Influences and Themes
In our editorial section, we check in with our Editor-in-Chief, Liz Kelly, for her thoughts on a wide variety of subjects related to storytelling and gaming. All potential spoilers will be labeled ahead of time, so that fans who wish to play specific games unspoiled will be able to set the editorial aside for a later time.
Titles Referenced: Chained Echoes (Matthias Linda, 2022); Metal Gear Solid (Konami, 1999), Fullmetal Alchemist (Hiromu Arakawa, 2001)
It’s a new year, which means it’s the perfect time to talk about new games. Therefore, in the spirit of the season, I’m going to talk about a game I’ve already talked about before: Chained Echoes (Matthias Linda, 2022). In case you didn’t read the previous article, or you’re not up on the indie role-playing scene, Chained Echoes is a modern pixel RPG that draws inspiration from classics franchises like Chrono Trigger/Cross, Final Fantasy, and Wild ARMs—a lot of inspiration, as it turns out, and not all of it good.
Before I explain what I mean, let me get something out of the way: I loved playing Chained Echoes. I sank sixty hours into it and enjoyed almost every moment. The combat was clever, the character designs were creative, and the nostalgic pixel art made me feel like a kid again. The story, though? Not the best. I make a point of trying to be even-handed in my critiques for CSU, as I’m a firm believer in the idea that reducing reviews to a binary ‘good’ or ‘bad’ does a disservice to everyone, but I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the Chained Echoes story has problems. And the biggest problem, from where I’m sitting, is the way it handles its inspirations.
The issue jumped out at me in the opening scene, though it didn’t strike me as an ‘issue’ right away. Chained Echoes begins with a quick-yet-obvious homage to Chrono Trigger, where the protagonist wakes up to find his mother opening his bedroom window. At the moment, I thought it was cute (if a little unsubtle), but my opinion of it began to sour as the Chrono references started piling up. Attack animations, musical cues, character names, and backstories: the game was beginning to feel less like an original work and more like a ROMhack. Things seemed to get better for a bit once the story grew beyond the opening beats, but then the tone of the story started to shift, and the references came right along with it.
“The biggest problem [with Chained Echoes] is the way it handles its inspirations.”
It would probably be fair for me to assume that if you’re reading an essay about Japanese RPG narratives, you’ve got at least a passing familiarity with the manga/anime Fullmetal Alchemist, but I’ll give you a brief pitch on the off-chance you’re not. In Fullmetal Alchemist, two young brothers attempt to magically resurrect their late mother after she dies from a protracted illness. Unfortunately, the spell fails, and the universe extracts a terrible cost: one brother loses an arm and a leg, while the other has his soul sealed inside a hollow suit of armor. (I’m fudging some of the timeline details for the sake of brevity, but that’s mostly right.)
This incident sets the tone for the rest of the series, as the trauma from the fallout informs every decision the brothers make during the story. Because it’s such a unique plot point, it’s easy to remember; because it forms the foundation of the story, it’s impossible to remove. So why am I bringing this up during a discussion of Chained Echoes? Well, because Echoes also has a character who loses an arm and a leg in a magical deal gone wrong at the same time, his son’s soul is sealed inside a hollow suit of armor. Add in some of the ‘gate’ iconography from Fullmetal, and you’ve got a bona fide shot-for-shot remake, except the same scenes don’t carry nearly the same weight as they did in their story of origin. But why is that?
It would be easy to write off Chained Echoes as ‘a ripoff,’ and therefore bad, but that doesn’t tell us why the scenes don’t function as intended. It also relies on the false premise that all works that rely heavily on references are bad when that’s demonstrably not the case. Take, for example, any given game made by Hideo Kojima. His Metal Gear Solid series is absolutely exploding with references to other works, and the more recent Death Stranding continues the trend. (There’s a character nicknamed Die Hardman, for goodness’ sake, and it should not shock you to discover this man’s real name is John McClane.) While Kojima’s stories aren’t exactly tight, they’re more than the sum of their references and have Kojima’s signature style. It’s a style that relies on bombastic characters, layers of conspiracy, and enormous monologues, and they’re all in service of his themes. As it turns out, so are his references.
In the decades since Kojima released his earliest games, he’s used his titles to examine a specific set of themes. Questions like ‘Do genetics equal destiny?’ or ‘Can people trust their leaders?’ occur again and again in his stories, and the accompanying references work because they reinforce those themes. For example, the original Metal Gear Solid borrows heavily from the John Carpenter film Escape from New York, in which a disaffected soldier named Snake is infected with a deadly virus and sent on a suicide mission by his government. If that sounds familiar to you, it’s because it’s also the opening of Metal Gear Solid. The reason it still works in MGS is that it serves one of the story’s major themes: soldiers cannot trust their governments. Using this theme as a guidepost, Kojima can make such ‘borrowed’ beats feel fresh and cohesive in new stories. The scenes may not be original individually, but as parts of a whole, they reinforce each other and create something that stands on its own. This is an area where Kojima excels; it’s also the area where Chained Echoes falls apart.
“[Kojima’s references]” reinforce each other and create something that stands on its own.”
Let’s jump back to the Fullmetal Alchemist references I mentioned earlier, as they strike me as the most obvious example of misused references in Chained Echoes. While the plot of Echoes isn’t exactly cohesive, there is a running theme: “You can never erase your actions from the past, but you can always do better in the present.” It’s actually a theme that fits nicely with the Fullmetal backstory, but Echoes doesn’t make the most of the connection. Instead, it takes the aesthetics of the Fullmetal scene and rewrites its core, losing some of the meaning in the process.
In Echoes, the lizardman Ba’thraz is living with his young son in an idyllic village when a group of bandits attacks. When Ba’thraz’s son tries to fight the bandits, they kill him, and with his dying breaths, the boy makes a supernatural deal to tether his soul to a suit of armor. In armor form, he tries to fight the bandits again, but they kill him—again—and Ba’thraz avenges him with a similar deal. In exchange for his limbs, he takes the gauntlets and greaves from his son’s armor as his own legs and arms, and together they fight as one. It’s an interesting departure from the Fullmetal version, to be sure, but the changes undercut the Chained Echoes theme.
In Fullmetal, the brothers know human resurrection is a dangerous taboo to break, yet they go ahead with it anyway after months of effort and planning. Hence, when the spell backfires, and their bodies are brutalized, it feels like a tragic but predictable punishment for their hubris. On the other hand, in Echoes, Ba’thraz and his son know nothing of the deals they make or the entity making them, and everything happens in the spur of the moment. As a result, the outcome doesn’t feel like a punishment or even a con; it just feels like a bad thing that happened to them, similar to the bandit attack that kicked the whole mess off. Since Ba’thraz’s condition isn’t a punishment, it doesn’t feel like something he has to make amends for in the present. It’s just an unfortunate part of his past, one that fails to reinforce the story’s theme.
The above example is one of the more egregious examples of Chained Echoes’ referential misfires, but it’s by no means the only one. Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger, and Final Fantasy Tactics all feature in similarly mark-missing moments, and the resulting story is a thematically-inconsistent mess. It’s a fun mess, however, and I can say without any hint of irony that it was one of my favorite games of last year. I just wish the story had been treated with the same care as the combat system, because a random mix of references do not a narrative make.
Liz Kelly, Editor-in-Chief
Narrative Analysis: Influences & Inspirations
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StoryScan: Snatcher and Influences
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StoryScan: Chrono Trigger/Chained Echoes
Chrono Trigger and Chained Echoes use different approaches to showing and telling to introduce their characters.