The 3rd Birthday and Plot
StoryScan: Weak Point
StoryScan: Weak Point highlights specific aspects of individual game narratives that don’t live up to audience expectations. In this essay, we’re covering The 3rd Birthday (Square-Enix, 2010), the final installment in the Parasite Eve franchise. This essay will cover content from the entire plot of The 3rd Birthday. Players who have not completed this game may want to set this article aside until later, as it contains substantial spoilers for the main storyline.
In the 1990s, the development company Square (now Square-Enix) was primarily known for its role-playing games, namely its flagship Final Fantasy series. Fearing that the company would become dependent on its key franchise,1 Square sought to diversify its offerings towards the end of the decade. One of the products of that push for diversification was Parasite Eve, an action-horror game for the Sony Playstation. As Square’s first M-Rated title,2 Parasite Eve pushed the envelope on the kind of brutal subject matter fans could expect from the company. The game also featured a rare female lead: Aya Brea, a rookie officer of the NYPD who gets pulled into a scientific conspiracy after witnessing an outbreak of spontaneous combustion.3 This inventive plotline, combined with its novel twists and Square-quality cutscenes, generated favorable reviews and millions of sales.4 Fans of the game soon got a sequel, Parasite Eve II (2000), but they would have to wait over ten years for the next—and final—installment to arrive.
Enter 2010’s The 3rd Birthday, the Playstation Portable game that ‘reinvented’ the series for the modern era. While players still controlled series protagonist Aya Brea, she wasn’t the confident police officer they remembered from previous games. Somewhere along the way, she’d lost her memory and gained the ability to project her soul backward in time. Although those character traits opened the door for exciting gameplay mechanics, the story suffered from the changes. Aya’s memory struggles limited her ability to set meaningful goals for herself, and her time-travel powers made the stakes impossible to quantify while eliminating any sense of urgency. Together, these two plot devices severely hampered The 3rd Birthday‘s story, resulting in a muddled mess of a story that couldn’t be saved by its climactic twist.
One of the most well-known axioms of character development is that every character should have a goal, no matter how small. Whether this goal is external (a want) or internal (a need), it becomes an essential springboard for the character to get involved in the plot. To put it more succinctly: it gives them a reason to do things. Unfortunately, The 3rd Birthday’s inclusion of both amnesia and time travel removes the protagonist’s ability to set goals, thus limiting her impact on the plot.
When The 3rd Birthday begins, Aya’s amnesia has left her with no memory of who she was or what she cared about before the arrival of the Twisted, a group of alien lifeforms who laid waste to Manhattan in 2012. Everything Aya knows about the past, including her own history, comes from her colleagues in her current place of employment: Counter-Twisted Investigations. As a result, their goal—stopping the Twisted—becomes her goal, and her only other desire is to recover her memory. It’s a reasonable goal, but it doesn’t tell us anything about her character since any person with amnesia would want the same thing. It’s also not a goal she can take action to reach since amnesia isn’t something people can fix with gumption and grit. It’s a complicated medical condition that the media rarely depicts correctly. In stories, people often recover their memories through traumas that reflect their initial memory loss (the classic ‘blow-to-the-head’ maneuver)5. In reality, patients may recover their memories slowly with therapeutic intervention or never recover them at all. The only certainty is that nothing is certain, which means that Aya’s goal of regaining her memories isn’t a goal she can work towards independently. She’s at the mercy of her mind, and all she can do is wait for it to change. Realistic though that may be, it doesn’t give her a reason to engage with the plot, which drags the whole story down.
Amnesia is only one of the plot devices that makes goal-setting impossible in The 3rd Birthday. The other, time travel, introduces a host of other narrative problems. In The 3rd Birthday, Aya can project her soul into the past, where she can inhabit other people’s bodies and potentially change the course of events. It’s a compelling concept from a gameplay standpoint, but it comes with a severe drawback for goal-setting: the butterfly effect. In time travel stories, the butterfly effect is a term used to explain how seemingly small changes in the past can result in massive, unintended changes in the future.6 Just as a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil may result in a tornado in Texas, even the littlest changes Aya makes in the past may have staggering consequences in the present. As a result, she cannot set any long-term goals since she cannot reasonably predict the outcomes of her actions. Instead, she can only set immediate goals for the next leap into the past, which further entrenches the ‘present-focused’ mindset created by her amnesia. With no past, an uncertain future, and an ever-changing present, Aya Brea has nothing to strive for. All she can do is exist, which is just about all she does.
When characters want something, it’s usually because getting it will change their life for the better. Conversely, if they don’t get it, their life may get much worse. This change in the status quo is what’s at stake for the character, whether they succeed or fail in achieving their goals. By building a plot around both amnesia and time travel, The 3rd Birthday makes it impossible for the characters and the audience to know what’s at stake at any given time.
Aya Brea’s only personal goal is to restore her memories, but the very fact that she’s lost those memories means she has no idea how things will change when she gets them back. If the memories are mostly positive, they could improve her life; if the memories are mostly negative, they could make her life worse. Hence, it’s difficult to say what’s at stake should she succeed or fail. Aya’s two-year struggle with amnesia also means any memories she recovers will be out of date, and she’ll have no way of knowing if the people and places she remembers are the same as they used to be. This time gap makes the story’s personal stakes even more opaque, both to Aya and the audience. Her missing memories are the ultimate wildcard: there’s no way to know what’s going to happen once they return.
Aya’s ability to change the past muddies the story’s stakes that much further. Due to the aforementioned butterfly effect, Aya has no meaningful way to predict how her actions in the past will impact the present. For example, if she saves one life in the past, it may get another person killed; conversely, if she kills someone in the past, it may make things worse for everyone else in the present. Although there are a few reasonable predictions she can make—”If someone dies in the past, they’ll be gone in the present”—she can’t foresee the side-effects of the change, which means she can never fully understand the stakes. Since she doesn’t know what’s at stake, the audience doesn’t know, either, and The 3rd Birthday‘s story becomes a guessing game for everyone involved.
When a character wants something, one of the most common obstacles they face in getting it is time. Just as a character who wants to diffuse a bomb must do so before the timer runs out, a student who wants to pass a test must learn the material before the appointed date. Not every goal has an associated time constant, but the ones that do lead to tighter plots because they impart a sense of urgency. Urgency is what keeps characters from standing in one place indefinitely, debating the correct course of action instead of throwing caution to the wind and acting. By adding a sense of urgency to stories, writers can keep characters focused on their goals at an exciting pace. Unfortunately, amnesia and time travel are anathema to urgency, as they both give the characters the tools to go off-task without fear of consequences.
Recovering from amnesia is an unpredictable process, which means it’s impossible to give patients a timeline for restoring their memories. Since Aya has no way of knowing when her memories will come back, if they will at all, her goal lacks a sense of urgency at the outset. As the story progresses, her encounters with the Twisted help her reassemble some fragments of her memories, but those encounters are limited by how often she can travel back in time. This plot device presents its own problems, however, as time travel is the notorious killer of urgency.
In The 3rd Birthday, Aya can project her soul back in time to the point of her choosing, so long as there’s a body for her soul to inhabit when she gets there. This unique ability gives her the ability to ignore the time constraints of both the past and the present. In the past, Aya can take as much time as she needs to complete a mission, so long as she sets an early enough arrival time to compensate. On the off-chance she doesn’t make it, she can simply go back and try again, thus eliminating the pressure to get things right the first time. Meanwhile, Aya’s ability to flee the present means she can escape from any situation by retreating to the past, where she can take as much time as she needs to collect herself before returning to the current day. Regardless of where (or when) she is, Aya has no pressure to do things quickly. She can move at her own pace: a boon for her, but a stumbling block for her story.
As a plot device, amnesia is fraught with problems. Time travel has its own hurdles, as well. Combining the two has disastrous effects for goals, stakes, and urgency, which is why the plot of The 3rd Birthday feels like it’s going everywhere and nowhere at once. Writers and developers who want to use these plot devices should think long and hard about combining them, as the plot problems they present together can be difficult for even the most seasoned storyteller to overcome.
Every character should want something. The story shows whether they get it, and how.
What happens if a character doesn’t achieve their goal? What happens if they do?
Ticking clocks and time bombs: the classic narrative devices that keep stories moving.
1 McGlothlin, Ed. “Interview with Hironobu Sakaguchi.” The Gaming Intelligence Agency, 2001.
2 “Ratings Guide.” ESRB, 2022.
5 Carr, Kevin. “Here’s What Movies Get Right — And Wrong — About Amnesia.” Business Insider, 2014.
6 Lorenz, Edward N. “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in
Texas?” American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1972.
* Reference Footage: BuffMaister. “Parasite Eve 3 The 3rd Birthday THE MOVIE.” YouTube, 2018.