[The Spoony Bard is a biweekly GameSetWatch column by writer James Bishop that probes the depths of the characters, dialogue and writing in video games. This week, it looks back on one often overlooked game of 2001.]

Though the year 2001 will always be associated with — for different reasons — Arthur C. Clarke and the fall of the World Trade Center towers, it will also be associated in my mind as the year that I truly began to experience video games as an artistic medium rather than just as a form of entertainment. Not that it’s somehow stopped being a form of entertainment since, but a select few games that released that year suddenly made me rethink how I felt about gaming as a whole.

The easy answer as to what changed my perspective is Final Fantasy X. Released at the very end of 2001, it was a surprise participant in that year’s Christmas celebrations for me. The beginning sections in Zanarkand, both cinematic and otherwise, are things of beauty. My emotional attachment to Auron, Tidus, and Spira remains strong almost a decade later. Squaresoft obviously did something right.

But then, Final Fantasy X is a role-playing game. The whole point is to draw the player in and tie them to the conflicts of whatever character they inhabit. While it may have been unconventional in terms of subject matter, the storytelling was more or less your standard fare for any kind of narrative. Tidus is the clear protagonist, Sin the antagonist, Wakka the comic relief, and Yuna the love interest.

There’s nothing surprising or even noteworthy in becoming attached to the characters in a role-playing game. Assuming they function like they should, those characters will always encourage emotional attachment in one way or another. This is why that, in the grand scheme of things, Final Fantasy X is not the game that made me mull over narrative in video games a decade ago.

That illustrious honor goes to Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies.

That's Right, Ace Combat

Given that Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies is described as a “semi-realistic flight simulation,” it may at first be a little jarring to read that it was the most effective narrative of 2001 for me. Flight simulators are not exactly known for delivering stellar plots, characters, or anything of the sort. They are typically right up there with arcade fighters in terms of ludicrous narrative elements.

Ace Combat, as a franchise, had already previously dabbled with strong storylines though. The previous installment, dubbed Ace Combat 3: Electrosphere, had a plot set decades in the future that revolved around territorial disputes between huge corporations. Even with a stronger narrative presence, it delivered it in much the same way as you might expect from any given game. Not that there is anything wrong with something that is tried and true.

So what makes Ace Combat 04 such a departure for the series that it became my defining game of 2001? It’s hard to point a finger at the reasons that allowed this particular installment to stick in my mind. It is, however, a little easier to make a list of design choices that stand out from others like it.

A Mostly Generic Plot Saved By Narration

The plot itself is thus: years ago, an asteroid hit the planet. In order to prevent further asteroids from hitting, a gigantic station of railguns was constructed in order to destroy any further rocks from space before they hit the ground. Coincidentally, this station just so happens to be great at blowing airplanes out of the sky as well. Cue the militaristic takeover of the continent by one nation with the excuse of protection.

But it’s not the plot that draws me in. It’s the characters. The player goes through the game as the new cadet, Mobius One, who slowly comes to prominence in the defending air force. Again, this is standard fare for any militaristic game. It’s the way this narrative rise to power is framed that really sets it apart.

That’s right; I’ll go ahead and say it: it’s the background-giving narration-laden cutscenes that make Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies what it is. Though they’re more aptly referred to as interludes by the giant script for the game, they showcase what’s best about it regardless of what they’re called.

Identifying With The Enemy

In these interludes, we learn the story of a young boy who lives in one of the towns that becomes occupied during the war. He is writing to the player in order to explain some of the events that occurred in his life during the occupation and the ramification of the player’s actions in the game. We come to learn of the Yellow Squadron and the young boy’s relationship with them.

We learn of the player, Mobius One, and his actions through the lens of a man’s memories of his childhood. The various missions have a profound effect on the course of the boy’s life. He relates how Yellow 13, the captain of the elite enemy squadron that the player faces, shot down a fighter plane and it fell on his childhood home. He goes on to develop a strange kinship with the occupiers even though he would have happily killed the captain prior to knowing him personally.

Once the boy does identify with Yellow 13, who plays his dead father’s favorite song in one particularly poignant interlude, his hatred slowly slips away. Later, when the railguns are destroyed and Yellow Squadron loses a member, we see the loss the captain feels. The player witnesses the pain inflicted by his own actions. As if that weren’t enough, Yellow 13 expresses respect for those who would fight like true soldiers against the enemy even though it’s caused the death of someone near and dear.

Though the arc revolves around the outcome of a major war, the story here is about the people who managed to get caught up in it.

In the end, the player witnesses the downfall of the Yellow Squadron and ends the military occupation. By this time, it’s apparent that the letters that serve as interludes are being written to Mobius One — the player — in an attempt to enlighten them as to the nature of their opponent. More than anything, the interludes humanize Yellow 13 through his relationships with those he commands and with the boy who would later write Mobius One.

Amidst The Blue Skies, A Link From Past To Future

This is the kind of narrative concept that still manages to elude many writers and designers today. David Cage, the man fronting Quantic Dream and of Heavy Rain fame, was recently at Game Developers Conference where he emphasized that “identification is everything.” He went on to say that players don’t project themselves “into an empty shell.” Even if he uses his own game as proof, he’s still absolutely right.

Though I recognize that the game has flaws and perhaps this editorial comes off as somewhat rose-tinted, replays of the game and second and third screenings of the interludes have yet to change my mind. Are there better games out there? Sure there are.

But this is one of the very few that changed the nature of my narrative expectations.

[James Bishop is a mild-mannered English graduate by day, by night he writes for Hellmode. Sometimes he tweets too. (@jamesbishop) If you're not one of those, however, he can be reached at jamesrollinbishop at gmail dot com.]