Thursday, September 30, 2010

Gears of Culture War

Perhaps things have slowed just a little bit over here at the Chrontendo ranch.  The last few days have placed a number of demands on my time.  And on top of that... I've decided to sit down and play a video game!  Yes, every once and awhile I'll actually fire up a video game that isn't related to Chrontendo and isn't Halo (which I have no special love for, but my nephews always seem to want to play) or Rock Band.

So, for some crazy reason, I decided to finally play Xenogears, a game I've long been curious about.  I'm not hugely familiar with the realm of Playstation-era RPGs, but the fact that so many gamers either love Xenogears or dismiss as a pretentious piece of twaddle intrigues me.  The game is pretty notorious for experiencing budget issues -- resulting in the second half reportedly being rushed mess which attempts to tie up any loose plot threads using lots of cutscenes.  I've also heard the religious content is somewhat controversial, and that, as Wikipedia puts it, the game is supposedly based on "The principles and philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Jacques Lacan...."  Jeez, if Square was going that route, why not toss in Jean Baudrillard while they were at it?

Expensive looking cutscenses that combine traditional animation and CGI probably sucked up a lot of the budget.

Completely optional tangent:  For those not familiar with the nutty squabbling that occurs between various insular academic disciplines, Nietzsche, Jung, Lacan (and plenty of other French guys like Baudrillard and Jacques Derrida) are all philosophers and/or psychological theorists whose reputations, as Metacritic would say are "mixed."  These guys tend to be quite popular with humanities departments and freshmen philosophy students due to their almost mystical obscurantism and eminent quotability (e.g.: "A geometry implies the heterogeneity of locus, namely that there is a locus of the Other" - Lacan), as well as the sense of self-assuredness with which they write.  One the other hand, they (except Nietzsche, to an extent) tend to be dismissed by those in the "hard" disciplines, such as experimental psychology, mathematics or analytical philosophy.  Lacan, in particular, is widely mocked for randomly inserting mathematical terms which he seemingly does not understand into his writings, in an attempt to give his work a patina of intellectual rigor - after all, his intended audience probably isn't going to know the difference!  The charges of intellectual elitism and even charlatanism are often thrown and Lacan and his ilk.  The typical response from his supporters is "Well, you're clearly not smart enough to understand his theories.  And, no, I cannot explain them to you in anything remotely resembling plain English."

Xenogears uses an ATB-like mechanism for battles.

Well, anyway, I've gotten a decent-sized chunk of Xenogears behind me and haven't come across any heavy duty philosophical or religious content yet.   Though I will commend Square for shoehorning giant mechs into a standard RPG setting in a pretty hilarious fashion.  The world of Xenogears is one where people fight using swords, rods and whips, and live in sort of medieval-looking houses, but also hop into ultra high tech Gears (big robots) when necessary.   Despite being big-ass robots capable of high speed flight and firing projectiles, Gears mostly engage each other using giant-sized versions of swords, whips, etc, and they  generally do this while running around on the ground.  One particular Gear is even seen standing around with its arms crossed for some unexplained reason.  Maybe it's trying to look tough?  Does its operator have to manually maneuver its arms into the crossed position, or did it come with a pre-installed automated arm-crossing sequence, I wonder?

Yes, those robots are equipped with 80 foot long spears.  Wouldn't missiles make more sense?

Despite the high levels of silliness involved, I find myself enjoying Xenogears quite a bit.  The characters seem a bit more relatable that those in Final Fantasy VII (a game that I've never cared for).  Maybe this is due to due the hand drawn character portraits that appear whenever someone is talking, as compared to FF VII's emotionless Lego figures.  Xenogears uses 3-D in the exact opposite way of FF VII: sprites move around in rotatable 3D environments, instead of  polygonal 3D characters placed on pre-rendered flat backgrounds.   So it feels more like you are are inside of Xenogears world, rather than simply walking around on top of a nicely drawn painting.

Detailed 3D environments abound.

I'll try to post a more Chrontendo relevant update soon.  One thing I must bring to your attention, in case you haven't seen it, is the Least Favorite Character Tournament over at  While some of the nominees are bit weird, naturally our very favorite baby persimmon has been doing quite well.  I suspect Tingle may win, but in the meantime, cast a vote for Percy when his next round comes up!


Lynxara said...

A lot of the oddities in how mecha behave in Xenogears come from the fact that the game is imitating-- sometimes slavishly-- mecha anime that were popular at the time. The mecha that always has its arms crossed is a direct reference to Mobile Fighter G Gundam. The use of melee weapons is also a traditional Gundam-ism.

The use of religious and philosophical writings to give a patina of intellectualism to mecha show stories goes back to the 80s. Xenogears's use of Nietzsche, a favorite of mecha show producers, is basically just another level on which its mimicking the genre material that came before it.

As an adaptation of mecha tropes to video game form, I think Xenogears is largely successful. I think its Western fans have a lamentable tendency to assume the game's goals are much loftier than I think they ever were.

qaylIS aka Nicolas Deußer said...

Oh my god, I read a big story review from one guy with a synopsis of the whole Xenogears Saga. And he admitted himself at the end, that it doesn't made much sense, still after reading it multiple times. I am not sure if that would be something I would play...though it is cool I think to have Jesus in your party. But I don't think he turns the other cheek.
After all, especially after watching Neon Genesis Evangelion, you could think that its fun for japanese to fuck around with western religion and philosophy. And I read Nietzsche from time to time, I am not sure how a japanese game with giant robots will affect my sight on his thesis.

Tork said...

I blame Xenogears for destroying my attention span. I can never see a text box without immediately wanting to push the button to get it the hell off my screen.

Someone else who hated that game said this in a conversation about Chrono Cross:

"Chrono Cross came out at a pretty bad time in my case. I had just recently finished Xenogears and I think that game broke something in me. It's like before I played Xenogears I enjoyed jrpgs, but after I played it I couldn't play another jrpg to the end to save my life. I think Xenogears was jrpg concentrate. It was SO jrpg that it was like I injected chocolate cake into my blood stream and now I can never eat chocolate cake again. Like that, except instead of putting food into my circulatory system I just didn't find a need to play another game in that genre anymore.

So Chrono Cross comes out, calls itself a game in the Chrono Trigger universe, which I loved, and I play it and got bored pretty quick. The same fate also befell Final Fantasy VIII through whatever f---ing number I stopped playing Final Fantasy at, I can't remember, Xenosaga whatever, and several DS rpgs. Xenogears hit every terrible cliche to the point that as soon as I saw the cliche again in another game I was struck by this terrible deja vu feeling and I couldn't play anymore. "

Doctor Sparkle said...

Anthropomorphizing robots leads down a very slippery slope, I believe. it starts with robots crossing their arms and leads to farting robots in Michael Bay movies. Though as long as Xenogears doesn't contain any mech-on-mech love scenes, I'll tolerate it.

I assume the game gets a bit more egg-headed as it progresses, but so far it strikes me as being pretty understandable. There is a lot of dialog, but that was supposed to be part of the appeal of CD RPGs, right? More detailed stories, characters, etc?

Maybe the incomprehensibility of the Xeno games is where the Lacan influence comes in, who once said "The less you understand, the better you listen."

Anonymous said...

Amazing and brilliant assessment of the annoying nerds who pretend to understand/appreciate Lacan and the rest of that postmodern nonsense. I'm guessing you have heard of the famous Sokol prank? If not, it's absolutely hilarious:

Lynxara said...

My memory of Xenogears is that it's totally straightforward melodrama until the second disc, when compression syndrome sets in and absolute gobs of reincarnation-happy backstory comes out.

That said, Xenogears I think has its plot sometimes confused with the far less coherent Xenosaga games for the PS2. Xenosaga had even higher philosophical pretensions than Xenogears and ended up more severely compressed due to the series being canceled halfway through.

Anthropomorphized robots behaving as superheroes and villains are kind of a national institution for Japan. Part of it is cultural reinforcement-- Japan has more industrial robots per capita than any other nation in the world-- and part of it is the influence of early popular "hero robot" manga like Tetsujin 28 and Mazinger Z.

Among Japanese viewers, there seems to be a tacit understanding than media about very anthropomorphized robots should be taken as having nothing to do with the reality of robot technology. Kind of like how no American expects to see realistic physics in a superhero movie.

Anonymous said...

apparently religious people had problems with the reincarnation/adam and eve etc. stuff.
Though looking back on it now it was probably the plotline about church officials molesting children, since the game was released before the chathloic-sex scandal was revealed.