If you’ve played Star Ocean: Till the End of Time, you’ll know that the game’s final act and ending are… let’s be charitable and say they’re a little lacking. Introducing the concept of what amount to 4D beings—a literal Deus Ex Machina—with little to no real build-up or proper development was a massive misstep by Tri-Ace’s writers, on par with a similar set up in Ever17.
By bringing in a concept like this at the end of the game without a great deal of warning, Tri-Ace effectively undermined every other game in this series. If it’s just a computer simulation run by 4D beings for shits and giggles, then why should I care about the characters any more? They’re not real, they’re just simulated beings, for all intents and purposes, no more alive than my computer.
In The Last Hope, when the desert tribespeople are sacrificed by Asmodeus’s goons, I didn’t actually care all that much. Why? Because of Star Ocean 3. It’s just a computer game, both to me the player and to the characters in the game itself. That’s not a good thing for a player to be feeling during a scene that served as one of several major factors in Faize going off the rails.
You remember at the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, when Aragorn was revealed to be the reincarnation of The Creator (Eru Ilúvatar) and he vanquished Sauron with the lazy flick of a wrist, followed by resurrecting everyone who’d fallen over the course of the three films/books? Of course you don’t, because that would’ve been silly. But that’s exactly the sort of from-nowhere twist—if you can even call it that—Star Ocean 3 attempted to pull, and it fell exactly as flat as God-Aragorn would have.
But while the twist reveal was incredibly poorly handled and ruined pretty much everything in the game up until that point and beyond, I think it could work with a little (actually a lot of) tweaking. Even with the super-powered beings that are introduced at the conclusion to Act 1, there wasn’t enough done to properly introduce the idea of the universe being a simulated reality.
This is one of those things you really need to have figured out from the very start of your series. If the idea of our reality being a simulated one (not so dissimilar to an actual theory put forth in our world) was brought in as a major plot point in the first Star Ocean, the player would have been given the knowledge they need in order to properly accept the reality of the world inhabited by the characters.
This can be known as internal consistency, verisimilitude, or suspension of disbelief. The idea is that you ground the player (reader, viewer, whatever) in the fictional universe’s reality from the start. You say from the outset, ‘this is reality for these characters’. It’s really no different to a fully made-up fantasy world like Middle Earth, the same rules apply. By grounding the player and informing them that this is reality to our heroes, they’ll go along with it in the same way you’d go along with Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom.
Where the game failed was in only hinting at this reality with the existence of ultra powerful enemies being introduced a fair way into the game, and by bringing this in too suddenly to feel natural. It’s true that there are super powerful endgame foes in these games, but they’re RPGs, that’s wholly expected from a simple gameplay perspective.
But from a story standpoint, they could’ve been used to inform and enhance the overall world in ways they don’t currently. For example, we simply say that the peoples of the galaxy—at least those capable of interstellar travel—are fully aware of the existence of the 4D beings, and that their own existences are simulated in some form or fashion.
Altering the world to be this way from day one and having the player buy into the setting as being real sets up a Greek Tragedy kind of dealie. A world in which the gods are real and known to all sapient races in the universe. Some races worship them and do everything possible to appease and please them. Other races actively fight or reject them, dealing with the consequences as they happen.
And like any good Greek Tragedy, there would be gods both for and against the people of the world, playing their own cosmic games with the lives of mortals. We’d basically have Star Trek (real Trek, not CBS’s garbage) meets classical mythology, where sci-fi and fantasy collide. That’s kind of already the case in the games (the fantasy magic system known as Symbology in an otherwise sci-fi universe, for example), so taking it all the way to the logical endpoint seems reasonable.
It would also need to be firmly stated that there are no do-overs! If someone in the simulation dies, they’re gone, there’s no way to return them to life. Life has meaning because death exists, and we strive to achieve greatness as a result of how fleeting our existence is. To quote Lorien in Babylon 5:
We were born naturally immortal. At first, we were kept in balance by birth rates. Few of us were ever born. But then I think the universe decided that, to appreciate life, for there to be change and growth, life had to be short.Lorien – Babylon 5
So removing that aspect of our existence would be bad (with a caveat I’ll talk about in a moment). If a character can just come back from the dead because it’s a simulation, then you’ve already failed in much the same way Star Ocean 3 did.
Star Ocean 4, as a prequel, could have been used to explore this theme even further, showing how humanity’s first steps among the stars resulted in what you could call a galactic-sized Pandora’s Box; by sailing the star ocean, we automatically become eligible for trials and tests from the ‘gods’, giving us (and the others we meet, the Eldarians and so on) our first taste of exactly how insignificant we are as a species.
And how about those super powerful bosses? The Gabriel Celestes and Ethereal Queens? Why couldn’t they simply be projected simulations of the 4D beings themselves, again tying the whole overarching simulated reality setting to the current game’s world and themes? Given the hubris evident in these 4D beings, we could even say that killing one of them in the simulation goes full Sword Art Online on them and results in their actual death.
If we say that the majority of the ‘gods’ are content to simply observe and take more of a hands-off approach, then those few who directly interfere can do so in the knowledge that they’ll receive no help from the others if things go too far and they end up being defeated.
By playing the game themselves, they put their own lives on the line, resulting in a thrill, a rush, a sense of utter euphoria they can’t find in their own reality. Hell, Welch is probably a 4D being herself, so this is already the case, they’d just need to take it a few steps further.
Of course, you can farm these uber bosses multiple times, but that’s more of a gameplay conceit than a narrative one, and can easily be hand-waved away as such. Internal consistency is important, but so is making your game fun to play, especially when reaching end or post-game content. We could always say that they have do-over power, or they’ve disabled the ‘die in real world’ aspect, or whatever.
So while I think Star Ocean 3’s ending and the lead-up to it were kind of terrible, especially how out of nowhere it felt, there’s a foundation there Tri-Ace could’ve used to build something amazing. Sure, these games aren’t exactly played for their stellar stories, they’re about as schlocky and melodramatic as it gets, but they’re at the very least passable.
With a few tweaks I think they could turn this premise into a hugely enjoyable new direction for the series. Maybe it’s time to reset and reboot, take it back to roots and restart the Star Ocean series as many other franchises have done over the years.
As for the caveat I mentioned above, I’ll throw this additional idea into the ring: people aren’t, in fact, limited to dying only once, and have figured out how to game the system, or the system itself is set up to allow respawning. It’d basically be like the fantastic anime Log Horizon (seriously, please watch Log Horizon if you haven’t, it’s amazing).
This is actually an idea I’ve been toying with for one of my own books, a sci-fi universe where everyone is aware they’re living in a simulation, and where respawning is a regular aspect of life.
Potentially I could throw in a downside to respawning, as exists in Log Horizon (not going to spoil what it is here, you’ll have to watch the show for that), where respawning too much causes some issue or other. But mostly I’d be interested in exploring a world in which death isn’t final, and how people would live differently when risk basically doesn’t have the same negatives as it does in the real world we inhabit.
How would respawning even work? A specific location you spawn at, maybe on a ship? So if you’re on a planet, you need to get back to where you where. Or an instant respawn kind of dealie, maybe losing your inventory a’la dropping your souls in Dark Souls?
Or maybe something a bit more serious where you need to be brought back by a particular type of person, a priest class or similar, so if you die somewhere stupid… well, perhaps death is permanent in some cases. Lots of interesting ideas to consider for a story/book.
All in all, I don’t actually have a major issue with what Tri-Ace attempted with the third Star Ocean game, it’s really just the execution that needed work. And perhaps not including it as a new concept coming from left field in an existing series. That might’ve been good, too. Oh well.