It should be easy enough to have a conversation with a friend about a video game you're playing, right? Especially if you're playing the same video game? But that has just not been the case with 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, Vanillaware’s acclaimed sci-fi visual novel/strategy game released last fall, which I’ve picked up during gaming’s sleepy January. It's left me at a complete loss. Several times now, I've been befuddled about how to even broach explaining where I'm at in the story, because it's basically impossible to talk about 13 Sentinels without, also, possibly spoiling 13 Sentinels.
"Have you seen...the thing...underground?"
"Tell me when you've met the cat. You'll know it."
I swear these things would make some measure of sense if you've played the game.
Inevitably, we make an agreement to revisit talking about the game after beating it. (If you keep bugging Austin about it, maybe we'll get to do a spoilercast down the line.) How Long to Beat suggests finishing 13 Sentinels can take, at the very least, 30 hours. I'm a little over 15 hours into the game, which means I'm stuck with my thoughts for, well, another 15 hours.
The best piece of advice I can give is that if you think you're interested in playing 13 Sentinels, don't read anything and hit the ground running; the surprises are part of the fun. But in the interest of writing a blog comprehendible to actual humans, here's the basic setup: a high school kid seems to accidentally summon a mech—a massive, building-sized mech.
That's not what 13 Sentinels is "about," but it is how things kick off and gives you enough to start wondering…why? From there, 13 Sentinels goes places that are increasingly hard to expect. It's a total joy.
(It's also a strategy game, with some tower defense-style combat in-between the story sequences, but I've set that stuff to "easy" because I'm really only here for the story.)
I know that people have different feelings on spoilers, and some argue knowing how a story ends does not diminish the journey and can, perhaps, make it more enjoyable. Me? I'm firmly and confidently anti-spoiler, because one of my favorite parts of stories is the surprise. And my guess is 13 Sentinels is the case where even pro-spoiler folk would agree it's worth being in the dark, specifically because this is a mystery tale. It's about what you don't know.
13 Sentinels has one of the most unique, and subsequently rewarding, narrative structures I've experienced in a game. Events regularly occur out of order, along wildly different timelines. The storytelling is confident enough to project that you quickly trust where it's going, even when your head is spinning about the latest revelation. But not only is the central storytelling out of order, but players also pick and choose which characters, stories, and subplots they want to explore, by navigating an increasingly convoluted story chart.
(As someone who only dips their toes in visual novels, I’m not arguing 13 Sentinels invented this kind of storytelling, but it nonetheless stands out.)
This, for example, is a story chart for a single character. There are more than a dozen of these in the game, and as you go along, more characters get added, more storylines join the mix. Hearing a plot point in one story can unlock a new path in another. This chart is only halfway done, and I've blurred out a bunch of potential spoiler-y plot points only to illustrate how expansive 13 Sentinels becomes over time. Yet, I've got it mostly sorted in my head?
And so, part of what makes 13 Sentinels special—the broad ownership handed to players, the continual stacking of WTF moments— also makes it nigh impossible to talk about, because there's a very good chance you'd end up spoiling something for that person. I've nearly wandered into message board threads discussing the game, hoping the inevitable spoiler tags would save me from a problem and also let me indulge in idle speculation with fellow 13 Sentinels travelers, but eventually I decide it's better to keep my head in the sand.
This whole episode made me wonder how Sega, the game's publisher, tried to market the game. I recently went back and watched a trailer for 13 Sentinels and it cracked me up:
This minute-long trailer says absolutely nothing about the game beyond "it's got mechs!" It's true. 13 Sentinels does have mechs. But it also has [REDACTED] and [REDACTED].
Oh, and come back in 15 hours, so we can have a conversation about [REDACTED].