Video games, as a medium, don’t have many auteur creators — designers who produce games for big publishers yet somehow manage for their personal obsessions and peculiarities to shine through.
Consider Jeff Minter, a man whose catalog demonstrates an equal fascination with Atari’s Tempest and camelids. Or Hideo Kojima’s obsession with Hollywood popcorn flicks has led to Metal Gear, a series of intricate action games with arcane storylines. Akitoshi Kawazu’s abiding interest in tabletop games gave us SaGa, Square Enix’s most mechanically impenetrable role-playing franchise. Fumito Ueda created Ico, Shadow of the Colossus and The Last Guardian, three games about the role that companionship plays in overcoming isolation. And so forth: all games heavily driven by a singular vision, even when the pursuit of those passions works to the detriment of the end product.
Twenty years ago, another auteur appeared on the scene with the arrival of the first game based around his own obsessions: Tetsuya Takahashi, the author behind the dense tangle of story that powered Squaresoft’s Xenogears. While Xenogears was the work of dozens of people, the last two decades have made it quite clear that Xenogears’ most memorable traits embody concepts and themes that Takahashi holds dear to his heart. The seven Xeno games Takahashi has overseen have come to us from three different publishers across multiple consoles, and they’ve involved two different fresh starts on telling the story in Takahashi’s mind. Yet they all undeniably constitute a body of interrelated work.
The plan for Xenogears
That Takahashi would use the RPG format as his canvas should come as no surprise. He cut his teeth creating art and graphics for pillars of the genre, including Nihon Falcom’s Dragon Slayer franchise and Square’s 16-bit Final Fantasy and SaGa games. With Xenogears, he took a lead creative role for the first time, conceiving and writing the game’s story. Xenogears’ plot, reworked from a pitch the company had rejected as the premise for Final Fantasy 7 (“too dark,” Square said) was by far the most ambitious component of a game defined by big ideas.
From the word “go,” Xenogears set itself apart from Square’s other PlayStation creations. It eschewed the pre-rendered, computer-graphic movie sequences that Final Fantasy 7 had made the industry standard, beginning instead with an old-fashioned anime mini-movie. And where Square’s other RPGs for PS1 presented their worlds as static, pre-rendered scenes and background populated by polygonal characters, Xenogears inverted things: Its characters existed as hand-drawn sprites running around 3D worlds. It also shrugged off the Final Fantasy-driven trend toward real-time battle systems with its turn-based combat system.
But musty as that framework may have looked at first, it played like no other RPG, thanks to the fixation on mecha anime that pervades Takahashi’s work. There’s as much of Gundam and Neon Genesis Evangelion in Xenogears as there is Dragon Quest, a fact that came through with unmistakable clarity when players summoned their massive mech suits into battle. To top it all off, Xenogears even integrated occasional platform gaming mechanics into its traditional dungeon sequences.
Likewise, its story played out like no RPG before it. The overall plot shared a few common elements with Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy 7, both of which Takahashi had worked on: Those games had pitted players against a disastrous, world-ending threat that had crashed to earth from outer space countless aeons ago. Yet while they never really went beyond treating entities like Lavos and Jenova as simple monsters to be overcome in battle, Xenogears depicted a world whose entire existence revolved around that otherworldly force. Villains acted to achieve relatable desires, and even once the final credits rolled, it was never entirely clear if Xenogears truly had a bad guy at all.
The closest thing was Deus, an extraterrestrial super-weapon that had crashed to earth millennia earlier, and created the entire human race to serve as fuel to return to space and complete its original mission. Protagonist Fei Fong Wong, along with a handful of other characters, existed in an eternal cycle of conflict, love, hatred and codependency with one another, with Deus and with the Wave Existence (an enigmatic cosmic force trapped inside Deus’ power matrix). It was a big, messy story, and its sometimes muddled presentation didn’t help make it any easier to parse. But it certainly was interesting.
Xenogears’ narrative stood apart from Square’s standard fare in another way. Where the company’s most popular RPGs saw no end of numbered sequels, each game in those series amounted to a standalone tale. Final Fantasy 6 had nothing to do with Final Fantasy 7, just as SaGa Frontier and SaGa Frontier 2 shared no meaningful connections. On the other hand, Takahashi envisioned Xenogears as one chapter of a much larger saga. In the tradition of George Lucas’ Star-Wars-is-actually-Episode-4 retcon, the ending credits of Xenogears denote the game as “episode 5” of a series — a six-part series, the supplemental Xenogears: Perfect Works book revealed. Vast as the millennia-long, cyclical plot of Xenogears was, in Takahashi’s mind, it constituted only a single chapter of an even grander tale.
Sadly, those other five chapters never happened. For various reasons, Square declined to publish a Xenogears 2 (or Xenogears Episode 1, or whatever might have come next). Critics have long criticized Xenogears for the way its second disc mostly consists of character monologues that describe the plot rather than letting players act out the events, but Takahashi revealed in an interview with Kotaku last year that the project ran out of time to design the second half of the game. So the team decided to summarize the story’s back half rather than end on a cliffhanger … which is just as well, as it turns out that cliffhanger would never have been resolved.
Takahashi tries again
Takahashi and several of his key collaborators — including his wife, Xenogears character designer Soraya Saga — departed Square a few years after Xenogears’ debut and established a studio called Monolith Soft in collaboration with Namco. Monolith has produced or co-created more than a dozen RPGs over the past 15 years, including the entertaining (if impossibly lightweight) corporate crossover strategy series Project X Zone. But its first order of business was to reboot Xenogears. 2002 brought us Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zer Macht, an attempt to retell the Xenogears story from the start … with just enough details changed from Square’s intellectual property, so as not to be legally actionable.
Uneven as Xenogears turned out to be, Xenosaga Episode I proved to be an even more challenging love-it-or-hate-it proposition. It turned the “cutscene” dial to 11, while reducing the playable portions of the game to linear, minimalistic sequences. In fact, the first Xenosaga may well have been the world’s first video game to feature save points in the middle of cutscenes — some of them ran for nearly an hour, so you’d occasionally receive a little prompt to ask if you wanted to record your progress during scene transitions. That’s pretty intense, and it didn’t sit well with many fans, who bought the game expecting something more akin to the story/play balance found in the first disc of Xenogears rather than the second.
Taken aback by criticisms — and, perhaps, sales — Namco and Monolith retooled both the company and the Xenosaga project. Takahashi had launched the series with the intent of overseeing a full, glorious six chapters, but instead he took a reduced role in its development and truncated the plan to a mere three entries. Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Böse arrived in 2004, and it brought with it a massive overhaul to the game’s visual style, flow and mechanics. The doll-like character designs of Episode I shifted to something still undeniably anime-influenced, but far more naturalistic in style. The narrative took on a simpler tone, allowing more room for players to wander around futuristic dungeons and fight monsters with the help of their robotic suits. The final entry of the series, 2006’s Episode III: Also Sprach Zarathustra, more or less wrapped the storyline as intended and earned wide acclaim as the most satisfying chapter of the franchise. But by that point, many Xeno fans had already moved on.
Monolith and Namco drifted apart as the latter company began talks to merge with toymaker Bandai, which gave Takahashi the opportunity to take another fresh attempt at the Xeno series. In a lot of ways, 2010’s Xenoblade Chronicles couldn’t have had less in common with Xenogears or Xenosaga: It took the form of an open-world, sandbox RPG with automated combat mechanics and A.I.-controlled partner characters. It certainly came a long way from the stifling, linear format and progression of the likes of Episode I.
Nevertheless, the longer players stuck with Xenoblade and its sequels (including last year’s Xenoblade Chronicles 2), the clearer its connections to Takahashi’s previous efforts became. Giant robots factored into the storyline, along with the dense Judeo-Christian iconography of the older games. Powerful super-weapons designed to resemble young women play a critical role in the games, hearkening back to Xenosaga’s KOS-MOS and Xenogears’ Emeralda. On top of that, Xenoblade 2 revealed that (mild spoilers!) the Xenoblade games do indeed comprise an interconnected, episodic story. Although Monolith and publisher Nintendo have never actively pitched the games as such, these unpublicized connections might finally allow Takahashi — who continues to shape the direction of the series as its scenario writer — to create the Xeno saga he’s always dreamed of.
There’s something special about the Xeno games. They’ve faced a constant uphill struggle between corporate upheavals and the general gaming audience’s inherent distrust of wordy games. (Xenosaga’s tendency to use Nietzsche quotes as subtitles undoubtedly didn’t do the series any favors, sales-wise.) Nevertheless, Tetsuya Takahashi has proven above all else to be a man who wants to tell an elaborate story about God, robots and the origins of all life. He’s been wrestling with that particular angle for 20 years now, and Xenoblade 2 seems to have done pretty well for itself … which means he’s probably not about to give up now.