[In the “exegesis” series of articles, I hope to look more in depth into one particular video game in an attempt to decipher the game’s worldview and the messages which the game sells to its audience. These are not intended to be game reviews. The first game which I would be looking at is the PS3 version of Eternal Sonata.]
Due to the significant confusion regarding the ending of Eternal Sonata, this first article serves only to explain the game’s main story. Lord willing, we will get to discuss the following in subsequent articles:
Part 2 – Metaphysics of Eternal Sonata
Part 3 – Commentary on Man and Society
Part 4 – Themes of Sacrifice and Redemption.
Needless to say, WARNING: MASSIVE SPOILERZ AHEAD!!! Do not read on if you have not played Eternal Sonata but intend to. [Single playthrough takes around 30-40 hours. Two playthroughs are necessary to fully unlock all features of the game.]
[Much of this article is based on the work of Kenimaru and wonderKNIGHT, who transcribed and translated Bandai Namco’s Official Guide unto the gamefaq forums. Click here for link to primary source. For a more chronological telling of the story, check out the Wikia site for Eternal Sonata.]
It is Paris in the evening of 16 Oct 1849, and Frederic Chopin lies asleep but dying of tuberculosis. Frederic dreams and enters his own dream, fully aware that he is dying and that he is in his own dream (think inception). The official guide seems to suggest that Frederic has been having this same dream thousands of times before, but this is the only time in which he enters his own dream as a character within the dream.
Frederic is introduced to the protagonists of his dream, and they embark on a good versus evil quest against Count Waltz, the main antagonist of the dream. Polka, the main protagonist, is a 14 year-old girl, and she is a manifestation of Frederic’s memories of his sister Emilia, who died at age 14. Similarly, Polka is destined to die before she turns 15. It is also suggested that all the major characters are different manifestations of Chopin or his memories.
Initially, Frederic was intrigued by this motley crew but remains fully aware that this is his own dream. However as their adventure progressed, Frederic finds himself caring more and more about these characters within this dream, and soon he questions whether he is able to tell apart dream from reality.
At the end of the game, after Count Waltz has been defeated, Frederic gives an ultimatum to his companions – they are to fight him in battle. If they are unable to defeat him, this proves that this world was indeed but a dream, Frederic wakes up in real life, and the world of Eternal Sonata disappears forever (this is one possible ending). However, should his companions be able to defeat him in battle, Frederic dies in real life Paris.
However, even after Frederic’s defeat, the world was still scorched and dead. Polka, understanding the role she has to play, throws herself off a cliff. This is when the game reveals that the world of Eternal Sonata is on a never-ending 10 year loop. At the end of each loop, Polka, who is some kind of divinely appointed sacrificial saviour, throws herself off a cliff and this act restores the world by resetting it back to what it was 10 years ago. Polka, now a 4 year-old child, falls from the sky into the arms of Solfege, her “mother”. According to the guide, Solfege is aware of Polka’s fate due to divine prophecies which had been revealed to her.
However, this time round, due to the presence of Frederic, this loop was broken. The explanation for this discontinuation is complex. Apparently, the reason Polka had to die was because Frederic’s memory of Emilia (whom Polka was ‘based upon”) only existed up to when she was 14 years old. It was not possible for Polka to live beyond 14, as the reality of the dreamworld was determined by Frederic’s experienced reality (i.e. his memory of Emilia in real life). However, after Frederic had walked through his dream as a character within his dream, Frederic’s “experienced reality” is no longer confined to just the “real world”, but also includes his dreamworld. Interestingly, the guide writes that Frederic does not reject the “real world” but considers them both to be equally true realities. As a result (quoting from the official guide), “life doesn’t have only one form” and Emilia can “continue to live on in Frederic”. Polka’s condition that she has to die at 14 has been lifted, and the cycle has been broken.
The 4 year old Polka floats up into the sky, and emerges 14 year-old again to the companions whom she had just departed from. Upon touching the ground, the earth restores its color and flourishes with life again. The in-dream Frederic appears to have lived on despite dying in real life as he is clearly seen amongst the companions receiving Polka’s return. In Paris, a “spirit” Frederic rise from his body plays the piano, while Delfina Potocka sings to the music. The ending credits also depict Frederic playing the same piece on the piano “in-dream”.
There are at least 2 possibilities to the fate of “in-dream” Frederic: he could have continued living as a character within this dream, or he could have become some God-like entity (he appears to be the one responsible for restoring the 4-year old Polka to 14 years old and delivering her back to her companions.) Whatever the case, it appears that Frederic (and the dreamworld) continues to exist despite his death in “real life”. The metaphysical implications here are significant, and would be explored further in Part 2.
Eternal Sonata is a game set on a unique premise, and attempts an extremely ambitious resolution to its story. Many gamers believe that the game designers overboard and crafted a totally incoherent story. I wouldn’t go that far, but I must admit that without the Official Guide, the ending is totally confusing and indecipherable Perhaps that too was intentional – after all, the central theme of Eternal Sonata is that “reality is what you believe it to be”.
Appendix – Obscure Musical References
All the names of people and places in Eternal Sonata are taken from musical terms or musical instruments. The musical terms (Allegretto, Ritardando, etc.) should be familiar to folks with some background in classical music, but some of the musical instruments (particularly the percussion instruments) can be quite obscure. Here’s an explanation of some of the more obscure references:
Agogos / Agogo Forest / Agogo Village – An agogo is a bell-like percussion instrument of African origin. It usually has two tones, and is hit using a drumstick. Used often in samba music.
Cabasa Bridge – A traditional African Cabasa was made with beads strung around a dried gourd. The modern cabasa is made using chains of steel balls wrapped around a wide metal cylinder. It produces a rattling sound when shaken or twisted.
Celesta Forest – A Celesta is a keyboard instrument which looks and plays just like a piano. Unlike a piano, it does not produce sound from vibrating strings, but metallic bars instead. It sounds like tiny bells, and is similar to another percussion instrument, the Glockenspiel.
Claves – A pair of claves is are two wooden dowels which are held by the hands (shown right). Minimalist composer Steve Reich wrote a famous piece for only 5 pairs of claves – Music for Pieces of Wood. (youtube link)
Cowbell Heights – Apparently Americans are familiar with cowbells due to a meme from Saturday Night Live. It’s named after the bells which used to be tied underneath cows’ necks for herdsman to keep track of their whereabouts. They are usually played with a drumstick.
Double Reed Tower – A double reed is the main sound producing part of certain woodwind instruments such as the Oboe, Bassoon, and the Cor Anglais (English Horn). It is made from two pieces of cane, as opposed to the single reed (made from one piece) of clarinets and saxophones.
Hanon Hills – Charles-Louis Hanon wrote a very famous set of piano exercises, The Virtuoso Pianist in 60 Exercises, which has become the most widely used piano exercises in the world.
Mandolin Church – I once thought the Mandolin (a type of lute) was played only during the Renaissance, but apparently they are still quite popular today. See this youtube clip for some famous anime music played by marimbas (my favourite instrument) and a mandolin orchestra.
Wah Lava Cave – “Wah” probably refers to the wah-wah mute of brass instruments. It is stuffed into the bell of the brass instrument and the player can cover and open the hole at the end of the mute to produce a “wah wah” sound. Electric guitars also have wah-wah pedals to produce a similar effect.
Woodblock Groves – A woodblock looks like a simple percussion instrument, but it is carefully engineered to provide the most resonance and volume. A good woodblock produces a loud “thock” sound instead of a “thud” sound. Woodblocks break easily when played too hard, and a broken woodblock produces a cracking sound.