Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), professor, author, and lecturer was made famous for his study and interpretation of world mythology. Drawing upon the psychoanalysis of psychologists like Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, Campbell wrote that "myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation." In other words, mythology was the universal blanket that swaddled the infancy of human civilization.
Quoted is from the opening page of Campbell's most well-known work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. First published in 1949, the text traces the singular, shared journey of heroes across all the world's myths and legends from Arthur to Zeus. This volume has influenced many since its publication, most notably George Lucas, who used the book's structure as a template when first conceptualizing the Star Wars saga.
This structure of the hero's journey is referred to by Campbell as the monomyth. The monomyth begins with the hero being called away from the everyday, mortal world into alien depths wherein a magical item lies - be it an elixir of life or arcane knowledge - that will exalt the hero and benefit his community. Surmounting innumerable challenges to reach this boon, the hero will have become a god-like figure upon his return to the human realm. In Campbell's words, this signifies that "the hero has become...more than man."
Such is the tale of Ashley Riot, hero of the former Square's 2000 PlayStation release Vagrant Story. Produced and directed by Yasumi Matsuno, responsible for the tactical simulations Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen, Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together, and Final Fantasy Tactics, Vagrant Story follows Ashley, an exemplary agent of the Valendia Knights of the Peace's (VKP) Riskbreaker militia, as the Valendian countryside is thrust into turmoil by the siege of regional lord Bardorba's manor. Sent by the VKP to quell the siege, Ashley instead finds his guide into the unknown: Sydney Losstarot, an emaciated and effeminate man with mysterious tattoo on his back. Before disappearing behind a veil of magic, Sydney bids Ashley come to Leá Monde, a ruined city on Valendia's outskirts once famous for wine.
Ashley finds his ordinary human world to be only one truth as he enters the dead city. Wandering wistfully through the walls of Leá Monde's worn wine cellars and withered walkways, Ashley unravels a plot focusing on Sydney's mastery over a power called "the Dark" and the pursuit of a tome called the "Gran Grimoire" by a charismatic and cunning man named Guildenstern and his gaggle of subordinates. To bear no spoilers, by its conclusion the story has found itself successfully parallel with the monomyth.
Vagrant Story's characters are defined by distinctive design and exquisite exposition. Character models were designed by Akihiko Yoshida, character designer of Matsuno's own Ogre series and Final Fantasy Tactics. Despite the characters being rendered with a darker, earthier palette, they remain distinct without being gaudy. The characters speak through the oft lauded localization by Alexander O. Smith. Smith calls the circumstances surrounding the project "sheer luck": not only was he not originally assigned to the project, he was then helped by Editor Rich Amtower who carries a masters in Middle English, which added greatly to the profundity of Vagrant Story's vernacular. This combination gives the characters depth of aesthetic and memorable dispositions: for example, Samantha, Guildenstern's lover, is dressed reminiscent of a schoolgirl, supporting her more naive dialogue.
Ashley searches for the serene and hidden truth.
The conventional approach to interpreting Vagrant Story's monomyth would begin and end with its story and characters, as humans have grown accustomed to with drama-driven mediums like film and literature. In that sense, story and characters are the 'familiar world,' and the aspect that makes Vagrant Story a video game - its gameplay - makes up the 'unknown world.' While Vagrant Story's narrative alone runs measure for measure with The Hero with a Thousand Faces, its interactivity also suggests the monomyth.
The beckoning of the hero away from his familiar world Campbell termed the Call to Adventure. Ashley gets the call when he is bound to pursue Sydney to Leá Monde. However, the player's call comes with an introduction to the basics of Vagrant Story's gameplay, which is a unique mix of tactical strategy and real-time interaction. Even director Matsuno himself noted Vagrant Story's genre as "difficult to classify" and best described it as a "new simulation role-playing game."
From the game's outset, Ashley can run, jump, and manipulate crates and cubes - basic abilities designed to enable him to traverse the 3D platforming and puzzle elements that make up Leá Monde. He is outfitted with simply a sword and basic armor - no frills here. Ashley is capable of a single attack able to target the various limbs of his opponents - as his opposition can reciprocate. For both Ashley and his enemies, critical damage dealt to a limb will logically cause specific adverse effects, such as restricted movement for wounded legs. Up to and upon entrance to Leá Monde, Ashley Riot is a human at his most mortal.
Accepting the call, the hero must step beyond the familiar and into the spirit world. Foraying into the wine cellars of Leá Monde, Ashley is at first hounded by bats and wolves. One step beyond these ordinary beasts he finds Leá Monde's doorstep blocked by something more unreal - the Minotaur. Campbell calls this type of monster the Threshold Guardian. This otherworldly beast signifies that Ashley is no longer in a realm of mortals; rather, he is knocking on the door leading from earth to hell.
The Minotaur is also the guardian of more than just the rest of Leá Monde - in gameplay terms, it guards considerable player skills. Upon defeat, the Minotaur drops the first of the grimoires that allow Ashley to use magic of the standard healing, offensive, and supportive variety. And after a subsequent lecture from Sydney, Ashley is able to pull from the wellspring of "the Dark" and augment his battle prowess over the course of the journey - representing the monomyth's Supernatural Aid: the hero's unique, almost divine abilities. Ashley's once simple offense can now chain attacks - enabling technically limitless combos via rhythmic button presses. This concept also applies to defense; with the same timed presses, Ashley can lessen damage or reflect it back to enemies, among other abilities. Both battle and defense abilities come at a cost - they slowly fill up Ashley's Risk meter. The higher his Risk, the lower his accuracy but the higher chance he and his opponents will land critical blows. The Dark allows one more offensive option: break arts, destructive weapon-specific abilities that cost HP rather than Risk.
Having passed the threshold into the realm of devils, the hero finds himself "swallowed into the unknown." Here the hero must come to terms with "self-annihilationÃ¢â‚¬Â - the invalidation of his knowledge from the mortal world. Campbell calls this segment of the journey the Belly of the Whale, and in Vagrant Story, Leá Monde herself plays this part, serving as both labyrinth and character.
Vagrant Story is one of the PlayStation's most graphically impressive titles.
Leá Monde's atmospheric and ambient aesthetics are the root of her personality and serve some of the most impressive 3D graphics of the 32-bit generation. At first Ashley is surrounded by claustrophobic corridors complemented by the unearthly; reptilians and revenants roam catacombs rendered in dank and dead colors to the sound of ghoulish groans and screams of torment. To contrast, when Ashley reaches the decaying aboveground residences of Leá Monde he finds only the human soldiers of Guildenstern amongst green trees and ivy, to the tune of chirping birds and soothing flow of cascading water. The development team based Leá Monde on the historic French town of Saint-Emilion, where centuries old structures are positioned quite naturally within one of France's most prominent wine regions. According to Vagrant Story's art director Hiroshi Minagawa much time was spent "making the screen composition a work of art." While some of the environments do get repetitive, they nonetheless succeed in showing the disparity between the surface and the underworld, giving Leá Monde a two-faced character.
Leá Monde's walls are supported by one more striking feature: music. Hitoshi Sakimoto reprises his role as Matsuno's composer, scoring the Ogre series, Final Fantasy Tactics, and of course more recently Final Fantasy XII. A mix of his trademark orchestral flair and a darker, cavernous sound, Sakimoto's score for Vagrant Story still stands as his finest to date. Sounds of intrigue harmonize with film-like resonance in cutscenes, tension in boss battles is heightened with fast-paced melodies, and environments both peaceful and subterranean are expounded with echoing ambience. Put simply, Sakimoto's composition is the wedge of Brie to the game's glass of Merlot; it enhances Leá Monde in the most complementary way.
According to Campbell: "having traversed the threshold, the hero moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trials." This is the Road of Trials, where the hero surpasses a series of "tests and ordeals." The trials within Leá Monde's belly are tied to its biggest criticism: the game's system of class, affinity, and type. Vagrant Story has six types of enemies: Human, Beast, Undead, Phantom, Dragon, and Evil. There are also seven elemental affinities: Physical, Air, Fire, Earth, Water, Light, and Dark. Finally, blades come in three types: Blunt, Edged, and Piercing. Each piece of equipment Ashley finds, be it weapon or armor, can have attributes of any of these. Attributes of class and affinity increase with use, while a weapon's type is determined by its interchangeable grip. Supporting this, Ashley can attach gems to both weapons' grips and also to shields, providing a quick but small effect to class and affinity. An ordeal of understanding, indeed.
For his equipment to be most effective, Ashley will need a proper balance of these attributes. For example, to execute maximum damage to one of Leá Monde's many elemental phantoms, Ashley's weapon needs phantom class experience, affinity in the phantom's opposite element, and the appropriate armor-piercing weapon type. This does not mean all three attributes must be simultaneously congruous but the bevy of statistics will likely frustrate newcomers as they struggle to understand why attacks deal zero to minimal damage. Study of an enemy's weaknesses through a quick trip to the status screen will make battles go down as smoothly as a glass of cabernet sauvignon.
To help ease this burden of numbers, Leá Monde has many workshops scattered within her. In these factories, Ashley can repair gear as tarnished as Leá Monde herself or combine weapons and armor, forging new, more powerful equipment that carries over class and affinity. Forging weapons and armor is one of Vagrant Story's deepest aspects; hundreds upon hundreds of combinations are possible.
Merlose witnesses the legendary line.
Worn and weary, the hero has overcome the trials, obtained the elixir of knowledge, and returned to earth as a man-god; whether Ashley does is in the player's hands. Campbell noted the concept of The Return as the final stage of the monomyth - the journey from the land of magic back into the plane of reality. One could consider Vagrant Story having multiple returns; firstly, the game offers a 'New Game +' allowing Ashley access to previously inaccessible areas of Leá Monde in addition to retaining equipment and stats. Secondly, it was revealed retroactively that Vagrant Story's country of Valendia played home to Final Fantasy XII's evil Archadian Empire - placing Vagrant Story in the realm of Ivalice seen in both Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy XII.
But lastly and most importantly, what of the return of our hero Agent Riot himself? From the outset of the game's development, Matsuno saw Vagrant Story as the "independent film" to Final Fantasy's "summer blockbuster." He may have sealed the game's fate with that quote: estimates put the game at 100,000 copies sold in its first month in North America. Hardly a flop but hardly a hit, it nonetheless has kept mum the topic of Ashley Riot's homecoming; after all, the game was a product made for the ultimate 'return' - profit. Vagrant Story is likely to remain a vintage of its year.
Joseph Campbell died on October 31st, 1987 - scant weeks before Square launched in Japan the final fantasy that forever changed its fortunes, allowing production of Vagrant Story years later. It's impossible to surmise what Campbell would say about the role of the hero within a video game's interactive space but nonetheless the universality of his scholarship allows for its reinterpretation through more contemporary forms. So as Campbell scribes in the epilogue of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, "there is no final system for the interpretation of myths, and there will never be any such thing."
The cycle begins anew.
Game Club 199X Episode 4 Our podcast about the experience of playing Vagrant Story.
The Joseph Campbell Foundation More info about Campbell and The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
The Gaming Intelligence Agency Andrew Vestal's seminal review.
Localization Tactics: A Conversation with Alexander O. Smith Wonderful interview with Alexander O. Smith by Squarehaven.com's Jeriaska.
Vagrantstory.com Archived site with insightful developer commentary.
Thanks to Ed Lopez, Nick Marinelli, and Mark Cecil for proofreading and keeping me sane and to Mr MAGFest for helping me format and capture screenshots.
Dedicated to Sonya Bleakley, "the totality of everything I know."
The hero, Ashley Riot.
The Dark breeds monsters of myth and legend.
Deft use of archaic English renders characters round and interesting.
Ashley displays his range of attack and choice of limbs.
The underbelly of Leá Monde envelops Ashley in darkness.
Ashley and Guildenstern share a tender moment of foreshadowing.
The Minotaur stands between Ashley and Leá Monde.
The serenity of Leá Monde's once thriving residential centers.
Leá Monde's wine culture features prominently.
Ashley's opposition comes in all shapes and sizes.
Saint-Émilion is evoked in Leá Monde's sun-stained structures.
Keeping up with affinities is the key to success.
Break Arts have devasting effects.