We all know the quote “Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery.” Most of us forget how it ends. “Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery … the mediocrity of size can pay.”
Oscar Wilde never wasted an opponent to absolutely body his rivals.
For the first 10 hours of 13 Sentinels: Aegis RimWilde’s quote fully felt like the inevitable criticism of the newest game from Vanillaware, the Japanese studio that releases a new game roughly once a generation. The story of a gang of high school teenagers fighting to save the world could barely find its rhythm before turning violently around the crib from the Tarkovsky films or the Hideaki Anno anime. Which at first resembled Strange things turned into a parody of ET., then an echo of The terminatorand soon enough a shallow clone of The matrix. I accepted the disappointment when the game was on pastiche like it was paper mache. The narrative got so complicated, so overwhelming in fandom, that I wondered if there really was a game at the center of this matryoshka doll with legendary science fiction references. Then, as if discovering that I would speak a foreign language fluently by complaining in its own language, everything clicked.
13 sentinels is not a mediocre imitation of size; It’s a passionate argument about how the things we love can make us who we are. Literally. Willy-nilly.
The title refers to the storytelling concept of the game. You play as 13 different teenagers who control unique ‘Mechs to fend off Kaiju who is threatening to overwhelm Japan. This story is divided into three modes.
In story mode you can switch between the 13 heroes more or less in any order. Each character’s story is broken down into short episodes, and the threads overlap, so one character’s hero will be a villain, comrade, or just another background character. The adventures aren’t slow in themselves, but I would describe the game as fictional, both in style and in the fact that you will be spending more than a dozen hours reading text. It took me a while to orient myself and to make the connections between these strange children. In all fairness, tracking 13 characters is arguably the easiest mental exercise in the game.
My real confusion came from the timeline. The story takes place in 1984. And 1945. And 2025, 2065 and 2105. As I said, it’s complicated. Did I mention there is time travel? Type of?
Whatever! The second mode takes place at some vague point in the future, and now you control the group in real-time strategy battle against the aforementioned kaiju. For some reason, all teenagers work together, however now There is no time for conversation.
The third mode is an encyclopedia. No enemies. No opportunities to win. Just a few words and a few pictures. In the course of the game you will receive points with which entries in the encyclopedia about characters, events, objects and locations are unlocked. Think of it as a cheat sheet. Do you forget who a character is or how they connect with a certain period of time? Your answer is waiting.
All of this threatens to be too much – a visual novel with 13 co-leads, an RTS, a fan wiki. In addition, the adventure oscillates between genres and influences every half hour. That it all comes together, that it is so easy to understand in the end, is a magic trick. That said, I can’t explain how it’s done. It just … is.
Any order I’ve played through 13 sentinels – a couple of rounds of mech combat followed by hopping between characters – felt right. It was like the game expected me to play everything in this random way the whole time.
I suspect the creators waved a hand and directed my attention in one direction without my even realizing it. I heard about a character from 1945 and picked the protagonist in uniform from WWII to learn more. Its story began with a look at a space colony in the distant future, so I checked the encyclopedia for context. Each breadcrumb led me to a different breadcrumbs, and in the end I’ll be damned if I hadn’t put the full bread back together.
The best comparison – and there aren’t many – is Lost, the ABC drama about a group of plane crash survivors abandoned on an island full of mysterious science experiments and science fiction tropes. Each week the show followed a cast member and flashed back in time (and sometimes forward) to reveal more about their motivations and connections to the island and the people they were stranded with.
13 sentinels has a uniform, thematically consistent, overarching storyline – teenagers save Japan from giant monsters – but each character has its own arc and genre to match. There is the time-traveling killer, the cuddly alien who needs a friend, the voice in the machine that questions our existence, the artificial intelligence that wants to be human. The detective. The amnesia. The man repeated himself over and over again on the same day.
And yes, this abundance of references, parodies and imitations initially feels like what Wilde described: mediocrity that gives flattery to size. Every single story does not resonate on the same level Groundhog Day or AI or Solaris or Neon Genesis Evangelion. But it soon becomes clear that the game is not about “better” works. Instead, it delivers a criticism.
Without spoiling the game (because you really should be playing this game!) I can say that 13 sentinels‘References are not a funny gimmick; You are the point. In other words, the mess is the message.
Here is a video game over our memory and the fiction we consume and how they intertwine. How our favorite movies, books, songs and games affect our dreams and memories. A game about how entertainment can be a distraction from the world outside of our home and city bubble. But also about how the same games and films can train us to deal with reality and provide safe spaces for learning. Our entertainment can enrich our lives and make us better friends and citizens as long as we don’t confuse the world of fiction with our own deeply flawed reality, where change is highly competitive and rarely deserved.
That is exactly the conflict at the heart of 13 sentinels. When the game reaches its final act, the science fiction tropes are exposed as crutches for the characters themselves, not the narrative. To survive, they must draw the good from these stories, learn from the bad, and break new ground.
Finally, 13 sentinels is boldly optimistic. Despite all the contradicting messages of the stories we tell ourselves, it is a precious event that at some point we can get on the same page and come together. We have to put our toys away and get the job done.
So, imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, though I doubt we’ll ever see another game like this.
13 sentinels was released on PlayStation 4 on September 22nd. The game has been verified with a download code provided by Atlus. Vox Media maintains partner partnerships. These do not affect the editorial content, although Vox Media may earn commissions on products purchased through affiliate links. You can find For more information on Polygon’s ethical policy, see here.