Time Extend: Xenogears
There is a version of this article already published on the site – but it’s not as polished as this one!
Considered by some to be a multimillion-yen, convoluted science-fiction vanity project, Xenogears nevertheless remains one of the most keenly eulogised PlayStation RPGs. Viewed ungenerously, it’s a confused hotchpotch of play styles, lacking focus and consistency across its 60 hours of winding, occasionally incomprehensible adventuring. Detractors argue that the game’s been propelled to cult status for little more than a marrying of overwrought philosophical posturing with big stompy robots, that classic infatuation for the college student fanboy.
But in its defence, Xenogears’ devoted fanbase points to a game which, through labyrinthine mythology, deep, multiple battle systems and a dizzying parade of cute narrative and gameplay set-pieces, comfortably outstretches most contemporary videogames in scope and ambition. It remains writer and director Tetsuya Takahashi’s most challenging and pure work, the game from which his ill-fated Xenosaga series was birthed, but never quite matched up to.
Takahashi and his team, many of whom worked on the Super Nintendo’s much-loved action-RPG Chrono Trigger, manage to create a believable and authentic universe through intimately knowing its every minutiae, past and present. The sheer amount of precise detail to this imagined universe is staggering. Even before the time at which the game begins, the project’s team of four scriptwriters laid out 10,000 years of intricate history.
This complex tapestry of alternate time is split across three different eras, driven by myriad different technologies and populated by species given their own nomenclature. Nations fight nations in the dim and distant past, legacies of wars and alliances domino-running through time up to the game’s start point. These details are then revealed in dribs and drabs, as appropriate, through cutscenes and recollections over the course of the game. As characters past and present play their parts on this vast stage, a cat’s cradle of inter-relational threads crisscross to pull the story together. But it’s in Xenogears’ lead protagonist that videogames have found their most complicated Freudian hero.
There’s an obvious reason why Japanese RPGs are often stories about orphans. In countless examples of the genre we’re introduced to a teenage protagonist who, years earlier, was deposited uninvited on to a kindly townsman’s doorstep. With an unknown backstory we, the player, are free to superimpose something of our own background and history on to this clean slate. The game allows us to take on a role that is at once other, but not so fully developed as to squeeze our own personalities and imaginations out of the frame. And, of course, the orphan’s predicament draws immediate empathy as well as delivering an urgent overarching purpose to our adventure: the discovery and realisation of who our character really is.
Xenogears is one such story but, like all interesting creations, twists its genre conventions into new shapes. We’re introduced to a presumed orphan, Fei Fong Wong, a young man who was brought to the remote village of Lahan years earlier on a stormy night by a cloaked stranger. Remembering nothing of his life before, Fei, in some ways, conforms to the classic stereotypical lead character, but we quickly discover he’s anything but a blank canvas. Within an hour of play Fei has levelled his home village in an act of brutal destruction, killing his best friends –who you were busily helping prepare for their wedding the next day. The scene is handled with deft expertise. Lahan is a village on the outskirts of a country at war with its neighbour. That night the war spills into the village when a group of military Gears (Xenogears’ mechs) crash land while attempting to steal one of their enemy’s top-of-the-line machines. While the elders try to evacuate the village from the ensuing firefight between the thieves and pursuers, Fei climbs into the stolen Gear and turns its guns on both sets of intruders. In the ensuing battle he blanks out in a moment of extreme rage. You awake to a scene of absolute destruction, surrounded by a group of surviving villagers whose friends and families Fei slaughtered.
As a player, you feel awkward and ashamed in the presence of these NPCs, a guilty confusion and helplessness which perfectly mirrors that felt by your character and justifies his immediate exile. As the game develops and reveals its mysteries we discover how Fei was psychologically abused by an impostor posing as his mother when he was three years old; of how he tried to explain the abuse to his father but, with limited vocabulary, was never taken seriously; of how Fei’s personality, as a result of these devastating events, split into three parts: the Freudian ego, superego, and id; of how Fei is in fact the reincarnation of a boy called Abel who was involved in a deadly explosion 10,000 years before (the one seen in the opening anime sequence) and how, once in every generation since then, he has been reborn with a world-saving purpose. Xenogears’ protagonist is a far cry from the simplistic two-dimensional leads of SquareSoft’s Super Nintendo RPGs of just a few years earlier.
Fei’s ultimate purpose is the destruction of an ancient sentient (but man-made) weapon which crash landed on to the planet. Here the developer again chooses to turn convention on its head. While at first glance this weapon, named Deus (which uses an avatar to carry out its will on the planet), appears to conform to the conventional antagonist type, it’s revealed that it is in fact responsible for human life on the planet. Man was created in order to be harvested so that Deus could rebuild itself. As such, Fei is battling against his race’s very creator, allowing the game to explore philosophy, religion and Man’s relationship to the divine.