Welcome to Defining Moments in Games , where I take some of my favorite games of all time and analyze single moments to see what they do right, and how they leave a lasting impact on the game. Today, I’m heading back to the SNES classic Illusion of Gaia to look at a rather ridiculous and surprising scene that helped shape the common JRPG trope of loss of innocence in an interesting way.
Warning: This is 100% spoiler-filled about one of the cooler moments in Illusion of Gaia. If you haven’t ever played the game and intend to, please close out of this article and hold off until you’ve experienced it yourself. It’s a great game.
Quintet is a weird case. Starting in the NES days, and coming into their own during the SNES era, they developed some of the finest games Enix ever published on the system. Setting the standard with the innovative Actraiser, and eventually pouring their efforts into a loosely-based trilogy of games collectively known as the “Creation of Heaven and Earth” trilogy, which consisted of Soul Blazer, Illusion of Gaia, and the never-released-in-the-States Terranigma. These three games used a typical action-RPG style, but carried with them a very unique style and conceptual design that only grew with each game. Today, we’re looking at Illusion Of Gaia (also known as Illusion of Time), the second game in the trilogy.
While not exactly reinventing the wheel, Illusion of Gaia took the action gameplay of the Zelda franchise and went after it with heavier emphasis on narrative. Taking place in a representation of the real world, Illusion of Gaia has you, as the main character Will, trekking through various recognizable locales across the globe, ranging from Incan ruins to the Great Wall of China to the Egyptian Pyramids, in an effort to stop a disaster from destroying the world. It’s not exactly a unique storyline for the genre, but the real-world references (such as Christopher Columbus) give it a very unique vibe.
So how does Illusion of Gaia play with familiar JRPG tropes while applying some real-world flair? Through a bizarre scene of a pig committing suicide, of course…
After our heroes Will, Erik, and Kara (along with Kara’s pet pig Hamlet) leave Euro, which appears to be in, well, Europe, they stumble upon a small village simply called “Natives’ Village”. Upon walking in, the group comments on the sweltering heat of the village, which can be seen through the use of heatwave visual effects. As you explore the tiny batch of feeble houses, you find human remains lying on the ground. These two small pieces of visual information, the bodies and the heat wave, give a sense that you’re currently in a near-uninhabitable village with no food or water.
Despite these clues that something is amiss, our young group of travelers decides to take a nap for the day. As they lie down to rest, disheveled villages show up and disturb their sleep. The villagers proceed to tie them up to wooden poles in the center of the village. Kara notes the obvious.
“They seem to be very hungry…”
As Will reflects on what he’s heard about this continents issues with famine, Kara comes to the realization the bones are of villagers who have died of starvation. It’s at this moment that Hamlet, Kara’s pet pig who has accompanied the crew throughout the game, silently walks forward. He first approaches Kara and stares at her, which prompts her to say something rather ominous.
“Hamlet… why such a sad look? It’s as if we will soon be separated…”
Sooner comes quicker than expected, as instantly after this Hamlet proceeds to run head first into the fire in the center of town, cooking himself to death as Kara looks on screaming. The villagers run to the fire and look upon the now-dead pig. At this point, the spirit of Will’s mother appears (don’t ask) and explains the situation rather bluntly.
“Listen, everyone. It was Hamlet’s wish to be food for these people. One baby pig could save many villagers.”
This sequence earns the group the respect of the village, and allows them to continue on their journey as the villagers feast on Hamlet’s sacrificial remains.
WHY IT WORKS
Initially, the scene comes across as random and actually a little silly, thanks in part to Erik’s Shakespearean reference line “To Eat Or Not To Eat”. It happens so suddenly, with very little focus on drawing it out for dramatic effect. Because of how quickly Hamlet sacrifices himself, not only to help the villagers but also to save his friends, we get a sense of urgency. This wasn’t something that was processed and thought about, it was a spur of the moment decision without reluctance or fear. The game manages to make the scene carry more of an impact by shedding the usually overly-dramatic and drawn-out cutscenes of JRPGs and going straight for the heart of the matter. This is one of the game’s major strong points: it doesn’t spend nearly as much time over-stating the situation. It let’s the brevity of the moments throughout speak for themselves without relying on constant dramatic dialogue and prolonged sequences.
The choice to drop this scene into the middle of the game seemingly out of nowhere presents the player with the realization that at any given moment, trials can come up that truly test you. The entire village sequence is a rather small part of the game. You spend maybe ten minutes there, tops. But being shown this small example of the plight of the world around you gives a sense of what you’re doing and the impact it could have. Instead of giving you a world full of idealism and perfection, you’re given a world that’s struggling, giving it that much more weight and depth. You’re shown the highs and the lows of the world you’re trying to save, and these kids are shown the different degrees of self-sacrifice that goes into being a true hero. A selfless act to save complete strangers, which is basically what Will and his group have to do themselves.
IT’S IMPACT ON THE GAME
One of the most commonly used elements in JRPGs, especially ones with younger player characters, is the concept of loss of innocence. Usually in the form of a home town being destroyed or a parental figure dying. We see a call to arms for a young hero, and watch as they’re introduced to the darker sides of human nature and tested. This loss of innocence doesn’t come as early in Illusion of Gaia as most JRPGs, but instead is sprinkled throughout in moments such as this.
Will’s life is turned upside down rather quickly, and being put through difficult situations, including being lost at sea for weeks, and watching as Hamlet sacrifices himself to save people, help him understand the world better. The more the game tests Will, the more we see him as less than a random hero. These are wounds to learn from, and slowly build up the sense of a world struggling to survive. This is, at it’s core, just one profound moment of loss of innocence in the game, for both Will and Kara. It’s a subtle change due to the game’s less pronounced narrative design, but it helps give a reason to fight for both the characters and the player.
It’s not surprising that the game really starts to pick up after this point. It’s a moment that acts as a buffer between the ease-in of starting an adventure and the urgency to come. While it’s not a huge sequence, it is just the right nudge into seriousness that the game needs to prepare the player for the growing difficulty and the coming darkness.
Hamlet was a smart pig, a noble pig. And we’re told this through a rather sudden and unexpected moment of sacrifice. It’s a harsh sequence to put into a game that tends to be light-hearted at times, and is exactly what is necessary to remind everyone that the world, the well being of every human life, hangs in the balance and that there is danger and darkness to overcome at every turn. But hey, at least it’s a delicious reminder. A sweet, pork-filled delicious reminder.