Jon Gracey's

Games That Rocked…Adam Blampied’s World – #26: Shadow Of Memories

In PC, PS2, PSP, Xbox on February 14, 2013 at 12:28 pm

Today’s post is by Adam Blampied. I have intervened only when etiquette insisted:

——–

Title: Shadow Of Memories

Format: PS2, PC, Xbox, PSP

Released: March 30th, 2001

Shadow_of_memories_box_art

How many times has Mario died by my hand? Hundreds? Thousands? Over the course of countless games, Princess Peach must’ve seen more widow’s pensions than the Women’s Institute during a world war. And how about Link? Sonic the Hedgehog? Snake? Snake!! SNAAAAAAAAAAKE!! In games, death is mostly an inconvenience, mostly the fleeting error in ‘trial and error’, or mostly a gentle reminder not to jump off That Thing at That Height.

Mostly.

A while back, Jon Gracey, my tiny-eyed, spunky little comrade-in-gaming, asked me to write a retrospective about a video game that rocked my world. It’s pretty obvious what Jon’s doing here: throwing his friends onto his writing deadlines like soldiers onto enemy grenades. (ed – Come on. See this and this)

Lego_grenade
FOR GLORY!!!

But enough personal attacks on Jon Gra– he looks like a nine year old Annie Lennox with the sun in her eyes! (ed – COME ON.)

But enough personal attacks on Jon Gracey. It was a great offer and one I gladly accepted because it gives me a chance to talk to you about Shadow of Memories, a Playstation 2 adventure game that didn’t just rock my world; for a brief month or two in 2001, it was my world.

As a child who mistrusted the cooing seduction of fresh air, and didn’t like that game where a bunch of boys Kicked the Round Thing, there were many, many games in my childhood that totally monopolised my time. Games like The Sims, Goldeneye, Ocarina of Time, Final Fantasy X, Metal Gear Solid all took turns pissing on my social development, but Shadow of Memories has really stuck with me and I’ll do my best to explain why. It’s got a lot to do with death.

In Shadow of Memories (pointlessly renamed in the US to Shadow of Destiny, because that’s obviously much less obtuse) you play Eike Kusch, who lives in german town of Lebensbaum, and who also happens to be  70% legs.

Eike_legs
Kill it.

Evidently Fate agrees that Eike’s legs would look better in Hell, because mere moments after meeting the man, he’s mercilessly murdered by a mysterious malcontent right before our eyes. Awaking in an undisclosed limbo, Eike is told by a sprite or djinn-like figure calling himself Homunculus (only the first of many references to Goethe’s Faust) that by manipulating time with a mystical device, annoyingly called a digipad, it might perhaps be possible to cheat death. Eike is then deposited back to Lebensbaum, mere minutes before he’s fated to die and told to prevent his death.

A clock starts ticking, scared flutters of flute melody can be heard, and you’re finally given control of Eike. So you run. You just start running. You’re not sure where at first, but you know you’re not sticking around, because death is coming. Suddenly you’re the detective in the case of your own murder and time is running out. It’s a chase that doesn’t let up for the entire run of the game. Shadow of Memories is just you and Death, locked in one long game of cat and mouse. And guess which one you are.

Cat__mouse
“‘sup”

To prevent his first death, Eike gathers a bunch of local citizens to the town square, where they all watch a masked juggler perform a show. Sure enough, the attacker gets cold feet with a crowd of witnesses present, and the fated hour of Eike’s death passes. However, as Homunculus warns, “unless you tear out its very root, destiny can’t be cheated” and Eike is murdered again in a fire set by the mysterious attacker. Another limbo trip back to Homunculus for some friendly (and camply sinister) advice, then activate the digipad to go back in time and try to prevent the fire, and so on and so on.

Eventually Eike’s tinkering with time takes him across four different time periods; present day 2001, 1980, 1902 and even as far back as 1580. Each time period has a distinct colour palate. 2001 is bright and colourful, 1980 is washed out and pale like a cheap movie, 1902 has the dreary chill of a black and white photograph and 1850 is entirely washed with sepia, making every frame look like an ancient sketch. Each age is depicted in a manner in which they’re still documented today and it’s a neat visual trick, making every era feel instantly and entirely different.

Though the scope of time travelled by Eike is huge, the game remains intimate, owing to the fact that we can never actually leave the town of Lebensbaum. These boundaries are not enforced by locked gates, however, nor invisible walls or a voice in our protagonist’s voice that says his job isn’t done. Nope, Eike can’t leave Lebensbaum because, no joke, every road out of the town is blocked by an angry dog:

Angry_dog
It’s hard to tell from this angle, but that dog is pissed

But within the vaguely menacing backstreets of both Lebensbaum and time itself, Eike encounters all sorts of characters; ancestors, descendants, those who aren’t who they say they are, those who turn out to be someone who even they didn’t know they were. Eike accidentally loses present day people in the past, witnesses reality-shifting paradoxes, moulds the histories of his surroundings and friends like clay, and even runs into himself once or twice. You remember that masked juggler I told you about at the start? Guess who he turns out to be. And throughout all of this, no matter where he is in time, the countdown is ticking away towards his fated hour of death. It’s haunting, convoluted (in a good way), and damn compelling.

In terms of production values, the game’s nothing to write home about. The graphics are formative PS2 quality, the environments constructed of blurry textures and sharp edges. Spoiled as I am by current generation mapping, I stared at a blurry shop sign for almost a minute before I had to accept the image wasn’t going to crystallise. The character designs fare better in terms of design, but they all have a plastic mannequin sheen. The audio is fine, though it sounds like it all came from the same Yamaha and the voice acting is decent enough B-movie fare, with one exception. Homunculus, Eike’s waif-like but treacle-charming supernatural ally/manipulator is superb, played with creepy relish by none other than Charles Martinet, otherwise known as the voice of Mario.

Homunculus
“It’s-a me, hellspawn!”

But this isn’t really a game about pushing the envelope in terms of production gloss. What this game is about, and why it has stuck with me for so long, is its dark, twisting complex story. There are 8 endings to this game, based on gameplay choices, each end exploring a different aspect of the larger overall narrative. Some are tragic, some are beautiful, some are deeply disturbing. One play through simply isn’t enough to digest it all. And it’s a story with claws. Murder, psychotic children, borderline incest, the arcane, the reaper’s relentless pursuit. It’s all there, but presented with charm and gentleness, and ultimately hope. “Death teaches you how to live” reminds Homunculus, and this hope is as stark a contrast to the dangers you face, as the dark limbo of death is to the quaint and intimate town you are given to explore.

Throughout the ages, the town of Lebensbaum (which means Life Tree, german fans) may change architecturally and cosmetically – wood becoming stone becoming brick – but there a wealth of recurring imagery to be found, all of which give the impression of there being one mighty thematic story at play here, even if you only see it in echoes and ghosts.

You start to see the same faces everywhen you go. While it alludes to worryingly cultish levels of inbreeding within Lebensbaum, there’s a warmth in finding that the soured-face old hag from the present day had a sour great – x14 – grandmother, with an expression she’s inherited to a tee. And there’s always a town square. In the present day, it’s dominated by a huge tree (of the Life variety I suppose) and as you travel across time you can see that tree at each stage of its life. Later, to protect yourself from an assassin hiding in said tree in the present day, you’ll have to prevent its very planting, changing the face of the square forever.

Shadow_of_memories
Trust me. Look at my legs.

In one of the game’s sweetest touches, in every age you’ll meet a member of Franssen lineage. All 3 men look exactly alike:

Franssenses
“Congratulations Mr. and Mrs. Franssen! It’s another nerd!”

The Franssen from 1580 is a painter, the Franssen from 1902 is a photographer, and the Franssen from the present is a movie director. Each man is a product of his time, and each man uses the art of his age to try and capture and preserve the world around him as time grimly marches on. There’s a really simple poetry in that.

When you first encounter each time period, like most adventure games, you are provided with a community in need of help. Nothing is drastically amiss, but everyone could stand to be a little happier. Some feel lost in their own time (oho…), some are haunted by problems of their past (hmm…) and some worry about the state of their future (yeah, because time-travel. I get it, game!) With lots of little subplots to address, it’s a completionist’s paradise, but there’s also a genuine cathartic pleasure in using the digipad to help your fellow digital man, and across Eike’s many jaunts in time you are given the opportunity to right wrongs, prevent mistakes and nudge the world a little closer each time toward contentment. A time for everything, and everything in its time.

Perhaps what haunts me most about this game, is that when I look back on the experience of playing it, a sickly little irony rears its head. After all, this was a game that was, at its core, about how we all have but a single life to live and that, if you have to, you’ll bend the laws of time and space to keep it. The irony is, despite this message, I was so hooked on Shadow of Memories, so intrigued by its gothic menace, so haunting by its plot strands left tantalisingly unanswered, and so anxious to guide Eike, and myself, towards full and total understanding of the cosmic forces at play, that I spent my own life sat in my room, completing the game at least eight times. At least. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve just made myself a little sad.

———

Adam

Adam Blampied is co-founder of sketch pests The Beta Males. He’s not on the website because he just rejoined after 2 years at LAMDA. His acting career’s going great. Here’s an award-winning short film he wrote. Follow him on twitter.

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