13 Sentinels, and the Blessing of Narrative

When are video games more than games?

13 Sentinels, and the Blessing of Narrative
Source: PlayStation.

I have spent much of my life looking for a very specific something in the video games I play.

This “it factor” is buried somewhere in the narration, and starts right after the call for suspension of disbelief. I play a lot of video games (too many, certainly) and allowing myself to fall into fictional worlds is easy for me because I want to lose myself in the world that’s presented. It doesn’t matter if it’s as bonkers as DOOM: Eternal or as patient as Night in the Woods, I will live in your world if it’s obvious that it has been lovingly and patiently created. I want to experience the elation of storytelling that fully breaks me out of my skull and makes me someone else.

Since experiencing the Xenosaga trilogy in my teen years, part of my narrative search in gaming has rested on the hopes that I would again experience a sci-fi masterpiece that unabashedly blends genre tropes, psychology, history, politics and personality together in a way that feels whole-heartedly original and different. With 13 Sentinels, the high-schooler-gets-in-the-robot trope eternally popularized by Neon Genesis Evangelion is somehow again turned inside out, but at the same time transparently celebrated.

13 Sentinels is an intensive labor of love, and a narrative masterpiece that we aren’t often blessed with in gaming.

The scope of 13 Sentinels is that of an RPG, though this game doesn’t quite hit the mark on joining that genre. It is a visual novel at its core, and despite having unique mech-action gameplay in the form of an eye-melting tower defense segment, the long haul is nearly 20 hours of character-driven storyline entirely separate from the gameplay (the battles and narration are smartly split between Destruction Mode and Remembrance Mode).

13 Sentinels impressively ties together thirteen protagonists across arcing storylines, building upon each character’s trials and discoveries as the story unfolds. Character motivations are locked for some characters until progression points are met, though 13 Sentinels does allow the player to approach the narrative order in a surprisingly broad fashion.

13 Sentinels. Source: Vanillaware.

What is the biggest shock in the narrative form of 13 Sentinels is how the game somehow manages to present plot twist after plot twist every 15 minutes across the 30-something hour long game. Even the mecha gameplay includes moments of brief dialogue and exposition that builds upon the concepts presented throughout the multi-layered story. I found it difficult to take a break even after 3 or 4 hours, because I just had to know what that next twist meant and had to resolve the next cliffhanger — even if that meant playing through another few characters’ storylines and getting tangled up in another brash of twists.

The best part of the experience is that while my friend and I played the game concurrently, despite the narrative being ultimately linear the choice in how to approach the storyline order will make the experience fresh and different for each player.

13 Sentinels is a science-fiction lover’s dream. I mentioned Evangelion, but 13 Sentinels references everything from War of the Worlds to E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial. It makes commentary on Japanese and worldwide politics, capitalism, government control, interpersonal relationships, philosophy and art. It’s utterly filled with creative mechs and disgusting kaiju and conversations about clones and time travel and alternate timelines and hopeless futures. It wraps up every single thing that a sci-fi lover could want, and giddily presents these tropes in a package that is so obviously beloved by its creators.

“In a way, I think rather than using them as a way to appeal to a broader audience, the homages in the game are cemented in Kamitani-san’s strong proclamation to the world: “I just love this stuff!” But I personally would love to see players enjoy the game in all kinds of ways, even including the speculating and debating whether twist A was inspired by classical sci-fi story B, etc.”

Akiyasu Yamamoto, Atlus via Siliconera

Make no mistake, 13 Sentinels is a dystopian nightmare. This can be hard to imagine at first, as the player is thrown into a Japan that’s filled with lively conversations, high-school hijinks and one man’s endless quest to eat as many yakisoba pan as humanly possible. While the narrative ping-pongs between different time periods, it becomes clear early on that the apocalypse you’re desperately trying to prevent may have already happened. We see characters battling their own agency across dimensions as they encounter different versions of themselves, and their friends all seek creative ways to stop the rampaging Deimos.

I don’t want to spoil too much of this marvelous game, so I will give only the briefest warning: prepare to have the rug constantly pulled out from under your feet.

13 Sentinels. Source: Push Square.

Of course, at the heart of all of this is Vanillaware’s stunningly beautiful animations. Like all of their previous titles, 13 Sentinels is a side-scroller that creatively uses background and dimension to give epic scope to even the smallest settings. Everything in this game is meticulously designed, from the stunning sentinel mechs to the food a high-school girl cooks in her homely kitchen. George Kamitani and his team have put their entire collective wills into this game, creating a shining beacon of a visual novel whose scope and storytelling rivals the Zero Escape franchise. This labor of love created a workload that Kamitani himself found to be nearly disparaging, and the scope of 13 Sentinels might be beyond anything we ever see from Vanillaware again.

“For the past three years, I’ve been holed up writing the entire script. It was really a despair-inducing workload. (laughs) It’s not possible to keep workers around this long, but if it’s the company president working day-in, day-out, it won’t be counted as a ‘black company’ offense. In fact, I’d say I was slightly happy that, even as the staff rested, I was slowly gaining back the time lost from delays.

When I was finally able to leave that hell, and got to see the project which everyone else had built up while I was gone… it was better than what I’d expected. Even with the captain not present, the staff had done their best.”

Interview via Siloconera

Ultimately the plot of 13 Sentinels does what all good science fiction is supposed to do: it criticizes culture and government and the direction of the human race. Capturing moments across time that disparagingly reflect the utter disgust of capitalist realism, the characters in 13 Sentinels set along their paths to undo the mistakes of humanity and salvage what’s left of their future. When it came time to watch the game’s ending, I was overcome with emotion. This is what I am so desperate to find in my games — a narrative that makes me feel as though the struggle has a purpose, and that my hope in humanity has a reason.

As a writer, I admire the efforts it takes to write a time travel narrative, not to mention one that crosses the lives of over twenty individual characters (the editing alone for this game’s script must have been nightmarish). What George Kamitani and his team have done from a storytelling perspective — not to mention from a gameplay and design perspective — is nothing short of a modern marvel. I’ve attempted to guide as many new players as possible towards 13 Sentinels, as I truly believe that we’ve been witness to a modern masterpiece of science fiction, and a piece of storytelling that will stand the test of time as a cult classic in the medium. My heart aches to know what Vanillaware will achieve next.

“…the fact that we were able to tell one complete story and fulfill that promise within this constraint– spanning 13 playable characters, as promised in the title of the game– is an extraordinary accomplishment that we are all very proud of.”

Akiyasu Yamamoto, Atlus via Siliconera

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