Retrogamer: Rather Be a Conscript
Michael B. Tager
I’m one of those people who lay awake at night, thinking about death. More specifically, my death. All the many ways I could die, how life will continue to go on without me until, in the not-so-distant future, I’m utterly forgotten. And not only will I be forgotten, it will be as if I had never been. Even if I somehow achieve fame in this lifetime (not a goal), it’ll only be a few generations before that evaporates as well. This causes many sleepless nights and depressed, gray days.
I am not an optimist.
Few in Valkyrie Profile would consider themselves optimist either, as steeped in death as the game is. The player’s party consists of the titular Valkyrie, the harvester of the dead, and the einherjar, dead souls chosen to fight in the afterlife. Threaded throughout are the mourning family and friends of the dead, and the threat of the upcoming Ragnarok, when the world will end. The game starts with death, is obsessed with death, and ends with death.
Lenneth is the protagonist of Valkyrie Profile, awoken by the god Odin to venture to Midgard (Earth) and find among its warriors those souls worthy enough to fight in the coming apocalypse. The game is split between cutscenes of tragedy and platform RPG. The intro is approximately an hour-long dialogue-dump in which an arrogant princess and a proud warrior attempt to stir the pot of a kingdom and wind up dead and buried. Lenneth then swoops in to claim their souls. It sets an appropriate tone of grim humor and uncompromised gloom. After the warrior Arngrimm fails to avenge the princess’s death, they are both drafted into service.
Is it appealing to know that even after you die, you might be conscripted? If the only alternative is nothing, then yes, it is appealing as hell.
Valkyrie Profile is heavily stylized, richly baroque, and as clean as the graphics of the time allowed. It’s filled with dark purples, deep blacks, midnight blues, greys and browns, gunmetal. The few scenes of light, notably a field of wildflowers, blue sky and a gray gravestone, serve their purpose. It’s like that single girl in red in Schindler’s List, meant as relief from unrelenting gloom. And, because it’s an accent, it enhances the sadness bookends. Who is in the grave in Valkyrie Profile? Much of the real plot, the reason Lenneth is harvesting souls (vis-a-vis, you) is dependent on this one unremarkable area of the map, totally optional and easily overlooked.
Over the years, I’d heard plenty about Valkyrie Profile. It came out toward the end of the Playstation’s run, when the PS2 was about to drop. That, despite its critical and (relative) commercial success, limited the number of copies sold. I never obtained a copy because I was unwilling to spend $90 on a game. A friend of mine happened to own it and lent it to me. That such a brilliant game dealing with death is difficult to obtain because of its own extinction amuses me.
Because of visceral remorse, I tend to keep my game-playing to the fantastic or the generally non-violent. I play a lot of RPGs where the format (turn-based, indirect combat) diminishes empathy and compassion or, because the killing is of orcs and goblins, it’s another layer removed. I love a good fighting game where the violence doesn’t lead to death; I dig racing/space simulators. I like puzzle games and strategy games. What I don’t like are games that make me think too hard or long on the nature of death, fleeting humanity or the callousness of creation.
Because of that discomfort, I avoid playing games that scream too much of verisimilitude. Call of Duty is simply not for me. Too-realistic murder of, by all appearances, “real” men and women, even when I intellectually know it’s a video game, causes literal pangs of guilt and sadness. I feel physically ill from too much wanton destruction. When I play games such as Fallout, I keep murder to a minimum and will sometimes reload saves in which I’ve blundered into slaughter despite the heavily stylized, post-apocalyptic landscape that reduces the uncanny valley to a minimum.
Unlike most RPGs, Valkyrie Profile is a weird mish-mash of random elements. It’s story-heavy, with dozens of hours of cut scenes, NPC dialogue, and semi-hidden backstory. There’s limited time to explore the world, so there’s (probably) no way to hear and see everything the first time through. There’s no reason to visit many of the towns and dungeons if they’re not directly tied to a mission. Someone like me, who’s very much reward-oriented and not at all motivated by completionism, will likely miss a lot.
Besides the story, the game play is unusually constructed. Lenneth floats in the sky until the player activates the soul search, in which they are directed to a particular level or town. Then it becomes a side-scroller with NPCs to interact with (if in a town) and enemies and puzzles to solve via jumping, sliding and an ice ray (in dungeons). The enemies, if contacted, shunt the player to an RPG-style battle with the Valkyrie, and three minions of the player’s choice. Then, the party attacks all at once, each character correlating to a button on the controller so that an early, rude form of rhythm gaming can be implemented in order to fully utilize each character’s power. It’s confusing but oddly intuitive. Massive carnage happens on that screen and every character is different. But the end result is, of course, the same.
For decades, I was lucky enough to suffer virtually no death in my life. The 80s were a bad set of years with the death of three of my grandparents (the other died in the 60s), but I was too young; I have only dim memories of any of them. The last bad year was 1990, when my aunt and dog both died. I remember little of those feelings.
Between 1990 and last year, I’d mostly dodged death. My good friends Zach and Justin died in the early aughts; a bartender I worked with died while I was out of state; Leigh’s grandfathers both died while we were dating; my mother’s aunt died two years ago. I visited her in hospice and we watched golf and talked about John Daly. There were a few others here and there, but I was lucky for 24 years. I’d only worn funereal black a handful of times.
The midpoint of Valkyrie Profile is where most causal players will miss the hints needed in order to get the best ending. I accidentally managed to trigger everything the first time around, enabling a scene of lovely beauty in which Lenneth reconnects with an old love. That the old flame is dead and an einherjar, enjoying a single day of sunshine before being sent on to the afterlife is part of the beauty. Life is fleeting, joy is transient.
It was while I was deep into my run that my year began to go south. First, I received a voicemail early in the morning from a close friend—one of those friends who never calls but always means to. The message was garbled, indistinct. I replayed it five to ten times to puzzle out the meaning. There were only a few words I could understand, “…wanted to let you know…brain…treatment…tell everybody…” A flurry of phone calls later and I understood that brain cancer doesn’t so much care about “only being 29” and that prognosis is generally about 18 months from diagnosis.
There’s another cut scene after a climactic boss battle, which seems entirely disconnected from the main plot. After the villain who seems to be the ultimate man-behind-the-curtain, Lezard is vanquished, the story immediately switches to a heretofore unseen character, Mystina. She’s a little selfish, a little angry, a little overly sexualized for such a non-sexual game. She encounters Lezard, discovers a (confusing) plot involving homunculus (i.e. clones or golems) and debates thwarting him. She is then straight-up murdered. The abrupt, unexpected execution startled me. Valkyrie Profile does a good job in a short amount of room to make me care, not just for her, but for all the einherjar.
Not long after word reached me about my friend, my uncle died, also of cancer. At 75, he was not a young man, but what does that matter? He loved life and his family and I miss him. He was not a warrior in any sense. In the week before he died, I managed to visit him once. I don’t know why I didn’t stop in more. He only lived three blocks from me. The fact that I saw him hundreds of times in the past few years means little. We were watching The Bridge Over the River Kwai when I saw him last. Since then, I’ve meant to watch the whole thing, but I haven’t been able to. His birthday came and went not long ago. He was the nicest man who really dug coffee and sweets and he was a wonderful uncle.
In the background of Valkyrie Profile is an entire world. Throughout the cut scenes and non-linear exploration that one can do should one choose to do so, are kingdoms and churches that are plotting… something. There are upheavals and betrayals and what is, to all appearances, an arms race. It is never clearly stated and all inference must be done through piecemeal reconstruction, but Midgard is about to engage in a multi-nation world war. How many would die? The counts and kings and bishops don’t seem to worry about it.
Shortly after Uncle Jonny died, Leigh was petting our cat and found a lump. We took her, Saucepan, to the vet a few days later where they pronounced the lump malignant. A month later, we buried her ashes in our front yard. She was 6. I hadn’t lost a pet since my childhood. I didn’t know just how much I cared about her until she was gone. Why we adopt these furry creatures that live only a fraction of our lives is beyond me. I still miss her.
I imagine the Norsemen who began the myth of the Valkyries were seeking comfort in the knowledge of their own impending death. They wanted to believe that if they fought hard enough and lived well enough that they’d find an afterlife filled with beer halls and more fighting. It’s no different than the idea of Heaven or of reincarnation. We can’t accept that there might be nothing, that the spark that is you returns to the void from whence it came, that what makes us us is nothing but electrochemical transactions in the brain. We’d prefer that a woman-God will descend from the heavens and tap us on the shoulder and say, “You’re worthy to be one God’s elite chosen. Come with me.” It’s a much happier conceit.
I bought my house 6 years ago, my mortgage being underwritten through a nice enough man named Brad who worked at a bank. Every year since, his office has sent me birthday and Christmas cards and updated me on his career. I knew it was simply smart marketing, but it worked. In October, I decided to refinance my house, like an adult and, because of the connection, I contacted Brad. When Leigh and I went to see him, I noticed he was much thinner than he used to be. He said, soon enough, “You might notice I look thinner and I have this,” and he pointed at the scar on his nearly-bald head. “I’m battling brain cancer again. But I’m doing quite well.” And then he went back to the paperwork and I thought, How the fuck can he be so calm about this.
Brad’s not a friend, but I can’t help but thing that all my luck between 1990 and today is catching up to me.
It’s not easy to admit that we’re going to die. I like what Mark Twain said, even if I can’t make myself believe it, “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”
Lenneth dies toward the end of Valkyrie Profile and those she surrounds herself with unite to resurrect her. The murdering Lezard, a borderline psychotic Arngrimm, the selfish Mystina and a fourth character, the vampirical Brahms (who keeps women locked in suspended animation), temporarily form the core party. What lesson am I to take from this? That the good will die due to sacrifice? That I need to hope that I’ll befriend powerful maniacs who will save me? That I need saving or death is inevitable?
My uncle Jonny had a son, Mark. Mark was older than me and struggled with mental illness, but he was in wonderful shape and never touched a drop of alcohol or smoked a cigarette. He was hit by a car a few months after his father died and cracked some ribs. He came over to my parents’ house the next day for my mother’s birthday and I joked that I was going to hug him harder than normal. It wasn’t a good joke, but that doesn’t really matter with family. He ate a second helping of whatever I’d cooked and complimented me. He died the next day when a blood clot in his leg detached. He was 53 and I doubt any Valkyrie took him off to the mead hall Valhalla.
The world in Valkyrie Profile ends in Ragnarok, brought forth by selfishness. It is, of course, recreated in the coda, because that’s how video games work. But, similar to sleep, how can we know if it created everyone exactly the same? When we close our eyes, is it still the same us as the next morning? Consciousness is not contiguous and we only have the impression that our life is linear. It’s entirely possible that we die every night and are replaced by new selves.
Our cells constantly regenerate, but it’s not the same cells, they’re different. Why then are we the same? Are we?
It’s not that playing a video game made me think about death more than I already do. I remember being 7, lying on my bed and doing my best to ponder the immensity of the universe and how small I was and if there was a God and what happened after death and the callousness of everything until it was all nothing but pressure and I shut my eyes and just decided that of course there was a God because it was otherwise too much to think about. It’s always there, in the back of my head. But normally, I play video games to relax or be transported elsewhere. And despite the beauty of Valkyrie Profile and the delightfully complex gameplay, it focuses entirely on a dark subject, one I happened to be dealing with quite a bit at the time. Instead of being able to fully immerse, one part of my brain was always hammering away, whispering death.
It might have been the least therapeutic escapism ever. Or the most. It’s hard to say. I know that I can’t ever play it again because of how linked the Valkyrie is with actual death and sadness in my life. Even looking at it makes me shudder. I was happy to give it back to my friend and whistled when I did. “Did you enjoy it?” she asked, and I didn’t really know the answer. I don’t enjoy breathing, but I miss it when it’s gone.