Ys: Building a World, One Game at a Time

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One of the things Ys developer Falcom is most consistently praised for is its ability to craft convincing, well-realised game worlds.

It’s not just the Ys series where Falcom demonstrates this; its The Legend of Heroes series is also acclaimed for that, particularly in the more recent Trails subseries, each component of which deals with one part of a coherent whole.

It’s perhaps Ys that provides the most interesting example of Falcom’s approach to worldbuilding, though, because it’s an ongoing process — the complete work that is Ys is continually growing, evolving and changing, and there’s no end in sight just yet.

The one thing Adol always leaves behind when he moves on to a new adventure is at least one broken heart.

The Ys series, with the exception of Ys Origin, focuses on silent protagonist Adol Christin. Adol has remained resolutely mute for the entire series now, even its most recent installments, though that’s not to say he’s completely without personality. The most recent release at the time of writing, Ys: Memories of Celceta, fleshes out Adol’s backstory in particular, as well as providing the player with the opportunity to respond to a number of situations in different ways, though the impact of these choices was generally rather minimal.

The choice to keep Adol mute was a deliberate one: it enables him to be used as a representative of the player in the game world rather than it leaving the player feeling like they are “playing a part”. At the same time, he’s not a completely customisable self-insert character, so this allows the games to build up lore around him as well as establish pre-existing relationships with other characters that make sense in context, and which don’t need to be made “generic” in order to take every character creation possibility into account.

The main reason that Adol is the recurring main character of the series is that his intentions and the player’s coincide: both want to go on an adventure; both want to challenge powerful foes; both want to discover the mysteries of the world. Adol is, in many ways, the perfect protagonist for an enthusiast of role-playing games because his motivations are so simple: he lives for adventure, and by playing through the Ys games, you can indulge your own virtual wanderlust in a variety of ways.

Ys II Chronicles
Ys II is the only game in the series to date that is actually set in Ys itself.

Considering the series is called Ys, very little of it actually takes place in the titular place; instead, each new installment tends to focus on a relatively small geographical area in the world, and the happenings that are going on there. At the same time, these events are placed in a broader context through references to other stories that Adol has experienced — or is going to experience — and thus we have a series where each individual installment stands by itself quite nicely, but when taken in context, provides us with a better understanding of an extremely well-realised game world.

Ys I and Ys II are essentially a single story in two parts. The first game takes place in Esteria, and concerns Adol’s uncovering of the existence of the ancient and mysterious land of Ys — and also the fact that it appears to have disappeared without trace, hence the collective title for the first two games: Ancient Ys Vanished.

Over the course of Ys I, Adol starts to uncover a number of interesting things. His quest eventually leads him to discover six “Books of Ys” written by a group known as the Six Priests, who seemingly wielded some sort of power over the ancient land. He also encounters two girls named Feena and Reah, whose motivations are initially unclear, but who later reveal themselves to be of significant importance to this initial story arc, and to Ys itself.

Ys I leaves us with a final boss whose motivations are initially unclear, but over the course of Ys II and Ys Origin we can start to draw some conclusions. Since his name is “Dark Fact”, it stands to reason that he is somehow related to the Six Priests, one of whom was called Fact. Ys II’s final boss, meanwhile, is known as Darm, and shares his name with the 25-floor tower that forms the latter half of Ys I, and which houses Dark Fact at its summit. The connection between Fact and Darm doesn’t become completely apparent until the conclusion of Ys Origin’s true ending, but I shall refrain from completely spoiling that for the benefit of those who haven’t yet experienced the story for themselves.

ys origin tower
Since Ys Origin is all set in one tower, we don’t see a lot of the world firsthand, but it’s nonetheless extremely important to series lore as a whole.

Ys Origin is actually an interesting anomaly in the series, since it not only doesn’t star Adol, it’s the only game which allows us to experience the overall lore of the Ys world firsthand rather than digging it up in an almost archaeological manner many years after it happened. Ys Origin’s main cast consists of three characters who are all first-generation direct descendents of the Six priests — Yunica is Tovah’s daughter, Hugo is Fact’s son and even “The Claw” is related in a way which I, likewise, won’t spoil for now. Through experiencing Ys Origin’s three separate stories, we gain a better understanding of the Six Priests’ motivations, as well as gaining a greater awareness of the overall relevance certain characters from Ys I and II had to the overall lore. It’s a game where, if you play it immediately after Ys I and II, carries with it an immensely satisfying sense of “oh yeah, so that’s what all that was about.”

Ys III and its subsequent reimagining The Oath in Felghana abandon the lands of Esteria and Ys in favour of new region Felghana as Adol starts to explore the broader world. Felghana’s story initially appears to be completely self-contained and isolated from the rest of the series, but upon reaching Ys IV — and particularly its more recent reimagining Memories of Celceta, which was completely rewritten and restructured to better fit in with the established lore — and Ys VI, a lot of puzzle pieces start falling into place, giving us a good understanding of the overall technology level of the world of Ys and where some of the more fantastical elements originally appeared from.

Memories of Celceta, in comparison to the relatively standalone nature of Oath in Felghana, gradually reveals itself to have strong connections to both the earlier and later games alike, most notably through the inclusion of a winged character who is strongly implied — though never outright stated — to hail from the same place as Reah and Feena from the original games. The player is left to make a lot of these connections for themselves rather than having them explicitly thrust in their face; in this way, the player’s process of discovery can mirror Adol’s — and an individual’s interpretation of how Adol is discovering things can vary depending on whether they are playing the games as a standalone experience or as part of a coherent whole, because they very much work in both ways.

Ys map
What we know of the complete Ys world to date.

Ys’ complete world is a curious blend of reality and fantasy. While we’re talking about a world that has monsters and magic in it, we’re also talking about a world of vaguely recognisable — albeit somewhat bastardised — locations. Several of the games are confirmed to take place in a region that is explicitly called Europe, which in turn is part of a continent known as Eresia, a corruption of our real-world Eurasia. Within Europe, we have Ispani (Spain), Gillia (France, or more accurately, Gaul) and Garman (Germany).

The Romun [sic] empire, who make frequent appearances throughout the series as a force that is very clearly trying to conquer as much of the world as possible, hails from where Italy would be, and there’s a mountain range in the middle of the continent called “The Alp”. Across the enclosed sea that bears a striking resemblance to the Mediterranean lies the continent of Afroca [sic], on the northern tip of which stands the region of Altago, setting of Ys Seven and rough equivalent to real-life Carthage. Meanwhile, far across the sea to the West, roughly where the real West Indies would be, rages the Vortex of Canaan and the island archipelago that forms the setting for Ys VI. Isolated from Eresia and Afroca both in terms of its geographical location and through the presence of the Vortex, the Canaan region has a very different culture and way of living which is somewhat disrupted by the arrival of Eresians, with Ys VI as a whole at least partly acting as commentary on the impact foreign colonists can have on native cultures — both positive and negative.

Ys VI village
In most Ys games, the overall worldbuilding is supported by a cast of named NPCs, many of whom don’t have a direct impact on the plot but nevertheless play an important part in giving a strong feeling of context to events.

Ys itself, presented as a magical floating continent in the series, may also have a direct real-world parallel of the same name. Folklore suggests that “real-world” Ys was a mythical city that occupied a region on the coast of Brittany, but which was later swallowed by the sea. It’s doubtless not a coincidence that Esteria, which canonically is roughly “underneath” where the floating continent of Ys ended up, is in the rough equivalent to where Brittany would be in the overall slightly twisted world map of the Ys series. Real-world mythological Ys and Falcom’s Ys both disappeared, albeit in different directions: the “real” one sank beneath the waves, while Falcom’s floated off into the sky. Popular mythology also claims that when Paris is swallowed by the sea, ancient Ys will rise from beneath the waves, since some suggest Paris’ name itself may be a corruption over time of Par-Is or Par-Ys, meaning “similar to Ys”; a somewhat grandiose sentiment, to be sure, though few can deny the present-day French capital’s majesty and beauty.

From Falcom’s perspective, the advantage of setting each Ys game in such a geographically small location is that it leaves them with the entirety of the rest of the world to explore in future games, effectively allowing the series to continue almost indefinitely when you consider how little of the overall world map has been covered to date — along with the fact that the current Ys world map as it exists to date doesn’t extend as far as mainland America-equivalent or eastern Asia.

The danger with this, of course, is that the series as a whole could potentially lose focus of its overall lore and elements which tie the various installments together, though it must be said that despite the geographically diverse regions that have been explored in all the games to date — not to mention the differences in game structure and mechanics — the Ys series as a whole feels remarkably coherent and well crafted. Only Falcom itself will know whether or not they have the whole world planned out well in advance, or if they’re just “winging it” with each new installment, but to date it seems very much like the intention is, over the course of an indefinite (and potentially infinite) number of volumes, to chronicle the geography, history and culture of the entire world, one little piece at a time

Ys V
Ys V is the only Ys game that hasn’t received a modern remake or reimagining. We must be due one soon.

That means Adol’s adventures probably aren’t going to be over any time soon, particularly as he appears to be perpetually 18 years of age, with no signs of ageing at all between his various adventures. Who knows where his adventures will take him in the future? No-one really knows as yet, but I think we can probably all rely on the fact that there are lots more places for Adol to see and things for him to achieve; may his explorations of the world continue for many years to come.

More about Ys

In the next article, we’ll look in depth at the art and music of the Ys series, with a particular emphasis on the sterling work of Falcom’s incredible sound team.

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