That's what politics is all about—doing what's in your best interest.
—Shula Valya, Suikoden V
Early on in Suikoden V, a noble wants to help the hero-prince. He invites the prince to his town, gives everyone in His Highness's entourage a place to stay, and promises military support. Yet, nobody trusts the guy. "He's just using you for his own ends," say the prince's advisers. "Be very careful."
As the prince, I think this guy is a total scuzzbag. How can he think of himself when the nation of Sol-Falena is in chaos? Doesn't he care about the planned genocide of non-humans? The towns that will be destroyed if I don't do something now?
So I save the towns without him. I help women, children, and big strong men. (They join my party). I find hammers for a dwarf named Dongo. (He's so grateful for the hammers that he forges me better weapons). And I wonder: aren't I just using all these people for my own ends? How is my power-grubbing ("Please join our cause!") any different from Lord Barows's?
Suikoden V gives me a good 50 hours to think about these questions. The latest in Konami's role-playing game (RPG) series follows the nameless prince of Sol-Falena as he tries to win his kingdom back from some no-good usurpers. He can't do it alone, of course; he needs a lot of friends to help set things right.
But in this game, "friends" include more than just party members who fight monsters alongside the hero. They're also soldiers in an army of hundreds. The prince must build alliances with different towns, to drain support for the opposition and to add to his ever-growing army. When players aren't exploring or killing creatures for experience points, they're commanding squadrons in field and naval battles.
I hated war in Suikoden V. Its large scale is what bothered me the most. I'm not used to considering "the big picture" in a videogame—how my actions affect the entire gameworld around me. When my party is tackling tiny groups of monsters one after another, myself and my enemy are all I think about. Environments dissolve around us; time freezes. There may be a curse to lift or a princess to save, but right now, my team and theirs are the only beings in the universe.
But when my team has hundreds of members and I have to lead them around a huge map and think about my enemy's next move, see how my actions tie into everything else. And I see also that I'm just as power-hungry and selfish as the villains I'm fighting. If I tell somebody, "Please join us!" it's not out of friendship or kindness: I just want to add more strength to my forces. Even if that person isn't very strong or otherwise helpful, he or she is still a feather in my cap. Tera the prince may be a selfless visionary, but Tera the gamer wants all the power and items she can get.
More than any other game I've played, Suikoden V makes me see the gulf between my altruistic avatar and my greedy, egomaniacal self. Twists in the story nudge me in this direction. The hero recruits a tactician, and we find out that she's worked for the enemy at one time. But she eventually turned against them, and the villains wonder if she'll do the same to the prince. And why wouldn't she? Politics is a cannibalistic business.
Suikoden V is far from perfect. Although there's no glacier-like ship this time around (thank goodness), the game is still very, very slow. Its loading times are atrocious, requiring a loading screen after every single enemy encounter. And players are forced to sit through a good six-to-eight hours of story before they can fight anything. But even these flaws accentuate Suikoden V's themes. The lengthy, non-interactive exposition gives me time to trust some characters, and be suspicious of others. I dislike some so heartily that it really is shocking to reflect on my own in-game behavior and see that I'm just like them. And the frequent loading screens provide ample time to think about what I've just done.
At first glance, Suikoden V looks like just another turn-based RPG in which good and evil face off and destiny conquers all. But in a subtle, subversive way, it shows that we can't take our own goodness for granted. Learning that there is no absolute good in war is an important, and powerful, lesson.