Although Idea Factory and Compile Heart will likely always be known as “the Neptunia people” thanks to the success of their flagship franchise, this cult favourite collective has been becoming more and more adventurous and creative as the years have advanced.
A big part of this experimentation comes in the form of Compile Heart’s “Galapagos RPG” project. Originally set up in 2013 with the mission to “develop RPGs specifically for Japanese customers”, the intention behind the studio was to eschew the growing trend for Japanese developers to change their style in a specific attempt to court a wider Western audience, and instead to focus primarily on that core audience. This wouldn’t rule Galapagos games out of being localised, mind you — it just meant they’d be unapologetically Japanese.
Sounds good to me. And going by the strength of past games put out by the project — including Fairy Fencer F and Omega Quintet — it seems to be a winning formula for the studio. Let’s take a first look at their latest, and where it came from.
Death end re;Quest is the first of a distinct “batch” of three Galapagos games all, at the time of writing, set to appear in the West at various points throughout 2019. The three games aren’t related in any way and indeed all appear to be mechanically distinct from one another, but they do all take aim for a somewhat more “adult” tone than some of Compile Heart’s previous work — particularly Neptunia. Death end re;Quest, as we’ll discuss shortly, combines isekai and Japanese-style horror; Dragon Star Varnir is dark, violent fantasy; and Arc of Alchemist unfolds in a post-apocalyptic desert landscape.
There’s precedent for this more “adult” tone in Galapagos titles, too; Fairy Fencer F, despite having brightly coloured Tsunako (Neptunia) artwork and a fairly self-aware, comedic tone for much of its narrative, had plenty of dark themes along the way — particularly in its later Advent Dark Force expanded incarnation — and explored heavy subject matter such as codependence and alcoholism. Omega Quintet, meanwhile, provided an interesting twist on the “idol” formula by making the idols in question the last remaining means through which an all but extinct human race held on to hope against a seemingly undefeatable enemy. There’s a cheery thought for your afternoon. At least the songs were nice.
Anyway, we’re here to talk about Death end re;Quest, so let’s get started by taking a look at where its distinctive style came from.
There are two core elements to the game: a virtual, simulated “MMO” where amnesiac game developer and lead heroine Shina Ninomiya attempts to navigate her way through a perilous, glitched-out fantasy world that is starting to behave in ways its creators never intended, and a visual novel-style segment that unfolds in the “real world”.
In the latter component, male protagonist and Shina’s colleague Arata Mizunashi tries to figure out how Shina has become stuck in the game, what the game has to do with the cases of cyber-terrorism that are unfolding around the globe, and exactly why evidence (or at least accounts) of various cryptids, conspiracy theories and paranormal phenomena seem to be disappearing from the real world and manifesting inside the game.
Between those two elements, there’s a lot going on, so let’s examine each in turn.
As previously noted, Shina’s story is an example of isekai fiction, a wildly popular trope in Japanese popular media, but one which we have also seen in various forms here in the West numerous times over the years. On the off-chance you’re unfamiliar — although if you’ve paid any attention to Japanese popular media in the last few years, I have to say “how?” — isekai literally means “different world”, and refers to a story in which a normal person from Earth finds themselves somehow transported to another world, and has to learn to operate within that new world’s parameters, perhaps with the ultimate intention of escaping and returning to “reality”.
Modern isekai is typically associated with video games to varying degrees, whether this is interpreted as characters finding themselves literally trapped in a game world (as seen in Death end re;Quest and, before that, in .hack and Sword Art Online) or as a protagonist simply finding themselves in a world that appears to operate using video game conventions (such as Konosuba or Danmachi). But the genre as a whole doesn’t have to be confined to this particular convention — and indeed examples from history demonstrate numerous different ways it can be handled.
From a Japanese perspective, the origins of isekai are regarded as being in the folk tale of Urashima Tarō, which itself has seen numerous revisions and retellings over the years, but which in its most common form involves a young fisherman rescuing a turtle, being invited to a “Dragon Palace” beneath the sea, spending what he believes to be four or five days with the princess Otohime and then, feeling homesick, returning home only to discover 300 years have passed in his absence. In most versions, rather than living out his life in this unrecognisable version of what was once his world, the protagonist instead opens a box called tamatebako, which Otohime told him never to open, and finds himself instantly becoming an old man.
There are two “otherworldly” elements to the tale of Urashima Tarō — the underwater kingdom to which the protagonist is taken by the turtle, and the world he returns to, only to discover that everything and everyone that was once important to him is long gone. Thus at the story’s conclusion he is left somewhat in limbo — no longer able to return to the world that he left three centuries prior, and likewise no longer able to return to the “other world” that brought him both happiness and homesickness. It’s a tragic tale, really, and most subsequent isekai works have built on and explored the inherent feelings of sadness and loneliness that come with being trapped in an unfamiliar place.
Isekai isn’t a strictly Japanese affair, either, though the term tends to primarily be used in connection with Japanese works today. But in the West, we’ve seen plenty of our own stories of mysterious other worlds, be it Lewis Carroll’s hallucinogenic Alice duology from the mid-1800s, J.M. Barrie’s 1904 exploration of childish innocence and escapism Peter Pan, Enid Blyton’s fantasy adventures in The Faraway Tree series, C.S. Lewis’ Christianity-inspired Narnia cycle from the 1950s, or even something more recent such as Terry Brooks’ Magic Kingdom of Landover, a series that began in the mid-’80s and is set to finally come to a conclusion in the early 2020s at the time of writing.
A great deal of isekai fiction can be categorised as “portal fantasy” under the taxonomy suggested by British academic Farah Mendlesohn in her 2008 book Rhetorics of Fantasy. Mendlesohn describes this type of narrative as involving “simply a fantastic world entered through a portal. […] Crucially, the fantastic is on the other side and does not ‘leak’. Although individuals may cross both ways, the magic does not.” Indeed, it’s clear to see how many of the previously described works fall under this descriptor: in most cases, as Mendlesohn puts it, we “ride alongside the protagonist, hearing only what she hears, seeing only what she sees; thus our protagonist (even if she is not the narrator) provides us with a guided tour of the landscapes.”
Mendlesohn argues that portal fantasy is often combined with quest fantasy — a linear narrative involving a concrete, final goal that the protagonist is attempting to achieve. Indeed, this is true for much of isekai fiction, too: in Sword Art Online‘s initial arc, the player characters are attempting to clear the game’s main objective and escape, to give a recent example; in the Narnia books, meanwhile, the lead characters always have a clear mission to accomplish, typically revealed to them after their initial arrival in the other world.
Where Death end re;Quest is quite interesting is that it subverts this strict definition somewhat by also incorporating elements of what Mendlesohn describes as “intrusion fantasy”. Here, she argues, “the fantastic is the bringer of chaos. It is the beast in the bottom of the garden, or the elf seeking assistance. It is horror and amazement. It takes us out of safety without taking us from our place. It is recursive. The intrusion fantasy is not necessarily unpleasant, but it has as its base the assumption that normality is organised, and that when the fantastic retreats the world, while not necessarily unchanged, returns to predictability — at least until the next element of the fantastic intrudes.”
This can be seen throughout in the way that the game Shina is trapped in is seemingly having some sort of effect on the real world — and elements of the real world appear to be showing up inside the game, too.
In the early hours, Shina encounters a number of surprising things that were never programmed into the game — an apparent photograph of a ghost; a newspaper describing cattle mutilation; a diary from this year; a dead fish and frog that apparently fell from the sky — and, in turn, Arata finds that when he attempts to look into the conspiracy theories and urban legends surrounding these items and concepts, all information surrounding them has seemingly been purged from the Internet.
In this way, both “worlds” are intruding on one another; things from our world show up in Shina’s, while distinctly “out of place” code fragments appear in our world and, in turn, affect Shina’s when Arata implements them into the game’s source code.
So we’ve explored isekai and its origins, what of those conspiracy theories and elements of contemporary urban horror? Where did they come from, and how did they become popular?
Well, several places, really. The concepts of ghost stories and supernatural legends have been around pretty much as long as humans were able to communicate with one another. In strongly spiritual cultures such as Japan, they can often form a cornerstone of society and an important part of tradition; engaging with certain aspects of Shinto and Buddhist beliefs tends to be depicted by media as a perfectly normal aspect of Japanese life, even for individuals who otherwise demonstrate no particular evidence of being especially “religious”.
Conspiracy theories and urban legends can, meanwhile, be thought of as a more modern form of folk tales. Indeed, the pseudoscientific field of cryptozoology specifically seeks to prove the existence of creatures described extensively through folklore and thus tends to blur the lines between traditional tales and the modern day — though it tends to be treated with extreme skepticism by anyone outside its closest group of adherents due to its lack of following the commonly accepted scientific method, as do related fields such as ghost hunting and the search for unidentified flying objects.
Despite this skepticism, however, this doesn’t stop fields of paranormal study being of particular interest to a wide variety of people, and thus they have frequently been explored through fiction from all over the world throughout the years. While some people do take these “pseudosciences” seriously, for many they’re simply a form of entertainment — and indeed this has been embraced by various forms of popular media over the years, ranging from cheesy British reality show Most Haunted to Chris Carter’s massively influential late ’90s sci-fi/horror classic The X-Files, which stoked new interest in all manner of popular modern mythology, fields of paranormal study and conspiracy paranoia as well as inspiring some truly great, all-time classic video games such as Ion Storm’s Deus Ex and Rare’s Perfect Dark.
Horror stories, tales of the paranormal and all such related matters also lend themselves well to the video game medium, particularly taking the concept of the “Bad End” into account — something which, as the name suggests, Death end re;Quest plays with quite frequently. The interactive nature of video games and visual novels gives both creators and players an ideal opportunity to explore the horrific and the uncanny from a variety of angles; indeed, many Japanese horror games in particular (including Death end re;Quest) make a point of their bad endings being more than just a simple “Game Over” screen — we’ve seen many examples over the years where it’s outright desirable to seek out these alternative conclusions to see what might have been, and perhaps to indulge our own lurid sense of curiosity without actually putting ourselves at any real risk.
Some games and series even play with this idea to a rather surprising degree; while it’s not a “horror” game per se, 428: Shibuya Scramble is a good example, making some of its “postgame” content dependent on having accomplished a particular proportion of the 85 bad endings on offer, many of which provide insight you can’t find anywhere else. For an even more peculiar example, one need only look at the Shadow Hearts series, whose first game’s bad ending is canonical on your first playthrough, but whose good ending then becomes the “correct” one after you’ve played its sequel and got the good ending in that game.
Death end re;Quest’s incentives for you to explore these possibly negative outcomes to the story come in the form of items you can collect from the in-game “episode list”; this rewards you both for seeing regular story scenes in the game as well as the numerous bad endings, and there are even some PlayStation trophies available for attaining particular milestones in the total list. Interestingly, the items you are rewarded with for discovering the many “Death ends” throughout the game are often significantly better than those which you might come across via more… conventional means in the game itself, making it in some ways outright desirable to seek out some of the game’s more unpleasant, horrific content.
From a narrative perspective, meanwhile, the ability to explore the various Death ends gives us the opportunity to see quite how “at risk” the characters really are throughout the duration of their adventure; many is the JRPG over the years where the characters have seemed to be in a real pinch, but you know that everything is probably going to be all right because (insert distinctly “meta” reasoning here). Not so in Death end re;Quest — sometimes it’s just a simple dialogue choice that can lead to a grisly end, sometimes it’s stepping into the wrong room at the wrong time. Thankfully, unlike most games of this type, you can actually save during most dialogue sequences, so as long as you remember that 1) there is no auto-save and 2) you should save judiciously — and preferably in multiple slots, just in case — you shouldn’t lose too much progress if you do decide to deliberately seek out some of the Death ends for yourself.
And it’s worth doing so; as previously mentioned, the ability to see the actual consequences of a poor decision really drives home the fact that these characters are in real trouble, and it’s up to you to help them get out of it.
Are you up to the challenge?
Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.
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