Xenosaga: Pure Robot ‘Schlock’?

Xenosaga: Pure Robot 'Schlock'?

The Xenosaga series has become known as rather unwieldy, in part because of its ultra-drawn-out cut scenes. With the Japanese release of Xenosaga III: Also Sprach Zarathustra, Tim Rogers points out a few more reasons why he believes the series is "robot schlock."

It occurred to me the other day that the videogame industry is in something of a creative drought.

It’s in a creative drought, you must understand, because I say it is.

This occurred to me while I was playing Xenosaga III: Also Sprach Zarathustra on PlayStation 2 on my unreasonably large HDTV. I remember that I was so disappointed with "The Matrix Reloaded" that I’d sworn to not see "The Matrix Revolutions" until I stumbled across it on VHS — definitely not DVD. That later happened, and when I watched it on VHS in a friend’s house on a tiny television, the experience was pleasant. I enjoyed it far more than I would have on a big cinema screen.

Xenosaga Episode III is a VHS videogame; that’s the best thing it has going for it — its visual efforts are endearing under poor audio/visual circumstances. (Put that on the back of the box, Bandai Namco USA.) Unfortunately for the medium of videogames, we don’t have the option of playing them on VHS. These days, it has to be a cute little cartridge (either with a shiny disc inside it or not) or a DVD. Xenosaga III is two whole DVDs, and I imagine both of them are full of . . . well, let’s face it: robot schlock.

As I explained in last week’s thrilling Japan column, Xenosaga was originally the brainchild of Tetsuya Takahashi, the writer and director of Xenogears, who left Squaresoft because of failure to sell adequate copies of his game, a veritable B-movie that wanted to be a "Ben Hur." Takahashi faced hardships, had the name of his series taken form him, and made Xenosaga on PlayStation 2 with funding from Namco, and also hard pressure: they wanted him to make a game that would rival Final Fantasy. Takahashi, presumably scared out of his wits, appropriated the budget toward schlocking his game up even further. It ended up a twisted, confused, frightened creation, one which fans who are best described as game fetishists ate up.

This was the proverbial trick that could only be done once, like that guy in that "Looney Tunes" skit who blows himself up for the circus director. Takahashi’s series was taken from him — and his loving wife and co-writer, Soraya Saga (whose name is gorgeous) — and put in the hands of people who could schlock it out faster, and without the danger of losing limbs.

The thing was — Xenosaga is and always has been one story. Namco decided last year, without Takahashi’s input, to end the story with Episode III. Takahashi had originally envisioned it to stretch for six installments, including two for a next-generation platform.

Xenosaga II was a colossal failure from the planning stages; Namco decided that the reason the first one didn’t sell was because they didn’t throw enough money at it, so they threw even more money at Xenosaga II. What was so wrong with this? Well, see, Xenosaga II is a seamless continuation of Xenosaga I’s story. It’s not like Final Fantasy, where each game is its own little universe — or, for a better comparison, Namco’s own "Tales of" series, where each game is handled by a different, close-knit group of bright, talented people who also happen to enjoy getting paid to make games (wonderful people, all of them — if you read this sentence with your sarcasm detector on, feel free to turn it off, go back, and read again). Where Final Fantasy is structured like a sitcom, Xenosaga is like a novel. Yet Namco had wanted it to addict and sell like a Final Fantasy game.

It turns out that making a good "game" was never, from the beginning, Takahashi’s intent. The battle systems have been historically clunky and slow. The most you ever do in a dungeon is press the triangle button to blow up a box that’s in your way.

I maintain that, if Takahashi had been allowed to relax, if he hadn’t had his game pumped up to the level of supernova capable of destroying the universe from the start, he could have sat back and made something a little more thoughtful. He wouldn’t have had to rush. He could have called in all those who had aided him in the past, and had them slowly look over things.

Sadly, this wasn’t to be. Namco carved out Xenosaga II, and it sold dismally. They’d expected that the new game, inundated in much more money than the first, would attract eyes as a shiny object, and inspire love as such, and those people who loved the way the new game looked would buy the first one to make their love complete. They’d play the first game, and the second would reach the audience the first one had deserved.

This isn’t exactly a stupid technique. I wouldn’t even call it a "brazen assumption," or a "thoughtless blunder." See, in the world of Japanese comics — manga — a continuous series normally doesn’t really pick up in sales until it’s already stacked up a good number of published pages. The way manga works is the stories run in weekly magazines in twenty-to-thirty-page installments, or monthly magazines in fifty-some-page installments. When between 182 and 200 pages are stacked up, a volume containing them is published. Gauging the popularity of a manga title is an age-old, exceedingly complicated process involving lots of surveys and telephone calls. You hardly ever see the medium on television outside of the largest hits.

A manga like "NANA," the current most popular story in Japan (also being published in English thanks to Viz) wasn’t really popular until a good four or five volumes of it had been published, and word had gotten around that the story — about two girls with the same first name, one of them a punk-rocker and the other a Trendy Girl (it’s an occupation in this country, I tell you) who meet on a train, and later coincidentally move into the same apartment — gels and reaches a substantial climax, and stays interesting and real.

Similarly, "DEATH NOTE," a manga about a notebook from a demon realm that can kill anyone whose name is written in it, while a big seller during its initial run, is now seeing a huge surge in sales thanks to two "DEATH NOTE" live-action films. (The first film is currently in theaters; the second debuts in October.) In "DEATH NOTE"’s case, the manga hit a surge of sales once the third volume was published, and then another once a large twist occurred later in the story and was whispered about. Its third revival was just recently, when the movie was a big hit.

So it’s not naive to say that continuity can draw people into a narrative that’s already in progress, so long as they’re able to pick up the beginning of the story and catch up. (In fact, sometimes, if a manga is taking off, magazines will push back a few weekly installments before a collected volume is published, so as to allow newcomers to catch up.)

However, new players did not, for the most part, catch up with Xenosaga. Xenosaga III is poised to sell only to the fetishist-like players who are in love with the first two. Why is this? There are two reasons, each with two sub-reasons. This is not a test:

Next: The reasoning

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