A professor of mine once presented a lecture as “an expression of doubt and a plea for help.” He wanted very much to believe that a particular argument we were discussing was true, and yet he saw too many problems with the argument to believe in it. Thus, he was expressing doubt in the argument, while also asking his students to help him find a way to make that argument work better.
I want to frame this commentary on Xenoblade Chronicles X in the same way that my professor framed that lecture: an expression of doubt in the game, and a plea for readers to help me see something in it. Regulars of With a Terrible Fate know that I am a vocal proponent of the philosophical richness of Xenoblade Chronicles; I eagerly dove into Xenoblade Chronicles X (I’m just going to call it “Xeno X” from here on out) expecting that same sort of philosophical richness. I was tremendously disappointed, and quite frankly felt robbed–that’s how much I was let down when I compared Xeno X with its most immediate predecessor. Although this piece is an explanation of why I felt so let down, I don’t want to feel robbed by the game; so, please, if there is something I am missing or that I have overlooked, I am eager for someone to let me know.
With preliminaries out of the way, this article, as I said, is in principle a very negative review of Xeno X. More specifically, I argue that Xeno X promises to confront deep, interesting, metaphysical questions especially salient in video games, but ultimately only confronts broad, generic philosophical questions that can be addressed virtually anywhere. I first discuss the promised philosophical themes: the ways in which the game hints at certain philosophical puzzles, encourages (and indeed requires) the player to pursue missions that seem likely to shed light on those puzzles, but never actually follows through on these ideas. Next, I discuss the philosophical themes that are present in the game, and argue that, although certainly interesting in other contexts, the overall architecture of the game precludes these themes from being salient. Finally, I consider the fact that Xeno X is obviously set up for a sequel–I argue that, far from being an excuse for the game’s unfulfilled promises, this particular sequel dynamic is symptomatic of a severe problem in popular storytelling today.
(As always, spoilers abound–for this game, and for Xenoblade Chronicles.)
I. Teaser Metaphysics
The best way I’ve found to describe the universe of Xeno X on its most fundamental level is as a “teaser metaphysics.” I mean to say that every deep metaphysical concern that’s apparent in the game’s universe is of obvious importance throughout the game, and yet we never actually discover the substance of those concerns. Elma says multiple times during the game that “there’s something about this planet.” In my estimation, this is a perfect tagline for the game: it’s always clear that something strange and interesting is happening on the alien planet of Mira where mankind has relocated post-alien-annihilation-of-Earth, but it’s never clear precisely what that “something” is. I’m going to offer a list of the three (and only three) moments I felt were interesting in this way, which the game never followed up on; then, I’ll discuss why I think the game’s architecture forced the focus onto these moments in a self-destructive way.
- What are we talking about? (Ch. 5)
When the player’s character, together with Elma, Lin, and the irredeemable Tatsu discover a group of imperiled Ma-non in Chapter 5–alien races abound on the world of Mira–Elma makes an observation about how strange it is that she and the other humans can perfectly understand all of the aliens they’ve encountered thus far.
Elma: “Tatsu, the Ganglion, and now these Ma-non… Don’t you find it a little odd that we can understand these alien languages?”
Lin: “Huh…good point.”
Elma: “Tatsu, did you study our language?”
Tatsu: “Friends’ language?”
Elma: “What language are we speaking right now?”
Tatsu: What language? Nopon, of course! Friends’ Nopon very good, by the way.”
Elma: “See? Xenoforms have different anatomy, physiology–different vocal setups in general. It seems likely they would struggle with out pronunciations. And yet, here we are, conversing.
Lin: “But if they can’t even produce the sounds… this shouldn’t be possible.”
Elma: “No, it shouldn’t be. Unless, our words aren’t being perceived as sounds at all. Maybe our intent is getting across some other way… But how? Could it be something about this planet?”
Lin: “Heh. Someone sounds pretty intrigued, huh.”
Elma: “Well, what if it IS some kind of new phenomenon? Aren’t you curious to learn more?”
Lin: “All right, now you’re starting to sound just like L.”
Tatsu: “Okay, already! Friends talk less, help Ma-non more!”
And, with that, the scene devolves into one of the story’s many jokes about Lin cooking and eating Tatsu. Just as we’re broaching metaphysically salient territory, the game drags us back into tired jokes about eating its most frustrating character.
Why is this dialogue so interesting? Well, besides the obviously interesting idea that different species are somehow able to perfectly understand one another as though they were all speaking the same language, I initially thought this dialogue was suggesting that the game was philosophically aware that it was a game. What I mean by that is this: I’ve argued several times that one of the most philosophically interesting things about Xenoblade Chronicles is that you actually can’t make sense of its story unless you understand the player to be a character within the game’s narrative. In this way, the philosophical content of the game depends on its status as a video game, which I think makes it uniquely interesting. So I initially thought that, like Xenoblade Chronicles had done previously, Xeno X was created interesting philosophical content based on its status as a video game: perhaps everyone could understand one another because their intents were being represented directly to the player. This would make sense since the entire game is literally conveyed to the player, and the player is at various times able to hear Elma’s thoughts (for example). It would also be a way of explaining Elma’s cryptic comment here that speaker intent is being expressed without relying on the phonetics of language: perhaps the idea might be that the entire world, in virtue of being a video game, is simply encoded information that is then represented to the player in a comprehensible manner.
The above analysis is speculative because, so far as I can tell, the game never follows up on this discussion. This is teaser metaphysics at its finest: as though mocking to the player directly, Lin responds to Elma’s curiosity by saying, “Heh. Someone sounds pretty intrigued, huh.” But perhaps I’m being unfair–perhaps other philosophically salient material in the game provides us with the analytic resources to make sense of this language puzzle.
Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the case: everywhere I turn, the game just provides more teaser metaphysics.
The unstoppable success of an avatar. (Ch.8)
This case is a little less straightforward than the language puzzle we just discussed, but I hope to convince you that it’s just as much a case of teaser metaphysics. In Chapter 8 of the game, in which alien forces attack the human city of New L.A., two aliens–Ryyz and Dagahn–confront Elma, Lin, and the player’s character within the city. As Ryyz approaches, Lin trembles in fear.
Ryyz: “You’re right to be afraid, little girl. [To Dagahn:] Let’s kill her first.”
Elma: “Lin, stay calm. Don’t let them into your head. We’ve faced worse than this before–and we’ve won, every single time. Don’t forget that.”
Lin: “I know…”
I want to suggest that, because Xenoblade X is a video game, Elma’s words of encouragement to Lin are much more interesting than they appear at first.
Here’s an obvious fact about most video games: if the player of the game makes a mistake, the character(s) she controls can end up dying, and then the player has to repeat the narrative from a certain, earlier point, until she succeeds in progressing without dying. Certainly not all games work this way, but the majority does, and Xeno X is in that majority. Moreover, the exchange I quoted above comes two thirds through the main storyline of Xeno X–so, while it’s certainly possible that an adept player could have reached this point without her party ever dying, it’s very likely that her party has died at least once, requiring her to “try again” in the very standard way that video games expect of their players.
But now we have an interesting puzzle: there’s a sense in which what Elma says to Lin is just not true, because, if the player has failed at some earlier point in the narrative, then the party hasn’t won “every single time.” There’s also a sense in which Elma is right: the player, after all, have to succeed once in every story mission in order to make it to the current point in the narrative, regardless of how many times she might have failed along the way. So, this seemingly throwaway line actually suggests that something very interesting is going on in the world of this game: somehow, the game only “counts” the player’s successes as meaningful, disallowing the player’s failure as constitutive of the game’s narrative. This could be an interesting commentary on the discrepancy between a player’s experiences on the one hand, including both failures and successes, and the experiences of the game’s characters on the other hand. Indeed, the mere fact that Elma says something so unusual and applicable to the nature of video games suggests that some sort of special relationship between the player and the game’s world is at work.
But again, I must speculate because the game never follows up on this idea. There is hope that it might be explored–after all, the fact that all the humans on Mira live in replaceable, robotic, “mimeosome” bodies points to this same theme of the game’s world having video-game-esque metaphysical dynamics–but the idea is never fully articulated. Nor does the game offer us the resources to meaningfully theorize about this dimension of its world. I held out hope until the very end of the game, and a single line led me to believe that these metaphysical dimensions of the world might be explored after all; but, as we shall see, that line ultimately turned out to be another red herring.
The one being who wasn’t on the computer. (Ch.12)
After the final confrontation in the Lifehold Core against Luxaar and Lao, Elma pauses to reveal something unexpected to the rest of the party.
Elma: “The truth is, exactly one mim in New LA…actually is being controlled remotely from a real body held in stasis here.
Lin: “Wait, someone isn’t stored in the database with the rest of us?
Elma: “That’s right. This was a special case.”
Whereas everyone else who fled Earth and arrived on Mira had their consciousness stored digitally in a computer database, controlling mims (i.e. robotic mimeosome body) from that database, there is one mim controlled by a real person. At this juncture, I was prepared to be very impressed with the game. It seemed to me as if the game were about to answer all of my questions. What better way to explicate the special metaphysics of a video-game world than by having a character within the game point out that the player’s character is being controlled by a “real” person–i.e. by the player?
If Elma had said that a real person was remotely controlling the player’s character, various otherwise inexplicable or underwhelming aspects of the game might have started to make much more sense.
For instance: the character-creation aspect of the game, I submit, feels very contrived and forced. The player initially appears to have a wide variety of choice in being able to customize nearly every aspect of her character–appearance, voice, catch phrases, etc. But it quickly becomes clear that this aspect of choice is superficial: the player’s character never has an actual voice in cutscenes, and has a limited number of oft-repeated catchphrases when engaged in combat. The only way the player’s character can have input in cutscenes is by the player choosing, at various junctures, between several lines of text for her character to “say” (though, again, these lines aren’t vocalized). And this choice element is superficial: virtually no text choices the player makes can seriously influence the plot of the game. The game’s narrative is linear, and, as a result, the player will be “pushed” towards a single outcome of events regardless of the “choice” she makes. When my party discovered Tatsu, I tried to use every dialogue choice available to me to leave him behind and not let him join the party (as I mentioned, he seems, consistently, to be more of a nuisance than he’s worth–and not in the trope of a character you “love to hate”).
So the choices the game appears to offer the player don’t really matter, whereas at obvious choice-points in the narrative, the player has no power. For instance: after Lao betrays the party and the party defeats him, Elma wants to kill Lao as punishment, and Lin tries to stop her. This is an obvious choice point where, if choice really matters, the player should be able to choose a side for her character to take: side with Elma, or side with Lin. But this doesn’t happen: the player’s character automatically sides with Lin, forcing Elma to stand down. And of course, this must be the case–since Lao ultimately reappears in the final battle of the game, and the narrative is linear, it couldn’t be an option for Lao to die here. But this makes the game smack of fake choices: the player, presented with an illusion of choice, ultimately lacks any sort of real input over a character that everyone notices “doesn’t say much.”
However, if Elma had said that a real person was remotely controlling the player’s character, I would have forgiven this design choice. The notion of a custom-designed character works extremely well if it’s true within the conceit of the narrative that the character was created as a proxy for the real player. We might then also have more supporting evidence for the theory I suggested about how language works within the game: perhaps the player’s character never needs to literally speak because his intentions are conveyed representationally through the medium of the game, along with everyone else’s. And perhaps this could even help explain the mechanics of success and failure that I described in the last section: perhaps the player’s knowledge of her failures, imputed to her character, are part of the narrative explanation of how the party was able to progress so far successfully. To say as much would be to marry the form of the narrative as a video game with the content of the narrative in a novel, metaphysically and epistemically interesting way.
But of course, Elma doesn’t say that a real person was remotely controlling the player’s character. Instead, she reveals that she is actually an alien, whose real body has been stored in the Lifehold Core, controlling the mim who has followed the player’s character throughout the whole game. While certainly a plot twist, it offers no help in making sense of the game’s teaser metaphysics, nor of the ontological status of the player’s character. Thus the game leaves us with many questions, the promise of many answers, yet no actual answers.
II. Backgrounded Philosophical Issues
The reader might think me unfair to Xeno X. After all, broadly speaking, I’m comparing it to Xenoblade Chronicles, and maybe it’s simply not trying to be the same kind of game as Xenoblade Chronicles. Well, the reader may be partly right: Xeno X does try to explore a number of issues that aren’t deeply addressed in Xenoblade Chronicles, and it’s a different game in many other ways, as well (Skells, mission-based storylines, etc.). But I contend that, even taking this into account, Xeno X fails as a cohesive narrative because its game design suggests to the player that the kind of metaphysical issues I described in Part I will be central to the game: and because the game is designed in this way, it’s hard to deeply explore any of the other philosophical issues the game raises.
Some of the putative philosophical issues in the game include: enslavement (the Ganglion race, representing the game’s main antagonists, has enslaved the Prone race), xenophobia (the various alien species are called “xenoforms” and much of the game focuses on dealing with inter-species difference), and the value of one’s body (humans are initially told that their real bodies were preserved in the Lifehold Core and that they are controlling their mims remotely from there; ultimately it is revealed that their real bodies were left on Earth and destroyed, and all that remains are digital representations of their consciousness, contained in a Lifehold database). All of these themes are certainly interesting on their own terms, and great stories have considered all of them in the past. So the problem with Xeno X isn’t that it lacks any interesting themes: the problem is that it directs the player’s attention away from these themes and towards its teaser metaphysics, leading to ultimate disappointment in the game’s philosophical salience.
The story in Xeno X is broken up into missions, each with certain “progress requirements” that the player must meet before she can begin the mission. Many of these requirements are “survey” requirements: you have to go out into Mira and survey a certain amount of land in a particular region before you can take on the mission in question. This means that you can’t go through the entire story of Xeno X continually because the game effectively requires you to stop in between missions and explore the world.
Although I do think that game’s shouldn’t require players to explore the game’s world extensively in order to complete the story (meaningful exploration in games ought to be left to the discretion of the player, or else it ceases to really be exploration and instead becomes a chore), that isn’t the problem I’m pointing out in Xeno X. The problem is far deeper than that: they’re effectively using the game’s world to tell a story that forces the player’s attention toward the game’s teaser metaphysics.
It’s no secret that video games can use the very world of the game as part of its narrative, in order to tell unique and interesting stories. Xenoblade Chronicles, again, is an excellent example of this: the entire world of the game is two monoliths, which, without getting into details, represent both the central conflict of the game and the themes on which the game is centered. The more I’ve looked, the more it seems to me that many of the most philosophically interesting games use their worlds as storytelling elements in this sort of way. Xeno X, on the other hand, is a clear example of how using a game’s world as part of its storytelling can handicap the game’s central themes and messages.
From as early on as Chapter 5, when the dialogue about the language puzzle happens, it’s clear that Mira works differently than the player and various characters were originally led to believe. Humans and Ganglion alike mysteriously ended up there with little-to-no explanation; everyone can understand one another without sharing the same language, etc. As Elma suggests in Chapter 5, and again at the end of the game, the overriding theme of this strangeness is “there’s something about this planet” that explains all of these bizarre phenomena. And there’s a very easy inference we can draw about a game that claims “there’s something about this planet” and then requires the player to explore that planet in order to progress through its story: by exploring the planet, the player will discover the mysterious aspect of the planet that explains its special dynamics. That is how the game’s very world, in conjunction with the requirement that the player explore that world, forces the player to focus on the game’s teaser metaphysics. And when it becomes evident at the end of the game that all the many hours of exploration did not shed any light on the true nature of the game’s world, the player, I contend, feels and ought to feel cheated: the game has effectively reneged on its promise to explain itself and its world.
In the absence of any such explanation, the required exploration feels contrived within the context of the game’s narrative; indeed, the best explanation I’ve found for all the required exploration built into the game’s story is that developers wanted to ensure that they could show off the entirety of their world to players. But the developer saying “look at this world I built” should not be an explanation for the most foundational elements of a game’s narrative dynamics. The result is that the game focuses on the philosophical issues on which it never follows through, and the philosophical issues that it does explore are left in the background. Indeed, discussions of race, enslavement, and the status of body all felt distracting to me because I was always waiting for the true nature of the world to be revealed–and it never was.
III. The Problem with a Promised Sequel
Maybe I’m being unfair to Xeno X because, judging by its ending, the game is quite obviously set up for a sequel. Elma discovers at the end that the database supposedly holding everyone’s consciousness is and has been in ruins (this is when she says again that “it’s something about this planet); after being mutated and destroyed by the party, an apparently regenerated Lao washed up on a beach. The game leaves so many questions unanswered, you might argue, because it intends to resolve them in a sequel (or DLC, or what have you). So perhaps we should excuse the game’s apparent incompleteness and focus on what it does, as opposed to what it promises that its sequel will do.
I think that this sort of reasoning is a mistake. Speaking candidly, it seems to be increasingly more common nowadays for stories to be predicated upon sequels. The ending of Final Fantasy XIII-2 was nothing more than a cliffhanger leading into Lightning Returns; books-remade-as-movies are split from a single book into multiple movies (e.g., Harry Potter, The Hunger Games). This strikes me as a disingenuous way of getting consumers to spend more money just to get the second half of a story in which they’ve already invested. Worse, though, this kind of storytelling that builds a sequel into the first story simply doesn’t work, especially in video games–and there are deep theoretical reasons why it doesn’t work. I argued precisely this in my work about why Final Fantasy VII shouldn’t be remade as multiple games. I’m going to quote, rather lengthily, the relevant argument, since it also applies to the case of Xeno X. The argument starts with two basic claims about how video game narrative works.
“Claim 1: The player of a video game is able to substantially, causally influence the events in that game’s universe, in virtue of her actions through the proxy of her avatar(s).
Claim 2: The causal influence of a player on a video game’s universe is essential to the narrative of that game.
(Note: when I say ‘video game’, I’m not talking about all video games, strictly speaking. I’m primarily concerned with analyzing story-based, single-player games.)
Intuitive though these claims may be, they are substantive claims nonetheless. I don’t expect to offer conclusive proofs of them as “principles of game narrative” within the scope of this paper, but I do hope to convince readers that they are two very plausible assumptions to make about a very broad set of video games. […]
Claim 1 just says that the player of a video game is able to shape its world in a significant way. At first glance, this claim might seem obvious—“This is a trivial fact,” one might say, “because the player literally controls someone in the game’s world (the avatar), and the avatar’s actions, derived from the player’s control, clearly influence the events of a game’s universe.”
But this response is too quick for two reasons. First, it’s not readily apparent that people in a universe really do have causal power over the universe—it could just be that the universe as a whole evolves over time, with its various parts only appearingto interact in a series of causes and effects. That’s very different from a universe in which people can genuinely modify the events of the universe through their own actions.
Second, even if we grant that game avatars do have causal power within their universe, it’s not obvious that this power is derived from the player. Even though the player is controlling the avatar, you might think that, within the context of the game’s narrative, the avatar’s actions can only be properly understood as choices that the avatar chose to make. It would be unwarranted, unnecessary, and bizarre to make sense of the plot of a Mario game by saying something like “Bowser kidnapped Peach, and so then the player took control of Mario in order to make Mario save Peach.” Rather, we just say, “Bowser kidnapped Peach, and so then Mario saved Peach.” Claim 1 suggests that we really have to analyze the story of a game partly in terms of the player’s causal influence, which seems like an odd thing to do.
But a closer examination suggests that Claim 1 survives these two criticisms intact. We can get around the first criticism by considering replays of a single video game: when we play through the same video game more than once and have the avatar make different choices, the events of the game evolve differently. This doesn’t require that the game have choice-determined endings, or anything like that: the mere fact that we can move an avatar either left, or right, or not at all, in the same moment of the game’s narrative during different playthroughs of the game, suggests that avatars really are agents within their universes—their actions aren’t wholly determined by the universe external to them.
What about the worry that the avatar’s causal power is enough, without invoking any implausible causal power on the part of the player? Though this point may be more controversial, I think we have fairly clear-cut cases (and less clear-cut cases) suggesting that we do have to analyze the stories of games partly in terms of player agency if we are to adequately explain and understand those stories. In many games, the player will be provided with information that her avatar could not reasonably know—perhaps something is revealed through a cutscene where the avatar is absent. This knowledge may well lead the player to make decisions in the game and direct her avatar in ways that could not be adequately explained by appealing to what the avatar believed and desired—instead, we need to appeal to what the player believed abut the world of the game, and how she acted on those beliefs through the avatar. We see this phenomenon even more clearly in replays of games: a player may well make different choices during her second playthrough of a game based on certain facts that were only revealed to her (and her avatar) very late in the narrative of her first playthrough—and so it would be even less plausible to account for these choices purely using the avatar’s mental life. We need a concept of the player acting as a causal agent through the avatar.
So I think that Claim 1 remains plausible. The player, acting through her avatar, can causally influence the events of a game’s universe. This influence is substantial in the sense that the player’s actions, by influencing the game’s universe, influence the whole causal chain of the universe thereafter—the actions aren’t somehow “negated” by some counterbalancing force. I think that we typically think of causal influence in this way (i.e. a single action has ripple effects through time and space), and so this is a fairly intuitive view of game narratives.
What about Claim 2? This claim says that the causal impact a player has on the world of a game is an essential part of that game’s narrative—without that same impact, the game wouldn’t have the same narrative. So it isn’t just enough for a player to be able to make a choice in a game’s universe that has nothing to do with the story: in some sense, the game’s story must be inextricable from the player’s choices. But this seems to be patently true. Witness first: in many games […] the events of a game’s narrative will not transpire at all unless the player chooses to engage the game and exercise her causal force. More to the point, the player’s avatar often constitutes the point-of-view through which the narrative is conveyed, and the avatar’s actions are crucial determinants of the events of that narrative. As a result, the narratives of games do seem deeply dependent on player choice.
Even in cases where game narratives seem to suggest that the game’s universe is ultimately indifferent to the actions of the player—e.g., Bloodborne—the narrative functions on this level as a denial of the impact that the player and avatars actions had. This narrative function is still irreducibly a claim about the player’s causal impact, and so it does not threaten Claim #2. The claim, when considered, seems both intuitive and sound.
If we accept these two claims—and I think that we should—then we are faced with an interesting consequence. The consequent claim is this: if a player’s causal impact extends over the entirety of a game’s universe, and that causal impact is essential to the narrative of a game, then it seems that the entirety of a game’s universe, insofar as a player causally impacts it, is essential to that game’s narrative.
Another way to put our newfound consequence is this: it’s not enough for a game’s narrative to essentially involve the choices of the player in a local, finite sense. Rather, game narratives of this sort involve the impact of a player’s choices on the game’s whole universe, however narrow or broad that universe may be specified. I think that this, too, tracks with our intuitions about how game narratives often work: oftentimes, a primary element of a game’s story is demonstrating how player’s choices have impacted the game’s world. Nor is this a feature of heavily “choice-based” games: perfectly linear games nonetheless reflect the impact that a player’s actions have on the game worlds, even though the player didn’t have much of a choice as to how to act. (Think of Shadow of the Colossus: linear though it may be, it’s hard to deny that the game’s narrative is heavily focused on the ways in which the player’s actions have permanently altered the game’s world.)”
If the argument I presented is right–and I think it is–then, just based on the storytelling dynamics of video games, you can’t present a video game narrative that “points beyond itself” to reference events in a future sequel. The totality of the game’s world is causally related to the actions of the player: if the nature of the player’s influence is rendered mysterious in the game’s narrative, promised to be explained as a sequel, then that game simply doesn’t work. Its narrative, metaphysics, world structure, and so forth, end up depending on a world alien to both the game itself and the purview of the player: and thus the game is render deeply, thoroughly incomplete. This, I submit, is precisely what we see in Xeno X.
As I said at the outset, I would very much like to be wrong about this argument: I had very high expectations for the Xeno X, and was saddened to finish it with such disappointment. The world that Monolith Soft built is expansive and intricate, but that alone doesn’t make for a compelling story. Indeed, in this case, by pointing to the game’s teaser metaphysics and unfulfilled narrative commitments, I think the world actually damages the story. At this point, I truly don’t know whether I would invest in the inevitable sequel.
 To my knowledge, she says it twice: once during the brief scene where the party discusses the bizarre language dynamics of Mira, and again when she discovers the annihilated Lifehold computer in the game’s post-credit scene.
alcabcucu · May 13, 2018 at 2:43 pm
Think of Xenoblade 1 and 2 as an essay. Those games develop a narrative that guides the player on certain aspects of western philosophy. This teachings are “hidden” as the story of the game unfolds. Most people won’t perceive them explicitly, but yet there they are, and the player will be aware of them, probably more in an implicit way than in a fully conscious way. So the player is a learning agent as the game deploys its plot and universe.
Xenoblade Chroncicles X is very different. The game is not an “essay”, but instead it invites the player to explore certain themes. I agree with you, it teases you, it encourages you to explore those ideas. Think of it as the teacher that gives a first glimpse of an idea to his/her students and then tells them to investigate more on the subject for themselves. Xenoblade Chronicles X wants us to explore, not only the misterious world of Mira, but also the series of ideas that keep appearing in the side-quests it offers. The player is instructed to learn by himself, as he/she has to learn how to survive in a new and dangerous world.
I personally love this concept. First because this makes Xeno X a very different game from Xeno 1 and 2, but secondly because this evocative take leans towards free and creative meditation. I understand you feel disappointed with this game because it doesn’t explore complex ideas of great western philosophers. But I think it wants to do just the opposite. It encourages us to explore deep in the way we think about certain things.
Aaron Suduiko · May 14, 2018 at 2:22 pm
That’s a really interesting idea, alcabcucu. I think you’re probably right that XCX is trying to be a deeply different kind of game than XC1 and XC2, so that might be part of my problem. But I’m not totally convinced that your analysis is the right way to go. Let me explain why I have doubts.
There are definitely plenty of stories that do exactly what you suggest XCX does: namely, they invite the person engaging them to consider certain concepts and themes without presenting a certain thesis on those themes. I think that parables are probably the best example of such stories: because parables are so deeply open to interpretation, they invite the people engaging with them to “explore their themes for themselves,” as you say. Kafka’s stories, such as Before the Law or In the Penal Colony, are good examples of such parables.
It just doesn’t seem to me that XCX is like this at all. It’s not the case that it leaves the fact of the matter about the nature of its world “open to interpretation” like a parable: rather, it repeatedly suggests (in the ways I discuss in this article) that there is a fact of the matter about the nature of its world, but it refuses to tell the player what that fact of the matter actually is. I see that as encouraging “free and creative meditation”: rather, I feel as if it encourages players to hunt for explanations that are nowhere to be found.
That said, I do see an alternative way of understanding XCX that might be a kind of “compromise” between our two perspectives on the game: one could argue that the game’s story is critiquing (or, indeed, almost mocking) humans’ need to always understand everything about the world around them. Maybe the best way to read the game is that its teaser metaphysics are a way of telling the player that, sometimes, you can’t always get the definitive answers you want, and so instead you should just appreciate whatever personal meaning you can find in the world.
I’ll confess that, personally, I see that kind of “compromise” interpretation as something of a cop-out: I think that stories do better when they eventually deliver the explanations that they’ve promised the player—or when, in the absence of that, they deliver a good explanation of why they’re not going to deliver such explanations. But at least the compromise view allows some positive meaning to be made out of the teaser metaphysics.
Thanks, as always, for reading my work and leaving such thoughtful comments!
Carlos P. · May 26, 2020 at 7:33 am
I’m not sure if you’ve played any of the other games under the Xeno umbrella of Tetsuya Takahashi’s work, but coming at this game almost five years later I can definitely say that it’s probably the most “alien” game he has made yet.
The world of Mira is confusing and alien to both the characters in the story, as well as the player. And I believe that to be wholly intentional. One of the things I discovered on my most recent play through is that the sun rises in the west…and then also sets in the west. Definitely not natural, and difficult to describe how that sort of phenomenon happens when you’re on the surface of the planet. There’s also the fact that the game world has artificial boundaries, you can’t actually go west and end up on the east side of the map. This was definitely an intended mechanic of the game, as even back during 1998, Xenogears, was able to give you a map like the latter.
Neither of these planetary mechanics are even discussed by the characters in the game. And I believe things like this are intentional. Because the game was deliberately created to leave you feeling unsettled, unsure, and that everything around you is truly xeno or foreign.
While I do hope that Monolith Soft produces a sequel that goes into a lot of the missing details, I have to applaud them on building something that even five years later, I continue to analyze from time to time hoping to shed new light and more information on.
I’m determined to find out what that thing is about this planet.
Aaron Suduiko · May 27, 2020 at 1:49 pm
Hey, Carlos! Thanks for taking the time to read my work and leave your own views in a comment—I really appreciate the opportunity to get your perspective on what is definitely a very unsettling and alien game.
I’m actually very familiar with the Xeno umbrella: if you’re interested in this kind of analysis of Tetsuya Takahashi’s work, then you might be interested in checking out my analyses of the role of Leibniz in Xenoblade Chronicles’ storytelling and the way in which Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s story embodies Plato’s metaphysics.
I think the reason for my appreciation of Xenoblade Chronicles 1 & 2 is a good way of further illuminating my frustration with X: both of those other titles, in my view, do an absolutely groundbreaking job of carefully constructing worlds whose most basic structure reinforce and elaborate upon the very sophisticated central themes of those games’ stories (I go into the details of how they do this in the articles I linked above). It’s all well and good for Xenoblade Chronicles X to present a thoroughly alien world (and thank you for that great observation about the behavior of the sun, which had I never noticed), but it just doesn’t strike me as a compelling story to present such an alien world only in the form of little teasers (as I discuss in this article), while never providing any explanation or thematic payoff regarding that alienness. Stories that evoke a sense of the truly alien—for instance, surrealist or modernist stories that seem to resist our basic sensibilities about logic and our universe—succeed by making that alienness a part of a narrative that we can understand and interpret. As I bemoan in the article, it seems like the alienness of Mira is simply on the sidelines in Xenoblade X‘s narrative: always present, yet never made relevant to the story itself.
That alienness might make Mira an intrinsically interesting world to explore, but I think it ultimately makes the story frustrating and underwhelming—an exercise in teaser metaphysics, as I discuss above. So, maybe Mira and the accompanying game might have been interesting purely as an engine or simulation that allows players to experience an alien world, but in a game with an overt narrative focus—not to mention a game under the Xeno umbrella!—I think that such a world needs to be intimately related to the story being told. That’s why the game left me feeling disappointed, sadly, despite how excited I was about it initially—but I’m so glad to hear that you’ve gotten so much value out of it over the years!
Thanks again for taking the time to read and comment. I hope you check out some of our other work and start more of these conversations on the site!
Maarten vd Most · February 13, 2022 at 4:35 pm
Excuses for adding to this, years after it’s been posted, but this article has stayed with me for the past year-and-a-half or so, ever since I properly started to try and make sense of Xenoblade X myself and stumbled upon it. It was one of the few that actually tried to look deeper into the game, to look at it more broadly, and without getting hung up on superficial plot-points.
I don’t think I fully agreed with this article to begin with. But I felt I would need to be able to answer its call for help, that I should be able to provide a more satisfactory perspective on the game and its core story, if I were to try and argue against the article’s assertions.
My on-and-off exploration of the game however has left me just as frustrated with Xenoblade X’s core story as the article’s author. I sadly have no better alternative interpretation to bring to the table.
But I felt I did stumble upon some interesting information and insights along the way, and feel a need to leave those somewhere. This is as good a place as any, since I can simultaneously discuss my original issues with the article too. Though by now, I feel those resulted from an ungenerous reading of the article, that was the result of me taking its criticism of a game I loved far too harshly.
And while I may not have been clever enough to connect the dots and make sense of the game as a whole, perhaps by leaving here the clues I found, I may allow someone else to step up.
Xenoblade X its story has a fundamental issue in that it appears thematically incoherent, at least to me. It just doesn’t have anything to say. Tons of subjects get touched upon, but there is no clear overarching message to be found.
In search of such a message, I hypothesized that some key point may have gotten lost in translation. Exploring that avenue (I know some Japanese) in turn yielded much to investigate, but it all amounted to nothing. There were certainly vast, maybe even excessive liberties taken in translation, but there is no good way to translate things that are nonsense to begin with. So I’d be hard pressed to say there’s anything that fundamentally undermines the game in its translation.
But confronted with the game’s thematic incomprehensibility, the human mind, ever in search of meaning, starts grasping at straws. The article argues that the game promises to confront the metaphysical, yet never does so. I feel the game doesn’t promise anything, and the earlier conclusion merely reflects the author his interest in such matters, which causes him to latch on to any line that may point in that direction.
The fact is, that the original script is less clearly interested in implying what the article’s author read into it.
Elma’s mention of “there’s something about this planet” when talking about communication, was originally half a sentence that’s more meandering thought than an explicit statement. “…and could something, that allows for that, exist on this planet…”
The line “We’ve faced worse than this before–and we’ve won, every single time. Don’t forget that.” was originally far more clearly just encouragement of Lin. “Think back to the battles we’ve fought till now. Was there anything that couldn’t be done by our team? It’ll be fine. You have us by your side.” There is a focus on the team, not on an unlikely winning streak.
And Elma’s reveal of her alien nature at the end of the game wasn’t just foreshadowed or even telegraphed originally. It was spelled out in fireworks. One of her first lines was something like: “The Earth, that was your home-…um, I mean, it was our home planet.” The English equivalent was rather more subtle. This made Elma’s reveal much less of a plot twist, and more a moment of characterization. Although again, what it means is pretty much up for grabs. Either way, the build-up to this moment was originally not one that would likely be intended to point at what first popped into the article’s author’s head.
I initially rejected the notion of the game being purposefully written with teaser metaphysics specifically in mind, but as I said, I no longer think that was what the article attempted to convey.
My own attempts to make sense of the game’s story fared little better then Aaron’s. And nothing I found passes the ultimate litmus test, to make sense of the game’s ending.
Although the implicit understanding that seems prevalent online is that Xenoblade X’s ambiguous ending is merely set-up for a sequel, I have my doubts about that. Beyond the argument the article puts forward that this would undermine both the game and its sequel, it seems a somewhat in-bad-faith reading of the game that’s illustrative of an unwillingness to engage with Xenoblade X’s plot on a metaphorical level.
I find that the following quote from a YouTube video about that tendency in modern audiences puts it nicely:
“The purpose of ambiguity is to frustrate the audience. To deny a clean sense of diegetic closure, and thusly force an engagement with the metaphorical. Most ambiguous endings make perfect sense if you read them thematically, and nine times out of ten, the diegetic is obvious once you approach the ending from this direction.” (source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=URo66iLNEZw&t=616s)
And although I failed to find a convincing thematic through-line that would make sense of the game, I did find more than enough hints at something more. I entertained ideas that felt compelling as a consequence. So I can’t just shrug my shoulders about my failure, but am instead, like the author, left with a deep frustration.
The following is an overview of the hints towards a deeper thematic meaning that grabbed my attention most. But be aware that it gets kinda conspiracy-theory’ish and bogged down in minutia. Not to mention that between chapter references, paraphrasing the English and Japanese script and other things like that, I suspect it’s easy to get lost. Even if I tried to make things as clear as possible.
If you’re not into puzzling all that out, this is the point to stop reading. (Although I intend to clarify things if asked.)
1. The parallel between B.L.A.D.E. and the Ganglion
A common complaint is that the Ganglion are underdeveloped as villains. I strongly suspect that this was deliberate, as they are intended to mirror humanity/BLADE and so serve to develop them, or a general theme that applies to both, rather than that the Ganglion are developed in-and-of themselves.
The McGuffin that Xenoblade X’s story revolves around is “the Lifehold”. It’s just a word, and fairly descriptive of what it is purported to do. In Japanese, the term used for this was borrowed from English. It was just the “LIFE”. This clearly mirrors what the Ganglion are after, the “VITA”. A term borrowed from Latin, meaning life. The connection is obvious.
The Ganglion name was originally something like “the Growth”. Their favored descriptor for humanity is “a Cancer”. These words belong together. The connection is obvious. So obvious the game even comments on it, when Luxaar says “humanity is the cancer, not us”.
When the player first enters NLA, Gwin is commenting on how a low-level bureaucrat has been elevated to the position of Director General, the equivalent of President or Prime-minister. When Luxaar and Ga Jiarg (originally Ga Delg, for some reason) are introduced in Chapter 6, they quibble over a low-level bureaucrat like Luxaar being elevated to the level of Grand Master. The parallel is obvious.
In Chapter 5, the Ma-non mention that the Ganglion on Mira are but a small criminal subset of what exists out in the universe, just as the human refugees on Mira turn out to be but a small immoral subset of what existed on Earth. The parallel is, once again, obvious.
These hints to a connection are solidified in the final Chapter of the game.
As you enter the LIFE, the refugees that are supposed to be there, the last human survivors, are missing. Once Luxaar joins, piloting the VITA, Elma mentions that it is missing something too, which Luxaar acknowledges. Both the LIFE and the VITA, the goals of the two factions, are missing something.
Over the course of the final Chapter, you learn that the Ganglion were created to serve the whims of their creators, the founders of Samaar, of whom humanity are direct descendants. The mimeosomes that inhabit NLA, another artificial creation, this one by humanity, are also explicitly described as serving its whims. Humanity was destroyed, but the Mimeosomes of NLA would transport its seeds to a new world, build a home for it, and let it take root. Both BLADE and the Ganglion are slaves to their masters.
The behaviour of consigning others to death and suffering for ones own ends and comfort, is labeled by Lin in chapter 11 as “disgusting”. (among other things, like “disturbing and corrupt”.) This is now exactly the behaviour the Ganglion show towards humanity, a safety feature that makes them uncomfortable. But then, it’s also how BLADE behaves toward the chimera in the Lifehold, another safety feature which was named to be “disgusting”. (in English, “hideous”.) There’s a symmetry there, from the Founders of Samaar, to the Ganglion; from Humanity, to Blade. It comes full circle.
I feel these constitute a sufficiently convincing set of arguments to at least support that a connection is there. That B.L.A.D.E. and the Ganglion are two sides of the same coin. Their similarities and differences could in that case be made out to say something, but I’ve not found any one thing it might say that stands above all others.
2. The parallel between Lao and Elma
A similar connection between Lao and Elma might be more tenuous, but a case can also be made for it.
At the end of Chapter 5, Chausson recalls Elma saying something like “Even if we’re different species, so long as it’s possible to communicate, friendship is on the table.” At the start of Chapter 11 Lao defends his alliance with the Ganglion in a similar manner. “It’s true I don’t much enjoy prancing about with a walking brain or with dog-people, but if our goals are the same, we can work together.” Although voiced differently, these lines describe the same idea, using the same structure.
His joining with the Ganglion makes Lao the human in an alien organization, while Elma turns out to be the alien in a human organization. They fill the same role for both factions, as ‘the outsider’, if on opposite sides.
Visually it’s also quite easy to correlate these two characters. Compare the following bits of official artwork.
Both Elma and Lao have long hair, but with colours inverted. Both have tall, slender builds, but with gender inverted. Both have purple highlights on the fore-arms and lumbar regions, but one has a bright colour scheme, and the other a dark one. Both hold a similar posture, and generate the same serious vibe. Their design seems to try and communicate visually that, like the Ganglion and BLADE, these two represent two sides of a single coin.
The entirety of chapter 11 basically revolves around these two bickering over whether the form project Exodus took was acceptable, with others serving mostly as bystanders. Making Elma and Lao in many ways similar gives greater focus to the issue on which they differ here.
But if this connection goes deeper than that, then it might be used to say something meaningful about any content of Chapter 12 that confuses us. Perhaps Elma revealing she’s an alien holds greater meaning when reflected onto Lao’s circumstances in the right way. Perhaps Lao waking up on a beach, says something with more depth when reflected onto Elma’s circumstances correctly.
But if that’s the case, I failed to find that right and correct way. I failed to have everything make sense.
It might also be pertinent here to mention that Lao’s argument and its focus in Chapter 11 and 12 slightly diverged in the translation process from Japanese to English. There’s still a large overlap, but also subtle yet substantial differences.
In English, Lao is angry because he and so many others had been manipulated by the 1%. They’re living a lie, and he’d rather kill everyone than let the actual purge of human diversity succeed, since all the survivors were in on it anyway. They deserve to die. Lin’s actions make him realize he’s just as corrupt, and that his actions were also just about himself, and revenge. Later he killed Luxaar, because hey, dealing with a traitor gets you stabbed in the back.
In Japanese, Lao has despaired because he and so many others had been manipulated by the 1%. They’re trapped as zombies, living a perversion of life. He looks forward to be released from it. And he’s full of contempt towards those that try to justify and rationalize away the offense at the root of the feelings that drive him. Lin’s actions make him realize … something. It’s left unresolved for a bit. He says he started out as a double agent on a personal whim, so he can stop for no reason at all too. Later, when killing Luxaar, he explains that change is a natural part of being human, both changing in body, and changing your mind. So the White Whale’s crew and passengers are not zombies and nefarious assholes, but just the people that make up humanity in a transitional phase.
3. The religious allegory
The Xeno-series has a bit of a reputation of incorporating religious elements, partly to make a point, partly just because its cool. Xenoblade X had many of these scrubbed. But you can still easily find some references, both in the game and online. Like of the original B.L.A.D.E. acronym “Beyond the Logos Artificial Destiny Emancipators”, semi-recognizable Engrish from the Japanese version, which is supposed to represent a Japanese phrase with meaning along the lines of “Those who grant us a destiny that’s wrought by mankind’s own hands. One beyond the edicts of God.” Or like how L’s full name, L’cirufe, is an anagram of Lucifer. Like how the Lifehold is compared to Noah’s arc.
But there’s not enough connecting tissue. The original script, however, also had things like this:
When fighting your first enemy, Elma mentions that “We’re not in the Garden of Eden here. We have to fight back when attacked.”
Goetia describes Mira not just as death, or a hellhole, she explicitly calls it the afterlife.
The Great One was originally basically referred to with a pronoun that had lots of reverence thrown in. Basically ‘He’ with capital ‘H’. And the terminology for how He (or She) would descend upon the universe clearly spelled out that this was a deity. Luxaar didn’t have their blood run through his veins, he was just… close. The word in question can mean family, but also follower or underling. In religious terms maybe even disciple, like Jesus’s apostles.
When Lin has to cry in Chapter 10 as she’s starting to lose hope, the conversation doesn’t just say mims are well made, but the human body as well. Elma basically tells Lin to be thankful should she ever meet her maker, and she’s not just referring to the designers of the mims, but also to God.
The leaders of project Exodus in contrast, may have considered the final form the project took to be, to coin a phrase from the Japanese script, “deeply sinful”, but they enacted it anyway. They cared little for God and his opinion on matters. (note: the name Exodus was an added religious reference that wasn’t there in Japanese. Exodus was originally always just the “Earthlife Colonization Project”.)
Finally, Telethia the Endbringer, which helped out in Chapter 6, isn’t just the “Ruler of Fates”, it’s “The One That Rules over All Life”. With how it reaps “those who are impure”, and how it can look into people’s souls, and how it is the strongest being in the game, and how it makes its home in the divine roost, it can be read as the closest thing in the game to God. And in the end, during L’s final affinity mission, it judges humanity (or at least team Elma + L) to not be among “those who are impure”.
With this information the game can be read as follows:
Humanity was exiled from the garden of Eden, and set itself against God. It raised a new city of angels (New Los Angeles) where it was joined by Lucifer. There it fought against religious zealots, but over the course of their war, as God himself intervened on their behalf, they became less fanatical in their rejection of God, and realized that he played a role in their survival just as he did in the story of Noah’s arc. In the end, they established an uneasy truce with God.
There’s also some minor things, like some references to deadly sins. The Wrothians were just the people of the planet WRATH, the Tainted were called the PRIDE. I didn’t find the remaining deadly sins, though. The closest similar thing is how the Prone were originally the people of planet BIAS.
Since the Tainted were territorial to dead man’s gulch (deep valley of dead people) and hunted down specifically by Telethia the Endbringer, considering them as connected to Death and Sin seems reasonable. With how they were colour-coded purple, just as the core of the VITA, and the unnamed second alien faction involved with the destruction of Earth and the crashing of the White Whale, (the last are commonly referred to as the Ghosts,) more connections can be made.
The VITA becomes Death or Sin, weaponized against one’s enemies by an external layer of technology. A layer that is put aside further as the final battle with it and Luxaar goes on. The Earth’s destruction would be a planet having fallen victim to sinners fighting the Death that’s coming for them. Humanity’s arrival on the purgatory that is Mira was hastened by them having an encounter with beings that are Death’s personification.
It feels like it’s making sense a bit, but things become increasingly and increasingly tenuous. And none of this can really be projected onto the ending. The best that can be said there, is that the final shot of Lao waking up an a beach could be read as symbolic of him existing on the edge of life and death, which a quick google search informed me beaches are supposed to represent.
Elma being the only actual lifeform on the White Whale could be put forward in the end to make explicit that she’s to be read as the only actual servant of God, the Noah to the White Whale being Noah’s arc.
It’s interesting stuff. But not anything I find truly convincing or that helps to make sense of Xenoblade X.
4. A closer focus on philosophical anthropology.
A possible core theme of Xenoblade X I’ve heard proposed, based on the game in English, is ‘Survival’. I suspect this finds its source mostly in the end of chapter 10. Here Elma says that since the Ganglion fear humanity’s physical forms, finding the Lifehold may well prove necessary to emerge victorious over them, since humanity is completely behind the curve technologically. Lin then shifts focus to say: “The Lifehold is the key to survival”.
Originally, Lin finished Elma’s sentence here. It started with “If there’s any hope for victory to be had…” and Lin finished it with “…then it lies in our bodies.” The focus was not on the Lifehold being about survival, but on man’s physical form, and the question of what meaning it could be ascribed for it to allow us to pull through.
This focus on human bodies is later mostly dropped. But questions and answers regarding human nature remain. Lin says that the things that are “disturbing and corrupt and disgusting” are also exactly what it means to be human. Luxaar guesses that Elma her human nature (English: Birthright) allows her insight into the VITA missing something, even in a puppet body. He later stresses that the important part about being human is being a descendant of Samaar’s founders. Elma considers how the human experience as a continuous existence is merely a fragile illusion. And as mentioned earlier, Lao originally justified his redemption moment of betraying Luxaar by stating that “to be human means to change”.
There appears to be a great focus on what exactly it means to be human. We could consider the initial focus on human bodies as perhaps a synecdoche, using just the bodies to refer to human nature as a whole. It could also be interpreted to reflect a conflict between dualism (humans have body-mind duality) and monism. (humans are not reducible to independent parts) That last interpretation might have the final boss, being Lao trapped in a body that doesn’t move to his will, read like a rejection of monism.
Either way, this focus appears to be in the game. The first shot of the game is the pioneer plaque, with the only instantly recognizable parts being humanity in its base form. The introductory monologue, when first entering NLA, originally ended on half a sentence, detached from what was said earlier, expressing doubt, ending at “we…” with a particle that denotes it is not just the subject of the sentence, but the topic of the discussion. So not “we had no idea of what fate had in store, only that we had to keep living to see it,” but “Our future was still hidden by deep mists. But regardless, lets talk about what we are…”
In this light, Elma’s final reveal (of her not being human and how it lets her be accepted as though she’s human) would feel kinda poignant for how paradoxical it is. But in no way does this insight allow us to make sense of the ending in its totality.
5. The friction between past and future.
And since I’m on the subject, as an obvious key character to the game’s story, liberties taken while translating Elma’s lines are perhaps also of interest. There are a handful of moments I feel deserve attention, but the most pertinent difference here between the English and Japanese versions of the game lie in the delivery of a few of Elma’s lines, and the emotional weight these gain subsequently.
Elma presents herself generally as determined, contemplative and steady. Hardly anything ever throws her off. It is the moments that do, which are key.
In English, the moment where Elma shows the greatest agitation is in Chapter 3, when finding the Prone standing over the dead bodies of Nelson’s team. She actually sounds enraged as she declares the Prone killed them all, in cold blood. In Japanese, this moment was not one that unbalanced Elma, and she was steadfast in her attempt at brokering for peace, even if you could hear her hopes dwindle.
This drew more attention to a second moment where Elma’s emotions became too much for her. In Chapter 7, Goetia revels in her ability to be cruel to humanity. For human nature justifies cruelty being done, even just for fun. This continues, until she pushes Elma over the edge. Elma is furious over the pain Samaar has caused in the Universe. But where in English she ends this denunciation with a line (paraphrased) that “the greatest agony Goetia causes them is the knowledge that she (Goetia) exists”, in Japanese she highlights here that there was “one atrocity in particular, that she will never allow itself to repeat.”
This line is stressed with a camera shot that zooms in on one of her eyes. A shot that is repeated as Lao wakes up on the beach in the post-credits epilogue, and also when Lao is overtaken by “all life that existed on earth” and turns into the final boss. (The last could perhaps be read as the souls of the dead that linger in anguish overtaking him, especially as the title card of Chapter 12 interprets the Lifehold Core as “the place where souls rest”, hearkening back to Hades, Sheol and Hel)
All this seems to imply that Elma has a history that she is struggling with. One which she might be attempting to cope with by saving the human race. It reads as though Elma her own people were likely the victims of genocide. And Elma wants to do something about that happening again because she feels responsible. And not just figuratively.
In the original script, when discussing what happened to the Earth when the player is being enlisted into B.L.A.D.E. Elma mentions that “If it hadn’t been for her, the Earth and Humanity would’ve been fine.” It’s not just that things “could’ve been avoided if she wasn’t there”. When Meeting Lao in Chapter 4 and discussing Elma’s former teammates, Danny and Boris, she doesn’t just mention that “they didn’t make it”, but is explicit in that “she let them die”. Elma is keen, perhaps overly so, to take responsibility upon herself.
And Earth might not even be the first time she took up the banner of those in danger. When discussing the TRION barrier technology, Luxaar doesn’t just state that “no one outside the Qlu system has access to it”, he originally asked “wasn’t that technology supposed to be only obtainable in the Qlu system?” Celica’s final affinity mission reveals that the Growth were there, in Qlu, her home, and that many died due to them. The fact that Elma got this technology and brought it to Earth implies she was there as well. It’s easy to fill in the blanks, if not exclusively with a single interpretation.
With this in mind, you can turn Elma’s finally revealing her true self in the end, into her making peace with her past. That she’s not just doing what she can, and then moving on, like she did on the Qlu system, but that she’s ready to settle down, and has found a new home, a new people, and a new future amidst the human race. That that is why she asks for everyone else their acceptance.
And supporting evidence can be found if we generalize such an interpretation away from Elma, to entertain the notion that the game might be about how being human is about always existing in a state of finding balance between past and future.
The opening shot is not just the pioneer plaque, it is the pioneer plaque being overshadowed by a giant space vessel. It juxtaposes the past and future of space travel.
The introductory dialogue to NLA clearly juxtaposes past and future as well, and so do the final lines of the ending dialogue before the credits roll. Nearly all affinity missions seem to boil down to the characters in the game finding some balance between past and future, finding a way to have things left behind following the destruction of Earth to inform their lives on Mira.
The Ganglion also show a fixation with the past, with Samaar’s founders and humanity’s descent from them. While Blade focuses purely on the future, to the extent of ignoring and discounting past crimes. Two views that require ‘dramatic synthesis’ at the end of the game.
Lao’s notion of human nature as change can be read as the finding of this balance between past and future, because change is what happens in the middle. It could be intended as the anthropological equivalent of Heraklitus’ metaphysical notion of ‘panta rhei’, everything flows.
The recurring eye shot I mentioned earlier could be intended to imply the short-sightedness of a fixation with the past, which is what mostly everyone overcomes. And in congruence with the final line, “This story is never ending…” it could also be inferred to mean something like “the past never dies”.
Past and Future dichotomy seems to be a viable assessment of the core theme of the game.
But it is not self-evident which one, if any, of the above is actually the core theme, or how they might fit together. For none of them is all-encompassing and on many points they appear mutually exclusive. Here’s some instances of possible overlap that demonstrate that.
In most of the affinity missions “dealing with death” is also featured. It could be that this is the issue to focus on, and that it should be related to the notions I put forward under the header of religious allegory. It may not have anything to do with tension in a past-future dichotomy.
The final boss, the Lao-chimera, can be read in multiple ways as well.
Lao in a body that doesn’t act according to his will, as a denial of monism is one such possibility.
But it can also be; the redeemed Lao looking to the future, in a body that represents everything of the past that was left behind. And them not being of one will representing how a fixation with either is not the way to go.
The animals comprising the Lao-chimera and its design also have religious implications. It is as a one-winged angel. (Ok, it has two wings, but both are on the same shoulder.) The goat’s head brings Baphomet to mind. The giant lizard head reminds of “the great Dragon” from the bible book ‘Revelations’. This boss can be interpreted to be coded as the devil himself, with obvious thematic consequences.
The post-credits scene, where we learn that the Lifehold’s systems have functioned despite having been destroyed since before the game started, could fit into the religious allegory as a statement of humanity only existing at the grace and mercy of God, not anything external we built ourselves.
It could also be connected to the scenes on Lao’s issues with project Exodus and the one where it is discussed how strange it is that all species on Mira understand one another despite speaking different languages. (Which, by the way, could in a religious context refer to ‘speaking in tongues’, a notion that Christianity entertains as possible.)
The speaking scene describes the observed phenomenon as “intent carrying through where the underlying processes fail.” Lao is explicit that humanity was on board with- and contributed to Project Exodus because it was to save a cross-section of humanity itself, not just the wealthy. That was the intent. He also states that the only actual cross-section was the crew, the workers, the people of NLA. So finding out NLA exists, despite the Lifehold’s systems failing, tells us the observed lingual phenomenon applies more broadly. On Mira, intent carries through where underlying processes fail, and so, if you will, a bridge between past and future is established, or what you want being human to mean is more important than what it actually means.
For all that I can make sense of various parts of the game and its ending piece-wise, none of it comes together in a way that’s sufficiently coherent to make me say: “this is what the game’s about.”
Perhaps some of these ideas are just me reading too much into things. Perhaps they are like the words of a sentence, and that they only make sense if you have sufficient grasp on the metaphorical grammar the game employs. Grammar which western audiences, and even its constituents with some skill in the Japanese language i.e. me, may not be familiar with anyway. Perhaps a rushed end to the development cycle caused them to cut something, or change something, that left the key to understanding the game outside the audience’s reach. Perhaps the incomprehensibility is the point. That with all the game’s focus on the LIFE we’re supposed to conclude from the lack of a core theme that “life isn’t reducible to a pithy statement”.
No matter what’s the case, I couldn’t make sense of things. At best I could say it was a fun game, that is worth something too. But the game does feel to me as though it’s trying to say something, even if I couldn’t discern the ‘what’ of it properly. I do feel that waving things like this all away and saying it’s just teaser metaphysics, likely does the game a disservice. But I don’t think the article was ever intended to be that uncompromising. I still suspect it’s a bit too cynical. But I may just as well be too optimistic in thinking that.