All real living is meeting.
Martin Buber, I and Thou
The kingdom of Frenia (フレーニア王国) has fallen.
Once a bustling capital city, Baia Fre (バイア・フレ) is now empty with the smell of genocide lingering in the air. The paladins of the theocratic state of Maria (メリア教国) have no sympathy with the infidels.
Ardin (アルディン) himself has slayed the Frenian royalty and perpetuated the massacre of the heretics — all in the name of God. Often called the hero of the crusades, the paladin refuses the accolades and prefers that his only rewards are the humble devotion and service to God.
It is thus his duty to kill a Frenian survivor who is trying to escape before his very eyes. Frenians believe in the heathen religion of Chrukisna (クルキスナ教); God only allows one religion, so he draws his sword.
The Frenian survivor, Bernadetta (ベルナデッタ), is seconds away from death. She has lost everything — her father, the bookstore she calls home — and it will not be surprising for her life to end right here. But she prays to her God one more time and asks for His safety.
Ardin stops short. Her prayer for God has made him hesitate. He lets her leave.
Stationed in a small damaged fort by the capital city, a tiny Frenian army overlooks the fall of the capital city. A young knight, Kiara (キアラ), listens to one of her loyal soldiers dying on the haystack.
She decides from now on, there will be no more deaths in this war. Even if her actions can be misconstrued as reckless, she knows her compassion for people impels her to rescue those in need. Kiara has become a local hero to those who have escaped the mass killings in the capital city.
One of those people who owe their lives to her is the young and beautiful Bernadetta.
And so, the tale of Argus begins — not with adventure but with the meaning of faith. Released in 2014 on Freem! and developed by Bay Game Creation, the game is a 20-30 hour game made on the RPG Maker VX Ace engine. It is difficult to describe the connection between Kiara and Ardin — let alone the game — and I am sure not many people will get the story, but there is something powerful working in the game.
It is quite the miracle that it exists actually.
For one, I can’t imagine many people getting interested in developing a JRPG set in the Middle Ages. The popular depiction of that period — the Dark Ages — has caused people to assume it is a needlessly violent era with an absurd amount of religious superstitions; historians argue otherwise as we will see shortly, but the image of foolish barbarians ordered by the papacy and calephs has stuck with people. When such a setting appears in fiction, fantasy writers may choose to relish in the violence or imagine noble savages frolicking in the forests. Little of the religious context remains. Whether low or high, most commercial fantasies prefer examining myth over religious doctrines.
Yet, Argus is set in those hectic times we call the Crusades. That period can provoke a wide array of emotions because two great religions clashed and so much documentation of the greatest wars between heroes have survived. Names like Saladin and Richard Lionheart emanate nostalgia and pride or hatred and repudiation from both sides. The holy city of Jerusalem has seen itself exchanged many times during this period. No wonder everyday people invoke the words of crusade and jihad as a pejorative.
But these popular historical retellings given to us by orators on the podium sometimes called the internet lack not just new archaeological findings but a deep understanding on the spirit of these holy wars. These crusades were not waged by the weak and stupid but by people who devoted their lives to God. “The eleventh century was a profoundly spiritual area,” Thomas Asbridge writes in The Crusades: The Authoritative Edition of the Holy War,
“This was a setting in which Christian doctrine impinged upon virtually every facet of human life — from birth and death, to sleeping and eating, marriage and health — and the sign of God’s omnipotence were clear for all to see, made manifest through acts of ‘miraculous’ healing, divine revelation and earthly and celestial portents. Concepts such as love, charity, obligation and tradition all helped to shape medieval attitudes to devotion, but perhaps the most conditioning influence was fear … The Latin Church of the eleventh century taught that every human would face a moment of judgment — the so-called ‘weighing of souls’. Purity would bring the everlasting reward of heavenly salvation, but sin would result in damnation and an eternity of hellish torment. For the faithful of the day, the visceral reality of the dangers involved was driven home by graphic images in religious art and sculpture of the punishments to be suffered by those deemed impure: wretched sinners strangled by demons; the damned herded into the fires of the underworld by hideous devils.”
This was before the notion of crusades happened — the language of crusading emerged between the 12th and 13th century — so the knights who signed up for what is now referred to as the First Crusade saw it as a pilgrimage or a journey. They not only wanted to drive out the Muslims but also reach the holy city of Jerusalem and pray to the Lord. While greed played a part here and there, religion had mostly captured the imagination of these people. No good Christian wanted to go to Hell; they wanted to repent for their sins.
Of course, there is a quagmire when it comes to bloodshed. Killing is a sin after all. But it is possible that “in the eyes of God, certain forms of warfare were more justifiable than others”. Asbridge says that theologians in the first millennium “began to question whether scripture really did offer such a decisive condemnation of warfare”. Episodes like Jesus coming “to bring not peace but a sword” and “us[ing] a whip of cords to beat moneylenders out of the temple” seem to suggest otherwise.
It was St. Augustine of Hippo (mostly famous for his Confessions) who got the ball rolling when he argued “a war could be both lawful and justifiable if fought under strict conditions”.
The formation of crusades was thus constructed “within the framework of existing religious practice, thus ensuring that, in eleventh-century terms at least, the connection [Pope Urban II made in his sermon] established between warfare and salvation made clear, rational sense.” The same practice of confession or fasting to cancel one’s sinfulness is linked to “the more audacious concept of fighting for God”. The First Crusade “thus promised to be an experience imbued with overwhelming redemptive potency; functioning as a ‘super’ penance, capable of scouring the spirit of any transgression.”
It is impossible then to detach the meaning of crusade with spirituality. Elements of devotion and theology exist in these holiest of wars. In the conclusion of the book, Asbridge talks about how the crusades were “constructed as a voluntary and personal form of penance”. Its successes and more importantly failures come from how its premise fails to live up to its purpose for the crusader states: to the crusaders, it has always been about the “promise of individual salvation: a guarantee that the penalties owing for confessed sins would be cancelled out by the completion of an armed pilgrimage”. Its ability “to eradicate the taint of transgression” and “to offer an escape from damnation” meant thousands of people to volunteer in the holy cause. Today, we consider fighting in the name of religion an act of lunacy; however, in those days, it was an act of the purest devotion. Whether we see this reasoning as a rationalization or not, the holy wars are about faith .
Argus plays with this historical context as you see both sides of the war and what faith in the two monotheistic religions mean. Kiara and her unlikely band of heroes are foot soldiers ordered by the prince Carel (カレル) to solve issues like food shortages. Ardin wants to do some soul-searching and not get cooped up in the castle. These two protagonists share an invisible bond stronger than fate can ever create.
To make that bond visible, we need to understand how perception in this game works. Unlike most RPG Maker games, characters in Argus don’t get all their best stats from leveling up or equipment. That comes from the engage systems. As the party members mingle and engage in the world around them, certain perceptive traits come into view from others. Ryhel (ライヘル), at first glance, seems to be a mean-spirited noble in the eyes of Kiara and Co. He certainly has the reputation of being tough with the soldiers. These perceptive traits characterize Ryhel and give him attribute points relating to his strength and intelligence. However, he seems to have trouble expressing his emotions and is actually quite kind — I see him something more of a tsundere. This new trait is also an equipable characteristic, but it also shows how the various perspectives can feed into how they are perceived as a whole.
The game thus is an exercise on perception and how perceptual knowledge informs the characters’ presence in the world. Osa (オーサ) may look like a decrepit old man, but he hides his wiliness beneath a veneer of simplicity; he fishes in a fish-less pond, yet he knows how to cook up a bomb. The young Dean (ディーン) is naive and sometimes quite embarrassing; his heart is at least in the right place when it comes to fighting. The more we learn about these characters, the stronger they become in our eyes. We could in fact say people like Dean have always had their bravery — we just never perceived it. In a sense, perceiving his bravery has awakened it from its dormant state. He is brave because we see him as brave.
The most surprising would come from Kiara herself. Believed to be a messiah who can create miracles, she is perceived by her fellow friends and rivals that she can invoke fire by will. A rival woman knight gives her some of the most powerful fire skills because it turns out they believe in her the most.
It may be weird to imagine that being the case, but the world of Argus is prone to various modes of perception. On the field map, enemies appear as symbols like the FOEs in Etrian Odyssey games. They are colored and the minute you defeat one, you can get a temporary buff to your party’s statistics — defeat more symbols with the same color and these buffs get combo’d up. However, it is difficult to find, say, the red symbols to keep the max attack buff going. This is when you switch your main party member to someone else and let them perceive that symbol in a different color — this is the bread and butter of the gaze/perception (まなざし) system. The world hasn’t changed when we switch people, but the enemy symbols have. Indeed, all enemy symbols can have all kinds of colors as long as we switch party members on the field . That is the power of multiple perceptions on the same enemy symbol.
Indeed, it is just like how people may observe the same event and come to different conclusions based on where they stand. It is why we engage in dialog: to work out the differences, to find a realistic solution, and to have a shared reality of things. To meet and see as one requires a very powerful shared conception of the world. Yet, we need this shared vision to make sense of the world.
It allows us to perceive the causality of the invisible. Connections can be made between the most disparate things in the world as long as one takes the right perspective. Naturally going from that observation, it should not be surprising that the world map theme is titled “Perspective of God”. The story is viewed by an omniscient third person narrator, but it goes beyond simple narration in novels. Argus forces the player to bring in knowledge from both sides onto the playing field, even though it should be impossible. Kiara knows Ardin, way before she actually meets him. When they finally meet, they do not see each other as strangers but friends who haven’t seen each other in a long time. Their bond is not meant to be perceived by our eyes but God’s eyes.
The workings of God are mysterious because He speaks to us in signs that can’t always be deciphered by normal means. Miracles appear to come out of nowhere because there is always something we cannot see working its magic. Reality in the world of Argus depends entirely on the same principle of a tree falling in a forest and not making a sound when no one is around. Anything can begin and cease to exist based on the observations of God.
Misperceptions exist because of the differences in perceptions. We are many, but God is one. God sees all, but we only see what we can see. It is why we fail to appreciate the actions of God, the metaphysics that have created this world, and the bonds that make us brothers and sisters.
The conflicts between the two religions in Argus actually reveal that fellow siblings are murdering each other. It is this existentialist crisis that causes Ardin to remain shocked and confused. As he learns more about the worshipers of Chruskina and devotion to similar saints and texts, he begins to wonder if they — the other-ed people who have been slashed by his sword — are praying to the same God.
Of course, the religions of Chruskina and Maria are inspired by the three monotheistic religions. Chruskina takes the piety and miracles from Christianity while Maria is a mixture of crusader-era Christianity and Islam. The scenarists reveal their knowledge of the religious texts and more in a blog post listing their sources , but their conception of the two Argus religions take a more fantastical, Borgesian approach that invokes a search for the meaning of religion.
The player is encouraged to learn about the origins of the religion and read their sacred texts whenever they get the opportunity. In Ardin’s side, we see the protagonist struggle to comprehend Nazhelm’s (ナーゼルヘム) taunts when the latter mentions the similarities of the religions. A wandering theologian named Conelin (コネリン) and his pupil Adon (アドン) appear in Kiara’s journeys to disseminate information on their studies of the religious texts. Together, these help present a far more spiritual and meaningful truth than most media dare entertain: differences are only a degree of similarities.
In the prophetic texts of Maria, we may read the first three lines to hear the wisdom of God (I thank fspls for helping me with the following translations):
Thou art in Me;
and I am in thee.
But the same ideas can be found in the biblical text that informs the religion of Chruskina:
O ye sons of men:
In Man am I;
and Man is in Me.
None live who know Me not.
Such a revelation and more have lead devout figures like Ardin to feel utter pain. Murdering the Frenians is like murdering a mirror of himself. He feels numb from killing people who now feel like a part of him. Ardin has become aware of a perspective greater than his own because he is closer to seeing the perspective of God.
The teachings of Maria have been sullied by greed, power, and ignorance. Everyone is massacring their own kind. Heresy is a mere social construct made by those who see difference more than similarity. The Inquisition  has gone astray from the religious texts, not to mention the cruelty of burning people alive.
It is here that Ardin becomes a heretic in the eyes of the religion, even though he is merely preaching a truth from the word of God. He has the more enlightened perspective of things; yet, the people of Maria aren’t ready to listen to him.
Listening to people requires people to see things the same way or at least empathize with their way of perceiving. To Kiara, it is like listening to a story from her newest best friend Bernadetta. Bernadetta has many stories to tell because of the many books she got to read while taking care of the bookstore in the capital city.
Just from reading one book, a new world can be created out of thin air the same way the Judeochristian God created the world in seven days. New settings, new characters, new relationships — all coexist in the pages of the book and ready to be read by someone willing to immerse themselves in this new world. For Bernadetta, this is how she perceives the world out of her father’s small bookstore. She can be seen as someone who appropriates the wisdom of Jorge Luis Borges’s Fictions — “A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships” — into her everyday life.
But a world of worlds — or a book of books — is stifling. It is pandemonium, chaos, claustrophobic. It is the same horror as when William of Baskerville discovers the grim nature of books and libraries in The Name of the Rose:
“Until then I had thought each book spoke of the things, human or divine, that lie outside books. Now I realized that not infrequently books speak of books: it is as if they spoke among themselves. In the light of this reflection, the library seemed all the more disturbing to me. It was then the place of a long, centuries-old murmuring, an imperceptible dialogue between one parchment and another, a living thing, a receptacle of powers not to be ruled by a human mind, a treasure of secrets emanated by many minds, surviving the death of those who had produced them or had been their conveyors.”
It is a never-ending dialog of intertextuality. Living to read books — still the main source of wisdom today — does not eradicate the disorder of the world; it may perpetuate and worsen it. There are many worlds, many dreams, many perspectives to take into account for one soul to hold them all.
Bernadetta must always speak to Kiara. Her hopes are placed upon the hero of her dreams. Kiara is like another world to her — a reminder of her humanity in this lonely world of worlds.
To thus perceive and empathize with another’s worldview is one of the most humanistic challenges anybody can face. It involves reaching into the other side and becoming one with them.
Differentiation separates us all. At best, we see others as doppelgangers — mirror images of ourselves. Unable to understand the phenomenon, we think they “ape the pain of my love / which tormented me upon this spot / so many a night, so long ago” like the singer of Franz Schubert’s and Herbert Heine’s “Der Doppelgänger”. An endless dialog of torture persists between us and them. As the Uqbar heresiarch in Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” dictates, “Mirrors and copulation are abominable, since they both multiply the numbers of men.”
This fear of doppelgangers is the paradox of the monotheistic religions that want to save all but sacrifice many souls in the pursuit of the same goals.
Despite the fact monotheistic religions may pray to the same God for the same reasons, they fight. Monotheism means only one God. Therefore, the other side must be wrong. They try to individuate themselves as civilizations. These civilizations then other-ed each other and delude themselves into the fallacy of a so-called “clash of civilizations”. In the process of searching for their distinctive identities, they lose what it means to have a dialog.
They are trapped in their own little worlds.
Yet, engaging with all of these worlds is a must even if it makes us lonelier than before. These worlds have an origin and it is there we can seek the correct perspective to see all these disparate ideas.
Plotinus , the founder of Neoplatonism which influenced medieval Christian theology, wants to comprehend the beauty of unity — for how are we born out of this unity? What would an origin point be like? How does this origin give us our different identities?
In “The Descent of the Soul”, Plotinus writes,
Think of a city as having a soul. It would include inhabitants, each of whom would have a soul. The soul of the city would be the more perfect and powerful. What would prevent the souls of the inhabitants from being of the same nature as the soul of the city?
His answer is that there are different realms or planes of the playing field. Those souls that are above us — The Soul — “thinks” and “direct[s] itself to itself” so it can “preserve itself”. The Soul plays the administrator role of the individual souls like a governor of a city.
But the implication is something deeper: if The Soul is above our souls, then it has its own superiors and those superiors have their own superiors — and so on. The top of the hierarchy is the origin, what Neoplatonic thinkers call The One. It is a godly figure where everything comes from.
In “The One or The Good”, Plotinus stresses it is prior to everything, even the concept of Being:
“It is by The One that all beings are beings.”
Unity is what gives objects identities. We don’t call pieces of timber “houses and ships” until we saw and nail them into houses and ships. Anything that can be called a one “has a unity proportional to its nature, sharing in unity, either more or less, according to the degree of its being.”
But The One is something more powerful. It “is not all things because it would no longer be one”. It predates everything, even concepts and ideas. The One is undefinable or even unimaginable, much like the concept of the Tao in Taoism. It “overflows” so “its excess begat an other than itself” as mentioned in the Post Primals.
So Plotinus then says in “The One or The Good”,
“As the soul advances toward the formless, unable to grasp what is without contour or to receive the imprint of reality so diffuse, it fears it will encounter nothingness, and it slips away. Its state is distressing. It seeks solace in retreating down to the sense realm, there to rest as upon a sure and firm-set earth, just as the eye, wearied with looking at small objects, gladly turns to large ones. But when the soul seeks to know in its own way — by coalescence and unification — it is prevented by that very unification from recognizing it has found The One, for it is unable to distinguish knower and known.”
How do you perceive something so formless and intangible? It gets more complicated when a soul knows something:
“It loses its unity; it cannot remain simply one because knowledge implies discursive reason and discursive reason implies multiplicity.”
The more we think and raise questions, the more we create problems — or worlds — and lose our unity. To hold unity:
“We must renounce knowledge and knowable, every object of thought, even Beauty, because Beauty, too, is posterior to The One and is derived from it as, from the sun, the daylight.”
Moving away from Plotinus’s commentary, we can appreciate the piety required in the service of The One (or in medieval theology, the Christian God). Yet, such a contemplation is lonely. It may be easier to forget divinity and self.
Alas, it is an evil in the eyes of Plotinus’s “Three Primal States Hypostases”:
This evil that has befallen them has its source in self-will, in being born, in becoming different, in desiring to be independent. Once having tasted the pleasures of independence, they use their freedom to go in a direction that leads away from their origin. And when they have gone a great distance, they even forget that they came from it. Like children separated from their family since birth and educated away from home, they are ignorant now of their parentage and therefore of their identity.
It is no wonder people want to conform and not conform to The One. They understand it is where they belong — “nothing is separated from what is prior” as written in “The Post Primals” — yet as “The Descent of the Soul” says,
“But there comes a point at which they come down from this state, cosmic in its dimensions, to one of individuality. They wish to be independent. They are tired, you might say, of living with someone else. Each steps down into its own individuality.”
But Plotinus warns what will happen if we let the soul do its own thing:
“When a soul remains for long in this withdrawal and estrangement from the whole, with never a glance toward the intelligible, it becomes a thing fragmented, isolated, and weak. Activity lacks concentration. Attention is tied to the particulars. Severed from the whole, the soul clings to the part; to this one sole thing, buffeted about by a whole worldful of things, has it turned and given itself. Adrift now from the whole, it manages even this particular thing with difficulty, its care of it compelling attention to externals, the presence of the body, the deep penetration of the body.”
Like a fall of grace, the individual soul loses any sense of direction because it has focused on the littlest things in the cosmos. The more it strays from The One, the lesser it becomes. And because each soul is already in The One, it just means it is getting blinder.
All souls will have to return to The One — it is the “source of plurality” as discussed in the treatise on “Contemplation”. It is akin to the Big Bang which makes all things possible: it is
an originating principle and, consequently, must exist before all things if they are to originate from it.
To remember where we originate, that is the main goal of contemplation. Even if there are multiple worlds envisioned by many souls, there will always be The One waiting in the center. This is because “all perception is perception of forms” as explained in “The Soul”. This statement alone proves “all impressions must reach a unique center”.
Perception has to reach into the form of the forms — the ultimate form, The One. We all are in The One and The One is in all of us.
Such a perception is akin to being one with The One. It involves an extreme amount of energy and effort to go over the barrier to be united. Pure contemplation means solipsism.
This pilgrimage to understand The One — God — is not a road many can take. Only the most religious individuals — those of the likes of Kiara and Ardin — can fathom the monstrous complexity (and simplicity) of faith.
Argus is a game about believing in the sub specie aeternitatis — the aspect of the eternal, 永遠の相. The eyes of the God or The One reveals all to be naked and visible truths. It is the loneliness and solitude of such a journey as well. The soul can only take so much before it becomes weary. However, the protagonists are the avatars of God who aspire to be with Him for they serve only one figure:
Yet, God must be lonely. He is cooped up in the attic where nobody can see Him; He is the originating principle but exists nowhere and everywhere. All He can read are the books lying on the floor. Many are the stories He may peruse, but He in His holiness remains isolated. What wisdom He may have, nobody is there to listen.
But He makes humans in His shape. Like The One overflowing their tears from solitude, He creates more humans and worlds and stories until one day someone understands Him. He calls this someone a messiah, an agent of God.
The solipsism of God is shattered. He is not alone as He is with His messiah. Friendship can wipe away those tears of God and embrace the new coming of humanity.
: This is not to say the Crusades are just about faith. Greed and power factor in too: The Crusades have a lot of inner squabbling on both sides too. The First and Third Crusades in particular are not as uniform as we think and there’s a lot of shifting the goalposts. The Muslims in the First Crusade did not see the Christians as threats, so they ended up not caring much when Jerusalem felled to the West. Meanwhile, the Franks and the Latins were just arguing with one another. In the Third Crusade, Lionheart had to deal with European politics while Saladin had to manage his vast Muslim empire which he had to conquer by various means.
We even have the Fifth Crusade where the armies eventually went to conquer Constantinople (Byzantine Empire) instead of Jerusalem because they were majorly influenced by other interests. Even the Mongolians got into the picture at some point and the Mamluks waged a jihad on them to protect their territories.
The Crusades were thus waged with economic viewpoints and focused on the balance of powers, but religion frames the wars and justifies them. If we forget that religion plays a vital role, then we may fall into the same trap Lionheart did. When Lionheart went for the strategic plan of capturing Syria instead of Jerusalem, he did not fathom the spirituality of his soldiers and knights. They became dispirited and the Third Crusade became a lost cause in their eyes. All they wanted to do was fight and reclaim Jerusalem. This loss of morale became a disaster for the crusade.
It is an utterly fascinating period and Thomas Asbridge writes wonderfully in The Crusades: The Authoritative Edition of the Holy War to describe the power struggles and inner conflicts in this period.
: As much as I like the idea of how the mechanics function, the game design overall is … quite lacking. The maps get way too large, enemy symbols move too fast, the battles get repetitive (it’s still the same ol’ RPG Maker crap), some of the flag triggers are a bit obtuse, and more importantly the balance is really bad. After the tenth hour or so, regular enemies get double turns to attack.
You are supposed to buy many items and take some time grinding. And there’s no way to skip dialog you’ve read if you died. It would be nice if the game had an easy or kinetic mode.
If you are uninterested in spending time grinding against the same enemies over and over again, I recommend hooking up Cheat Engine and changing the HP values in-battle. Use this script before looking up the values.
: It should not be a surprise to anybody when the scenarists of Argus mention works like Borges’s Fictions and Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris as their main inspirations. Yet, it is quite amusing to me that they mention, of all things, Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
In another post, Yukitsugu mentions how they and their family got together and watched the film on VHS. They loved laughing at the jokes when they were younger, but they feel that the film had made them get interested in Arthurian legends and science fiction. Their childhood films include Dragonslayer and Time Bandits, another Terry Gilliam film.
It is pretty telling that these adventure films have made a footprint in their minds, possibly more than the magical realists, philosophical science fiction writers, religious texts, and legends combined.
: The Inquisition imagery in Argus is primarily inspired by popular but fictional depictions of the Spanish Inquisition.
Often exaggerated as one of the worst atrocities by the Catholic church in the world when it is clearly not, the Spanish Inquisition’s notoriety comes from dubious claims. It is, of course, bad for anyone who is Muslim or Jewish; however, the claim that witches and heretics were burned alive is bullshit. Burning people at the stake is a secular punishment for example. However, it is categorized under the Spanish Inquisition because it is done so for political means. The Spanish Inquisition is one of the most famous victims of the phenomena historians call a “black legend”, an intentional mischaracterization of a history which emphasizes (i.e. distorts) the inhumanity of a people and ignores the possible positive achievements they may have made.
In fact, the Inquisitions — while bad in many ways — are the medieval precursors to legal systems found in Europe today. See Helen Rawling’s The Spanish Inquisition, in particular the first chapter which deals with the historiography of the period and the Spanish Black Legend itself.
: I use The Essential Plotinus translated and selected by Elmer O’Brien for the following quotes. The translation is lyrical and clear; it is also the standard version used in academia. If you are interested in medieval theology, this is a short and handy book that will help you get started. I would also recommend knowing some Plato too.