28 years later, the most subversive RPG feels more relevant than ever
games like the trigger of a stopwatch and Final Fantasy VII have left a lasting mark on the gaming industry, but other RPGs have a more muted influence. live alive is a brilliant RPG that just didn’t get the recognition it deserved back in 1994, mostly because it never received a North American localization. But all these years later, Square Enix’s HD-2D remake is finally bringing the game to the limelight. Perhaps what is most remarkable in live alivehowever, is that it feels every bit as unique and subversive as ever, even by 2022 standards.
(Warning, there will be some minor spoilers for live alive ahead.)
live aliveThe main selling point is its anthology-style storytelling that features eight distinct characters and stories. Basically, however, live alive is actually a deconstruction of the RPG genre as a whole, specifically how we perceive the hero’s journey. Each storyline tackles a different genre, like the near future examining the mecha genre or Imperial China adapting martial arts movies. You could talk all day about how each chapter subverts the tropes of its specific genre, but for those purposes we’ll focus on the far future and the Middle Ages, where the purpose of the whole effort comes together.
Distant Future is perhaps the most fascinating chapter of all live alive, with virtually no combat and a sci-fi horror narrative that keeps you guessing about the “monster” all the time. This chapter slowly unfolds different layers of mystery with an alien creature, rogue AI, military conspiracies, and more. What is truly fascinating, however, is that the story is ultimately about humanity’s failures and our inherent self-centeredness; In other words, people are often predisposed to focusing on their own needs while ignoring the needs of others. In just a few hours, live alive manages to take a sci-fi horror storyline and deliver a real message – and that’s just one example.
All of the game’s disparate themes really come together once you’ve completed the first seven scenarios and unlocked the Middle Ages. This chapter focuses on a chosen hero named Oersted, who must defeat the Dark Lord to save a princess, which is pretty typical. Here lies live alive‘s greatest subversion, however: the hero fails, in part due to his own greed for glory. The game challenges the very reason we tell hero stories and why we create “perfect” characters, free of the flaws we wish we didn’t have.
Human flaws are what led to Oersted’s downfall. He realizes that there never was a Dark Lord in the first place, and his mind fractures. It’s no coincidence that Oersted is a totally silent hero…until he loses his mind and becomes the Dark Lord himself.
live aliveThe central unifying theme of is hate and how it can distort our lives and the lives of others. Oersted’s hatred is so strong that he literally tears people from the other side of time into his own, and it is only by overcoming their differences that the main characters of live alive can succeed. Each main character of live alive is a flawed person, but everyone always finds a way to overcome hate and be better. This is also why the true ending of the game can only be unlocked by refusing to kill the final boss after defeating it.
Past all narrative themes, live alive further deconstructs the genre simply through its format and structure. RPGs, and JRPGs in particular, are notoriously long experiences that require a massive time commitment. live alive rejects this standard and removes all the fluff that RPGs usually have. Instead, it focuses squarely on various gameplay experiences and stories in a series of unique, tightly crafted scenarios. You don’t have to be into RPGs or turn-based games to enjoy it live alive as it strives to be accessible to gamers of all persuasions.
It’s mind-blowing to think how subversive live alive felt in 1994, because it still seems so relevant 28 years later. It’s easily one of Square Enix’s most unique titles to date and makes a solid case for re-evaluating other lost classics. Or, at the very least, it makes a case for rethinking our cultural obsession with heroes.