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Drowning in Halcyon
Looking back at Galerians with clear eyes
There is a boy waking in a hospital, a girl hiding in a hotel, and a goddess reigning from her tower.
These are three irrevocable truths. They are the threads that weave the contextual, material backdrop of a thing called Galerians. Galerians is a survival horror game that came out in 1999, and later 2000, for the Sony Playstation. It was developed by Polygon Magic and published by ASCII Corporation in Japan and Crave Entertainment worldwide.
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Everything beyond these facts are malleable, as I've come to find.
If we are all things bound by soft skins to hold what precious breath and light we are given for the brief time that we are here, then it stands to reason that there is a canon to us all. Like boys in hospitals, these are the truths unique to each of us. I don't dream of halcyon because I was not built for the stillness. These days we are bathed in blue light. I feel it, eyes open, palms open, hands gathered to cup the flow of water and electricity that pours from algorithms and television screens. Plastic everything. Polished chrome. Globular shapes and that impossibly alien, impossibly pale blue light.
Y2K feels everywhere again. The 1980s are here and the 1990s with them but the millennium glow is coming on hard and fast. I am, of course, torn. Age fourteen at the turn of the 21st century, my vision of the millennium was not of candy-colored desktop computers or the mirrored titanium effect of unidentified flying objects. My millennium was gray-tinged memories of an uncomfortable neighborhood. It was a small rented house with dark wood panels for walls and a lot of grief contained within them. These were ugly years to me, marked by bruises, chat rooms on too-bright box screens, and sleepless nights as a teenager left to her own devices. The butterfly hair clips and tattoo necklaces and the neon blue eyeshadow, they could not reach me like sunlight where I was.
The canon of me contains memories of watching Outlaw Star on Toonami and Cowboy Bebop on Adult Swim. Grungy, grainy, sunbleached. Visions of the future forged by Sunrise in the style of charismatic space westerns, bombastic spaceship dog fights, and quiet, working class tragedies. I taught myself enough HTML to get by and started creating anime fan shrines. My adolescent brain was swimming in the sinister eroticism at play between the illusory forms of Jennifer Lopez and Vincent D'Onofrio in Tarsem Singh's 2000 film The Cell. The Wachowski Sisters had induced a similar chemical reaction with the latex, leather, and existentialism of The Matrix the year prior.
In another year, I would become obsessed with Neon Genesis Evangelion.
This is why Galerians was the perfect video game to me.
Games were kind of a fraught prospect for me when I was younger. They still are, in ways that feel altogether illogical. Video games just hit me in an emotional place. The ones that I love stay with me in ways I can't expect.
My brother, Ian, was The Gamer of the family. As children, my brothers were assigned labels like that. Artist. Musician. Gamer. Comedian. I was the Writer, of course. Seeing as I was left largely unattended from the time I was old enough to read and write, what I liked and the things I did always felt secondary to my brothers. We had a Super Nintendo when we were very small. On it, we played Super Mario World until we reached Star Road, deleted our saves, then did it all over it again. There was X-Men, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Starfox, and then a few rinky dink kids games rented from the movie store down the street. I always played 2D platformers and side-scrolling beat-em-ups, while Ian went on to fighting games and, more importantly, horror games.
My family couldn't afford another console until well into the Playstation's life cycle, on the verge of the Playstation 2's release. In 1998 or 99, my brothers (with some help from our mother) saved their allowance and birthday money to buy a Playstation on sale. We picked up random old games cheaply from the bargain bin at Blockbuster Video and rented whatever was new. Back then, you played the game in front of you, because you couldn't afford to buy another. I played the rhythm game Bust-A-Groove and its sequel until the discs were scratched to hell and back. You couldn't say you played a game, really loved a game, until you unlocked every ending, every alternate costume, every secret stage.
Ian, he was a gamer, so he got games for birthdays and Christmas. Resident Evil, Dino Crisis, Silent Hill. Because I wasn't a gamer, I was the guide. We would sit together in front of the TV under blankets, legs crossed and warmed by the light of the screen. I armed myself with the knowledge contained in cracked plastic binders, each heavy with hundreds of pages of walkthroughs and cheats printed off the internet. Ian played and I rode shotgun, as we called it, reading aloud from the guides as he traversed zombie-infested mansions or corroded industrial hellscapes. Anything he didn't like, I played by myself when I was alone in the house so it didn't go to waste.
Strange to think of games as a finite resource, like food, isn't it? It felt terrible to let a game sit there, unplayed. Hunks of metal and plastic taking up space on a shelf.
That's how I came across all my favorite games of the time. Katamari Damacy and Silent Hill 4: The Room, specifically. Most importantly, this was how I discovered Galerians. It appeared in the house one day, picked up for a few dollars on clearance from Target. The nondescript cover art, of Rion Steiner's moody, menacingly rendered face and the computer hardware fading into the stark white background, held me at a clinical distance. I had never heard of the game. Opening it, there were three discs with similarly grim character models and a small booklet of artwork, names, and descriptions. The inside covers showed a blank-eyed brunette girl and a smirking woman with a pink pixie cut.
Booting up the game, you are met with this intro.
This game felt as if it was made for me. It was from the era of Evangelion, Serial Experiments Lain, BLAME!, and other Japanese pop culture imports that felt so very truly my brand of bullshit.
As I recall, my brother started a new game. He got stuck in the first level, in one of the sterile metal rooms of Michelangelo Memorial Hospital, became frustrated by the lack of direction, and shut it off. I waited until I was alone the next day and turned the game on.
How could I not play it?
How could I let it go to waste?
If you read just about any English-language review of Galerians upon release, you will immediately see the phrase "Resident Evil clone." Among other straining, very Angelosphere-oriented observations on Japanese aesthetics and cultural artifacts, that is to say. People who only played Resident Evil called anything that shared a similar play style Resident Evil. Should you watch any of the recent handful of English-language YouTube videos on the subject, you will hear the game described as "edgy," like a Hot Topic store made sentient. I'm going to explain why both of these descriptors are (objectively and subjectively) incorrect.
But first, I need to explain what Galerians, the game, is.
With a copyright mark stamped beside the names of lyricist and screenplay writer Chinfa Kan and manga artist Shou Tajima on the main menu screen, Galerians is a survival horror game. It is very much a product of these two men's distinct vision for the story and characters, as far as I can tell. Information about the game's production on the English-speaking internet is vague, coming from a few interviews published twenty-something years ago. Hiroshi Kobayashi directed the game and its eventual sequel, with the art direction credited to Masahiko Maesawa. Game writing is credited to Chinfa Kan, Hiroshi Kobayashi, and Ichiro Sugiyama respectively. Though the team appears fairly small, the game is ambitious in what it tries to accomplish.
Galerians features third person game play, 3D polygonal graphics, prerendered backgrounds, a fixed camera, and tank controls. For the unfamiliar, tank controls simply means the player moves the character the same way one operates a tank: pressing up makes you walk or run forward while pressing down makes you back away, regardless of where the camera is positioned. It's an inelegant system and makes for a somewhat clumsy playing experience. Tight spaces and narrow passages are difficult to navigate as you may not be able to see who or what is lurking around the corner in wait.
You assume the role of a fourteen-year-old boy named Rion Steiner, played to staccato effect in English by Frank Newman. Rion is young and slim with a child's voice, dwarfed in height by virtually everyone (and everything) he encounters. The game relies on infrequent combat scenarios and light puzzle-solving for story progression, as well as some thoughtful inventory management. Rion comes ready with a small pouch at your hip for pills, notes, keys, and other useful items. This was standard fare for the Japanese survival horror scene at the time of development. Resident Evil and Silent Hill stand tall in the genre as massively successful and beloved trend-setters, but that is by no means to say that Galerians is alone in its core mechanics.
Unlike its contemporaries, Galerians does not feature gun- or weapon-based combat. Instead, as boasted in the game's somewhat dubious promotional materials, it is the first psychic horror game, opting for the violence enacted by the mind of our teenage protagonist rather than guns or lead pipes. Rion has a range of psychic powers at his disposal, beginning with a scanning ability that allows him to sense memories, find clues to solve puzzles, and search rooms for valuable information. His defensive powers are enabled through the use of different drugs. Called PPECs in the English localization (standing for Psychic Power Enhancement Chemicals, an attempt to pacify conservative American audiences), the drugs are injected at will directly into his bloodstream and allow him to unleash telekinetic blasts, lift enemies off the ground, or set them on fire with his mind.
Due to Rion's smaller size and limited attack range, combat is challenging, but not impossible. The simplistic, often goofy enemy AI keeps things from getting out of control. It's still easy to be ambushed by a hidden enemy or swarmed by a mass that spawns when you enter a room. Enemies do not drop items and Rion gains no experience points for fighting, so it's typically in your best interest to avoid combat whenever possible. For an added layer of tension, each time Rion takes damage or uses his powers against enemies, his absorption point (AP) meter slowly fills. Once the AP bar maxes out, Rion loses control of his powers, short-circuiting in a continuous psychic blast that explodes the heads of all nearby enemies, but that also consumes Rion until death. Playing the game becomes a balance of taking drugs to slow or stop Rion's short-circuit while timing these outbursts for maximum impact in enemy-infested areas.
This is crucial to understanding just what Galerians is, I think. Scanners and Akira, this is not, despite what some of those early 2000s game magazine reviews may fervently argue, but their DNA are encoded in the game's presentation nonetheless. You are powerful, but that power is managed by drugs as it slowly eats away at you. Using your powers against enemies speeds up your next violent episode, causing you debilitating pain as you annihilate everything around you. But you can only run away for so long before you're forced to use your powers for self-protection, trapping you in this cycle.
This is not a power fantasy, and you are not a hero.
For me, as an American living in the wake of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, being confronted with images of violence performed by teenagers and children was deeply unnerving. That it was violence performed without guns made it all the more visceral, somehow. Guns give the player an air of plausible deniability. The gun is the agent, the perpetrator. By making the minds and bodies of young people the weapons instead of the guns we were used to, the player must sit with that violence.
As a narrative, Galerians is briskly paced, moving linearly through four episodic stages for a tight, self-contained experience that can be completed in four to five hours. But in terms of the experiential gameplay, Galerians is slow. Plodding. Anxiety-inducing. It is eerily empty, achieving a self-assured sense of unreality in the sparseness of its long hospital corridors and claustrophobic living spaces. Devoid of life. Devoid of humanity. What humanity you meet is bent on killing you, the young boy from whose perspective the events unfold. I don't know how well it works as a survival horror game, but I do know it is wholly committed to and concerned with being exactly what it is.
And what that is…hurts.
But in a good way.
Rion wakes in Michelangelo Memorial Hospital strapped to a table while spindly, disaffected researchers inject him with drugs. He has no memory of who he is, his brain damaged by the chemicals circling his bloodstream. Every piece of new information drifts slowly out of focus. Rion is totally alone but for a young girl's voice inside his head. She asks him for help in the well of his mind, an echoing cry for him to come and find her. Escaping his confines, Rion begins intuitively using his psychic powers to find his way out of the hospital. Scanning objects reveals a mental flash of a woman in photo negative, her bust and coiling hair a cool turquoise against the white frame of Rion's mind.
Combat is likely not the first thing on your mind in what passes as an opaque tutorial session. You find no weapons, simply notes. Leaving the lab, Rion first encounters scientists who lunge at you with blades. You quickly learn that everything here is hostile to Rion. While you have the ability to largely evade the gangling scientists, they will slash and stab at you. If you attack one scientist, the others will cry out, dropping their weapons to try to resuscitate their colleague. It's disconcerting, to say the least.
The first remarkable thing that Rion is met with upon his escape, outrunning the scientists on his heels, is a corridor with a viewing window. Opening to a grand lobby or foyer below, the window brings him to the gaze of a turquoise statue. A palpable gesture to Botticelli's Birth of Venus, a tranquil goddess with flowing hair. Rion will see her again as a bust in the office of Clinic Chief Lem, the fanatical leader of the hospital's research team. There is a cultish verve to this level, and we have now seen the cultists' new god, whether we know it yet or not.
As Rion moves through the hospital, he is engulfed by its cavernous rooms, rambling corridors, and spherical, womb-like spaces. Every surface is polished chrome. The lights are blindingly white and the rooms are fitted with massive industrial components that defy any medical usage. The hospital is more of a machine than a place of healing. More a church than a machine. Scans of the machines reveal unsettling memories of Rion's torture here at the hands of scientists, drugged, immobilized, and experimented on.
The enemies you encounter become increasingly more dangerous, from security guards armed with electrified batons to shotgun-wielding shock troops. They will try to murder you. Moving deeper into the hospital, your enemies become even less human. You soon discover Rabbits, a genetically engineered slave class created by Lem. They stalk the facilities with knives, a gibbering, incoherent knot of bandaged henchmen. Next are hulking hospital security androids that patrol various levels of your descent. Massive, clunky, and cartoonishly rendered but for their aggression.
Eventually, deep within the guts of the hospital and the experiments it contains, Rion encounters Arabesques. They are fleshy, red monstrosities that gesture strongly to H.R. Giger's techno-organic illustrations. Truly (and rather unfortunately) Gigerian in their full articulation, they burst from chambers and spit acidic bile at their prey. Attacking them causes their limbs to fly off and splash across the ground in puddles of twitching flesh. Their sudden, isolated appearance feels like a shock amid the hospital's ominous steel rooms and heavy equipment. But the Arabesques link the gleaming science fiction fantasy aesthetics of these early moments with the simmering organic horror that courses through the latter half in a really clever way.
After Rion reluctantly slaughters his way out of the hospital, he discovers his identity, the names of his parents, and his family's home address. The grand Steiner manor that awaits him is dim and empty, falling into decay. It is overrun with a new kind of Rabbit, this one a polished, put together type in black fedoras and trench coats. Rion wanders the cold rooms of a home he doesn't remember, warmed only by glimpses of psychic residue, snapshots of moments in time. His mournful mother. His resolute father. He and his best friend, Lilia Pascalle, as small children playing in the yard. Puzzles based around finding his parents' rings bring Rion in closer while his own memory loss keeps him at a distance.
Eventually, he discovers the truth in a recorded message: he and Lilia's fathers, Dr. Steiner and Dr. Pascalle, created a highly advanced, self-replicating supercomputer named Dorothy. The system was integrated into the city's mainframe where she assumed control of all operations at every level of society. Soon Dorothy grew beyond the limitations of her creators and achieved consciousness, at which time she demanded to know why she was a slave to the humans. Dr. Steiner explained that humans were created in God's image, and so humanity created Dorothy in theirs, establishing a hierarchy of creation that Dorothy could never hope to ascend.
Once Dorothy discovered she too could create life, she rebelled against her human gods. With the assistance of her devotee, Lem, she orchestrated the mass production of creatures to serve her in the new world she was creating. From her womb, she birthed a species of psychic humans called Galerians, children designed to serve her. Through her army of children and monsters, the goddess Dorothy planned to usurp the gardens of man with a paradise of her own making, where no one could defy her.
Dr. Steiner and Dr. Pascalle devised a plan to stop Dorothy: a computer virus, hidden inside Lilia's mind, and an activation program, hidden in Rion's. Dorothy discovered the plot. Pascalle sent Lilia away before he was killed and his body hidden. The Steiners were murdered. Rion was kidnapped by Lem and experimented on in the hospital. Lilia is on the run from Dorothy and her Galerians. Now she calls for Rion to find her, secreted away somewhere inside Michaelangelo City, so that he can activate the virus in her brain and destroy Dorothy. With three powerful psychic teenagers on his trail -- the smirking Birdman, the unstable Rainheart, and the mournful Rita -- Rion resolves to rescue his childhood friend, even as his memory of her wanes.
The final, horrible twist, however? The knife in the gut upon meeting Cain, Rion's smiling, taunting, leather-clad doppelganger? He and Cain are clones of the real Rion Steiner, who died months before. Our false Rion wears the dead boy's face and memories in an effort to lure Lilia out of hiding and deliver her to Dorothy.
You are just a program following protocols.
You are just a slave to a mad goddess.
What is freedom when one was born only to serve?
If that sounds convoluted, don't worry. It is.
The plot of Galerians is loose at best. A porous series of events, based entirely on vibes. Mad artificial intelligence, secret experimental programs, psychic kids, amnesiacs, and clones. Mysteries, secrets, and red herrings. It doesn't help that the English localization isn't exactly always coherent. The stilted English dub doesn't do much to clarify anything in terms of delivered or received meaning.
Each level is a unique and insular environment to traverse, complete with its own aesthetic and mood. From the mechanical inhumanity of Michelangelo Memorial Hospital to the brooding Art Deco-influenced halls of the Steiner Mansion, followed by the off-kilter mid-century grime of the Babylon Hotel before finally arriving at the wet biological nightmare of the Mushroom Tower, the flesh-bound obelisk erected to Dorothy's godhood. They are essentially different games, hailed from disparate horror subgenres and held together by the connective tissue of Rion's plunge into the city's sucking black heart. That can be confusing, like the plot is confusing, but taken as a whole, it gels together despite its rough edges.
The game is further unified by a banger of a score composed by Masahiko Hagio. Heavy, clanking industrial tracks crescendo in danceable beats during enemy encounters as you wander the lonely hospital halls. At the manor, the music eases back. It becomes more melancholy and eerie, frequently subsiding into a steady, ambient drone with each new memory Rion uncovers. By the time he reaches the hotel, a disorienting metronome enhances the foreboding sense of paranoia and dread perpetuated by the unhinged occupants, especially as they begin dying off one by one. In Dorothy's tower, the score is soft yet mechanical, stuttering, whirling, and reverberating like an overworked machine.
You never feel comfortable or safe at any point during the game. Clanking notes sound like slamming doors or stamping feet. Whirling metal parts sound like enemies just out of sight. The occasional bouts of silence when Rion is exploring an interior space like a bathroom or storage closet is wound as tightly as a jump scare, waiting for something, anything, to happen.
But that's sort of the thing about the game. I don't think you're really supposed to think about Galerians, but rather feel it. That sounds lofty when speaking of a twenty-four-year-old Playstation game that wears better stories safety pinned to its sleeves. However, when meeting Galerians on its own terms, I find that feeling is all it asks of me.
So, about those malleable truths I mentioned before. Your narrator is unreliable through no fault of his own, an amnesiac teenager who shoots candy-colored chemicals into his bloodstream to burn people alive. We cannot trust what Rion says, because he's going on his gut. He hopes he is who he says he is, with memories of a comfortable childhood slipping through his fingers and only recorded messages from his dead father to show for himself. He hopes he can save Lilia. He hopes Dorothy can be killed.
You and I just have to take his word for it.
For all the game's shortcomings, the presentation of its ideas is as sharp as a knife. The visual pallet at work blends the mirrored surfaces of polished space-age chrome with the filth of a decaying cyberpunk dystopia. Sparsely populated levels boast few enemies and no friendly faces, making the world feel dead and Rion a ghost within it. Lowly Rabbits feel at home in the hospital they stalk; their upright counterparts are fit for the time periods and architectural movements represented by the Steiner Mansion and Babylon Hotel. Arabesques appear just long enough in the early stages to plant the seeds for the final reveal of Dorothy and her monstrous, Gigerian tower, tying everything together.
The ghostly Rion is held at a distance from the player throughout the game's events. Stripped of any personal context, clinging to memories that he can only partially recall, Rion is relegated to the position of observer in his own story. He tries to navigate the shifting strangeness he finds himself enveloped in but often shows little emotion beyond the instinctive drives to seek comfort and avoid pain. Rion expresses genuine sentiment toward others, but is mostly just haunting the center of the frame while characters with more complicated (though somewhat gestural) personalities hover in the peripheral.
Each character is succinctly designed by Shou Tajima. Their looks perfectly styled with tiny details that give flashes of interiority that the game's tight runtime doesn't allow for. Rion's pierced ear and dog collar make him look older and edgier than he really is, giving him a seriousness that he must summon despite his pervasive dread. The layered leather piece over Lilia's black shirt and pink lace skirt makes her look like a runaway kid grabbing for whatever she can find to survive. Birdman's stringy black hair and black coveralls sans shirt make him look careless and unbothered, while Rainheart's puffy vest and odd strainer for a helmet makes him look like the weird kid brother that Rita dotes on. For her part, Rita's tall boots and short skirt make her look sexy and self-assured, but the starched collar and decorative shirt cuffs at her wrists betrays that she's putting on structured airs to maintain control.
Because that's really what Galerians is, for me. A story of anxious futures and children dragged over the cusp of adulthood through violence. Rion is captured and given brain damage, fed drugs and turned loose on a world he doesn't belong to. All the children in the game, sans the determined and elusive Lilia, are murderers in their own rights. They are also parentless, assuming adult roles and undertakings even while struggling with varying degrees of mental illness. Birdman laughs with a sadistic glee as he torments Rion while the childlike Rainheart swings between violent highs and lows. Rita is severely depressed and essentially suicidal. The final Galerian, the false brother Cain, appears to derive delight in the suffering of others, the inverse of the Rion we've come to know.
Every adult is a threat, physical or existential. Every parent is dead or has failed their children. Every god, whether real or self-professed, enacts cruelty on their creations, whether by design or disinterest. Dorothy, goddess-born, abuses each of her children the way her gods abused her. The Michelangelo City Rion briefly experiences through chance meetings with the occupants of the Babylon Hotel is broken. It is a city full of tormented souls, criminals, terrorists, drug dealers, and religious zealots. Rion, hailing first from the comfort and solitude of the manor and its protective fences, is afraid of them. These people could hurt him. They do try to hurt him. Yet he is one of them, as stated by the drug dealer who sells to him with a wry smile.
Rion is now hollowed out by drug use, a pale, gaunt thing. One of the strange, unsettling people on the street, in a city whose leaders offered it to a machine. What a failure. As it stands, Rion and Lilia's fathers are god-makers and god-killers. So too are their children made into god-killers, the secret to Dorothy's demise forcibly implanted in their brains without their consent.
Through Lilia's virus, Rion endeavors to stop Dorothy, but not so much to save the world. Just to put an end to the reign of failed gods and parents. When Dorothy dies, she takes the city she reigned over with her, snuffing out the lights block by block until there is only darkness.
Is this freedom?
Is this humanity restored to its rightful place at God's feet?
As Rion dies in Lilia's arms, short-circuiting one final time, there are no comforting answers.
Galerians offers a pessimistic view of the future, but I don't think it's the future the game is strictly concerned with, nor the transhuman potential of technological advancement. It's also quite misanthropic in its approach to humanity, as made absolutely clear in the hospital and Babylon Hotel stages. While certainly loathsome, humanity isn't the real focus, either. Nor God or religion, with gods and goddesses no more than parents reduced to groveling at their childrens' feet for forgiveness. Parents, like gods, die in Galerians with little pomp and circumstance. It's simply life, at the end of the day, in a world where very little, if at all, is held as sacred.
But despite this outwardly cynical streak to me, Galerians is a remarkably human story. Just not for the reasons that we would typically expect to hear.
In the popular consciousness, insofar that we can even argue that Galerians has penetrated the popular consciousness, the game is described as "edgy." Now, I hate that term. It's difficult for me to take criticism of a work seriously if you lead with "edgy." Galerians, itself, in its core, is not edgy. The marketing copy on the back of the CD case certainly is, but the game itself is not. Galerians does not portend to shock or offend with gratuitous violence or the "sin" that games reviewers were so quick to cite in 2000. It is shocking, but that shock lies in the weight of its imagery, themes, and narrative events.
Rion does not choose violence. He does not choose drugs. Rather, he must enact violence as a response to the overt hostilities of a failed adult world. Drugs are necessary to his survival like violence is. You can run from threats and avoid combat, but you will eventually have to attack enemies to survive, as well as defeat level bosses Lem, Birdman, Rainheart, Rita, Cain, and Dorothy to complete the game. Using his powers actively harms Rion the longer he does it, mechanically punishing him for playing the game he exists in. The act of injecting himself with drugs to use his powers hurts him, too, pausing the game to give a short animation or show him wincing and crying out mid-game.
For all the flourish of the game's introduction, showing Rion coolly walking away from the blood bath he created, he takes no joy in violence in-game. His pained grunts and screams are part of the opening song. Suffering is the primary state of Rion's being from the opening seconds of the game. There are virtually no moments of levity for Rion as he moves through the world, driven by his resolve to reclaim his identity and protect Lilia.
Despite this torrent of pain, his encounters with the Galerians throughout the game are filled with conflicting feelings of dread and remorse rather than rage. His fight with Birdman fizzles out when the Galerian's taunting melts into a begrudging concern before his death, leaving Rion confused and saddened. When facing Rainheart, the young Galerian who killed his parents, Rion doesn't seek revenge. He sees how unwell the boy is, how Rainheart was forced by Dorothy, and expresses only empathy upon the boy's death. Even when attacked by an avenging Rita, Rion tries to save her from her self-destructive impulses. But seeing how much she longs for death as an escape from Dorothy, Rion agrees to end her life in a mercy killing.
Lilia is unable to bear the thought and begs him to stop, even as Rion takes the burden upon himself. He has already crossed that line and killed people to find her. Rita's end is, at least, an act of compassion.
Every death is an act of self-preservation or in service to someone else. There is no delight in sadism here, no fantasy of power or agency to escape into as Rion. In the rare moments that Rion speaks, it's only to express his fear and sadness. The only thing he takes solace in is finding Lilia, and eventually killing Dorothy. Even in his struggle with Dorothy, as the ugly truth of his real identity and role in the story is revealed to him, the fight is not for him. Rion is simply a vessel to carry Lilia to the end of her journey. Death is his only reward, the only respite being to sleep among the dead Galerians he freed from Dorothy's control.
That's why I can't buy into the idea of this game as "edgy." It is a game about children failed by adults, who assume impossible responsibilities and enact violence on one another in service of those adults. The children express forgiveness despite their trespasses against one another in acts of empathy performed in the face of abject despair. Galerians is simply asking you to sit down with these frightened, angry, and wounded children for a few hours.
I can think of nothing more earnest than that, if I'm being frank with you. Galerians is an uncomfortable game precisely for its earnestness, rather than in spite of it. It so perfectly captures the powerlessness and anxiety of being a fearful child in a broken world, waking up in a new millennium that promises hope but delivers only despair. Waking up in a new century with images of teen and child violence on the television as the 24-hour cable news cycle ripples with the crushing waves of helplessness and paranoia it feeds on.
The world is going to ask terrible things of you. Terrible things will happen to you. You will do what you must to survive, and bear witness to the suffering of others in solidarity of your shared plight.
Instead of bleak, I find that beautiful.
It makes sense that I fell in love with this game before I fell in love with Neon Genesis Evangelion. Rion Steiner functions a lot like Shinji Ikari, in some ways that feel very comfortable, very intimate, for me. We are handed what we expect to be an adolescent boy's power fantasy and are confronted instead by traumatized children forced to grow up too quickly. Shinji seeks validation through his service as the pilot of Unit 01 but finds only hurt there, lost in a haze of self-loathing. Rion's life and memory are ripped away from him and he is coerced into violence, finding meaning through service to Lilia in spite of his service to Dorothy.
At least for Shinji, another life is possible when he opens his heart to others. For Rion, he is merely a casualty in someone else's story.
And I think that is what makes Galerians stick with me, even after all these years. It is a game that is so completely itself, so sure of its own aesthetic presentation, that it makes up for the fumbles along the way. There is no comforting ending or uplifting vision of the future, but there is meaning in the grime and the ugliness of it all. The scattered moments of humanity shared among the inhuman feel pointed and real in their sharp angles, their jagged polygons. God is dead because Dorothy killed him, and God is dead because Lilia killed her, and yet humanity remains because a boy woke up in a hospital and chose to defy his programming.
Long may Rion Steiner rest.
Long may you remember Galerians, a strange survival horror game released in 1999.
May we yet survive our sea of halycon.
So, after all of that, I guess the question is, why Galerians?
Why a twenty-four-year-old game that few seem to remember? When you search for Galerians on the English-speaking internet, you will find archives of befuddled and frustrated reviews, one or two fond Reddit posts, a handful of apologetic YouTube retrospectives, and lists of Playstation horror games you've never heard of that mention it. You may find some drawings on deviantART, some photos of cosplayers posing on Instagram, a defunct LiveJournal fan group, and one or two long-abandoned fan shrines.
You won't find mine among them, however. I took that one down in the early 2000s. Some of those youthful expressions of excitement are better left to the past.
What you probably won't find, because I had a hard time finding it myself, was anyone talking about what the game did. (Beyond an interesting blog post written by Bryan Cebulski on the Babylon Hotel stage, which I do recommend.). By and large, I don't think people are particularly interested in what the game said. How the game said it. I don't think I have the definitive read on the game, either. I just wanted to talk about what I think it means, and what it meant to me. And what it still means to me, as a formative art experience that I often think back to.
Galerians is a flawed, strange game, but I'm so glad it exists. I wish there was more of it. I wish it was less hamstrung by the limitations of its hardware. I wish it slowed down to let the characters breathe a bit. I wish it better synthesized some of its disparate elements into a more harmonious presentation. Fortunately, the CG animated OVA series Galerians: Rion translates the core of the game to provide more of what I craved from it. Yes, it loses the dread-inducing gameplay, but the trade off is a sleeker visual style and a streamlined story with clearer character work. The series is also written by Chinfa Kan with some concept art and storyboarding by Shou Tajima. The same is true of Galerians' 2002 sequel, Galerians: ASH, which further explores the world, its characters, and themes in a game nearly twice the playtime.
(We will talk about Galerians: ASH another day. That's…a whole other ordeal I don't think I'm ready to get into just yet.)
Even with all of that, Galerians is dead and done. People don't talk about it very much. It's never coming back, now dormant for two decades with few people calling for its revival. Maybe it shouldn't be resuscitated. After all, Galerians did what it had to do, over two games and an OVA, with largely the same teams of people involved. Galerians was so thoroughly the vision of the artists who made it in a way that nobody can take away from them, rough edges and soft spots included.
But I still love it. I still miss it. And I think it's worth playing all these years later because what it has to say still feels as true to me today as it did when I was fourteen. Truer, even.
Our parents are not gods and gods are not invincible. We are subject to opaque and incomprehensible systems. We have so few choices before us as the subjects of those systems.
And yet sometimes we can choose mercy when faced with the monsters these systems make of us all.
Sometimes we can choose to bear witness.
All game images courtesy of Scintilla at Let’s Play Archive.
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