By Josh "Dr.Rouge" Vasquez
The vague world of Xenogears.
starship sails through space, a silent leviathan above the expanse of an unknown planet. Suddenly chaos is unleashed. The crew is under some kind of attack, the details of which seem to have been lost in the confusion of the menacing infection. The captain, facing certain doom, triggers the codes for self-destruction. The ship's body disappears in distant pinpricks of light, the explosions almost like the blossoming flowers of the rooting disease shattering the craft. Time passes, and the ruins of the great vessel now litter the planet's surface. A woman, naked and silent, watches the final pieces of the ship burning through the atmosphere, their luciferian arcs mirrored in the irises of her eyes. She stands on the shore of a strange ocean as everything fades to white.
Xenogears begins with this odd little fragment, a broken message defying translation. The questions form almost immediately. What was the nature of the attack on the ship? What is the source and meaning of the text that appears on the computer screens endlessly repeating the phrase, "you shall be like gods?" Who is the woman? Did she survive the crash or is she an inhabitant of the planet? One can only hope that the game will endeavor to explain its strange prologue. The sequence is a pure cinematic hook, sure of its own internal logic but challenging the non-initiated with its refusal to fill the gaps too soon. This deliberate incubation of mystery is a common structural technique of videogame cinematics, a vague new world of endless quest. The creators behind Xenogears utilize this technique with particular storytelling skill. The viewer is immediately infected with the need to know why. While many games repeat this formula with only the details surfacing as proof of difference, the opening section Xenogears distinguishes itself by refusing to artificially "play up" the mystery. It feels as if the narrative is unwinding at a natural pace, and we are the ones who have interrupted the graceful workings of the plot with our probing questions.
Xenogears actually opens with a biblical passage. A message appears in the blackness of starless space: "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last." (Revelations 21:13) The tone of the mystery is set. People seem to be fascinated with vaguely biblical ramblings warning of apocalypse and hinting at the resurrection of ancient mysteries. Even when used as fluffy, cheap symbolism, this aesthetics of millennial doom strikes a cord in many people. Perhaps it touches some primal fear, the deepest mystery made a bit more coherent.
Xenogears juggles this potentially cliched approach quite well, laying the groundwork for i's own myth.
The religious overtones never suffocate the rest of the plot. The infection/threat poses a challenge that is only heightened by the poetic ramblings as opposed to being undercut by them. The crew is caught up in the "mundane" reality of the attack, reacting to the very basic threat to their survival. They don't have the time to appreciate the "dark symbolism," the poetics of their dilemma. The fear and miscomprehension of the crew as they watch the text appearing on the screens mirrors our own puzzlement. This is what is so effective: things just happen, revealing new layers to the danger quite organically without pomp or trumpets blaring. The creators also create character with delicate touches.
The figure of the captain is perhaps best realized. He is a common element in the anime world, the stoic leader who puts duty above all other concerns. Yet in a telling moment the creators give his momentary appearance a lasting impression. As he sits in the abandoned bridge watching the tendrils of the infection tear his ship apart, the captain prepares to initiate the self-destruct system. Before communing with his ship for the last time, he clicks open his pocketwatch to gaze fondly on a photograph of his wife and child. A slight smile flickers on his face as the destruction continues outside. The creators leave us with this image by situating the watch in the extreme foreground of the shot as the captain sets in motion his own destruction.
Xenogears begins its
narrative in the middle of a conflict and yet manages to still engage
the viewer, a task that is far more challenging than one might think.
The only criticism that one might have is that during the crisis the
crewmembers spout a lot of techno-babble very quickly and sound a bit
silly. Otherwise Xenogears moves along quite nicely to its own
rhythm, dispatching fragments like messages in a bottle, giving the
viewer the first few pieces and encouraging them to make the rest.
- Josh "Dr.Rouge" Vasquez is a regular contributor to loonygames.
Credits: Pixel Obscura logo illustrated and is © 1999 Dan Zalkus. Pixel Obscura is © 1999 Josh Vasquez. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited...we know where you live.