Beating up God in Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth
In a laborious 45 minute cutscene (you have been warned), Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth reiterates that we have no control in our lives. Circumstance and directives rule this universe and you better get used to it, otherwise you’ll be spending an awful lot of time frustrated at the lack of control.
It’s a world defined by doing what you’re told. A social hierarchy is built right into the title of the game. You’re a Valkyrie, a mythological Norse figure who decides the fate of warriors in battle and a direct pawn of the god Odin. It’s your job to scour the world of Midgard below and recruit the souls of fallen warriors (Einherjar) to prepare for the final battle at the end of the world: Ragnarök. It’s work.
The Valkyrie in question, Lenneth, doesn’t start off like this. Before pressing start, we’re introduced to an ordinary 14-year old girl who lives with her parents in Midgar. It’s a difficult life; her parents are poor and cruel. Her only friend in the village is a young boy called Lucian. Late one night, Lucian warns Platina (Lenneth’s human name) that her parents have sold her and that they should run away from the village as soon as possible. In their haste to escape, the pair unfortunately run into the Weeping Lily Meadow and Platina succumbs to the toxic pollen.
After pressing start, we’re introduced to the same girl now garbed in the clothes of a Valkyrie. She has no recollection of her past life. The gods Odin and Freya don’t even identify her beyond her title. Despite her best efforts, Lenneth is now a slave. Her worth is decided by the work that she does.
You descend into the land of Midgard alongside the company of Freya who acts as your guide for the next few hours. With Ragnarök approaching, every action you take chews up time represented as periods and chapters respectively. You only have so many periods to use each chapter which means you have to make some pretty careful choices. At the end of each chapter, you can send a warrior to Valhalla to fight in the impending war. Freya encourages you to focus on your task at hand above all else. At this point, you have no choice in the matter.
As a Valkyrie, Lenneth can tune in to the last moments of a mortal and swoop in to offer them an ultimatum before death. This “Spiritual Concentration” condenses entire story arcs of each possible recruit into short, random sound clips that sum up each character’s emotional mindset. It’s a harrowing experience that remains effective even today, engulfing your ears with shouts, whimpers, and anguished cries of people on the verge of losing everything. You’re mentally prepared for what you’re about to experience even before meeting the person.
Your first recruit is a man called Arngrim, a cynical mercenary with a heart of gold who kills to support his brother. The other is Jelanda, daughter to the King of Artolia. Arngrim returns from a mission assigned to him by the King himself and promptly insults the man by shattering the statue awarded to him as a gift. Jelanda plots revenge over the embarrassment of her father, the two get mixed up in a political coup before Jelanda can kill Arngrim and she’s eventually transformed into a vicious monster by a traitorous court minister. Arngrim kills Jelanda in an act of mercy and is unjustly accused of high treason. With nowhere else to go, Arngrim kills the man responsible for Jelanda’s transformation and stabs himself in the chest at the behest of Lenneth to join the ranks of the Einherjar.
What’s interesting about Arngrim’s story is the parallels it draws between Odin and Lenneth’s relationship. Lenneth adopts a domineering attitude with her recruits similar to the one Odin displayed when assigning her her task. She doesn’t give Arngrim a choice to join her, she all but encourages his suicide. Later on in the game, Lenneth rips the soul out of a man to save his dead sweetheart without even asking him. If it hasn’t been festering already, you start to feel disgusted at what’s happening to Lenneth. All the violent and horrific things that Platina wanted to escape are now being acted out by Lenneth and you can’t change any of it.
But Arngrim’s fate also hints at Lenneth’s possible freedom. More so than the other recruits, Arngrim’s status as a mercenary and his violent skill set closely aligns him with Lenneth. The only difference between them is that Arngrim has control of his own destiny. Both warriors can decide whose time is up – one literally, and the other by virtue of their own ability – but Arngrim doesn’t let Lenneth decide his fate. By killing himself Arngrim demonstrates that while he may have made a living on following other people’s orders, he hasn’t lost his independence along the way.
Angrim’s suicide unifies the player and Lenneth. The player recognises a streak of rebellion and a clear indication that it might be okay to break the rules in this world. While Lenneth might not register it straight away, Arngrim’s death is validation that she can escape from her position. It’s little wonder Freya stresses that Angrim is unsuitable for the Einherjar. He’s broken free from the system. Freya doesn’t want Lenneth getting any ideas.
And, though we might not act on it straight away, Arngrim’s rebellious streak rubs off on our behaviour. The first dungeon ends with the discovery of valuable weaponry and armor, artefacts that should be offered up to Odin for use in Ragnarök. Freya isn’t looking though, right? What’s the harm in taking some of the loot ourselves? Oh, our “evaluation rating” has gone down. What the fuck is that? Evaluation is not a good word. We hesitate.
But why are we hesitating? What have we got to lose? The world is going to end regardless of our input. Do we really want to be spending our last days on the Earth recruiting soldiers for a war that no one will win?
Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth is transparent. Systems are wrapped up into more systems, every little detail about levelling can be monitored and controlled, every action is methodically planned out thanks to the strict time limit. It’s overwhelming. There’s so much to process that you initially disconnect from the game on an emotional level.
But then you get impatient, you grow tired of perfection. Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth’s first rigid two-hours encourage you to break out of your comfort zone by being excessively monitored. You re-engage with the game on a cathartic overdose of freedom. You make mistakes and waste your allotted time. You get the “bad” endings and slowly come to grips with the mechanics by familiarization.
And each time you restart the game, Arngrim’s suicide stands out as the much needed reassurance you need to disobey. Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth’s best ending is only achieved by abandoning Lenneth’s responsibility and taking time away from the grind of recruitment. The Valkyrie uncovers her forgotten name.
Lenneth’s freedom is really your freedom, after all.
Illustration by Jake Lawrence.
After Pressing Start is a series running on Nightmare Mode every Friday by resident narrative guru Tom Auxier. It focuses on beginning, on the stories that happen directly after pressing start, and how those introductory stories influence the arcs of video games. This entry of After Pressing Start was written by Alois Wittwer. Check out some of the other APS articles: After Pressing Start