Friday, September 28, 2012

Xenogears: The First Five Villains

Villains. Can't live with 'em, can't have a good story without 'em. Seriously, without a villain, a game is either about solving puzzles or playing sports, and even those games sometimes have bad guys at the end.

Your evil mileage may vary.

Putting together a villain is complex. There are varying degrees of villainy and each one is right or wrong depending on the situation. You wouldn't pit Murky and Lurky up against The Punisher any more than you would let Hannibal Lecter loose on Sesame Street.

Five! Five fava beans! Ah-ha ha!

Having a villain suited to the hero is the foundation of a well-crafted tale. Superman, the god struggling to become a human, needs Lex Luthor, the human desperate to be a god. The pro and an versions of a story's tagonist naturally need to be at odds over some aspect of the story, but their reasons for being so are the stuff separating the boring stories from epic tales.

Of course, what's most important to creating some real drama is driving home the point of exactly how the hero and villain of a story match up. Some like to see evenly matched opposites, like Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty, or Captain Picard and that evil clone of Captain Picard from Star Trek: Nemesis.

The only way to beat Picard is with more Picard.

Others prefer it when the hero is hopelessly outmatched and has overwhelming odds to fight through. Then there are those stories where either side could be right, it's all a matter of perspective as to who the bad guy is. Villains run the gamut from hideously evil to morally ambiguous and every stop in-between. That's why what matters in establishing this is how the villain is portrayed in relation to others. Now, I'm only a few hours in to my new playthrough of Xenogears, having finally grabbed a moment to beat Suikoden III for good and all a few weeks ago,  and I can tell you already that this game has done its antagonists up better than most of the games of the last decade even tried to.

Let's spend a little time discussing some of the bad guys of the Xenogears world, and how with a few select scenes the writers made them come to life.

Xenogears is a game with a lot of story, which I'll touch on in another post after I'm further into the game. The more I play the more I realize I don't actually remember a lot of what happened in my first playthrough, so I'll stick with what I've seen so far. Fortunately, what I've seen so far is the crafting of villainy so subtle and understated that you'd miss it if you weren't paying attention.

Let's start where the game begins; the introduction of Grahf.

This guy looks legit.

At the point in the game I'm at now, little to nothing has been revealed about Grahf, his intentions, or his motivation. The only thing we know about his overall goal comes from a single sentence, early on.

Gotta aim high.

This revelation follows an incident wherein the main character, Fei, loses control of his giant robot and ends up destroying the town he'd been living in. After several cryptic comments hinting towards a connection with Fei's past, Grahf admits that he orchestrated events specifically to see him lose control, all towards the end of leading an assault on heaven. How are these things connected? We have no idea. But without giving any long monologues, detailing any of his plot beyond the end goal, or even once wickedly twirling an elongated mustache, we get the point. Grahf is bad news. Real bad. And for some reason, he needs Fei for whatever it is he's scheming.

Now keep in mind Grahf hasn't actually done anything yet. We haven't seen him perform any acts usually associated with the nefarious. He just shows up and talks to Fei, but just like that there's practically no room for doubt - this man is the main villain.

                                 By Morganagod
He also manages to make that hat work.

After Grahf, Fei finds himself in the company of Bartholomew Fatima, uncrowned king of Aveh. Aveh's found itself in the clutches of the evil Shakhan, who killed Bart's parents and took the throne for himself. He also formed an alliance with the mysterious nation of Solaris, a floating city using its advanced technology to keep Shakhan afloat in his ongoing war against neighboring nation Kislev. He also looks like Ming the Merciless.

Worth noting that Bart looks like a one-eyed Flash Gordon (and that "one-eyed Flash Gordon" sounds dirty).

By the time we meet Shakhan, we know he's a ruthless murderer and warmonger, making shady alliances to keep the war going for personal gain. Also that he's not only a Shaw, but also a Khan, and perhaps related to Shaka Khan. Whatever the case, he's got a lot going for him.

Then we immediately learn he's completely incompetent.

"I learned it from watching you!"

This happens when we come upon villains 3 and 4 in our list (which today will only go to 5). Ramsus and Miang of Solaris. Right off the bat, we learn who rules the school when Shakhan greets him upon his arrival, and Ramsus brushes right past him to instead snap at one of his military commanders for being incompetent on the field.

Pretty sure he just insulted his penis for good measure.

Ramsus shows up again as Shakhan is throwing a festival in Aveh celebrating how great his country is, and how happy all the citizens are that he's forcing them to attend at gunpoint. Ramsus snaps at him that "it's not even your country" and leaves.

"But mostly I just hate you."

Again, at this point we haven't actually seen these guys do anything particularly villainous. We've heard a lot about what a dick Shakhan is, but it's not like he's actively tossing kittens into shark pits or trying to tear out Indiana Jones's heart while we watch. We just get some of his backstory from the protagonists. Same with Ramsus; all we know about him is that he's a commander from Solaris sent to monitor Aveh's progress with the war. Their interactions with each other, however, teach us everything we need to know about where they both stand on the villain hierarchy.

We don't get much about Miang, Ramsus's purple-haired bunk-buddy, but conversation between two other characters works somewhere along the lines of "oh man, it would suck to fight Ramsus, but Miang? SHIT." This point is further driven home when Ramsus meets Fei for the first time and it triggers a memory of some seemingly debilitating event from his past. Up until that point, Ramsus had been the picture of calm aloofness and superiority. When whatever that trauma is gets brought to the surface, you can practically see his right eye begin twitching, and we all know the commander isn't as together as he makes himself out to be. Ramsus has his flaws, but if Miang's got a weakness, we certainly don't know it.

Every time they say her name, the game plays a BGM of a goat bleating.

So what's been the point of all this? Well, for the first part of the game, all the villains are expertly set up without any of them having to actually do anything evil. Through dialogue and interaction with other characters, we know where each villain stands in relation to the other. Grahf is the Big Bad, Shakhan is the mid-boss, and Ramsus is the fake-out bad guy to get us to the real threat of Miang (whom we learn is working for Grahf through a brief conversation, just so there's no doubt that he's still numero uno). All this is established through storytelling and careful execution of the plot. Not a single villainous deed is actually performed on-camera.

Then we meet Id.

                                                                                    By Clarityblue
Id, say hello to the chil - oh, you killed them.

To set the scene, a failed attempt at kicking Shakhan off the throne and reinstalling Bart has just taken place. Their plans in disarray, our heroes are fleeing the palace in their enormous sand cruiser, but Ramsus is in hot pursuit. Calmly and deftly, he follows them through the desert, launching torpedoes with perfect precision to take out their weapons and stabilizers. They're forced to surface as Ramsus swoops in to finish them off.

This comes after the culmination of countless hours of planning on Bart's behalf to finally execute this daring raid on Aveh. All Ramsus has to do is show up and immediately he realizes there's a plot going on and counteracts it, turning the tables on Bart and Fei without breaking a sweat. Solaris's golden boy is moments away from destroying Bart's ship, killing the prince, and ending the entire rebellion single-handedly.

Then Id shows up.

Id shows up, and Ramsus, now in his own gear, flies out to fight him. Keep in mind that for the last 15 minutes of game-time, we've seen Ramsus mopping the floor with our heroes as casually as you might mop an actual floor. Like, with a mop.

It wasn't hard, is what I'm saying.

Ramsus, in his gigantic golden, winged gear, confronts Id and . . . Id rips his arm off, grabs him by the head, and shoves him face first into the dirt.

You don't even wanna know what he does with the sword.

Then he turns his attention on Bart, but Bart's heroic crew comes to the rescue, dramatically dropping their entire sand cruiser directly on top of Id to save the young prince.

Id lifts it over his head with one hand, says "that's cheating," and breaks it in half. Then he one-shots Bart and everything goes black.

And so we reach the point I've been building towards. With no overt action on their part, simply a masterfully well-constructed bit of storytelling, we become keenly aware of who these villains are and exactly how dangerous they can be. When we finally do see one of them fight, he begins by destroying in an instant a man we'd just spent hours of the game learning is dangerous beyond all measure. So because the writers put so much effort into lovingly crafting this image of Ramsus in our minds, they could establish Id as the baddest dude on the planet with a 10-second piece of interaction between them.

I've seen it posited at least once recently that games are putting too much emphasis on story. A game is a toy, and toys are there to play with, not have some deep emotional, artistic experience with. There's some merit to that, sure. I would respond, however, that games as a genre have long ago escaped the era of Pac-Man and Pong. The result is that now we have a choice - there are games where we can fast-forward through all the cutscenes and just shoot everything in sight and that's fine, and games where we need to pay close attention to what happens if we want to understand what's going on. Xenogears is the latter. Both types of game are fine, as long as they make a serious attempt to be the best at what it is they're trying for, and with that in mind there can be little doubt that Xenogears is one of the best-told stories ever fit onto 2 CD-ROMs. The way it constructs these villains - subtle, meaningful, and without hefting unnecessary exposition upon them - is a perfect illustration of just how well that story flows throughout the entire game.

Okay, maybe not the entire game.

I'll have a lot more on Xenogears to come as The Backlog moves for the first time into scheduled updates! You can expect more from us every Friday from here going forward. More games, more posts, more funny captions.

So until next Friday, keep playing.

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