ByJohn Eire, writer at
Starting in your 20s, everyone expects you to live a cookie cutter life. I think I ate the dough.
John Eire

I've always found "melancholy" to be an interesting feeling, emotion, whatever it is. As someone who suffers from terrible biological depression, I can of course relate to it greatly, and tend to find myself latching onto moments where it's represented in fiction with an odd mix of lament and adoration. As sad as the emotion is, it also has a certain subdued appeal to it, like an empty street on a crisp fall afternoon, after most of the leaves have fallen off. There's something oddly alluring about the deadly silence of the wind, the complete vacancy of other humans, the chill weather. Sadness, loneliness, and even a sense of foreboding accompany something that is, beneath its more painful exterior, quite beautiful.

The confines of Shadow Moses Island in Metal Gear Solid were certainly melancholic. [Credit: Konami]
The confines of Shadow Moses Island in Metal Gear Solid were certainly melancholic. [Credit: Konami]

I think the feeling shows up in games quite often. I have about ten scenarios floating around in my head right now that represent this emotion fairly well, but if I were to name them all, we'd be here all day. I think one of its best representations in gaming also happens to be one of my favorite pieces of music, one I first heard before I began to suffer from depression, one that I've seen from outside the darkened box that's been placed over my head.

Maybe it's because I first heard it when I was still in a world filled with more light, and can now also feel a certain kinship with what it represents, that it appeals to me so greatly. It represents to me how different it is to experience misery from the inside, which is infinitely more transformative, perhaps even enlightening, than seeing it from a distance. But I'm digressing a little.

Hope Beneath Despair

Anxious Heart - Final Fantasy VII

This music plays in the Midgar Slums, a place of poverty and oppression. It also plays in the Train Graveyard.

[Credit: Square Enix]
[Credit: Square Enix]

I think what's so particularly appealing about the feeling of melancholy in Anxious Heart, which is conveyed masterfully through NPC dialogue throughout the game's Midgar chapter, is that Midgar's citizens haven't given up hope. You feel their despair, their fear, their anger at living beneath the upper crust of society and being bled dry by Shinra. But when you speak to these NPCs, none of them think it's "ok" to live like that. They all want out, they all want to see Shinra fall, they all want a better life. There's a sense of hope and a fighting spirit beneath all of these destitute people, even if, deep inside, they know they probably won't ever get out of the position they're in.

It's symbolic of the power of the human spirit and the evils of poverty, and very close to how people react to living in severe hardship. Nobody ever truly accepts it as their lot in life. Everyone thinks "someday, things will be better." Even if the odds are low or nonexistent, people's hearts keep longing for the good.

In a way, through the litter and grime and ramshackle housing and unfair dichotomy between rich and poor, the good things in life are made infinitely more powerful. The poor realize how much they need them, how their lives feel distinctly wrong without them. Reality ceases to matter. The human longing for goodness takes precedence, even if they do acknowledge the "real world" around them. It never leaves, and even finds new places to grow. People begin to find value in tiny, seemingly insignificant things.

Take, for example, Sector VII Pillar Guy (Number 4 in this article).

Midgar's melancholy is both devastating and beautiful. It's a work of art. Anxious Heart is the perfect representation of the mood and tone it attempts to convey.

We can only hope the remake does this feeling justice. Midgar's looking pretty melancholic so far! [Credit: Square Enix]
We can only hope the remake does this feeling justice. Midgar's looking pretty melancholic so far! [Credit: Square Enix]

A Sacred Death

Another game that I feel embodies this almost paradoxical emotion is Valkyrie Profile.

Valkyrie Profile's melancholy runs deeper than Final Fantasy VII's. This is because it's on a cosmic scale from the very beginning. Even the player, as Lenneth, a literal goddess, isn't capable of solving people's earthly woes.

The fact that the premise of the game is that she's there to recruit the souls of the departed for an army in a heavenly war is even more depressing, adding another layer of tragedy to the unceremonious deaths of the recently departed recruits, who are posthumously dubbed as Lenneth's "einherjar."

All of Lenneth's einherjar have a story to be told. Every single one ends in their demise. [Credit: Square Enix]
All of Lenneth's einherjar have a story to be told. Every single one ends in their demise. [Credit: Square Enix]

This is a term taken from Norse mythology that has connotations of a heavenly warrior. The einherjar in Valkyrie Profile were, unlike most other video games, usually nobody special before their deaths. At most, they were an ordinary samurai or a soldier, but never a powerful hero or otherwise emotionally or physically exceptional person. Their deaths are usually tragic, unwarranted, unfair, and too sudden.

Perhaps an afterlife of more fighting was paradise for the vikings, but for ordinary people, more conflict is hardly what these people wanted or deserved.

As if they didn't have enough problems in life. [Credit: Square Enix]
As if they didn't have enough problems in life. [Credit: Square Enix]

The juxtaposition between human lives and the heavenly conflict of the gods, as well as the very earthly struggles of the einherjar's stories in comparison to the fantastical monster hunting, dungeon delving, and fighting more typical of a fantasy RPG, helps to sell the player on the fact that death has allowed these people to transcend to a new life. It's more glorious, for sure... but at what cost?

Somber Sounds

Composer Motoi Sakuraba's music had a fantastical, dreamlike quality to it throughout this particular era of gaming, but his work for Valkyrie Profile had an underlying sense of despair that made it stand out even among his other excellent compositions of the '90s.

Epic Poem to a Sacred Death, which plays during the game's opening, has a heavenly choir that dips into low, somber notes that reflect a sense of impending tragedy. Doorway to Heaven, while heroic and uplifting, still has distant, somber flutes and what sounds like a choir of lamenting angels scattered throughout. All Is Twilight probably represents the melancholy tone of the game best, at least for met's so unapologetically bleak, and usually plays in town or village scenes before a character's inevitable death. The whole soundtrack is layered with this feeling.

[Credit: Square Enix]
[Credit: Square Enix]

The game's washed out, teal/grey look also helps. The towns and dungeons are equally dark and dismal.

Something unique about Valkyrie Profile's melancholy is that it isn't oppressive, like Berserk or Dark Souls. It's more passive; the world is slowly dying, people aren't aware of their misery or fate or what's going on in their world, and most certainly not in the world of the gods. Situating the player as Lenneth, who does know these things, makes the scenario even more tragic.

Unlike Final Fantasy VII, which compartmentalizes the feeling, melancholy pervades and defines the entire game, from beginning to end.

Maybe I'm weird for liking this about games. But these two titles hold a special place in my heart, and it is precisely because they succeed in portraying overwhelmingly beautiful sadness.


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