Within recent years, video games have begun to rely more heavily on promises of freedom and power. Many big budget games tell their players that they can be powerful, important heroes, with the freedom to do as they please in the vast worlds they’re presented. And despite repeated criticism, these kinds of games continue to draw an audience. Games like Grand Theft Auto V and The Witcher III remain relevant in part because of how well they invoke these ideals.
White Knight Chronicles, however, is surprisingly more critical of said ideals, even if it doesn’t look it at first. Both the vast fantasy world and the trite fantasy narrative of this 2008 (2010 outside of Japan) Playstation 3 game rely on this idea that you have the power to do as you please. However, the game eschews the optimistic views of freedom that its peers tend to be known for, and instead uses the world to deconstruct that view. It turns conventions on their head to ask who gets to have freedom, and what it feels like to be denied it.
It’s not that White Knight Chronicles initially looks like it’s turning any conventions on their head. Judging by the story, you’d think the game’s happy to repeat these conventions without any thought. It’s a typical “rescue the princess” medieval fantasy: after awakening to the White Knight’s power, our young hero Leonard searches for the captured Princess Cisna and tries to put an end to the evil Magi’s plans. The story hits all the tropes you’d expect, from the eternal war between two kingdoms (one generically good, the other generically evil) to the technologically advanced ancient civilization. It even contains a few nods to Star Wars, confusingly enough.
Although there’s a level of goofiness in how all of this is presented, the narrative never overtly develops or critiques its own premises. At times, it unabashedly embraces them, while at others, it looks like the game is just going through the motions. It’s enough to make a person ask what the game might possibly hope to achieve.
What we need to understand is that this narrative is only setting the stage for the game’s more detailed criticisms. As eager as it is to espouse its own ideals, the townspeople that roam each city are just as willing to critique them. They’re very aware of how anachronistic it is to idolize freedom under a medieval monarchy, and their lives reflect as much. Speaking with them forces you to confront the privilege that comes with being the hero of the story. For that role to even exist requires a system that exploits those it deems unimportant, effectively denying them the freedom to live their lives as they see fit.
One early character puts it best: “You’ve got the haves, you’ve got the have-nots, and that’s the end of it.” This is a message most of the people echo throughout their dialogue. From the idealistic Kingdom of Balandor and the merchant outpost at Albana, to the Free City of Greede, characters evereywhere lament their inability to achieve their own life goals.
And the message remains consistent across a variety of cultural contexts. The world of White Knight Chronicles borrows widely from history; Balandor looks to be taken from medieval Europe, whereas Greede harkens back to the Industrial Revolution. And their leaders range from benevolent to aloof to corrupt. Yet it’s all the same for the citizens living in these cities. They express the same disappointment, suggesting that no matter the circumstance, their worries are the natural and inevitable (maybe even necessary) result of any system.
Admittedly, this is a tricky reading, given how the game encourages you to play it. You spend so much time fighting monsters outside towns that it’s hard to find time to talk to anybody who doesn’t directly affect the plot. That’s why the game establishes its themes from the very beginning—before it even establishes narrative context for them. When you first start a new game, you’re tasked with creating your own character, and are presented a multitude of tools with which to do so. You can decide how you wear your hair, or the length of your nose, or how well toned your muscles are. Given what a strong emphasis the game puts on expressing yourself, it’s easy to assume you’re going to be a person of importance in this world.
Yet the story does not reflect these ideas, at least not as they relate to your character. Rather than focus on the character you’ve created, White Knight Chronicles instead focuses on another character: Leonard. In any other game, Leonard would be the generic protagonist through which we relate to the world. He’s pure of heart; he fulfills an ancient prophecy; he gets the princess in the end. But in White Knight, he’s not our character, and it’s much harder to relate to him. All Leonard’s presence does is implicitly deny the player any chance at being the hero. So through him, the game shows that not even the player is immune to having their ambitions stepped on.
As Leonard drives the plot forward, becoming ever more important, all your character can do is watch from the sidelines, doing little to affect events. And unlike the townspeople, this isn’t because their material circumstances are that different. The two characters are near identical, working the same delivery job at the beginning of the game. Yet your character ends up just as ancillary as anybody else.
This continues into the gameplay, which is loaded with similar messages of freedom and expression. Writing for the journal New Literary History, University of Virginia professor David Golumbia argues how MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing game; games like World of Warcraft) are coded with modern capitalist messages that center on the player and their desires. In his eyes, the core appeal of MMORPGs is the pursuit of power, and every feature in these games is designed around that conceit, rather than around fun or excitement. And where the game’s world doesn’t give the player new loot by which they can accrue more power, the world serves as a tourist attraction. This essentially situates the player as part of a wealthy leisure class who can “survey [their] holdings from a demesne unavailable to [their] laboring subjects.”
In addition, he notes that the wildlife in these games make little sense as wildlife. World of Warcraft never depicts animals eating, interacting with each other, or doing anything that their real counterparts would do. Individual animals can’t even become more powerful like the player can. They only exist for the player to kill, either to accumulate more power or verify the power they already have. (Here, too, we see that the fantasies these narratives promise aren’t for everybody.)
For all White Knight Chronicles does to muddy these arguments (enemies do level up with you, for example), we can still find some very important parallels. The game plays out like a typical MMORPG: you join a group of warriors to explore fantasy locales, fighting monsters and collecting whatever treasure you come across. (In fact, before its servers were shut down in 2013, the game had many other features that MMORPGs have as well.) Many of these locales are reminiscent of the sort of tourist attractions that Golumbia notes: they feature lush, vibrant imagery and large expanses of land.
And the wildlife fits Golumbia’s descriptions, too. Not only do we never see them behaving like wildlife might actually behave, but their habitats preclude any ability to do so. None of the monsters ever feel like they belong in the spaces they inhabit. Ice giants roam relatively un-icey caves, and gigantic bugs thrive in arid deserts. From a narrative perspective, none of this makes sense. But from Golumbia’s perspective, it makes all the sense in the world. These creatures exist not for their own sake, but for the player to verify that they’re the hero who can be whatever they want to be and do whatever they want to do.
THE POWER TO EXIST
So it is with everything in White Knight Chronicles. These compelling landscapes center the player by inviting them to fill the empty spaces with action, and the game’s complex minutiae offer the player a multitude of ways to express themselves.
Again, though, we see Leonard complicate this set-up. While protecting the princess early in the story, he gains the power to control the Ark, a magic suit of armor that towers over the characters. For the plot, the Ark is little more than a MacGuffin. But while playing the game, all it does is reinforce the idea that you aren’t the hero of the story. It doesn’t negate the player’s ability to be what they want, but it does render that ability more trivial.
Leonard is so much more powerful than any other character that nobody else’s abilities matter. Everybody else is forced to sit on the sidelines, much as they do in the narrative. And he only becomes more powerful as the game goes on, as you gradually encounter monsters too large for anybody but Leonard to handle. Meanwhile, the player avatar (and thus the player) becomes less relevant as the game advances.
Looking back on what I’ve written, I notice that I’ve painted a very divided picture of White Knight Chronicles. Its plot upholds the idealistic fantasies many games are known for and then cuts them down in the same breath. The gameplay isn’t that different: it presents an open world, only to constrain it under a plot that sidelines players. Perhaps this is what makes my criticisms of the game so incisive: I don’t deny that freedom exists in this world, but I’m is willing to mark that freedom’s limits. Not everybody is allowed to enjoy it. While your band of merry men explores the world, everybody else is forced to make due with their less than ideal realities. Not even the player is safe from such a system. For all the freedom and opportunity that White Knight Chronicles presents, the player has to learn that very little of it is meant for them.
Brian Crimmins is a freelance game writer who critically analyzes older Japanese titles. You can find him writing at Unwinnable, Hardcore Gaming 101, and other publications.
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