral superiority or artistic smugness. I did it because both show and books made me genuinely miserable. The show seemed to revel in its own darkness, like the kid who read Nietzsche in year 11 and suddenly thought he understood the world so much better than you, a sheep-person. Some people love that kid, and I support people loving that kid. I did not love that kid. Similarly, if you love Game of Thrones, I support your love. Love put into the world is good, but my love goes a different direction.
Even more offputting to me was the downward trajectory of the show; things were going badly, to put it mildly, for the characters I had developed emotional connections to, and they were never going to get better. There is no way for Game of Thrones to have a happy ending, which is not to say that it’s not going to have a satisfying one, necessarily, but I’m not sure if there’s any way for it to pay off the time and feeling I’ve invested in it in a way that satisfies me.
The sticking point here for me is not the content of these stories, nor even in the delivery. Although brutality is a lot easier to stomach when you’re watching 16-bit sprites than it is in gorgeous, underlit HD. The sticking point here is in the destination of these stories – the ending.
The big point of difference that sets Suikoden apart from other RPGs, other than the incredibly detailed world-building and series-long narrative, is that each game requires that you recruit 108 characters in order to get the best ending. These 108 characters relate to the 108 Stars of Destiny lined out in the Water Margin, but I’m not going to go into that because if there’s something people care about less than 20-year-old video games, it’s 600-year-old Chinese novels.
Near the end of Suikoden II, your sister Nanami comes with you to raid Rockaxe Castle. She insists on it, in fact. She’s always been against the war, and very much against her brother being the leader of what will eventually become the New City-State. Nevertheless, she fights because she loves her brother. After a series of tough battles, you get to the top of the castle and run into your best friend, Jowy. Jowy is now, through convoluted means, the King of Highland. She begs the two of you to stop fighting, upon which you are all ambushed by archers. She deflects a few arrows, but is ultimately felled.
Her ‘dying’ wish? For you to call her big sister. I cried when I first played this when I was 13, because I was an incredibly sensitive preteen in the throes of pubescent hormones and inexplicable emotions. I cried when I played it this weekend because I’d had a few wines and I understood Nanami, man.
Anyway, she gets taken back to your castle and seen to by the doctor, who tells you that she has passed away from her injuries. In the next two or so hours of gameplay, you destroy the Kingdom of Highland and go and have a duel with your best friend. You defend to a draw – don’t ask – and shock and horror! Nanami didn’t die after all, she just went away so you could fight the rest of the war without distraction.
Let’s put aside the extreme gaslighting of your only family member for a moment and the huge emotional ramifications that would have on the rest of your life. Let’s instead focus on the ending: It turns a bittersweet ending into a truly happy one. Your sister is alive, you’re reunited with your best friend, and the three of you go off traveling, all travails and war forgotten.
But! This only happens if you recruited all 108 characters, which is incredibly difficult and time-consuming. It requires you to look into every nook and cranny of the world, talking to nearly every person, buying seemingly random things from stores, and doing things that no human would intuitively do. It’s not always pleasant, but it makes you feel like you earned it.
You get to reap the spoils of this as well. You see these 108 characters populating your castle, and they provide a range of services. Some let you buy armour, some let you store your items, some give you a bath, and the best character you recruit gives you access to a bizarrely in-depth cook-off side-quest with a similarly bizarre level of ritual suicide.
Game of Thrones is not going to have a happy ending. It’s also probably not going to have a cook-off!
I don’t know this for sure. I’m not privy to spoilers or even a list of character names, but I’ve been paying vague amounts of attention to pop culture so I can tell that Game of Thrones‘ season-long ending will involve a lot of death, a lot of shocked emojis and more incest than I, as a human being, am comfortable with. No matter how hard I work – and in this context, work is just putting aside 90 minutes a week to watch the damn thing – it’s not going to make me happy at the end of it.
It doesn’t make me a better person, than you, a Game of Thrones fan. I’m the guy who spent 40 hours of his life playing a 20-year-old video game. I have no ledge from which to judge you. But it illuminates something that I think Suikoden has that Game of Thrones doesn’t have in its heart. It has a bit of hope – that through the power of friendship, literally 108 people’s worth of friendship – you can turn your sad, wartorn story into a happy ending.
That’s the kind of art that I enjoy, that I want to give my time to. Art that doesn’t necessarily promise a happy ending but lets you work for it – ideally how I’d like my life to turn out. It’s aspirational, it makes me feel better, and best of all it means I don’t have to look at Lena Headey’s terrible wig.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.