This is a repost of an incredibly in-depth article about the development of Xenogears, Xenosaga, and Xenoblade after them. The article is impressive, it’s excellently written and is based on hours upon hours of research. It’s separated in four parts, and all of them will be reposted here.
UPDATE: The Xenogears and Xenosaga parts of the analysis have now been reposted by their original author. Please check here for the latest version: http://xenogearsxenosagastudyguide.blogspot.com/.
WARNING: The article contains spoilers for Xenogears, the Xenosaga series, and Xenoblade Chronicles
Full credit goes to the study guide!
The History of Xenogears and Xenosaga
Part 4: MonolithSoft and Nintendo
Table of Contents:
Part 1: XENOGEARS
– Origins of the story
– Developing the game
– A fandom is born
– Perfect Works / Episode I — Transition towards “Xenosaga”
Part 2: XENOSAGA
– MonolithSoft’s Project X
– Unveiling the XENOSAGA project
– Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht
– Official Design Materials
Part 3: XENOSAGA II & III
– A new stance — series cut down to 1/3
– Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Bose
– A(nother) remake
– Episode III: Also Sprach Zarathustra
– Complete and Perfect Guide
Part 4: MONOLITHSOFT AND NINTENDO
– Takahashi’s reuse of the “Xeno-” name
– Xenogears and Xenosaga news
Appendix: Links to referenced articles, interviews and sources
Part 4: MONOLITHSOFT AND NINTENDO
This last section will merely make a few remarks about Takahashi’s decision to continue using the “Xeno-” prefix for his future games. As these games have nothing to do with Xenogears or Xenosaga, it is not my intent to cover the history and development of these games as they are of little interest to me. However, as the “Xeno-” prefix causes them to be confused, and as we’ve had access to and collected information that could shed light on many subjects, I still felt the urge to preserve them here so they are not lost.
While Takahashi had dropped “the heavy-sounding job of executive vice president” of Monolith Soft, as Sugiura put it in the 2003 interview, it has been unknown who has been President of Monolith Soft since then. One assumes that Sugiura has always been CEO of Monolith Soft. At any rate, the Xenoblade interviews revealed that Takahashi was at this time, once more, President of Monolith Soft, while Sugiura was listed as CEO/Representative Director on the official Monolith Soft website. It is unknown when Takahashi took back his position.
Tetsuya Takahashi had stated that after Xenosaga he felt like doing a variety of different things, like a high fantasy themed work, or something that takes place in the present day, or something for younger people, including children. It seems he eventually settled on the latter.
“Actually, I feel like trying to do something for younger people, including children. After all, if we don’t recruit younger users, I fear the entire industry will go under sooner or later. That might go against the image of Monolith Soft in peoples’ minds, but someone has to do it, so…”
– Tetsuya Takahashi, Xenosaga II Weekly: Vol. 3 interview (2004)
After coming up with the concept for a game set on the bodies of two giant gods, he finally had his concept for this game aimed at younger people. Although the story was more of an afterthought, Takahashi went with a boys’ manga type of story, and wrote it together with Yuichiro Takeda along with some input from Nintendo’s Yurie Hattori. Tetsuya Takahashi and the game’s director Koh Kojima explain in a video interview:
“We wanted the game to be like a boys’ manga where a classic storyline is loaded with twists. This is what boys’ manga are known for.”
– Tetsuya Takahashi (NOE’s Xenoblade Chronicles Feature “The Origin of an Epic” – Part 4, Directing the details)
Kojima continues, “For instance, the game starts with a boy getting the Monado sword, and this changes the world. So the story is pretty far-fetched right away, like something from an anime. Japanese animation has certain defining characteristics, such as tempo. Besides that… well, maybe people should experience these characteristics for themselves in the game (laughs). We started out hoping that people overseas would play it too. With this in mind, we incorporated these traits of Japanimation as much as we could so that users everywhere could experience them.”
“This game was unusual because the story was added later, like a postscript.”
– Tetsuya Takahashi (NOE’s Xenoblade Chronicles Feature “The Origin of an Epic” – Part 1, Achieving our vision)
A lot of Xeno team members returned to work on these games – except Koh Arai, Junya Ishigaki, Tanegashima Takashi, Tsutomu Terada, or KOS-MOS’ designer Kouichi Mugitani. The core team that controlled Episode II and III of Xenosaga – Tomohiro Hagiwara, Koh Arai and Norihiko Yonesaka – left to work on Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros.: Brawl released in 2008.
Xeno staff involved with Soma Bringer (2008)
Hiroshi Uchiyama (modeling)
Toshiaki Yajima (Programming)
Soraya Saga (scenario)
Tetsuya Takahashi (producer)
Shingo Kawabata (Director)
Shingo Kawabata had worked on Xenosaga III with Battle & Menu Planning. Soma Bringer, a Nintendo DS game, was not released in the West.
Xeno staff involved with Monado (2010)
Tadahiro Usuda (2D Art Design – Characters)
Makoto Shimamoto (Lead Battle Design)
Yasuyuki Honne (Kyoshin & Kishin Concept Model)
Kunihiko Tanaka (Image Art)
Norihiro Takami (Art and Cinematics Direction)
Yasunori Mitsuda (Ending theme song)
Yuichiro Takeda (Writer)
Tetsuya Takahashi (Writer, Executive Director)
Koh Kojima (Director)
It is perhaps not surprising that two of MSI’s Battle designers, Kawabata and Kojima, would serve as director for Soma Bringer and Monado: Beginning of the World respectively, since MSI had begun a new design philosophy that favored game play over story.
The scenario in both games differs from Takahashi’s previous works in the sense that previously the scenario was written first and the gameplay was made to fit into the scenario. This time they worked on the gameplay first, and based on what kind of dungeons, locations and stuff they wanted the player to experience as part of the gameplay, the scenario was then developed to maximize the gameplay and locations as well as give room for story.
A trailer for Monado: Beginning of the World premiered at American E3 on June 2, 2009. It showed a lone warrior chopping through an army of robotic warriors with an outsized Cloud Strife-like energy sword. A few were surprised that such a “standard JRPG Hero’s Journey” concept would be developed for the Nintendo Wii, but overall the trailer didn’t get a lot of attention.
Reason for using the “Xeno” prefix?
Monado, as is now well known, was then renamed to “Xenoblade” (Xenoblade Chronicles in the West). Why this decision was made has remained rather vague with various interpretations. What is clear, however, is that despite the use of the Xeno- prefix, the game has nothing to do with Xenogears or Xenosaga.
“The world setting, story and other elements have no relation [to past Xeno games], it’s a completely new title,” Takahashi said in an interview with Famitsu magazine. Takahashi suggested that players consider the “Xeno” part of the title to be just a symbol. “I wanted to to have some sort of common point with the games I’ve made.” He was a little shy in fully explaining the Xenoblade name to the magazine. “Xeno” has the meaning of “different nature” or “uniqueness,” he explained. As for the “Blade” part, Takahashi asked that we refer to the game’s ending to find out, even though it seems an obvious reference to the Monado sword.
At the time of Xenoblade‘s unveiling there had been a statment by Satoru Iwata, President of Nintendo, supposedly saying that they (Nintendo) decided to name the game Xenoblade to “honor” Takahashi. This soon started spreading as “fact” on the net, but supposedly Iwata had never actually said such a thing:
“That was a very poor translation of what Iwata actually said. He said that the game was previously announced as Monado at E3 last year, and has been renamed Xenoblade. He then goes on to confirm that it is Tetsuya Takahashi’s new game which he has poured all of his strength into making, with a side note that Takahashi is the man behind the Xeno series. Then he says the game will be released in Spring 2010 in Japan.
There is no mention of why the name change was done, or any reference to it.”
– Duckroll (NeoGAF, 01-30-2010, see forum post)
I believe the main reason for the name change to a Xeno title lies with Takahashi himself, and that he isn’t lying when he said that he wanted a common point with the games he’s made. However, I believe that’s a very brief and incomplete explanation, since he didn’t give Soma Bringer the Xeno- prefix. One can perhaps explain away this by assuming that Takahashi only considers games he’s written and/or directed to be given this prefix, but it still doesn’t feel entirely satisfying as an answer. It seems obvious that the game was originally not going to have the Xeno- prefix in that it had the title Monado: Beginning of the World and was not meant to be a successor to his previous works. In fact, in a 2012 interview he had stated that Xenoblade was merely an experiment, but we’ll get to that later.
The actual impression I get, from reading the various interviews, is that Takahashi renamed Monado to “Xenoblade” for two main reasons. The first being that Monado was the first game he actually completed thanks to Nintendo pushing him on. Takahashi had originally wanted to finish work on Monado sooner, accepting that they would probably have to cut corners like always, and I have no doubt that it would probably have stayed as “Monado” had it been released in 2009. But when he ended up going all the way he probably felt he should acknowledge this somehow by giving it a more worthy title. I will cite Takahashi from the Iwata Asks interviews:
“With Xenoblade Chronicles, partway through the development process, I had accepted that we would have to cut corners to keep the initial completion deadline. However, when Yamagami-san was good enough to tell me to see it through to the end, we somehow managed to get the job done properly. In that sense, I’d say that this title differs from the other titles we’ve made at Monolith Soft, and I mean that in a good sense. But having said that, I think that it is still imbued with Monolith Soft’s distinctive character, and I’d really like players to see this for themselves.
We created this title with the intention that players should invest a lot of time in it, and become thoroughly absorbed in the game world. Even if you’ve completed the game a single time, there will still be plenty of things you won’t have been able to do yet, so I’d say you definitely need to set yourself the target of getting through it again. You are bound to discover new things that you didn’t notice the first time round, be it in the story, the battles or the quests. I think we’ve made a game that won’t betray the player’s expectations.”
– Tetsuya Takahashi (Iwata Aks – Xenoblade Chronicles 2010, Vol. 3: The Development Process, 1. Seeing it Through to the End)
The second reason for the name change was likely his little competition with Hironobu Sakaguchi and The Last Story, a game which evoked memories of Sakaguchi’s old Final Fantasy franchise. It is possible Takahashi wanted his own “brand name” similar to how Sakaguchi had “Final Fantasy.” By renaming his latest game to something like “Xenoblade,” Takahashi would thus hype himself and his game up in a similar fashion to what was going on with The Last Story. I think this interview excerpt from Iwata Asks gives this impression:
Sakaguchi: Now that you mention it, the release date for both titles was delayed, wasn’t it?
Takahashi: We’d often talk about which game would be the first to come out. (laughs)
Sakaguchi: I used to be faster, but this time I was beaten to the punch. (laughs)
Takahashi: Something I’ve felt recently is that a lot of people of our generation have taken on roles as producers, and that they’ve actually been too hasty to distance themselves from the actual game development process. If you look at films or animation, people in their fifties or sixties remain very active. If we retire from actually making games, that spirit of craftsmanship won’t be handed down to the next generation. That’s why I think it’s better that we maintain a hands-on role in the game development process.
Sakaguchi: Right, I really felt like I’d gone back to the coalface this time. By getting involved in the day-to-day creative process, I think that the determination and tenacity I possessed came into play and may well have changed the way the team worked together.
Iwata: At the very least, if Sakaguchi-san hadn’t been the director, or if Takahashi-san had put distance between himself and the dev team, those titles would not have become the games they turned out to be. The younger team members really reaped the benefits from the determination and craftsmanship you both possess.
While the renaming of the title “Monado: Beginning of the World” to “Xenoblade” would perhaps have been understandable from a marketing standpoint, since the only games MonolithSoft has ever made that have sold over 100,000 are the Xenosaga PS2 trilogy (and Xenogears), there is no proof that it actually was a marketing strategy behind the title. Furthermore, while the game got great reviews, became the top selling game in both Japan and Europe (it was only released in North America later) in its first week and won the award of excellence at Japan Game Awards in 2011, Xenoblade would ultimately only sell around 156,095 copies in Japan and much less in Europe, which is only slightly better than what Xenosaga III sold in Japan during its first weeks.
So it should be clear by now that Monado changed name to “Xenoblade” because of the creator’s whim pretty late in development. Because of this, the name change has been difficult to justify, even for Takahashi himself. While Xenoblade was enjoyed by some of the old fanbase, the game mostly engaged a new and different crowd. For that reason, the constant comparison with Xenogears and Xenosaga or questions about a connection have been just as annoying for Xenoblade fans as the title have been for older fans.
Jeremy Parish of 1UP’s RPG Blog, who had an email Q&A session with Tetsuya Takahashi, would state in his article on Xenoblade:
I was surprised by Takahashi’s response to my question on how, if at all, Xenoblade fits the other Xeno titles he’s worked on (Xenogears, Xenosaga). It’s a very different work from its predecessors; in fact, in the beginning it was completely unconnected and was first revealed under the title Monado, not Xenoblade. It’s a broad, open, free-form adventure that doesn’t lean too heavily on themes and motifs cribbed from Western religion, and frankly it bears little similarity to Takahashi’s previous work. But it turns out there is a connection — a thematic one.
“The common theme in the Xeno series is the creation of the world,” he tells me. “I didn’t want to just present an attractive story; I wanted players to be able to play more freely in the world of that story.”
This answer from Takahashi suggests to me that as Takahashi looks back on his games, it was the original desire to make a game completely in 3D that has been the common theme in his works. Xenosaga was originally to have a rotatable camera like Xenogears, and Xenoblade emphasizes the 3D open world environment more than ever before.
“Players always want more innovation, not just in RPGs, but in all games,” Takahashi writes. “If players don’t get as much of a sense of innovation from RPGs, that means that the genre is aging and dying and that we need to rouse ourselves into more intense action. However, we don’t believe that RPGs are dead yet. RPGs give you the chance to experience saving the world (albeit in a simulated way). I want to believe that this experience has meaning in our modern world, which is so difficult to save.”
– Excerpt from Takahashi interview, Jeremy Parish’s Xenoblade article
Reactions to the name change
In general, the reaction of Xenogears and Xenosaga fans to the name change was that it felt like a slap in the face. The reaction of most long-time Xeno fans can pretty much be summed up in the following quote:
“Xenoblade? What’s next — Xenosword, Xenosharpstick. The Xeno name essentially means little to nothing now”
The renaming of the title “Monado: Beginning of the World” to “Xenoblade” was an unpopular move with hardcore Xeno- fans who felt that it was pretty lame of them to slap the “Xeno-” prefix on what looked like a pretty traditional and unoriginal product. It further felt like a “sell-out” of the “Xeno brand” by having it attached to something that seemed to lack the originality and literary substance of the original Xenosaga vision, of which Takahashi had originally wanted nothing in common with Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy. And Xenoblade would fit almost perfectly into Square’s old repertoire by following a very conventional template; being a game before it is a story; having a huge “sandbox” to play in; action-driven writing rather than character-driven writing; a clearly defined conflict in the set-up and obsessively hunting the game’s villain for hours.
Moreover, debating the relationship between two “Xeno-” series’ had been draining enough, but now there were 3 different works with the “Xeno-” name. And unlike Xenogears and Xenosaga, due to their acknowledged relationship – both works which could be ascribed to a type of “Xenoverse” for complementary relation and analysis – now there was a “Xeno-” game that really didn’t fit into that universe, yet with the same creator attached to it. Accordingly, many people assumed it was the next Xenosaga game or a new “reboot” of that universe.
The new design philosophy
“Most of the RPGs we’ve created had their main focus on story and cutscenes, but I think that approach has reached a dead end,” Takahashi said in an interview with Famitsu magazine in early 2010. “This project [Monado] got its start because we wanted to return to basics — we just wanted to create a fun adventure. We’re trying to give the player a lot of freedom without having them feel lost.”
Soraya would give a similar sentiment in the interview with Siliconera, stating that “With the technological advances, RPGs have remarkably become beautiful and dramatic, but we learnt from our own experience that games shouldn’t be something just to watch. It’s not that games don’t need good stories, it’s that we developers should think first of what gamers are looking [for]. Now we’re trying to get back to basics, to provide sheer enjoyment of games again,” and “now we realized that too heavily orienting toward visuals and stories would ruin the fundamental reason for the existence of games.”
Another thing that should be touched on is the goal Takahashi and Takeda had to create a main character who wouldn’t be hated by the player, something that often happened in Xenogears and Xenosaga. The reason why many gamers hate the main characters in Xenogears and Xenosaga, as well as other RPGs, is usually because the hero goes against the player’s wishes, by saying something the player didn’t want them to say, or betraying the player with some action they didn’t want to do.
In other words, the new design philosophy is more or less accommodation – giving gamers what they want. With Xenogears and Xenosaga the ambition had more to do with Takahashi’s personal desire to “express himself,” as we have explored in the other parts, and as he mentioned in an interview:
“When I was younger, my sole aim was to express myself. If I enjoyed it, and could give the players a product that reflected my own taste, it was enough if it appealed to those players who understood what I was doing. I was compelled by the belief that this was where the appeal lay in an RPG.
[…] When you’re young, you’re brimming with creative energy after all, and it is a path everyone goes through. Among young game creators today, there is no shortage of people with the same approach I had, making games solely for those players who will understand what you are trying to achieve. I think that this sort of game is necessary in the video game industry.
But now, when I ask myself if I still have that drive, which was in a sense rash and reckless, the answer is of course that I don’t. At the same time, I now have a better view of the overall shape of things, and I feel that my creative range has increased. Recently, especially since becoming a father of two, I’ve been thinking more and more about how to make a game that will be enjoyed by a large number of players and that will strike a chord with them.”
– Tetsuya Takahashi (Iwata Aks – Xenoblade Chronicles 2010, Vol. 3: The Development Process, 1. Seeing it Through to the End)
Soraya Saga continued her sentiments about pleasing the player more than expressing herself, stating in the LuminoMagazine.com interview, “Games, particularly RPGs are kind of like a journey, and game designers are like tour guides. Always be with players, walk a little ahead of them, but never leave them behind. Your work will be completed when players clear the final stage.”
So, with all this accommodation, what does Tetsuya Takahashi actually think of Xenoblade Chronicles? How passionate was he about the game? How proud of it is he when compared to his previous works? And what does his older self-expressive works mean to him now? Did he get any more enjoyment from accommodating gamers this time than when he was doing something that appealed more to his own taste? These are questions we haven’t got any answers to, but Tetsuya Takahashi has said a number of interesting things regarding Xenoblade once the game was out for a while, where he almost seems a bit surprised by the amount of praise the game has received. Almost as if he’s a little frustrated that a shonen story and a bunch of gaming carrots like action points and customization is all it takes to satisfy gamers:
“…there are times when I want people to be more critical.”
– Tetsuya Takahashi, Iwata Asks: In Conversation with Takahashi & Sakaguchi (2011)
“…in terms of my own personal goal–my vision of an ideal game–I’d honestly have to say that it’s barely 5% of the way there.”
– Tetsuya Takahashi, Interview with Tetsuya Takahashi (Nintendo Power, 2012)
“To be honest, there are times when I think I’ve atrophied as a writer since the Xenogears era.”
– Tetsuya Takahashi, Interview with Tetsuya Takahashi (Nintendo Power, 2012)
“I often find myself thinking, ‘One of these days, I’d love to free myself from these sorts of restraints and write whatever I truly want to write’”
– Tetsuya Takahashi, Interview with Tetsuya Takahashi (Nintendo Power, 2012)
“I couldn’t figure out why they would care so much about a game like Xenoblade Chronicles when they had so many superior RPGs to choose from in the West.”
– Tetsuya Takahashi, Interview with Tetsuya Takahashi (Nintendo Power, 2012)
” [I’m] grateful for the game’s positive reputation, [but I and my team] didn’t set out to make Xenoblade Chronicles into the company’s magnum opus. It was made to be an experiment”
– Tetsuya Takahashi, Interview with Tetsuya Takahashi (Nintendo Power, 2012)
“I know that this is a pretty radical idea, but I think the future of the genre is world creation that is good enough to be the equivalent of reality.”
– Tetsuya Takahashi, “Sharpening the ‘Blade” – Interview with Tetsuya Takahashi (Nintendo Power, 2012)
Tetsuya Takahashi has stated such ambitions as wanting to “re-create the world itself.” He and Koh Kojima also stated, in an interview on MSI’s official site in 2011, that now the time has come when game creators can do anything and make their dreams come true. Takahashi said that he would like to see people on the development team who is primarily a player and interested in games. Maps for their Wii U game are said to be similar to Xenoblade Chronicles, and that Xenoblade was just a trial for this project – what is possible to do today with JRPGs and how the world will respond.
Differences between Xenoblade and Xenogears/saga
Despite the rather obvious differences, there have been some arguments that Xenoblade is still similar to the previous Xeno games. However, I find the differences to be far more numerous and striking than the similarities. For the most part I identify gamers identification of “similarities” to be a misinterpretation in perception filtered through their JRPG experiences. Since our experience tend to be filtered through layers of pictures from the past (what psychologists refer to as object relations or object-image), this has in many gamers and Xeno fans developed, in conjunction with a sense of familiarity with superficial aspects – which forever bears their imprint of previous games and characters – a template through which they experience the whole of every new game or story they encounter. This impression, pieced together from elements from the past, buffers us from what is really going on and distorting and causing many to misinterpret what they perceive.
For example, a person misunderstanding the merits of Xenogears will reduce its story to the basic concept of “killing a false god” and “gaining freedom” by controlling a hero who is a teenager. Reduced to such gross simplicity, Xenoblade will not seem to be all that different. However, as explored in other sections on the study guide, this is not even touching upon what really makes Xenogears and Xenosaga good. So, rather than going into detail and repeating things I’ve already written elsewhere, I will merely post a brief chart that details the basic merits and some other details in the writing/approach, and how Xenoblade differs. It might also help explain how Takahashi feels he has atrophied as a writer since the Xenogears era:
|Ethical issues, fight for freedom||Ethical issues, fight for freedom||Ethical issues, fight for freedom|
|Science fiction / fantasy||Science fiction||Fantasy / science fiction|
|Historical epic (pseudo)||Historical epic|
|Literary allusions||Literary allusions|
|Religious themes||Religious themes||Religious themes|
|Psychological themes||Psychological themes|
|Use of modern psychological “science”||Use of modern psychological “science”|
|Character study||Character study|
|Strong elements of romance||Strong elements of romance|
|Use of modern physics “science”||Use of modern physics “science”|
|Theme of grief||Theme of fear||Theme of “embarking”|
|Social commentary and “messages”||Social commentary and “messages”|
|Sociology and anthropology theory||Sociology and anthropology theory|
|Features giant robots||Features giant robots||Features giant robots|
|Play in giant robots||Play in giant robots|
|Tight plot and narrative||Tight plot and narrative||Plot diluted with exploration|
|Labyrinthine story||Labyrinthine story||Complex story|
|Character and action/plot-driven writing||Character and action/plot-driven writing||Action/plot-driven writing|
|Multiple plot-twists||Multiple plot-twists||Multiple plot-twists|
|Deep, poetic imagery||Deep, poetic imagery|
|Poetic language, playing with words||Poetic language, playing with words|
|Symbolic foreshadowing||Symbolic foreshadowing|
|High intellectual discourse||High intellectual discourse||Basic entertainment with some substance|
|Primarily aimed at female audience*||Primarily aimed at female audience||Primarily aimed at male audience|
|Staff: “a mirror that reflects truth”||Staff: “hopefully a masterpiece”||Staff: “a shonen story”|
* What Takahashi was implying is basically synonymous with “character study” earlier in the chart as he believes women are more interested in the characters personalities and “mental parts.” We must also not forget the strong elements of romance in Xenogears and Xenosaga. With ‘Blade being more of a shonen story (shonen = boy) there is less focus on characters personalities and their depth. Instead, as Takahashi assessed about the preference of male audience, there is rather a focus on characters external appearance.
In particular it was Xenoblade‘s cheesy and one-dimensional cartoon villains, resembling Star Wars‘ General Grievous, that really made fans notice the difference in the quality of the writing, and many long-time fans of Takahashi felt they had grown out of this sort of thing. But then this is only natural, since the story was not aimed at them, but at a younger audience. But that’s why the Xeno- title is so deceptive.
Gaming militates against being “art”
Before I leave the subject of Takahashi’s other games and new design philosophy in order to return to Xenogears and Xenosaga, I will repost some of the comments and examination on where gaming is headed, since I don’t know where else to put it. This study guide is not interested in gaming or these works as games. This study guide would have liked to have experienced Xenogears and Xenosaga in non-interactive visual media or as novels. And that sentiment is also partly shared by the creators themselves who have said:
“If we put it all to print and save it, maybe someone will turn [Xenosaga] into a work many decades from now. Like with Stanley Kubrick’s movies (laughs).”
– Hirohide Sugiura (A Word with the Xenosaga Developers interview, 2003)
“… there was a ton of unused ideas, maybe we could have put them in if it were a seasons-long TV series or something like that.”
– Soraya Saga (Interview with Siliconera, 2010)
The great achievement of Xenoblade lies only in its geo-architectural venture, technologically a feat that deserves praise, with a rich aesthetic treatment, much thanks to Norihiro Takami. Beyond that, however, the interactivity is mainly “fluff.” There is not much you can do as the player save for hitting the one button for an art and jumping. Sidequests are monotonous in terms of tasks, the hyped “heart-to-hearts” are surprisingly shallow, and customization is, as MetaGame puts it, “a pointless experience with little semantic depth or emotional breadth.”
“A ludomaniac is someone who is addicted to a game, playing it compulsively even as such brings about great harm to him/her. What else would you call someone who plays to clock hours and hours and hours and hours of endless grinding, quest solving, trophy collecting and customization, only to build up stats in virtual worlds, whilst getting nothing in return? Videogames like the ones I cite were built from the ground up to engage such people, to deceive and manipulate them with psychological hacks that are also used (surprise!) in marketing. Mechanisms such as experience and action points, gold coins, affinity bars, and all that are nothing but red herring skinner boxes, elements which were not idealized in some naive, genuine way of enriching an interactive experience, by expressing emotion or thought, but indeed were conceived as elaborate ways to deceive people into thinking they are being rewarded and fulfilled for their time. Newsflash: they aren’t. It’s just meaningless hedonism.
It’s not a question of there being a game, but more of a game about what. What is Xenoblade, as an interactive artifact, about? When it is a game of building relationships, helping strangers, understanding new cultures, exploring beautiful new worlds, I think it is a game about something worth knowing and feeling (though others have done it far, far better). When it is a game about tactical combat for hunting game and killing monsters, or a videogame about building stats, collecting trinkets or buying better armory, it is a pointless experience with little semantic depth or emotional breadth. Not only that, but it is, above all, completely redundant in videogame history. Do we really need another game about fighting and grinding? I say we don’t. Given this is the major focus of the game, it is a point of vehement criticism.
It’s not about story. It’s about what the whole experience is about, what it expresses and conveys to us players. This is through a story and art and interaction gestalt. […] A game about killing monsters, leveling up, with overbearing HUD, thousands of gamification carrots to keep you addicted, complying to practically every genre trope known and even taking various successful elements from popular games of the past — how is that not safe? How many times must we see the same things over and over again?
Diversity is lacking in the medium because there is only ONE valued archetype, which audiences, critics and authors uphold. Only one single set of values which everyone holds as true for everything. And even worse, it is a culturally inept set of values, result of a society which has long forgotten what little historic memory it had for the word Art, and has too a compulsive focus on remembering another word called Money.”
– ruicraveirinha, MetaGame – The Blog where Videogames are seen as Art (2011.10.15)
It is perhaps not surprising the game became rather popular, then, considering gamers usually militates against art and are seeking a form of pleasure and instant gratification through any game’s action. Fans of Xenoblade tend to be against progression, making comments such as:
“People are happy they went back in game development instead of moving forward. Grinding is the highlight of this game and being overpowered.”
– Gamer and Xenoblade Fan
Soraya Saga even held off working on her own self-expressive manga, “The Stones,” saying that “I’m not sure if its overlying dark tone fits with the times. Mainly because it’s deeply influenced by deaths in my family I experienced back then. I presume more uplifting messages would be the needs of the age today.”
This seems like an all too common Japanese cultural flaw, with the majority of their anime focusing on cuteness, kitsch and fan service more than substance, when it’s now more then ever that we can’t just turn a blind eye to reality. I would argue that Final Fantasy VII would not have been the popular game it became if it was not for the darker and more serious mood which likely resulted from the death of Hironobu Sakaguchi’s mother, which he has acknowledged was an influence. And turning a blind eye to the state of society does not make for good story telling, and does not help the masses be aware of what is relevant. It is no wonder, then, that games aren’t classed as art by most. Yet Soraya seems oblivious as to why:
“While it has gotten a broader population than before, it still seems to remain in a sub-cultural category. It may take some more time for games to be classed as art.”
– Soraya Saga, “Ghost in the Machine: Getting to Know Soraya Saga” interview, 2011)
Well, duh. And if they keep up their current design philosophy then it is not likely to ever happen. Art is about provoking the audience, sometimes educating them, not to please or accommodate the masses. Even the positive reviews of Xenoblade have pointed out that nothing about the game is genre defining or pushing the envelope on what makes an RPG what it is and that it sticks to “a tried and true formula.” Takahashi may feel that his creative range has increased, but what’s the point of having gained so much experience only to limit his personal creativity and, as Soraya put it, think first of what gamers are looking for? It may be new ground for him, but as far as the specific genre or video games in general go, this is as sticking to the formula as it gets:
“In conclusion, Xenoblade Chronicles is a proper epic JRPG. One that will take you many play sessions to complete. It’s a great game, one of the best on the Wii, and a must have for RPG lovers. None of it’s short comings are the game’s fault, but ultimately hardware limitations. Nothing about it is genre defining or pushing the envelope on what makes an RPG what it is, but on a system perceived to be mainly a casual console with only a handful of games left in its life, it’s reassuring to see an honest hardcore game backed by a tried and true formula that has stood the test of time grace Nintendo’s Wii.”
– Xenoblade Review, NintendoKnow (Sep 27, 2011)
However, the actual reality may be that attempting to make games into anything other than “simulation practice” or “fun toys” may be futile. In fact, this study guide will go as far as to claim that gaming simply isn’t a medium that will ever lend itself to serious artistic expression, and that’s why it is not interested in games or the game aspects of Xenogears and Xenosaga. As with pornography, aherents to the medium don’t want “art” but gratification and pleasure. And any time someone tries to take it further they’re labeled as “pretentious.”
The analogy of pornography I find apt due to the similarity in pleasure-focusedness, and pornography has existed far longer than cinema, or even language – yet it has never been recognized as art, even though there have been artists and film makers who have attempted it. Film critic Roger Ebert wrote a famous article in 2010 where he stated that games can never be art because “One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. Santiago might cite a immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.”
Erbert makes one mistake in this comment, ignoring that a game can also be more fairly judged as a story and art and interaction gestalt. While Erbert is well-versed in cinema, he has no experience with games like Xenogears and Xenosaga, so he simply doesn’t have a place at the table of this discussion. An immersive game can also have a story attached to it that can be experienced as art, giving it more than just one dimension. As Sawaduki You said of Xenogears in his essay:
“Games are usually considered kids’ fare, but this is way beyond in scope and imagination, and it utilized technology in sound and graphics that were not possible in a game years ago. It will probably have quite an impact on the players. Many will ask: Why did Xenogears have to be in a game format? What are the players doing with a controller for tens of hours? So some will wonder if it needed to be a game at all.
But the question has no meaning. Xenogears could have been a novel, anime or whatever, the story would have been told anyway. But Xenogears is a game, with a story the player can interact with. This is the most important element, I think.”
– Sawaduki You (Xenogears: Perfect Works, ‘The Xenogears Experience’)
However, Sawaduki You’s notion is ultimately flawed. As time have shown, Xenogears has suffered more from being a game than it has gained, and, in a sense, was very much wasted on gamers. One of the problems not addressed is that in order to experience an interactive game, unlike with other works of art, you need access to a number of – sometimes tedious – additional elements. The main ones being time, money, the right system, and patience/endurance.
For one thing, playing a game takes time. Xenogears is a 60-80 hour long game. And even if you have time to experience it one time, will you have time to experience it again if you liked it? If it was a great work of art? Many artists do want you to experience their work a second time, and in order to fully understand Xenogears a second time is pretty much required of you. With a movie you can just watch it without the interactive “fluff,” and it doesn’t suck away all your time.
The problem of money is that games are far more expensive than literature or movies. Not only do most games cost more than a film on DVD, but you also need to shell out money for a system to play it on. And unlike VHS, DVD and BluRay, the system needed in order to play new games keeps changing every 4-5 years or so. You may also need more than one system per generation in order to play all the games, or “works of art,” that you want to experience. This is one of the major factors why Erbert couldn’t even be bothered to check up on a few of the recommended games. This also means that games easily get outdated and become harder to get ahold of down the road.
The third main problem is that even if you got all the time and money in the world, you still have to enjoy the interactive parts enough to even make it through the “artistic experience.” In addition to this, sometimes there is much skill required of you, and there’s always somebody who simply gives up. So while a story and art and interaction gestalt may seem acceptable as a good way of making a new kind of special artistic expression in theory, in reality it is more problematic than superior to old forms of expression.
Add to this the pleasure-focused nature of gamers, who, like consumers of pornography, want the highest gratification. And while both games and pornography can, in theory, achieve the status of art through a toning down of their gratification-focus along with a sophisticated storyline experience, in reality this idea is constantly shot down as “pretentious.” It is then naturally followed that gamers are looked down upon. Games and pornography both needs the addition of something outside of their fundamental nature in order to become recognized as art, while art doesn’t need the addition of interactivity or hardcore sex to enhance its artistic expression or cultural superiority. Thus games will likely always struggle to be recognized as art.
Appendix: Links to referenced articles, interviews and sources
Xenogears: Perfect Works ~The Real Thing~
Xenogears Original Soundtrack Liner Notes
Interview with Xenogears staff (1998)
message of “xenogears” director (1999)
The Play’s interview with Monolithsoft and Tetsuya Takahashi in The Playstation (1999)
Q&A with Square Enix’s Richard Honeywood at squarehaven.com (2006)
Amber Michelle’s “Xenogears: A History” article (2004)
Xenosaga -Official Design Materials-
Takahashi’s interview with GameSpot (1) (2001)
Takahashi’s interview with GameSpot (2) (2001)
Takahashi’s interview with Famitsu (2001)
Xenosaga – first trailer keywords
Xenosaga “Leaked Information” translation
Xenosaga – Dengeki interview with Tetsuya Takahashi (2001)
Viljans Makt (The Power of Will), translation of Martin Johansson’s Xenosaga article in Super PLAY magazine (2002)
Interview with Tetsuya Takahashi on Sony’s Website (2002)
A Word With the Xenosaga Developers – Famitsu Episode II Interview (2003)
Xenosaga II Weekly interview:  Hagiwara, Arai, and Yonesaka (2004)
Xenosaga II Weekly interview:  Tetsuya Takahashi (2004)
Interview with Koh Arai and Tomohiro Hagiwara (2004)
Soraya’s FAQ from Fringe (2005)
Takahashi and Takeda interview for Xenosaga I-II on namco-ch.net (2006)
Soraya’s interview with Siliconera (2010)
Articles and interviews on Xenoblade’s unveiling in Famitsu (2010)
Iwata Asks – Xenoblade Chronicles interviews (2010)
Iwata Asks – In Conversation with Takahashi & Sakaguchi (2011)
Ghost in the Machine: Getting to Know Soraya Saga (2011)
Sharpening the ‘Blade – Interview with Tetsuya Takahashi (2012)
There’s a lot of butthurt on this page.
Holy crap. Butt hurt Saga ‘fans’ are still linking to this hot mess as if it means something. The same ‘Fans’ who almost drove sorayasaga to suicide no doubt.
Im tired of it. Xenosaga sucks. Its obnoxious, heavy handed, obvious, and full of the most god awful melodrama instead of actual story. It was a disaster, Soraya saga hates it, Takahashi hates it, monolith soft hates it, and everyone except the most obnoxious fans hates it because its a series consisting of an average game, a pile of garbage, and a decent but nowhere near good enough to redeem a series ‘final’ chapter, constantly surrounded by the most obnoxious schrill, screaming fanbase ever.
When Takahashi says he lost his writing skill after gears, he means he lost it AFTER GEARS, he is talking about Xenosaga, not Xenoblade.
Just because Saga fans are too stupid to figure out Xenoblades story is every bit as deep into religious themes, as xenogears (and much MUCH better than the lame duck that tried way to hard that was saga, great job replacing those writers namco). There are more religions and philosophies than gnostic christianity, and Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche mocking it (lets face it, saga fans would have NEVER figured any of that out without it being completely explained for them. Being no one has yet explained blade to them, they believe there is nothing to explain since they are incapable of figuring things out for themselves). And just because you dont hit morons over the head with a hammer by heavy handidly naming your games after a philosophers works, doesnt mean they arent based off of the thematic works of far more interesting philosophers of the 1800’s.
Any saga fans ever think about researching the philosophy behind the monado? Even just putting it into google?
Oh my whats that? Monads in computer programming? Monads in religion, as being gods who make lesser gods? Gottfried Leibniz’s greatest philosophical work is called the Monadology? What? it all directly relates to Xenoblades story, and is integrated all the way down to the gameplay mechanics? What? The monado isnt a sword, its a user interface device that directly views, and edits the smallest, irreducable molecules of ether, called monads binarily (1 for monad, 0 for nothing)? Its literally explained directly in game by the Monad? And it all makes SENSE if you know the source materials? WOW!!
Xenoblade stomps Xenosaga, in every category except titillating little boys pee pee’s with constant cutscenes of close ups on jiggling boobies and robo panties attached to a cheruby face that looks like it belongs to a 12 year old.
Xenoblade WAS, an expiriment, to see if Takahashi could integrate his story telling into gameplay, and it was a great success.
When Takahashi said Xenoblade didnt represent 5% of what he wanted to do, he wasnt referring to Xenosaga, he already considers xenosaga a failure and a dead end. Convenient how you left THAT quote out.
In fact, you left a LOT of important information out of the Iwata asks, almost as if you want to purposefully take what was said out of context.
Xenoblade was NOT some vastly different compromise of Takahashi’s game creating style, Xenoblade started like EVERY one of Takahashi’s great (but all compromised, or destroyed by interfering publsihers) rpg works, NOT with a story, but with an IMAGE.
Well, at that point, I had been starting to think that it was time to start coming up with ideas for the title after Disaster, so the timing was actually very good. Also, when I saw this model, I felt really motivated. I assumed that, as they had gone to the trouble of making this model, they must surely have also settled on the finer details. But it turns out that this model was all there was.
(laughs) Takahashi-san’s modus operandi when making games is often to start with an image and go from there, isn’t it?
I wasn’t aware that he had this approach to making games, so I was initially rather taken aback when I found out that nothing was really fixed aside from the model. But even so, this model was really appealing. Leaving aside the fact that nothing had been settled upon with regards to the game system or story, just catching sight of this model really made me feel charged with energy, and I thought “I really want to make a game with this as its stage.”
Xenoblade story scenario was NOT an after thought, it was one of the first things written, and was being reviewed objectively by Hattori before the game even had a working prot type, and at the same time Yokota began looking at what gameplay systems to use:
We started work on the prototype in April 2007. To coincide with that, I got Yokota-san and Hattori-san from the Software Planning & Development Department involved in the project. Yokota-san was a real RPG expert, and I asked him to look at system-related issues in particular, while also combining with Kojima-san from Monolith Soft to work on the project’s overall direction.
Hattori-san had experience of writing scenarios for Nintendo titles, so I asked her to take a step back and look over the scenario that Takahashi-san and (Yuichiro) Takeda-san6 had written from an objective standpoint.
‘Xenoblade Chronicles was created as an exploration of what this romanticist approach might mean in the context of video games. But it wasn’t a case of Nintendo telling us to do whatever we may want to do. Rather, we were told to do what we are good at, which was a great relief.’
Xenoblade is what Takahashi and monolithsoft are BEST at.
When Takahashi talks about superior rpg’s in the west. hes NOT comparing them to xenoblade, Takahashi is still speaking under the context of the directly previous Iwata asks, which involved both himself and ff series creator sakaguchi.
Iwata: I see. But what do you mean by stepping up and taking on the world? Do you mean in the sense of games created in Japan being successful worldwide?
Takahashi: Well, games like Mario and Zelda have been embraced by the whole world. But with RPGs it’s not so easy.
Sakaguchi: Yes, from a certain point, it did become tougher.
Iwata: Do you mean one of the reasons is that creators tended to overuse the same approach?
Yes, Xenosaga is directly lumped into the category of samey jrpg’s that are constantly lambasted as inferior to western rpg’s. Because thats exactly what it is, and the creators realize this.
Sakaguchi: Right. I feel that Japanese RPGs have been left behind. That’s precisely why RPGs have no choice but to change.
They are not holding Xenosaga and past style jrpg’s that have gone nowhere to some higher standard than blade. They are trashing it, and Xenoblade is the solution from all the hard work they made to fixing the Xenosaga problem.
When Takahashi wished people would be more critical, he was referring to xenoSAGA. He was tired of people holding his subpar namco tampered work on a pedestal.
Takahashi considers his work on Xenoblade to be far superior to Saga and gears, claiming ‘I now have a better view of the overall shape of things, and I feel that my creative range has increased’.
When takahashi said Xenoblade wasnt 5% of what he had in mind, he wasnt talking about Xenosaga.
He was talking about Xenoblade Chronicles X, which uses what he learned about integrating story into gameplay, and the fact Nintendo wont cut his game short, or fire half his team and take over, to finally make his vision of the Xeno story a reality.
And it is going to be amazing.
Xenosaga sucked, but keep on pretending the franchise commandeered by Namco bandai that almost destroyed monolithsoft in the process, that is used soley to sell string bikini figurines and body pillows is sooooo superior.
Takahashi’s true, uncompromised vision of the Xeno story is coming, and its Called Xenoblade chronicles X, and nobody is going to give a crap about Xenosaga beyond ‘Is it good like Xenoblade?’ To which we will answer, ‘Not even close’.
I apologize for my previous comment. I was wrong about Xenoblade and its PS1 graphics. Unlike Mrs.Saga, I will succeed in the removal of my exsistance from the web of life. Good day. Good bye.
Yeah, Takahashi felt that his Xenosaga entry was a failure. Even the first chapter he felt has serious flaws:
-Very long cutscenes, rater that playability.
Takahashi even regrets the disastrous direction of Xenosaga. The Second part has some improvements in gameplay, but it was destroyed by an horrendous narrative, the terrible art changes and the shift of Jr. instedad Shion as main protagonist, not to mention the horrible letdown to the fans who cause put the entire series in a coffin beyond redemption (it has serious flaws in first part, the sales are relative low, but the part 2 kill the franchise). Takahashi even in a new entry of “Iwata aks” said the entire Xenosaga was a failure, because is a plot drived game, that was an dead end. The new Takahashi is a ludologist rather that a narratologist, and want a gameplay driven game.
When Xenoblade comes out, Takahashi saids it was the basis of what he wants next, a game who tells a history by its playability mechaniscs. The j-RPG’s irreverisble evolution if they want to, at least, not let behind by the w-RPG.
Um, as far as I know he never said it was a failure. Do you have a link to this kurono?
Hi Chad; Takahashi didn’t said: “Xenosaga was a total fail”, but in the series of “Iwata Ask” interview you got the implict idea about the Takahashi’s sense fo failure. When Takahashi was interview by Iwata at 2010 for the Xenoblade launch, he said this:
Iwata: Why were you so driven and determined to get the job done with this title?
Takahashi: When I was younger, my sole aim was to express myself. If I enjoyed it, and could give the players a product that reflected my own taste, it was enough if it appealed to those players who understood what I was doing. I was compelled by the belief that this was where the appeal lay in an RPG.
Iwata: So you had that sharp focus of youth, without any room to think of things from the perspective of the players.
Takahashi: Right! (laughs) But in a way, I think that was a really good thing. When you’re young, you’re brimming with creative energy after all, and it is a path everyone goes through. Among young game creators today, there is no shortage of people with the same approach I had, making games solely for those players who will understand what you are trying to achieve. I think that this sort of game is necessary in the video game industry.
But now, when I ask myself if I still have that drive, which was in a sense rash and reckless, the answer is of course that I don’t. At the same time, I now have a better view of the overall shape of things, and I feel that my creative range has increased. Recently, especially since becoming a father of two, I’ve been thinking more and more about how to make a game that will be enjoyed by a large number of players and that will strike a chord with them.
What is this garbage?
Figureheads is a PC online shooter where you use bots… I’m assuming this simply means you’ll be able to use Gear models from Xenogears in that game (probably for a price).
I see thanks.
A crossover after 18 years XD
I was hoping in a miraculous remake…but those are just dreams
Dreams indeed… Looking at how the FFVII remake will be episodic content, if Xenogears were ever remade, it would probably have to be 20 episodes over the course of close a decade…
“Almost as if he’s a little frustrated that a shonen story and a bunch of gaming carrots like action points and customization is all it takes to satisfy gamers”
Snooty comments like this are the reason stuff like Xenogears gets unfairly hit with the “pretentious” label. When you talk down to people about the stuff they like, implying that they have no worth whatsoever just because they’re not as complex and thought provoking as the stuff you’re into, people will start pushing back against the stuff you like, thinking it can’t possibly be good if those snooty hipster types like it. Some products do indeed have no value whatsoever and should be called out as such, but Xenoblade is not one of those products.
Xenoblade has a well written story and characters, interesting themes that do touch on some of the stuff the previous Xeno games were about; and most importantly, Takahashi didn’t overreach with the story this time. Xenoblade isn’t the first installment of a multi-part epic that would most likely never be completed like Xenosaga, nor does it try to cram multiple installments worth of story into a single game like Xenogears, hurting the game’s pacing and coherence. It’s just a single, self-contained story in a single game. You can criticize Xenoblade for not having as many thought provoking themes and ideas as the previous games, but there’s also something to be said for keeping your story small enough to manage and not overloading it with too many ideas- something Gears and Saga are guilty of not doing.
Look, I want games to explore deeper and more thought provoking material too, but lets not be dicks about it and attack a game whose only crime is not being as deep and thought provoking as its predecessors.