(I wrote this a few days ago but couldn’t get it to post. I’ve now played enough that I know some of my theorizing isn’t totally accurate, but I’m going to go ahead and post it anyway.)
In the game, the holy sword wielded by the King has been cursed. I’m sure the Universal RPG Protagonists consider this a refreshing change from all those other RPGs where the holy sword has been lost, or the holy sword has been broken, or the holy sword has been transformed into a monster you have to fight.*
The-Hero-With-High-HP Serdic goes to The-Wizard-With-Like-No-HP Arios to try and get it un-cursed, and we are treated to this fabulously subtle piece of humor.
Arios: I’m interested in your body.
Arios: When we have a spare moment, may I perform a thorough examination of your body?
Serdic: E-er, that is… Ah yes! You must see this!
Arios: This is the Holy Blade of Bretwalde, isn’t it? I’ve always wanted a good, long look at this.
Come on, Atlus localization team, get on the ball, here. If you’re going to do this joke, you’ve got to say long, hard look. Do I have to do everything around here?
The game’s humor is mostly like this (and the romance stuff is thus far equally unsubtle), but there’s actually some really interesting meta stuff going on in the story. Basically, you get the story from four sources, and all of them have a slightly different view of what’s going on:
2) Cut-scenes at the beginning and end of battles. Basically, these consist of the characters have little conversations where they tell each other the Latest Big Plot Points, and what the next battle’s going to be about. Town X has been invaded by pirates – go kill them all while preventing the villagers from taking damage! The princess and one of our most valued bishounen have been kidnapped by a guy who kinda looks like Wolverine – rescue them! The desert is hot – leave!
The cut-scene conversations mostly seem to be held in public, with all the playable characters and a few non-playable ones apparently listening in on them.
3) The dialog you get within a battle, most of which happens when two characters stand next to each other for a second. Sometimes you’re required to talk to an NPC or a bad guy to beat the stage, but most of the in-battle dialog is “optional.” It’s possible to miss a lot of it if the “right” characters never line up, or you don’t take the ones who have something to say into battle with you.
These conversations seem to be private – people hit on each other and bicker and make fun of characters who aren’t present. Occasionally someone will even have a thought that they don’t share. (“Man – my identical twin brother so does not perform masculinity in a traditionally heternormative manner! It’s a good thing I wear this purple cape, otherwise people might confuse us!”)
And – sometimes – they say shit that’s really important to the plot that doesn’t show up anywhere else.
4) The character bios, which sometimes contain stuff that you’d call a spoiler if you were posting it on LiveJournal. There’s a stage where, if you click on one of the enemies and look at the bio, you’ll find that it describes him/her as “friendly with [party member A].” If this A talks to the enemy, the enemy will agree to join your party after a short conversation, apparently never having met A before. Did the people writing the bio jump the gun, and forget that Enemy is the enemy when he/she first shows up? But if you happen to have party member B with you, and B happens to line up with ex-enemy, they’ll have a conversation that seems to hint that A and ex-enemy have met before.
(Actually, this particular stage and enemy are interesting in all sorts of weird meta-ways. Though Enemy’s bio establishes him/her as being a member of the Evil Organization, and the player can clearly see that Enemy is highlighted in bad-guy-red (and can, I think, even kill him/her, though I didn’t try), A and B’s conversation make it clear that Enemy’s redness isn’t evident to them. So the game mechanic itself tells a part of the story not indicated by the dialog or art.)
5) The sound effects. Everyone has little phrases they say when they die, attack something, or perform certain other actions. Like the bios, these also tend to contain information you’re not “supposed” to have. An enemy in stage seven whispers, “I’m sorry, (spoiler) Princess…” when he dies, which tells the player they need to redo the stage and make sure the Princess talks to him.
Now, the very serious-sounding narration between stages focuses heavily on the brave Prince Serdic’s attempts to de-curse his sword and get himself properly coronated as King, so he can take back his kingdom from the evil empire. The player, however, learns at the end of the first stage that (spoilers for that, and for the beginning of stage eight) Serdic died just before the game started. This guy with flat affect that everyone thinks is Serdic is his mysterious amnesiac body double. The original Serdic never bothered to give him a real name, so he’s only ever been called “Serdic.” (How Bujold of him.) He appears to have some slight identity issues.
Judging from the waffling he engages in whenever the subject of his coronation comes up, fake-Serdic doesn’t seem to want to be king. However, it’s at this point impossible to tell whether he has the willpower necessary to stop all these people from making him one. Though he’s ostensibly the protagonist, we get inside the heads of the other characters, particularly his bodyguards Kay and Margus, a lot more than we do his.
At the beginning of stage eight, real-Serdic’s sister Marie says some things that make it obvious she knows fake-Serdic is a fake, though it’s not clear how much she knows, or whether fake-Serdic knows she knows. If he does, that casts his apparent reluctance to be crowned king in a different light – all the conversations where he waffled on the subject were public cut-scene discussions that included Marie. They only talk to each other during the cut-scenes, and then only about military stuff.
In the private battle-scene conversation, however, Marie makes it clear that she is in love with fake-Serdic, allowing her to immediately beat out Tifa as Most Screwed-Up RPG Love Interest. Whenever she dies in battle, Marie sighs “Elder brother…” Which one are you talking about, Marie?
I’ve run into some spoilers, and apparently at some point in the future there’s a branch in the story where you get to decide whether fake-Serdic turns “Dark.” I have certain suspicions about what Dark Serdic’s going to entail. Marie has a second possible love interest who’s much more wholesome, who I imagine belongs on the “Light” path.
What all this stuff achieves is give the player the ability to unconsciously determine what’s canonical. If the player is mostly interested in killing stuff as quickly as possible, she’s unlikely to end up seeing most of the mid-battle dialog, because the game mechanics and map design generally render it inefficient to have most of your guys right up next to each other. (This sort of player will probably also miss many of the sound effects, because you can skip through some of them.) So, she gets a somewhat simpler version of the storyline, with the incest and some hints about Serdic’s identity issues hidden. The spoilers in the bios and the interlude-narration both serve as reminders that there’s a story going on, breaking the player out of it.
I note that I’m not sure how much of this is intentional, or whether it’s ever going to serve a purpose. The fact the way the story is presented has these effects doesn’t mean the designers meant it to. Despite the Earthbound franchise’s best efforts, most game designers don’t seem to make to-do lists that go “monsters, maces, metatextuality.”
* One admires Chrono Trigger for doing all three.