An Unavoidable Tragedy

We see a lot of comedy in games these days — it’s something which a number of creators in particular have proven themselves to be particularly good at — but not much in the way of tragedy.

Oh, sure, we have sad scenes that are designed to milk a few tears from those with less-than-stellar emotional constitutions (like me) but very few games that truly explore tragedy in the Shakespearean — or more accurately Aristotlean — sense. That is to say, very few games that have the balls to present a main character that is tragically flawed, makes mistakes and undergoes a significant reversal of fortune — either from good to bad, or bad to good.

The last place I expected to find an example of tragedy like this was in a game from Nippon Ichi Software, a company best-known for somewhat more light-hearted titles, but here we have The Witch and the Hundred Knight, a game that is a significant departure for the Disgaea developers in more ways than one.

And oh, you will work hard for her.
And oh, you will work hard for her.

For the uninitiated, The Witch and the Hundred Knight casts you in the role not of the titular witch Metallia, but that of her magical servant the Hundred Knight. The Hundred Knight is known in mythology to be some sort of terrible, demonic beast capable of obliterating everything in its path, so Metallia is unsurprisingly disappointed when the Hundred Knight she summons is a small, somewhat pathetic-looking creature with oversized hands and the inability to speak beyond basic expressions of affirmation, denial and questioning.

One can’t help but wonder if the choice of “Medea” as the name for the game’s setting was a deliberate one intended to foreshadow the forthcoming tragedy.

After getting over her initial shock, Metallia forges a contract with the Hundred Knight by taking its name from it — the name you enter at the beginning of the game — and tasks it with “blooming the pillars” scattered around the land of Medea. Metallia, being the Swamp Witch, is confined to her swamp for the most part; if she strays too far from the swamp, she becomes very weak after a while and has to return home. The pillars, she claims, are filled with swamp mud, and by spreading the swamp mud around the land she’ll eventually be able to move around freely and dominate the people of Medea. (One can’t help but wonder if the choice of “Medea” as the name for the game’s setting was a deliberate one intended to foreshadow the forthcoming tragedy and its themes of vengeance and love.)

Early-game Metallia does not forgive and forget easily.
Early-game Metallia does not forgive and forget easily.

Metallia is set up in the early hours of the game to be both a powerful witch and a thoroughly unpleasant person — not a good combination. An early part of the story deals with the conflict between her and the forest witch Malia — a conflict which we’re led to believe has been raging for about a century or so, since witches deal with time somewhat differently to the rest of us. Thanks to the addition of the Hundred Knight to her magical arsenal, Metallia eventually gets the upper hand on Malia, knocking her to the ground, ordering the Hundred Knight to inflict a frankly unnecessary amount of violence on her even after she’s defeated, cursing her with the form of a mouse and setting several horny male mice after her. In a later scene, we see the Hundred Knight forced to eat a mouse which Metallia’s servant Arlecchino claimed to find out in the fields being pursued by a group of male mice, leading us to believe that Metallia has finally found a way to obliterate Malia from existence once and for all. It later, however, transpires that this latter mouse was not Malia at all.

Metallia is gradually humanised by the people she comes into contact with through the Hundred Knight’s adventures.

As the game progresses, Metallia is gradually humanised by the people she comes into contact with through the Hundred Knight’s adventures. Using her witch’s “third eye”, she can effectively ride along with the Hundred Knight as it explores the land in its attempts to bloom the pillars, and through doing this she comes to better understand the people of the world — people whom she has had very limited contact with in the past. Eventually, a chance encounter with the kingdom of Amataya’s inquisitor princess Viscole — a young woman who was cursed by an unknown witch to take on the partial form of a dog — gradually leads Metallia to understand the nature of close human relationships.

A rocky start to a troubled friendship.
A rocky start to a troubled friendship.

Metallia and Viscole’s relationship is initially troubled. Beginning with Metallia taking her prisoner, cursing her to become extraordinarily sized and tying her up naked in her swamp, the two gradually come to develop a deeper interest in one another. Viscole, fascinated with the witch’s abrasive personality and seemingly limitless supply of bitterness, can’t seem to keep herself away from Metallia, even though she knows it will tend to lead to her being abused verbally or otherwise. Meanwhile, it becomes obvious that beneath Metallia’s harsh words she comes to hold the dog-faced princess with genuine affection. It’s never explicitly stated that this relationship crosses the line into love — Metallia even rather forcefully denies that she’s “into that” at one point late in the story — but with the lengths she goes to in the game’s Bad Ending — which, in an odd reversal of the usual way multi-ending games work, actually presents the most informative perspective on the story and by far the most satisfying conclusion — it’s abundantly clear that if Metallia isn’t outright in love with Viscole, she’s certainly obsessed with her.

It becomes obvious that beneath Metallia’s harsh words she comes to hold the dog-faced princess with genuine affection.

Let’s talk a little about the endings, because these are where the tragic aspect of the game is most apparent. There are three endings to the game: the Normal, the True and the Bad. Under normal circumstances, the True Ending of a game is usually regarded as the canonical conclusion, but here it causes the story to end on a somewhat downbeat note, with both Metallia and Visco apparently dead and the Hundred Knight freed from his contract through the death of its mistress. The Normal Ending, meanwhile, sees the Hundred Knight refusing to help Metallia when anti-witch sentiments in Amataya come to a head and she is captured, tortured and, eventually, executed. Again, this frees it from its contract, and it wanders off aimlessly, eventually disappearing completely.

Before you reach an ending, there's a whole lotta exploring and fighting to do first.
Before you reach an ending, there’s a whole lotta exploring and fighting to do first.

Both of these endings, then, defy the normal expectations for their definitions. Both “Normal” and “True” endings in Japanese games are usually positive in tone, wrapping things up neatly and, in the case of the True ending, in more conclusive detail. But here, they can be seen as karma catching up with Metallia: the evil witch getting what she deserves based on her awful actions earlier in the story. The sad thing in both cases, of course, is that she undergoes a considerable amount of personal growth as the story progresses, and by the time one of these endings rolls around, she’s still brash, foul-mouthed and aggressive, but a much more reasonable, rational person who understands that life isn’t just about her and her own selfishness.

Both the Normal and True Endings can be seen as karma catching up with Metallia: the evil witch getting what she deserves based on her awful actions earlier in the story.

It’s the Bad Ending where things get interesting, though. As previously mentioned, the Bad Ending in The Witch and the Hundred Knight would, in a more conventional game, probably be referred to as the True Ending due to the amount of additional effort involved in attaining it. Not only does it involve beating three tough optional bosses — in narrative terms, this breaks three “seals” and allows the Hundred Knight to unlock its full potential — but there are also two whole chapters of the game that you only ever see if you’re going for the Bad Ending.

Part of the route to the Bad Ending involves causing as much chaos as possible. One of the ways you can do this is to raid innocent NPCs' houses for loot.
Part of the route to the Bad Ending involves causing as much chaos as possible. One of the ways you can do this is to raid innocent NPCs’ houses for loot.

The Bad Ending revolves around Metallia’s attempts to resurrect Visco. The True Ending depicts the aftermath of Visco’s death at the hands of Metallia’s erstwhile captor and torturer Totopepe, who is subsequently revealed to be the father of Lucchini, a young beastman astrologist who attaches himself to Metallia as her apprentice much earlier in the story. Lucchini, it transpires, was doing everything he could to avert a disastrous future he had foreseen, and felt that Metallia and the Hundred Knight in particular — the latter of whom seemingly had no readable future — had a key role to play in this. However, he had become increasingly irrational as attempt after attempt to change what he saw had ended in failure. The world looked doomed to descend into chaos as the sealed god Niike would awaken and devour the world as we knew it.

Eventually, Metallia comes to the conclusion that the only way to resolve everything neatly is for her to fulfil her purpose that was gradually revealed over the course of the narrative.

While the True Ending stops there, with Visco indisputably dead and Metallia’s existence also apparently snuffed out, the Bad Ending continues as Metallia and the Hundred Knight are pulled into a parallel world which Metallia claims to have created herself. The Hundred Knight is tasked with causing as much chaos as possible in this parallel world so it can be shattered and its pieces used to repair the existence in which Viscole dies, but it’s an ultimately futile attempt — and moreover, Metallia and the Hundred Knight’s actions inadvertently bring Niike’s resurrection ever closer to reality.

Swamp fairy Mani comes to play a key role in the Bad Ending.
Swamp fairy Mani comes to play a key role in the Bad Ending.

Eventually, Metallia comes to the conclusion that the only way to resolve everything neatly is for her to fulfil her purpose that was revealed over the course of the narrative: to drain all the mana from the world and, in the process, prevent Niike’s awakening. Her swamp, it turns out, is made not from mud but pure mana, and the pillars the Hundred Knight has been blooming across the land have also been releasing mana, with each new surge in magical energy bringing Niike’s return ever-closer. As a being born from the “swamp”, however — hence her inability to get away from it — the swamp ceasing to be will also mean the end of Metallia’s existence.

At the outset of the game, Metallia snuffing herself out to save someone else would be utterly unthinkable, but after the game’s final confrontations, she thinks nothing of it.

At the outset of the game, Metallia snuffing herself out to save someone else — or indeed the whole world — would be utterly unthinkable, but after the game’s final confrontations, she thinks nothing of it. Grief-stricken by her love for Viscole and the fact that all her efforts appear to have been for naught — even with Niike defeated, he’ll return time and time again so long as there is mana in the world — Metallia eventually trades “her soul’s flame” for Viscole’s, using a spell so potent it drains both the swamp and her own life from existence, and Viscole eventually awakens from death to a world without Metallia — or Niike — in it.

Even though Metallia frequently treats her like crap, Viscole sticks by Metallia for most of the game.
Even though Metallia frequently treats her like crap, Viscole sticks by Metallia for most of the game.

Metallia’s character growth is clear even in the Normal and True Ending paths of the game, but it’s not until the Bad Ending’s conclusion that we truly see her complete her Aristotlean turnabout from seemingly irredeemable evil to self-sacrificing goodness. And her death doesn’t prove to be an unsatisfying ending, even with it being unavoidable in all three conclusions to the story. This fact is, as it happens, lampshaded from the very beginning of the game through a countdown timer ticking down with the advancement of each new chapter, and Metallia’s own apparent (and seemingly unexplained) foreknowledge of the fact she is going to die in a hundred days — but as gamers we’re trained to believe that destiny can be defied, deaths can be averted and even the darkest settings can be brought into the light.

Not so in The Witch and the Hundred Knight. It’s a tragic tale of woe that, for all its mechanical flaws in its gameplay and the few holes it leaves in its narrative, is by far one of the most interesting, intriguing games that Nippon Ichi Software has ever put out. Like any good tragedy, it’s something of a slog to get all the way through — but when you have, you can look back on it with a certain sense of satisfaction.

Rest in peace, then, Metallia; your sacrifice was not in vain.

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4 thoughts on “An Unavoidable Tragedy”

  1. I’m so grateful for the fair treatment that you’ve given this game. Within a half hour of playing for the first time, I was instantly intrigued by Metallia. Of course I was taken aback by her foul abrasive nature – that’s very much the point. But I wasn’t turned away by her attitude, as so many who had reviewed the game had been. Instead, I was struck by the desire to see where that character goes. What narratives threads could be spun by such an unpleasant protagonist? It’s the negative, and frankly close minded critical reception to characters like Metallia that contributes to the milquetoast, paint-by-numbers approach to characterization that we see in so many mainstream games, and the industry is much poorer for it.

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    1. Yes, this is the thing I’ve been arguing for: depicting something isn’t the same as endorsing it. Metallia may be a foul-mouthed bitch who takes grudges way too far, but rather than immediately writing the game off for having a protagonist like that, why not explore why she’s like that, and whether or not she either grows as a character, or gets an appropriate comeuppance?

      The Witch and the Hundred Knight was, to me, like a “difficult” book — one that might take you a long time to get through and which you might not necessarily enjoy, but which by the end you feel like you’ve had an enriching, worthwhile experience. It’s a shame — albeit, given the pace of the modern business, an understandable one — that more people didn’t take the time to do that.

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