cw: mentions of anxiety, depersonalization, panic attacks
On his deathbed, losing to years of illness, Frédéric Chopin dreams of another world. A fantasy world, complete with its own history and culture. An obvious, transparent conceit to set a role-playing game starring Chopin, Eternal Sonata is sincere but unsubtle. What follows is a relatively standard plot to dethrone corrupt and damaging nobility, with very light allusions to trials Chopin faced in his actual life. As a videogame Eternal Sonata is either frustrating or unremarkable, though as a tribute to Chopin it is very warm, incorporating motifs and rearrangements of the man’s compositions in homage and in worship. Worship that Chopin deserves, in my opinion, as he left works brimming forth with complex emotions, that never fail to touch me when I’m hallowed and weary.
Frédéric is lucidly dreaming, he does not really care what happens to anyone or this world, because he knows it is born of his own mind. He knows it is not the actual, that it is a false reality. This is, again, to establish that this is the “real” Chopin, instead of a speculative or alternate manifestation. This conceit seems to be a lot of effort for little gain: the character as a result is exceedingly broody and unlikable. Little effort is put into including him into the themes and movements of the plot, and the game, obviously, remains fiction regardless.
As a result Chopin is a reticent lead. The character feels a basic awareness that he’s unessential to the story. He is not the lead of the story, arguably, as the game features an ensemble (sorry) cast. Ironically, even wastefully, Chopin and Polka still take up most of the screentime, despite having little importance to the mechanisms of the plot. Polka is tied up in political struggles only by chance, exceeding circumstances where she feels compelled to fight for her friends and country. Chopin finds himself unable to separate from intensely worrying over Polka. His role is to process events that happen to her and to the people around them, in a detached way, to reflect a justified absurdism or nihilism. The party does, of course, succeed in bringing down Count Waltz’s reign of terror; it is an rpg after all.
Only in the frustratingly short happenings after the central resolution do the protagonists’ pointed interactions have relevance. At the end of the game, Chopin turns on the party he’s been traveling with. A player not paying much attention (like myself) may feel like this is a rather cheap plot development, intended to only shock. It does shock, incredibly, to see the protagonist hellbent on killing every single person he worked so hard with. I was horrified, conflicting and fueling the laughable kitsch of it all. One of Frédéric’s sayings when attacking is, “There is no one else, I am the only one here!”. This extreme tantrum communicates the absolute depth of his solipsism and the resulting nihilism. He is useless, he is a coward, he is a murderer, and he would rather die than watch the dream end.
Digging into subtext, I’ve come to decide that Eternal Sonata is actually Chopin’s nightmare, one that may even be recurring. Him being weightless, cowardly, indecisive, non-interfering, these behaviors are reflective of anxieties felt in the waking world. Nothing matters to him, and he overtly knows the dream world, because it is not his first time experiencing it. Hovering over Polka is not strange, but inevitable. Frédéric remarks to her that she reminds him of someone. She is fourteen years old when they meet, she has a terminal coughing illness, and the dream always ends in her death. Fourteen was the age Chopin’s actual younger sister, Emilia, died of tuberculosis. Chopin’s actions in his dream reflect lingering trauma, or an inability to accept his own death to illness, or frankly both. It does not reflect a confidence in what is actual; his self-destruction confirms that he either wants to believe or really does believe that the dream world is real and parallel to his own. If he was confident in what was actual, he would be able to see the dream to its end without fear. A violent contradiction, Eternal Sonata invests the majority of its energy in its realness and its physicality, despite the overwhelming presence of a broken man. Chopin’s flooding resentment, from a player perspective, serves as a forceful reminder that the game world isn’t the actual. That prolonged exposure will reflect our subconscious. That even perfect determinism can leave a scar.
I’ve had debilitating nightmares. Dreams that expose my deepest insecurities, that punish me for having weakness. My loved ones confess they never loved me. My attempts to succeed in a personal or professional capacity fail horribly. Sometimes I slowly lose my memories, eventually breaking promises and missing deadlines. Other times I’m compelled to commit horrifying deeds and I end up hospitalized or imprisoned. Without fail someone, myself, or something, makes a point that I deserved this. A few of these dreams end in my death. While dreaming, these aren’t just feelings, but manifestations. They’re improbably real, suspended worlds where I’m demonstrably worthless and it’s my fault.
What happens to me isn’t “real.” That projection of me isn’t “me.” This is still no comfort. Waking up from a particularly bad nightmare – which is really, somehow, an incredibly specific dream – has, on multiple occurrences, triggered panic attacks, depression, and/or depersonalization. I can have a fantastic day; feel relatively content and productive; sleep confident and happy. A sleep that will undo those efforts against my conscious will. Coping with illness is a full-time effort, a potent nightmare can put me back days if not weeks. This is immensely frustrating, and besides long term effects, I’ve missed school and work because of a resulting panic attack. I fear opening up during these episodes, because I will be told that it was only a dream, that nothing about it was real. Things I know myself. It’s hard to internalize that dreams are not “real” when they have forceful real world consequences, when they’re filled with imagery from things I’ve done and places I’ve been.
Videogames have given me better tools to cope with my dissolving nightmares. Games, like dreams, are liminal spaces that are real on their terms. They are aspects, consequences of reality, and have their own causality. The ephemerality of dreams makes this a messy comparison, they dissipate, they are not observably true like the events of a videogame. Yet to suppose they exist in their own microdimension, that agency existed or is at least supposed during their occurrence, draws a firm line to the experiential lucidity that videogames enable.
Bloodborne is a nightmare and is about a nightmare. Someone is sick or dying and accepts a blood transfusion, the act of which results in their sleep. They awake in Yharnam but it is implied they’re still sleeping, that their current existence is within a nightmare. This nightmare manifests anxieties and fears: of religion, of civilization, of the beastly nature of man, of the specificity and fragility of new life. The only way to communicate with these things and with the world is through violence, through atrocity. As a hunter, all terrible things must be excised, so the hunt can finish. The constraints of a linear game require these deaths, which isn’t an interesting thing in itself. In my own nightmares I have this appearance of choice, while having no choice. I consciously do nothing, while my dream apparition chooses to kill and destroy. Like in Bloodborne, my natural response to central fears is maim them and remove them, and in a way confirm their absolute truth. By acknowledging how deep these anxieties are with violence, I confirm myself to be a worthless man, dangerous and unfit for society.
The dissonance remains that I’m dreaming these awful things, not doing them. In Bloodborne, I am not really being violent, at least not in the actual. I’m acting only through my created avatar, a me that isn’t “me”. Bloodborne is perversely relatable in this way, being similar in presence to nightmares I’ve had. It’s actually cathartic, because in Bloodborne, unlike my nightmares, my agency is physical, the nightmare is on my terms. As there is no motivator in the plot besides wanting to see the end of the deam, its violence exists to prove some unguided point, to highlight disparities and insecurities. I don’t overcome the nightmare. Yharnam simply exists. Dread deeds occur. I become cognizant, accepting, and understanding.
When the hunt ends, there is no more need for hunters. Gehrman, the one who facilitates the hunt, offers to send the player character to the waking world. They have the choice to refuse and stay in the dream world, but what other respite is there from a nightmare? To awaken, the hunter is beheaded. The hunter awakens, head intact, on the streets of Yharnam. This isn’t the medical room they were shown to be sleeping in the intro of the game. Still, not being dead cues this reality is the actual.
A cue that is not very convincing. The hunter’s death occurs in the Hunter’s Dream, which is seemingly a dream within the nightmare. Awakening from the Hunter’s Dream is done throughout the game; that is how the hunter travels between Yharnam and their dream workshop. To simply awaken in Yharnam from the Hunter’s Dream is commonplace. This awakening doesn’t communicate in any explicit way that this Yharnam is any different. Who was the hunter in waking life? Was the hunter sleeping in this normal, real Yharnam the whole time? Have they only been released from the responsibility of being a hunter, but not from the nightmarish world? Was the nightmare even theirs?
Once, during a predictable, violent, nightmare, I awoke, shaken, but was able to perform my morning routine. After eating breakfast, I began to experience intense chest pain, which is a common symptom of my chronic illness. The pain accelerated to a point where I was unable to breath and fainted where I sat… then I awoke again from the nightmare, sweaty but otherwise fine. A cartoonish, ridiculous situation, that nevertheless actually happened, and left me unable to function properly for hours, worried my pain would suddenly get worse, worried I’d inexplicably wake up a third time.
In Bloodborne the relationship between dream and actual is never clarified. I take it because it doesn’t matter. The final Yharnam could be another dream to wake up from. From the player’s perspective, the nightmare is all that is real. This is a very specific comfort, but one I relish. Bloodborne cohesively captures the dissociation of being deeply shaken by a nightmare. That sharp panic of being unable to discern the actual, unable to convince myself that what happened wasn’t real. There’s implicit justification for this feeling of unsurety, an actualization of hard to communicate feelings of depersonalization. I can experience it, detached from specific and affecting anxieties, and understand that it is a universally alienating thing, not necessarily a personal weakness.
I found a very unlikely role model in Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories. In Chain of Memories, Sora travels through a world that exists only in his mind, progressively reinterpreting and losing his own memories. A memory world is essentially a dream world, though is categorically not a dream, it’s still a projection of space that exists only in the mind. It’s never clarified where exactly Sora is. Castle Oblivion, the structure he is traveling through, is ostensibly a castle. Each floor, each room, is shaped by Sora’s mind, so he could very well be dreaming in some capacity.
Sora, through the player, sets up his deck of attacks and choose the theme of each room he travels. Each aspect of the world is curated by his mind. This aspect is not like a dream, since the agency of thought and the manifestation occur simultaneously. Chain of Memories is an intensely introspective experience. A world that only exists in the image of the protagonist, which is shaped emergently by his choices, to reflect conclusions he once knew in the past. It feels like an actualization of solipsism. There is no other, but what Sora thinks that others are. There is no one else, I am the only one here.
Despite learning that his experiences in Castle Oblivion aren’t the actual, Sora remains unfazed, and glad for the help he did (to himself) and the experiences he had (that were already his). I’m not really impressed by this, honestly. Sora would react to every situation with the same plucky attitude and confidence. He’s an ideal of boyhood to a kind of boring fault, but enough of a dork that I can’t hold it against him.
Playing to the end of Sora’s story unlocks the ability to play a reversed Castle Oblivion as Riku, the reverse rebirth route. Riku is unsubtly Sora’s foil. Sora’s power comes externally, from positivity and his connections with others, while Riku lives through and harnesses insular, negative feelings. The rules of projection in Castle Oblivion are the same, so Riku shapes what occurs in the world the same way. He encounters no friends, no individuals in need, only heartless and agents of darkness. His memory, his dream world, reflects a failure to connect with others.
The castle doesn’t abstractly suppose Riku’s anxieties, but mirrors his failings to do good and care for others. In the past, Riku was exploited by others, and is possibly still being manipulated within the castle. Without complete agency, the projections in reverse rebirth feel more like a nightmare than a reflection of Riku’s consciousness. A nightmare is empty and monotonous, fighting nonstop without much of a goal, existing for no defined reason. This is a metaphor for pure solipsism. Existing as a sole entity without the nurture of others leads one to reflect emptiness at nothing. To know only oneself is to know intently the self cannot be quantified without the reference of another.
At first Riku is angry and frustrated at the castle’s projection. As he makes his way through his dreary memories, he comes to terms with the emptiness that defines him. He stops worrying about what he doesn’t have control over, he stops feeling guilty for dispositions that come naturally to him. Negativity, emptiness, Riku understands those are valid states of being. Feeling those things doesn’t mean he is bad or broken; those feelings can only bring shame if they bring harm to others. I never expected to be impressed by a damn Kingdom Hearts character. I’ve had one of my nightmares since finishing Chain of Memories, but the fallout wasn’t as bad. My fears, anxieties, weaknesses, indulgences, my dispositions, they may manifest without my control, but alone they do not define who I am.