Let us speak in generalities. What we call role-playing games (RPGs), whether they’re Japanese or western-produced, share two common ancestors. The first is Dungeons & Dragons. Created in 1974, it would gain popularity worldwide, including in Japan by the mid-80s. Dungeons & Dragons ‘gameified’ concepts and creatures from several sources but primarily borrowed heavily from the second RPG common ancestor: Lord of the Rings.
RPGs started off as a vague approximation of Lord of the Rings and its descendants, filtered through the gameplay codification of Dungeons & Dragons, and processed even further through the technical limitations of the platforms these games were designed for. During the 80s and 90s, part of the allure of RPGs were that they were one of the few video game genres that were dedicated to story-telling as more than window dressing facilitating a gameplay experiencei.
Inspired by both its common ancestors, RPGs have tended to aspire to character-driven storytelling that emulates prose fiction. With all things there are exceptions, but the ideal of emulating the rhythm and cadence of a great novel has long been the aspiration of many RPGsii.
Vandal Hearts II, Konami’s 1999 sequel to their 1996 cult hit, Vandal Hearts, is as much inspired by its ancestors as any other RPG but makes some hard pivots when it comes to the layout of its plot and the method it uses to deliver.
Characters are important in Vandal Hearts II, as they are in most games, but only insofar as they serve as couriers and mediums to make the plot unfold. The game is much more a meditation on what the events of the title drive people to do, rather than a narrative journey of following characters as they deal with these events.
The player character, Joshua, and his eventual party of broad-strokes allies do not exist to provide the player with a group to empathize with, or a path to follow. They exist because there needs to be counters to be played on a tactical RPG grid and because, at least in 1999, making the main character the abstract concept of fate, whimsy and the butterfly effect would have been very avant garde.
That is not to say the playable cast is completely empty or without form. Players will have their favourites and least favourites. But it is true that when combined into one full party, they just about make up one, single perspective. They’re an ensemble cast member. They’re a chorus who serve to commentate on the events of the day, direct focus when needed and, vitally for this is still a video game, allow the player to bop some enemies over the head with a variety of weaponsiii.
What drives people is the core of Vandal Hearts II. Who these people are is almost completely irrelevant. Despite a high body count, there are also several examples of characters just being ignored once their role in ferrying the plot to the player is over. Plot threads are not dropped in favour of continuing to follow characters, characters are dropped as the plot ebbs and flows. If someone dies, it is not to give closure but to make a point about the plot. If a character drifts away, it is because they have no point to make.
Characters are not the focus of Vandal Hearts II. Each actor in this drama involving the Kingdom of Natra has their own motivation but one thing is shared; no one wants to be the lead. The main character. The ruleriv. The times have shaped these people into becoming what they are. They are intermediaries for other events, for other people. They speak of motives and obligations and reasons. These are all important as they showcase how even those with similar goals, hopes, and dreams can become enemies.
If the Kingdom of Natra is a stage, then in their lives, each player plays only one part. At its core, Vandal Hearts II is a tale of power and desperation. About how the lure of the former attracts those with an abundance of the latter and, more importantly, how combining the two with invariably lead to disastrous consequences as this frantic pursuit leads to moral compromises, creating more desperation in the world.
The soliloquies of Cardinal Ladorak, Godard, Agatha, Joshua et al speak more directly to the notion of Vandal Hearts II as something more akin to a drama than a novel. Its strict adhesion to a 5 act structure, in the old tradition, also speaks to this.
Act 1, termed the Prologue in-game, begins with establishing the setting, the Kingdom of Natra, and inserting the seed of conflict. In this case, it is the arrival of Prince Nicola, son of the exiled Prince Julius. This leads to the second act, where the action rises as insurrection begins and we get glimpses of the many plots being laid out by our playersv.
As we continue into the third act, secrets are revealed and the necessary pieces are being moved around to set the stage for the climax. Events ensure the past cannot be reclaimed and things climax with the seeming success of one player’s goals. Act 4 begins with a period of rest but soon spirals into the fallout and consequences of the previous act’s climax. Events continue to spiral out of control, leading to the final act, where all secrets are laid bare and the final confrontation occurs.
The care the game takes to divide the game as such internallyvi combined with a deliberate attempt to eschew a more traditional character and setting driven plot for one more concerned for motivations and consequences brings something of a fresh feel to the plot of Vandal Hearts II.
Not that this makes the game objectively great. Many criticisms were made of the game’s plot on release, including that it was overly long and boring in comparison to its predecessorvii. As Vandal Hearts II actually shares some narrative broad strokes with its predecessor, this can be viewed as evidence of the popularity of character-driven narrative stories and a healthy reminder that many people are indeed drawn to characters, not circumstances.
In the end, Vandal Hearts II’s drama aspirations would lead it to be mostly ignoredviii. Even the 2008 digital download game Flames of Judgement made sure to be a prequel to the first, more character-driven, title and is, in turn, almost entirely character focused. As the years passed, most RPGs also became even more character focused. As a communal species, we empathize and connect with characters, with people, in a way most of us do not with more abstract concepts.
As some Danish fellow once said, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Vandal Hearts II has not been thought of much at all but here it is, and it exists still, waiting to be experienced and enjoyed as a tale of hope and folly enacted by people, unconcerned with any one person.