Back in 2014, as I was preparing reviews for this blog, I wrote a lengthy piece about Xenogears. I never posted it (and probably never will), but to summarize: I admire the game’s ambition, but it’s too sprawling and too confused for any of its heady themes to really stick. Xenosaga, the spiritual successor to Xenogears, deftly avoids its predecessor’s mistakes. While it inherits Xenogear’s sprawling confusion, Xenosaga’s slower, more intricate structure ensures that even this sprawling confusion carries with it some meaning. The end result of Monolith Soft’s efforts is a narrative of astonishing clarity, control, and depth.
Of course, the irony behind describing Xenosaga like this is that it defies simple summary. If you asked me to summarize the plot, I’d struggle for a bit and say it’s a game about an odd collection of individuals (including an engineer, a sci-fi Peter Pan, and at least two or three robots) crossing paths as they find themselves enveloped in a search for the secret behind existence. As vague an explanation as that might be, it’s still the only way I can faithfully summarize Xenosaga. Part of that’s because it tells such a complex story that tugging on a single narrative thread risks pulling apart the entire tapestry. Yet one of the more immediate reasons lies in the game’s apparent tendency to deflect answers rather than provide them. As soon as one plot thread approaches what looks like meaningful development, we’re jerked away to another, completely unrelated plot thread. Eventually, the two merge into a single new thread, ready to repeat the process yet again. Even the ending isn’t enough to stop the cycle, since it raises far more questions than it answers.
As frustrating as that wandering nature can be, though, I can’t bring myself to hold it against the game. Despite appearances, this meandering plot isn’t some tactic the game uses to delay meaningful development; it is meaningful development. Xenosaga enshrines aimlessness as an aesthetic unto itself, whether that’s the characters searching for meaning in a world that constantly eludes it or how you end up just as lost trying to guide them. On one level, it offers the game a multitude of perspectives from which it can probe its own deep and heady questions. It can at once represent both the grand awe and majesty that underlies all existence, and the cold and alienating loneliness of living in such an existence. At the same time, all this aimless roaming means the game can be honest about its own subject matter. By focusing more on the possibility of there being answers rather than providing those answers outright, Xenosaga manages to preserve its optimistic outlook without letting it warp into naivete. It can remain true to its own reality (namely, one where its people spend all their lives searching for something they may never find) while still holding out hope that something better lies for us beyond it.
Indeed, one of the game’s more outstanding achievements is the level of control it has over its own structure. Although I enjoy the reassuring tone it lends the game’s search, I see that control as something as an end in itself. It’s as though Xenosaga is a majestic symphony: every character, every allusion, every line of dialogue, every event in the narrative is just another instrument in the piece. Each one has to resound off the other in just the right way at just the right time to create a harmonious work. It’s a tricky challenge, and it’s one the game doesn’t entirely meet (more on that later). Yet that doesn’t mean I can ignore how the all-too-obvious unity between the game’s form and its content. The interplay between character, setting, plot, message, allusion, camerawork, etc. is so intricate, so deeply considered, and so deftly performed that I can’t help but admire the craft that went into building it. To provide just a few examples of what this game does:
- The game begins on modern man uncovering a mysterious device known only as a Zohar. It rises out of the ocean of its own volition and points upward, toward a greater existence than mankind had ever known before. 4000 years later (when the story proper begins), we see Shion reverse the process. She charts new territory by looking inward, toward KOS-MOS’ psyche; to better understand the mind of a creature she created. The juxtaposition suggests a unity between the search outward and the search inward, a unity that characterizes Xenosaga’s entire story.
- The game’s environments play then off the Zohar’s awe to show the cold alienation that awe entails. They feel cold and empty. Their size dwarfs whatever tiny character happens to be wandering through them, and the only music you hear while exploring imparts an eerie, otherworldly feeling to these spaces. Although the creatures that roam these halls are antagonistic toward you, the environments themselves couldn’t care less about your paltry existence.
- Jr. then plays off all this to demonstrate the harm one suffers by purposefully ignoring these large questions. The game subtly implies that Jr. has seen the true nature of reality, and that the answers were too much for him to bear. To cope with this, he wraps himself up in fantasy; he pretends he’s a cowboy, the intrepid individual who journeys off into the unknown with nobody to rely on but himself. (His starting equipment says as much; it’s a pair of guns and a cowboy hat.) While this allows him to live his life without succumbing to madness and nihilism like Albedo (his Shadow), the price is that Jr. remains stuck in the past. And as if it’s forming a circle, this again plays into the game’s ideas of searching for a past one can’t return to.
What catches my interest the most, though, is how the combat plays into all this. I know this is playing into several cliches in video game writing: compartmentalizing a game into story and gameplay, holding up those compartments as though they were ends in themselves, etc. In my defense, though, I only entertain these cliches so I can topple larger ones. It’s rare to find writing on games that looks at turn-based combat in considerable depth. Usually, it’s either uncritically accepted as just another feature in the game, or analyzed for what sort of challenge the system creates. (I may be guilty of this myself.) While Xenosaga would certainly do well along either of those lines, I’d be doing the game a disservice to ignore how the game’s battle systems play into its ideology. For example, the game makes clever use of the Gnosis to show just how threatened humanity is by the blind, listless knowledge floating about our universe.
And the battle system could very well summarize the game’s entire argument. On the surface, it resembles the turn-based system that so many other games put to their own use: you wait your turn to attack the Gnosis, they wait their turn, and whoever depletes the other side’s numbers first wins. It’s a nice and orderly system that the game is quick to upset with two major developments: boost, which allows characters to move up in the turn order; and the event slot, which, depending on which slot is active, bestows certain bonuses on whatever character’s acting that turn. Both sides are equally equipped to use these features. When combined, they provide the convincing illusion of an unruly world that leaves its characters vulnerable before the vicissitudes of fate. And tying the battles to progress (both your progress through the narrative and the characters’ progress toward a stronger sense of self) gives a more definite form to the ideas the story can only allude to: that not only should we acknowledge the reality of living within such a world, but also that it’s within our power to harness that unruliness to our own advantage.
I realize I may be over-idealizing the game, so in the interest of bringing it back down to Earth, let’s consider the variety of ways in which the game’s control breaks down. I say “variety” because not all of them completely undermine the game’s efforts. They run the gamut from inconsequential to inhibiting to (unfortunately) detrimental. For an example of the former, consider some of the narrative cliches flitting about the story. As painful as “logic dictates the most gruesome action” or Virgil’s entire character can be, moments like these show up rarely and do little to affect the surrounding narrative. What’s harder to overlook is how severely the anime character design limits the characters’ emotions. No matter how well the surrounding story elements convey emotion, the dead Victorian doll expression affixed to each character’s face keeps the game from accessing the full range of emotions it could have achieved. When considered alongside the comical, jerky animations early PS2 games were known for, it’s as though the game is drawing undue attention to its artifice. These faults certainly hold the game back, yet in light of how well Xenosaga can use these dead expressions to its advantage, I regard them with more caution than outright scorn.
Instead, I reserve my scorn for the “content for content’s sake” approach Xenosaga applies to exploration. The only reason the narrative can get away with such complexity is because it needs that complexity if it hopes to do its messages justice. Sadly, the exploration doesn’t have that excuse. Veering off from your next goal to scour the world for minor secrets doesn’t expand my understanding of the world (or even make the world more cohesive), and memorizing minor story details like “who’s all fired up about the drill” doesn’t promote meaningful engagement with the game. If anything, they promote a shallow engagement with the game: one that reduces the experience to a series of instructions instead of the subtle argument I know it can be. Other mistakes, like confusing explanations and Gnosis tag, come off as downright benign by comparison.
So why did Xenosaga still resonate with me, despite all these flaws? After a bit of deliberation, my answer is that the game does a fantastic job of facilitating study. The key, of course, is that it facilitates study. While you can study any game if you put enough effort into it (that’s what this blog is about, after all), few games actually reward you for doing so in a meaningful way. iS: Internal Section does it; Narcissu Side 2nd does it; even Phantasy Star games do it, albeit to a lesser extent. But Xenosaga carries that ethos as far as it’ll go. There are so many facets to this game, so many nooks and crannies I can get my mind into, that I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface.