Xenoblade Spoilers Below
I wasn’t sure whether to write about this game. My friend Jre, another writer on this site, has already written a fair bit about the game in a couple of his own articles (which I recommend you check out here and here), and plans to write more, so I don’t want to cannibalize any of his points. However, over the course of the 100+ hours I spent playing it and thinking about it, I’ve ultimately come to the conclusion that I had to talk about one aspect in particular. How the gameplay and story really came together to help me appreciate both aspects more than I initially would’ve on their own, as well as how both aspects help support the game’s themes. The story of the game is fairly standard at first blush. A young unassuming boy one day discovers he’s capable of wielding a great power and sets off on a quest that ultimately opens his eyes to The Powers of Love and Friendship ™ and the importance of deciding your own destiny. Fairly standard. However, it doesn’t so much matter what story you’re telling as much as how you tell it, something which this game shows off very well.
The first thing that really captured me about the game at first was its setting; quite significant due to the fact that in a list of things I usually end up appreciating about stories, the setting oftentimes comes fairly low. The Bionis and Mechonis though, two truly massive Titans who battled each other to a stand still long ago whilst life sprouted on their bodies captured my imagination, I’ll admit. Not only is it cool because it’s just a neat idea, but it also helps contextualize the scale of the story. The characters in this game, all the towns, all the various races, are, in essence, nothing more than bacteria in comparison to these titans.
The first scenes of the game also set the tone quite well. The main characters live in a small colony, threatened by the falling debris of the Bionis’ body. They and the rest of the colonies are under constant risk of being attacked by the Mechons, a group of robots for whom the people of the Bionis would be no match, if not for the Monado. Colony 9 seems to be in a period of some peace, the protagonist Shulk, as well as his friends Fiora, Reyn, and Dunban living there happily. Until tragedy strikes, and Fiora is seemingly killed, motivating Shulk and Reyn to set off on a revenge crusade with the Monado.
Despite the incredibly large scale of the game, one of its smartest decisions is grounding the story, at first, in a rather personal quest. Shulk, Reyn, then eventually Sharla, Dunban, Riki, and Melia are all nice, good hearted people, yet almost all of them are motivated at least in part by a desire to get revenge on the Mechon who’ve taken so much from them. As you progress through the game you learn this is not an uncommon experience. This is not a dour or depressing game, yet you’ll very frequently hear NPCs casually mention people they’ve lost, or children wondering where their family members have gone, and a few quests involve you gathering keepsakes so people can remember lost relatives or helping characters perform funerary rituals. This game is often bright and pleasant, but it does a good job at keeping the feeling of loss and the omnipresent danger of future loss in the player’s mind.
The characters’ murderquest might seem well justified in light of these facts, but the story casts doubt on those justifications around the halfway point, after Shulk and friends reunite with a revived and newly mechanical Fiora, and meet the peaceful inhabitants of Mechonis: the Machina. It’s here where the truth begins to be revealed and the meaning of the game becomes clearer. Xenoblade Chronicles, in my reading, is a game about the inherent value of all sentient life. About how even the seemingly weakest and most insignificant living being has the potential and the right to decide its own destiny, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable opposition, or indeed, in the face of destiny itself. It is here where the gameplay systems of Xenoblade Chronicles show their strength.
Xenoblade Chronicles uses its gameplay to involve you in and make you personally care about the lives of almost every character within it, from your party members to random NPCs. The NPCs in this game are some of the most impressive I’ve seen. They all have their own schedules, many of them have names, all of them can be spoken to. Most have multiple lines of dialogue that change depending on where you’re at in the game and the named NPCs have personalities and relationships with the other NPCs which can be affected by talking to them and doing quests. I can go on, but the point here is each area of the game is populated not just by random, nameless, quest-giving non-entities, but by people with lives and priorities and relationships with each other. In order to gain access to sidequests and gear and rewards you essentially have to get to know the people of each location you go to and get involved with their lives.
In one part of the game you come across another destroyed colony and have the option of taking part in its revitalization. The rebuilding of Colony 6, while essentially just an incredibly long fetch quest, is contextualized in such a way that there’s actually emotional stakes that come with trying to complete it. Seeing the town grow from just a hole in the ground to a developed, populated area is an incredibly satisfying experience, and you grow to become attached to it (if you actually take the time to find all the obscure nonsense they ask you to find that is). You see how the town’s inhabitants have suffered immense tragedy, yet, with a little help manage to turn their fortunes around and emerge stronger, and you can even go to areas around the game and suggest others join Colony 6, adding new blood to it as well.
Party members also have their own relationships with each other. Improving their relationships enough allows you to view special scenes that can go from humorous to touching, and often lets you see characters interact with each other that don’t often do so within the main story. Even in battle, special attention is given to making sure that character relationships are paid attention to, as the act of helping people up and shouting words of encouragement is game-ified, and winning battles occasionally nets you prolonged character interactions.
After the aforementioned halfway point, the scope of the game widens from a quest for personal revenge to a battle for all life, even life on Mechonis, and the enemies eventually change from scary robots to godlike beings and the forces of destiny itself. Again, fighting a god or god-like being at the end of a JRPG isn’t 100 percent unique to Xenoblade and denying the forces of fate to choose your own destiny is a common theme, but after completing the game and reflecting on it, I grew to appreciate more of how the game expressed those themes.
You open the game playing as Dunban. In a setting where humanity (Homanity?) is utterly insignificant, you’d think that Dunban, the bravest, most heroic, and skilled of any Hom in the game would be the obvious choice for a protagonist. Someone who represents the Homs at their best. But he isn’t. The protagonist is someone who is seen as somewhat weak even by Homs standards.
Shulk is less physically inclined and more intellectual, explicitly called fragile by Fiora near the beginning. He’s soft spoken and mild mannered, prone to drifting off into his own thoughts, and is somewhat pessimistic. As the game progresses you realize he shouldn’t even be alive himself. And yet it is he who ends up defending all life, and wielding the power of the Monado. The Monado allows Shulk to manipulate Ether. Ether is a gameplay attribute, but within the context of the story is referred to as the essence of and building blocks of life itself. It’s this manipulation of Ether which grants Shulk the power to see the future and the opportunity to change it. These premonitions aren’t just a plot element, but a gameplay element as well. During battle, the player sees visions of their immediate future as well, and through the Power of Friendship ™ (ie: spending a section of your party gauge) you can avert catastrophe.
I say all this to say that the world of Xenoblade Chronicles isn’t just big, or open, or pretty (though certainly it is all those things). The game encourages you, with its own gameplay systems, to become emotionally invested in the setting, and the lives of the characters and spend large amounts of time improving them. As a result, during the climax when Shulk is waxing philosophical about the Power of Friendship ™, and the Freedom to Choose ™, and the Value of Life ™, they aren’t just cheesy anime lines, or solely supported by the cutscenes and story, but you as the player have hopefully come to the same conclusions over the course of your playthrough.
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