Christmas Eve, 1997.
Snow continues to envelope New York City as the monotonous bustle of human life fades to a dull hum behind a backdrop of soft orchestral ambiance and sparse piano melodies. As the notes fade into a jarring silence, police officer Aya Brea exits her limousine and enters a subtly elegant theatre, tasteful décor and golden chandeliers complementing velvet curtains and graceful architecture. With a dramatic camera cut and a swift crescendo of strings and percussion, the theatre’s play approaches its climax. Amidst themes of love and death, an opera singer’s warm vibrato fills the room.
Within minutes, Officer Brea finds herself surrounded by charred corpses and smoldering ashes, the mysterious opera singer nowhere to be found.
Thus begins Parasite Eve, a fondly remembered, if not particularly unremarkable, PlayStation gem developed by Squaresoft (now Square Enix). Despite garnering both modest commercial and critical success, the fact remains that Parasite Eve was released in a post-Final Fantasy VII world, coming nowhere close to achieving the level of sales or acclaim as Square’s flagship franchise. Indeed, it would have been quite easy for Parasite Eve to be lost in the shuffle.
However, Parasite Eve separates itself from the remainder of Square’s catalogue for a number of reasons that cannot be quantified by sales figures or aggregate review scores. As the studio’s first Mature-rated title, Parasite Eve sought to adopt a decidedly more serious, adult tone than their previous output. This was an apt decision considering the game’s source material, the eponymous 1995 novel by Japanese author Hideaki Sena. A success story in its own right, Sena’s novel was the first recipient of the Japan Horror Novel Award, spurning a film adaptation with an original soundtrack orchestrated by famed Studio Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi. Due to the impact of Sena’s original material, Square was taking a great risk in adopting this existing IP (another first for the studio) into their own work. The game released in 1998, a year after the film, and served as a sequel to Sena’s original novel.
Though this may have been interesting to reflect upon in 1998, time shows that the Parasite Eve video game failed to make a lasting impact on the industry in the way that Square’s other franchises have. The sole sequel, Parasite Eve II, ditched many of the central mechanics that separated the original from the competition, instead adopting more of a survival-horror tone. Although this format and genre have more in common with the source material, the resulting game came across as contrived and uninspired in relation to other titles on the market. Perhaps part of the reason the franchise failed to catch on was because of this shift, turning away from Square’s core crowd of role-playing fans while failing to meet the high standards set by competitors such as Capcom’s own juggernaut, Resident Evil 2. Despite primarily launching exclusively in Japan, the original Parasite Eve was moderately critically and commercially successful, outselling Xenogears (another Square juggernaut from Q1 of 1998) in a mere month; however, Parasite Eve II’s worldwide release was notably less successful, managing a mere quarter of the original’s sales. It wasn’t until 2010 that the series continued in the form of The 3rd Birthday, a spiritual successor for the PSP that all but abandoned the original concept and heart of Sena’s work. Regardless, Parasite Eve remains an important topic of discussion as an exemplar of how video games, when examined as a medium, can complement and enhance literature and film from both an entertainment and artistic perspective.
While video games are often lambasted for lacking the complex and compelling narratives found in other mediums (and rightfully so, as this particular medium is still in its infancy and has a long way to develop in this regard), Parasite Eve manages to strike a delicate balance in paying respectful homage to its source material while simultaneously presenting an unobtrusive, original narrative, all without sacrificing gameplay or presentation. Though technically a sequel to the novel, Parasite Eve manages to serve as a standalone title by portraying an isolated incident, relating to Sena’s original work through allusion; the game’s Japanese scientist, Maeda, not only serves a critical role in the progression of the narrative but also as a means to maintain a relatively cohesive story that relates back to the novel, albeit straying from the horror roots towards a more action-oriented script.
Whereas many modern cinematic, story-driven games focus more heavily on presentation and immersion rather than direct player control, such as in the works of developers Quantic Dream and Telltale Games, Square’s work with Parasite Eve possessed a narrative refinement that was not only rare for a game in 1998 but also served as a foreshadowing of shifting ideals in the industry as a whole.
Just as with Final Fantasy VII, Parasite Eve was marketed as a cinematic experience, favoring pre-rendered FMV footage for promotional materials rather than portraying blocky polygonal screenshots from the actual gameplay. However, unlike Square’s beloved monolith RPG, Parasite Eve eschewed many of the studio’s conventions in favor of a more direct and succinct presentation. Though the past few years have seen an increasing number of large-budget titles include shorter campaigns, it was a different matter entirely for Square—a studio that was and is still known for focusing on complex and lengthy story experiences—to herald a narrative that could be completed in less than ten hours, even by novice, first-time players. What’s more, aside from allowing players to rename their main character and allocate skill points, the game followed an extremely linear and predetermined route, resulting in a scaled-down and action-oriented RPG-lite. This faster pace of gameplay, with a blended turn-based and real-time combat system, helped Square create a tense and compelling virtual world.
But it’s 2015, and details such as those are hardly surprising anymore. The legacy of the Parasite Eve game, however, is in how it enriches Sena’s original narrative. A clear example of the nuances between each medium can be found by comparing their respective opening scenes. Sena’s novel begins with protagonist Toshiaki Nagashima and his assistant already working in the science laboratory. Though novels allow the writer an opportunity for a more long-form narrative, Sena wastes no time pandering to the reader. The prologue immediately opens with a vivid description of a hallucinatory cell mitosis, whereas the following pages include discussion of specific restriction enzymes, DNA strands, and the details of Kiyomi Nagashima’s accident. Sena only then begins to invest in the emotional development of these characters, deliberately slowing the pace to examine Toshiaki’s interactions with family and his commitment as a scientist. The novel allows readers to form their own mental imagery while offering in-depth prose about the inner machinations of the novel’s universe; rather than follow a film’s camera or allow a player to investigate an environment at their leisure, the reader is fed specific details by Sena, resulting in a refined singular experience.
Meanwhile, the film begins with an establishing shot of the town, panning to reveal Kiyomi, pleasantly folding laundry before inspecting a patch of flowers, the soundtrack’s pulsing synth melodies casting a slight tension. A quick camera cut and the viewer is instantly transported into a university classroom, placed amidst an audience silently observing Toshiaki’s lecture on DNA and mitochondria. When considering that a film typically has around two hours to tell its complete story, these opening five minutes are crucial in providing an immediate entryway for the viewer to be introduced to the parasitic mitochondria theory at the basis of Sena’s work. Rather than provide an initial sizzle-reel of intensity and subsequently slow things down, these scenes are able to provide a simultaneous synthesis between emotional tension and the scientific exposition in a way that is unique to film.
While the game could begin with a similar introduction, Square rightfully decided to make the most of the medium while blending elements of both the novel and the film. Though the game does start with a cutscene, it is merely a subdued montage of typical images from a snowy New York City, the game’s main piano theme emanating in the background. However, the moments immediately following are decisively only possible within video games. Once the player gains control, the background music cuts out; amidst the silence, you become Aya Brea. Interacting with your partner produces optional dialogue options, providing exposition that is ultimately unnecessary but enriching to players seeking further engrossment with the game. As the player moves into the theatre, there is a second cutscene as the sound returns, introducing Eve as well as the game’s central conflict. The player regains control once more, tasked with either waiting for police backup or pursuing the mysterious Eve alone, instilling a looming sense of apprehension and simultaneously incorporating the game’s exploration and combat mechanics.
As a video game, Parasite Eve has room to wait before diving into scientific exposition. Instead, Square decided to use sound design and cinematic spectacle to lure players into its mysterious world in a way that novels are incapable of. By integrating optional exposition as well as player choice in terms of both searching environments and engaging enemies, the game is able to immerse players in a way that the film cannot, simultaneously providing a deeper story—if the player is interested in searching for it—while providing a tension that only skill-based gameplay can create.
By reducing the scientific terminology and heavy backstory of Sena’s novel to a more manageable and campy territory more in line with the film, Square was able to provide an interactive, standalone gateway into Sena’s imagination. The opening portions of the game provide a thin backstory surrounding the involvement and mutation of mitochondria in cells; as the player acclimates to the gameplay and their surroundings, the game dives deeper into the science while evenly building upon both the plot and action. This results in a narrative experience that refuses to solely hinge on cutscenes or exposition, allowing player action and battles to serve as gameplay centerpieces to motivate the player to move forward. Meanwhile, by adding an optional bonus dungeon once the story concludes, Square was able to expand upon the actual playability of the game without meaninglessly obfuscating the story. The shorter narrative made the game more approachable than the novel; the interactive nature of video games, coupled with the game’s own unique combat system, helped it have more lasting appeal than the film.
Though Parasite Eve may not have made a notable impression upon the gaming community, it remains a testament to what videos games are capable of and why they are a valuable artistic medium. Now that many classic games are receiving re-releases and high-definition treatment, perhaps Parasite Eve can revisit the center stage. It’s time to reawaken.