Late as usual. Sorry, as usual. Took a trip to New York, got four wisdom teeth removed, fun times had by all. Onward!
The Takeaway: Endings 2
… To the Black Guardian. I already talked last time about how I liked the idea of having the Guardian be more visible during earlier parts of the quest, and replacing the Veiled Woman’s last appearance with him talking you through getting back to him/waking him back up. Let’s set that aside and talk about the Black Guardian physically for a minute:
The aesthetic of the Guardian is pretty much a dead match for the Starling tech we’ve seen through the game. The blocky gold metals and the eerie green flames; the Guardian itself is a super-sized Centurion. This is the aesthetic of modern Starlings like Agnod’s crashed ship, or Kurmai’s Gertrude, or Horst. The aesthetic of the <Old X> side-dungeons which I’ve been assuming were old Pyrean ruins all this time but were probably just the Starling cities that didn’t zoom up into the sky. It’s the aesthetic of the Star City that the Guardian will shortly recommend I flee to.
This is all especially interesting, because the Prophetess comes to the same conclusion (big stompy gold robo = Starlings) and the Black Guardian is adamant that he is not a Starling, and is in fact older than them by far. Now sure, from a Doylist perspective (that is, the perspective of a real life reader, outside the text), the similarity was probably just to save on assets; they already had a giant robot, so rather than make a whole new asset for this guy…
But it’s more interesting to consider this from a Watsonian perspective (that is, from within the text). And for that, we consider what the Ancient Starlings have been for us, thematically. I’d call it ‘superhuman knowledge brought down by human hubris.’ The Starlings were the source by which we learned of the City of a Thousand Floods and the Numinos, and so is the Guardian here to lay some final truths on us regarding the nature of the cycle. As the Starlings survived the Cleansing by using their great knowledge on some desperate ploy to hide from the Cleansing, so did the Guardian. As the Starlings eventually fell to infighting without the High Ones needing to do a thing, so shortly will the Guardian. The Starlings’ mentality doesn’t exactly map to the Guardian’s; so far as I know, the Ancient Starlings never tried to rule humanity from their floating sky city the way the Guardian would. But their purpose in the story is really very similar.
It was a good choice thematically for the Guardian to wear their colors, even if it does mean two entire civilizations were actually that gaudy.
The meat of the Black Guardian conversation, besides explaining the Guardian’s own backstory, is the Black Guardian laying out the two paths for the endings. He recommends fleeing to the Star City in no uncertain terms, but when you press him he acknowledges that you could also run up there and break the machine. Neither option is terribly appealing; the ‘heroic’ choice involves blowing up Enderal, while the ‘cowardly’ choice involves spending tens of thousands of years alone in the Star City, waiting for humanity to repopulate.
As a side note, I wish we got a little more about how exactly humanity spontaneously repopulates in between cycles. The Guardian has been watching this happen dozens of times, does it seriously not merit any commentary? Whoever runs the trial is clearly pulling the species back from extinction just to run through the same exact cycle again. Whoever’s in charge, I feel like the cycle is broken. They repeat the exact same set of variables for millions of years, kept on track by a bunch of sadistic ghostly a-holes, hoping for… what? That humanity will win this time?
If that’s what you want, just make us perfect noble super-beings, not the terribly flawed creatures that we are. There’s a certain absurdity to it. Like, at least with the Mass Effect cycle, new races were rising each time. The Reapers didn’t pick humans back up, dust us off and send us back in every single time to see if we do something clever this time.
Anyway. Endings. It’s interesting that the two endings map reasonably accurately to our two companions; Jespar has long considered running for the hills (help back on by luuuuve), while Calia is a regular little paladin, evil shadowy monster form not-withstanding. Does Calia go with you if you flee the way Jespar does? That would seem weird. I’d expect her to take a crack at poking the Beacon even if you insisted on running away to Star City.
Actually, at the time, my thought was that the endings seemed weirdly bleak for this game. It was difficult to pick apart why I found the bleakness unusual, though, that’s where the ‘weird’ really comes in. Fan-favorite characters have been dying throughout this entire game. I’ve been tossed from cutscene defeat to deus ex machina save half a dozen times. Enderal is a shithole populated by xenophobic peasants, supercilious noblemen and vast quantities of things that want to kill you. At this point, I like maybe three people still alive in the game, and that number will soon be cut by two-thirds. So why was I surprised that the cycle continues grinding away as it always has despite this pebble in the gears?
I think it’s because of the Veiled Woman.
Twice now she’s popped in as a deus ex machina to save the day, three times if you count getting me tied to a corpse and tossed overboard as a ‘save.’ So when she appeared after Tealor left be down in the dark, and sent me on my way with a side of cryptic nonsense, I just kind of assumed things were back on track. I mean, apparently she literally broke a part of the cycle (Prophet dies after Emperor leaves her) over her knee with a loud snap. Except then she provides just enough of a nudge to get me to sacrifice myself for the good of all or to save literally one whole person from the cycle.
I’ve never gotten the impression that she has any limits on her power or autonomy; she regularly breaks the laws of space, time, life and death whenever she shows up. If she, say, seemed to be pulling a fast one on whoever was running the cycle/trial, keeping things quiet and covert and slipping a little help under the radar, then I’d more easily accept this kind of bare-bones help-but-not-really. If she seemed to be struggling to emote, or didn’t have a human form, I might assume she’s part of something much greater and only able to break away for these tiny moments. But instead, she seems to be in charge of the whole thing, and kind of sassy about it. With her kind of power, the only real explanation for being stuck with this choice is that she cares enough to change things but not enough to actually ensure I and my friends survive. I expect she doesn’t like me much.
Question with the benefit of hindsight: So we know magic is taking phenomena from a sea of potential timelines that are apparently pretty similar; the ‘somewhere, Constantine’s beard is on fire’ concept. So is the Veiled Woman pulling this gambit on an infinite number of slightly different Earths? Or does only one timeline have to succeed to win the trial and get to not be destroyed? If the humans in the Constantine beard-fire timeline succeed, does that save everyone in every timeline? No way to know. Just a thought.
The Black Guardian ends the conversation with a pretty effective bait-and-switch. He gets you to push a lever that begins sucking you into him and (presumably) will let him out. How does this work? Why is that lever on the outside? Would the lever let him run around in my body, or is his old body still doing fine in that weird watery casket on its chest? I have no idea, and I guess it doesn’t matter anyway because Jespar shows up to save the day.
The trick he plays on the Prophetess is really effective, I think half because I’d kind of zoned out over a half-hour-long conversation and half because this hasn’t happened in like 20 hours (and not in the main story). There’s only a couple of recurring villains to talk to, and nobody is really trying to convince you to come along or of how nice they are, honest. None of the High Ones try to get you to change sides; they know they’re going to win just like every time before. Sha’Rim isn’t trying to turn you against Tealor Arantheal; he’s not a republic serial villain, he completed his master plan five minutes ago. Coarek talks like an evangelist, and he does have your soul ripped out if you lie to him, but he’s mostly focused on Tealor. No, the only villain who ever actually pulled a bait-and-switch like this is Pahtira, who tricked you into sticking your hand in a black hole. Which is appropriate, since she also ended up in a giant robot. The guy who ended up in the Black Guardian was either their cycle’s Yerai or their cycle’s Pahtira. Parallels all up in this bitch.
Honestly, the Black Guardian is one of the high points of the entire game, even if I think there are small ways to tie him into the story better.
I don’t really have any problems with the way the endings are constructed. Yes, they’re dark, but not that dark. Sure humanity is dead (again), but living out your life in a paradise-city in the sky with your boo isn’t the absolute worst thing that could happen. Yes, it’s weird that interrupting the Beacon in the middle of doing its thing causes it to explode, but I’m not a magitech engineer. I think that some visual cue that wandering around as everyone else has their soul torn out is difficult might be nice, but it’s still nicely atmospheric without that.
My problem is that most of these people – all the biggest names left alive on both sides of the war – are comatose. Archmage Lexil Merrayil is mumbling deliriously but you can’t talk to him. Sammael’s dead. Commander Eren and Coarek are checked out. Coarek’s other lieutenant, the rogue girl, isn’t even around. Calia and Tealor get a few lines, and that’s great! I just want more of that.
What was that cultist-looking motherfucker Sammael’s deal? Or the rogue-type girl from the island? Who knows. How did Commander Eren manage to kill a guy who can tear your soul out of your body? Iunno. Is Lexil still keeping the faith, certain he can come up with a way to stop this, does he wish he’d left us to go looking for his mom like he talked about that one time? Eh. How does Coarek feel about fighting his way in here only for Tealor to flip the table at the last second and accidentally kill everybody? You’ll just have to imagine. How do those random no-name Keepers that have been keeping me abreast on Order gossip all game feel about all this? Sorry, they’re all dead.
That’s the easy way, if you just want to record a few more lines. If you want to keep the quiet, maudlin tone of the ending.
The more-work method would have been to get back up there right in the midst of everything. It’s easy to give up and flee to the moon when everybody is already dead. What if, instead, Coarek with a bloodied Natara at his feet was shouting up at Tealor to give himself up like a good martyr, and Tealor was steeling himself to make the hard choices? If Eren and Sammael were locked in combat there in the courtyard? If Calia had unleashed the Beast and become the terrified savior of the few, faltering nameless Keepers? If Lexil was frantically prodding the machine and muttering ‘Stall him! Give me five minutes, I’m sure I can come up with something if I just had five minutes to think!’
And there you and Jespar are. There to tip the scales, right? Not… as such, no.
Could you talk Coarek down, engage in a proper three-way debate with the fate of the world in the balance? Would Coarek deviously use a dialogue to let Sammael get close enough to tear out your soul again, dooming the world?
Question with the benefit of hindsight: Just a random thought here, but if I’m a Fleshless… some kinda person-copy made by the High Ones, or a magical construct or a soul-made-flesh or who the fuck knows… how can Sammael just tear out my soul like it ain’t no thang? Who are you, buddy?
Ahem. Could you kill Tealor and everyone else in that courtyard, guarding the Beacon like Cerberus at the gates of Hell? Could you abandon your friends in their hour of need, turning your back on their last entreaties and screams? Could you force the last staunch survivors of the Temple into the pods, even be it against their wills, determined to save any you could? What if the High Ones showed up for one last gloat, secure in the knowledge that humanity always dooms itself?
Maybe having a bunch of options here would have been too complex to code, or not fit the themes and style SureAI was going for. But I can’t help but regret all the exciting possibilities that the endings we got closed off.
The endings also have one last trip to the dream house, which was also kinda short-changed. In the ‘break the Beacon’ ending Catharsis, you have to click on the four tombstones out front of the house, symbolically choosing death. In the ‘flee to the Star City’ ending Brave New World, a ghost of Jespar leads you away from the house, symbolically symbolizing your flight from death. Both solid, symbolism-wise. The problem with these is that I had no idea what the fuck I was supposed to do, and had to consult an online guide before I even noticed the tombstones were there.
Plus, look. I recognize that Daddy was a creation of the High Ones, and they already got everything they wanted out of me. There’s no reason for Mr. Nightmare Fuel to show up. But I was pumped to walk up to the house, rap on the door, and punch Daddy right in his smug, nonexistent face. I’m not saying that I needed to symbolically murder the hold the High Ones had over me like this was Cloud Strife kicking Sephiroth out of his soul at the end of Final Fantasy VII, but it would have been nice, y’know?
We could have had a dialogue with the High Ones, free from artifice because they no longer need to manipulate me (or an independent construct of theirs, since in one ending I’m ostensibly trying to hide from them). Or it didn’t have to be Daddy. I would have accepted Aixon, that weirdo sort-of self from the drug-trip prison vision; how annoyed would that asshole have been if he realized I totally slipped the net? Heck, I would have accepted a conversation with Dream Jespar, like, ‘Look, it’s been a hard couple of days, take care of Real Me, okay?’ since he's here already, and all. Or a future vision, interacting with Future Jespar rallying the world against the High Ones (you get a voice-over explaining how things went in the ending in which you died), or letting me talk with some Fleshless from the past, or whatever! The Echo is weird, I would have bought almost anything as being possible at that point.
I dunno, I guess I didn’t have enough talking despite the Black Guardian being like 75% talk.