[Critical Hits is a new feature here at Built to Play, where we'll be taking deep dives into one particular mechanic or element of a game, and examine it in detail. Be warned though, these articles will often contain spoilers for narrative-driven games.]
When I was a kid, I took Taekwondo lessons. Being a guy who'd grow up to write about video games for the internet, I wasn't really the biggest or strongest one in the class, but look, I tried, and it was cool to have a place where punching people was allowed and occasionally encouraged. The thing we did most during those classes was practice our forms. Karate movies have taught me that these are sometimes called "katas", but what matters is that it was a set of moves and positions you had to progress through over and over. A pattern of steps, blocks, punches and kicks. We all did them at once, in a sort of choreographed march. A flurry of a dozen punches and a dozen kicks, all connecting with the air, again and again and again.
In David Clark's 88 Constellations for Wittgenstein, he writes that repetition is the cornerstone of science. Repetition is the basis of truth, and repetition is how we know an experiment to be successful. Repetition is also pleasing to us on a far less truth-seeking platform Our brains naturally look for and pick out repetition. We like seeing patterns and ideas repeated.
Repetition is educational. We learn when we have something drilled into us until it becomes reflex. I know how to step when I block low with my forearm. I don't necessarily remember the pattern, but my body moves the way I was taught years ago. Formula is comforting, and slight variations upon a theme is essentially the structure chart for serialized fiction. Repetition is one of the most important concepts to both the natural world and entertainment. It's a key part of poetry, the scientific process, math, psychology, fiction, and, well, everything really.
So if repetition is truth, is Bravely Default the truest game ever made?
[Spoilers ahead for Bravely Default]
There's a point in Bravely Default where the game loops. Straight up, you relight all the magical crystals, defeat the "evil" empire, and beat the crud out of Dark Knight Alternis Dim, whom the game has set up as the final, if not penultimate boss, and then, instead of a final dungeon opening up, our heroes find themselves back at the beginning of the game. The crystals have gone dark again, the empire's forces are back on the attack, and no one seems to remember your journey to save the world but you. This happens about four times total.
Eventually, the plot unravels itself, revealing that each time you "beat" the game, you actually hop over to another dimension, and take part in a cycle of regeneration and destruction that feeds an elder god looking to unmake reality. Through repeated trips into a world with only minor changes, your party learns more about the mythopoeia of the Bravely Default world, and fight the same handful of bosses again and again.
The thing about repetition in fiction is that its often used to cement a concept in our minds. A phrase, or image, or idea is repeated across the work, and we connect them in a sort of arthrology of meaning making. In normal-person speak, we notice patterns and then try to figure out what they mean. I'm pretty sure Bravely Default's writers and director had a purely narrative meaning in mind when they justified the repetition concept in the plot, but there's a certain emotional weight and resonance there too.
Every time our heroes find themselves in a new world, they feel something. Bravely Default isn't the best written game in the world, nor does it have the space for small, non-essential storytelling, so it's not like we have to infer this. We're told how they feel every time they wake up at the beginning of the game. First they're confused, then they're angry, then they just feel dread. Dread at being caught in this infinite loop. Dread at facing down people they've killed three times before. Dread at playing the same game four times in a row.
Playing the game, it was hard to not feel the exact same way at the exact same times. The first loop, I was confused. What's going on? What has reset? What hasn't? Do I really have to do it again?
The second time I was furious. Why do I have to do this again? They really couldn't think of anything original? And finally, the third time I looped around, I felt nothing. My heart was stone and I was cold. I dreaded going back in, knowing what I knew. Facing the same bosses, running through the same dungeons with random battles turned off, it was all the same. Unchanging.
I actually put down the game during the third loop. I couldn't overcome the dread.
Bravely Default isn't the first piece of media to try the looping thing. Hell, it's not even the first game. Countless visual novels, Virtue's Last Reward for example, require multiple playthroughs to reach the "best" ending. The movie Groundhog Day has its main character loop through the same day hundreds of times, looking for some way to escape his infinite loop. In both those examples, we sympathize with the protagonist's plight. Like them, we're going through the same events again and again. The thing is, we're not expected to feel the exact same way those characters do. We're the passive observers in both those stories. In Groundhog Day, we watch as Bill Murray's Phil Connors is given the opportunity to reexamine his life via the endless loop of the film's events. Even though the same scenes happen again and again, we see them in new contexts, from a character who changes as he is affected by the loop. We're invited too to examine ourselves, and think about what it is we really want. It's a parable A fable, almost. Meanwhile, VLR allows you to skip over parts of the story you've already experienced on other points of the timelines. The trick there is that the slight changes you can't skip are given more weight You get to see the minute differences your choices make. You feel like you have a certain power (via your ability to literally jump around the timeline as you please) to unravel the mystery. Characters become morality pets in a sense, and the best timelines are usually defined by being the ones where the fewest amount of people suffer.
But Bravely Default's repetition is a horse of a different, however many times repeating, stripe. The repetition is primarily used to pad out the game's length- it's 30 hours without loops, around 60 with- but it actually manages to make me feel something, without resorting to a single line of dialog. Sure, it's weird that the characters constantly muse on how it's probably a bad idea to keep redoing the same things again and again, and how everything seems a little off, especially your requisite fairy companion, but that's all added to the pile of things problematic with the game's plot. By the way, that pile also contains the fact that if everyone in the game would stop to talk like adults for five minutes before every fight, their problems would be solved halfway through the story.
Games are the ultimate medium for transferring emotions. The fact that I'm actually participating in the narrative means there are certain mechanics that can hammer the point home in a much finer, more subtle way than say, film or prose. Bravely Default's repetition may be frustrating, unoriginal, and unnecessary padding that messes with a great game, but it perfectly manages to get me to feel something. Not only that, it gets me to feel exactly the same way the characters do at the exact same time. Not by telling me to, but by having me share in their experiences. Sure, the mechanic itself is flawed to hell and back, and there are any number of better ways to handle it, but what they did do is impressive enough to worth nothing.
I haven't beaten Bravely Default yet, but every time I pick it up- a half hour here, twenty minutes there- it's like practicing Taekwondo forms again. I have forms. Set strategies. Patterns of movement through the world. A certain efficiency I've learned after three loops. We used to break boards at the end of class. Breaking the first one by using those forms was always cool. Breaking the second made me feel like a god. I imagine beating Bravely Default, finally ridding myself of the loops, will feel a lot like that second board. It's the sense of accomplishment of knowing you've mastered something. It's too bad Bravely Default isn't necessarily something worth mastering though.