Home > Losing the Plot > Losing the Plot: Alundra Is All About Death

Losing the Plot: Alundra Is All About Death

December 16, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

I recently posted my review of Alundra as part of my Chronological Challenge, and I stated that it is a lot more plot-heavy than the Zelda games it takes heavy influence from, and this is partly why I much prefer the game to the likes of ALttP. So today, I’m going to examine Alundra’s story and determine exactly what it is that makes it work so well.

Please note, there are spoilers abound, so if you wish to take my recommendation and play it first, then please do so. If you’ve played it already, aren’t interested in playing it, or don’t particularly care for spoilers, then feel free to read on.

In games such as this, whether it’s Zelda-style adventure games or full-blown JRPGs, there is a central plot that you are a valiant hero destined to save the world. There’s optimism to it. There’s a sense that everything will be okay because good will always triumph over evil. You frequently encounter suffering, but your actions save people and return society to its former glory. You waltz in and always save the day.

But how often do these games break that expectation? Sure, modern gaming has a lot of grimdark, shades-of-grey moodiness with a morally ambiguous protagonist with a gruff attitude and a dark past. But this perhaps goes too far in the other way. Alundra keeps the general sense that the protagonist is heroic and optimistic and deconstructs it. Alundra is not a character with a tough past who may actually enjoy killing people, he’s the archetypal hero of these types of game, yet his adventure isn’t quite archetypal in how it plays out.

Alundra takes place in the land of Torla, which is a sprawling land filled with natural dangers. While some people live in assorted parts of the landscape, the majority of the population lives in a tiny village in the centre called Inoa. Alundra arrives here when the ship he is travelling on gets broken apart during a storm, and he washes up on Torla Beach. A man named Jess passes by and takes Alundra in, and you spend the rest of the game living in his home.

When Alundra awakes, he meets the residents of Inoa. The mayor, Beaumont, is suspicious of him but agrees to let him stay if he doesn’t cause trouble. Some residents treat him with the same suspicion while others are curious. Sybill, a strange girl who apparently dreams while awake, states that she saw a premonition of his arrival. Septimus, a scholar, is interested in Alundra because he appears to be from a mysterious race with an unusual power.

Once the player has explored and gotten to know everyone, we discover an old man named Wendell is trouble by dark dreams and is screaming in his sleep. Apparently he is the victim of a mysterious dream disease that villagers are suffering from, and it is with this that Septimus recognises that Alundra may be a “Dreamwalker”, capable of entering Wendell’s head and saving him from the nightmares. Alundra does so, kills a “horrible monster” (it’s just a giant slime) and saves Wendell. He is labelled a hero.

But this doesn’t end the village’s troubles. More villagers get troubled with bad dreams. One woman, Nadia, is afflicted with a sleep disorder that causes things to be destroyed around her when she sleeps. Alundra begin to try and help them, but it doesn’t always work out. Nadia and her neighbour Bonaire are both afflicted by bad dreams, and when Alundra saves the latter from the succubus of his nightmare, Nadia is killed. Kline, the local hunter, is turned into a werewolf by his nightmare and Alundra has no choice but to put him down. The coal mine collapses and there’s nothing Alundra can do to save the poor men working within.

Residents are then split on what to think of Alundra. Some see him as a good-natured kid who wants to help but is battling forces he has no control over, while others see him as partly responsible for all the deaths. He is not universally shunned, but trust is mixed, and as such, Alundra’s efforts feel all the more notable when he does succeed, and the village feels much more alive.

On this last point, let me go further. The residents of Inoa are all named, and everyone has a job, and a backstory, and connections to others in the village. These are not nameless, copy-paste NPCs of other adventure games/RPGs, mumbling at you that they are error; these feel like real people. Okay, admittedly, they do have specific lines they repeat ad nauseum if you speak to them consecutive times, but this is a technical limitation with the medium. The lines change throughout the game in reaction to events that happen. They don’t act like a hive-mind. Some are fearful. Some are defiant. Some, like Giles, are completely bonkers.

And that’s what makes the deaths matter so much. Admittedly, the miners’ deaths don’t have much impact because chances are you’ll never speak to the miners before that event, but everyone else hits hard. This especially includes your own surrogate father, Jess, who sacrifices himself to protect Alundra after their time together has helped him rediscover his creative skills as a blacksmith.

It’s a moment that works because of how often you chat with him throughout the game, to the point where between quests I’d talk to him to see what he had to say. The guy made weapons for you! And then he dies. It leaves only emptiness, to the point where I would sometimes go and try to chat to him as normal, only to find an empty chair. It’s amazing how this sprite-based game can convey this sense of loss so effectively without really doing much at all.

That’s not say that Alundra is permanently bleak and foreboding. There are successes and triumphs built into the storyline, and the ending remains happy despite the thinning of the village’s population by the end. But the deliberate decision to force losses on you changes the tone dramatically. I’ve always found the Zelda series a little flat in regards to making you feel like a real hero, because as much as the games talk about Ganondorf being an unstoppable force, Link always finds ways to reverse his actions. Alundra never gets that guarantee. It makes the victories sweeter when they happen, and adds a sense of tension to every portion of the story.

Alundra succeeds in its storyline because it reminds you that while you can’t win them all, you still have to fight on and try and succeed at your larger goals. The lack of guaranteed success at every turn despite all your best efforts is reflective of reality, and it keeps the story believable and identifiable throughout.

Alundra has a story that always stuck with me. It’s tale of heroism in the face of impossible odds that sets itself up through human interaction rather than large-scale natural disasters. It’s an impressively put together plot for its time, and weaves itself in and out of what is a slightly better version of A Link to the Past. Probably not one of my all-time favourites now with better writing coming more frequently in modern games, but certainly one of the first games to really throw me for a loop with its narrative.

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