REFLECTIONS ON ‘THE WAY’ (an rpgmaker game)
Once in a while in your life you come across a piece of writing so profound, so arresting, so moving, that it forever leaves an indelible impression on your soul, affecting you always, never quite leaving your deep memory.
This blog post is not one of those pieces of writing.
It is, however, about a piece of writing that has affected me in this way, of which you have probably never heard. Actually, it’s about a videogame. But please bear with me! I’m of the opinion (shared by this writer for the Guardian, at least: http://www.theguardian.com/technology/gamesblog/2014/jan/08/video-games-art-and-the-shock-of-the-new) that videogames can be an art-form or at least contain elements of art. Especially particular genres of videogames: I’m not talking about mindless first person shooters or pop football simulators here. The game I’m talking about is an old-school ‘RPG’ or Role Playing Game, a genre of videogame which strongly resembles the literary form of a stage play, being somewhere between an interactive novel and an animated film, with both written dialogue and visual action. This particular game, The Way, was made using an indie development platform called “rpgmaker”, of which I am a fan and which I use also, by an American called Luke Wacholtz. As such, it has had very little exposure beyond the (quite small) indie rpgmaker community –most people will never have heard of it or played it, even among videogamers. It is, nevertheless, almost universally acclaimed within that community, and at one time amassed itself something of a cult following, for one simple reason: It is magnificent.
I played The Way when I was a teenager. It was released episodically in six different instalments, which happened to come out while I was growing up through adolescence, trying to make my own (much worse) rpgmaker games on my computer. I loved it. I still have vivid memories of playing through each episode at my parents’ different houses, staying up late to finish them, while I was in secondary school. Later, when I grew up and got married, I once showed it to my wife, who sat down and played it straight through in three days (i.e. fast). The thing is, The Way is excellent. As I mentioned, it accrued a massive fan-base for what it was, and its website, http://www.crestfallen.us, developed an active forum community which still gets posts in it from time to time. When the creator Wacholtz set up a facebook page recently under his rpgmaker alias ‘Lun’, four years after the final episode was released, it was flooded at once by fans and messages from people telling him how good it was and how much they had enjoyed it, messages like: “I loved The Way, literally one of my favorite stories from any medium”; “I was just writing to say that over the course of my life your writing for The Way still moves me, affects my decisions, and is something I think about when I am questioned about my favorite story”; “I truly have to hand it to you – it’s not often that I’ve come across a story that has this much richness, depth or symbolism, and which can be read in so many ways”; and “Just thought you should know, every summer I’ve replayed the whole series from beginning to end. This is the first summer where work will keep me from it.”. Lun still gets hits on his facebook page today, eight ears after the last episode in the game was finished.
In this blog post, I want to ask ‘Why is The Way so good?’ What is it that has made it so compelling to so many of the few people that have come across it? In doing this, I hope to increase exposure for and awareness of The Way, and also to provide some literary-theological reflections about why it is that good art fascinates us so much, especially for the kind of people who would never normally be interested such things, but might read an article about an indie rpgmaker game.
Why is The Way so good?
Here are some suggested answers.
- It has an outstanding, original, grand guiding concept.
And it’s all in the title. The world of this game is the eponymous ‘Way’. The ‘Way’ is a massively long stretch of land, inhabited by people calling themselves ‘wanderers’ who spend their lives journeying along it. Some wanderers settle down and so build ‘settlements’, towns, to live in for a while, but most live permanently nomadic existences, traveling forwards alone or in groups along the Way. The reason for this is that at the back and front of the Way are the ‘rolling mists’, which each move forwards in the same direction, so that the back of the Way is always slowly being swallowed up in thick mist, and at the front of the Way new parts of it are always slowly being revealed. As the wanderers journey forwards on the Way, necessitated by the advancing and receding mists, they occasionally find large wooden ‘guideposts’, which point them in the right direction in which to go in order to continue along it. These in turn have been placed by ‘forerunners’, particularly courageous wanderers who live right at the front of the Way, on the edge of the rolling mists, exploring the new landscape as it is revealed, and marking out the paths for subsequent wanderers to travel safely across it.
This is a brilliant idea. Wacholtz’s game renders the world as a Way, presenting us with a striking image where the very landscape of his world is a metaphor for the individual’s existential journey through life (as well as the general temporal progression of history). It’s simple, it’s universal, and it’s immediately appealing. All of us can conceive of our lives as a journey through a finite, dangerous, unknown landscape, so to express this in visual form is and make it the basis for a mythology is very clever.
In thinking about why this idea works so well, I’ve recalled that Christianity, my faith, was called when it first came into existence ‘the Way’ (see e.g. Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 24:14, 22). ‘Way’ or ‘path’, which is ‘hodos’ in Greek and ‘derech’ in Hebrew, is a very deep concept that is used a lot in the Bible. Whether it’s in terms of the “way of the righteous” or the “way of the wicked”, the motif of the way or the path is used often to speak of different modes of journeying through life. And when I think of “wanderers on the Way”, I can’t help but think also of Hebews 11: 13-16: “they admitted that they were strangers and pilgrims (or ‘wanderers’) on the earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a land of their own…they were longing for a better land –a heavenly one”. The image of life as a wandering journey towards an eternal destination is widespread in the Bible, and Wacholtz himself has three endings in his game: a standard one and two ‘secret’ endings –one of which is clearly heavenly, and the other, hellish. Without giving anything away, the standard ending subverts both of these possibilities somewhat, so personally I find it less satisfying, though artfully done. But the two ‘secret’ endings have enormous spiritual resonances: It is possible to conceive of life as a journey either back towards or away from the Edenic tree of life, the ‘way’ to which is barred in Genesis 3 as a result of humankind’s selfish disobedience (the first mention of the term ‘way’ in the Bible). And of course, Christ himself said “I am the way” (John 14:6), meaning that he provides the only route to relationship with our Father God; he himself provides that ‘way’ back to the tree of life, which reappears in Revelation 22 at the centre of the Heavenly City.
As such, it is my contention that the Way’s outstanding, original, grand guiding concept is so compelling because it draws on a poetic metaphor that is not only universally appealing, but is universally appealing because it is rooted in spiritual truth. In this sense its grand guiding concept is not actually properly “original”, better to say that it is an original application of an unoriginal truth: This life is not our final destination, this life is a journey that leads to an eternal destination, and Christ has by dying for us and taking on the death that we deserve for our selfish disobedience made the it possible for it to be a way back to the Heavenly City and eternal life. Of course, Wacholtz may not agree with me on this, and the standard ending for the game does perhaps contradict this motif in certain ways. But I contend that this is the case nonetheless. The Way as an idea is brilliant because it taps into what Carl Jung would call the collective unconscious, and that collective unconscious is contoured as it is because it derives its structure from higher spiritual reality, supremely the way of Jesus Christ, who is also the truth and himself the source of eternal life.
This is the primary reason why I think the Way is so appealing an idea, really, and my further reasons about why it is so good have more to do with the literary quality of the game as a work of art. Though there may be a few more philosophical-theological reflections to make along the way (pun intended) as well, I will leave those to one side for now for reasons of time (maybe I’ll add them later).
- It has strong, individual, well-developed and well-rounded characters.
You can have the most outstanding, original, grand guiding concept you want, but if you populate your literary world that is based on it only with flat, two-dimensional, lifeless characters, it’s not going to be any good at all. Fortunately, The Way has an ensemble cast each with their own unique personality, quirks, motives and style, and each is well-drawn, persuasive and interesting: There’s Rhue, the (anti?-)heroic central protagonist of the game, who is wandering the Way in search of his lost childhood love, and is by turns conflicted, gallant, selfish and naive; there’s Traziun, Rhue’s confident friend and mentor who harbours an enigmatic secret; there’s Gaius, the mysterious loner who always seems to turn up in the right place at the right time for some unknown reason; there’s Kloe, the noble warrior-woman whose innocence has often been betrayed in the past; there’s Lyrra, the sensitive storyteller who seems to prefer fantasy to reality; there’s Strata, the brutal vagrant who’s always looking out for number one; there’s Scatha, the disfigured traveler who wears a mask to hide her appearance and hisses through a broken mouth; there’s Slade, the disillusioned bounty hunter who does other people’s dirty work but with increasing reservations; and that’s to say nothing of Lexus, Dirk, Cetsa, Sacrifa, Sorya and others. We want to know about all of them, because they are usually ambiguous, elusive and idiosyncratic.
- It has a strong, complex plot with lots of intrigue and mystery
Of course, you can have the best original grand guiding concept in the world, and the most interesting, quirky, three-dimensional characters you want, but if they don’t do anything interesting your narrative is going to be a literary failure. The Way does not fail to deliver in this area either. The main plot of the story is that Rhue, the central protagonist, is wandering the Way in search of his lost childhood love, Serena. This is what drives him forward and we always want to know what has happened to Serena as he gets closer and closet to finding out. But this isn’t the only plot, as every major character has at least one plotline, often more, so that the story is full of suspense and mystery –there are always things that we don’t know about that we want to understand, moving the narrative forwards. Primarily, we want to know why Rhue is looking for Serena and then, constantly, if he will ever find her. But the other mysteries accumulate fast, teasing us and making us want to know more about them too –there’s the Phantom Slasher who stalks the shadows at night committing anonymous murders, Cetsa’s pendant that seems to have belonged to Serena before, Traziun’s peculiar relationship with the military cult known as the Blood Lyn, Scatha’s identity, the dream city of ‘Estrana’, the list goes on and on. Whenever we get an answer to a question at least two new questions have been brought up, and the game even ends partly in mystery, leaving one or two things up to interpretation!
- It has oodles of atmosphere
‘Oodles of atmosphere’ is not a very precise critical term, but by this I mean that the general aesthetic of the game is nearly as compelling as the writing. This is largely due to Wacholtz’s original background panoramas created with a different computer program (see picture), good choice of music, some of which he originally composed, and excellent direction in the form of placing and panning of shots. In particular, by setting Episode 6 largely inside a dream world, or a dream world within a dream world (videogame), a very unsettling atmosphere is created which is sometimes frustrating, but usually mesmerising, with the player desperate to know how everyone has got there and why nobody acknowledges where they are, disrupting the flow of the narrative and suspending the denouements right at the climactic point -though they do arrive eventually!
- It deals with universal themes and topics
This is quite similar to point 1, sure, but the point is that as well as being about ‘the Way’, the game treats lots of other simple, unoriginal things well and in a original manner: love, death, religion, existential crisis and searching, identity, justice, competition fighting for a cause, romance -it’s all in there.
My last two points have more to do with videogame design than the literary features of The Way, so they may not be interesting to everyone, though they are to me!
- Every player section of the game is a minigame
This fact is a piece of genius in game design. Whatever is happening at a given moment, the player is presented with as an interactive minigame –be it exploration, a puzzle, a less typical coded minigame, a search quest, dungeon delving, branching multiple choice options; everything that the player does that isn’t a narrative cutscene in the Way is a thought-through minigame. With variety. This is a startlingly impressive achievement and means that it is fun to play, as well as having an excellent story.
- It has lots of sidequests and rewards
Again, this point is more to do with game design, and those not familiar with videogames may not even know what I mean by ‘sidequests’. Basically, in addition to the main linear ‘quest’ of the game, it has loads of stuff you can do around the fringes. And remember those branching multiple choice options? Every choice that you make will affect other things that happen in the game, to a greater or lesser extent. If you have rpgmaker2k, you can even go into the code of the game and see how, along with reading all the secret little messages that Wacholtz has left in the code -a sidequest in itself!
Thus concludes my reflection upon why The Way is so great, largely because of its spiritual resonances with Christian truth.
Now go and play it! Then you can come back and argue with me about how good it is or the reasons I think it so good.
You can download the game at Wacholtz’s website here: http://www.crestfallen.us/download.html In the latest release, he added a mode where you can turn off battles, and even skip minigames, so if you just want to experience it for the story you can do that too.
There’s a trailer for the game made by the creator here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zR7riU5V5Xg
Just as a note, Episode 1 is not as good as the other five episodes, presumably because the creator was just getting going and was still relatively young when he made it. Episode 2 warms up though, and episodes 3, 4, 5, and 6 are masterworks of the genre, arguably of literature, if I have made my case well enough.
Or watch it! If you don’t want to play it or wouldn’t know how, you can watch a youtube Let’s Play of The Way by a youtuber called Malefact here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sqT5a7YUiIk Personally, I find the guy’s voice quite irritating, but he does go through the whole thing.
Or wait for the novel! If you don’t enjoy playing videogames or watching youtube videos of them, fair enough. According to his website, Wacholtz has been working on a novel. The Way would work brilliantly as a novel or a TV series, though this novel is apparently an unrelated story. In any case, if he ever publishes it, I’m going to be buying. If this talented artist’s novel writing is anything like his game creation, it will be brilliant. Definitely one to watch.
To close, a few more pieces of fan art made for The Way, by some people going by the names of Rangi and Firesta. Yes, this is the kind of game that gets fan art, and it’s not even commercial.