Fantasy Jews in ‘Valkyria Chronicles’

I still can’t decide if I like SEGA’s Valkyria Chronicles series, which is potentially a problem considering I’ve invested over a hundred hours in both the PS3 original and its PSP sequel by this point. Were I still a teenager, this wouldn’t be so much of an issue. I can remember being in high school and sinking whole months into games I found absolutely irredeemable just out of a conviction that I had to finish whatever I started. It was only later in life that I realized I could actually stop if I disliked something and it wasn’t a sign of poor character.

Yet I haven’t stopped playing the Valkyria series. The games occupy this strange place in which I don’t necessarily know if it’s time well-spent, but it keeps pulling me back in anyway. On the one hand, Valkyria is a generally fun turn-based strategy game with memorable characters. On the other, it’s a trite anime-styled melodrama about nuclear weapons and the Holocaust. Nukes I’ve come to expect out of Japanese fantasy, but racism — even race awareness — is a rare bird in a Japananese RPG and possibly the aspect of the series that never ceases to intrigue me.

I don’t mean to imply that race politics are nonexistent in Japanese fantasy games — in fact, a lot of it is arguably invisible to a Western player by error of translation or an absent context. What distinguishes Valkyria is that it has an analogue that’s for once very explicit in the West. You’re dealing with a game set in an alternate history World War II and more particularly in the European front. Of course, Jews are going to come up.

So you have the Darcsen, historically viewed as “Christ-killers” who annihilated the game’s holy Valkyur. It’s more complicated than that, of course, and both games present a rather overt take on how tradition itself can motivate bigotry in otherwise quite normal people. The Darcsen are subjugated, continually exiled from their lands, stripped of their surnames, blamed for the downfall of society, rounded up and put into camps, slaughtered en masse . . . You get the idea. Clearly, this is deep, dark territory for a brightly colored JRPG to be treading, and though arguably there is still something “foreign” about WWII’s European front (enough at least to potentially seem escapist to a Japanese audience), there is clearly a real awareness here on the part of the developers. Whether it’s a deep or entirely well articulated awareness is another matter and arguably much harder to qualify, but the fact remains that there is some genuine effort that goes beyond simple platitudes and a cure-all ending.

First there is Rosie and Isara’s relationship in the 2008 PS3 original. These two characters are set up right from their introduction as a couple in conflict that is meant to epitomize race relations for the entire game, but the narrative never loses sight of them as individuals. Rosie has deep-seated, personal issues for maintaining her bigotry, while Isara — despite her quiet nature — refuses to let the argument go when the issue of her race comes up. You immediately expect that something dramatic will occur later on that will overhaul Rosie’s attitude overnight, but remarkably, it doesn’t. True, there is an incident that happens that does impact her, but although Isara’s influence on Rosie causes her to start to reach out and overcome her prejudices, she finds herself regressing constantly. Feeling guilty, Rosie finally acknowledges that what she’s facing is a difficult and ongoing process, something she will have to work at unpacking for a long time. I really welcomed this level of pragmatic optimism on the part of the story. It was still rather didactically written, granted, but an enormous step up from what I’m used to expecting out of the genre.

One step forward, two steps back, however. Apart from becoming a martyr, Isara manages to start what becomes a foundational sentiment among Darcsen in the games. After witnessing the destruction of a concentration camp in which many of their fellow prisoners died (off screen), a few Darcsen survivors demand a means to get the rest of the world to stop hating them. Isara’s solution, in a nutshell: be the bigger person. In light of the uncommon pragmatism of Rosie’s arc, the fact that Isara’s words themselves boil down to “turn the other cheek” honestly just seemed to cheapen the game, which may be appropriate, granted, as the larger arc of the story also falls into a deep pit of Saturday morning anime sentimentalism at some point and rather than dig itself out, it just keeps digging. But I digress.

Onto Valkyria Chronicles II, the direct sequel that arrived on the PSP this past August. Of the several Darcsen in your squad in the first game, Isara is the only one given any face time. By contrast, the sequel offers quite a few speaking Darcsen characters and to me seems far more openly candid about multiple kinds of race hatred, from the kind that leads revolutions to passive, institutionalized racism, which is the reason that your class of students in the game, and no other on campus, seems to have minority students. You have conflicts between students who (literally) wear their culture on their sleeve versus those who have loudly declared themselves appropriated. You see plenty of non-Darcsen who are moderately well natured, until race becomes an excuse to get nasty. Others are liberally egalitarian to the point of patronizing. While the depth of characterization is still pretty limited, it represents a much wider spectrum than a simple reductive binary.

The day-to-day scholastic structure of Valkyria Chronicles II also seems to deconstruct its take on racial prejudice in an interesting way — by casting it in the light of a persistent issue, not “A Very Special Episode” kind of narrative discrete from the main story. Even Rosie in the first game (although by and large she is defined by her struggle in overcoming her own racism) has those issues confined to a few key moments, as opposed to the countless vignettes of interlinked classmates which populate the second installment.

Of Valkyria Chronicles II‘s Darcsen ensemble, my favorite is unquestionably Zeri. I was drawn to Archduchess Cordelia as well, the head of state whose revealed Darcsen heritage is actually the inception point of the entire second game (it leads to a racially charged civil war and enough race violence to make the first game’s single chapter on concentration camps seem overly cautious by comparison). However, she comes off as lofty and unrelatable. On the other hand, Zeri, struggles for some time to reconcile his Darcsen attitude toward war and his ambition to effect change in the world. In many ways, I saw him as referring to the “tough Jew” archetype, albeit as a highly mediated and intellectual one.

As I said, I don’t quite know how I feel about Valkyria Chronicles as a body of work. It has surprising nuance and depth in quarters that I would not expect, but it also tends to invoke simplistic solutions that I find beneath its narrative. Ultimately, it has problems as much as it has promise, but for what it’s worth, I’m still playing them.

RATING 6 / 10