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Illusion of Gaia (SNES) artwork

Illusion of Gaia (SNES) review

"There are darker skinned people in Freejia, but they exist only to populate the Diamond Mines or be sold to even worse fates in the dark corners of the world. After a trip to these human markets, the cherry blossoms and the content demeanor of most of the town’s residents seem a sick joke. The heaviest feeling of despair comes not from seeing those who suffer but from witnessing the ignorance of those who don’t."

In the 19th Century, traveler and writer Augustus Le Plongeon got his hands on some hitherto lost scriptures of the Mayan people. Le Plongeon, in translating the writings, was intrigued to read of a Mayan homeland that the inhabitants were forced to flee due to “the wrath of the gods.” The history went on to outline the tale of a sinking continent that was shockingly familiar. Until that time, Le Plongeon had followed the popular belief that the city of Atlantis had been a myth, but now he began to wonder. Seeing the same story repeated in a culture completely foreign to the Greeks soon sparked the emergence of a new Atlantis theory, centered around the lost continent of Mu.

I first learned this story not in school or from a textbook, but from a video game called Illusion of Gaia. It was in this game that I visited the sunken city of Mu. I also walked the vast Nazca plains to see the insanely detailed drawings in the red sand and ventured into the depths of the diamond mines to witness first hand the agony of human slavery. Illusion of Gaia captures the imagination using locations and emotions that are embedded in actual history. As a child, I walked away from the game feeling that there was wonder, mystery, and horror in my world.

Granted, things were embellished a bit. To this day, I can’t look at a picture of Angkor Watt without thinking of labyrinthine halls filled with floating heads and grotesque plant monsters. Somehow I imagine that if ever I have the benefit of seeing that ancient temple, this vision will prove inaccurate. But I bet the sense of overwhelming history that my 9-years old self felt while exploring the 16-bit version wouldn’t fall short at all.

The main character (and the only controllable one) is Will, orphaned one year ago when he accompanied his father on a disastrous journey to the Tower of Babel. Will gained weak psychic powers in the aftermath of the event and those powers eventually involve him in a journey back to the Tower of Babel. From there the plot progresses in a straight line, more a collection of scenes designed to give Will dungeons to fight through and the side characters reasons to grow.

Illusion of Gaia doesn’t have massive plot twists involving twin brothers or long-lost loves. It doesn't need them. Some of the best stories in the game last only minutes. Finding a path through the ruins of the Incan civilization to a Golden Ship, Will is greeted with an odd enthusiasm by the ship’s crew who tell him that, with his arrival, they can finally sail. Everywhere that he goes on the shining ship he is met with relief at his coming, but also senses a penetrating sadness. The Incans ask him why they have to leave their home. Why do the invaders hate them so much? How can other people want to kill them with such fervor when they’ve done nothing wrong? The questions remain unanswered as Will witnesses the ship take sail and eventually passes into an uneasy sleep.

He wakes up to find the Incans dead. His friends have joined him and now examine the ship, noting how ancient it is. One of them, the princess Kara, stands by the skeletal remains of one of the Incans, staring at the corpse sadly.

“They perished waiting for their king’s return,” she says.

Most RPGs have recurring villains. In Illusion of Gaia, this villain is the human willingness to harm others. Let the appropriateness of that sink in for a moment. There isn’t an evil cackling mastermind here steering humanity into destruction. Humanity is its own captain and the dark river it sails is of its own choosing. There is a final boss, but it isn’t nearly as memorable a persona as, say, the slave trade that Will encounters several times throughout the adventure. Each time, he ends up disrupting the trade’s operations, but he can never eradicate it completely, nor save the lives that have already been destroyed by the trade. Ultimately, the impact that Will has on the evil of mankind is minimal and fleeting.

While that feeling of gross inadequacy could easily become overbearing, the subject is given a respectable subtlety and never feels forced. Themes in Illusion of Gaia are inferred, not shoved in the gamer’s face. Many of the game’s strongest themes are hidden between the lines that people speak and in the back alleys of their cities.

One such city is a paradise filled with beautiful blonde-haired, blue-eyed, individuals who walk through an endless rain of cherry blossoms. When one of his companions warns Will that “every rose has its thorns,” the sentiment seems simultaneously ridiculous and foreboding. Eventually Will sees the thorns of Freejia. Venturing into the darkened corners of the city, he discovers that not everyone there is fair skinned with pastel eyes. There are darker skinned people in Freejia, but they exist only to populate the Diamond Mines or be sold to even worse fates in the dark corners of the world. After a trip to these human markets, the cherry blossoms and the content demeanor of most of the town’s residents seem a sick joke. The heaviest feeling of despair comes not from seeing those who suffer but from witnessing the ignorance of those who don’t.

Faced with these realities, Will’s journey becomes a quest of the soul as he searches for the unattainable solution to the world’s problems. The journey leaves its mark on him, but it is a mark of growth and change rather than of indulgence or unbridled faith that everything will be alright. Illusion of Gaia avoids the usual emotional clichés that so often accompany such a journey. Will doesn’t become a monotone-voiced wreck and start wearing dark cloaks and wielding big swords, nor is he the eternal optimist, convinced that everything will be okay as long as he has his friends with him.

Good thing, too, because his friends inevitably drift away as his journey continues. They each find their purpose in life, whether that purpose is to love, to rebuild, or even to die. Again the clichés are avoided. The princess serves as a love interest, but her character grows far beyond these simple bounds, changing drastically from a spoiled brat into a woman who has taken on too many of the world’s burdens. The fat kid who seems designed to be comic relief unexpectedly proves to fit the classic hero archetype better than Will himself. And the nerdy friend who you’re sure is going to provide detailed information on each area you visit, well...

... he drowns at sea.

Whatever the reasons, Will finds himself more and more left alone to face the realities of humanity. Will’s reaction to the world’s problems are the same that most of us might have. He feels pain when he sees things that are painful, feels hope when he sees people living their lives to the fullest, is grateful when his friends can find happiness, and is saddened when he cannot find happiness himself. By the time Will reaches his final destination, he has traveled the entire world over and seen the full breadth of human emotion. He has seen the mysteries of love and the realities of death. He has seen humans hurt each other with barely a tear shed but has also seen them give enormous sacrifice to save a family member or a friend. It leaves him feeling in awe of the sheer vastness and complexity of the world.

It left me feeling the exact same way. I’m sure the game has aged in the past sixteen years but I will never forget the unexpected impact it had on me as a child nor ever shake off the electric chill that runs up my spine when I remember the heaviness of all of its little stories and struggles.

zippdementia's avatar
Community review by zippdementia (July 25, 2010)

Zipp has spent most of his life standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox there. Sometimes he writes reviews and puts them in the mailbox.

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