Eternal Sonata

The year 2008 was a dark year for me, for many reasons. A divorce, a dying business, a stressful job, a terrifying stalking situation, and more. However, I can’t deny that even though 2008 was a year that I summarize as one of my “lost years”, some of my best memories with my boys came from that same year, and one of those memories involves a strange video game…

“On his deathbed, the famous composer, Chopin, drifts between this life and the next. In his final hours, he experiences a fantastical dream where he encounters a young girl facing a terrible destiny and the boy who will fight to save her. On the border between dreams and reality, Chopin discovers the light that shines in all of us in this enduring tale of good and evil, love and betrayal.”

-Description on the back of the jewel case for Eternal Sonata, a 2008 game for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3

Eternal Sonata is a very odd game. It is a Japanese RPG with anime-style characters, a co-op battle system, a bright and cheery cartoon color palette, and… classical music, references to 19th century European history, and a fascinating story—featuring a famous Polish composer as a playable character, swords, magic, and monsters.

Even by jRPG standards, this one was a tough sell: Famous Polish composer Frédéric Chopin, who passed away at 39 years old, is lying on his deathbed in the beginning of the game, having a fever dream in which a young girl named Polka is similarly dying of the “magic disease”, where she has magical powers, but this means she is doomed to die. We play the game as Polka and her friends and allies, in this dream world, though sometimes the viewpoint is switched to the real world where Chopin’s loved ones surround him on his death bed, speculating on what he might be dreaming about. While the game follows some standard jRPG tropes of the era—group of scrappy friends with conviction all band together to face a big bad evil ruler—there are many ways in which it departs the rather formulaic genre, and the primary departure is in that the entire game is about music. The names of the characters, the spells, everything revolves around musical terminology, and in this we see that this is probably exactly what a fevered, dying dream of a world-famous composer may actually consist of.

You can say that again, Frédéric

This game was purchased for me as a Christmas gift by my dear friend Jeff—who originally bought it as a joke because he used to mock me for playing bright and colorful Japanese RPGs and this one looked to be something he could really sink his troll teeth into. I’ll never forget him saying “Look, you can play as a cute little girl with a dress and fight big scawwy monstows” and laughing his ass off. Little did he know then that it would become one of the best gifts I’ve ever gotten.

This is the kind of stuff that Jeff would howl laughing at if he saw me playing

A dark winter, a big red couch, and blankets

A typical night in the winter of 2007-2008 found Kyle or Percival cuddled up with blankets on the big red couch in front of the TV playing games

As a new bachelor, I no longer needed approval to move furniture around and so I rearranged the living room of our house that winter to create a nest where my boys and I could just cuddle and bond over our shared hobby of gaming. I moved the couch to the middle of the room on a diagonal and we just parked there for the winter. While it may have not been the most productive use of my time in capitalist terms (I was badly underemployed, struggling with depression, and dealing with a lot), I certainly made some priceless memories with them, and in retrospect it’s impossible to regret any of it.

Our time spent playing Eternal Sonata, though, was something extra special. It was one of those rare games where the three of us could all play together simultaneously while becoming engrossed in this fantasy world filled with wonder, beautiful music, and magic together. The “story” part of the game was played by Player One (dad!), and I would move the character around on the screen and do most of the main actions—talking to people, buying gear, equipping characters, and moving around the world—while the boys watched, read along, and offered their opinions on where to go next, what to do, and how to solve whatever current problem we were facing. However, once a fight with monsters began, the boys got their controllers ready and each of us could control our own characters’ actions. When we would complete a battle, there were high fives, fist pumps, and victory shouts. We did it together, as a team.

The game was filled with real-world facts about Chopin, and interspersed with photographs of real-world locations that he spent his life in. More importantly, it was filled with his astonishing and masterful music. I found something I wrote back in 2008 after I had played just one night with my boys:

Eternal Sonata should be like… required for all gaming parents to play with their kids. It is co-op multiplayer, which means that during battles every person with a controller gets full control over one of the characters. Tonight we had three hours on the couch together, having fun, talking, playing a cool game AND learning all about music history as well as the history of late 19th century Europe in a way that makes it supremely interesting for them to WANT to learn more; as the history of Europe in the late 19th century has a direct bearing on the game. Perry said "Now I want them to make a game about Beethoven too". Kyle said "Étude Opus 10, No. 12 is AWESOME" and we're only on chapter 2 of the game! 

Each chapter is interspersed with a real world slide show of relevant location shots, such as Valldemossa in Mallorca, where he wintered in 1838-1839 to help recover from tuberculosis. The slide show is accompanied by a new collectable Chopin piece, as well as a vivid and well-written description of the events that were happening in the real world that inspired this particular section of the game. It turns out the North American localization was proofread by the Frederick Chopin Society in Warsaw. The localization team wanted to be as historically accurate as possible, without losing the original message of the script. My kids, in a three hour gaming session, have come away with:

* Quality bonding time with dad
* A new appreciation for Chopin and classical music in general
* A sense of success and achievement because we beat two hard bosses by working together and using tactical planning to take them down
* Further inspiration to learn Piano
* A 19th century European history lesson (about the Warsaw Rebellion, etc.)
The plot was intense, with existential drama in only the way Japanese RPGs can deliver

That was after the first night. That’s how exciting it was.

We went on to finish the game together, and we talked about it for weeks afterward. It was a long time before we found another game that captured that feeling, that dreamlike state where there is nothing else in the world except the three of us, going on some incredible adventure together.

Over the years, as they grew up into adulthood, my boys would occasionally mention how special those times were. Now, as I begin to settle into the idea of middle age, I find myself reminiscing more and more about those wonderous years. I see my friends posting photos of their kids on their version of the big red couch, doing their version of this, still with the same goofy smiles, still with the same blankets and snacks, and I want to tell them all: go, sit on the couch with them, get under that blanket with them, and never, ever think that you’re wasting time. Indeed, some day it you will look back and see it as some of the best time you ever spent.

Tonight, a snippet of a piece of classical music just popped into my head randomly. I have not a clue as to what prompted it, but there it was. I was humming the main melody but I had no idea what the song was called, since I’ve never really been that educated about classical music. It was sticking in my brain, though. I let my subconscious guide me, and I opened up YouTube and found myself typing “Chopin”. I found a video of “the best of Chopin” and started going through the tracks, when suddenly, there it was—the song that was in my head. It was Nocturne Op.9 No. 2. The moment I clicked on it and it started to play, I broke down sobbing at my desk—this haunting and beautiful music flooding my ears as the doors of my mind were flung open on these wonderful memories. I had almost forgotten about this… about this time, this game, and these moments. Maybe forgotten is the wrong word; it was just something I never bother to remember.

Music has more real power in this world than anything else I could ever imagine. It is the closest thing we have to actual magic. I wonder what Kyle’s eternal sonata is. I wonder if he had a dying dream about an alternate world in which he was composing an endless song. I know he was listening to music the very moment he died, and I actually take comfort in that because music was fundamental to his life and the root of much of his joy. The fact that he died to a soundtrack is something he would have laughed heartily about because he loved drama.

I don’t often contemplate my own mortality, but tonight I found myself asking: What music will I hear when I die?

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