By Michael Baker
I got to play Contact well before anyone else on RPGamer, and well before I actually joined the site, in fact. This was the Japanese version, without its whacky English localization. The "hit weak point for massive damage" meme didn't even exist yet. All there was was an oddball game with an interesting setup for a game system I'd only recently been able to buy.
The specifics of the gameplay I won't bother with, as they mostly aren't important to this little diatribe. What's important are the feelings, the emotions I had going into the comicly ominous castle on the game's sixth island. It was a caricature of overwrought gothic imagery, right down to the dark and stormy night that provided the backdrop. One feeling in particular dominated my brain right then, a sort of excitement that came from recognizing a definite setup. I was sure I was heading into something that I'll refer to here as a cæsura (because I was always a bit too interested in my classic literature classes).
A cæsura in literature is a sort of break-point, a pause in a line of poetry or drama that marks the middle of a thought or otherwise separates what came before from what comes after. Many of my favorite RPGs had points in the story that acted like cæsurae. Usually it was a point where the developers could conceivably end a plot, but instead used it as a stepping stone towards something more awesome. In Final Fantasy IV, it was the showdown in the Tower of Zot, followed by the revelation of the dark crystals' existence. In Lufia II, it was the battle with Gades. Chrono Trigger had the Ocean Palace, and Final Fantasy VI had the Floating Continent. These were all places or events you could point at and say, "Here is where it all changed. Here is where it became awesome."
Entering the castle in Contact, there was the feeling of déjà vu, that like my favorite games of the 90s there would be something beyond the intended showdown with the so-called terrorist group I'd fought across the previous four islands of the game. All the signs were there: the occasionally sympathetic portrayal of the antagonists, the weirdness of my ally the Professor, the amount of open space left on the worldmap, and the fact that every single one of my outfits (i.e. job classes) was at least forty levels shy of its ultimate skill. I went in expecting awesome, and for a while it looked like I might get it. There was a showdown, then a climactic battle on the back of a dragon, and the revelation that yes, the antagonists weren't that bad and no, the Professor was not such a nice guy after all. And then...
Seriously, there was nothing past that point except for a weird, fourth-wall battle between the hero and the player. Then the hero got flown back to where the Professor had picked him up at the very beginning, and credits rolled. C'est fini.
I didn't take this very well. All that potential for awesome, wasted! What had been the point? The Professor and his rivals were still at large; only the story of their struggle had moved outside the hero's (and thus the player's) point of view. There was nothing left to do but wonder why I'd even bothered. No payoff, no satisfaction, no feeling of accomplishment came with the end of this game. All I had after it was the paltry and unnecessarily difficult option of battling four overpowered monsters located in odd sections of different islands, but no motivation to do so. Nor did I really want to spend hours of grinding to see what those last few abilities might be, because there was no reason to use them. It was all pointless!
Some games go out with a bang, and others with a whimper. In the case of Contact, I'd call it more of a bait-and-switch, because it gave me all the reasons to expect fireworks, only to have the ending disappear in a little fart of smoke and the promise of a sequel that was never to come. Almost ten years later, I can still remember how disappointed I was, and that's the sort of legacy no game should strive for.
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