While I may comment on the unfortunate lack of effective narratological games, that does not mean the field has been entirely devoid of effective titles; I would be hard pressed to make an argument for greater narrative in games if there weren’t games that have done so in the past with varying degrees of success. Most of the Final Fantasy games are good examples, though they are not the only ones. In my estimation, one of the best narratological games to date is not in fact a Final Fantasy game, though it was created by the same developer. Released quietly in 1998 by Squaresoft, Xenogears quickly gathered a cult following, due in large part to quite possibly the most epic and involving story yet attempted in a video game.
Xenogears is actually part of a larger storyline known as Xenosaga, of which Xenogears is episodes 5 and 6. (In a similar fashion to the Star Wars trilogy, the prior episodes had not been developed or released; also similarly, these earlier episodes are now in the process of being developed and released, though with nowhere near the critical acclaim and fanbase the original had.) The game starts with an animated sequence that takes place 10,000 years prior to the events in the game, showing a starship being overrun by some unknown force and being destroyed, the remains crashing onto a nearby planet. The game then shifts 10,000 years forward, in a small village, where a young man named Fei lives, who is the central protagonist in the game. Fei is asked to collect some things for a wedding to be held the following day from the doctor who lives above town. After making his way to the doctor’s house, on the way back the village, a large “gear” (a mechanical piloted robot) flies by and crashes into the village, pursued by other gears. Fei rushes back to the village, where a fire fight between the gears has ensued. While helping evacuate the village, Fei notices that the gear that was being pursued was now unmanned, and impulsively leaps into the device to try and defend his town. Things are going well, until an event occurs that causes Fei to lose control of the gear, which causes a blast of energy that utterly decimates the village. Upon waking up, Fei is exiled by the remaining villagers, which begins his journey into the larger world.
As the story progresses, Fei befriends many people, and becomes involved in a rebellion to oust a dictator and reinstate the rightful heir to the throne in a nearby kingdom. In the process of aiding this rebellion, a secret, militaristic nation known as Solaris is found to be behind the dictator’s rise to power, as well as most of the conflicts happening around the world, providing advanced weaponry to both sides of the battles in order to gather battle data and to keep the populace occupied. Later in the game, Fei and his friends discover what Solaris was doing with the battle data: the Gazel Ministry, the ruling body of Solaris, was honing humans to serve as organic components in reactivating “Deus”, a sentient superweapon that incidentally was the force that tried to take over the starship in the prologue of the game. It is also discovered that Fei and his friends (notably Elly, the love interest) have roles to play in this grand plan: Deus is powered by an infinite energy source known as the Zohar, which in fact is a trapped being from a higher plane (in all essences, a god); Fei (or more particularly, his soul) was the sole survivor of the starship’s destruction — all other humans were created using advanced technology aboard the ship used to augment colonization efforts. The being within the Zohar, in an attempt to escape from its prison, placed some of its power within Fei, who became known as the Contact. In order for the Gazel Ministry to fully reactivate Deus, they need to capture the Contact, and recombine the power hidden within him with the Zohar. Ultimately, after a great many revelations, plot twists, and adventures, Fei and his friends are successful in destroying Deus and releasing the being within the Zohar, marking the end of the saga and the game.
Even compressing the game into two paragraphs, the story is still quite complex. The concepts behind the game are taken from Nietzsche’s theories (the ubermensch, and the will to power), with a lot of symbolism drawn from the mystic elements of several major religions (notably Gnosticism and the Kabbalah). In terms of technical construction, the game successfully avoids the simplistic trope of giving the protagonist a quest that encompasses the game, instead allowing the goals to unfold as the story progresses. There are clear reasons for the behavior of each character, even with the accompanying ethical and moral dilemmas that come with “doing what is right.” You end up caring for these characters, at least partially because you are privy to these moral conflicts within the context of the game — it’s not just blindly assumed that everyone is alright with everything that happens. This makes for a richer, more nuanced narrative.
Visually, Xenogears is done through a third person perspective in a three dimensional world. There is considerable distance between the character and the camera, which allows for a greater view of the surrounding environment, which is well worth seeing. The designers did a good job establishing a sense of culture in their areas, with distinct feels for different factions and nations, which helps further immerse the player into the game, and gives a sense of a greater world than just the immediate areas you pass through. The distance between the character and the camera has an additional role, however, in that it gave the game a more theatric feeling. Working within theatrical tools instead of cinematic tools was an excellent choice in my opinion: at the time, graphics were not at a level where it was feasible to show subtle emotion within a character (arguably, it still isn’t). In theater, the audience is generally a fair distance away from the stage, so they are faced with a similar dilemma of how to express emotion from a distance, which is generally achieved with more pronounced body language and movement. Squaresoft used these tools to good effect, while supplementing it with a remarkable soundtrack that helped establish the mood of each scene.
Personally, I think games have a lot more in common with stage plays than movies, in terms of limitations inherent in the medium and solutions to work around those problems. I would even go so far as to say that at least in traditional role playing video games, the games that adopted theatric attributes were more effective as a storytelling device than those that opted for more cinematic style. Xenogears is an excellent example of how effective it can be.
The game is not without issues, of course, which helps account for the fairly lackluster initial sales of the game. One of the major complaints was that it was too text heavy, though opinions differ about this: I enjoy having more dialogue rather than less, and they were fairly good about allowing you to skip through if it was failing to capture your attention (or more particularly, you accidentally started talking to someone immediately after already talking to them, which would re-initiate their dialogued response). Another complaint was that the graphics weren’t as crisp as they could have been, which is true, but not as big a detractor as it could be: what quality of graphics they did have, they put to good use (and besides, as evidenced by the fact that people still play and enjoy their old 8 bit games from the 80s, graphics isn’t necessarily the end-all be-all as long as they’re good enough for the purposes at hand).
As far as I’m concerned, the largest real detractor for the game is that roughly halfway through the game, the style of gameplay changes: in the first half of the game, you have free reign to explore and speak to people; in the second half, it becomes a series of protracted battles and “dungeon crawls” (moving through an enemy filled area), with lengthy monologues used to transition between each. This change was jarring and unexpected, and in my opinion was not nearly as effective as an immersive narrative tool. While I have no proof to back it up, I strongly suspect that the change was made due to time and budget constraints, and was rushed together to get the game to market. I found it jarring enough that it was only because the story had drawn me in so much that I wished to see it through and to see where things were leading.
Something I would like to make clear: narrative intensive games are not for everyone. But then, neither are ludological games. Individuals have individual tastes and preferences, and I would say without relative certitude that nothing suits everyone. The issue at hand, and the reason I am attempting to draw attention to games that have been narratological in nature and the need for more of them is because within the industry, they represent a small amount of the total games created. There is room within the market for both, but (due at least in part to fiscal concerns of creating enough quality content for a longer duration game) currently narratological games get short shrift, and what narrative based games there are, are not necessarily well developed as a story. This needs to change, but will not until we as designers, developers, and consumers stand up and demand more depth in our games. Xenogears and a few others succeed in proving that a complex, nuanced story can be achieved; now it’s time to start making more of them.
Takahashi, Tetsuya. Xenogears. Squaresoft, 1998.