Phantasy Star IV and Ultimate Explanations

Phantasy Star IV is the platonic ideal of the JRPG. Dragon Quest may have laid the foundations for the genre, and a lot of Final Fantasy entries have certainly pushed it further, but PSIV is the one I’d point to if someone wanted a sample of what it was all about. It’s got satisfyingly crunchy dungeon crawling and turn based combat mechanics, an intriguing overworld to traverse (or, more accurately, overworlds), a compelling cast of characters, and some very unique, top-notch 2D aesthetics.

It’s the final entry in the original Phantasy Star series, and forms a sort of trilogy with the first two games (the third is more of a side story). The overarching story, which is set in the fictional Algo star system, centers around the fight against Dark Force, a malevolent entity that tries to influence events in a sinister direction. PSI has its heroes fight against a fascist dictatorship whose leader is revealed to be possessed by Dark Force; PSII‘s twists and turns also has Dark Force eventually revealed as a principal antagonist.

PSIV begins on a similar note—a sinister cult promoting a religion of death and destruction is arising on the planet Motavia, and it looks like Dark Force is to blame. But by this point, the developers were keen enough to notice that the Dark Force reveal was no longer exactly a surprise, and that it was a bit strange that the thing manages to keep coming back again and again, so this time it gets revealed that there is indeed a dark force behind Dark Force, called The Profound Darkness. It turns out that something called The Great Light defeated and then sealed away The Profound Darkness, which has since been manifesting itself as Dark Force in an attempt to break free. But The Great Light has also arranged things such that there would always be a group of heroes who would rise up to defeat Dark Force, and the cast of PSIV in particular are the ones ultimately tasked with dealing the final blow to The Profound Darkness itself.

It’s probably a good idea to steer clear of this guy’s Sunday services

The game does a good job of tying the whole series together, but it has me semi-jokingly wondering if it isn’t turtles all the way down: maybe The Profound Darkness came from a Profounder Darkness, and The Great Light from a Greater Light, and so on, ad infinitum. To paraphrase Aristotle, it’s in our nature to want to know things. As such, the idea that something exists “just because,” doesn’t sit well with us, especially when applied to fundamental questions about why things exist at all—it suggests that the world is not, at its core, a fundamentally rational and understandable thing.

This leads us to make all sorts of physical/astronomical investigations into the history and origins of the world, exploring the big bang, the possibility of multiverses, and so on. But the more explanations we get, the more it paradoxically seems like that more fundamental question—why do things exist at all—has only been pushed further back. Again, it seems like we’re faced with the choice between saying that the chain of explanations has no end, or that it ends in some initial state of the world that exists for no reason (even a nothingness from which something could spontaneously come out of raises the question of how “nothingness” has that kind of potential to begin with), both of these options conceding in a roundabout fashion that there ultimately is no explanation.

Does the existence of God fall into this trap? It depends. The question, “who created God?” is a bit of a cliche, but isn’t without some merit, in that it points to a flaw in some ways of thinking about God. If we imagine a list of everything that exists, and place God on that list as the thing that existed first, and as the most powerful and best thing on that list, then it seems to me that we’ve also shirked the question of why things exist, providing a “just because” response of our own. More than that, I find something theologically unsettling about this line of thought: it makes the difference between creator and creature to be merely one of degree, and I don’t think that that difference is enough to justify worshiping such a god.

But that isn’t what most mainstream monotheistic traditions have traditionally understood God to be. God, as traditionally understood, is existence itself, with individually existing entities existing only relative to him, by a kind of relative participation in his Being. Thus God isn’t an entity in the world, but rather the ground which makes it possible for there to be existing things in the first place; he is, thus, both unfathomably transcendent while also extremely intimate to us.

This idea isn’t without its own controversies, and, suffice it to say, it’s impossible to cover all its nuances in a short blog post. Great thinkers like Aquinas and Maimonides have devoted hundreds of pages to it, and my own attempt here is going to look pretty flimsy by comparison. But I do find it to be an elegant solution to the conundrum I mentioned. Behind individual beings is Being itself, which by its very nature must exist, with the world we live in being a kind of metaphor for that Being, which we see through a glass darkly.

8 thoughts on “Phantasy Star IV and Ultimate Explanations

  1. This calls to mind how God identified himself to Moses at the burning bush by focusing on his eternal existence:

    Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”

    God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I Am has sent me to you.’”

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  2. I think it was St. John Paul II who said that the visible world is like a great map of the Kingdom of Heaven. I like the way you present the argument (the concept of the Outsider in Gene Wolfe´s Long Sun, which I did read thanks to you, was a very clarifying illustration of the last issue you mention). Also, with “the platonic ideal”, you may have found the ultimate superlative.

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  3. Luminas here! I’ve been thinking about this kind of thing too, but I feel like even your argument raises the Profounder Darkness/Greater Light problem. If God Himself is Being, Existence, Matter, than that still essentially means that He “came out of nowhere.” It doesn’t necessarily matter that He Is What He Is or that He is all creation; Existence still had to come from somewhere. So what does that mean, exactly?

    Well….a lot of ancient peoples had an interesting way of thinking about it, and that was that they described what happened without actually explaining it. They intuited that their gods, that Creation, had come from the ultimate womb- The Void itself. Literally, Everything had come out of Nothing and created itself. They did this by personifying the Void as an infinite and unknowable Goddess of sorts, a literal womb of Creation. She goes by various names, but it was indeed almost always a She, or a pair of intertwined male and female gods. It seems clear that by naming It they weren’t exactly giving It sentience, but rather were anthropomorphizing the situation so that it made more sense. We’re not satisfied by the idea of God “always existing,” but maybe there’s a halfway point there. He *did* always exist, because He is Existence, and He created Himself from Nothing. That’s the first miracle.

    And moreover, my Roleplay metaphor comes back in on this. We exist, out of all the millions that could have been within our mothers when our parents met, because He specifically wanted us to. We each play some kind of role in the Grand Game (literally what Mar seems to call it, given that I pulled the phrase from thin air once, from the same general place as his name).

    But there’s….kind of an interesting implication to that one, and it plays into this notion of why evil would be nihilistic. If something comes into existence, then that would give one a basis of comparison immediately, existence vs. nonexistence. It forces the entire concept of “nonexistence” into being just by existing, because suddenly there is something *else* that has to be there, defined by its relationship to Creation. So it then technically becomes possible to do things that would favor one or the other, or even to *value* one or the other, even though there’s only *one* God. To live without God isn’t in a sense to be alive at all in this context, because that isn’t possible. It’s to be undead.

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    1. I don’t think the Profounder Darkness.etc. problem still holds here, in that if existence exists, it necessarily rather than contingently exists. In entities, we can distinguish between the “whatness” of a thing, and the “thatness” of a thing – its nature, and the actual existence of that nature, and note that the connection between the two is contingent and hence requires explanation.

      With the case of existence, that distinction collapses. Even if we try to conceptualize the possibility of total nonexistence, we wind up instead picturing something like an empty universe or a void, which is still only a kind of relative nonexistence, inasmuch as we still can’t help mentally ascribing some properties to it (and, as you illustrate, we can even get a little bit creative with it). There’s something fundamentally irrational about total nonexistence.

      Which perhaps dovetails with what you are saying towards the end, about the privative nature of evil, that to do evil is to somehow attempt to will nonexistence.

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  4. “Even if we try to conceptualize the possibility of total nonexistence, we wind up instead picturing something like an empty universe or a void, which is still only a kind of relative nonexistence, inasmuch as we still can’t help mentally ascribing some properties to it (and, as you illustrate, we can even get a little bit creative with it). There’s something fundamentally irrational about total nonexistence.”

    Well we wind up with that because it’s the truest Nothing we know of, given the need of an observer. I’m not sure the Void of space was created in the strictest sense. That is, if you think about it, the black space between stars is not a thing that actually exists independently. It exists because we are there, existing, and observing the blank space. The Bible itself more or less points out that whatever this was, it came into existence more or less concurrently with God. That’s what “the waters” would mean in Genesis, if we assume that the writer were observing events without necessarily comprehending them. To be “floating over the face of the waters,” that would mean He were floating in the void of space, because it can’t logically be that he was on the “waters” on Earth. Therefore something else has also come into existence concurrently with God, as the lone observer, and that would be Nothing. The contingency for the concept of Nothing to exist is in fact God’s existence, but that doesn’t actually mean it doesn’t exist, or necessarily that it is strictly speaking part of Creation. It’s more that if you have something that exists, you must instantly create all it is Not in the same instant. When I came into this world, everything else was then dubbed “not Luminas,” because Luminas was there. But if something is All That There Is, that creates a rather more substantial “not it,” doesn’t it?

    All that isn’t really as relevant to your main point, because whatever God “came out of” didn’t exist until He’d come out of it, so it’s necessarily contingent on His existence. But it starts to get at the thelogical headache that this idea produces. As you said, great minds have developed hundreds of pages to it! And yeah, I think that the more fundamental nature of evil would be to attempt to return all things to nonexistence, or else as close as this world will allow.

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  5. The other possibility there is “In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth” describes the initial setup point of the Earth, without Life on it, and the “waters” are quite literal. Given that several billion years back, hot unlivable water and insane weather would’ve been all you had on Earth. So it could be we drop into Genesis at that point, but given what we know about space….He was really quite busy before our seven days. Either way, it doesn’t quite argue the point above so much as my example.

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