Secret of Evermore
In 1995, the makers of Final Fantasy released an experiment. They formed a group to develop a game with a distinctly western (American) feel, with the technical and artistic strengths typical of mid-1990s Japanese RPGs. The result was Secret of Evermore, a game that still holds a lot of allure after nearly 20 years. I recently returned to that world to examine what makes it so fascinating.
[Mild spoilers ahead. But hey, it’s been out for almost 2 decades]
Secret of Evermore interprets the American trope of “a boy and his dog” literally, guiding a teenage boy and his dog throughout areas reflecting four major eras in history: prehistoric, classical antiquity, medieval, and futuristic. This similarity is one reason that the game is often overshadowed by Chrono Trigger, also released by Square in 1995. But the setting is merely the backdrop, rather than a key game-play element. During this trip, the game parodies pop-culture a bit, through made-up B-movie references. The main character even bears a resemblance to time-traveller Marty McFly. The game is also very self-aware of its nature as a game. It makes light of a number of common video game tropes, and even breaks the fourth wall on a few occasions.
The gameplay was by-and-large excellent. Secret of Evermore used the same concept for real-time combat gameplay that had recently made Secret of Mana (another one of my favorites) so successful. Evermore even used a similar ring menu system, which not enough games utilized. But there were two very important changes. First, Evermore was single-player, as opposed to Mana’s 2 or 3. This change highlights one of the differences between the Evermore’s “western” emphasis on individuality versus the traditional emphasis on friendship and building a party. But this also has deeper thematic repercussions that I’ll return to.
The second major gameplay difference is Evermore’s departure from a traditional magic system to the alchemy system. Over the course of the game, the player receives new “formulas” (which are effectively spells), but instead of having magic points, the spells are limited by ingredients which must be purchased or found. One of the most clever elements of this system is that ingredients, can be found in the environment, just by using the dog to sniff them out. The historical settings play into this beautifully by having thematic and increasingly complex ingredients, ranging from roots and water in the prehistoric area, while in more modern areas, ethanol, brimstone, and dry ice can be found. Formulas use different combinations and ratios of these ingredients, so choosing your spells is partly about what is most effective, and partly about what you can afford. Finding many of the powerful formulas isn’t just a matter of advancing to a certain level or plot point, giving a reason to really explore the game world. Because of this, each new formula feels like discovering a secret. I could go on about the alchemy system, but this is sufficient until I return to it in another article.
All of this is underscored (literally) by a soundtrack I would call haunting, or even sorrowful. Much of the game’s music is environmental ambient noise. When you enter an area with a melody, the contrast has an even greater effect. It seems far ahead of its time, more like a soundtrack to a movie than background music to a video game. But for all the over-the-top bosses and humorous quips, there is a much darker theme underlying the game, with time-travel (in a way) at its very heart.
[More significant spoilers ahead]
The hero is literally dropped into a mysterious world called “Evermore”, far away from his home town. Among the inhabitants of this new world are four others from his town, subjects of an experiment. And the four main regions are manifestations of each person’s personal fantasy. But in an ironic twist, they have been trapped there for 30 years. The other inhabitants go about their day-to-day business completely unaware. Of course, like the computer world of Tron or the dream world of Inception, there are malevolent forces at work, slowly corrupting the world. But that is not what gives the game emotional depth.
Like the near-light-speed space-traveller from Einstein’s twin paradox, the four subjects are aware of the passage of time in a world they are no longer a part of. The people they knew and loved have grown older, and maybe died. The passage of time hangs heavily over the characters of the game. While the hero left the real world to enter the fantasy, but those trapped in the world have accepted it as their reality, while the outside world is now a fantasy to them. What makes Secret of Evermore especially tragic is that by the time the hero meets the four, they seem to have given up hope. For they each have alchemical powers that far exceed the powers of the hero, but for are afraid or unwilling to use them to put things right. The single-player nature reinforces this. You alone, as the hero, are attempting to put things right again. Not because you are mystically fated to save the world, but simply because you’re the only one who hasn’t given up yet.
Yet, there is another possible interpretation. If the world of Evermore is shaped by the fantasies of people who enter. The hero enters the world and goes on an epic adventure with scenes right out of the B-movies he quotes. On a meta-level, the player is doing nearly the exact same thing, entering a world designed sole for them to go on adventure. In either interpretation, Secret of Evermore is a statement about about video games. Like the four characters the hero meets, the player chooses to enter a world created for them by somebody else. But we can leave at any time. If you put the game away and come back to 20 years later, all of the characters will still be there, unaged. The game ends with the implication of a sequel. But Secret of Evermore really becomes its own sequel, every time players return to the game. It tells us a story of people in limbo, imprisoned in their own fantasies, beyond the point of losing hope. And that is why it is a great game, because it reminds us that we create our own fantasies, but we get to decide how they end.