It’s time we talk about Parasite Eve. If you haven’t checked out this little chunk of gaming history, let Push to Smart convince you why you should. Transcript below the cut.
Hello everyone! This week we’re doing something a little different since Jaylee is out of town and I have a super-busy day-job week (so please click on our ads). Today, I’m going to evangelize one of my favorite games that comes up a lot on the show: Parasite Eve.
Parasite Eve was originally released in both Japan and the North America in 1998, situating itself in a unique place in history for the Playstation and Squaresoft. On the surface level, it follows the formula established by Squaresoft’s most recent Final Fantasy game, Final Fantasy VII—players run from room-to-pre-rendered-room to initiate written narrative, interspersed with turn-based combat and state-of-the-art, CGI cutscenes. It comes right off the success of Final Fantasy VII, but leads right in to the dismal failure of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. And so here I champion Parasite Eve, a game that is interesting for what it does, and what it doesn’t. It’s a game that is very much the product of its time, and it fits into a fascinating narrative of hubris and transnational courtship. It’s that narrative that is of the most interest to me, and it’s what I’m going to propose today.
Let’s start with the basics of what you do: In Parasite Eve, you play as Aya Brea, a rookie cop in the NYPD who soon discovers she a) is the only one capable of fighting the new monster in town, and b) essentially has super powers. Battle takes after the Final Fantasy series with turn-based combat and spells (here rebranded as Parasite Energy), with the fun twist that you can move around the space in real-time between actions—allowing you to dodge enemy attacks and get closer to enemies to deal high damage. When it comes to dealing damage, a dome appears over Aya showing her range of attack. Depending on what weapon you have equipped, you may be able to hit multiple enemies, as different weapons have different numbers of shots allotted per turn. Sounds fun, right? It’s when we start looking at the story that things start to get interesting.
Parasite Eve isn’t just re-skinned Final Fantasy. Watching the intro video—complete with the awesome Yoko Shimomura score—you’ll notice that New York landmarks figure heavily into the game’s aesthetic. This is because Parasite Eve was part of Square’s declaration as a Hollywood heavyweight able to replicate American film sensibilities—something that is mirrored in the game’s dual tag lines “the cinematic RPG” and “Final Fantasy VII x Hollywood Digital Arts = Parasite Eve.” The game was developed in a collaboration between Square and its newly minted, ill-fated, US studio. It’s easy to look at this and think this is Square formally courting the US audience after Final Fantasy VII was such a huge international success. And in many ways it is. But that’s a little too simplistic. Especially considering that, in order to display its Hollywood sensibilities, Square chose to use a property that was only known to Japan: Hideaki Sena’s incredibly popular novel, Parasite Eve.
Perhaps it was to guarantee sales in its native Japan while deviating from its standard Final Fantasy fare? After all, the novel was so popular that it was already adapted for film and radio before Squre introduced its game. Whatever the reason, borrowing the Parasite Eve name and plot opened the game up to all kinds of disgusting monsters and mutations that rewarded players for their progress with graphic cutscenes. The Parasite Eve game served as a sequel to the original novel, transplanting the very-Japanese monster, Eve, into the very-American setting of New York. However, since the novel and film would not be released in English until 2007 and 2000 respectively, US players in 1998 would have had no idea that this was part of a pre-existing franchise. For Japanese players, there are all kinds of hints as to how Eve ended up in New York, bridging the time between the novel and the game. These would all go over an American player’s head.
The American player is informed by an entirely different set of texts. In 1998, the player is filling Aya Brea’s shoes just two years after they first met Lara Croft, while tuning into the second season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, four years after The Spice Girls took over airwaves, and seven after Clarice Starling lead her grisly murder investigation to several Oscars. This was a decade that redefined and commodified women’s stories, and here was Aya Brea, fighting off a woman that just wanted to melt New York into a uterus—and it’s played completely straight. We’ve already talked about on the show how Aya remains a great lead character, and she was unique as an American nineties action hero. She wasn’t like Buffy or the women of Scream, the post-modern horror film also released two-years prior, who were aware of their gendered circumstances and genre conventions. There’s a sincerity to the actions that is distinctly unlike anything an American player would be accustomed to consuming—a distinctly foreign, unfathomable buffer that crops up between player and text in the most unexpected way.
And that’s the core of what makes Parasite Eve so interesting to me; these tiny, unsuspecting moments that show the limits of textual and cultural translation. These idiosyncrasies appear everywhere–not just in its depiction of gender, but race and even genre. In introducing Eve as its villain, there are twists on genre conventions that push the boundaries–not enough to truly transcend them, but enough to be off. Strange. Maybe a little uncanny in a way that they can contribute to the horror. I imagine it’s similar for a Japanese player, seeing familiar monsters and characters in settings nearly a century of film tells us they don’t belong. Square knew Hollywood, but there was something that couldn’t be reconciled. Maybe they could harness that difference instead?
Strangely, Square and Parasite Eve’s weird film legacy doesn’t end there. Back before Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within almost destroyed the company, there was talk of Square Pictures adapting their version of Parasite Eve for the big screen. This, of course, didn’t happen, but that didn’t stop some movie rumors from continuing. As IGN reported in 1999, Madonna had purchased the film rights for Parasite Eve, a claim Square refuted, but IGN stood by. While Madonna doesn’t have the greatest track record in film—speaking of historical context, this was only a few short years after Evita—it makes me wonder what Parasite Eve would have been like in her hands. Would she have been an Eve that owned her sexuality? Or maybe her Aya would have been more self-aware, for better or worse, ham-fistedly bringing attention to discrimination while also serving to the camera. Given the game’s legacy, I have to wonder how that film have translated bringing the Japanese Eve to American audiences?
Lots of questions from one little, forgotten game. Parasite Eve is available now for most regions on the Playstation Network, and I hope you’ll check it out. Let me know what you think of it–or what you think Madonna’s Parasite Eve would have been like. I admit it, Desperately Seeking Eve is still something I kind of want to see. See you next week.
DEZ: No more dead bodies OK?
SUSAN: I’ll see what I can do.