Xenogears, Xenosaga, Xenoblade

Abstract image evoking bird silhouette

Critical Distance is proud to present this Critical Compilation of the Xeno games — Xenogears, Xenosaga and Xenoblade — curated by Brian Crimmins.

The Xeno games, Tetsuya Takahashi’s pet project and meta-series, are remembered as dense video games. And I don’t just mean dense with content, although that’s certainly true. Xenogears alone clocks in at upwards of 60 hours, and the games only become longer from there. However, the games are also dense with narrative. They’re known for their intricate plots and complex symbolism, most of it borrowed from Jewish and Christian mysticism.

Naturally, these games have attracted writers from all corners of the writing landscape – fan, professional, academic – to dissect these games and discern the deeper meanings hidden within. What follows is a glimpse into their efforts.

Shattered fragments of a mirror

Because the Xeno games are such behemoths, I’d recommend starting on the series’ history. Tom Brown provides a light overview for Nintendo Inquirer, but Yuriev’s history of the series goes into much greater detail. Outside official sources, his work is by far the most comprehensive source of information we have on the franchise. He’s researched countless previews and interviews to detail how the games evolved over their development, how they relate to each other both thematically and narratively, and the meaning embedded into even the games’ smallest details. To offer just one example:

Naranjo compared the “theory of neurosis,” or degradation of consciousness, in symbolical terms, with that of the spiritual traditions in the mythological stories of the “fall from paradise.” These mythological stories of our genesis are featured heavily in Xenogears and Xenosaga, with a clear portrayal of man’s degradation of consciousness, to the point that we might even call the Xeno-verse a fictional representation of this “theory of neurosis.”

Michael Wolff touches on these themes in his piece on Fei, yet it’s An Tran who explores them in greater depth at Lea Monde. In their piece, Tran examines three of Xenogears’s major characters (Fei, Elly, and Krelian) through a Lacanian lens, showing how each one is both driven by and resolves a trauma that has split their identity. Although the latter overlooks Elly as a character (instead analyzing her as an archetype for other characters react to), An Tran’s analysis hints toward the careful interplay between the game’s Gnostic and psychological motifs.

I’d also recommend Lea Monde itself for all the Xeno-related writing it’s collected, but the quality of each piece can vary. A lot of the articles are very brief (maybe a paragraph), only commenting on one specific aspect of the game or theorizing about minor plot details. Others go into more detail. For example, Ricky Romaya uses scientific theories to reconcile fan theories with canon that was established after those theories. Or to be more specific, he uses those theories to show how the explanation for Ether and the Zohar that’s offered in Xenogears: Perfect Works (translated here by UltimateGraphics) doesn’t agree with how the game depicts them.

Noman Nasir, meanwhile, puts the game in a broader religious context. The parallels he sees between Fei’s journey and extra-Biblical myth give that journey a spiritual tone:

Fei is also on a pilgrimage of his own. […] The distinguishing characteristics of Xenogears [the mech] are its angelic wings which can be thought of as the polar opposite of Grahf’s demonic bat like wings. Grahf isn’t really Lacan [the character], instead he is the remains of Lacan’s negative emotions. So Fei defeating Grahf’s and his gear symbolizes a sort of freedom attained by the Contact from both his own dark past and that of his previous incarnation. It could also be interpreted as an internal battle within Fei’s heart where his positive side wins.

Of particular interest is Amber Michelle’s history of Xenogears fan sites. Not only does she compile a wide range of sites, but details her personal experiences with them; recalling how fans reacted amongst each other and toward major events in the Xeno-verse (EG the release of Perfect Works). Yet even at such an early stage, fan sites were dropping off the Internet. As Amber herself recalls near the start, “Though I also sent [my fan fiction] to Xenogears 101, the webmaster had already abandoned the site.” Still, her article is the closest we have to a real collection of early Xenogears thought.

Austin Howe recently replayed the game, and in their own words:

Having played the beginning of the game so many times, I’ve come to more deeply appreciate how Xenogears develops the town of Lahan into a complex place filled with conflicted characters to make [its] imminent destruction more emotionally impactful, which is in stark contrast the to the idealized Doomed Hometowns featured in other games.

All through a game of rock-paper-scissors. Odd starting point it may be, but he argues that it was vital to get him to interact with Lahan’s inhabitants. And by getting involved with their lives, he came to see them as well rounded human characters, fostering an emotional connection that made their inevitable loss all the more painful in his eyes.

Sonicblastoise, writing for his blog “The Mediocrity Codex”, bucks trends when it comes to Xenogears criticism. Where most writing focuses on the game’s story, he analyzes the game’s ludic systems, which he sees as servicing the larger narrative. For everything the game’s complex narrative accomplishes, the gameplay fails to guide the player through that complexity, breeding the rage that sustains the game’s anti-theism. Or in his words: “The game Xenogears is about power, discovery, motivation, despair, economies of scale, and transference. The story Xenogears is just about hating God.”

Eric Reichel, on the other hand, sees Xenogears as a story about religious reconciliation, not anti-theism. The key to this is this Zohar; both the plot MacGuffin and the Jewish manuscript. The latter asserts that to understand religious issues, one must look past the world of literal meaning (body) and adopt a more symbolic understanding of Scripture (soul). Similarly, Reichel sees most of Xenogears’ conflicts as arising from that dualism, whether it’s Krelian’s struggle to believe that God is good or Elly’s dual existence as herself and as Miang. Naturally, the Zohar is also the tool that resolves many of these conflicts.

What beauty they hold…these tears of sorrow…

This brings me nicely to Xenosaga, and Kyle’s examination of the Zohar in these games. His blog post for Adaptation reads like a response against Reichel’s piece on RPGamer. Where Reichel sees the Gears Zohar as serving the same enlightening role its real counterpart does, Kyle sees its Saga incarnation stifling the search for knowledge, disrespecting Jewish beliefs by clumsily intertwining them with Nietzschean philosophy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Kyle doesn’t think Xenosaga handles Nietzsche’s philosophy that well, either. He sees characters still bound to their humanity, even as they try to live up to Nietzschean ideals and surpass it.

Erin Evans, writing for Playing with the Past, sees the games’ use of religious imagery as more deliberate than Kyle give them credit for, carrying religious concepts to their natural conclusion to create ambiguity. It’s because only a select few can obtain Gnosis (true divine knowledge) that the game depicts its Gnosis as an active threat – not the absolute salvation that we see in Gnostic Christianity. She cites several similar examples to illustrate a larger point about how the technology in Xenosaga reveals mankind’s ambivalent relationship with the divine. Or in her own words, this is a game “in which the development of human civilization is closely intertwined with both a quest for and struggle against divinity.”

Nilson Carroll would back her up, seeing the games’ conception and development as religious in its own right. Much like Alejandro Jodorowsky when he was working on his failed film adaptation of Dune, Carroll sees Xenosaga as Takahashi’s attempt to create a sprawling spiritual epic. The two authors saw something fundamentally religious not only within their works, but also in art’s greater role in society:

And possibly most striking is that both artists sought to have their art act as a prophet for their audiences (kids watching movies and kids playing video games). There is a long history of art as modern religion, and while it would be a stretch to claim that someone like Takahashi was “trying to make a religion,” it is worthwhile to refer back to Richard Wagner’s (1813-1883) ideas of the theater as a kind of new church, the total art, a modern gospel.

Jie Wang also follows in Evans’s footsteps and applies these lessons to Nietzschean philosophy in Xenosaga. In her project for Duke University, she sees Xenosaga not as a recitation of Nietzschean philosophy, but as a reaction to it. Nietzsche’s ideas are definitely present, but the games’ relationship with them is ambiguous, at best. While many of the characters realize that nihilistic despair is a fact of existence, their personal reactions to that fact are all over the place. For Wang, this is precisely what makes the game worth playing in the first place:

Perhaps more importantly, Xenosaga does not simply present the facts to the player, or link the events in the game world to the history and events of our own world. It teaches its players to critically evaluate and to try to resolve doctrinal contradictions in their own way.

This may be why Xenosaga receives more academic attention than the other Xeno games. Stefaine Thomas examined the game as a specific kind of existential text in her master’s thesis for Ohio State. It’s a long read that’s heavily dependent on context the author creates, but to boil it down, Thomas sees the game’s mixture of psychological and religious themes as situating it alongside a very specific set of works. Yet it simultaneously rebels against them, mixing their personal narratives with the kind of grand epic that they’re typically opposed to.

L.S. Limanta and L. Djajadi, writing for Petra Christian University, don’t even consider Xenosaga from a religious/philosophical perspective. They approach it from a psychological one, uncovering Shion’s latent post-traumatic stress disorder and tracking her recovery. While fans of the games can probably infer that Kevin’s death is to blame for her trauma, this piece goes into more detail about it. The two show how the truama directly affected her within the moment, and how KOS-MOS later aggravates her PTSD and helps her overcome it:

These similarities of roles are the bridge to Shion’s mental recovery. These similarities form a strong emotional attachment. Shion starts to transfer her love and hopes for Kevin to KOSMOS, who is similar to him as a protector and as a partner. She transfers the qualities of her relationship with the deceased Kevin to KOS-MOS. In this sense, Shion’s treatment to KOS-MOS is more than treating her like an android. Shion treats her as a living being with feelings, but also a replacement of Kevin.

Finally, we have A.C’s comprehensive analysis of the first two Xeno games to consider. They see Xenosaga as carefully mirroring its predecessor, and have gone to great lengths to note even the smallest ways these games mirror one another. In fact, they go beyond simply noting the parallels and outline the broad metaphors that structure each game (mirror shards vs. ripples, the specific psychological trauma each protagonist suffers, etc.) Although A.C. doesn’t touch on any specific issues either of the games bring up (at least not to the extent other writers have), their article remains the most intricate comparative analyses of two video games you’ll find on the Internet.

It’s Reyn time!

Finally, we come to Xenoblade Chronicles, the most recent game in the series. Because this game has only been out for three years, Xenoblade hasn’t garnered as much critical attention as its predecessors. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t any. Some of the critical conversation surrounding the game has focused on how the game has revitalized the stagnant JRPG genre. Sub Judice, for example, details how Xenoblade’s greatest strengths come from the game’s efforts to distance itself from the genre’s history. While this distance from other JRPGs may have disappointed some reviewers who were entrenched in the genre (see: Jason Schreier), Judice sees it as panacea for those who aren’t as familiar with it. By modeling itself more after an MMO, Xenoblade has averted the stagnation that people associate JRPGs while also making itself more accessible to outsiders:

For me, it’s not an issue of Xenoblade overcoming the flaws of other JRPGs, but of putting way less focus on those flaws, and therefore never evoking that distaste I feel when walking down one of Final Fantasy XIII’s hallways to start another cutscene.

Michael Abbott takes a somewhat different stance on the game. While he agrees that Xenoblade’s appeal lies in its systems, he rejects the notion that this distinguishes the game from previous JRPGs. For him, the game’s appeal lies in embracing the JRPG tendency to make its own systems apparent, even when so many other games obscure theirs. This lends the game a nostalgic air, reminiscent of “a prior console era populated with more intricate titles.” (He expands on these points for The Experience Points podcast while also offering some light analysis of the game.)

Yet most of the conversation surrounding Xenoblade approaches the game from a philosophical or religious perspective, much like the conversations surrounding the other Xeno games. For example, Gavin Craig praises the game for understanding scale in a way that few other narratives do. Rather than depicting large objects and areas in absolute terms, Xenoblade portrays the size of its world relative to what the player experiences. Not only is this new mode of communication easier for the player to understand, but it also helps make the game’s sense of scale more relevant to the player.

At Pioneer Project, Michelle B examines the role religion plays in the game’s event. More specifically, she looks at the religious beliefs the characters are implied to hold, and how that informs our understanding of the game. She sees the game’s central conflict as an issue “issue of doctrine, one god’s population striving against another with a mutual bias about the purity of their respective worlds.” Viewed this way, the game becomes an allegory for the inevitability of religious misunderstanding, and for the possibility of its being overcome.

Giant Bomb user Sawtooth builds off Michelle’s piece, somewhat, to examine how Christian theology informs the game’s plot. They note how each of the game’s deities are Holy Trinities on their own, and the parallels between the Monado and the Holy Spirit. While he admits that this isn’t always a perfect or flattering depiction of Christianity (the Bionis’ resurrection is bad for the people living on it), it isn’t a completely disparaging one, either. In fact, this piece finds a place for personal faith in a game some would characterize as anti-theistic.

Writing for his blog, Aaron Suduiko applies Leibniz’ Monadology to the game to show how it dethrones authorial intent. As obscure as that conclusion may sound, what this means is that it’s the cast’s relationship with the player that lets them smash the chains of fate. Because the player inhabits a position similar to Klaus’s when he creates the world, the player is just as much a god as Zanza or Meyneth. In Leibnizian terms, this means they can affect an otherwise deterministic system.

To One’s Own Future

The Xeno games have covered a wide range of subject matter, so it’s fitting that the writing about these games would cover just as much. We’ve seen the obvious topics like religion, psychology, and philosophy discussed, but also some slightly more surprising topics like history (both for the games and the fan scene surrounding them), system analysis, and a variety of different contexts. And this only considering the pieces I’ve been able to track down. Thinking about them has me anticipating what future writing on the series will bring.

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