Vanillaware’s 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is a visible novel connected to a real-time technique sport about, what else, teenagers in mechs. Right here, the mechs are actual robots referred to as sentinels, they usually function in each modes of the sport. There’s the mystery-box story of the VN part, referred to as “Remembrance Mode,” the place gamers navigate the various branching paths of the sport’s titular 13 characters. (There are two extra pilots that you just don’t play as, as a result of plot.) Within the RTS “Destruction Mode,” the mechs are positioned on a tactical map the place they defend humanity in opposition to a kaiju invasion.
These two modes occupy separate sections of the sport’s menu, full with respective percentages monitoring completion. However gamers are ultimately pressured to modify between the modes to progress. Typically, after I was on the verge of a breakthrough in Remembrance Mode, my progress was halted. 13 Sentinels might’ve made these locks extra versatile, might have authored a well-paced, linear expertise out of the 13 tales and gameplay, but it surely doesn’t. To proceed taking part in the VN, I used to be pressured to explode kaiju for an hour. Adamant in its premise, 13 Sentinels trades enjoyable for a compounding ludonarrative metaphor.
[Warning: The following contains spoilers for 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim.]
To speak about that metaphor and 13 Sentinels, we have to discuss its ending — and about humanity’s. Regardless of the visitors, stray cats, and throws of adolescence, Ashitaba is the stage for humanity’s post-apocalypse. The theater for this demise, a spaceship. Within the final 12 months on document, 2188, Mission Ark is mankind’s solely likelihood of survival. It’s unclear what beset the long run world; megacorps and a black market-fueled nanomachine warfare are all we glimpse of the Earth’s previous. The 15 pilots are maybe tens of millions of years sooner or later on the sport’s finish. When specifically doesn’t matter, although. There aren’t any calendars on this star system.
Beating 13 Sentinels means leaving the literal sport with its pilots and getting into a starry void that we have now solely peeked at earlier than. This isn’t outer area, although. The illusory partitions, projections of actuality, have collapsed. The house every of the 15 pilots as soon as knew has pale. Okino, the nonbinary hacker of the group, explains: “The 5 sectors usually are not actuality … That world is a simulated area. An enormous, good phantasm for us.” Ashitaba, which had appeared as a generic Japanese metro depicted throughout 5 distinct historic eras, is actually 5 sectors of a spaceship, an ark, fleeing the Earth. All the flicks, visitors, climate, and behaviors of its 2.1 million inhabitants have been strains of code that purposefully created a simulated actuality for the 15 pilots on the heart of the sport.
There’s a cause this simulated world exists, however the pilots don’t be taught why till after they’ve escaped it. The ark they didn’t know they have been on has reached its vacation spot, a hospitable planet terraformed by the very building machines that had appeared within the simulation as kaiju. And the sentinel pilots who have been made to stall the destruction of the town all develop into clones created from the genetic materials of the final survivors of the ark.
In a prerecorded message, one among their progenitors, Tamao Kurabe, explains the aim of the simulation to them: “What makes us human is the succession and evolution of our tradition and information. These you’ll inherit and domesticate.” This simulation was meant to be a interval of enculturation for them. Ashitaba’s sectors included 1945 through the Pacific Battle, from which two pilots emerged as conscripts within the imperial military. One other sector revolved round 1985 through the nation’s financial increase, its pilots absorbed in sci-fi motion pictures on VHS tapes. One woman from 2025 appreciated to stream her music. And others got here from what was the fiction’s previous: 2065 and 2105.
The 1985 model of Ashitaba is crammed with acquainted ’80s iconography from our personal world. There are homages to every little thing from post-war kaiju fiction to western UFO invasions to a whole subplot that’s principally simply ET. ’80s fiction runs as deep as Ashitaba’s supply code, itself borrowed from a (fictional) sport primarily based off the (additionally fictional) generic kaiju TV sequence, Mighty Kaiju Deimos. 13 Sentinels makes use of its iconography to combine reminiscence with fiction. Characters watch their previous selves struggle in future apocalypses, none the wiser. One character even refers back to the oncoming invasion as a sport — the very one we play within the separate Destruction Mode.
The nostalgia the designers of the ark will need to have felt equally impacts gamers of 13 Sentinels who, in each Japan and America, can not separate these items of media from the accompanied rise of consumerism. However whereas the sport delights in its ’80s homage and intertextuality, the iconography throughout the simulated metropolis is rather more just like the remixed and recycled photos of the ’80s we see in fictional media right now. Typical, commodified, inevitable. The sport presents these as digital actuality to attract consideration to the methods by which our present media panorama constructs our lived actuality.
By reconstructing these seemingly mundane realities in area, the world of 13 Sentinels posits that each little bit of our lived expertise is, actually, deliberately created. An AI supercomputer referred to as “Common Management” constructs and maintains the simulation for the pilots who’re unaware of it. It’s a digital actuality that’s very like the one which Marxist cultural theorist Mark Fisher referred to as “capitalist realism.”
Fisher didn’t invent the time period, which originated in Germany to critique commoditization within the 1960s. He repurposed it in his 2009 ebook Capitalist Realism: Is There No Different?, describing capitalist realism as “the widespread sense that not solely is capitalism the one viable political and financial system, but additionally that it’s now not possible even to think about a coherent different to it.” His argument will be understood as a response to the controversial declare by political economist Francis Fukuyama that, with the autumn of the Berlin wall, historical past had ended: “that’s, the top level of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the ultimate type of human authorities.” With the symbolic collapse of communism, Fukuyama believed that humanity had determined that social democracy was the ultimate evolution of politics and beliefs. In fact, connected to this actuality was its financial system: capitalism. With none possible different, it appeared humanity may simply spend the rest of civilization optimizing our permutations of this established order.
Loads of leftists didn’t like listening to that, however Fisher’s ebook is extra of an acknowledgement that, in our cultural unconscious, Fukuyama was dishearteningly appropriate. “For most individuals below twenty in Europe and North America, the shortage of options to capitalism is not even a problem. Capitalism,” Fisher writes, “seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable.” It’s in these horizons that I discover 13 Sentinels. At first adopting the conventions of sci-fi, mecha, and the ’80s nostalgia journey, the sport manages to subvert the ordained by interrogating the methods by which these reenactments reaffirm a selected actuality.
Common Management’s parallels to capitalist realism turn into central to 13 Sentinels’ mystery-box story. Maybe probably the most cogent instance is the sport’s depiction of reminiscence dysfunction. Many of the characters expertise haunting desires of their pasts in future sectors. Though the sport is split into 13 separate paths, it’s astonishingly coherent, excluding Ryoko Shinonome’s story, whose department is the toughest to know due to her psychological afflictions that trigger reminiscence loss. Shinonome is offered in bandages, a gray colour palette matching her gloomy demeanor. When taking part in because the woman, we see she usually forgets when she is and what aspect she’s preventing for. Doubt and distrust overcome her as we discover out that her nanomachines, the augmentations connected to all of the pilot’s brains, have turn into contaminated. In a discomforting reenactment of psychiatric remedy, the participant should take nondescript tablets prescribed by the “college nurse” each jiffy to cut back the visible impairment of Shinonome’s painful head shocks on the display screen.
On the finish of her story, Shinonome and the participant uncover that the closest factor to a treatment for her reminiscence loss is a neurological backup made earlier than she final piloted a sentinel, a save that solely recovers her recollections pertaining to piloting. All she is aware of now’s methods to struggle. “In situations the place realities and identities are upgraded like software program,” Fisher writes, “it isn’t stunning that reminiscence issues ought to have turn into the main focus of cultural nervousness.” This upgrading of actuality and identification is sort of literal in 13 Sentinels, as the sport creates a much less obvious homage to a different refigured ’80s motion star — Jason Bourne. In his evaluation of the media development of reminiscence loss, Fisher cited Bourne, evaluating the unique 1980s novels to the later movie variations: “The complicated plotting of Ludlum’s novels is reworked right into a sequence of evanescent event-ciphers and motion set items which barely cohere into an intelligible narrative.”
Fisher’s critique is strikingly paying homage to the ludic premise of this phantasmagoric sport: 13 intertwined paths throughout two distinct modes. Shinonome’s characterization additional echoes Fisher’s description, that “bereft of non-public historical past, Bourne lacks narrative reminiscence, however retains what we would name formal reminiscence: a reminiscence — of methods, practices, actions — that’s actually embodied in a sequence of bodily reflexes and tics.” Nonlinearity, a plurality of views, and the jarring shift in modes start to reflect the plastic temporality of capitalist realism’s precarious situation: “Work and life turn into inseparable. Capital follows you while you dream. Time ceases to be linear, turns into chaotic, damaged down into punctiform divisions. As manufacturing and distribution are restructured, so are nervous techniques.”
Different characters additionally expertise reminiscence issues. Ei Sekigahara is within the early phases of Shinonome’s affliction, whereas Juro Kurabe’s identification is molded by the recollections the nurse and Prisoner 426 imbue him with. Virtually all of the pilots are haunted by bizarre desires of kaiju apocalypse, recollections of previous failures. The manufactured desires of Ashitaba are immediately associated to the upkeep of its simulated actuality. In Capitalist Realism’s evaluation of reminiscence issues in popular culture, Fisher wrote, “if reminiscence dysfunction gives a compelling analogy for the glitches in capitalist realism, the mannequin for its easy functioning can be dreamwork. Once we are dreaming, we overlook, however instantly overlook that we have now performed so; because the gaps and lacunae in our recollections are Photoshopped out, they don’t hassle or torment us.” The characters’ desires keep Common Management’s phantasm that Ashitaba in 1985 is a coherent, naturally occurring society.
This positions the sentinels as a resistance to the reflexive impotence that capitalist realism evokes. It’s evidently simpler to think about preventing a 100-foot-tall mechanized kaiju in an unlimited steel physique than it’s to think about a world past capitalism, however, like desires so actual, “The tiniest occasion can tear a gap within the gray curtain of response which has marked the horizons of chance below capitalist realism. From a state of affairs by which nothing can occur, out of the blue something is feasible once more.” It’s in what we make of our endings, our apocalypses, and all our fictions that the dystopias of our lives might be rewritten and never simply re-enacted.
As 13 Sentinels involves a detailed, the one photos that fill the starry void are the pilots’ nude profiles in cramped cockpits. They understand these are the life assist pods they’ve grown in for the previous 18 years, and that every fateful encounter with the sentinels was a glance behind the diaphanous curtain. Okino continues: “These cockpits we’re in proper now? That’s actuality.” The era that had come after historical past reclaims chance, creativity, potentiality. In a style that’s itself caught between the inescapable fatalism of Gundam and the abject nihilism of Evangelion, 13 Sentinels is remarkably hopeful in its thesis. That is the start of historical past, a greater ending, the post-post apocalypse. Now greater than ever, we’d like one other timeline.