Friday, November 2, 2012

I'm Alive, I'm on Fire, and My Spirit Burns With Desire: Xenogears


Thirteen years later, I've beaten Xenogears.

And the peasants rejoice.

I'm going to write two entries about the latest game to come off the Almost Got 'Em list. One will be a more traditional Backlog post about the gameplay, the characters, the experience of playing it again after all these years, and so forth. This one though, this one is about the story. The story, the thing that sets Xenogears apart from every other title of its kind to come out and still has fans clamoring for a remake or sequel. The story, the epic narrative that made Xenogears an enduring classic, remembered even to this day as one of the greatest games ever made. The story - which doesn't hold up at all to the passage of time.

Somewhere along the line, video games changed, for the better, in the way they present narratives. The consequence is that the sheer epic scope of a game attempting to tell a story the way Xenogears does suddenly becomes the friend from High School you remembered as captain of the football team, then you bump into to discover he's gained 50 pounds, lost all his hair, and never moved out of his parent's house. I want to get out of the way from the get-go that I'm not saying the story is bad, just that its delivery is so antiquated now that I don't know if anybody who grew up on today's games would have the attention span to deal with it.

Pictured: Modern game audiences.

So let's take a little time to discuss a tale grand in scope and ambition, and grievously lacking in execution.

Video games developed in the late 90's were coming up with some pretty huge concepts for their stories. Final Fantasy VIII was about a group of amnesiac teenagers fighting a space witch from the future who eats time. Resident Evil practically created the survival horror genre as we know it today with its zombie virus infecting the staff of an evil pharmaceutical company. Even Pokemon was some pretty deep shit, man.

The story heavily influenced a young Michael Vick.

Xenogears is about man's inhumanity to man and the relationship between humanity and God.

Sure, there are giant fighting robots, two flying cities at war with each other, and all kinds of other covers for what's really going on. Underneath all of that, the plot of the game is basically the Bible mixed with a Psych 101 textbook.

Let me start with the good stuff. Xenogears has a fantastic story. It's the kind of high-minded science fiction that there's a severe dearth of in video gaming. If you don't want a game made in 1998 spoiled for you, stop reading here, otherwise, let me give the brief summation of where we begin.

10,000 years ago humans carrying an experimental planet-devouring biological weapon called Deus crash-landed on a distant planet when Deus rebelled and attacked their spaceship from within. Everybody died, and Deus was mostly destroyed, but the engine powering it - called Zohar - remained intact and started spitting out new humans who could eventually be used as material to create a new body for Deus. It started out with a single woman who would become two separate entities over time; Elly, dedicated to protecting and nurturing humanity, and Miang, dedicated to making sure the plan to resurrect Deus continued throughout the millennia. The first humans they create are named Cain and Abel, followed by a group of twelve who would come to be known as the Gazel Ministry.

Death to the surface dwellers!

Ages come and go, and through it all Miang and Elly are endlessly reborn. Each time Elly lives and dies, usually sacrificing herself for humanity. Miang, on the other hand, simply moves her consciousness to another living woman and takes over her life, so she lives unabated for 10,000 years, continually working towards the day when everybody becomes part of Deus again. Eventually, Cain and the Gazel Ministry form a nation called Solaris secretly geared towards this specific goal.

Then, 500 years before the story begins, Grahf shows up and fucks over everybody by starting a war with some nation called Diabolos (whom we never learn anything about, save for that it's the Devil, the game means the Devil, everything is a Biblical reference) invades and just wrecks the shit out of everything, the result being that the Gazel Ministry are all killed. Beforehand they pull a huge hail mary and transfer all of their consciousnesses into digital form, and continue ruling Solaris from a giant spinning murder ball in the sky.

For Christmas parties, they turn it into a disco ball.

The problem now is that without bodies, they can't become one with Deus - or God, as they call him - so they need new bodies to inhabit for when the time comes. Enter our heroes and their fleshy meat sacks. The only major gum in the works is that the real ruler of Solaris, Krelian, has ideas of his own about how all this reunification with Deus thing is going to work out. Somewhere along the line, this civilization called Zeboim pops up and starts pumping out high technology but stifling the growth of the human population, so Cain and Miang blow them the fuck up. The only society actively opposing Solaris is the flying fortress of Shevat, and they're mostly useless.

Religions pop up on the planet's surface, secretly controlled by Solaris, to control the people. Wars are started, Gears and other ancient Zeboim technology is excavated, and humanity is generally just screwed with on a fairly monumental level so that Gazel can shape enough meat puppets together to make a new body for Deus. When they come to realize that there aren't going to be enough humans, they start playing around with nanotechnology so that they can make new ones from scratch.

Because building new humans from parts never goes wrong.

So when we join our protagonist, Fei, it's just about time for all of this to come to fruition. What no one, or at least very few people, seem to realize is that God is totally real, and also not an ancient planet-destroying space weapon. Zohar, the engine that powers Deus, tapped into a higher plane of existence, perhaps unintentionally, and ended up imprisoning the Wave Existence, whose presence on this lower realm ends up being the source of power for all things. Fei eventually meets the Wave Existence and learns that it would really like it if someone could destroy Deus so it can go back home, and P.S., yeah, it totally could be God, maybe.


In getting from his life as an unassuming painter in a small village to a giant robot fighter talking with God, Fei meets up with desert pirates riding a giant sand-submarine, a gun-wielding priest, a monstrous demi-human Gear battler who's also a disowned prince, a little girl in a giant Gear, a robot, a mascot, and the world's worst doctor.

Oh, I'll get to you next time.

He also meets up with Elly, and it turns out the two of them have been doomed lovers since the beginning of time, as Fei, being the Contact between man and God, is also caught up in the endless cycle of death and rebirth. Amidst all this is Grahf, sparking destruction across the globe with a motive of nothing less than the death of the god Krelian is trying to resurrect, playing both sides to try and attain his twisted motives.

So to recap - ancient spaceship carrying biomechanical doomsday weapon crash-lands on a planet where its engine - that has a god trapped inside - creates humans so they can eventually be used as replacement parts for the weapon. All of human history on this planet is secretly engineered by Solaris (Cain and the Gazel Ministry) to the end of making this happen, and as Fei, Elly, and their friends try to stop it, Miang works to make it a reality, Grahf tries to screw with everybody and everything, and Krelian sits above it all like a puppetmaster with his own secret agenda. All this plus giant robots and what is actually an incredibly touching love story.

And it falls completely on its face by todays standards.

The opening music might as well be the Benny Hill theme.

I'll reiterate - the story itself, and the concepts, are fantastic. I don't know that anything of this caliber had ever been attempted before, and it certainly barely has since. The scope of what they're trying to do with this is tremendously ambitious. Not just the stuff with gods and space civilizations and disembodied heads, but the story of Fei and Elly through the ages, meeting, falling in love, and being torn away from each other over and over again crafts a tale that attempts to really take hold of a player's emotions and throttle them. At the time it came out, a lot of people would have said it succeeded. Now, though, games have changed so much that it's almost impossible to enjoy Xenogears with the same level of enthusiasm.

Just briefly, the NPCs in this game do a LOT of talking. Even back then, Xenogears was considered a pretty wordy game, with any random schmoe in the street wanting to stop and talk to you about the detailed history of the world and their personal life story.

"As long as you're barging into my house, we may as well chat."

People today haven't really been trained for this. Long-form exposition in games has largely been done away with, or at least given engaging video backdrops to keep people stimulated while it's going on. Xenogears is a lot of just reading, and reading, and more reading. With all the Biblical references and psychology discussions thrown in, it can become difficult to stay engaged after awhile. Oh man, the Three Wise Men of Shevat are named Balthazar, Melchior, and Gaspar! That's so clever! And the relics the Gazel are using to create their new bodies are totally named after the twelve tribes of Israel! Now let's have a discussion about disassociation disorder! Why not? And now it's time eat people.

Just . . . I'll get there.

Second, you can't have a discussion about how the story in Xenogears runs without talking about the legendary disc 2. Somewhere along the way, Squaresoft decided that this giant robot thing was cool and all, but where they really needed their team was on Final Fantasy VIII. So most of the staff got cut from the project, and the people left, being their unpaid intern and a one-eyed janitor with a rough backstory but a heart of gold, were told to just fill in the gaps and shove out a game. What they came up with was the second disc, where 90% of the story is told via flashback from characters sitting in a chair and narrating still-frame scenes until you get to a dungeon, and then once you beat it it's back to the narration.

You eventually get to take control of your characters just long enough to do some hidden side quests and go to the final dungeon, but not before an hour-long cutscene. No, I'm serious, there is a part of disc 2 wherein you lose all control over the action for an hour as the game shows sequence after sequence of what's happening now, all leading up to the final dungeon. Sure, some cool stuff happens, but by the time you've dredged through it you're more interested in just hitting X until the talking stops than you are in actually reading.

A major reason why this is such a problem is that these narrated sequences seem awesome! People begin mutating into monsters and eating each other! Huge Gears start attacking civilian populations! Old enemies become friends as the world starts coming undone! Inspiring stories of heroism and people helping others as much as unspeakable horror as Krelian initiates his master plan! Ramsus's final descent into madness! Nations falling apart! All of this goes on . . . and you just sit and watch.

This was a pre-order bonus when the game first came out.

Games today have dynamic cutscenes. They have video sequences you can interact with, exposition that's delivered as you're moving forward from one action beat to the next, and all kinds of other mechanisms to keep players engaged. After being exposed to so much of that, you really just can't go back to the era where you sat and watched motionless pictures of people talk to each other with no voice acting until going to the next dungeon crawl. Even Persona 3 and 4, two games built on the mechanic of a whole lot of nothing in between fight scenes, keep things interesting by giving the player control over the outcome of interactions with NPCs and making each cutscene only a couple minutes long.

They're also completely accurate depictions of high school in Japan.

They built a fantastic story in an interesting world that's a mixture of steampunk, futuristic, and medieval, but completely failed to deliver it in a way that stands the test of time. This by no means makes it a bad game - the elements of it absolutely hold up and keep it fun and interesting - but the awe-inspiring story I remember being such a selling point back when this first came out no longer holds up.

That said, if there's any game out there ripe for a remake, it's Xenogears. Keeping the same story but updating the gameplay to match today's standards would completely revitalize this tale for a new generation. I honestly believe that with an overhaul to the storytelling mechanism, Xenogears could once again be one of the greatest games ever made, but as it is now, getting through this turned out to be more of a chore than a joy.

Stay tuned for more on Xenogears in the near future, and until then, keep playing.

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