Of Blood and Song – An Analysis of Drakengard 3
Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Zero.
08.08.14 - 1:11 PM
Editor's Note: This editorial contains major spoilers about Drakengard 3. Please proceed with caution.
Drakengard 3 is like watching train wreck. From a technical standpoint, the controls, graphics, and repetitive gameplay have been slammed by critics across the board as underwhelming and disappointing. But that's not what I'll be addressing here today. Instead, let's take a look at what lies behind Drakengard 3's incredibly rough exterior: a story of song, a story of blood, and a story of sisters fated to destroy one another.
"We've both been rejected by the world. We both feel the same threat. And yet... here we are, fated to kill each other in the end." — One
Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Zero.
The six Intoner sisters. Five who wish to save the world, and one destined to destroy it.
Each sister rules over a different province that they liberated using their immense magical powers of song. Since dethroning the brutal lords, the land has seen peace under the sisters' authority. Each Intoner is served by a male disciple who exists to satisfy them (in various ways) and functions as a catalyst for their most powerful magic.
Drakengard 3 is an explicitly violent game. Zero slices, hacks, and stabs her way through countless foes, leaving oceans of blood in her wake. Those of us on staff who attended E3 this year had a discussion about where violence in games becomes gratuitous rather than meaningful. We cited Drakengard 3 as an example of the latter. I was repulsed by Zero and her actions as I played through Branch A. I felt empathy for the soldiers who would literally plead and beg to be spared, only to be hacked through mercilessly by myself as Zero a moment later. It's obvious why Zero wears white: its "purity" is defiled with blood.
Zero is essentially violence personified for the majority of the game. She is the most powerful of the Intoners, and she only uses that immense strength to kill others, including her sisters/copies/undead-flower creations. Zero's novella provides some insight into her verbal and physical behaviour: an abusive mother, her life as a prostitute, how she survived by stealing and then killing witnesses. By the time she was executed, her life had been filled with terrible personal hardships, but also countless atrocities that she herself committed.
But the violence takes an interesting turn. While the gameplay remains just as violent throughout the game, as Zero's true motivations as a "hero" are revealed, the violence becomes justifiable — she's saving the world, after all, what's a few thousand brutally killed men? Cut-scenes become noticeably less bloody on the whole, too. In fact, the most horrendous act of violence is during Zero's confrontation with Five (and is actually executed by Five's Disciple Dito, not Zero herself). From that point on, cinematic deaths (with one particular exception) become less violent.
The gender dynamics between Disciples and Intoners is interesting, too. Women dominate the game, and the positions of power in its world (including the all-knowing Accord), and are entirely free of male influence. Their Disciples are more servants than aides, though mileage varies between Intoners. Five treats her Disciple, Dito, as a sexual play-thing, but Two is head-over-heels in love with Cent. Zero and One don't even have Disciples, clearly capable of standing on their own.
"...as a woman, I would always be someone's spoil. But that was beyond my control; I could not discard my womanhood or leave it behind." — Zero's Novella
Though powerful women feature throughout the game, it is perhaps in One where we see greater boundaries broken. One is her elder sister's opposite: Zero strives for destruction, while she searches for justice. Yet they both share the same goal (and the same colour scheme, interestingly): saving the world. For One, she attempts to do this in a role that in the real world is unusual for a woman: leading a religion.
Drakengard 3 features numerous allusions to various religions, but the most interesting is in relation to One creating her "brother." In her prologue DLC, we learn that One created her brother from her own rib in order to abate her loneliness. This matches perfectly with the Garden of Eden story found in Genesis in the Bible where it says, "But for Adam no suitable helper was found" (2:20b) and "Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man" (2:22).
Of course, Drakengard 3 turns its reference material on its head. Obviously, we have a gender swap: in this case, it is the male who is created from the female, but there's more to it than that. In her prologue, One states that her brother is a reflection of her faults, whereas the Bible says that man is created perfect in his image (1:27). We see a similar change in One's dragon, Gabriella. It's revealed that, originally female, One transforms her in order to be powerful enough to defeat Zero. In her new male form, Gabriella becomes Gabriel and more like a servant of One than a partner.
Like the extra details found in the sisters' prologue DLC, released alongside the game were a series of short stories which you can read for free on the official website. Each Intoner and Disciple has their own first-person novella that delves deeper into their thoughts and pasts. They're not required reading, but they add far greater depth to most of the characters, their motivations and personalities.
This is a pretty unconventional way to go about telling your story, but I was a big fan. I sat and read through each novella, thoroughly enjoying the encouraging, depressing and pitiable stories found within. Unfortunately, I suspect most players didn't even know about their existence, let alone read them. If this style of additional storytelling is attempted again, it needs to be better worked into the framework of the game, even if it's just providing a transcript you can read from your console.
While you could easily read them all before even starting the game, I chose to tackle them as each character was introduced. I read Zero's after playing through the prologue. It left me astonishingly confused, but completely hooked. I wanted to find out how the events in Zero's novella had anything to do with the story of Drakengard 3. Sadly, this wasn't entirely explained, even by the end of Branch D, but I've always enjoyed a bit of speculating.
Ah, yes. Branch D. For those of us who made it all the way to the end, we were confronted by one of the most grossly unfair bosses I've ever encountered. But also one of my favourites. I won't justify the game design choices made regarding the camera and black screen, because they're stupid and ridiculous, but moving to a rhythm mini-game is a perfect end to a game focused on the power of music. Gone is the violence (and those who cause it), and instead we are left with the very essence of Drakengard 3: song.
And it's music that is the backbone of the world and story in Drakengard 3. As Intoners, Zero and her sisters' greatest powers come from their songs. When activating Intoner Mode, haunting choir music begins, and the penultimate mission in the game only has lyrics added to the background track when it is entered. In a strange coincidence, the music was just about the only feature of the game universally praised by critics.
Amongst all the darkness and sadism that Drakengard 3 brings is a single paragon of "goodness:" Mikhail the dragon. Zero's only real friend, Mikhail is innocent and childlike in his demeanour. He hates to kill, and always suggests "talking it out" first. Of course, Zero puts those suggestions to rest by cursing at or stabbing him. But he even shed the despair carried by his pre-incarnation, Michael, who was tired of hundreds of years of battles and death.
"I knew my time with her would be short. She, too, would fade away, leaving me behind." — Michael's Novella
But it's exactly Mikhail's loveable-ness that makes his ultimate role in the story so heartbreaking. As we learn towards the end of the game, Michael's purpose (and by extension Mikhail's) is to kill Zero once her sisters are dead, as only a dragon has the power to end the Flower. Mikhail is unaware of his task until the end, but ultimately finds the courage to execute it. And in those final moments, the game discards its dark nature and anti-heroes in favour of a more traditional triumph of good over evil: Mikhail, the only truly virtuous character, is the sole survivor at the end.
And in another interesting religious tie-in, Michael is an Archangel is a number of different religions, including Christianity and Judaism. He is often referred to as the leader of God's army or the angel of death, a fitting title for Zero's dragon. The Jehovah's Witnesses believe, however, that when Michael is referenced, it is actually another name for Jesus in heaven. With this in mind, we could read Michael's reincarnation as a link to Jesus' resurrection. And, by extension, Mikhail as the saviour of the world. Doesn't that match up perfectly with the finalé?
Drakengard 3 may be heavy on blood, murder and sexual innuendo, but it uses all three of those to create an atmosphere and setting that disturbs, not excites. Not until Branch D did I feel comfortable playing as Zero, but the story of the Intoners was far too compelling to turn away from. The game may be far from perfect, but the story of Zero and the Flower is not one I'll soon forget.