Xenoblade Chronicles: the garden of one path

, | Game diaries

Xenoblade Chronicles is the latest RPG from Monolith Soft, the Japanese developer of the Xenosaga series. It was released last summer everywhere in the world except for stupid America, where it comes out next week because we’re slow, dumb, loud, and too busy playing Mass Effect 3.

Despite the prefix, Xenoblade Chronicles has nothing to do with the Xenosagas. I don’t know this first-hand, since I’ve never played a Xenosaga game. They were on the Playstation 2 when me and my PC were busy playing Western RPGs with the Dungeons and Dragons license. The occasional Final Fantsy excepted. But I read on Wikipedia that Xenoblade and Xenosaga are separate things, so I know it’s true.

What I can tell you from experience is that Xenoblade Chronicles is one of the best RPGs I have ever played, right up there with games as diverse and superlative as Planescape: Torment, Lord of the Rings Online, The Witcher 2, and especially Dark Cloud 2. I am head-over-heels in love.

After the jump, the story so far. Spoiler-free, of course.

I’m 40 hours into Xenoblade Chronicles. Based on the fact that I’m on the third tier of a five-tier crafting system, I’m assuming I’m somewhere around the half-way to the end. At this point, Xenoblade Chronicles doesn’t have a choose-your-own-adventure system of forking story paths. That Bethesda/Bioware stuff is all good and well until it’s not. At which point you get people Tweeting about the end of Mass Effect 3 as if Bioware was supposed to suddenly do good storytelling before wrapping everything up. Choice is a great way to fool people into thinking they’re getting a good story. Of course I’d pick the salarians over the krogan in the genophage debate! Of course I’d destory the Collective base! Of course I’d bang Liara! Ergo, it’s good writing when those things happen. To many gamers, “good writing” is a synonym for “writing that affirms what I already think”. Bioware has played its fans like a finely tuned hanar fiddle.

But choice is not a formula for an effective story. Rick’s decision at the end of Casablanca, Quint’s fate in Jaws, and Jake’s last visit to Chinatown are non-negotiable parts of the process. When you dump those outcomes into the laps of videogame players — videogame players! — to do with as they will, you sacrifice much of your story’s power. When either ferry can blow up at the end of Dark Knight, you aren’t telling a story anymore. You’re DMing.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, especially since we’re talking about RPGs. But now the writers have got to do exponentially more work exponentially more carefully than writers who are already way better at writing. Part of what blew me away about The Witcher 2 was that when it was all over, I had no idea what could have happened. I got to the end and deduced that, yeah, of course that’s what happened. How else could it be?

But when something happens in Xenoblade Chronicles, a game that hasn’t given me any of the usual “feed the puppy or kick the puppy?” choices, I know it’s a plot point in a story veteran designer Tetsuya Takahashi is telling me as I play the game he and his team have made for me. “Made” and “story” being the operative words. An event in Xenoblade Chronicles is not a checkmark on a conditional if/then branching structure that can go anywhere I want until it’s somehow supposed to end with a satisfying conclusion. An event in Xenoblade Chronicles is a crafted experience. Not that it’s one of those linear corridor feeds like Final Fantasy XIII. There is plenty of player agency in Xenoblade Chronicles, but it doesn’t abdicate the developers from their responsibility to tell me an interesting story about interesting characters doing interesting things that presumbly come together in an interesting conclusion. If I want a DIY narrative, I’ll cull it from a character build in Diablo II, a game of Civ IV, or whatever morsel of prose I get in my next Fallen London session.

Of course, this isn’t unique to Xenoblade Chronicles. RPGs and JRPGs have been telling mostly straightforward single-outcome stories for as long as they’ve been around. It’s just something I’m re-appreciating now that I’m invested in this story. Furthermore, it was really sneaky how Xenoblade Chronicles got me hooked. Any story can open with a bang and then go from bang to world-saving bang. This game basically tricked me by unfolding oddly.

(Note that I’m going to be very careful to avoid spoilers here!).

Xenoblade Chronicles opens with a creation myth about two warring sides. The battle grinds to a halt and creation comes into being. Pretty simple so far. Now here come the usual anime kiddies to play us out of the opening cutscene and into the game proper. Shulk is our angsty hero saddled with a destiny. Reyn is the dunderheaded comic relief and muscle. And Fiora is the sexy, sassy, sharp-tongued magic-user chick. And, by the way, I love how English they all are. It occurs to me that fantasy worlds and American accents might be incompatible, which could be why so much anime seems ridiculous to me.

So now we have Shulk, Reyn, and Fiora actually playing us into Xenoblade Chronicles. And not much is happening story-wise. There isn’t any kingdom of so-and-so hoo-ha, there’s only minimal magic doo-dad exposition, and no cackling evil wizard kidnaps a princess who will need to be rescued. Instead, something very simple happens that sets up an equally simple character motivation: revenge. That’s it. The world doesn’t have to be saved or anything. Instead, our heroes set out for some payback. It’s a revenge roadtrip. Period.

And this is Xenoblade Chronicles for about thirty hours. No joke. Thirty hours of me thinking, “well, okay, I guess they don’t want to dump too much story into the game so I can groove on it like a laidback action RPG”. After all, Xenoblade Chronicles takes a lot of cues from MMOs. Why not avoid the fuss of a complicated JRPG story? Why not just let me do desultory quests to build up relationships throughout the world and among my party? Why not leave me to play how and where I want, cruising to revenge at my own pace? If there’s one thing I learned from Shenmue, it’s that sometimes you need to stop and play with the toys. I’m cool with that.

Yeah, sure, some new locations and characters are folded into the mix as I go. And occasionally there’s a glimpse of something that I’m guessing is going to happen at the end of the game. But having just played Final Fantasy XIII-2, I thought these JRPGs were supposed to be plot heavy and convoluted throughout. 30 hours in and it’s still I’m Gonna Git You Sucka? What gives?

And then something happens about 35 hours into the game. Suddenly I’m playing a game about crazy high stakes and political intrigue and mythology. I’m not even sure the main character is the main character anymore. In fact, the character I care most about is someone I only met a few hours ago. And even though I really meant to wrap up some of those various quests that I’ve been plinking away at, there is no way I can leave this plot thread hanging, even if the game clearly wants me to move around at will. My brain is well aware that the timing urgency is all fake, but I don’t really need a game clock. I have something better: my own sense of investment in a well written story populated with interesting characters. It’s as if Xenoblade Chronicles wanted to first earn my trust by establishing itself as a good game. Only then, thirty hours later, was it going to ask me to care about its plot.

Tomorrow, so what about the game?