If there was any MMO that could have gotten me to sign up for a monthly subscription, it would have been Phantasy Star Online. In fact, for a while it actually managed that feat with the series’s “Ambition of Illuminus” expansion (which is now, unfortunately, officially serverless). While I was sucked into “Illuminus” for countless months, my playtime there was nothing to the playtime I had in the 2003 Gamecube port of Episodes I and II—a simpler feat since there was no monthly fee. I must have gone through the areas on Ragol at least a hundred times, so much so that I still have the various layouts of each map memorized, which is kind of frightening. Looking back on it now, though, I have to say that one of the more interesting plot aspects of the game is that your character wasn’t exactly set up to be the big damned hero. Rather, you’re following in the footsteps of the closest thing to a hero the colony has, who just so happens to be a woman.
I’ll be the first to tell you: the plot of Episodes I and II weren’t exactly well laid out. Even after all of my playtime, I barely know what the actual plot is, but the gist of it is the people of a planet called Coral, after finding a habitable planet (Ragol), set up a settlement there called the Pioneer I, built from a space ship. Before long, the indigenous wildlife became violent, influenced by the awakening of a powerful, ancient creature, Dark Falz. In reaction to the now violent wildlife, many of the settlers on the Pioneer I took up arms and began calling themselves Hunters. However, many of the people from the Pioneer I ended up eventually dying due to the machinations of Dark Falz, causing Hunters from the Pioneer I’s orbiting sister ship (the Pioneer II) to travel to Ragol’s surface in order to uncover the mysteries of what happened. Which is where the player character comes in.
While the player takes it upon themselves to explore Ragol for whatever reasons they may have, before leaving the Pioneer II, its leader the Director has a request: find his daughter. The Director’s daughter, Rico Tyrell, traveled with the other members of the Pioneer I’s crew to Ragol’s surface, but he hasn’t heard anything from her. Understandably, he’s worried.
As the player character wades through the various areas on Ragol and experiences different enemies, it becomes clear that the player is not the main character of the game—Rico is (at least in Episode I). While you don’t ever get to play as Rico, you do get to experience Ragol through Rico’s thoughts and records. Out of some ideal of charity, or maybe paranoia, Rico recorded her thoughts in capsules that she spread across the planet in the hopes that other Hunters would discover them—but beyond potential aid, they were proof that she existed and that she (and her traveling party) would maintain a legacy of sorts, even if they were to die during their explorations.
Rico wasn’t only an explorer and a Hunter, she was also an extremely intelligent scientist, which is what got her on the Pioneer I in the first place. Additionally, she was the one who ended up uncovering the secrets of Ragol’s ruins, allowing the player to enter Dark Falz’s domain to defeat it. She was such an interesting character, which is why I’m conflicted about how she was portrayed.
On the one hand, the thing I appreciate about her situation the most is that her death wasn’t used to further anyone’s plot. Although her father asks you to find any information there may be on her, his reactions aren’t at all plot important. He doesn’t take up arms against Dark Falz upon learning of her death (which is good, since it’s dead at that point); he doesn’t swear any sort of long-lasting vendetta against the forces that took his daughter away from him; instead the player simply sees him staring out into space as he silently mourns her. Furthermore, as Rico’s ultimate fate was that she was possessed by Dark Falz in order for it to have a physical form, Rico isn’t presented as a pure, delicate woman who the writers try to make the players feel angered about being possessed by “darkness” and being “tainted”. She’s just a fellow Hunter who was overtaken by forces that she was unaware of. In this, it was nice how almost understated the whole thing was.
On the other hand, I wanted/still want there to be more about her. With her idealized status on the Pioneer II, it’s difficult to see her as an actual character. And while this may be part of the lore—you, too, are a member of the Pioneer II, and this is how you would have experienced Rico anyway—I feel that Episode I’s lack of storytelling doesn’t lend itself to this at all. If the player doesn’t speak to the people on the Pioneer II, Rico’s story seems a lot more bare than it could have been. It’s definitely a disservice, but I suppose it’s also the nature of MMOs where people don’t really care about the plot.
My experience with video games at that time was much more narrow, so I can’t say if this was abnormal or not, but I’m glad that Episode I gave so much importance to a female character. She may not have met my background-hungry tastes, but I do think it was surreptitiously important for the series, which went on to have other pretty good ladies in their casts as well. While I wouldn’t call Rico a strong female character necessarily, she did allow a tinier me to believe that girls did actually have a place in this Phantasy Star universe outside of looking pretty and being a goddamned healer class. And who knows, maybe one day I’ll finally download the English patch for Phantasy Star Online 2 and see if the trend continued.