originally posted at Manic Expression
In his magnum opus The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell discussed his theory of the monomyth, analyzing the nearly ubiquitous themes and elements found in folklore and legends held by cultures across the planet. The most well-known concept introduced in the book was the hero’s journey; tales told of great warriors embarking on epic quests or rites of passage. Campbell noticed that almost every story he studied adhered to the same structure of separation, initiation, and return. Or in his own words, “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” The pattern appears in many classic and contemporary tales: Gilgamesh, Hercules, Jiraiya, King Arthur, Ellen Ripley, Frodo Baggins, Conan of Cimmeria, Luke Skywalker, and Harry Potter. The video game industry has made good use of this plot device for decades, altering or subverting aspects to provide a new interpretation rather than a by-the-numbers story that strictly adheres to every stage Campbell outlined. It’s been used in acclaimed titles such as Deus Ex, Dragon Age, Journey, and the Final Fantasy series. Ubisoft Montreal’s downloadable RPG Child of Light is one of the better examples in recent years that demonstrates how a narrative formula that has existed for millennia can be reinterpreted to create an original, captivating, beautiful story.
In the late nineteenth century, a duke ruled over a small crown land in Austria. He had a young daughter, Aurora, whom he loved deeply and doted upon for years following the death of her mother. Eventually the duke’s heart grew lonely and he found a new lover, though in the eyes of Aurora and the people of the village, she could never compare to the late, enigmatic duchess. The two married on Good Friday, 1895. That night, Aurora fell victim to a strange illness; by morning she was dead. Her father was heartbroken, shutting himself away so that no one would disturb him in his time of grief. But Aurora’s slumber was not eternal – she awoke on an altar in a strange land. Believing she was dreaming, she wandered the mysterious world, crying out for her father to wake her. Guided to a monastery by a light elemental she mistook for a firefly, she met with a soothsayer who told her that she was in the kingdom of Lemuria. The realm was once ruled over by a benevolent Queen of Light who was overthrown by Umbra, Queen of the Night. Umbra and her daughters stole the sun, moon and stars, plunging the land into an eternal night, allowing the dark creatures under her command to terrorize the populace. If Aurora was to have any hope of returning to her father, she would need to free Lemuria from the oppressive darkness by recovering the lost lights and putting an end to Umbra’s cruel reign.
Child of Light utilizes many elements of the hero’s journey as described by Campbell, reinterpreting several of them to keep the plot from seeming stale or clichéd. The call to adventure which brings Aurora from the ordinary world to the special world, for example, is brought on by her apparent death and rebirth. Once in Lemuria she follows the next two stages: meeting with a mentor who provides wisdom and supernatural aid (the Lady of the Forest in the monastery), and the refusal of the call (she still thinks she is in a dream and is only concerned with returning to her father). Traditionally these events would occur before the hero leaves the ordinary world behind, but by allowing Aurora to experience some of the dangers that threaten this new land, it creates a greater sense of urgency, reinforcing how important it is for her to fight against the darkness. Additionally, Aurora has no choice on whether or not she travels to Lemuria, suggesting she is, at least for the time being, powerless to act against the forces at work. After accepting the task requested of her and crossing the first threshold, moving from separation to initiation, she embarks upon the road of trials, gathering allies to fight alongside her.
After overcoming several obstacles, Aurora receives another opportunity to abandon the call when she finds a way back to her own world. She faces temptation, not from wealth, power or seduction, but by love and a longing for home, more than willing to abandon her quest before Umbra has been defeated. Following this she enters the belly of the whale, a descent into despair where she is overwhelmed by hopelessness, which also falls in line with the black moment or dark night of the soul. She believes that she has failed both Lemuria and her father. In another deviation from the formula, the belly of the whale would normally occur in the period of separation, while the black moment is typically seen right before the climax that signals the start of the third phase. During this section she is also confronted by her shadow selves, represented by Umbra and her daughters, who embody the cruelty and hatred that is alien to Aurora. With her resolve strengthened, she escapes captivity (rescue from without), soon afterwards unlocking the full power she needs and achieving apotheosis. She has the strength and conviction necessary to carry her through the final conflict and fulfill her destiny.
Several of the stages in the hero’s journey that Child of Light omits could be considered extraneous, as they’re not strictly necessary to fulfill the basic flow of the story structure, but have been seen so often in recent fiction that they become noticeable in their absence. Aurora never finds or pursues a romantic partner, a plot device that’s mostly used now not to demonstrate emotional maturity, but to shoehorn in a love interest simply for the sake of having one. One of her partners has romance on his mind, but it never becomes overbearing. Atonement with the father or mother does not appear either, as Aurora is separated from the duke for almost the entire game, and she has no unresolved issues with him. Another absent element is the daring raid upon the antagonist’s lair that so often serves as the set-up to an immense climax; instead we see the opposite as Aurora and her friends risk their lives to escape.
Other aspects of the journey are used multiple times. Every new area entered that holds one of the light sources or has been overrun by a monster represents the approach to the inmost cave, with a reward obtained after each ordeal has been overcome. Resurrection also appears at several points, though explaining that any further would give too much away, as would a look at the meeting with the goddess and the return. The greatest divergence from the hero’s journey, however, is the protagonist’s gender. Almost every myth Campbell analyzed in his book was told from the masculine perspective. With very few exceptions, female heroes were restricted to fairy tales. Campbell theorized that this was because in centuries past women were burdened with domestic work and child care, and therefore had no time to develop epic legends. Instead, they created simpler, more fantastic tales to appeal to children. You can see some of that influence inChild of Light as the game begins much like a fairy tale, with exposition delivered by a gentle motherly voice as though she were reading a bedtime story to her daughter. But as it progresses, the tone becomes more dire and the stakes greater, resembling an epic poem. This is reinforced by having all dialogue delivered in rhyme, though it does lead to some awkward phrasing, stilted sentences, and shifts between metric rhythms resulting in an inconsistent cadence.
Child of Light creates a strong sense of intrigue from the start. We don’t know what brought on Aurora’s illness, how she came to Lemuria, or why she’s been chosen to fight against Queen Umbra. As you wander through the first area you see translucent faces appear in the clouds above you, and far in the distance a giant humanoid silhouette slowly walks along, the ground rumbling with each step it takes (if playing on a console, the controller vibrates with these tremors to give a stronger idea of how powerful its strides must be). You’re drawn in by two background events that establish how vastly different this new world is, and you want to keep going to discover more fascinating sights. Aurora’s many encounters in Lemuria also establish a tone more dire than you’d expect from the almost Disney-inspired setting. It’s made clear that many people have died as a result of Umbra’s actions, families and entire communities torn apart, a constant aura of dread covering the land. Aurora cannot save everyone; near the midpoint of the game there’s an event which made me wonder whether efforts will be futile, that in spite of all her struggles, Lemuria will fall and her father will die. The uncertainty kept me invested in the story more than it would have if it was obvious from the start that it would end happily ever after for everyone. It’s perhaps the closest a game has come to replicating the mystery and magic of Pan’s Labyrinth, not only with similar story elements but with the emotions both are able to invoke in the audience.
The theme of betrayal was prevalent throughout the story. We frequently see characters who either wronged or were wronged by others and the grief it has caused. Tristis the jester was fired from the circus he devoted his life to because they decided he wasn’t funny enough. Óengus had to abandon his people, the Kategida, and serve Umbra so he could convince her to imprison them rather than kill them. Aurora herself is even willing to turn her back on those she promised to aid when she learns of a way home, punished for this selfish act when she is the victim of treachery from people she thought cared for her. Healing is another significant motif. Aside from purifying the land of Umbra’s evil, Aurora also possesses a flute which can soothe the pain of others. Its music mends Robert’s broken heart, raises Óengus’ spirits after he’s cast out by his clan, and eases Gen’s mourning over the loss of her family. The flute isn’t a complete cure-all though; it only temporarily brings them out of their depression, giving them a clearer focus so that they can continue on their journey to find actual closure. Additionally, there’s some unsubtle Biblical symbolism with Aurora’s death and resurrection as a savior occurring on the Easter holiday.
Further demonstrating how Child of Light has more in common with an epic legend than a fairy tale, Aurora is much more proactive than common princesses. After some initial hesitation about the task which has been put upon her, she is willing to take up a sword and fight. She’s in a completely unfamiliar world, but she knows its people are in danger, that they desperately need help. At the outset this is mainly so she can return home to her father, the urgency made greater when she looks back into her world several times and sees him close to death. Seeing this pushes her to finish her quest as quickly as possible, or return home when the first opportunity presents itself, since she views her father’s well-being as more important than the fates of those in a land she has no connection to. After several hardships Aurora soon realizes the true weight of her mission; to do what is right, sacrifices need to be made. The needs of many must be considered more than that of one person, even though that one is very dear to her. It’s a well-paced coming of age story. Even before her growth, we see clear signs that in spite of a few self-centered, childish acts, Aurora is a truly good person who cares about others. Whenever she’s called “Princess” she asks that the term not be used again. She wants to be recognized for her actions, not her status. I only wish the game had voice acting outside of narrated cutscenes so she and the other characters would have been more dynamic.
I have to say that I wasn’t as invested in many of the side characters as I was with Aurora. There were a few standouts though. Rubella the jester clearly struggles to maintain her façade of joy, cracking jokes and trying to cheer people up even when it’s obvious that she’s reaching the breaking point. The dedication to her craft and the need to make people smile are greater than any personal pain she feels. She also has a humorous quirk where at the end of her dialogue scenes, the intended rhyming word is replaced with a simile that throws off the meter, requiring correction by another member of the party. Óengus could have been another uninspired, stoic fighter from a proud warrior race who was always looking for violent combat. Instead he’s far more pragmatic, seeking solutions that will lead to the least amount of bloodshed, such as when he chose to become Umbra’s slave so the rest of the Kategida would live. Even though he knew that it would make him an outcast, his loyalty to his brethren was greater than the “honor” they would receive from death in battle. Even though his face is always hidden by a mask, you still get a strong sense of his emotional state.
The rest of the party members were fairly one-note. Tristis is an eternal pessimist, Robert is obsessed with finances and his unrequited love, and Igniculus displays childlike naiveté when he sees human behavior. There was a badly missed opportunity to develop deep characterization with Gen, the ichthyoid Piscean girl whose parents, along with most of her village, were devoured by an ogre. She grieves for their loss briefly before vowing revenge, but her loss is never again touched upon. If we’d seen her affected more severely by the deaths of her parents, becoming colder and more hardened until she saw what she had becoming, then she would have been more compelling. The antagonists, as beings of night, have mannerisms that fittingly act as a shadow to Aurora’s personality. Queen Umbra is arrogant and prideful, looking down on the people of Lemuria as lesser beings. While Aurora treated her royal status as inconsequential, Umbra uses it as the sole justification for why she deserves power and worship. She believes nobility is acquired through heritage and fear, rather than noble actions. Her daughters Nox and Crepusculum don’t get much time for development, though in the few scenes they appear it’s evident that they share their mother’s twisted values.
Child of Light is a simple RPG with a relatively small world. Most of the areas you visit are interconnected, so with the exception of entering buildings, dungeons, or travelling above and below the surface, there’s no need for a loading screen to register the transition to another region. Since it was designed with the central plot at the forefront, there are practically no side-quests. Of the few there are, only two require returning to previous areas to gather what you need, but thankfully the ability to teleport cuts down on unnecessary backtracking. At the start you can only move around through simple platforming, but you quickly gain the ability to fly, which adds an entire new dimension of fun. I found it very soothing to travel through the sky, watching the clouds roll on, searching high and low for collectible Confessions to read the poems they contained. Obstacles such as spiked walls and massive wind gusts require you to soar cautiously to get through certain areas without damage. Igniculus has several uses in the overworld: he can illuminate dark areas to reveal hidden paths or treasures, temporarily stun enemies by blinding them, and cast shadows to solve puzzles. While the game is available for consoles and PCs, I would definitely recommend a console version as unless you’re very skilled with a mouse, smooth control seems best with an analog stick to move the sprite and a shoulder button to activate its power. That being said there is an occasional problem where if you fly too fast he won’t be able to keep up, and you’ll need to remember his position to bring him back onto the screen as quickly as you can.
Combat operates similarly to the battle system in Grandia. Each character’s actions in battle are divided into a waiting phase, and a casting phase, represented by a bar at the bottom of the screen. Both phases have a cooldown period with speeds that vary depending on the player character or monster. You can’t act until you reach the casting phase, at which point you choose whether to attack, defend, use a healing item, or swap out party members. The more powerful the action you choose, the longer it takes to cast, which is where one of the more interesting aspects of combat comes into play. If you attack a monster when it’s in the casting phase, you’ll interrupt their attack and send them back to the waiting phase, and they can do the same to you. Igniculus can also be used in fights to slow down enemies by glowing on them as in the overworld. It requires you to carefully consider the timing of your attacks, when it’s best to slow the monsters so you can deal damage without giving them a chance to hit you, whether or not to use a massive attack that can hit all targets if there’s a risk one of them could cast more quickly and interrupt your move. Several party members have special moves that can speed up your wait times, slow the enemy’s, or even temporarily paralyze them, but again these same moves can be used against you. If executed well enough, you can get into a constant loop where you’re always knocking enemies out of the cast phase. It’s a tactical system you’ll want to become familiar with quickly as even though early fights are easy and you level up quickly, boss battles and encounters in the latter half of the game where you run into three enemies at a time can be brutal.
A few conventional RPG combat tropes are implemented as well. Like Paper Mario, Earthbound and the Persona series, if you hit a monster from behind on the overworld you’ll get to attack first in the fight without having to wait through the cooldown period, while enemies can do the same if they strike you by surprise. Igniculus’ stun ability provides many opportunities to get an advantage over your foes. Several monsters have elemental affinities and weaknesses: fire loses to water, water to lightning, wood to fire, and dark to light. Their elements can usually be figured out by looking at their design, location, or coloration, but for several you need to look at them closely to learn what’s best to use against them, such as wisps of icy breath to indicate it’s a water-based creature. Some monsters, as well as almost each of the bosses, will retaliate after receiving specific damage (physical, magical, being interrupted during the casting phase, etc.), usually responding by inflicting status ailments on your party or boosting its own abilities. You can also level up your characters through three skill trees depending on what abilities or stats you feel they would handle best, as well as equip crystals that will provide different offensive or defensive effects. Aside from slowing down enemies, Igniculus can also collect glowing orbs to replenish health, magic, or its own light energy from flowers on the battle screen, though it takes a few minutes until they generate more. If you need healing but the flowers are still dim, shining him over a character restores some health and magic points. One feature I liked was that when you switch party members, it puts the replacement character in the same position on the cooldown bar as the character they took over for instead of at the start. It makes things less difficult, but also less frustrating when you need a fighter with a certain skill to act soon.
Visuals are absolutely beautiful. The illustrations were created by Yoshitaka Amano, who has done animation work for every Final Fantasy game. Characters and buildings are more reminiscent of an impressionist watercolor, blending Amano’s signature wisplike lines with simple strokes of color. Backgrounds reflect his art nouveau influence with vibrant opalescent colors and heavy use of curved lines to give them the appearance of stained glass. The development team also worked with Cirque du Soleil to inspire not only its unique aesthetic but also as a reference for creating fluid, theatrical movement animation. Appropriately for a game where the power of light is a major concept, lighting is handled incredibly well. The degree of illumination or shade varies based on the intensity and distance of the source, light shimmers off water and crystals, and passing through steam or fog produces a haze. Aurora even leaves a brief trail of color behind her as she dashes about while flying, making it seem like she’s become one with the wind. Not all the design choices were well thought out though. Occasionally treasure chests will be positioned in front of rock walls with similar colors, making them difficult to distinguish from the background. The problem becomes worse if there’s a layer of smoke further obscuring it. It’s only a minor flaw, and it doesn’t really detract from the game’s quality.
Singer-songwriter Béatrice Martin (stage name Cœur de Pirate) composed the soundtrack to enhance its dream-like atmosphere. An instrumental score consisting mainly of pianos and cellos makes up the background music for much of the overworld and the ending theme Off To Sleep. It captures the period the game is set in by sounding reminiscent of German/Austrian Romantic music with a light, ethereal presentation. In battle, specifically the boss fights, the tone becomes heavier with full orchestral backing, deep percussion, brass and chanting added to emphasize the magnitude of danger you face. The audio team put a great amount of effort into the sound effects to make them seem as organic as possible. While there are a few exaggerated noises like loud gusts of air from swinging an arm, or a heavy knock when an enemy is hit in combat, most of the effects are quite realistic. Gentle breezes, lapping waves, ringing bells and fluttering wings create a soothing mood because of how realistic they sound.
Child of Light is fantastic, one of the best RPGs to come out in 2014. More work could have gone into fleshing out the secondary characters and better stanza construction, but the overall story is well told and it plays wonderfully. It’s almost hard to believe that such a charming tale came from the development team responsible for the brutal Far Cry 3. I truly hope this is a financial success, as it will send a strong message to Ubisoft and other AAA studios. It would show them that they don’t need their outputs to consist of nothing but action-heavy titles with overblown budgets that retread old ground. That they should invest some of the money that their biggest selling franchises make into smaller developers with creative ideas. It’s possible to appeal to a wide demographic and niche audiences; one doesn’t preclude the other. It would be beneficial for gamers and for the industry as a whole.