crafting your core

The perilous beauty of dropping the act

by tony

Legend of Mana is a striking game. The painterly art direction, the lilting, melancholy score, and the seeming desolation of the game world swirl around the player to leave her absolutely mystified. Critics gave the game middling reviews, and were largely put off by the seeming lack of a main plot. The world map is initially blank, but the player receives artifacts that she can use to create a rich, colorful environment. For instance, a lowly wagon wheel is capable of creating an important royal highway.

The player is free to place these environments wherever she wishes, and may choose choose to complete the world’s quests in any order she likes. Through her exploration, the player uncovers three overarching plots of power, loss, and longing. When one of these plots is seen through to its conclusion, the game’s final level reveals itself.

All three plots are ultimately tragic. The first features a brother and sister who have sworn allegiance to two warring dragons, and who each try to recruit the hero to destroy the other. The second features four childhood friends separated by cruel circumstances and whose forced separation drives them all to desperate measures. The third story is by far the most heartbreaking. It revolves around a race of creatures many believe to be extinct. These creatures-- the Jumi-- are nearly indistinguishable from ordinary humans, but for the fact that their heart is in the form of a precious jewel that is embedded into their chest. Each represents a particular precious stone-- there is a Jumi of pearl, of diamond, of ruby. They are whispered of in dark corners, and some claim to even have seen them, but these reports are viewed with a skeptical eye. Many of the worlds’ citizens derogatorily refer to them as “dirt” due to their more mineral qualities.

The game’s hero (or heroine, your choice) encounters a Jumi in the game’s opening minutes. Elazul, the Jumi of lapis, enlists the hero in an effort to locate his missing partner, Pearl. It is revealed that not only are the Jumi living among us, but they are actively searching for each other to reassemble their fallen race. The Jumi have been searching the world in pairs for many years, balancing their need to blend in with their need to connect with others like them.

I could drag the comparison out, but it’s clear: the Jumi are closeted. But what drives a need for such furtiveness? In Legend of Mana, genocide. The Jumi have been hunted for generations because of a belief that cutting the cores from their chests provides the murderer with immense power. Once the Jumi have been completely eliminated, and all of their cores have been removed, the sum of their cores would grant unbelievable power. It turns out, one such person aspires to do just that, and the remaining Jumi are no match for her speed and cunning. With a variety of disguises and the patience of a true hunter, the poacher lies in wait, and pounces as soon as a suspected Jumi reveals his or her true nature.

The jumi have been searching the world in pairs for many years, balancing their need to blend in with their need to connect with others like them

The Jumi understandably harbor a pervasive fear of their identities being discovered, and so many of them suppress their power and try to live ordinary lives. This drive for self-preservation is counterbalanced by the Jumis’ recognition that their cores harbor an important power. The hero learns that the Jumi are capable of great acts of healing and creation if they expose their cores. At one critical juncture for the race, Rubens, the Jumi of ruby, is urged to use his power to heal a dying creature, but he ultimately chooses to protect his identity rather than wield it for good. He accidentally reveals himself soon after, however, and is quickly slain.

The core of a Jumi is powerful, but one’s tears are even stronger. These tears-- these physical manifestations of empathy and connection-- were once freely given, and were a great source of good in the world. But the constant suppression and concealment of their identity has caused the Jumi to forget how to shed such tears. At one point, Elazul’s precious core is scratched, and Pearl attempts to heal him by shedding a single tear. Even though they are practically siblings, she is unable to cry, and instead watches Elazul suffer with stoicism.

At the Jumi plot’s conclusion, the jewel hunter is successful in her attempt to slay the entire race. The hero watches the last Jumi perish, and then must defeat the monstrous jewel beast that is crafted from the remains of the once-proud race. The player’s hard-won victory is bitter, however. You might expect to see the Jumi’s souls escape the fallen creature, restoring the race and bringing life and freedom back to those who have suffered for so long.

This does not occur; the Jumi remain in the underworld. When faced with this realization, the hero somberly accepts that the race is truly dead, and no JRPG deus ex machina can undo the centuries of injustice. The hero then does the forbidden; he cries for the lost race. All the world’s inhabitants know that one must not cry for the Jumi, as doing so will transform the culprit to stone. It is a widespread belief that empathizing with this oppressed race is a death sentence, and that there is no escape from the consequences of emotionally associating with the Jumi.

And so the hero is transformed to stone. His single brave tear falls to the soil of the desecrated capital of the Jumi people and moistens the brick that once harbored this peaceful, lost race. This demonstration of proscribed empathy is its own kind of magic, however, and the Jumis’ cores respond in kind. The race is revived, and all Jumi then shed a tear for the brave hero who chose to be an ally rather than perpetuate the invisibility of the race. The tears are sufficient to redeem the hero’s supposed sin, and his stone body returns to flesh.

So, wow, a lot to unpack for a low-res 2D RPG that critics argued lacked a plot. Whether or not Squaresoft intended it, they wrote the most compelling coming-out narrative I’ve ever seen in a video game. The player is assigned the role of “ally,” and is the only non-Jumi in the game who is fully aware of the extent of the race’s persecution. He truly travels the ally’s path: discovery of an injustice, education about the extent of that injustice, and ultimate rejection of societal pressure to not align himself with the oppressed. I am able to recognize this in hindsight, but at the time I honestly wasn’t paying attention to the hero’s journey.

empathizing with this oppressed race is a death sentence, and that there is no escape from the consequences of emotionally associating with the jumi

I was paying attention to the Jumi. I was a Jumi. I was the terrified fifteen-year-old kid who lied awake at night engineering the perfect scenario to come out as gay to his girlfriend. I was the kid who wrapped himself in the veil of “anime kid” to try to blend in with the other unmasculine boys in his class. I was the kid who was shocked that my efforts couldn’t prevent the barrage of “faggot!”s that were peppered on me on a daily basis. I felt like a Jumi who was doing everything in his power to conceal his core, but whose efforts were woefully insufficient to pass.

I’m not saying I came out because of Legend of Mana, but it certainly educational to see that efforts to pass as something other than you are will ultimately fail, no matter what sacrifices are made in service of that lie. Rubens’ death lingered over my head: he denied who he was and harmed others by omission, and still wound up dead and coreless. Since there was no escaping detection, I decided to do what I could to limit the damage my lies caused to others, and hopefully to set an example for those who were exhausted from hiding themselves. I became the kid who came out to his girlfriend, and who was supported and loved by her because of it. I became the only out kid in my class, hoping to set an example for the others who were not yet ready to step out of the closet. I became the kid who was capable of using my “secret” to help others who were in pain and who felt alone.

I’m far from the only one to recognize the coming out narrative of the game’s Jumi subplot. Zack (who contributed to electro bureau’s inaugural issue) also loved the game. Years later, we discovered that we’d both appreciated this narrative in the exact same way. We found a jewel in the game, took it to the hero’s workshop, and crafted a jewel core of our own (mine was obsidian), which we proudly wore throughout the game. The internet is awash in fanfiction and theories about the Jumi. The authors embrace the Jumi narrative and cast themselves as a being capable of great feats, but forced to conceal their identities in order to survive. Today, kids don’t need to plumb the depths of games to find metaphors they can relate to, but I’m genuinely grateful that this one was there when I the odds felt against me. Every bit helps when you’re gathering the courage to finally show the world your beautiful, precious core.