Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver is widely regarded for its excellent writing. There’s a reason for this that may not exactly surprise you: its writing is excellent, and deserves to be studied as an exemplar of what game writing can be.
First released to critical acclaim in 1999 for the original PlayStation, Soul Reaver had many things going for it. It had an intriguing “phase shifting” gameplay mechanic that innovated in design while stretching what was technically possible on the PS1; excellent voice performances across the board; an open, free-roaming world two years before GTA3’s release on the PS2; and of course, that fantastic writing, penned by Amy Hennig, who went on to write the Uncharted games.
What made the writing so good? First off, the phrasing and language was consistently artful and well-composed. When most games were content with throwing cliché after cliché at you, Soul Reaver strived to be imaginative and poignant whenever possible.
Before you go any further, it’s highly recommended you watch the opening cinematic to the game, embedded below. I’ll discuss this cinematic in greater detail below as well.
Aside from the text itself, the game’s high-level narrative design is expertly constructed to make the world more engaging for players. In Soul Reaver, you essentially play a zombie vampire who runs around killing monsters and eating their souls for energy. Yet by humanizing the events that lead up to player character Raziel’s destruction and rebirth, the focus is on the characters and not the spectacle, creating meaning where most games are content to throw set pieces and playthings at the player in an attempt to cover up the absence of meaning.
The opening cinematic also expertly positions a specific game mechanic: gliding. On its own, gliding around a level doesn’t seem that compelling. But when you factor in the narrative reason behind why Raziel glides and not flies, it increases the significance behind the mechanic itself, reminding you of Kain’s brutality and Raziel’s fall from grace every time you use it in gameplay.
But it’s not just the writer’s language, or the game-specific narrative sensibilities that make Soul Reaver special. At the core, it’s the mastery of the craft of writing that elevates the game’s writing to heights occupied by few.
Line By Line
To fully appreciate how well-crafted Soul Reaver’s writing is, let’s analyze the cinematic you just watched, line by line, and see for ourselves what makes it work so well.
“Kain is deified. The clans tell tales of him. Few know the truth. He was mortal once. As were we all.”
First off, for a game rooted in lengthy backstory, there is strikingly little in the way of spoon-fed exposition. Though the game is a sequel of sorts to the 1996 game Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain, Soul Reaver takes the game in such a new direction that it’s fair to assume that players may not have prior knowledge of the universe or characters.
Even so, the cinematic begins by immediately addressing real things of import, with zero hand-holding for the uninitiated.
“Kain is deified.” Immediately a question is placed into your mind: Who is Kain? The cinematic doesn’t start pedantically with “The world of Nosgoth is filled with vampires and demons.” From the start, the writer’s confidence that you can handle complex scenarios compels you to sit up and take notice.
“The clans tell tales of him.” What clans? Another question placed into your mind for later. The word “clan” is evocative of feudal systems, which isn’t far from the truth in this case.
“Few know the truth.” There is more to Kain, whoever he is, than what he seems – but what? Yes, it’s another question introduced into your mind.
“He was mortal once. As were we all.” The question from the previous line is resolved – but in its place, two more appear. So Kain is immortal now? And who are the others that the speaker mentioned? By alternating posing new questions and giving answers, the writer engages with the viewer, making something as passive as a cinematic an interactive experience.
“However, his contempt for humanity drove him to create me and my brethren.”
With such a degree of “contempt for humanity,” Kain is clearly set up to be a bad guy. But this prompts a question – who is the speaker? If Kain made him, then he can’t be natural – what is he?
“I am Raziel. First-born of his lieutenants. I stood with Kain and my brethren at the dawn of the Empire.”
A straightforward answer to the previous line – now we know who the speaker is. Clarifying this link will become important later on as the writer establishes empathy for Raziel in the player. Also, Raziel is explicitly described as Kain’s first born, inviting a father/son dynamic that comes into play later.
“I have served him a millennium.”
The extent of Raziel’s loyalty is established, as well as the vast lifespans of these creatures.
In an excellent example of writing for economy, the writer communicates both of these ideas with a single line.
“Over time, we became less human and more… divine.”
Another example of a superb line written to perform multiple functions. As Raziel says this line, the camera is firmly set on Kain’s horrid face as he opens his mouth to bear his fangs, illustrating the inherently contradicting ideas of the vampires’ monstrousness balanced by their sense of self-perceived eloquence, a hallmark of the series.
The second function is easier to catch on repeat viewings. At this moment, Kain is recoiling in surprise at seeing Raziel’s wings, setting up his act of punishing Raziel moments later.
“Kain would enter the state of change and emerge with a new gift.”
A bit of misdirection here – it isn’t really clear what this means until you see Raziel unveil his wings a little later. Regardless, this line sets the viewer up for a quick rush of retroactive insight when you finally see Raziel’s wings.
“Some years after the master, our evolution would follow.”
Continuing the set up from the previous line, leading the viewer along…
“Until I had the honor of surpassing my lord.”
The first payoff from the set up. Suddenly, you realize why this is a big deal – Raziel has clearly passed a boundary that had not yet been breached.
Kain’s vague initial reaction gives no real hint as to what he will do, and his tentative inspection of Raziel’s wings builds tension and suspense, since we don’t know Kain well enough to predict how he will react.
“For my transgression, I earned a new kind of reward.”
Keeping the tension in for a final moment as Kain circles around, raising his claws…
Kain slashes down, irreparably destroying Raziel’s wings. This moment is not only the crux of the opening cinematic, but it’s the inciting incident for the entire game. It sets the events of the game in motion, shows you just how spiteful and cruel Kain is, and sets Raziel up as a tragic figure that you feel for. It does all three of these things in one powerful, meaningful moment.
It is now 1:37 into the opening cinematic, almost halfway through the 3:28 running time. So far, it’s established the dark, brutal world of the vampires, their eons-long life spans, Kain’s position as creator of his minions, the vampires’ nature of evolving into different forms, the depths of Kain’s cruelty and pettiness and Raziel’s fall from favor – and all in a compelling way, without resorting to blatant exposition or spectacle. The focus is entirely on telling the story.
“There was only one possible outcome: My eternal damnation. I, Raziel, was to suffer the fate of traitors and weaklings, and burn forever in the bowels of the lake of the dead.”
Explaining the logic behind Kain’s brutal brand of justice – that the only way to deal with his eldest subject even hinting at a challenge to him would be by execution by such a horrible method – tells you all you need to know about him.
“Cast him in.”
This line is notable for several reasons. It is the only line Kain says in the entire cinematic – and it is the command that is directly responsible for damning Raziel.
Before he says it, Kain consciously walks away from Raziel as his minions bring him to the edge, revealing that his disgust is so great he can’t even bear himself to look as he condemns Raziel to death.
Finally, it is also the only line that is lip synced by a character in the entire cinematic. This gives it a remarkable immediacy and uniqueness – made all the more frightening for what it signifies.
“Tumbling, burning with white-hot fire, I plunged into the depths of the abyss. Unspeakable pain. Relentless agony. Time ceased to exist. Only this torture, and a deepening hatred of the hypocrisy that damned me to this hell.”
Since we already feel for Raziel’s plight after witnessing Kain’s uncalled-for cruelty, this lengthy description of his fate furthers this empathetic connection, showing you the ramifications of Kain’s ruthlessness. Making you hate him even more.
“An eternity passed, and my torment receded, bringing me back from the precipice of madness. The descent had destroyed me, and yet… I lived.”
Raziel has been destroyed, but has somehow been reborn. The reveal of his missing jaw and blue glowing eyes hints at an unholy quality, but you don’t remark on the monster he’s become. Instead, as he throws the scarf over his shoulder to hide his deformity, you feel for what he’s gone through and lost.
This becomes important during gameplay, as when you press the circle button to hold open his scarf and literally inhale the souls of slain enemies through your desiccated throat hole, you still feel that Raziel is a noble creature put upon by Kain, and not a horrid monster in his own right.
“Raziel. You are worthy.”
The journey concluded, the writer leaves us with more questions. Who is speaking now? Are they involved with Raziel’s resurrection? Why do they think Raziel is worthy? Note that the idea of whether Raziel is worthy or not comes directly in opposition to Kain’s quick judgment to toss him out as someone unworthy of life. In other words, finally, at the end of his suffering, there’s a reason to have hope.
The Stage Is Set – Now Play
It is exactly when the player has been introduced to the world (a vicious vampire kingdom), the main players (Kain and Raziel), the dynamics between them (master/servant; father/son; tyrant/martyr), the values at play (jealousy/acceptance, cruelty/mercy) and the protagonist’s goal (revenge) that the game begins. The player is now ready to fully live in this world.
The tight construction of the opening cinematic is indicative of why Soul Reaver’s writing works so well. There are no pointless CG set pieces or elaborate action sequences that do nothing to further the story. Everything here is driven by the purpose to convey story in an efficient, compelling manner – and to this day, it all works beautifully.