Games are often left unfinished. Sometimes they’re too difficult, too vast, or too repetitive to see all the way through to the closing credits. To The Bitter End is The Gameological Society’s look at those endings that are worth fighting for—or at least worth reading about.
The Holy Spirit’s a tricky figure to come to grips with. For those not down with catechism, the Holy Spirit is the binding agent in Catholicism’s three-formed conception of god. God the Father is the cell itself, a container for all things. God the Son is the mitochondria, a separate entity from the cell but a crucial engine. And the Holy Spirit is the nucleus, the ineffable spirit in all things, a binding agent, the cream in the Oreo. According to Thomas Aquinas, the Holy Spirit bestows seven gifts to mankind. Courage, wisdom, awe—all of humanity’s coping mechanisms come from the Spirit. One of the great challenges of faith is wrapping your head around how this wholly intangible figure fits inside reality.
Team Andromeda, the long-lost Sega Saturn developer, created an object lesson about the holy trinity in its revered 1998 role-playing game, Panzer Dragoon Saga. There’s the designer of the game, the creator of everything you experience, and there’s a hero in your control. Except supposedly, you’re not playing as Edge, the hero, nor are you the playing the role of the awesome dragon he rides. As the game explains in its closing moments, you fill the role of Holy Spirit. By shattering the fourth wall in a terrific, unsettling reveal at the tail end of the quest, Saga not only re-contextualizes everything that came before, but it also paints a full, meaningful portrait of the Holy Spirit in action.
Before that moment comes, Saga is artful and fun but also too familiar. Taking place thousands of years after a nearly omnipotent civilization crumbled into dust, the story follows a mercenary named Edge who gets stuck between an evil empire and a peaceful agrarian people trying to get by in a harsh world. After discovering a young woman in some ruins—turns out she’s actually the ultimate weapon of that dead civilization—Edge is saved from the murderous empire by a giant purple dragon with tie-dye wings.
The dragon, it turns out, is the fated legendary savior of mankind. Edge sets out to get revenge, but embraces his role as hero, teaming up with the young woman from the ruins to rid the world of the Ancients’ legacy forever. It’s typical Joseph Campbell hero-quest stuff, even if it’s packaged in unique wrappings, and that’s likely why the player’s identity in it doesn’t seem like a question until the ending.
Saga’s world, an austere place that looks like it was cross-pollinated by Jean Giraud Moebius and a mid-’70s fashion show, also doesn’t seem to leave much room for the player. Most of the action is also hands-off. You command Edge and his dragon pal in aerial dogfights that are all about spatial awareness, maneuvering around enemies and picking commands like “attack” or “heal.” Your control is indirect. And the whole game is like that. Flying over the oceans and forests in the game, you can go in certain directions but not forever, covering any distance you like. There are boundaries. In conversation, you can bring Edge to meet people but you can’t put words in his mouth. The character still speaks for himself. In battle, you can only pick the next attack and position the dragon in relation to your enemy.
You have purpose in all of these moments, even when it seems like you’re just getting pulled along by the nose to see a story to the end. When you beat the giant monster who appears inevitably at the game’s conclusion, the dragon speaks directly to the player. You are the Divine Visitor, brought in “from the outside world,” bestowing gifts on Edge as he fulfills his destiny—the destiny laid out by the game designer’s plans. In fights, the dragon explains, you give counsel to the character on how best to bring down some eight-winged neon bug. When meeting new characters to advance the quest, you provide Edge wisdom about who to speak to next. The game’s story won’t change from beginning to end depending on what you do; you can only push it forward. Edge is his own person, influenced by your decisions. This is how God and free will work in Catholicism, right here in Panzer Dragoon.
“Human virtues perfect man insofar as man is naturally moved by reason in the things that he does within or without,” wrote Aquinas on the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit. “Hence, in those things in which the impulse of reason is not sufficient, but the impulse of the Holy Spirit is necessary, then a gift is also necessary.” You are the flame inside Panzer Dragoon Saga’s bush. The catharsis waiting at the end of the game doesn’t come from seeing the world saved or beating some challenging boss. Saga has two great rewards. The first is knowledge: the revelation that the player was something more than just a mule for pressing buttons. The second is an understanding of how, from one point of view, faith works.
(High-resolution screenshots of Panzer Dragoon Saga: The Will Of The Ancients)