Xenoblade Chronicles 2 achieved something that philosophy professors have been trying to do for centuries: it got people to spend over 60 hours studying Plato.
This game follows in the footsteps of Xenoblade Chronicles, a game that, I’ve argued, uses Leibniz’s metaphysics to tell a special kind of story that is only possible in a video game. I want to convince you that Xenoblade Chronicles 2 has achieved something even more ambitious: it’s used the rich, multifaceted theoretical suite of one of western philosophy’s original philosophers to tell a tale in which the player’s discovery of the world’s underlying structure supplements the journey of the game’s protagonist, Rex, to become a philosopher king. The result of this is a video game that provides a new model for how to marry video-game storytelling with that aspect of game development typically called worldbuilding: the architecture of a game’s fictional world, in which its story takes place.
I begin this article by pointing to the three most pertinent “clues” in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 that should convince you it’s appropriate to be thinking about the game Platonically. Then, with our application of Plato justified, I show how we can read Rex’s journey through the game as one of Plato’s most famous philosophical illustrations: the allegory of the cave. After this, I argue that the player occupies a special role in the game that corresponds to one of Plato’s two most metaphysically basic principles. Ultimately, we’ll see that Xenoblade Chronicles 2′s use of Plato provides a new way for us to conceptualize the storytelling of Japanese roleplaying games: by thinking about the JRPGs Platonically, I suggest, many of the genre’s quirks and idiosyncrasies snap into focus as parts of a cohesive mode of storytelling.
Three disclaimers before we dive in:
- You should expect thorough spoilers for the Xenoblade series throughout this article, along with some spoilers for Xenogears and Xenosaga (and spoilers for the millennia-old teachings of one of the world’s most learned wrestlers).
- Plato’s doctrines and biography are far from clear and are still debated by scholars to this day, thousands of years later. It’s not my aim here to enter the debate of what Plato “really” said or meant in his works (we’d be here all day, if that were the case). Instead, I’m representing what I take to be some of the most commonplace understandings of Plato’s teachings.
- People have already done a lot of interesting work drawing connections between the world of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and the worlds of the Xenosaga and Xenogears games. That work is promising, but what you’re about to read is (mostly) agnostic towards it. My goal is to show why a Platonic perspective is an illuminating way to view the story of Xenoblade Chronicles 2, regardless of whether and how Xenoblade Chronicles 2 relates to other games (cf. my comments on “NE” and “NG” analysis in my article on NieR: Automata; you can find a similar method at work in my psychoanalytic interpretation of Returnal).
Three Clues that We Should Be Reading Xenoblade Chronicles 2 Platonically
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 (“XC2”) is the latest work of Monolith Soft, a studio that usually makes very pointed allusions to particular philosophers and philosophies. The games in the Xenosaga series are all named after works of Friedrich Nietzsche; the story of Xenoblade Chronicles 1 centers on a sword called the Monado, which, upon review, seems most clearly a reference to Leibniz’s Monadology.
This new game, though, isn’t especially forthcoming about its philosophical influences. So, to see that it’s appropriate to read it through the lens of Plato, we have to do some detective work to establish that XC2’s story and world really do allude to Plato in the first place. I’m going to focus on three pieces of evidence from the game that collectively suggest that, even if Plato’s work is not the only philosophical lens through which we can view the game, the Platonic lens is certainly one that the game naturally invites. These pieces of evidence are:
- The Architect of XC2′s world.
- The “Trinity Processor” that the Architect uses to arbitrate his world.
- The ruined city of Morytha.
Let’s take each in turn.
the architect and the demiurge
One of the principal motivations for Rex, Pyra, Malos, and Amalthus’ race to the World Tree is the goal of meeting the Architect: the fabled creator of the world of Alrest. Eventually, when Rex and his friends reach the top of the World Tree, they do meet the Architect and learn his identity: he is Klaus, that same scientist who created the world of Xenoblade Chronicles 1 (and became its god, Zanza).
Or at least, he’s part of that same scientist: it turns out that when Klaus created that world, part of him was flung off to that world: the rest of him remained behind in his own world—a world of which all that remained were the ruins of Morytha, Klaus’ homeland.
Klaus looked around, saw the desolation of his world, and decided to “do penance” for his actions by recreating all of the life that was gone. This was what motivated his design of Alrest and its constitutive elements—the Cloud Sea, and the Core Crystals.
Klaus’ Cloud Sea, at bottom, is a “special particulate substance with the ability to restore deteriorated matter,” able to “rebuild it in the image of all the things that once made up this world.” The Core Crystals are “miniature vessels containing memories of all this planet’s former lifeforms,” which bonded with the particles of the Cloud Sea to form new life—first Titans, and subsequently other life forms spawned from those Titans, including humans and Blades.
What does this fanciful, high-tech origin story have to do with an ancient Greek philosopher? Well, it turns out that Klaus the Architect has a lot in common with a kind of “god-adjacent” concept that Plato spun out in the late phase of his work: the demiurge.
The demiurge, for Plato, was a kind of bridge between the abstract and the concrete. To understand what that means, we need a rough understanding of Plato’s metaphysics—an understanding of the world that’s most succinctly captured by his theory of Forms.
Plato’s theory of Forms held that the only stuff that truly deserved to be called “real” was the Forms: abstract entities that exist outside of space and time and are something like the pure concepts that physical things instantiate. Here are some examples to get a sense of what this means:
- Any particular square—say, a drawing of a square on a chalkboard—is a square, ontologically speaking, because it participates in (or instantiates) the Form of “Squareness.”
- Any particular dog—say, your friend’s basset hound—is a dog, ontologically speaking, because it participates in (or instantiates) the Form of “Dogness.”
- Any particular, morally good action—say, being just—is good, ontologically speaking, because it participates in (or instantiates) the Form of the Good.
So, these changeless Forms, which exist outside of space and time, are somehow instantiated in our physical world. The “somehow,” on the view that Plato spins out in his Timaeus, is the demiurge: a supremely good entity with complete knowledge of the Forms who “sculpts” the chaos of the physical world using the Forms as a model. In this sense, even though it’s tempting to think of the demiurge as a kind of absolute god and creator, it’s really more of a craftsman: one who shapes the world into what it is.
Klaus might not see himself as “supremely good,” but he did sculpt the world of Alrest based on a model—namely, “the image of all the things that once made up this world.” And he did this with beneficient ends in mind: he wanted to ultimately create an even better world than the one he destroyed. So, in being a good figure who created the world from a blueprint of his own knowledge, Klaus is like the Platonic demiurge.
Now, this observation alone doesn’t suffice to get a Platonic reading of XC2 off the ground, because other schools of thought—e.g., Gnosticism, which had a prominent role in the first Xenoblade Chronicles—have similar notions of a demiurge, even if the details differ. But once we supplement this piece of evidence with a couple others, a clearer picture of our bearded, Greek wrestler comes into view.
The Trinity Processor And the Tripartite Theory of the Soul
When Klaus explains the creation of the world to Rex &co atop the World Tree near the end of the game, he provides a little more background to the function and origin of the Aegises, Pneuma and Malos. (A note on nomenclature: throughout this work, I’ll be referring to the “true form” of Pyra/Mythra that first manifests at the end of Chapter 7 as ‘Pneuma’.) Klaus feared that the beings of his newly sculpted world would eventually repeat his own mistakes, destroying themselves through their own hubris; so, he intended to use the three Cores of the Trinity Processor—Ontos, Logos, and Pneuma—as Aegises: information-processing units that collected data on evolutionary pressures from Blades and used that data to guide the evolution of all life beneficently.
Ontos (almost certainly Alvis from Xenoblade Chronicles 1) vanished from the world after triggering “a space-time transition event,” while Logos and Pneuma manifested in the world of Alrest as Blades after Amalthus climbed the World Tree and removed them (Amalthus awoke the former Aegies, and Addam subsequently awoke the latter). In Blade form, Logos and Pneuma became Malos and Mythra, respectively; after Malos was corrupted by the negative emotions of Amalthus, war soon followed.
The Trinity Processor—and the enigmatic “Conduit,” to which it is intimately related (more on that later)—invites theorizing and symbolic interpretation like little else. People have used the Trinity Processor to forge a link between the Xenoblade series and Monolith Soft’s earlier Xenosaga series; the notion of a “trinity” cries out for a Cristian reading of some sort or another.
It’s not my goal here to deny or evaluate these other readings. What I want to point out is that there’s a less obvious Platonic reading that builds our case for a Platonic reading of the overall game: namely, we can interpret the Aegises as representing the different parts of the soul according to Plato’s tripartite theory of the soul.
Plato, in his Republic, argues that the human soul is immortal and has three distinct parts: reason, spirit, and appetite.
- Reason, the logical part of the soul, naturally pursues knowledge and truth.
- Spirit, the passionate part of the soul, naturally pursues honor and esteem.
- Appetite, the carnal part of the soul, naturally pursues objects of immediate pleasure—like food and money.
Ontos is missing from our trinity, but I think that’s a bit of a red herring in interpreting the “trinity” within XC2: the trinity we need to focus on, I think, is the trinity of Malos, Mythra, and Pyra. We can understand these Aegises as symbols for reason, spirit, and appetite, respectively.
Malos is a corrupted manifestation of Logos, or reason. The name itself, “Logos,” is a clue: it’s the same Greek word from which we get “logic” and “logistikon,” Plato’s term for the logical part of the soul. But more to the point, Malos’ character is that of someone who has become disillusioned with the world by detaching himself from any sentiment and viewing it purely through the lens of cold, rationalistic cynicism: he sees everyone—including himself—as instruments of suffering, and therefore draws the “logical” conclusion that, to annihilate all the suffering in the world, he must annihilate the world itself.
As Pneuma points out in the final confrontation, Malos’ corruption comes from the fact that his logic isn’t tempered by any kind of “feeling”: he can’t feel the Architect’s sadness, nor his hope for a more evolved world. As Malos poignantly retorts, he can’t feel anything because “that isn’t [his] role in this world”: his role is that of a reason-based information processor.
Pneuma is the conjunction of spirit and appetite, represented by her two distinct, derivative forms: Mythra and Pyra. Admittedly, the name “Pneuma” isn’t as helpful here as the other Core’s name, “Logos,” is: “pneuma” means “breath,” and was used by a variety of Greek philosophers—especially the Stoics—to refer to the soul (“breath of life”). Plato typically didn’t use ‘pneuma’ to refer to the soul because the term had connotations of something insubstantial, unstable, and material (think of wind, to which Plato often did refer with the term Pneuma), whereas Plato contended that the human soul was an immortal and immaterial substance (see H.A.S. Tarrant’s “Pneuma-Related Concepts in Platonism”).
Even though the word ‘pneuma’ is not immediately germane to a Platonic discussion of the soul, I think that the particulars of the relationship between Pneuma, Pyra, and Mythra give us a plausible reason to persist with our Platonic reading here.
The game isn’t totally explicit about the ontological connections between Pneuma, Mythra, and Pyra, but I think the most natural interpretation is that Pneuma is the “true form” of the Aegis, Mythra is a derivative form of Pneuma, and Pyra is a derivative form of Mythra. This is compatible with the idea that Pneuma is the Aegis’ “true nature” (as Mythra tells Rex), whereas Mythra is only a limited instantiation of that same potential, and Pyra is an even more limited instantiation of that potential, constructed by Mythra to inhibit herself (and to prevent the recurrence of the devastation that came with the Aegis War). Prya and Mythra, it seems, “sum” in some ontological sense to Pneuma, as evidenced by the fact that Pneuma (before her true name is known) is willing to let Rex choose whether to call her Mythra or Pyra, as he prefers.
In an ontologically analogous way, we can interpret Mythra and Pyra as the two other parts of the Platonic soul—spirit and appetite—that collectively represent the more “bodily” aspect of the soul, when compared to reason (represented by Malos).
- Mythra represents spirit—the part of the soul that naturally seeks honor and is driven by ambition. According to Plato, when spirit is frustrated, it reacts with anger and indignation; so, there are rather strong parallels between this part of the soul and Mythra a driven war hero with a sharp temper.
- Pyra represents appetite—the “simplest” part of the soul that is naturally driven by things that provide immediate pleasure. Most superficially, think of Pyra’s proclivity for cooking: food is one of the standard examples of an object to which we are drawn by the appetitive part of our soul. More substantively, though, think of Pyra’s very desire to reach Elysium, especially as it manifests before Mythra’s unsealing. Pyra’s personal desire to return to Elysium is initially represented as a simple desire to return home—it’s only once Mythra, the representation of spirit, reawakens that her need to return there is recast as a quest to stop Malos and herself (i.e. an honor-driven quest). Pyra’s personal desires seem fueled by simple, pleasure-fulfilling concepts, such as home and friendship, which is what we would expect from a representative of appetite.
Taken collectively, then, the Trinity Processor and its derivative Aegises can further support our Platonic picture of XC2’s world. It’s a world that’s literally missing its “ontological” data processor, where the remaining three emanations of the Architect—Malos, Mythra, and Pyra—each represent a different part of the soul. (The fact that Ontos is missing does have a key place in our Platonic interpretation—but that’s a matter for a bit later.)
We’ll get to how this can enhance our understanding of the game in a moment. First, though, I want to wrap up this section by mentioning the one piece of evidence in XC2 that most urged me to analyze the game through a Platonic lens.
Morytha and Atlantis
When someone tells you a story about a metropolis that sank beneath an ocean, you should immediately think of Atlantis.
While Atlantis is nowadays a ubiquitous myth, it actually originated in the work of Plato. The (apparently fictional) island-nation is discussed in his Timaeus and Critias. These texts introduce Atlantis as a way of illustrating that Athens—the “ideal city” according to the political philosophy defended in Plato’s Republic—was, in fact, superior to all other cities.
These texts represent Atlantis as an extremely wealthy and technologically advanced nation that only Athens was able to repel and defeat in war. After that war, floods and earthquakes swept all of Atlantis beneath the waves, and it was never seen again. The apparent lesson from Plato: Atlanteans lusted after power and worldly possessions, and (like every other tragic figure of Greek antiquity) they were punished by the gods for their hubris.
The story of Morytha is tightly analogous to this story of Atlantis. The Architect—Klaus—was born there and lusted for power. Using the extremely advanced technology available to him, he tried to act on this lust for power by creating a new world and ascending to the status of godhood. His hubris left the world ravaged, his own homeland decimated beneath the sea.
The decimation of Morytha can be seen as a kind of “divine reproach,” just as the decimation of Atlantis was, because the Architect thereafter recognizes that his attempt to create a new world was a kind of “sin” for which he must atone. His creation of Alrest was an attempt to establish a new, better order—the kind of order analogous to Plato’s ideal Athens, antithetical to the sacrilegious Atlantis.
Taken individually, these three data points—the Architect, the Trinity Processor, and the ruins of Morytha—are amenable to a wide variety of interpretations and analyses. Taken holistically, though, they give us a solid foundation for analyzing the Xenoblade Chronicles 2 Platonically in a principled and well-motivated way.
Of course, the real measure of this interpretation’s value will be what new insights it can shed on our understanding of the game itself. To answer that question, we need to zoom out from particular data points and think about the overall arc of the game Platonically.
The Player, the Conduit, and the Allegory of the Tree
I’ve provided a battery of data to demonstrate that Xenoblade Chronicles 2 naturally invites interpretation through a Platonic lens: imposing Plato’s views on the game aren’t a case of fitting a square peg in a round hole.
With that in mind, I want to show you how well the game’s story aligns with Plato’s famous allegory of the cave. We’ll see that interpreting the story in this way actually equips us with satisfying explanations for some of the game’s most seemingly inexplicable features, such as:
- the return of Mythra and Pyra after Pneuma’s sacrifice
- a combat tutorial system that stretches almost to the very end of the game
- an epic saga’s bizarre preoccupation with a small, furry crime lord
But the bigger-picture payoff will be this: we’ll see how the player, by taking on a special role in the Platonic metaphysics of the game’s world, is able to enact a metaphysical journey that parallels the journey Rex undertakes to become a philosopher king.
Caves, Stairs, and Trees: The Theory of Forms in Xenoblade Chronicles 2
Above, I described Plato’s theory of Forms: the abstract conceptual entities that constitute the “real stuff” of Plato’s metaphysics. Plato’s allegory of the cave is a way of illustrating how people come to grasp these Forms. This arc towards philosophical enlightenment, I want to convince you, is the same arc that we see in the story of XC2. To see that, we’ll first examine the allegory itself, and then we’ll see how it aligns with the principal events of the game.
The allegory of the cave instructs you to imagine the following scenario in order to understand the ascent from ignorance to knowledge:
People begin life in a cave as prisoners, chained to a wall facing the cave’s back face. Over the top of the wall to which the prisoners are chained, puppeteers use the light of a fire and shadow puppets to cast shadows on the back wall. These shadows are all that the prisoners are able to see.
Because the shadows are all that the prisoners are able to see, they suppose these shadows to be the “real” things in the world—and they judge the knowledge of people by their knowledge of these shadows (e.g., Plato imagines the prisoners playing a game where they guess which shadow will appear on the wall next, and those prisoners who are good at guessing are therefore considered by other prisoners to be wise).
But now, Plato invites us to imagine a prisoner being liberated from her chains. She’s able to turn around and see behind the wall, and she realizes that the shadows she’s been watching for so long aren’t the “real things” in the world: they’re just imitations of the puppets that the puppeteers are using. And then, when she notices the light emanating from the mouth of the cave and goes outside, she realizes that the puppets and fire are also just imitations: the world outside, illuminated by the sun, are the real things.
And then, what if this enlightened prisoner were to return to the innards of the cave to try to save her fellow prisoners? Well, Plato thinks that two things would probably happen:
- Because of her time in the bright sun, she’d actually have less facility in the darkness of the cave than the prisoners who never left, making her seem less knowledgeable than the others even though only she had seen the truth.
- When she tried to tell the prisoners of the world beyond the shadows—something that they’d have virtually no way of conceptualizing, since they’d only known shadows for their whole lives—the prisoners would probably treat her as a dangerous outcast and kill her.
The most natural and common way of interpreting this allegory with regard to Plato’s theory of Forms is the following:
Stage 1: “Ordinary people”—the non-philosophers among us—go through life focused solely on the empirical objects we experience through our senses. We think about the world in terms of the particular things that we encounter: this particular square on the chalkboard; this particular dog hanging out with us; this particular good thing that we just saw someone do. This is what it means to be chained in the back of the cave, merely watching shadows pass by with no sense of the rhyme or reason to them.
Stage 2: When we start thinking about the principles behind why empirical things behave in the ways they do, we start to see the “puppeteers” behind the wall: we contemplate the mathematics that defines any square on any chalkboard; we contemplate the behavior and characteristics of dogs more generally; we contemplate what good actions have in common.
Stage 3: Leaving the cave is an analogy for doing philosophy and contemplating the Forms themselves, those abstract concepts that (on Plato’s view) are the only strictly real things that give all derivative, empirical objects whatever qualities they have. We interrogate what “Squareness itself” is; we interrogate what “Dogness itself” is; we interrogate what “Goodness itself” is. This is the act of looking beyond the empirical and instead investigating the metaphysical foundation of the world.
Stage 4: The return to the cave is what happens when philosophers try to encourage the philosophically uninitiated to begin doing philosophy and thinking beyond the empirical world before their eyes—and, more specifically, it’s an allusion to the fate of Socrates, who was famously sentenced to death by the Athenian government for (among other charges) “corrupting the youth” through his philosophical dialogues.
I think that this journey out of and back into the cave gives us a powerful new way to understand the story of Xenoblade Chronicles 2. Let me spell out this connection between the philosopher and the game by illustrating how different parts of the game correspond to the four different stages of the cave analogy we spelled out above: the cave’s back wall; the puppeteers; the outside world; and the return.
Stage 1: the mundanity of trade relations
In Xenoblade Chronicles 1, the story opens with Shulk—the eventual savior of the universe—in the role of a mild-mannered engineer trying to uncover the secrets of the Monado—the blade that ultimately holds all the answers to the nature of the universe. In this way, the game’s theme of uncovering the deepest truths of its world are already contained in the very first tasks that occupy the player’s avatar.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is not like this. At the beginning of the game, Rex is occupied with the very mundane task of salvaging: collecting wreckage from the Cloud Sea and selling it to guilds to earn money for both himself and his family. That’s a noble undertaking, but it has basically nothing to do with the story’s eventual trajectory of uncovering the origins of the entire universe.
Even after Rex discovers and connects with Pyra—which, notably, happens when he’s been hired on a mercenary job—vast swaths of the game, especially the early-to-middle stages, are preoccupied with the mundanities of everyday life. Rex and his friends are dogged by Bana, the corrupt chairman of the Argentum Trade Guild, for chapter after chapter, even though Bana is solely motivated by money and bears only the most tenuous relation to the party’s main goal of reaching Elysium.
It’s easy to see the Nopon—the small, furry species that doesn’t abide by the rules of grammar—as mere comic relief, the special blend of humor and “cute” that often graces JRPGs in the form of a non-human member of the player’s party of characters. That was a fair interpretation of the Nopon in Xenoblade Chronicles 1, but the sheer volume of quests and storylines that keep you occupied with them in XC2 makes it harder to write them off as a sideshow.
I think a Platonic interpretation gives us a more productive way to integrate Bana and his antics into a rich and holistic conception of the overall story. All the business with the trade guild, along with Bana’s obsession with money and the more superficial pop-culture elements of Akihabara, represents the first stage of the cave: the shadows that the prisoners watch on the wall.
Bana’s obsession with the immediate pleasures of the world around him epitomizes the Platonic view of the philosophically uneducated: he is myopically focused on the most fleeting and literal aspects of society, trying to grab power without expressing any awareness or interest in the underlying structures that explain why and how the world is as it is.
(As an aside, I think there’s probably an easy way to extend this analysis to a kind of “meta-commentary” about JRPGs: one might argue that the Nopon mafia lord and the chibi-stylized maid mech represent how many fans of Japanese pop culture overlook its more substantive, philosophical themes, instead focusing solely on the most superficially entertaining elements of it. But Japanese culture isn’t an expertise of mine, so I’ll leave that as an exercise for someone else to undertake in the future.)
Part 2: the agony of puppets
How painful is it to learn that the world, and your life, are radically different from what you’d previously believed?
This is the kind of abrupt displacement that comes from being unchained from the wall of the cave and seeing the puppets casting shadows on the wall. It’s the kind of displacement that we see exemplified in the character of Jin.
Jin is someone who knows too much about the world without actually understanding why the world is as it is, and this discrepancy between his knowledge and understanding generates the pain that drives him. He recognizes the cruel kind of “impotent immortality” that Blades have in Alrest: when Blades’ human Drivers die, the Blades merely return to their Core Crystals, able to be reawoken by another Driver in the future; yet this return to the Core Crystal causes the Blade to lose all of his memories from his previous manifestation in the world.
Jin laments this twisted nature of Blades when he confronts the party atop the rampaging Judicium Titan he set loose:
Blades are granted phenomenal power from our creator on high… yet we are doomed to never remember. Why?! The accumulation of memories is what allows mankind, no, all life to grow. Change, evolve. But… Blades are fleeting. When we return to our Cores, our memories are lost. Our growth snatched away forever.
Memory is a central concept in XC2 precisely because of this complex amnesia that Blades suffer. This is why it makes sense that much of the game’s story is expressed through nonlinear flashbacks: this method of storytelling makes the player start to feel as disoriented as a Blade must, with a rough sense of what happened in the past but very little hope of ever seeing a complete picture of the world’s history.
Blades like Jin (Brighid is another example) try to recover memories of their past manifestations by writing down their experiences and knowledge in journals. By reading these journals, they’re able (at least in theory) to accumulate knowledge about themselves and the world by amassing memories across their multiple awakenings from Core Crystal form.
Yet this “failsafe” of journaling is just a strategy to cope with a harsh reality that Jin and other Blades recognize without fully understanding. “If the Architect does indeed exist,” Jin muses, “I wish I could ask him… who am I, truly? Whence did I come? Whither am I headed?” And, tragically, Jin dies without ever getting the answers to those questions. He goes so far as to consume the heart of his Driver, Lora, in an effort to “prevent her death” by remembering her. These are the actions of someone desperately trying to survive in a world he understands just enough to resent.
These are the actions of someone who’s seen the puppets in the cave, but who never stepped outside of the cave.
Plato had another theory that will help us understand the connection between Blades and the cave: the theory of recollection. According to this view, all cases of learning something are actually cases of recollecting something that our immortal soul once knew, but forgot when it was bound to our mortal body. The most famous example of this from Plato’s surviving work comes from the Meno, in which Socrates leads a slave boy, through a series of question-and-answer interactions, to “recollect” truths about mathematics that he didn’t know previously and that Socrates didn’t explicitly tell him. As Plato saw it, we all have a kind of latent familiarity with the Forms from the time before we were born—we just need to remember it.
Blades like Jin are like Plato’s slave boy: they recollect just enough about the world and their past-life experiences to recognize that there is far more at stake than the shadows that characters like Bana are watching on the wall, yet they still haven’t grasped the Forms that lie at the heart of reality. When Jin refers to Blades as “slaves” atop the Judicium Titan, he means literally that Indol has enslaved them by exerting totalitarian control over Core Crystals; however, there’s another way we can now interpret “slave” that’s just as appropriate: Blades are “enslaved,” like Plato’s slave boy, in the sense that they understand enough about the world to recognize their own limited position in it, but they lack the knowledge that would allow them to transcend those limitations.
Part 3: “The Full Light of Day”
When Pneuma first manifests at the end of Chapter 7, you’ll notice that, beneath her name (spelled out using the Greek alphabet), there’s a Latin verse on her chest:
The verse reads, “Lustorum autem semita quasi lux splendens procedit et crescit usque ad perfectam diem.” That’s the Latin rendering of a Bible verse, Proverbs 4:18:
The path of the righteous is like the morning sun, shining ever brighter till the full light of day.
There’s no disputing that this is a Biblical allusion, but it also fits snugly into our Platonic framework for understanding the game: namely, Rex has walked “the path of the righteous” into “the full light of day”: the light of the sun outside of Plato’s cave.
Note that there are two distinct parts to that Bible verse, and therefore two points that we must show cohere with our Platonic interpretation. We must show that:
- Rex’s journey takes him into the Platonic equivalent of “the full light of day.”
- Rex’s journey into the full light of day is “righteous.”
Let’s take each of these in turn.
Part 1: The Platonic “light of day” is knowledge of the Forms, which is what Rex gains when he meets the Architect. The Forms after which the entire world of Alrest is fashioned are the memories of life from Klaus’ destroyed world, which he embedded in the Core Crystals. Although Rex begins his quest with the very tangible goal of “saving everyone” by finding Elysium, his quest becomes a quest to understand why the Architect created the world in the way that he did, and what the most fundamental purposes of Rex and everyone else are.
This is precisely the kind of understanding that Rex receives when he finally meets the Architect. If you’re still wondering how thoroughly Rex’s journey reflects the Platonic migration out of the cave, just consider the following. Rex arrives at the top of the World Tree to find his original, material quest for a global living space dashed: Elysium, remembered by Pyra and Mythra as a lush paradise, is in ruin. Yet, shortly thereafter, he is presented with an entirely different, metaphysical kind of reward: the opportunity to learn, straight from the Architect’s mouth, why the world is as it is. This is the Platonic migration from a myopic focus on the material to an awakened focus on the metaphysical truth of the universe. That’s the “full light of day” to which Rex and Pneuma ascend.
Part 2: The pursuit of understanding the Architect’s actions is necessarily a righteous path when we analyze the Architect as a Platonic demiurge. On the late view of Plato expressed in the Timaeus, the demiurge is a supremely good being that used his knowledge of the Forms as a model to structure the universe in a way that would produce good effects. The key thing to notice here is that the Platonic demiurge’s act of molding the universe isn’t a morally neutral event like the Big Bang (presumably) was: for Plato, there is an explicitly ethical dimension to the universe because it was fashioned by a supremely good being who intended to model it after the Forms and thereby generate good effects.
So, as we pursue an understanding of the Forms, we’re really just trying to understand that fundamental goodness that undergirds reality itself. As long as we’re interpreting “the righteous path” to be something like “the path pursuing goodness,” it follows that to try to understand why the Architect fashioned the world as he did is to walk a righteous path.
The climax of Xenoblade Chronicles 2, then, isn’t just an explanation to the player of what’s been going on in the game for the ~60 hours they’ve spent playing it: it’s also the realization of a boy’s quest for knowledge in the metaphysically richest sense of the term.
Part 4: The Return To The Cave
You might think it’s enough for the philosopher to go through life contemplating the Forms of his own accord. Plato doesn’t stop there, though: part of his deep admiration for Socrates, his own teacher, is that the man resolved to return to the cave and try to liberate his fellow men, and did not renounce this mission even when Athens threatened to execute him.
That’s why it’s crucial to the Platonic interpretation of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 that Rex and his friends don’t simply disappear after their confrontation with Malos, nor does the game simply end there: they return to the world below, armed with everything they learned from the Architect up above. More specifically, I think the end of the game ties off our Platonic interpretation in a surprisingly satisfying way: it suggests that, throughout the game, Rex has been undergoing training to become a philosopher king.
Plato’s view of the philosopher king as the ideal ruler emerges in his Republic. He compares the state to a ship (another one of his most famous metaphors); the pilot of such a ship, Plato thinks, must know and attend to everything affecting his ship—from the wind, to the stars, to the heavens—if he aims to really succeed at piloting it. This kind of pilot, according to Plato, needs to be wise and virtuous: they must care selflessly for the good of the people, be willing to live a simple, unadorned life, and have access to the Forms that constitute reality itself. The ruler with these qualities is Plato’s philosopher king.
Rex’s youthful adherence to “the power of friendship” and “making people happy” might be read as Nintendo simply making the game more child-friendly, but I think that something more nuanced is going on here. Rex exhibits the exact traits required of a philosopher king:
He is selfless, first instinctually and then self-consciously. From the beginning of the story, Rex commits all sorts of selfless deeds, such as sending money home to his family, seeking a new place for humanity to live, and helping Pyra fulfill her goal of reaching Elysium. When he finally reaches the Architect and reflects on his own purpose—acting for his own reasons, rather than serving as a mere instrument for the goals of others—he deliberately chooses the same kind of selflessness, proclaiming that his role in the world is to put smiles on people’s faces and help them live their lives together.
He never seeks a lavish life of wealth. Rex has humble roots as a salvager, and he’s never tempted by riches or power as he proceeds through his journey and meets people from all of Alrest. Perhaps the best evidence of this is that, from the beginning of the game all the way through to its conclusion, Rex continues to quote the Salvager’s Code: a simple rubric for human decency by which he’s always lived his life.
His curiosity and drive to understand the world lead him to the Architect and knowledge of the world’s Forms. By the end of the game, Rex has the exact kind of understanding that Plato believes a philosopher king must have.
But it’s not enough to simply hear the Architect’s origin story: to truly become a philosopher king, Rex needs to be able to recognize the Forms independently of any particular object in the world that participates in a Form. And this, I think, is what explains one of the most apparently unmotivated sequences of events in the game: the sacrifice of Pneuma, and the subsequent return of Mythra and Pyra.
It can be challenging to initially digest the scene in which Pneuma sacrifices herself to destroy the World Tree before it can fall on Alrest: after a saga tackling a wide range of themes and intricate plotlines, it’s easy to feel dissatisfied by the game culminating in all of Rex’s friends telling him that he needs to “be a grown-up” and let Pneuma go. If we interpret Rex as a boy on a journey to become a philosopher king, though, this scene transforms from a thematic blemish to a thematic necessity.
This moment in the game isn’t just necessary in the sense that “a real king needs to be a grown-up”: it’s necessary because, if Rex is to become a philosopher king, he needs to free himself from personal attachments that would prevent him from thinking about the entirety of existence and the place of his entire kingdom within existence. Plato actually offers yet another metaphor that explains this precise moment in Rex’s maturation as a philosopher king.
Before Plato offered the allegory of the cave, he described the same act of ascending from the empirical to the metaphysical in his Symposium using the metaphor of climbing a flight of stairs (or climbing a ladder, depending on your translation). In the Symposium, Plato presents a scene of Socrates and his friends giving speeches on Love. Socrates’ speech winds up being an anecdote on how Diotima, a divinely inspired woman (presumably acting as a fictional mouthpiece for Plato’s own view) told him about how one can come to know the Form of Beauty.
To know the Form of Beauty, Diotima says, one must essentially climb a flight of stairs on which each step represents a new level of generality and abstraction in how one thinks about beauty.
- One begins by noticing beauty in the body of a single person.
- Then, one must recognize that the beauty of this person is the same kind of beauty that other people have.
- Next, one sees that beauty in the soul is a better thing to have than beauty in the body.
- One will contemplate beauty even more generally after that, recognizing it not only in people, but also in actions and customs.
- Finally, one steps away from all concrete instances of beauty and contemplates the Form of Beauty itself.
When a man turns his attention finally to the Form of Beauty, Diotima says, “he may no longer dwell upon one, like a servant, content with the beauty of one boy or one human being or one pursuit, and so be slavish and petty; but he should turn to the great ocean of beauty” (Symposium 210B-212A, W.H.D. Rouse translation).
This comment is key to our Platonic explanation of why Rex must be willing to let Pneuma go: it’s a test of his worthiness—presumably, a test by the Architect—to become a philosopher king. Rex loves Pneuma deeply and personally; so, as Diotima says, he must be willing to move his attention beyond her if he wants to truly be able to contemplate the nature of the universe more broadly and lead people in accordance with his new knowledge. He must separate from the partner to whom his life has been literally linked for most of the story.
Once Rex passes that test and proves that he is fit to rule, Pyra and Mythra are able to return—not as objects of his entire focus or purpose, but rather as separate people whom he can love intimately within the context of his new role as a universally-minded leader.
And it is fairly evident, I think, that Rex is being groomed in his journey to become the leader of the new, unified world that emerges after the World Tree is destroyed. Throughout his quest, Rex meets all the other leaders of the world’s nations and sees their shortcomings:
- Amalthus is a corrupt despot.
- King Eulogimenos is a usurper who falsely claimed Addam’s bloodline in an effort to unite his people.
- King Niall is an untempered child ruler, who alternately looks to his sister for guidance and rushes to martyr himself to protect others.
- And, even though we know least about Queen Raqura, her deep suspicion of both other rulers and Pyra make her an unlikely candidate to unite people from across the world.
It is Rex who has the global perspective, selfless disposition, and philosophical knowledge necessary to lead a united world as its philosopher king.
And, while it’s certainly not the argumentative be-all and end-all, it doesn’t hurt that Rex’s name is the Latin word for ‘king’.
If we liked, then, we might call Xenoblade Chronicles 2 “The Allegory of the Tree.” It’s not just a story about exploring a vast world, uncovering its history, and interrogating the rich relationships between characters: it’s a vivid illustration of a boy’s journey from ordinary laborer to philosopher king—out of the ocean, up the tree, and back down to the world below once again.
And perhaps the best part about this is that the player enjoys a metaphysically crucial role in taking him on that journey.
How to Turn Plato’s Unwritten Doctrines into a Video Game
Worldbuilding in video games—the craft of developing an engaging and coherent fictional world for the player to experience—is often taken as something quite distinct from storytelling in video games (and in other storytelling media, for that matter): first you create the world, and then you tell the story in it. But what if you could tell a story that fuses the avatar’s journey through the world with the player’s experience of that world, in such a way that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts?
That’s exactly what happens in Xenoblade Chronicles 2. At the same time that Rex is on a righteous journey to become a philosopher king, the player and the Conduit are telling a rich, metaphysical story that mirrors and supplements Rex’s journey through Alrest without reducing to that journey.
Let me tell you about that other half of XC2′s story, and about the Platonic theory underpinning it.
Not much is said about the Conduit within Xenoblade Chronicles 2 itself. Galea—the scientist who would become Meyneth in the world of Xenoblade Chronicles 1—identifies it as a “meta-universe manifold”; its power, which the Architect identifies as the power in which Rex and Pneuma participate, “comes leaking out of some far-flung dimension” and is “a power we can know nothing about,” according to the Architect. It is a link to endless universes that coexist side by side, each ignorant of all the others—again, according to the Architect.
There’s interesting work to be done (and already being done) in connecting the Conduit to the Zohar of Xenosaga and the Zohar Modifier of Xenogears; maybe there’s even a compelling quantum-mechanical or multiverse theory to apply to the Conduit. I don’t intend to discount any such interpretations here. What I aim to show is just that there’s another way to think about the Conduit that adds another rich and coherent layer to the Platonic interpretation we’ve been developing throughout this article: in particular, we can analyze the Conduit and the player of XC2 as the two fundamental principles of Plato’s so-called “unwritten doctrines”: the Indefinite Dyad and the One, respectively.
There’s an interesting and complicated history to Plato’s unwritten doctrines that I won’t belabor here (their Wikipedia page is a good place to start, if you’re interested). The short version is that Plato allegedly held certain foundational metaphysical theories that he never wrote down: he only shared them with Aristotle and other top students of his Academy because he feared that it would hard to explain these theories to a general audience, and they would therefore end up being misinterpreted.
These unwritten doctrines allegedly consist of two principles that explain the Forms—and, since the Forms explain the empirical objects that we experience, the theory of Forms and these two principles, taken together, are supposed to explain the whole of reality and experience. The two principles are:
- The One. This is a productive principle that gives form to things.
- The Indefinite Dyad. This is a principle of ambiguity and indeterminacy; it is the substrate on which the productive One acts.
The action of the One on the Indefinite Dyad is what creates and sets limits to the Forms, which constitute reality and from which our empirical experiences derive.
Now, keeping in mind that other interpretations of the Conduit’s significance are possible and permissible, consider the following explanation of this “meta-universe manifold” that “leaks power out of some far-flung dimension.”
The Conduit is the principle of ambiguity and indeterminacy: it contains myriad, unresolved possibilities, and, were those possibilities resolved, they could generate myriad different worlds depending on the particularities of how those possibilities were resolved. This is the sense in which the Conduit is a metaphysical manifold beyond any particular universe.
The player is the productive principle that gives form to universes by interacting with the Conduit. On this interpretation, the player’s act of playing the game is the power from “some far-flung dimension” that catalyzes the Conduit, metaphysically undergirding the game’s universe and giving Pneuma and Rex the special kind of “power” that the Architect cites: the power to “make whatever [Pneuma] imagines real.”
This interpretation conveys (at least) four theoretical advantages that I think merits our taking it seriously.
Theoretical Advantage #1: it explains the metaphysical role of the Conduit in a way that’s consonant with the broader narrative of the game, and with the medium through which it’s represented. It’s easy to see the Conduit as a kind of multiversal deus ex machina when playing through Xenoblade Chronicles 2—even if you want to turn to the broader Xenogears/Xenosaga suite and say that it’s intended to link these different universes together, it’s hard to see its inclusion in XC2 as narratively meaningful: instead, we point beyond the fiction and say, “Well, the developers wanted a way to connect their multiple series.”
In contrast, the Platonic view presents a metaphysics to the game’s world that naturally extends from its story and video-game medium. Speaking literally, the player of the video game is enacting the game’s world through the act of playing the game. The Platonic interpretation of the player and Conduit makes that action metaphysically salient within the fiction of the game: it tells us that the real-life player’s literal enactment of the game corresponds within the fiction to the metaphysical creation of the Forms from which Alrest are derived.
And notice that this Platonic interpretation still accomplishes the series-bridging role that the identification of the Conduit with the Zohar accomplishes: when the player interacts with the Conduit differently, a different universe will emerge from the different constellation of Forms thereby generated. In other words, from this Platonic interpretation it follows that a player who engages with a different game containing the Conduit, provided they engage with it differently, will thereby generate a different universe.
This also explains why the Forms underpinning Alrest—the blueprints for life that the Architect was aiming to recreate through the Cloud Sea and Core Crystals—take forms that are familiar to the player, like humans and animals. If the Forms are derived from the player’s interaction with the Conduit, then it stands to reason that the Forms would be similar to those concepts that are familiar to the player in her real world (granting that they will be distorted by the chaotic influence of the Conduit, a.k.a. the Indefinite Dyad).
Theoretical Advantage #2: It explains Pneuma’s special power in a metaphysically robust way. What does it mean that Pneuma can “make whatever she imagines real”? The Platonic interpretation gives us a simple answer that coheres nicely with the rest of our theory: on this view, Pneuma is able to make what she imagines real because she and Rex, by virtue of being the player’s avatar and a metaphysical entity linked to that avatar, are directly linked to the metaphysically foundational enacter of the universe and are therefore able to manifest what the player wishes to manifest in the world.
And it makes sense that they manifest what the player wants, rather than, strictly speaking, what they want: after all, the context in which this power to actualize what Pneuma imagines is introduced is the game’s combat system, regarding Pneuma’s ability to execute an elemental combo in any order. That’s a power that the player is ultimately responsible for exercising, meaning that it is ultimately the player who is deploying this special power through Pneuma.
Why are Pyra and Mythra only able to access this power once they’ve unlocked their true form as Pneuma, even though they and Rex are linked to the player throughout the entirety of the game? The answer is the name of Chapter 7: the fear she carries. One of the aspects of this Platonic interpretation that’s so thematically salient is that, even though the player possesses metaphysical authority over the game’s world, Pyra and Mythra hold the player back by fearing and refusing to use that authority for 70% of the game. It’s only once Rex, the up-and-coming philosopher king, reaffirms his commitment to discovering their future and loving the world that they are willing to let go of their fear and embrace the player’s power in its entirety.
Theoretical Advantage #3: It explains the long arc of XC2′s combat tutorials. This is a corollary of Theoretical Advantage #2. It’s not normal that games will still be teaching you aspects of their combat system 70% of the way through the story, and in the instances where this does happen, it’s natural to see this as a shortcoming of the combat system—you might complain that the combat system was “too complicated for its own good,” or “not sufficiently intuitive for the player to adopt on her own terms.” But the Platonic interpretation gives a compelling narrative explanation as to precisely why it takes so long to fully learn and implement the game’s combat system. This explanation is twofold.
- Throughout the course of the game, the player is continually learning more about the true extent of her authority over the world. It’s not an ordinary convention in video-game storytelling that the player has ultimate metaphysical authority within the game’s fiction, so it’s fair for the player of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 to initially assume that she hasn’t been cast in the role of anything remotely like the One. It’s thus perfectly in keeping with a natural story arc of discovering one’s potential that, as the player progressively learns more about the world and her power in it, she must also continually learn more about how to wield that power. (Who is the mysterious narrator that tells the player how to use the combat system in dialogue boxes? It’s one of my greatest disappointments that the game never gives an answer to that. While I don’t officially think there’s enough data in the game to answer that question, I’d be a sad excuse for an analyst if I didn’t point here to the possibility that this narrator is someone akin to Plato himself: a philosophically omnipotent presence who’s able to teach the One itself about its role in the world that derives from it.)
- As I mentioned above, Pyra and Mythra are actively resisting their capacity to tap into the player’s power for most of the game. Thus, the game’s mechanics cohere with the rest of its narrative in the sense that the player must learn how to use her new powers as Pyra and Mythra progressively permit the player to direct more and more of her power through themselves and (by extension) Rex.
Theoretical Advantage #4: It further illuminates the nature of the Trinity Processor’s constituents—Logos, Pneuma, and Ontos. Like the nature of the Conduit, it’s easy to write off the disappearance of Ontos as a deus ex machina intended merely to link XC2 with XC1 before it (on the fair assumption that Alvis is the physical manifestation of Ontos). But there’s another, narratively meaningful explanation that’s available on the Platonic interpretation. If Ontos is the administrative unit that determines the ontology of the universe in which it is embedded—as both his name (the same Greek root for ‘being’ from which we get ‘ontology’) and Alvis’ role in Xenoblade Chronicles 1 suggest—then it makes sense that the presence of an alternate, complete ontology—i.e. the presence of the Conduit and the player—preclude Ontos from governing the metaphysics of that universe. The Platonic interpretation of XC2, therefore, is able to explain the apparent non-sequitur of Ontos’ “space-time transition event” by analyzing it as one ontological structure trumping the other: the player and Conduit effectively “crowded out” Ontos from Alrest.
And what about Logos and Pneuma? What explains the antithetical paths of the two Aegises: one who aims to destroy the world, and the other who aims to save it? Of course there’s the explanation offered explicitly through the course of the game: Blades are influenced by the perspectives of their Drivers, and so the malice of Amalthus corrupts Logos whereas the compassion of Rex uplifts Pneuma. But our Platonic interpretation gives us a supplemental, more metaphysically foundational explanation for the discrepancy between this Aegises.
Recall from our analysis of Rex’s training as a philosopher king that there is an intrinsic moral nature to the Forms and the way in which the Architect fashioned Alrest. Because the player acts in the role of the metaphysical progenitor of the Forms, it stands to reason that this moral goodness derives from their actions on the Conduit (in fact, some interpretations of Plato’s unwritten doctrines claim outright that the One is the ultimate source of Goodness in the universe, as the productive and unifying force from which the Forms emanate). Thus it makes sense that the Aegis who is directly connected with the player (through her bond with Rex, the avatar) would thereby be directly connected with goodness, whereas the Aegis who is entirely estranged from the player—linked solely to the chaos and indeterminacy of the Conduit—would thereby grow estranged from virtue.
Rex’s journey throughout Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is the training of a philosopher king, but it’s also the classic hero’s journey: Rex leaves home guided by a wise companion, faces adversity, transforms his self-concept, and returns home (back to Alrest from the World Tree). What’s exceptional about the Platonic interpretation of the player and Conduit is that, besides the theoretical advantages enumerated above, it casts the player’s metaphysical journey through the game as parallel to the hero’s journey undertaken by the avatar.
- The player leaves her home and becomes ensconced in the world of Xenoblade Chronicles 2.
- Over the course of the narrative, guided by the game’s own tutorials and direction, she grows into her role as a capable agent of change in the world.
- Ultimately, her self-concept is transformed: she sees herself not merely as a participant in the world of the game, but rather as the metaphysical determinant of that world.
- The player returns to her own world as the Conduit dissipates with them, paving the way for a world that Rex can govern independently of the player’s authority.
This isn’t the kind of story where the player imagines herself as the avatar and views the avatar’s adventure as her own: it’s the kind of story where avatar and player take the same kind of adventure on different metaphysical levels. The result is a unified narrative in which the protagonist and the consumer of that narrative collaborate to marry the hero’s journey with a comprehensive philosophical worldview.
Beyond Xenoblade Chronicles 2: JRPGs and Platonism
I hope to have conveyed at this point why interpreting Xenoblade Chronicles 2 Platonically can provide a new and illuminating way to view its story. But the utility of this Platonic lens, I think, extends beyond XC2 to JRPG stories more generally.
It’s too easy to see the stories of epic, 60-hour JPRGs as a completely absurd ascent from ordinary relationships between characters to wildly abstract confrontations against incomprehensible monsters that sport three or four “forms.” I think that we can get a better analytical handle on these sorts of stories, in many cases, by viewing them through the lens of Plato’s philosophy. Let me close by offering three examples to illustrate how this might be useful.
(Here come spoilers for Majora’s Mask, Okami, and Tales of Graces.)
The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask
From nihilism to Buddhism, there are many lenses through which to view Majora’s Mask, and Platonism is a promising lens that hasn’t been utilized yet. Link begins the story enmeshed in the ordinary mundanities of life in Termina’s Clock Town, with everyone going about their daily schedule (odd as that is, given that the moon is threatening to fall on them). He progresses from confronting very tangible problems (like a poisoned swamp) to confronting spiritual problems (like the cursed ghosts of Ikana Canyon). When he finally confronts Majora’s forms in an ethereal space separated from the physical world of Termina, he faces a manifestation of Wrath itself: a negative Form given a physical incarnation.
Want to put a new spin on the Platonic journey out of the cave? Use a three-day time loop to make the mundanities of ordinary life even more viscerally inescapable—then challenge the player and her avatar to transcend them.
Okami illustrates how folklore and mythology can be woven into a rich tapestry with Platonic philosophy. The player assumes the role of the sun goddess, Amaterasu, who swiftly progresses from solving ordinary problems for villagers, to defeating mythical villains, to annihilating the physical incarnation of darkness itself (literally called Yami, meaning darkness in Japanese).
The exciting aspect of this game from a Platonic viewpoint is that it effectively reverses the perspective through which the player experiences the journey out of the allegorical cave. Rather than playing as an ignorant human, the player acts as the Form of Light itself; over the course of her journey, it’s up to the player to lead the citizens of Nippon from seeing her as a mere white wolf—the physical avatar that Amaterasu (and therefore the player) has taken—to seeing her as a divine, metaphysically foundational entity. And indeed, it’s this precise recognition on the part of the citizenry that ultimately empowers the player to defeat the Form of Darkness, Yami, at the game’s end.
tales of graces
Tales of Graces is a kind of subversion of the Platonic epic we saw in Xenoblade Chronicles 2. Its protagonist, Asbel, is thrust from childhood into young-adulthood and put through many similar paces to what Rex undergoes. There’s a twist, though: for much of the game, it seems as if the ultimate antagonist—the negative Form that Asbel and his friends will eventually have to confront—is “Lambda,” understood as a kind of malice incarnate that has possessed and corrupted their childhood friend, Richard.
The twist is that, after the final battle with Lambda, it becomes clear that Lambda is not a manifestation of anything like the Form of Malice; rather, he’s just a scared, young lifeform that was abused and taught to hate the world that caused him pain. The true “final battle,” after the final combat of the game, is a mental conversation that Asbel has with Lambda, convincing him to trust in the goodness of the world and let go of the concepts of loneliness and suffering. The smartness of this narrative turn is succinctly captured when we view it through a Platonic framework. The game rejects the idea that any sentient being could truly serve as the manifestation of a negative Form, as is so often the case in JRPGs: instead, it suggests, negative Forms like loneliness and suffering are concepts that we must strive to fully understand so that we can prevent them from unjustly influencing the lives of ourselves and others.
Towards More Robust Analysis and More Holistic Storytelling
Too often we forget that both video games and our understanding of their storytelling are still embryonic in the long arc of history. If we want our understanding of this new storytelling medium to progress, we need more robust theoretical frameworks with which to approach their stories in the first place. Platonism may be too high a philosophical standard to expect of video-game storytelling categorically, but Xenoblade Chronicles 2 has shown us that it’s not an impossible standard. Indeed, applying this lens to more games can give us fresh insights into old favorites and new releases alike.
We need to look to a future where we recognize the rich and unique ways in which games can blend plot, world, and player into a cohesive philosophical unit that fully engages with the medium’s potential. But we don’t need to do this alone: one of the world’s oldest philosophers, it turns out, can empower us to view one of the world’s newest narrative innovations like we never have before.
- This article has been Critically Reviewed: read “The Path to Necron as Elenchus in Final Fantasy IX.“
Olvin Martinez · March 25, 2018 at 7:26 am
Absolutely superb article. You have opened my eyes, in order to appreciate more substantially a story.
Personally, I think that this game (at a narrative level in order to explain complex concepts in a subtle and elegant way, coupled with a spectacularly coherent gameplay and a vast and intelligent world design) exemplifies the degree of total maturation that Tetsuya Takahashi had since he touch bottom with the commercial failure (and that amplified in his personal life) that was his Xenosaga.
It is a matter of correcting certain aspects of the script and some too secundary aesthetic aspects of the game itself (popping and that kind of thing), so that Takahashi achieves what he has always desire: Create the perfect video game… And I believe that XC2 is another step forward towards that goal.
(Sorry for my english, im latin american)
Aaron Suduiko · March 25, 2018 at 1:41 pm
Thank you for your kind words, Olvin—I’m so glad that you found my article valuable in appreciating XC2!
Tetsuya Takahashi is definitely one of the more astonishingly philosophical minds in video-game storytelling right now, and, frankly, I can’t wait to see what he creates next.
Hope you get the chance to check out some of our other articles, too! Don’t be a stranger.
alcabcucu · May 13, 2018 at 10:09 am
WOW. This has been an amazing reading. Thanks a lot for sharing your thoughts with all of us.
I see in this game the ominous shadow of Friedrich Nietzsche and his idea of the “übermensh”, which in fact has a lot to do with Plato’s “philosopher king”. The idea of god is completely deconstructed by the end of the game and vitalism is, in my humble opinion, one of the main themes Takahashi explores throughout the adventure. And also determinism, which is quite a surprise and apparently only Rex is capable to surpass.
I’d like to develop all this concepts to initiate a debate, but unfortunately I’m not an english native speaker and I’d probably be completely unable to express myself in a proper way.
But this article has been a real joy to read, so thanks again for writing it!!
Aaron Suduiko · May 13, 2018 at 3:40 pm
Thanks for reading, alcabcucu—I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed it!
I think there’s no doubt that Nietzsche’s ideas also loom large in XC2; there are pretty clear references to his ideas of the “will to power,” “master and slave morality,” and so on. Of course, Nietzsche’s influence on Takahashi is nothing new, but I think what is new and interesting is the fascinating exploration of a Nietzschean view of individualism within the context of a thoroughly Platonic metaphysics. Understanding that would require a whole other article!
Thanks again for taking the time to check out my work; I hope you get the chance to look at more of it in the future! (In particular, if you’re interested in the notion of determinism in Xenoblade, then I hope you’re able to check out my articles on Xenoblade Chronicles 1—they’re ALL ABOUT determinism!)
alcabcucu · May 13, 2018 at 6:12 pm
I’d love to read about that “exploration of a Nietzschean view of individualism within the context of a thoroughly Platonic metaphysics”, as you call it. After reading your article I am sure that XC2 explores that point of view and it would be very interesting to know what’s your point of view in that matter.
I’ll keep reading your articles for sure. I’ve already read your “Study of Player Authority in Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask”, and your critic towards Xenoblade Chronicles X. Now I’m going to refreseh my memory about Leibniz and then I’ll read all your articles about the first Xenoblade Chronicles.
Aaron Suduiko · May 14, 2018 at 2:01 pm
Well, in that case, maybe I’ll write an article on Nietzsche and Plato in XC2 eventually!
Glad to have you as a reader, alcabcucu! Don’t hesitate to reach out again and comment further in the future.
Helsionium · June 23, 2018 at 12:01 pm
Thank you for this great article!
Having recently completed a translation of Xenogears into my native language, I naturally had to delve deeply into various subjects such as philosophy, modern physics and biology. Thanks to that and reading your article, I realised just how similar the “Conduit” of XC2 and the “Zohar” of Xenogears are:
You wrote that the Conduit represents the “principle of ambiguity and indeterminacy”. A piece of in-game text, although hidden in a somewhat obscure location, in Xenogears explicitly states that the Zohar is based on Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. The official English translation of that part may be a bit hard to follow, but it suggests that infinite energy can be derived from the Zohar because the Zohar can choose the “best” possible future from all possibilities – in a way, that’s analogous to the “quantum immortality” thought experiment. This necessitates a “many-world” (or multiverse) interpretation of quantum mechanics. Since multiverses are also explicitly mentioned in XC2 – it’s just the English translation that inexplicably turned the “multiverse joint” into a “meta-universe manifold” – this is one more piece of evidence that the Conduit, the Zohar of Xenosaga and the Zohar of Xenogears are one and the same object, but have appeared in different universes. They even all appeared at roughly the same time – during the 21st century (2001 in Xenogears, 20XX in Xenosaga and Xenoblade). Maybe even the destruction of Earth in XCX (July 2054) is somehow related to this, even though it’s not mentioned in the game.
Aaron Suduiko · June 24, 2018 at 9:47 pm
Thanks so much for reading, Helsionium—I’m thrilled to hear you enjoyed it! Your comment is a great example of the thoughtful and insightful analysis of the relationship between the various Xeno games that I alluded to in the article.
If you’re interested in the relationship between the philosophy of QM and gaming, you might also be interested in this article I wrote on how QM can help us to better understand the narrative of BioShock Infinite. There are a lot of interesting ways in which the philosophy of QM can help us to better understand and appreciate the stories of video games.
Thanks again for checking out my work!
Mr SP · July 23, 2018 at 8:22 pm
This is an interesting read, and though I think it’s plausible – though far from absolutely certain – that the story is inspired by Plato, or at least through similar ideas, I don’t think the game was necessarily doing it well, either because it wasn’t bound by Plato, or because it couldn’t, due to the nature of developing an expensive product. (The game already had obvious gaps and holes in development, such as in UI and story.)
It certainly wasn’t teaching any Platonic principles, and likely wasn’t bound to Plato alone – if you note the Japanese names of the Titans, you’ll see that they’re named after Sins and Virtues… with the exception of Morytha, or “Mors” – Death – which is surely another theme or philosophy showing it’s head.
But, most simply, is that Rex never achieves the status of a philosopher king. What most shows this is that just before the final fight with Malos, Rex is asked about his intent… and he quotes the Salvager’s Code. An idea taught to him by someone who didn’t come up with it themselves, probably written a long time ago. Whether he fully understands it or not, he lacks the ability to come up with his own idea, to prove his own development as a character, to express his thoughts and feelings. From this, and to me, Rex seems to just be a man looking at a shadow on the wall, clinging to the reflected beliefs of others.
If it was really trying to go for that, it’d be better off having Rex quote the Salvager’s Code early on, then starting building his own interpretations as he becomes more worldly and experienced.
Ultimately, what they do leaves us with a Rex who, if he has changed, has done so only vaguely, lacking any evidence to his growth. His caring about others is not something he’s gained, or has a reasoning, it’s natural to his character, present for as long as Azurda has known him. Yes, he is a caring person, who is willing to live a simple life, and knows of the Forms that are why the Architect created the world as it is, but he possesses little understanding of man’s nature.
Though I say this knowing that the game suggests he understands Jin’s depression the moment he sees his eyes because he recognized that Pyra had the same look when he awoke her. If that is suggesting he understands people well, then is it suggesting that he knew the whole time, or is it saying he noticed it then because it happened only minutes after Pyra and Mythra told him they were suicidal, meaning he only stumbled on it and doesn’t really know? Oh, Xeno-games, please be more consistent in your understanding of themes and concepts.
Aaron Suduiko · July 28, 2018 at 6:57 am
Hi, Mr SP! Thanks for taking the time to read my article. I’m thrilled that you found it interesting.
Just to clarify: I’m not sure whether this is how you read me, but I was definitely not aiming to suggest that XC2 was explicitly trying to teach Platonic principles, nor that Platonism was its developers’ only influence. Rather, I was just trying to show that the game’s story is extremely amenable to a Platonic interpretation and that such an interpretation can illuminate the story in new, rich ways.
You raise a good point about Rex quoting the Salvager’s Code when Klaus asks about his intentions—that’s a puzzle that I didn’t consider when developing this analysis. I’d raise a couple of points about that particular moment that I think are worth dwelling on.
First: I don’t think that the fact that Rex still cites the Code necessarily demonstrates that he’s not on the path to becoming a philosopher king. Here’s a quick thought experiment to show why: suppose that Plato really was right about the nature of the world, and that all of his positive philosophical principles are, as a matter of fact, correct. Imagine that he teaches all of these principles to students in his Academy, and that one of them grows into a philosopher king. At the beginning of this man-who-would-be-king’s education, he might well memorize Plato’s principles and cite them without truly understanding those principles, why they are true, what follows from them, and so on. Then, as he matures on his path to kingship, he comes to truly understand them for himself; at that point, he would still defer to those principles, but presumably not for the same reasons. I think we could make the argument that something similar is happening with Rex at the moment you mention. It’s significant, I think, that he explains his intentions in his own words before citing the Code: I think that makes it a bit more plausible that he’s formulating his intentions on his own because he believes that the Code really does, upon reflection, represent some deeper truth (presumably something about the principles of honor, friendship, and/or love, since he’s talking about essentially breaking bread with one’s enemies).
Second: I think it’s worth pointing out that this citation of the Code happens before Rex “lets go” of Pneuma. As I discuss in this article, that particular moment is pivotal in the Platonic reading of Rex—it’s when he really releases his earthly attachments. So, if we’re dissatisfied with the idea that the Code is really a deeper truth that Rex is finally coming to understand, we could instead say that this represents one of his final moments of struggling to move beyond the cave and into the light of day.
I don’t know whether you’ll find that to be a satisfactory response, and I definitely hear you that it can be difficult to consistently apply a single thematic or analytical throughline to a work of this magnitude. All the same, I remain convinced that the Platonic interpretation holds up as a compelling lens through which to analyze the story—not the only lens, no doubt, but one such lens.
Thanks again for reading! I hope that you take the time to check out our other work, too. Don’t be a stranger!
Olvin Martinez · October 3, 2018 at 3:37 am
Do you plan to perform an analysis of Torna; The Golden Country? … And if so, when would you have it?
I would like to know your opinion about the great expansion made by the MS guys.
Aaron Suduiko · October 3, 2018 at 1:32 pm
Hey, Olvin! Great to hear from you again!
Embarrassingly, I actually haven’t played the Torna DLC yet. However, I definitely plan to play it, and, given my history with the series, chances are good that I’ll have something to say about it! That said, you should know that any article I decide to write might take a while: this Platonic theory, for instance, wasn’t ready for about two months after I finished Xenoblade Chronicles 2–this kind of analysis just takes me a long time.
If you haven’t done so already, the best way to keep up with us is to follow us on Facebook and Twitter and sign up for our email list (the signup form is on our homepage). In the meanwhile, I hope you continue to enjoy the site and my other work!
Nico · June 16, 2020 at 9:51 am
This article was amazing to read, such an amazing job Aaron!!
Aaron Suduiko · July 1, 2020 at 12:04 am
Thanks for reading and for your kind words, Nico! I’m delighted that you read and enjoyed my analysis here. I hope you get the chance to check out my other work on the Xenoblade series and our team’s work on other games at some point, too. Don’t be a stranger!
Kei · February 19, 2021 at 7:16 pm
The idea of the player “themselves” as meta-agent within a game, to some degree, has definitely become popular over the last decade (along with many other forms of wry meta storytelling, but that’s another matter). Given the way you described it in XB2, though, I was surprised that there wasn’t a mention of an earlier JRPG example – that of the guardian spirit in the first Baten Kaitos. I am not familiar with Xenosaga itself, but I am aware of Monolith’s development of XB and BK. What would you say about the involvement of the player in Baten Kaitos, for example, versus XB2 – given that the player’s role in BK is explicitly addressed in a way that is almost the same as what you’ve written here, though it may not be as “integrated” into the actual gameplay?
As somebody way more familiar with XB1 and JRPGs in general, this was a really interesting article – thank you.
Alef · June 24, 2021 at 8:34 pm
Amazing. Honestly, an article written so well that it was enjoyable from the start to the end, and the most satisfying and interesting point of view that explains the meaning of the game’s plot on a deep level, hands down. Glad I found it.
Aaron Suduiko · June 28, 2021 at 6:26 pm
Thank you for your kind words, Alef; I’m so glad that you found and enjoyed my work! I hope you get the chance to check out some of the other articles on With a Terrible Fate, as this kind of video-game-story analysis is all we do here (and, if you’d like to help us do more, you’re always welcome to support us on Patreon!). Take care, and I hope you keep in touch throughout your gaming journeys.
penhuolong · October 19, 2022 at 2:51 am
hello, i am a fan of xenoblade from china. i am interested in this ariicle.Could i get it translated into chinese and post it on the forum called NGA,which will note its author and platform
Aaron Suduiko · November 2, 2022 at 9:34 am
Thanks for reaching out, and I’m honored that you’re interested in translating the article! Yes: as long as you properly cite it and refer back to the original article, you’re welcome to do this. I’d also be happy to help you personally with the translation, if you like; just drop me an email at email@example.com if that would be helpful to you.
joe · January 13, 2023 at 4:11 pm
Love this – The main reason I play JRPGs is for the allegory. Check out Tales of the abyss, it’s the hero’s journey through the Kabalistic tree of life, they even name the towns after the subsequent sephiroth. FF9 is all about Sumerian creation myth.
One thing, the demiurge isn’t an all good being, the demiurge was the rival to the sophia energy in gnostic tradition which did not like knowledge that she embodied and was cast away. So the new world, created by the demiurge, was based on lack of knoweldge and was a broken trinity. The leader of the Demiurge was Yaldaboa which i think is brought up in XC1. But there are many interpriations.
One thing you might enjoy based off your rhetoric is the study of Natural law, or the basis and laws in which spirit operates. Great stuff!!
Aaron Suduiko · January 14, 2023 at 5:49 pm
Hello, Joe! I’m so glad to hear that you enjoy my work! Based on your comment, you might also be happy to know that Tales of the Abyss was one of my earliest formative video-game experiences, and I’ve published a study of Final Fantasy IX, available here.
With regard to your comment about this particular study, it’s a pretty standard interpretation of Plato’s Timaeus that the demiurge he postulates — not to be confused with the Gnostic one — is defined as necessarily, categorically good (see, for instance, 28A-30C in that Dialogue). No doubt, there are demiurges in other traditions, and no doubt, there are illuminating ways in which to relate other traditions to these games; this is part of why I distanced my work here from the Gnostic conception of the demiurge in the last paragraph of “The Architect and the Demiurge,” above. My goal here was to offer a specifically Platonic reading of the game!
Thanks again not only for taking the time to read, but also to comment on my work. I do hope you take the time to check out some of the other studies on With a Terrible Fate, and I hope that you enjoy your future adventures in gaming!