Samus gazes upon Skytown, Elysia.

“Beacon Received”: The Satisfaction of Discovery in the Metroid series.

by Laila Carter, Featured Author.

The most engaging aspect of a game, one that fully draws players into the fantastical realm, is the interactive narrative. Where the plot  is the successful of certain, main events that enable players to complete the game, the narrative is the entire scope of the story that includes the plot but also the other side stories and extraneous details the player decides to complete. Being able to choose where to go in an adventure gives the player narrative agency, meaning they get to decide what happens to their character, other characters, and their surroundings. Different games provide various amounts of agency, from virtually none (simple games such as Space Invaders) to almost full agency (“crafting” games such as Minecraft or “sandbox” games such as GTA). The more a game allows for player agency, the greater incentive the player has to explore both the paths of the landscape and the paths of the narrative, seeing all the different possible outcomes of their choices. Interestingly, the most engaging games tend to “hide” the plot from the player: instead of stating the mission at the beginning (“Rescue Princess Peach from Bowser” or “Defeat the Joker and take back Arkham Asylum”), these games do not tell the player the ultimate goal, leaving the player to figure it out on their own. This narrative technique of “hiding the plot” exemplifies and takes advantage of one of the strongest human feelings: curiosity. Our curiosity to discover our own journeys in life push us to walk down the paths that will take us to new and exciting places. For games in particular, the Metroid franchise effectively uses the “hidden plot” to drive our need to create our own adventures, allowing us to feel fully in control of our own virtual destiny.

Before we continue, I must make the distinction between linear gameplay and the “openness” of the virtual world. Nintendo’s Metroid series are heavily exploratory to the point where the explorative world defines the series in general; however, despite the praise the franchise gets for its “non-linear” landscapes, Metroid games are not “open-world”. Today, open-world games drop players into a huge and expansive realm and allow them to go and do whatever they want. A seemingly infinite number of paths to take, jobs to do, side quests, quests, people to interact with, and powers to receive awaits in the world,. Some areas you may never discover in your first attempt at the game, while different weapons may allow you to certain areas and not others. Choices in open-world games are essential, for choices determine someone’s playthrough and gaming experience. The player has the freest range of character development, deciding whether the character will be more charismatic than intelligent, amoral than immoral, or rescue a group of children rather than destroy a group of raiders. Though many of the games provide an initial plot to get the player going (“You must defeat X boss to save the world”; “Your child is lost on an apocalyptic planet and you need to find them”), whether or not the player completes this task right away is up to them – players may instead overthrow a corrupt king, explore and raid an entire dungeon, or find a legendary weapon known in ancient myths before going to finish the main plot of the game. The Fallout series, Elder Scrolls series, and World of Worldcraft all fall into the open-world category, and, you will notice, are immensely popular because of their vast options, diverse gameplay mechanics, and hands-on character building.

Metroid, on the other hand, is not open-world: the player is Samus Aran, and the player cannot change this. Her characteristics are certain, yet implied: she’s mostly a silent protagonist, with a few speech texts to express her thoughts (I am not counting Other M in this discussion), but the texts portray her as a courageous and strong willed woman who keeps pushing forward in order to save a world or space station. You can only get certain power-ups along the way that correspond to her ultimate power, the Varia suit; you cannot find lightning magic and choose to equip it to your gun. Also, more importantly, only one plot exists, not multiple paths and story arcs that Samus can venture off to. What the one plot entails, however, is something that player must figure out on their own.

Metroid games are not open-world, but, to many players, they feel open-world. This is because the games exemplify a true immersion into the world by not giving the player an explicit goal at the beginning. With many games in the series, the only plot you get is Samus’s reason for being on the planet: to destroy a pirate army, to find the last metroid, to discover the dimensional anomaly of the planet, and so on. Once Samus lands on the planet, however, the player must discover, basically, everything : where to go, how to get to a door across a cavern, why the chozo disappeared, what Phazon is, and a seemingly infinite pile of other questions. Samus has to run into the dark and foreboding planet of SR388, the peaceful and mysterious environment of Tallon IV, or the eerie silence of space stations with barely any weapons to transverse the terrain or defeat most enemies. The journey into an unknown world with no clear direction is the distinct “openness” of Metroid games: it creates a virtual world that seemingly holds many possibilities and paths. Even if this is not actually true (which I will prove shortly), the “openness” of Metroid games fools players into thinking that the entire world is theirs to explore, and that the path they choose to explore shows their skill and intelligence in solving the giant puzzle that is the Metroid world. It was their explorative genius, they think, that found the plasma gun or found the hidden pirate base, and players take great ownership in their discoveries.

Super Metroid Map

Metroid’s “openness” tricks the players into thinking the whole world is theirs to navigate, yet this is actually not the case. There is only one goal to achieve — no separate side quests exist — and there is only one way to achieve this goal (for Metroid games, this means either defeating the “final boss” or escaping the collapsing planet/space station, and usually you have to do both). The trick with most Metroid games is that no game mechanic tells you how to get from point A to point B. Sure, there is only one way to beat the game – you must get item X in order to access certain areas of the map – but mystery clouds the entire way. For example, in Metroid Prime, players must traverse a pirate ship submerged in water, but Samus’s Varia Suit is not equipped to move freely in water. Presumably, an anti-gravity power-up exists for that, but players do not know where to find such an item. Sometimes, too, players need to find another power-up to get the one they initially needed. Because of this game structure – a structure of finding certain power-ups before others to access different areas – the world is not “open-world” but instead an “open maze.” The games give you a certain number of areas, and small rooms connected by access doors compose each area, creating maps of different shapes of sizes. Metroid worlds are mazes that force you to backtrack, retrace your steps, and find a branching path from one you previously took. When you look back at a completed Metroid map, they look huge and complicated; but if you traced Samus’s path, there would only be one line that never branched out to different areas but was consistent in its journey, sometimes returning to previously visited rooms but only in order to reach previously inaccessible room. This is, of course, assuming a perfect run, or a playthrough that shows where all the power-ups and hidden secrets are without making any mistakes. First-time Metroid players (and, most likely, others who do not have good memory) will take paths that are all over the place, showing the lost and confused struggles of a player who does not know the right path. Metroid games may not be as “open” as many initially think, but by keeping silent about where certain power-ups are, by keeping silent about how to get from point A to point B, and by keeping silent about the narrative details of the story, the Metroid games give their players a true exploratory experience: one of trial and error, of cracking the code of a maze, and of struggling to find the right path in a seemingly vast and complicated world.

Since we compared Metroid games to the vastness of open-world games, let’s compare Metroid to a game on the other end of the spectrum: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. A common complaint about Skyward Sword is that it is too straightforward, which providesan example of how linearity can be bad game design if not implemented properly. Earlier Zelda games presented an aerial view of a 2D world in a square frame, and it was up to you where in the square you need to be. Later Zelda games presented a 3D world that was not necessarily a square, but rather a large field, a desert, a castle town, or the entire sea that you had to navigate through, and you had to determine who to talk to and what mission is more important to take. In Skyward Sword, however, maps mostly resembled a snake, twisting around a one-way path until you reached whatever plot point that is essential to the game. Other one-way paths are opened later, but you always needed some kind of weapon or ability to unlock these paths. Even in the Lanayru desert area where you use a time stone to navigate an ancient sea, there are only two paths to take. Compare that to the Great Sea of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and the difference is immense. (Granted, Wind Waker’s entire landscape is based on the sea, while Skyward Sword’s sea area is only a fraction of the game, but it feels too limiting to a sea. Too many surface rocks block your boat, making it feel more like a river.) Skyward Sword, instead of letting you travel across Hyrule Field to different parts of the world, only lets you traverse a one-way path of Hyrule until you get to a dungeon or temple. The only real “open” world is the Sky, but most of the plot’s action is not there: aside from finding the Isle of Songs, the Sky mostly holds small side quests that you do not need to undertake in order to complete the game. Many fans, though they enjoyed the game, found the linear game structure a disappointment.

Metroid might seem similar in structure to Skyward Sword – the world is just a one-way path, and you have to unlock weapons in order to open up more one-way paths – but two differences counteract this similarity: the flawless merging of weapon placement and gameplay, and the lack of direct information on where to go. I will compare two Metroid games, Super Metroid and Metroid Prime, to Skyward Sword and show how games can use linear game design in both genius and frustrating ways. Both Super Metroid and Metroid Prime are classic examples of Metroid games because they are the most representative of explorative-yet-hidden narrative with corresponding gameplay mechanics. Ignoring them in a general discussion of the Metroid franchise would be a disgrace.

First, the merging of finding a weapon and gameplay is nearly flawless in Metroid because the finding of a weapon is usually accidental: players do not know beforehand where a power-up lies hidden. In Skyward Sword, on the other hand, players find most weapons in isolated dungeons, making it more of a task. Legend of Zelda games are built on a dungeon system, meaning that a weapon Link needs always waits in a chest in a dungeon – i.e. a structure containing an isolated puzzle. There’s nothing special about finding the weapon because you know it’s going to be there. The only sense of mystery in this mechanic is what the weapon will be, and even that can be obvious. If the dungeon has many areas where you have to shoot orbs from a distance, expect a bow and arrow in a chest. If the dungeon has unreachable platforms with strange-yet-obvious targets, expect a hookshot. If the dungeon has walls that are loosely held together, expect a bomb. This can even apply to the world beyond dungeons, though questions of which item to use and where to use them become a bit less clear. In Super Metroid, however, not only do players not expect the wave gun or power bombs, but they also do not know where to find power-ups. The Metroid franchise, like Zelda, has its iconic weapons : rockets, grapple beam, screw attack, ice beam, etc. However, when you get those beams is totally variable]. This is especially true because sometimes the player will find an area that can only be unlocked with the Power Bomb, but players do not find the weapon until they are three-fourths done with the game. They discover the weapon in the course of their natural progression through the world, not through a dungeon that they already know the basics of (“solve puzzle, defeat mini-boss, get weapon, more puzzle, defeat final boss with weapon”). And even though in Metroid, the bosses drop upgrades as well, these bosses also appear without the player expecting them: the music changes and grows eerie as Samus travels through a couple of rooms until she suddenly tumbles into a large and quiet room with the strange foreboding of an ominous presence. The music changes again, the ground shakes, and all of a sudden the giant green beast of Kraid emerges from the floor, or Phantoon phases into thin air. The timing of the boss fights is quite unexpected – not necessarily random, but not telegraphed either. Nothing leads up to in-game boss fights except for one or two hints – like the giant boss statue in Super Metroid of Kraid, Draygon, Phantoon, and Ridley –  or partial sightings of the boss, which players sometimes do not realize is a boss at the time (see Metroid Prime 3: Corruption with the bounty hunters constantly threatening you just out of sight). Even the Chozo statues that hold Samus’s power-ups spring to life sometimes and fight her as a mini-boss. The game makes it seem as if you stumbled into the boss by chance, as opposed to Zelda games in which bosses wait for you at the end of a structured and formalized dungeon.

In addition to the placement of power-ups and bosses in Super Metroid, the game sometimes forces the player to look at background and the planet Zebes’s environment. For example, you will see dead scientists in certain places,which signals disaster; you see the golden statue that reveals the four main bosses, which was mentioned above; and you see the creepy wrecked ship, which holds secrets that explain what has happened to the Federation on Zebes. In two sections in particular, Samus comes across strange creatures: a Dachora, and Etecoons. Screen Shot 2015-12-08 at 7.51.42 PMWhen Samus arrives in these creatures’ dwellings, she is stuck, for the terrain is impossible to navigate with her current weapons, or so the players think. The creatures, though, give some hints: the Dachora starts sprinting very fast, and then, glowing weirdly, flies up to the top of the cliff. The Etecoons start leaping back and forth between the walls, climbing up to the top of their cliff. The Dachora and the Etecoons show Samus (and thereby the player as well) how to use the Shinespark ability and the Wall Jump ability, respectively. Both abilities are not necessarily power-ups — Samus already has the Wall Jump ability from the start, and the Shinespark ability comes from the Speed Booster power-up — but players do not know about these additional game mechanics beforehand. The Dachora and Etecoons show Samus her inherent abilities, but it is up to the player to figure out the corresponding controls – it can be a little frustrating, but the feeling of accomplishment is worth it and adds to the gaming experience. You figured out how to get Samus out of the cavern; you showed Samus a new ability. No formulaic dungeon telegraphed a boss fight and revealed a chest holding an item that you already knew was there. The impressive thing about the Dachora and Etecoons in Super Metroid is that you can complete the entire game without even finding the creatures, so learning their secrets is all the more satisfying. It’s just one example of how Super Metroid puts exploring into the player’s hand, testing their learning abilities and skills, instead of presented them with gifts in chests. Players must earn their weapons in Super Metroid and other Metroid titles, or else they will never succeed in beating the game.

Dowsing in Skyward SwordThe second difference between Metroid games and Skyward Sword can be summed into one word : ‘dowsing’, Skyward Sword’s term for “telling the player directly where to go.” Fi grants the player the ability to find necessary objects with the Goddess sword, giving players a first-person perspective as they track the object in the world until the sword locates the object. This game mechanic takes exploration – which is iconic to Zelda – completely out of the game. The player no longer explores the terrain and discovers where they can and cannot go in the world, figuring out the landscape for themselves. Instead, the game tells you specifically where to go. The first-person perspective hardly gives you room to look around, because once you switch to this mode, Link is immobile. Now, the Skyward Sword does allow the player to explore sometimes: players can ignore the dowsing mechanic and roam around; but the problem is that Skyward Sword’s plot will not move forward unless the player uses dowsing. This is extremely annoying because you can find the source of dowsing all by yourself, but the game will not register your new find until you point your sword at it and it signals a plot point. This is not exploration, but rather hand-holding. The only games that should do this are those that contain missions in which the player has to get from point A to point B within a limited amount of time, and the game tells players which paths are the quickest through a map or beacon on the screen. Super Metroid refuses to show its players the way and insists that they solve the puzzle of the maze-like landscape on their own. Even when Samus’s Varia Suit gives you hints in the later 3D games, it will show a location on the map, but never shows how to actually get there: the only clue that players see is a floating room they have not visited yet (usually), not connected to any of the previously visited rooms. Metroid gives players hints, whereas Skyward Sword directs players to each new area through straightforward level design and game mechanics. The game structure diminishes the explorative experience and makes players think that they are only moving forward on a designated path, not discovering anything on their own but rather taking orders from a higher power. This is not the point of an exploratory video game.

Screen Shot 2015-12-08 at 7.56.58 PMIn contrast to dowsing and hand-holding that takes away exploratory gameplay, Metroid Prime introduces an ability called “scanning.” The player uses Samus’s vision in first-person view to scan objects and databases, learning about an enemy’s weak point, determining an object’s material composition, and reading historical, ancient texts that reveal what has happened to the Chozo. These texts in particular are sometimes out in the open, and other times hidden in secret rooms, so you will find the texts out of order. They are spread throughout the game so as to not reveal everything at one time. This enables players to discover the narrative gradually — learning about bosses like the sun-fueled Flaaghra, piecing clues together about the “Great Poison,” and eventually finding the Chozo artifacts that lead to the final boss. Scanning also helps the player discover pirate logs: they help see what the enemy is doing, including breeding Metroids, much to Samus’s dismay (Samus thought she had destroyed all of these creatures in Super Metroid.) The scanning mechanic allows players to take in information that they want to take in: if they wanted, players could get through the entire game and scan virtually nothing, except for panels that are necessary to open different areas. Unlike dowsing, which forces the player to use the mechanic in order to proceed in the plot, scanning remains a tool for learning, one that the players can choose to use in order to piece together the puzzles of Tallon IV. It is a mechanic complementary to the exploratory maze of Metroid games, not telling players directly where to go, but not leaving them completed lost either.

Even though Metroid games are more linear than they feel, unlike Skyward Sword they do not diminish the exploratory essence that most players prize in video games. Whereas Skyward Sword’s dungeons telegraph necessary weapons and implement the “dowsing” mechanic to force players through a plot, Super Metroid and Metroid Prime allow the player to make mistakes, backtracking and finding clues to the plot themselves. In Super Metroid the player must search and look closely to find hidden power-ups, while Metroid Prime’s “scanning” mechanic gives information without revealing everything the player needs to know about the gameplay or narrative. Both games may have a linear plot and gameplay, as there is only one true path by which to beat the game, but how players find the path is what provides both of these Metroid games with their true nature of investigation, trial and error, and narrative discovery. The plots of the games depend fully on Samus and how she finds certain power-ups and bosses, not on external plot points that interject themselves into gameplay. The player’s solving the puzzle of Zebes or Tallon IV is the narrative, meaning that gameplay and narrative are fully interlocked with each other: rather than cutscenes or dialogue telling the story between periods of gameplay, the gameplay itself is Samus’s entire journey. Instead of the game showing the narrative to the player, the player is the one that reveals Super Metroid’s and Metroid Prime’s narrative completely through explorative gameplay, allowing Samus to discover the hidden truths that await her on Zebes and Tallon IV.

Super Metroid and Metroid Prime are the true most exploratory games in the series, making them the most enjoyable because players are using their minds to the fullest to discover the hidden narrative within the game. To emphasize this, let me compare them to two other Metroid games, Metroid Fusion and Metroid Prime 3: Corruption and show that the latter games slightly diminish the players autonomy in exploration. In these games, Samus has to explore a space station (in Fusion) or several planets (in Corruption), but the plot is clear: figure out why communications were cut off on the space station and destroy the X parasite invasion, or track down the mission bounty hunters and stop Phazon from spreading (notice that both of the games’ end goals are to destroy a corrupting force of nature that seeks domination). As you proceed in both games, an artificially intelligent computer tells Samus what impedes her progress and what needs to be done. Your computer in Fusion, Adam, tells you how the X parasite has invaded, that you need to get to data rooms to download weapons, that a boiler is going to explode, that Nightmare is a biological gravity weapon, and so on. Your computer in Corruption, Aurora Unit 242, tells you to stop the bounty hunters because they too have been corrupted with Phazon, how to prepare your ships with missiles, advises you to track down an attacked airship (which is vital to finishing the game), discovers the planets Phaaze on its own, and so on. Both computers are essential in discovering the main plot in Fusion and Corruption, but because of the two presences, Samus now takes constant orders from them. The player discovers the whole narrative less as they are told certain key aspects for understanding the dire importance of the surrounding events. For example, Aurora Unit 242 must keep updating Samus on the properties of Phazon since the entity is slowly corrupting Samus herself. Samus cannot figure out Phazon properties on her own or else she will succumb to Phazon and eventually die, so the Aurora Unit 242 must warn her against constant uses of Phazon and how it affects not only her, but also the planets she explores.

This “telling” dynamic does not make either Fusion or Corruption frustrating (they are still some of the best games out there) because they do not take away the core element of Metroid games: the computers still refuse to tell you how to achieve your goal. Both games still hide much of the story and keep the gameplay and narrative nearly indistinguishable from one another, creating a sense of genuine accomplishment when players actually do stop the boiler from exploding or discover the cause of plant overgrowth in the engine room. Everything still feels like your own achievement – you figured out the right way to succeed. You did the right thing. Dowsing did not command your every move and pull you along like a toddler. You cut off pirate communication and deactivated the shield all by your own wits. This is a feeling of satisfaction that the creators knew could not leave the franchise (even though Other M tried really hard to do so). Unlike Super and Prime, however, Fusion and Corruption fall short of true exploration: they tell you the end-goals in mission gameplay instead of letting players find the overall problems, giving a bit of the discovery authority to the computers instead of the players.

Narrative dynamics in Metroid games

Even though some Metroid games differ slightly from the classic explorative gameplay, all of the entries in the series still retain the beauty, the adventure, and the fun of the Metroid franchise. They do not focus their attention on fighting the bosses, on becoming better equipped for the final fight, or on cutscenes or extraneous dialogue; instead they let players take full control of gameplay and thus the narrative, creating a true sense of exploration. By comparing the series to both open-world games and more linear games, we can clearly understand its mode of narrative presentation: while open-world games allow players to invent the path, and while linear game make players follow the path, Metroid games lie in the middle, focusing more on discovering the path. Metroid’s gameplay might be linear, as there is only one way to actually beat the game, but the linear plot does not create linear gameplay: it instead creates the maze-like worlds that Samus must navigate and conquer. Metroid also feels open-world because, at the beginning, no clear path stands before Samus. Though some paths are locked (because Samus does not have an upgrade or she has not done something important), the world in which she arrives seems vast and mysterious, waiting for someone to discover its secrets. It’s a bit of a mind trick, and we all fall for it. The trick, though, is essential for making the game even more enticing: since the game’s one plot is hidden, it is up to you to discover what it is, or else the game ceases to progress. With little more than your own skill and problem-solving, you must discover the real cause of Samus’s mission, and help her find the weapons and resources she needs in order to defeat her deadly enemies in space.

The world through the eyes of Samus

Laila Carter is a featured author at With a Terrible Fate. Check out her bio to learn more.

Critical Review: Xenoblade and Leibniz.

A few weeks ago, I laid out With a Terrible Fate‘s plans for celebrating its one-year anniversary. One of the several things that I promised readers was that I would re-release some of my most popular analyses, with bonus commentary reflecting on the strengths, weaknesses, and reception of the piece. Today, on the eve of the North American and European releases of Xenoblade Chronicles X, I am offering the first such retrospective: a critical review of my analysis of Leibniz’s influence on Xenoblade Chronicles.

Read on for the full text of the original article, which I wrote back in February of this year, and read on after the article for my critical review.


 

 

Finding your Monad: Xenoblade and Leibniz.

We are about to bear witness to the birth of a universe.

Once, only a god could perform such a miracle.

Klaus, “Xenoblade Chronicles”

The clock counts down to the release of “Majora’s Mask 3D” on Friday, February 13th.  At the moment, however, I want to turn elsewhere, and give fans a sample of what is coming beyond “Majora’s Mask.”

You might reasonably wonder exactly where an enterprise named With a Terrible Fate could go beyond the analysis of “Majora’s Mask.”  However, I believe that my analysis of the game over the last four months has, beyond examining the architecture of “Majora’s Mask” as a work of art, has provided the basis for a mode of general video game criticism.  The major points I draw your attention to are best articulated in my works of line analysis on the first line and last line said by the Happy Mask Salesman in the game.  If we want to be snarky about it, we can refer to the analytic mode I have in mind as ‘the Majoran critique’:  ‘examination of the narratological architecture of a universe, the metaphysics of which reflect existential contingency on an agency exogenous of that universe.’  Put another way:  we’ve seen that Termina very deeply depends on the player as a character in its story in order to exist.  This mode of literary criticism takes player agency as a crucial, central element to the stories of video games, and aims to uncover how different games architect worlds and stories in relation to that agency.

If you want to read more about this, you’re in luck.  I wrote an academic paper about it, which you can check out here.  Drawing from various parts of my analysis of “Majora’s Mask,” the paper models how the game creates a world whose coherence and narrative are functions of the player as a participant.

But it’s sometimes easier to teach by example.  So today, “Xenoblade Chronicles” meets With a Terrible Fate.  

Xenoblade

Before proceeding with analysis, a disclaimer.  I never felt the need to warn about spoilers in “Majora’s Mask” — partly because I’m a delightfully callous video game analyst, and partly because, as far as RPG’s go, the narrative of “Majora’s Mask” doesn’t really depend on sudden twists and turns.  “Xenoblade” thrives on twists and turns, and I promise you that the narrative is far more rewarding if you experience it for the first time by actually playing the game.  This analysis will heavily focus on the end of the game — and, callous analyst that I am, I’m going to be using spoiler-worthy details all the time.  Consider yourself warned.

“Xenoblade” has become a modern classic in gaming, to the point where its main character, Shulk, has “earned a spot” in the latest iteration of the “Super Smash Bros.” series.  The reasons why it’s enticing are pretty clear:  it’s a great example of a massive overworld, with a lot of potential for exploration, and an epic-length plot to match.  It’s a world with rich history, and this history stretches out before the player in two directions:  ontologically, the side quests of the game offer tremendous insight into the ancient history of species and civilizations across the world; metaphysically, the game’s main plot reveals how the world itself came into existence, and how the world functions as a closed system.

There are also subtler aspects that make the game memorable.  For one, it’s directly informed by Leibniz’s metaphysics — the sword upon which the plot turns is called “the Monado,” a direct reference to Leibniz’s monadology, something to which I will return later.  It’s also a great example of storytelling that utilizes thematic mirroring of the macrocosm and microcosm:  the same questions of identity and teleology emerge in the case of individual characters as emerge on the universal scale.

I offer this all by means of background; the point is that there are a lot of different things one could say about “Xenoblade,” because it’s an appealing game from a variety of angles.  What I’m going to do in this article, drawing in part from the different game elements I just mentioned, is use the theoretical machinery first outlined in my work on “Majora’s Mask” to defend the following thesis:  the narrative of Xenoblade describes the ‘death of the author’ by transferring metaphysical authority from the game’s creator to the player.

ShulkGottfried Leibniz

To understand how the world within “Xenoblade” functions, it’s crucial that we understand some of Leibniz’s mature metaphysics, because, as I mentioned above, the game’s narrative turns on an object explicitly referring to that metaphysics.  This will be a rough gloss, but my hope is to provide enough context to do Leibniz justice, while also equipping us to move into a well-reasoned analysis of the metaphysics in “Xenoblade.”

Leibniz’s metaphysics is grounded in his theory of monadology, which describes the real world as constituted by mind-like substances with perception and appetite, but without extension.  These substances are called ‘monads’, and physical entities in this framework are understood as less-real phenomena grounded in the interactions of these monads.  Each being can be described by a ‘dominant monad’, which in living beings (e.g., humans) is equivalent to a ‘soul’.  Importantly, each monad, while lacking extension, possesses a unique perspective with respect to all other monad — and, consequently, to the world.  ‘God’, which we can frame here as something like a ‘first cause’ in the causal chain of the universe, is knowledgeable of all monads, and therefore perceives the universe from all perspectives at all times.

Shulk with Monado

So much for Leibniz, for the moment.  Moving to “Xenoblade”:  the Monado is a sword which, over the course of the game, reveals itself to be a tool that allows its wielder to see and change the world’s future.  The explanation of this is that the sword is able to tap into the flow of ether, the fundamental element of the universe; as ether constitutes the world, its flow, by extension, is numerically identical to the causal chain of the universe as it moves forward in time.  This turns into a plot point and game mechanic because, by virtue of viewing the future as it presently stands, one (Shulk / the player) is able to take actions to change the future, altering the causal chain as the universe proceeds in the forward direction.

Zanza

“Xenoblade” is also a world of gods, and a story of killing the Zanza, the god who claims ownership of the universe.  In the final moments of the game’s main plot, the ontology of the universe is explained to Shulk (27:24 in the video; we will return to the matter of who explains it to him in just a moment).  We learn in the final moments of the game that the universe was created by two scientists — Klaus and Meyneth — who, in turn, entered the universe and became its gods, with Klaus taking the name of “Zanza.”  The world created by Klaus consisted of two enormous titans, the Bionis and Mechonis, serving as manifestations of Zanza and Meyneth, respectively; Zanza thrust the universe into a state of decay and rebirth, in order to ensure that the creatures of the world would never forget his place as their god.

Meyneth, however, did battle with Zanza, believing that the people of the universe they created should not be subservient to gods.  In the battle, Meyneth was rendered dormant, and Zanza was imprisoned on the Bionis.  Ultimately, it is revealed that Zanza had inhabited the body of Shulk, the player’s main character; at the climax of the game, he shrugs Shulk off in a way similar to Majora’s Mask shrugging off Skull Kid; he takes Shulk’s Monado, and moves to destroy the world and create a new one yet again.  Meyneth, who had inhabited the body of Shulk’s childhood friend, Fiora, manifests herself, summons her own Monado and dies fighting Zanza.

Zanza claims both Monados and leaves to complete his plot; but Shulk and his friends return to challenge Zanza.  When Shulk first confronts Zanza, he finds that he cannot properly anticipate the future, because Zanza is the god wielding the Monados.  Yet as the battle continues, Shulk’s resolve strengthens, and a third Monado appears in his hands.  Throughout the game, the Monado has shown symbols on its hilt reflecting the creatures it can fell; in the moment when the third Monado appears, it bears the symbol for “god.”  Shulk reclaims his ability to see the future, declaring that “the future doesn’t belong to [Zanza],” and he kills the god.

At this point, something unexpected happens:  Alvis, a man who has guided Shulk from the periphery of the narrative for much of the game, reveals himself to actually be Monado itself, and says that Monado is “the administrative computer of a phase transition facility.”  He then tells Shulk the history of the world, beginning with how Klaus and Meyneth created it in an experiment on a space station; he ends by saying that, in killing Zanza, Shulk has become the new god, and must choose the world he wants to create.  Shulk decides to create “a world without gods,” which is “boundless” in nature.

Even on a flat analysis, I find the game’s storyline compelling; however, moving to full analysis by adding the player and Leibniz is where things start getting really interesting.  Recall that the thesis I am after is a narrative describing the ‘death of the author’.  To be specific, I use this term to denote a position in literary criticism that examines art object independently of the author’s intention, background, context, etc.  In other words, this approach “kills” the artist, and only looks at the art for what it is.  So, for a narrative to describe this position, we would expect the narrative’s architect to appear within it, one way or another.  A theoretical diagram will help show how this happens in “Xenoblade.”

Xenoblade Diagram

One of the metaphysical stratifications to notice in games that refer to their own universe from outside of it — like “Xenoblade” — is the difference between the universe as conceived within the game, and the totality of the universe established by the game.  Klaus and Alvis are both literally within the game, but they are also outside of the universe described by the game, which Klaus created in his “phase transition” experiment.  The player, too, is outside the universe conceived by the game, but is still an agent within the game’s narrative.  A return to monadology will explain what I mean here.

Recall that monads, the fundamentals of reality, describe the causal chain of the universe, according to Leibniz.  God sees from the perspective of all monads at once and is therefore omniscient.  This coheres with the usage of ‘Monado’ within “Xenoblade”:  Klaus uses a system administrator to facilitate the construction and maintenance of his own universe; as its creator and the progenitor of the Monado, he knows the totality of its causal structure, and is able to inhabit whatever perspective he wishes — as when he inhabits Shulk’s body.  When Zanza first exits Shulk’s body and reveals himself, he speaks to this effect:  “Do not be surprised,” he tells Shulk’s friends, “everything in this world is dictated by the passage of fate.  As all that exists is interconnected, time can only flow toward the inevitable.  That is the vision of which I, the Monado, am the origin.”  By equating himself with the Monado, Zanza is describing himself as the first mover in the causal chain — which, as the universe’s creator and god, he is.  We can say that Zanza is the dominant monad when the entire universe as conceived by the game is taken as a closed system.

If the metaphysics of Leibniz were imposed on the universe of a film or book, then this would be the end of the story:  there is nothing beyond a god who is the causal chain of the universe.  But we have already seen that games have a different set of narrative mechanisms in their toolkit, and it is player agency that allows this story to end with the death of a god, as opposed to his conquest.

The Monado that can fell a god

What can fell a god?  When Alvis reveals himself as Monado, he speaks to Zanza about the limitations of gods.  Zanza exclaims in fury that “the power of a god cannot be overcome”; and, given my analysis, he has every reason to believe that this is categorically true.  Alvis replies that “even gods are merely beings restricted to the limited power determined by providence.  That power, although great, is not unlimited.”  Returning to Figure 2.1, notice the distinction between the universe as conceived by the game, and the domain of the game beyond that universe:  it is readily apparent that Zanza is limited in precisely the way described by Alvis, because he is bound within the system of the very universe he created.  The player is not.  By controlling Shulk and his friends, the player is able to perceive the future and change it, by looking and acting upon the universe’s system from a vantage point external to the game itself — a vantage point which renders Zanza a mere character in the causal chain, rather than an omnipotent metaphysical agent.  The reason Shulk is able to persist, challenge, and defeat Zanza after the god tosses him aside is that the player continues to engage with him, and with his world.  The third Monado, for which Zanza cannot account, is actually identical to the player’s agency within the universe of “Xenoblade.”

There’s an even stronger claim that we can make about “Xenoblade” at this juncture, which drives home just how well-composed its story is:  from the beginning of the game, the only possible outcome is the destruction of the current universe.  Of course, the player has no way of knowing this at the start of the game, but it is clear in hindsight:  the universe, as conceived within the game, operates in accordance with Leibniz’s metaphysics.  This entails a closed, determined causal structure, of which God is omniscient.  The instigation of another metaphysical entity with the capacity to alter this causal structure — namely, the player — breaks the deterministic causality of the universe as previously conceived.  It follows that the only outcome for the universe, once the player is introduced to it, is decomposition; so, besides oblivion, the creation of a new universe at the end of the game is the only logically possible conclusion.

“Xenoblade” does something remarkable on the level of second-order narrative:  it shows how video games can be used in aesthetically powerful ways to create a universe with a complete metaphysics, and then perturb those metaphysics with an external agent.  A universe of Leibniz’s metaphysics leaves all being subordinate to god, which reflects the structure of games as a program, the path of which is determined prior to the player ever finding it; yet the design of the universe as something that can be externally observed allows the player to disturb the universe’s determined structure, and tell a story whose narrative arc is only valid by virtue of the player’s interference.  This feature, then, reflects the value of the player acting upon the program of a game to bring its narrative from the realm of possible paths into the reality of a single path from start to finish.

How does this deal with the death of the author?  Well, with the analytic work in place, a generalization of Figure 2.1, shown below as Figure 2.2, has an answer for us.

Xenoblade Diagram, Generalized

The game designer, or ‘architect’, designs a universe through and within the confines of a game system.  Also through the game system, a character is instantiated through which the player is able to enter the game’s universe (the ‘avatar’).  The game’s architect is in a position to establish a world with a particular metaphysics, which can be as complete as a gloss of Leibniz’s theory; and in this way, the internal structure of the game’s world is a remnant of its designer, who is analogous to the world’s ‘God’.  Yet the player, by virtue of connecting with the avatar, is able to exert agency from outside of the universe’s closed system, and is thereby able to perturb the world’s initial structure, as architected by its designer.  In this way, the narrative of a game can be described as the perturbing of the world’s prior structure by introduction of a metaphysically external agent.  We saw “Majora’s Mask” metricized a certain way in terms of Termina’s metaphysical dependency on the player; “Xenoblade” shows us that this can be generalized, and that, as Alvis says, it can be described well as a “phase transition.”  An effective way for games to tell stories, we see, is by setting up a world so ordered as to have been designed by a god, and then introducing a being with the power to kill that god by subverting the world’s metaphysics.  This is precisely how games, to paraphrase Klaus, allow their players to give birth to a universe — a miracle that was once reserved for gods.


 

Analysis

I generally agree today with the analysis I initially put forward about Xenoblade Chronicles. However, there are several points which warrant elaboration and clarification.

Leibniz and Gnosticism

I should first point out that my work on Xenoblade has often been referenced and discussed alongside work that interprets Xenoblade in terms of Gnosticism. I am not going to comment on this at length because theology is far from my area of expertise. I will, however, make two brief remarks. First, it seems to me obvious and undeniable that much of Xenoblade‘s lore is inspired by Gnosticism. Yaldabaoth, Egil’s Faced Mechon, shares its name with a Gnostic demiurge; various characters in the game bear resemblance to figures in Gnostic scripture; some strands of Gnosticism are also monadic (this bears no relation to Leibniz–it means merely that the Gnostics posited a first being from which the universe emerged). Second, I see no reason why such an interpretation, if one wishes to pursue it, would be incompatible with my own analysis. My philosophical analysis of the game’s aesthetic dynamics are primarily concerned with how the game’s story works, not “what it means” in some interpretive sense. So one can accept the dynamics that I propose and still acknowledge Gnostic influence without contradicting oneself.

Here is a somewhat different example making the same point: regular readers may recall that, during my extended analysis of Majora’s Mask, I wrote a piece analyzing the apparent influence of Buddhism on the game. This bore no immediate relation to my much larger project of analyzing the aesthetic dynamics inherent to the game: rather, I was applying an external tradition in order to interpret the meaning of the game in a certain way. This is exactly what we have in the case of Xenoblade and Gnosticism: if you buy into my work on the game, then you can take or leave the Gnostic interpretation in good conscience.

“We can say that Zanza is the dominant monad when the entire universe as conceived by the game is taken as a closed system. If the metaphysics of Leibniz were imposed on the universe of a film or book, then this would be the end of the story:  there is nothing beyond a god who is the causal chain of the universe.”

In my original work on Xenoblade, I only gestured at the idea that its kind of death-of-the-author narrative — i.e. narratives in which a character, whose existence is determined by some other “author” character, interferes with the author and interrupts the course of his own story — only makes sense in the narrative medium of video games. Some time later, I returned to Xenoblade in order to flesh out a much more robust explanation of why this is the case. You can read that explanation in full here. I compare Xenoblade to the film Stranger than Fiction (Zack Helm, 2006), and argue that Stranger than Fiction, in trying to to present a death-of-the-author narrative, actually has an incoherent plot because films (and novels) lack the representational resources necessary to coherently represent such a narrative. (Actually, at the time, I said that Stranger than Fiction’s narrative was coherent, but inherently paradoxical. I now think that the paradox renders the narrative incoherent.)

The problem is this: suppose the “author” in a death-of-the-author story to be some agent x. In Xenoblade, this author is Zanza, god of the universe that he created; in Stranger than Fiction, the author is Karen Eiffel, a novelist whose characters, unbeknownst to her, come to life in her world and live out lives that are determined by the stories that Eiffel writes. Now, there also exists some agent y, which is a character created by the author, whose actions are determined by the author. In Xenoblade, the relevant agent is Shulk; in Stranger than Fiction, it is Harold Crick, portrayed by Will Ferrell. By the definition of death-of-the-author narratives, y is able to impact x and thereby change the course of events in the world. But this is a problem for Stranger than Fiction, as well as for similar stories in novels and films, because their plot then takes the following form: ‘the choices of x are affected by the actions of y, which were determined by choices made by x‘. This is irreducibly circular and therefore incoherent.

Xenoblade, however, shows that video games have a special method by which they can tell the same story without falling into the trap of incoherence. Because the player extends her agency to her avatar, controlling the avatar and dictating its actions, she can determine the actions of a character that was initially created and controlled by an author character. This is exactly what we see happen in Xenoblade: Shulk is able to confront and kill Zanza, his creator and god, because of the agency of the player. The player is external to Zanza’s universe and therefore not bound by Zanza, meaning that Shulk is, by extension, also able to ultimately act independently from Zanza. If we call the player a third agent z, then we can reformulate the death-of-the-author plot for video games as follows: ‘the choices of x are affected by the actions of y, which were determined by choices made by z‘. There is nothing circular about this, and video game narratives like Xenoblade‘s are thereby able to remain coherent. Because this coherence depends on the player as an agent external to the universe of the author character’s control, I take it to be the case that video games are uniquely able to render death-of-the-author narratives coherent.

“By controlling Shulk and his friends, the player is able to perceive the future and change it, by looking and acting upon the universe’s system from a vantage point external to the game itself — a vantage point which renders Zanza a mere character in the causal chain, rather than an omnipotent metaphysical agent.”

This is a trickier claim than I initially supposed. The issue is that we typically take it to be the case that entities lacking spatial extension in a given world cannot exert causal influence upon that world. The player obviously lacks spatial extension in Xenoblade‘s universe–that is precisely how, on my account, she is able to perturb the universe’s deterministic structure and bring about the death of Zanza. But, you might respond, I have already offered an obvious solution: the player’s agency is extend through Shulk and his friends, and Shulk+friends act as the player’s spatial extension within the universe of Xenoblade. Yet this only relocates the same problem: just how is it that the player is able to causally influence Shulk and his friends, given that the player lacks spatial extension within the universe of the game? I see two ways to go here, one of which I find much more plausible than the other.

The first way to respond is to simply say “That’s just the way things work in video games.” All artistic media, we might say, have conventions–for example, even though actors in a theater can obviously see the audience, we take it to be the case (except when indicated otherwise) that the characters in a play do not actually see the audience. We may even suppose that these characters do not exist in the same “world” as the audience, even though the audience can obviously see what is happening within the world of the play. It is therefore perfectly in keeping with the tradition of artistic convention to suppose that players can influence the worlds of video games despite not being a part of those worlds.

I don’t find this line of reasoning convincing. Even if we grant that some aesthetic conventions don’t make sense when taken literally, the case of players causally impacting video games is problematic for reasons that go beyond cases like actors ignoring an audience. In some video games, I have argued, we must understand the player as part of the game’s narrative in order to make sense of that narrative–again, this is the only way I see in which we can understand Shulk’s ability to kill Zanza. There is no analogous way in which the narrative of a play, for example, depends upon the audience in order to cohere. Because of the interactive nature of video games, questions of player-instigated causation are of immediate concern in aesthetic analysis, and so we had better hope that there is a better response to the problem available than “That’s just the medium’s convention.”

do think that a better response is available, although the response is far from orthodox–so, bear with me. The literal answer to the question of how the player can causally influence events within the game, obviously, is that the controller acts as a mechanism by which the player can input commands that are processed by the game system and influence how it runs the program that constitutes the video game. I think that this answer can also serve to resolve the issue of the player’s causal influence within the context of the narrative.

This is a particularly perspicuous explanation in the case of Xenoblade. By stipulation within the narrative, the universe that Klaus created was computer-generated–this is why Alvis, the metaphysical arbiter of the universe, described himself as “the administrative computer of a phase transition facility.” If we already need to recognize the player’s agency in order to make sense of Shulk killing Zanza, and the basis for this player agency is that the player exists in the same universe to which Klaus originally belongs (I argued this in my original work on the game, above), then it seems reasonable to make the further inference that the game system itself is what allows the player to access and exert her will upon the universe, using the avatars of Shulk and his friends as proxies for herself. We have now solved the problem of causal influence without physical extension: the “universe” of the game, conceived as the program that the game system is running, is directly influenced by the real-life, physically extended player, through the intermediary of the game system’s controller.

Is it utterly bizarre that we have to conceive of the universe of the game as a literal computer program in order to understand its narrative? I don’t think so–at least, not as bizarre as it may initially seem. Consider these analogous cases: many novels are written in the form of diaries or journals (e.g., Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). When we read these narratives, we are supposed to imagine of the literal book that we are holding that it is a journal or diary, written by whichever character that the story tells us wrote it. Likewise, in the “found footage” genre of film, viewers are meant to imagine, within the conceit of the narrative, that the literal film they are watching was recorded by whichever character in the movie had the video camera. In ways such as these, narratives include facts about their literal representational vehicles all the time. Though understanding game consoles in this way is unintuitive, it makes good theoretical sense, and, as I have just argued, it allows us to solve the problem of how a player can causally influence a game’s narrative.

Moreover, seeing game consoles in this way allows us to think clearly about the aesthetic effects that result from video games being played on particular consoles. For example, I think that there are aesthetically meaningful differences between games that are played on stationary consoles (i.e. consoles that are connected to televisions) and games that are played on portable consoles. I will not go into the details of these differences here because I have yet to play the 3DS version of Xenoblade–however, if you’d like to read more about this, I have written about it extensively in relation to Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Check out this article, written prior to the release of Majora’s Mask 3D, in which I hypothesized how playing the game on a portable console might change the aesthetics of the game; and, check out my analysis of Majora’s Mask 3D, in which I analyze how playing the game on a portable console actually does change the aesthetics of the game.

“[the Monado] is able to tap into the flow of ether, the fundamental element of the universe; as ether constitutes the world, its flow, by extension, is numerically identical to the causal chain of the universe as it moves forward in time.  This turns into a plot point and game mechanic because, by virtue of viewing the future as it presently stands, one (Shulk / the player) is able to take actions to change the future, altering the causal chain as the universe proceeds in the forward direction.”

This piece of analysis would work well if Shulk were the only avatar in the time–i.e. if the player controlled him and no one else–but the fact is that the player controls Shulk and his friends. So the ability to change the future of Zanza’s deterministic universe cannot be grounded in Shulk alone, because the player’s agency is extended to characters other than Shulk.

Thankfully, introducing the game console to the narrative analysis, as I just did above, solves this problem in an easy way that would not have been available to my original analysis. The player’s agency is directly able to allow Shulk and his friends to change the future by virtue of the player’s ability to control them through the game system.

Of course, this analysis is not yet satisfactory. Even if we have an accurate causal explanation of how the player extends agency to Shulk and his party, it would still be nice to have an explanation that grounds this causal explanation in the content of Xenoblade‘s narrative. Why exactly is it the case that Shulk and his friends are connected to the player’s agency? I propose to answer this question using Shulk’s Monado III in combination with general observations about dynamics underpinning the way in which Shulk and his friends associate.

I said in my original analysis of the game, above, that “[the] third Monado, for which Zanza cannot account, is actually identical to the player’s agency within the universe of ‘Xenoblade’.” I still think that this is the case: it grounds Shulk’s ability to kill Zanza, and makes plausible how he is able to continue his quest after Zanza ceases to control him from the inside. But I also think that the player’s agency, in its form as the Monado III, is “shared” amongst Shulk’s companions. Let me explain what I mean.

One of Xenoblade‘s basic mechanics is an ‘affinity system’, whereby various characters become more or less fond of each other based on various interactions that they have with each other. High affinity between party members is required to unlock a variety of things, such as ‘Heart-to-Hearts’ in which party members speak one-on-one and deepen their bonds with one another. So we have grounds to assume that party association has meaningful consequences within the universe of the game, as represented by the gameplay.

One of the primary ways in which affinity is strengthened between party members are in the player’s ‘active party’: this is the group of characters the engages in battle, undertakes quests, and so on. In other words, the active party is the group of characters most directly controlled by the player. I don’t think this is coincidence: rather, it seems to me that party characters are most predisposed to gain affinity in the active party because this is when they act most dynamically with one another, and they act most dynamically with one another in virtue of the player’s agency.

This tight connection between affinity on the one hand, and player agency facilitating dynamic action on the other, leads me to believe that the Monado diffuses its agency amongst those who bond with Shulk. Of all beings in the game, Shulk’s party companions are undoubtedly closest to him. And those who spend more time in the active party both develop greater affinity and are more directly controlled by the player’s agency. And this coheres deeply with the game’s theming of friendship: the stronger Shulk’s friends are bonded to him, the greater the extent is to which they, too, can change the future.

There are, of course, difficulties with this argument, but I don’t think they are enough to overshadow its plausibility. There are select moments in the same during which Shulk is not in the party at all, and the player need not always have Shulk in her active party. Yet the game’s proper narrative begins with Shulk, and all characters join the player’s party after meeting Shulk–in a substantive way, Shulk is the central focus of both the narrative and the player’s experience engaging that narrative. (I say “proper narrative” because the player controls Dunban in the introduction. But Dunban also holds a Monado here, which can plausibly explain the player’s short-lived relation to him in the introductory scene.) Because he is the focal point through which the player meets other character that later join the party, it also makes sense that he is the nexus through which the player’s agency is generally disseminated to other party members. So I think that the argument is in good shape–in fact, when one considers how difficult it generally is to explain how a player can extend her singular agency to multiple avatars in party-based RPGs (e.g., Final FantasyNamco Tales), I think we should be impressed with the extent to which Xenoblade‘s affinity system and Monado concept combine to give us a plausible account of a mechanism for the extension of player agency to an entire party.

Shulk

I contend to this day that Xenoblade is one of the most interesting, complex, and well-articulated game narratives in recent years. I don’t doubt that I will return to analyze it further in the future.

And don’t be surprised if you see an analysis of Xenoblade Chronicles X from me in the coming months.