Thursday, June 20, 2013

Xenogears: The Article

Hating God is a very easy thing to do. He is big, he is vague, and he is probably kind of smelly. Maybe not smelly in the most traditional terms, but he probably does have some kind of strong and overpowering odor about him that acts like sort of an aura. He has an aura, too. That’s a thing, right?

I’d go further to say that hating God is so easy that we probably do it sub-consciously, without real effort, because really, it takes no effort. It’s not that hating God is innate, because that would mean we somehow don’t have a choice to do so, like it’s some instinctual habitual need for us to hate God, which would in turn imply that God instinctually and innately exists in some way else this innate instinct would be pointless and unexplainable.

What I am saying is that hating God is the path of least resistance when faced with the idea that God might possibly exist, and I am going to go further and say that eventually everyone must decide what to do with that idea. And it’s here that I start talking about Xenogears.

Xenogears doesn’t make me question the existence of God, but it does make me realize I hate him. Beyond just hating, it makes me realize why I hate him. But Xenogears doesn’t jump out and demand that I have some kind of introspective moment and then extrapolate logical conclusions; it simply leads me gently by the hand and before I know it, I am weeping over the broken corpse of a God of my creation.

This is the purpose of good narrative. It’s supposed to be a ride. It’s not a dialogue or a discussion or even a system of logic that takes inputs and produces some kind of atheistic epiphany, it’s a ride. And it should feel like one. It should be built like one. And the only reason why opinions may be changed at the end of the ride is because the ride itself obviates the need for argumentation by virtue of the events that occur over the course of it. There is no “proving” in the rhetorical or logical sense. There are only things that happen.

In the midst of Xenogears, a game happens. This game is also called Xenogears, but it is not Xenogears in its entirety. They only share the same name. The game Xenogears is about power, discovery, motivation, despair, economies of scale, and transference. The story Xenogears is just about hating God.

A primary design obstacle for any game director (here the word “game” refers to the product, not the game) is to decide how to stuff one into the other in such a way that a player (as necessitated by the game, as opposed to a “reader” or “observer” of a narrative) doesn’t question it overmuch. Xenogears fails at this quite miserably.

A game, even in its most elementary definition, is wider than a narrative. It is intended to create spaces for possibility and experimentation. It is intended to be a workshop; a place where both frivolity, characterized by more theoretical, whimsical ventures, and purpose, demonstrated by profiteering and product-oriented effort, are allowed and encouraged. But a game in its most elementary definition has no point, no moral, no compass. A narrative does.

The question then becomes: “which of these two should take precedence?” And the answer invariably is: “It depends.” In Xenogears, it depends.

The aforementioned failure at stuffing and player questioning present in Xenogears results from “it depends.” This failure is rampant, blatant, and heavy-handed. The game begins with a 10-minute introductory exposition containing information that is not resolved until near the end of a 50+ hour game. Gameplay segments are aimless, either placed in very large open spaces like deserts, forests, or worst of all convoluted dungeons (with no maps) containing only 1 intended endpoint. There are no reminders or signposts to assist players in returning to the game after an unintended hiatus. In fact, so much of the responsibility of remembering events, following events, and making narrative connections is placed upon the player that I would hazard to say that only the most unreasonably patient person would be willing to tolerate it.

This failure is unequivocal, undeniable, and absolute. It is also irrelevant.

A game, once again in its most elementary definition, is designed for choice: boundaries impose choice by restricting retreat, opposition forces choice by threatening defeat, and rules delineate a space and mode in which these choices can “play out”. In this most primal sense it is intended to produce agony; indeed, it is actual fact that this is where the word “agony” comes from. Agony is the result of choice. The sensation of a pulling, a tearing of the will in multiple directions, of the strain of possibilities and the contemplation of sacrifice for opportunity is the definition of Agony, and in turn we become Agonists.

Over time the common definition of this word has become associated more with the suffering that results from moments of Agony as opposed to the Agony itself. In fact, it is from the word “Agony” we derive the word “Agency”, which describes the active choice role that is characteristic of games. And so to be an agent is to be in agony. The game Xenogears is pure agony, and in turn you, player, are pure agency.

This agony is soldered into the twists of the tortuous narrative of Xenogears in such a way as to be inseparable. But they are distinctly discerned: there is no mistaking what part of Xenogears is story or game.

In the story Xenogears there is nothing but war and despair. The world has been locked in war so long that it’s forgotten why such a war exists, and the hatred and motivation for war is now simply bred into the bones of their children and their children’s children. What kind of a God lets such a thing happen? A God worth hating, is what kind. And so we hate him.

But the hinge upon which this hate glides so smoothly is shallow, immature, and childlike: the kind based purely on ignorance. Ignorance is the key to blind hate. Ignorance is the basis for fear, as fear of the unknown is what drives both desire for knowledge (to illuminate the unknown to dispel the fear to preserve the self) and the desire for destruction (to raze the incomprehensible to reduce its confundity to establish control). This is the kind of hate we have of black people, women, white people, that dirty-looking bum on the corner, and the guy who makes our Subway sandwiches. This is why we yell at each of these people when they do something we don’t like. This is why we feel terrible when we find out they have families, dogs, cats, and also make a lot more money than we do and as a result regret not befriending them initially because now we’ll have to pay for Subway sandwiches unless we go to the other Subway which is like 5 more blocks down. But who knows if that Subway guy is cool or rich like this one?

So then we’ll probably yell at him too. Blind hate.

At the end of the story, all unknowns (as there are many) are dispelled, the twisting threads are brought together, and the nature of this hate-worthy God is laid bare. And here is where the brilliance of Xenogears the story is firmly established: it dispels all of our ignorance without dispelling its twin-bred hate. It takes the initial ignorance-based animosity and, over the course of a 50-hour engagement tears us from our ignorance with evidence that also thoroughly substantiates our hate, and in so doing turns this hate into the motivation for grinding out power in order to ensure the complete and utter destruction of this hateful God. And this is where Xenogears the game complements Xenogears the story so well, and why the successful and proper mixing of the two disparate strands is so irrelevant.

The game Xenogears is used as space, not propulsion. Its combat is not skill-based, action-oriented, or twitchy by any means. Its platforming is basic and at times glitchy and unnecessarily frustrating. Its character management is minimal, its item table is laughably finite for a 50-hour game, and there are no substantial sidequests. Xenogears relies primarily on grinding for progress and surety, a choice that would today be ridiculous and unbearable. But I played through it anyway. I played through it because I was convinced by the story Xenogears that it was necessary, useful, and sensible to do so in the context of the narrative and the characters in my charge.

The game Xenogears does this by complementing a run-of-the-mill JRPG leveling system with the “Deathblow”. Both narratively and ludologically it fits: Deathblows are intermittent mechanics rewards that give players a more panoramic, protracted goal to aim for beyond simple leveling or itemization, and is only partway contingent upon these trite categorizations. By linking a unique system to a banal one, Xenogears manages to maintain a necessary minimum of interest in character growth as the player travels in linear fashion from plot point to plot point.

In the narrative, both PCs and NPCs slam and get slammed with Deathblows at crucial moments, reinforcing their narrative importance and rejuvenating the desire to unlock them through grinding. Basically, the “Deathblow” can be best understood as the bridge between Xenogears the story and Xenogears the game. And besides, the word “deathblow” itself conjures up something fierce in the deepest parts of my darkest desires.

So when the story Xenogears begins (at the moment I choose to begin by selecting “New Game”) by describing a world beset by thoughtless warring, my first inclination upon entering the game Xenogears (the moment when I am given the choice to move Fei about) is to find out more about this war from those willing to talk, and to see exactly how dangerous this world really is. However, the story Xenogears places me on a remote island for “reasons unknown”, which in turn limits my actions and boundaries in the game Xenogears, and limits it enough for me to want to continue on to the next plot point. As these narrative impulses become grander, such as the infiltration and assassination of a regent, the hunt for a deadly gladiator-slaughtering sewer monster, or the destruction of an all powerful being of some questionably otherworldly origin, so too do the spaces where the game occurs become grander.

So while Xenogears the story and Xenogears the game can indeed be divided up neatly into its component parts, this is by no means a fair analysis of the whole. Despite the fact that Xenogears the story and Xenogears the game aim at producing different sensations and promote the realization of different goals, they are complementary. The story creates desires to actuate power in order to consummate hate, and the game provides a path to power that is in complete control of the player coupled with barriers high enough (boss battles) to make gains in power feel significant and necessary. They do not intertwine mechanically (that is, there is no way to influence the course of the story through gameplay), but they do intertwine philosophically in that their aims are conjoined and their goals are essentially identical. This is the true face of Xenogears.

Too few games take advantage of this thought process now. Granted, the space in which to execute an hybridization like this is decidedly limited in all other efforts compared to the common JRPG, but it’s not the space that prohibits this; it’s a mindset. I believe the prevailing mindset is to aim for extremes: focus on making satisfying gameplay or compelling mechanics, or make a meaningful narrative with a powerful moral or overwhelmingly sensuous ride. Inundate your players with one or the other and in that way find success. But this creates a hyperspeed arms race surfing on a tide of ever-increasing expectations that is sure to end in a disastrous crash. What we need is more balance, more foresight, and more space to work in.

What we need is more Xenogears.