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Small notes on Phantasy Star Online’s themes and presentation (spoilers included)

The foggy gloom of Ragol’s Caves lifts up for a bit when you find rainbows further below its corridors. The presence of ferocious creatures does little to take away from the moment; even plagued by a disease at its core, the planet still gives glimpses of its wonder and beauty, and other such elements punctuate and give meaning to its otherwise long and minimalist depths.

Phantasy Star Online was Yuji Naka and Sonic Team’s desperate attempt to prove the breadth and potential of the Dreamcast’s online service to a market largely unaccustomed to such games. This period also marked what some believe to have been Sega’s most creative period before they left console development behind. This is true, to an extent.

On one hand, there was Jet Set Radio; if the industry had payed attention, Assassin’s Creed might have been about spreading urban zen with Grandmaster Flash’s blessing rather than knives to someone’s back. On the other, there was Shenmue, perhaps videogames’ first equivalent to a Hollywood “blockbuster” about sailors, cat grooming and forklift driving; if the industry had not payed attention, Heavy Rain might have been more interactive than Space Ace. And then there were things beyond the reach of most western players, both geographically and culturally, such as SegaGaga, better described as a mockumentary by Sega, about Sega.

The first contact with PSO was made of futurism, though one that kept its head down. As with the 16-bit series that preceded it, the science-fantasy tones were uneven. While Pioneer 2, the game’s hub, seemed a Blade Runneresque microcosm, and advanced technology did seep into the overall presentation and themes, it was comfortably medieval fantasy through and through, only one coated in neon. Thematically, even: genetic engineering and government conspiracies took place in a world where it was possible to destroy a god with a frying pan. If this seems unsophisticated, take heart – you could also use a wok.

Yet, Ragol had detail etched into its polygons. The opening Forest is an example as good as any – idyllic, from the unassuming blue skies above to its streams and verdant knolls. Further on, cavernous depths, industrial mines and immense ruins revealed their own flourishes, with creatures that never failed to surprise. Lilies cackled with glee whenever their poisonous spit found a target, friend or foe. Giant praying mantises screeched as they were slain, dozens of miniature versions of them scurrying from their body. A howl from savage wolves indicated the loss of their pack leader, and their defense and attack would lower accordingly. Grotesque, siamese twins erupted from the ground, later separating to attack as two distinct individuals; when one died, the other would stop and look at its other half with sorrow.

“Sorrow” might be a misnomer, though. For all its color, it was a game of discrete impact, more implicit than explicit. Sonic Team knew the Dreamcast’s limits, as well as their own, and never tried to convey much emotion with their technology. Released only two years after Half-Life, it shows, if not understanding, then the same hurdles that must have plagued Valve. The only visible equipment on characters were weapons, and these remained largely similar; only players could tell if what they held in their hands was an Autogun or a Lockgun. A large degree of customization may have been absent, but each character class – Hunter, Ranger and Force – was recognizable on sight, giving players a clear idea of who they’d want to join their party. This also helped combat to a degree: many enemies were mere palette swaps but since colors were often linked to their weaknesses, action flowed faster. It was easy to bemoan the absence of a turn-based model in PSO, but reducing Ragol’s encounters with its vibrant fauna to menu choices would strip combat of the attention, adaptation and immediate response it required.

More than ten years after its original release, other examples are easier to agree on. One, perhaps PSO’s feature with a larger design legacy, was its translingual system, with the use and creation of emotes to express intent. As not many players had access to a keyboard, Sega devised a system that let people from all over the world, regardless of nationality or language, to communicate under a unified language. For all the advantages of voice chat for coordination in online games (see: Counter-Strike), one could do without all the racist or homophobic comments from 12-year-olds (see also: Xbox Live).

While characters were mute, choosing text over sound to suggest personality, the soundtrack had no problems announcing its presence. Here, too, could be felt the extra mile Sonic Team went to make Ragol an inviting place. Going from a two dimensional presentation to a fully 3D one has its quirks; one being that, if both exploration and combat could, and would, happen simultaneously, there was no longer a need to have separate musical arrangements for each. Because of this, each main area of PSO has two tracks running concurrently, one played as the player explores surroundings and another triggered when combat takes place; when all enemies are defeated, the previous one kicks back in. The resulting effect, while not always seamless, sounded as if the score actually reflected the player’s journey rather than being predetermined. As the context changed – from introspective to wary, from ambient to oppressive, from mournful to urgent – so did the music.

However, one aspect of PSO that was largely criticized, was its story; or, in the words of many a “phan” (a term used by fans of Phantasy Star), the lack of one. This is not far from the truth, although it largely overlooked the construction and presentation of one of its characters – who just happened to be, unlike the player, the real hero.

Or rather, heroine.

Red Ring Rico was a scientist and a Hunter, working on Ragol when the planet is shook by an explosion that triggers the main “raison d’etre” of the adventure. The game does nothing, from the outset, to establish her presence or importance as was expected of japanese role-playing games at the time. It’s only through several unusual vignettes that Rico is made known. Chief among them is the reluctance of Principal Tyrell, and his assistant Irene, in asking players to find her. Other than the reconnaissance of Ragol after the mysterious explosion, both seemed to have something else in mind, though this would not be verbalized until some time later. Nevertheless, several characters aboard Pioneer 2 mentioned Rico, reflecting on how the people looked for inspiration in her heroics.

It was only when players traveled across Ragol that they met her, though never directly. Instead of a physical presence, they’d find several recordings left behind during Rico’s journey. These messages established her identity, unraveled the events behind the explosion and of the planet’s deadly secret, and served as a continuous and unobtrusive tutorial, but their most important function was how they gradually required something very personal from the player – that they abandoned the idea of being the hero of the game.

Most games want to be nothing else than power fantasies. That is, they invite players to leave their lives and become heroes, to solve the most intricate problems, to save worlds. Role-playing games are no different, even if they are a lie (escapism) built upon another lie (the abstraction of numbers as a measure of progress). Rico worked as a reversal of that idea. With no means of personal expression or decision making over the course of the story, at least other than following the trail of crumb breads she left, the new paths, doubts and truths that emerged from Ragol happened regardless of the player. Numbers increased, equipment came and went, old enemies gave way to new ones, but the only constant was that wherever players went, Rico had been there before. The feeling is not entirely dissimilar to a Super Mario Bros. hack called Super Luigi Bros., where its author only allows players to play as Luigi – traditionally, the second player in Nintendo’s 8-bit game – in a word where the first player had already done everything. In everything, players were false protagonists: a red herring.

Rico could be seen as a character trapped in a certain melancholy, a painful relationship with the space around her. Not merely in the geographical sense – her quest for answers takes her through increasingly labyrinthine and removed from civilization places, true – but also in the psychological one. An inhabitant of Pioneer 2 expresses his desire to have Rico’s courage and how she was a heroine; yet, in several messages, she questions the public perception around her, asking herself if she should “act like a scientist or a Hunter” and claiming she’s no heroine, just someone in the unique position to correspond to people’s hopes. Not only is this a good way to deconstruct the role of the hero in videogame media, it’s also an example of how a virtual world manages to capture a spark of life: with humanity.

The Phantasy Star series has always been rife with tragedy, and the backbone of its tales was often built upon sacrifice – women, such as Nei (Phantasy Star) and Alys (Phantasy Star IV), not only preceded Final Fantasy VII‘s Aeris, but were the main agents of change in their respective worlds. Rico’s ultimate fate was no different nor less tragic, becoming the vessel through which Dark Falz, a millennial manifestation of evil present in other chapters of the series, was reborn. Here too lies another positive argument for how PSO treated its themes – it was not the player’s character, traditionally handled as an über entity in other games of the genre, whom Falz chose. One of Rico’s logs clearly states “only the best animal is chosen” – and it was her, not our character, no matter how many numbers used to describe power, who was “honored” with the distinction of being a vessel.

Further, Rico and Falz were two sides of the same coin. Each was portrayed as having a burning desire to achieve their goals, and nothing would prevent them from doing so. Rico needed Falz’s “power” (answers to her questions) as much as the dark entity needed her “power” (her body would ensure his rebirth). It’s this conflict and dependency that, while largely glossed over at the time, made it stand well above other games. Its mechanics may have been borrowed from Diablo, but it shared the same uneasy and symbiotic relationship between hero and antagonist expressed in games such as System Shock 2, Bioshock and Portal – games that, like PSO, are also of discrete impact, more implicit than explicit, right down to how their stories are passed along to players.

To this day, there is still a good deal of detail to observe and discover in PSO. Like how Sonic Team chose to model Section IDs – a term describing how every character would receive a title that would influence their chances of receiving rare items – on rainbow colors, or how its strange alphabet made recurring appearances throughout the world, further deepening the mystery surrounding Ragol. Yet, time wouldn’t be very kind to it. Conceptually endless as an online game, mechanically stillborn as an RPG, PSO was eventually compromised by Sonic Team’s tendency for half-finished projects. The game would receive several revisions and facelifts over the years, remaining a perennial work in progress.

Phantasy Star Online v.2 was testament to this. While its structure remained largely the same, it was the new difficulty mode, titled Ultimate, that can be considered its most radical departure from norm, insofar as presentation was concerned. In Ultimate, Ragol became a nightmare version of its former self. The Forest’s blue skies were replaced with an autumnal sunset haze, while the Caves lost some of their dank mystery to become infected catacombs. The offbeat, if overly bright, technology of the Mines was reworked with darkened corridors painted with sleek, sickly green lines, taking on the feel of a corrupted, Tron-like virtual world. So too the enemies throbbed with new-found vitality and expression. The undulating, sneaky lilies in the Caves became deadly snipers, instantly killing anyone unfortunate to be in their line of sight, while the humanoid sharks of the Caves were replaced with overgrown moles, the brash color of their claws outlining their aggressiveness, to name but a few examples.

Unfortunately, while the concept was never fully capitalized upon by Sega, the name was. Phantasy Star Universe became a charmless, empty spectacle, seemingly made to resonate with accountants who believe Excel spreadsheets need to talk about “feelings” to the rhythm of japanese pop music and with dialogue so rehearsed and polished as to virtually lose all its meaning. PSO’s seed was not forgotten, however, and its influence is most visible in Capcom’s Monster Hunter series, which looked at Sega’s game and did the sensible thing, stripping it of abused (and abusive) conventions, creating a far more malleable and admirable virtual space.

A decade later, there are better role-playing games, even better known online games. But like Phantasy Star Online, however, there is none.

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