Sundered’s Mysterious Moral Compass

Sundered’s subtle approach to morality exposed the specter of Stephen’s sense of moral superiority.

Written by J. Stephen Addcox / Published on September 25, 2017

At first, Sundered felt like a return to one of the first games that I loved, Metroid II for the Gameboy, in which I relished the experience of crawling through caverns filled with monsters, taking on bosses both major and minor. Sundered capitalizes on the renewed interest in Metroidvania games in order to create a game that feels contemporary while evoking a distinct and nostalgic vibe.

However, what my time playing Metroid II lacked was the ability to see how other players approached the game. With Sundered, a moment of desperation led me to view one or two playthroughs on YouTube, and this decision suffused my entire experience with new meaning, as I realized that my choices in how to advance through the skilltree had made the game more challenging than it might otherwise have been. This increased difficulty ultimately intersected with the game’s quasi-religious foundations, by shading skilltree selections with a moral component, making these choices more weighty than they might otherwise have seemed.

"Rather than delighting in the challenge of solving this navigational conundrum, I resorted to a dour and morose jealousy of those who had taken the easier path."
Sundered presents a taxing environment fraught with danger and death. While enemies in side-scrolling games tend only to threaten players when they appear on the screen, in Sundered laser blasts, spiked tentacles, and spectral foes fly from beyond the screen’s frame to assault players. These clandestine attacks swiftly multiply into claustrophobic hordes as enemies press the player more and more. Sundered further taunts its players by announcing these stampedes with a distinctive tolling bell, as if to herald the player’s impending demise.

Each area of the game is defined by a unique visual style, whether mechanical, subterranean, or aloft in the heavens. Thunder Lotus Games has built a reputation for beautifully visualized projects that evoke the hand-drawn animation of decades past. Capitalizing on this style, the enemies in the game pulsate and move in grotesque and monstrous ways. with a lurching reminiscent of low framerate films of the early twentieth century.

The player enters into this world as Eshe, an adventurer who falls into the story almost by happenstance. However, in telling her story, Sundered’s attempt to layer a religious, mythological narrative onto its compelling visual environment never quite manages to deliver on its promise. Religious language abounds in Sundered—there are references, for example, to the “Eschaton Mother” or the desecration of a holy city. There is also ominous and vague voice-over narration that touches on some dark religion but I never felt a deep connection to these narrative fragments.

In spite of the thinness of the religious veneer, my decisions as the game progressed restricted me so significantly that I found myself facing a moral dilemma. As Eshe defeats bosses in the game, she acquires “Elder Shards” that can be used to upgrade her abilities, and while the game doesn’t make the choice immediately apparent, Eshe can either “corrupt” her abilities (as the disembodied narrator desires) or incinerate these shards for a more “pure” skill tree. Early in the game, I made a decision to incinerate the Elder Shards rather than succumbing to the temptation of “corruption.” Admittedly, the very language of this choice—the notion of deliberately choosing corruption—influenced my decision.

As a result of refusing to corrupt Eshe’s abilities, the game does grant some additional powers to the skill tree, but they are not quite as useful as corrupted abilities. In playing through the final region, I very nearly resigned myself to writing a review without finishing the game because there was one particular area that I simply could not reach. I had exhausted every angle—my jumping abilities just didn’t seem powerful enough. The distant ledge that was beckoning me higher always managed to stay just out of reach. In my frustration, I resorted to YouTube, hoping that some other early player of the game might have divined how to continue through this region. To my disgust, every playthrough video I found was uploaded by someone who had taken the corruption skill track, meaning that their jump powers were significantly enhanced over what I could accomplish.

After leaving the game for several days I discovered the solution by paying closer attention to my environment. I managed to slowly inch my way high enough to reach the next area of the game. What the game forced me to do was look outside of Eshe’s abilities and to consider how the world itself could offer assistance in my progression.

The sensation of realizing that I had made the game more challenging, and that others were breezily making it through an area that presented a particular difficulty, raised a number of emotions. I was surprised at how quickly my disbelief at these players’ “corrupt” solution turned to contempt and pride. In a way, Sundered exposed the specter of my sense of moral superiority. Rather than delighting in the challenge of solving this navigational conundrum, I resorted to a dour and morose jealousy of those who had taken the easier path.

In a way, while Sundered’s scripted narrative doesn’t offer much in the way of deep or thoughtful reflection on the nature of corruption or the moral implications of foregoing “corruption,” I found that the result of my choices raised important questions about how we as players of games react to the choices of others. This is, after all, an interactive medium, in which any number of possibilities are laid before us by developers, and the challenge that Sundered presented was not simply one of accessing a new area, but helping me see how my feelings toward fellow players should be built on charity and friendship. While Eshe’s world is one where religious following is tinged with darkness and danger, my experience underscored how faith also offers a light to draw us out of the dark.

About the Author:

J. Stephen Addcox is an Upper School English Teacher at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta. In addition to teaching Shakespeare and Jane Austen, he also enjoys using video games and digital narratives in the classroom.

  • Deena

    See, the problem here is that you’re completely disregarding half of the equation: corrupted abilities provide more mobility, yes, but destroying the shards significantly increases Eshe’s combat abilities. Neither route is inherently “easier” unless your own personal play style happens to coincide with the path you’ve chosen.