Goodbye, Setsuna

I Am Setsuna is a game that betrayed nearly all of its marketing points: it’s not retro, it’s not anything like Chrono Trigger, it doesn’t really function as a proper homage to jrpgs in any way, shape, or form (and homage is SE’s marketing keyword). Marketing shaped the frame that Setsuna was supposed to rest in, so a lot of people were disappointed that it didn’t meet their expectations. Some believe that it did live up to the marketing, though I believe they fell for a smokescreen. Others just thought the game was bad and didn’t give a damn. Marketing as a predetermined standard is used heavily as a crutch, for simple reviews and understandings, but I think it’s boring and a disservice to let a game be structured and defined so much outside individual interpretation.

Let’s start with considering what retro means. Retro is a resurgence of some contextually recently passed style or trend, imitating or reinterpreting that affectation in some way. In videogameland, this usually means recreating restrictions old hardware mandated on game development, though almost never exactly. I think it would be more specific and useful to call this ‘lo-fi’, since they’re recalling conditions mostly pertaining to fidelity, rather than necessarily making games that are like old ones. And yes, a lot of ‘retro’ games are more concerned with bringing nostalgic aesthetics into high fidelity (like Super Meat Boy). What does and doesn’t mark a retro game is nonspecific; if a line can be drawn from an old classic to a new game in some substantial way, it’ll probably be present in marketing. Retro has been used past recognition—we’re at a point where I Am Setsuna and Super Meat Boy are both retro games.

Forgive me for not suggesting a new, proper definition of retro. I think what it’s supposed to mean is fine. It’s just been stretched so far. Retro can mean any vague condition that’s reminiscent of older videogames. So what conditions make I Am Setsuna retro? I’m honestly not sure. It could be an exaggeration based on being a fantasy jrpg with an overworld, an airship, etc, which may be argued as a ‘retro’ attitude, though I’m not sure just an attitude makes a game sufficiently retro. More likely, retro refers to the deliberate Chrono Trigger signifiers employed in the game: the ATB battle system, the visible monster encounters, the dual techs, the locked chests, the safe overworld. Divorced from Chrono Trigger, they’re just ludic devices, and they’re also not devices that particularly represent trends from the era either. These ludics are specific and are obviously just callbacks, being uncommon design on their own.

I’m building up to making obvious that I Am Setsuna is not retro. That’s still a personal definition, so if you find Playstation 2 games retro, then maybe Setsuna will pass as retro for you. I think I’m fair in claiming that middle-era 3D is not what people refer to when they use retro as a term. So why is it so uncritically applied to Setsuna? It’s literally a 3D game made in Unity, with a modern, clean aesthetic, featuring sound design by a solo piano—something that would be impossible on retro hardware. Folks, when I think of classic games, I don’t think of impressionist piano backing extremely clean, detailed, high-fidelity textures. Speaking tonally, Setsuna’s snowy, one-dimensional setting, is defiantly opposed to the (mostly green, but still) multicolored and varied biomes of celebrated classic jrpgs.

The only factor that links I Am Setsuna with older games is its battle system. Though lacking the fluidity of movement that Chrono Trigger had, opting for a more still, stoic, restrained presentation, its composition is obviously meant to resemble Chrono Trigger. ATB, though kept alive in indie efforts, is more or less only associated with classic Squaresoft. Accepting this relationship, Setsuna is retro because it uses ludics that are taken to be exclusive to older games. Now I’ll apply this principle laterally. Persona 4 is retro since it uses ludics originated from older games. I’ll stop there but, I could clearly and easily extend that model to a variety of modern games. Not every platformer is de facto retro just because it uses an established ludic device. This attitude is a poison of ludocentrism. Boiling I Am Setsuna down to the only components that supposedly matter, the combat, the “gameplay”, and defining those components as the essence of the game they came from.

If your interpretation of a videogame is just what it is, and not what it is communicating, that’s a definition, not an interpretation. If someone feels I Am Setsuna is like Chrono Trigger, or is even supposed to be like Chrono Trigger, I can’t take that away, but I seriously question their ability to understand a videogame. So what exactly makes up Chrono Trigger? It’s not just a battle system and a world map. Those things are being used together, cohesively. Chrono Trigger is a specific, short-story orientated, energetic jrpg. Definitely not an uncommon approach; it’s easy to think of Chrono Trigger as a synthesis of Squaresoft’s old approach to melodrama and Dragon Quest’s episodic pacing, both of which have become less and less popular in mainstream work. Chrono Trigger is really less influential overall than it is a touchstone of what 2D rpgs tried to achieve: seamless, bouncy adventure stories, filled with determined optimism and clear cut morals. As gamemakers now carry more varied (or just more modern) influences than popular Japanese media from the 70s and 80s, videogames truly similar to Chrono Trigger might never exist again. (Though with fan culture’s exhuming nature, a terrifying emulation is always possible.)

I Am Setsuna is not an homage, it’s not retro, it’s not like Chrono Trigger, because it’s a modern jrpg. Utilizing particular ludic devices does signify that it’s of a specific style, that it is a jrpg, but ludics aren’t the essence of a game independent of their audiovisual components. Imagine classifying a work of art exclusively by what materials were used or defining a song only by what instruments are used. This keys into problems with defining games purely by their ludics to begin with, the short stature of just using jrpg to refer to a body of work. I Am Setsuna is a brooding tragic fantasy, it’s a turn-based rpg, it’s a showcase for impressionist composition. These are only some words that apply to Setsuna—while Square Enix and everyone else will try to convince you that it’s like Chrono Trigger, which is an energetic science fantasy, with searing, rainbow-esque music, and is just simply Setsuna’s tonal opposite.

I think I Am Setsuna could’ve been, or even still might be, an important game, relatively speaking. Not that I mean to inch close to suggesting that Square Enix or Tokyo RPG Factory need your support (they don’t), I’m just glad that Square is setting an artistic example for goddamn once. There’s not a lot of new IPs, unique visual approaches, or wild experimentation going on with high profile jrpgs. I know the excuses for that, the whole song and dance about how much it costs, so game production stays risk averse. I think developers are sidestepping a potential for videogames that cost less though. The shiniest graphics are no longer necessary. Sustainable experimentation relies on development cycles that aren’t as long as the average Square Enix game.

I’m prepared to choke on those words if the two year dev cycle was accomplished through crunch and poor labor conditions. It probably was. From the amount of repeated and reused textures, I’m going to optimistically assume that skilled planning ensured their short cycle. While I don’t think the drab and droning usage of their only ice texture and their only ruin texture is necessarily what was best for the game, it does feel specifically draining. I Am Setsuna, with its unending, constant snow, single piano sound, surrounded by mostly similar looking things, conveys an incredible mundanity. These are very weak, normal criticisms people trot out for games they don’t like, but here’s my twist: I think it’s very good.

I Am Setsuna’s premise is familiar. A quiet, idealistic girl is on a pilgrimage, that for some reason is needed to save the world. While Grandia II and Final Fantasy X use this as fertile ground for characters to overcome common, deeply human differences, reach new understandings, and eventually abandon their pilgrimages, I Am Setsuna plays it all straight. There’s not always understandable reasons for the paths people are forced on. No personal destiny, or anything like that, just a circumstance of being in a certain place, at a certain time, feeling a certain way. Setsuna goes on her pilgrimage because she wants to, not because she has to, and she chooses to die at the end of it to make a lasting difference in the world.

Ice and snow graphics, of little variety, create a throughline of fragility and malaise. Everything is cold, shining, and precious, unceasing. Sustained, soft piano sound fades in and out. A kind of noble finality is reinforced audiovisually and I Am Setsuna comes to embody the confident dread of knowing. What it feels like to know the end of self—Setsuna as a sacrifice is an adaptable metaphor, like coming to terms with illness, or with circumstances outside one’s control. Her attitude will remain the same during this journey and it’ll end with claiming a life. Parading around the unceasing and unchanging is portrayed as a force of good for others, as definitive, as noble. Living is acceptance.

Though I liked existing in the game, I found progressing frustrating. The stillness of animation and sameness of encounters match the game thematically, but that stillness is contradicted by shifting spritnite and fluxes. Equipped accessories can hold a growing number of spritnite, according to how far you are in the game (like, yeah, materia). Accessories each have a flux that randomly, slowly adds additional effects to spritnite stones. Bosses ramp up to be incredibly difficult, I think they reside in the upper strata of more difficult boss fights in rpgs, so it felt like I needed to have a competent combination of spritnite and fluxes (nevermind more extraneous boosts like cooking party buffs and upgrading equipment). The only way to make money and to craft new spritnite is from essentially random material drops on monsters. Not all spritnite was available to me, I never had exactly the right materials, and I didn’t know if I had the character power intended for the encounters, or if I was getting enough currency to prepare for them. Frankly, the freeform and arbitrary approach to character development feels opposed to the game’s singular and focused thematic core.

I’m more conflicted on how I Am Setsuna approaches player choice. The protagonist, or more accurately player character, Endir, is superfluous to the actual protagonist, Setsuna. He’s silent except for the occasional dialogue options, which have little depth. One choice will be obnoxiously in character as an impatient, very cool, ultra serious mercenary, with the other being, well, not. Picking the choice that isn’t obviously type casted will elicit a comment from some other party member like, “That doesn’t sound like you Endir!” and the dialogue proceeds as if you picked the other choice. Though presented with choices, in actuality, there’s never a choice to be made.

Zachary Brictson of Icicle Disaster agrees with me that the dialogue system is awkward and frustrating, but still thinks it’s a subtle and brilliant way to characterize Endir, and has tremendous payoff:

Endir and Setsuna eventually find themselves at the cliffside identical to the opening dilemma, where I first swung my sword at an innocent girl merely to challenge a game’s ambition. Containing the soul that threatens the world’s safety, Setsuna requests Endir to destroy her while the darkness is within her body. The scene is recreated: Swing the sword or do not. Same decision as before, but now inverted with new feelings and an orange sky. There is warmth between Endir and Setsuna this time, and the piano is rolling in again. The sound of metal rings out as Endir unsheathes his sword and sets his shoulders, and I’m flipping between two options again. Not out of curiosity, but as a struggle to accept what I Am Setsuna has preached since the start. That choice doesn’t matter. That, from the start, this was the only outcome that was ever possible. Swing or do not swing, Setsuna perishes all the same. It’s hard hitting. Though I concede this could all be the effects of great piano music, the more I think of the ending of I Am Setsuna, the more I respect its cleverness and its ability to convey sadness. “Poignant sorrow”, after all, was director Atsushi Hashimoto’s original goal. Of course, I don’t mean to say it excuses or redeems the shortcomings of an extremely awkward dialogue mechanism. Indeed, a million things probably could have been done better with I Am Setsuna. But the ending stands as a brilliant piece of scenario writing, and I take it as a lesson that there isn’t a textbook on how to do choices in video games. I Am Setsuna’s ending ‘decision’ had me pacing around the room, shocked by a system I vastly underestimated and in love with an idea.

It’s the first time I’ve experienced this genre of nonessential choices that go beyond just fluff: they are purposefully soundless, utterly pointless. Through them is a complete decentralization of the player, an assertion that a silent protagonist may be my eyes but is still deliberately outside my will. I’m permitted to guide them around their world, yet I’m not permitted to wholly embody them. While this is already what it feels like to play as an outspoken character in any videogame, I think Endir’s portrayal carries a torch of subversion. I Am Setsuna interrogates our relationship with silent protagonists: their silence is not mine.

However, the way the empty choices texture the game’s ending is less than satisfying, or optimistic. I’ve never felt such a closed and deterministic message from a jrpg. These are often core jrpg themes: seizing the future for yourself, resisting oppressive powers, self-actualizing and becoming a better person through fostered relationships. I Am Setsuna takes its themes back to Dragon Quest: some special, unique people, are born into a burden, and they live to fulfill their duty. I don’t really feel much subversion going on with these themes, just an intense dramatization instead, as each character in the story gives up their individual wants and needs to serve a greater good. Normally, I am extremely into these kinds of tragedies, but accompanied with choices that amount to nothing cut in a damaging message. It’s not only a statement of nobility and duty, it goes beyond that, bulking into a statement saying that pre-written narratives are all encompassing and inescapable. No matter what you do or how hard you try to change the role society or the world has already set for you, you’ll end up perpetuating what was already prepared for you.

Unlike other games that take up these themes, notably Zelda and Dark Souls, I Am Setsuna is more gentle and caring, emphasizing a need to care for and protect the weak and downtrodden. It’s a journey because of personal connections, not because of some natural order. There might be a genre subversion to be read which I’m not sensitive enough to pick up on. In my opinion it’s not really enough. Ironically, and despite the game’s individuality, I feel this through the game’s whole. I love and appreciate it for daring to stand out and have a unique voice in a genre with an audience that expects and even demands a rote checklist of themes, features, and feelings, but I felt those oppressive obligations ever lingering. I Am Setsuna senses change, but doesn’t seize it.

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