Xenoblade Chronicles Tells Stories for Our Times

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Xenoblade Chronicles Tells Stories for Our Times

Note: this piece will contain story spoilers for the entirety of the numbered Xenoblade Chronicles trilogy and their DLC. There will be neither discussion nor spoilers for Xenoblade Chronicles X (as incredible as that game also is) as its narrative and themes are different enough to not be relevant to this particular discussion.

I’ve been thinking about Xenoblade again. This tends to happen to me a lot; it’s a bit of a problem, actually. These silly anime games consume an almost concerning amount of my mental space no matter what else is going on in my life. I’ve actually got some decent reasons this time, though. For one thing, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 just had its first anniversary, marking one year since what could be called the finale for this era of the series and the first birthday of what is probably my favorite game right now.

But, more importantly, I got to thinking about Xenoblade after reading this excellent piece from writer Jay Castello about The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. Castello talks about how the latest Zelda game seems irrevocably married to its world’s status quo—“saving Hyrule” means fighting off the evil invading army and restoring the rightful ruler to her throne, and the game ends triumphantly with your success in this regard. Nothing meaningful changes, and even Link’s lost arm grows back; the ultimate victory is the restoration of the established order of things. And it’s not just Zelda; many game stories in general shy away from really challenging their own worlds, and thus have very little to say about our own. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been disappointed playing a game that puts tons of work into crafting a fascinating fantasy world only to never really put the structures of that world to task (Final Fantasy XV and Skyrim jump to mind as examples of this). Unsurprisingly, in a highly corporatized industry, games rarely take the jump to question the way the world could be.

Which is why Xenoblade Chronicles sticks out in my mind so much. Where other games seem intent on creating worlds that need to be saved, Xenoblade shows us worlds that need to be changed radically, and, crucially, espouses the radical optimism that said change can actually happen. These stories have stuck with me so much over the years because frankly they’re some of the only games I’ve encountered anywhere near this scale which are willing to go there—willing to say “something is seriously wrong with the status quo, and we have to change it.”

So I’d like to discuss each numbered game in the trilogy so far and get into how these worlds better reflect our own, in their deeply wrought injustices and unthinkable cruelties, but also in their stunning beauty and constant ability for change.Xenoblade Chronicles

Xenoblade Chronicles

The first game in the Xenoblade trilogy is set apart from the other two for taking its time to get at some of its more radical themes. Where 2 and 3’s protagonists start out their games as optimists and dreamers whose explicit goals are to radically change the worlds they live in, the first game’s protagonist, Shulk, is not so at all. Shulk lives in a world made up of the dead bodies of two massive titans, the naturalistic Bionis and the robotic Mechonis. These titans fought each other to the death back in time immemorial, and now, untold centuries later, the inhabitants of each titan’s body continue to attack each other in a long, seemingly unending cycle of violence and trauma. Shulk, a resident of the Bionis, does not at first see the senselessness of the fighting because he himself is entirely caught up in the villainization and otherization of the Mechonis. His motivation at the start of the game, shared by his traveling companions Reyn, Dunban, and especially Sharla, is to wipe out all of the Mechon (robots from the Mechonis) as revenge for all of the death and trauma they have inflicted on the people of the Bionis. They set out on their adventure initially with explicitly genocidal intent as Sharla vows that she “won’t stop until I’ve scrapped each and every one of [them].”

There’s a palpable discomfort to the early game of Xenoblade. You sympathize with Shulk and his companions deeply, having seen the destruction they’ve had to endure, but the revenge plot feels extreme, guided chiefly by rage. If, like me, you played one of the most recent Super Smash Bros. games first, you probably expected Shulk to be a very different type of guy from this quiet, awkward ball of fury, and you’re not sure how you feel about his goals. The rest of the story becomes about further deepening that discomfort and coming to realizations and revelations about the world which allow you, and Shuk, to break out of your black-and-white perspective.

One of the biggest of these revelations comes at around the halfway point, when you discover that the Mechonis, too, is home to intelligent life known as the Machina. The Machina want peace and safety just as much as your people, and, crucially, are equally critical of their leader Egil and his Mechon army’s constant invasion of the Bionis, so much so that his own father asks you to fight and kill him. This marks a turning point in the game’s story—up to now, the Mechonis has just been the enemy, an enemy which Shulk has only recently and barely begun to question his war against. Now, some much-needed nuance begins to seep in—perhaps it is not simply the Mechonis who needs to be stopped, but just one powerful individual from it.

But as you climb towards his base at the Mechonis’ head, you learn more and more about the history of the Mechonis, a history conveniently forgotten on the other titan. The titans had not always been at war, and it was not the Mechon invasions that started the fighting. You learn that it was actually the Bionis, controlled by Zanza, creator and self-appointed god of this world, who set the fighting in motion, attacking the Mechonis first to exert his will upon both titans. You learn that not only did Zanza start the fight, he continues to be its primary beneficiary—the dead bodies of the residents of the Bionis serve as his food and fuel to keep on living and remain in power, and so he continues to orchestrate the endless war. And you learn that Egil’s invasions have not been out of mere hatred but a mix of the rageful revenge Shulk himself once sought and a strategic ploy to starve out Zanza by wiping out all his fuel. Your view of the world is entirely turned on its head as you come to see that it is not the people of the Bionis nor the Mechonis who are the real enemy and cause of the suffering of the world, but rather those in power who continue to benefit and profit from their fighting. 

One of the headlining elements of both the gameplay and the story is Shulk’s visions, a power which lets him see the future. You use them to prevent the deaths of your friends and allies, to know where you must travel to next, and even to figure out which collectibles you’ll want to hold on to. This power is the defining tool of Shulk’s journey, giving him a needed edge in his losing battles, but as you discover late in the game, the visions his power shows him come straight from Zanza himself. Zanza sees Shulk as merely a vessel through which to enact his will upon the world; he controls the information he knows, and he shows him a limited view of what the future will look like and a limited range in which to change it. Zanza limits the imagination of the future in order to manipulate Shulk into fighting for him and his desires. The core arc of the game, then, is about learning to see beyond that limited scope, rejecting the hateful view of the world prescribed to him by its profiteers, and choosing instead to imagine a radically new future outside of Zanza’s scope. In his last act at the end of the game, briefly granted Zanza’s godly powers, Shulk uses them to create a new world, rejecting the chance to ascend to godhood himself and continue Zanza’s status quo in favor of creating a world with no gods at all.

This is far from the only story to tackle breaking cycles of violence, but this particular approach is meaningful in a few ways. For one thing, the solution is not for the two sides to just kiss and make up, but to come to a common consciousness of the way the current structures of power hurt both of them as they fuel their conflict, and ultimately, to challenge and replace those structures of power. The only solution is explicitly to disrupt the status quo and create a new world without the same systemic oppression—“a world with no gods.” It’s a deeply relevant message as those in power in real life continue to scapegoat immigrants, queer people, criminals, or any number of false targets as the real cause of societal turmoil in order to deflect their own responsibility (i.e. “that immigrant stole your job” vs. “I fired you because I could exploit them even easier than I exploit you”). Xenoblade Chronicles charges us to expand our vision of the world to see the real systemic sources of injustice and to expand our vision of the future to imagine a world in which these systems do not exist.Xenoblade Chronicles 2

Xenoblade Chronicles 2

Ah, Xenoblade Chronicles 2. The problem child. This is a complicated and controversial one, having received both a lot of praise for its simultaneous intricacy and vastness as well as some much deserved criticism both for some questionable game design decisions and some more problematic elements of its presentation. There is a lot to be said about all of this (and a lot of it already has been), but for now, let’s focus on an analysis of the narrative, a narrative which I for one absolutely love.

Like the first game, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is ultimately a story about building a better world, but it takes a different angle on it. I’d summarize the different approaches of the three games in this trilogy as each embodying revolution on a different level — the first game in mind, the second in spirit, and the third in body. Shulk’s journey was about expanding his own mind to be able to see the world that needed to be changed, while for Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s cast, the systemic problems of the world are far more apparent, with the journey instead being a spiritual one of finding a way to believe that a better world is possible at all.

Xenoblade Chronicles 2 takes place in a world called Alrest, which takes the first game’s titan motif and runs with it. This world is made up of not just two titans but of many, all of whom live in a great sea of clouds encircling the impossibly tall World Tree. When Rex, the game’s protagonist, introduces the world to us, he relates its creation legend: humanity once lived together in harmony atop the World Tree in a land called Elysium (mixing the mythological metaphors, I see), but were for some reason cast out into the world below to live upon the titans, which, unlike the Bionis and Mechonis, are still alive and well. Or at least, they are for the time being—due to human activities and resource extraction, the titans are beginning to literally die out, leading the amount of land in the world to decrease quickly and causing the suffering and death of thousands from both the environmental catastrophes and the resource wars that follow. Rex and his partner Pyra’s goal from the beginning of the game is to make their way to the legendary Elysium and lead the people of Alrest to that land of plenty in order to ward off the looming threat of extinction. Where the first game’s world was malleable and applicable to a wide number of issues and structures, from interpersonal conflicts to imperial wars, Alrest’s plight seems to be a much more clear allegory for climate change, with Rex’s pining for Elysium reflecting the belief in the possibility of a more sustainable, post-scarcity world.

Rex’s optimism is not shared by most in Alrest, though. Elysium is decried by most as nothing more than a fairytale, and the world as it is seems far too cruel to house anything so beautiful. Scarcity and war have a way of bringing out the worst in humanity, and Alrest certainly reflects this. On your journey to Elysium, you witness military atrocities, meet people targeted for religious persecution, and ultimately come into conflict with Torna, an enemy faction who have been so burned by the wickedness of humanity and the world that they believe the only way forward is to destroy them, quicker to imagine the literal end of the world than an end to the oppressive structures that govern it. With everything you see and endure, it becomes easy to see why so many have trouble imagining a path forward for humanity, and more and more difficult to believe in that path yourself.

The game’s story is frankly very mean about this. It lulls you into a false sense of security with its colorful art style and the quirky optimism of its protagonist before continually gut-punching you with the cruelty of the world, daring you to keep believing in a better one anyway. You watch, powerless, as Vandham and Haze die, you witness the world come just a hair away from a cataclysmic war multiple times, you see Tantal and Mor Ardain suffering under their harsh, anthropogenic climate disasters, and it becomes easy to see Torna’s hopeless perspective. A big turning point comes with being introduced to the Land of Morytha, a ruined city once occupied by a previous incarnation of humanity which, when faced with similar crises, failed to address them and destroyed themselves—an uncomfortable revelation for a player living in that previous incarnation. The challenge, through all of this, is to continue to press on regardless—where many characters would be written to become more jaded and broken upon seeing these things, Rex, refreshingly, maintains his optimism almost the whole way through, his growth not coming in the form of more cynicism but in becoming a more effective, less naive dreamer, one who is able to inspire his peers.

And then you reach Elysium, and Elysium is in ruins.

Your vision of the future, your post-scarcity utopia of plenty, has been destroyed by the same people who made the hellscape in Morytha. This is undoubtedly the emotional low of the story—Rex, and you, as his analog, are devastated. It becomes easy to see why, for so many, oblivion seems like the only option.

But it’s not the only option. You keep on pushing, keep on fighting regardless, because in spite of everything, in spite of these never ending cycles of death and destruction, the only way forward for humanity is to keep getting up every day and fighting to change the ways of the world in the face of the power-hungry and the jaded, even—especially—when it feels impossible. And ultimately, in choosing to fight for a doomed world, Rex and company succeed in creating a new one; not Elysium, defined by the legends and hopes of the old world, but something entirely new, with enough room for everyone.

Forgive me if it sounds like I’m gushing—this story means a lot to me, and came at a crucial time in my life when I needed to hear these things. It’s so rare to find a game like this that is so explicit in its endorsement of imagining an entirely new world from scratch. And additionally, this begins to show a pattern across the series of becoming more explicit in the targets of critique. The first game’s story is divorced enough from real-world power structures that it’s applicable to pretty much any scenario, leaving its specific criticisms up to interpretation. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is not like this—the game is rife with explicit call-outs of the military-industrial complex, anthropogenic climate change, abuse of power from religious organizations, and so on. It makes clear what is wrong with the world and dares you to challenge it, as you may yet find your way to a better one.       

Xenoblade Chronicles 3

Xenoblade Chronicles 3

And now we arrive at Xenoblade Chronicles 3, a darling of RPG fans and critics alike. Where Xenoblade 2 was a bit more explicit than its predecessor, 3 goes all in, with a plot revolving around a proper political revolution, liberating the warring nations of Keves and Agnus from their shared exploiter class by any means necessary. To finish off my “mind, spirit, and body” device from earlier, where the first two entries in the trilogy focus on opening up to the possibility of radical change in mind and spirit, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 takes the necessity and possibility of its revolution as a given fairly early on, focusing instead on the trials and tribulations of actually building the new world in real time.

Xenoblade Chronicles 3 takes place in a lifeless world. This is not a commentary on Aionios’ visuals or level design (both are fantastic), but rather on how its characters relate to it. Its beautiful landscapes and abundant natural life are sharply juxtaposed with the menial existence it’s been reduced to, as merely a backdrop for endless wars and a pool of resources to be extracted to fund said wars. There are no real communities in this place, no real cultures, only two loosely defined imperial powers and their colonies, implanted settlements on a world they could not care less about. The disconnect between the land and those living on it, the constant atomization and competition between groups, the devaluation of anything not useful to the profit of the ruling class—this all reflects the cultural and psychological experience of a late-stage capitalist society. And in a material and class analysis, too, the soldiers of Aionios are entirely reduced to fighting to fill their colonies’ flame clocks, fueling the ruling faction Moebius, a clear analog for a capitalist class. They fight for their whole short existence just to keep themselves alive while Moebius gains effective immortality from their continued siphoning of life force.

These inequalities are established very quickly, with the first couple chapters feeling almost like a crash-course version of the first two games’ arcs as the main cast of six are thrust into their roles as revolutionaries and come to terms with that with help from the words of Guernica Vandham. They realize their hatred for and cyclical violence against each other are constructed by a common exploiter, like with the Bionis and Mechonis, and quickly come to believe in another way of life as both possible and necessary, like the people of Alrest. The rest of the game is about actually putting that revolutionary intent into action, because unlike Shulk or Rex, this crew doesn’t just get the aid of divine powers to will a new world into existence—they have to build it themselves.

3’s story is quite possibly the most important of the trilogy because, while it maintains the dreamy idealism of the first two games, never losing sight of that radical optimism, it pulls it down into the realm of reality and shows the nitty-gritty work of actually making change on a practical level. So many fictional depictions of revolution have this hypermasculine obsession with the warfare of it all, taking up arms to overpower the ruling class, putting the king or the president’s head in a basket and expecting that to magically solve all of the world’s problems. Xenoblade Chronicles 3 certainly does not shy away from the fighting (a world is not won from asking nicely, after all), but importantly, it also puts a lot of emphasis on building up, not just tearing down. With the party’s ouroboros powers and protagonist Noah’s sword Lucky Seven, you are able to fight each colony’s commanding Moebius and smash its flame clock, freeing its people from their control, but it doesn’t just end there. After all, these people have lived their entire lives as soldiers in servitude, and their community structures are built for war, not for sustainable living. Your job as a revolutionary isn’t just to fight the big bad boss (boo) and call it a day, but to radically transform the lifeways of this world.

And this is where I am so glad that the game is filled to the brim with side quests, because it allows Monolith to explore countless different aspects of what that transformation looks like between both the main story and the side content. Sometimes it’s settling disputes between soldiers still not over their hatred for the other side; sometimes it’s putting different communities in contact so they can share the agricultural skills they’ve learned; sometimes it’s creating a fun sticker system to motivate people to do tasks around the colony; sometimes it’s reckoning with the deep-set need to fight which commanders like Ethel and Cammuravi can’t seem to let go of. All of this is revolutionary work, no less important than the flashy anime battles, which I believe is why side quests are more strongly encouraged and have more work put into them than ever before, with some “side” quests even being actually required for story progression.

What I love, too, is that Monolith never shies away from critiquing the new world being built either. The most robust revolutionary project you find in the game is The City, a place which is obviously much better than the world surrounding it, but one still filled with major problems. Through the eyes of Shania, a defector to the side of Moebius, we even see how, despite its revolutionary intent, The City continues to reproduce some of the same dynamics as the world outside, with Shania suffering under The City’s expectation of providing value to the revolutionary effort just as another Moebius, Joran, suffered under his colony’s expectation of providing value to the war effort. The revolution is not romanticized nor sugarcoated—it is necessary, it is good, it is possible, but it is messy and imperfect as well.

And, once again, in the end, it succeeds—Xenoblade Chronicles 3 carries the optimistic torch of its predecessors by carrying out the revolution to a success, with the final enemy, Z, not just being a bad guy to fight as the leader of Moebius, but a representation of humanity’s collective fear of change, overcome by the combined efforts of all of the liberated colonies and The City together. This runs in line with the story’s recurring themes of revolution being more than just the militancy of a few against the ruling class by making its final test a challenge of consciousness against a psychological status quo, not just a cool fight. And while the splitting of the worlds makes this ending more bittersweet, it still validates the protagonists’ efforts and signals to the audience to make an effort of their own.

The Xenoblade Chronicles series tells stories for our times because our times are fucking rough. As the current structures of power continue to enforce interlocking systems of injustice and inequality while continuing humanity down a path of environmental self-destruction, it becomes harder and harder to stomach stories which assume that the preservation or restoration of the status quo is somehow desirable. And on the flip side, works which acknowledge these dynamics but default to the cynical conclusion of “gee, the world sure sucks, huh,” are almost as useless, stopping all generative conversation at the paralyzing position of believing in humanity’s inherent evil. Stories like Xenoblade Chronicles are important because, perhaps now more than ever, it is imperative to expand our imaginations to the possibilities of a better world. And this series in particular is important because it’s a rare case of such stories making their way to the medium of games, as they often have trouble finding their footing in any medium outside the literary. While the games themselves may not be revolutionary in nature—they are products, after all—they speak to a kind of storytelling which, if allowed to, can help provide an uplifting expansion of the mind.

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