In 1999, after having played through Xenogears at least twice, still being completely in awe of the emotional, sublime and unusually sophisticated epic story, I was still not experienced with "high culture" literature or the groundbreaking works of cinema. When I read reviews of the game, or engaged in discussion about it with fellow teenagers, I often found the story being praised, and specifically compared to the written novel. At that time I thought "How amazing must not some epic novels be then, if Xenogears is the first game to have a story that reached the level of literature?"
I felt that something about this story put it far above any other, but being limited in language and experience there remained an uncertainty and a difficulty in putting the merits of Xenogears' story into words so as to delineate them. What is the merit of Xenogears? Confrontation with individuals who didn't like Xenogears or, at any rate, didn't think as highly of it as myself and other fans also added to the uncertainty and confusion. What was it I saw that its detractors didn't? And were they simply blind, had poor taste, or were they perhaps more experienced with literary works that were actually better? The idea of the latter seemed doubtful, as these were teenagers like myself who mainly placed other games above Xenogears, games that I could not agree had a better story than Xenogears.
The game felt like a culmination of all the things I didn't know I liked, and although it did feel like Star Wars at times, the feeling wasn't so much "this and that is a rip-off" as much as it was "This is Star Wars and sci-fi done right." It was the grown-up version of Star Wars, and more. If it was plagiarism then it was plagiarism that killed the original source in front of the new superior presentation I was witnessing. That's how I felt experiencing Xenogears. Isidore Lucien Ducasse who cleverly inverted, corrected and openly plagiarized for his work Poésies, used to defend plagiarism, saying: "Plagiarism is necessary. It is implied in the idea of progress. It clasps the author's sentence tight, uses his expressions, eliminates a false idea, replaces it with the right idea."
Another thing that stands out about Xenogears is that it is one of those games that actually gets better the second
time you play it, since you then notice how well-crafted the story is with its foreshadowing and symbolism. In fact, the game didn't just kill movies like Star Wars for me, it also killed the enjoyment I used to have for other RPGs like the Final Fantasy series. I even felt sorry for every human being that had lived and died before me without having experienced this thing, and I have never quite had an experience like that again.
Even playing through older supposed "masterpieces" like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI left me underwhelmed in the wake of Xenogears, and it became clear that people who held certain titles in high regard were either more interested in pleasant gameplay mechanics, were simply nostalgic, or had a poor or distorted aesthetic understanding of what is great and has merit and is worth experiencing. It became annoying to regret having listened to people's hype that such-and-such were fantastic games and I wanted to find some kind of objective criterion for greatness to utilize in debates rather than give subjective opinion free reign in this sort of value judgment.
Taken at face value, Xenogears might seem like a typical JRPG on the abridged surface, being somewhat "troperific and cliché," which is why reading a mere plot synopsis isn't going to impress most people. But that surface or base skeleton is not what makes Xenogears good. What makes Xenogears good are its allegories and metaphors, the relevant philosophical and ethical issues that it touches upon, the sharpness of its setting, the poetic and eloquently expressed ideas and truths through language and imagery, the scope of its lore, the depth of its psychological approach to characters, and, quite simply its high spiritual, moral and intellectual worth. What Tetsuya Takahashi has done is taking, what is otherwise an immature means of expression, and turned it into mature intellectual discourse.
Of course there are other reasons people like Xenogears. Some like it because of its action scenes, its ultra-kitsch Japanese mechs, its beautiful soundtrack, or even just its gameplay. But those things are generally not the reasons why it is held in such a high regard.
Naturally I started to wonder how a game such as this came into being. What was Squaresoft's aim in creating it? There was just something about the game that gave it such a soul that it seemed unlikely that a team of game developers would be able to throw something like that together without a clear vision and goal. But then why was the game not given more attention by Square? Furthermore, my thoughts kept coming back to the peculiarity of focusing so much on kitschy giant robots amidst the sophisticated inclusion of anthropology, sociology, psychology and philosophy (the depth of which I was not even aware of at the time) in the storytelling, which, as cool as they were, didn't seem necessary and sometimes detracted a bit from the more interesting story points (e.g. having the Garden of Eden myth rewritten to include giant robots or having the title gear appear in the "spiritual" fight with Uroborus).
I asked myself "Did Square request a game with a mature, philosophical narrative or did they request a game with giant robots?" I also wondered if any of the Japanese names in the credits held any meaning, such as a mastermind behind it all, or if it was a team effort and "Squaresoft" was just an awesome company. It would only take a few years before my intuition was to be confirmed and I actually got the answers to those questions. After the first Xenosaga episode came out it became clear that these works were indeed intended to be masterpieces in the vein of great cinema and literature, with development material quotes such as:
"Tetsuya Takahashi: Born in 1966. Supervising vice president of Monolith Software. In charge of the script and direction. A genius that has the epic plot in his head. Created Xenosaga, a product whose full scope can't be seen as it's partway in development, with much difficulty along with founding of Monolith Software. In many ways you can think of it as an incomplete work. Has a strong interest in the areas of ideology, philosophy, religion, and indirectly cuts deep via entertainment aimed at problems facing individuals and society. As for forms of expression other than games, he desires to write novels."
- Xenosaga -Official Design Materials-, Tetsuya Takahashi profile, page 224)
"I know that in real life, if Tetsuya Takahashi spoke directly to a bunch of young people they would never accept the message. So I use the story and the characters I've created to act as my spokespeople."
- Tetsuya Takahashi (Xenosaga -Official Design Materials-, 2002)
"Xenogears is basically a story about 'where do we come from, what are we, where are we going'."
- Soraya Saga (Interview with Siliconera, 2010)
"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)
"It [Xenosaga] might look like anime, but if you look at the scenario, camerawork, and the clips you'll clearly notice that inspiration is borrowed from various existing movies."
- Tetsuya Takahashi (Interview with Super PLAY magazine, 2002)
Regarding the "Xenosaga" series, in five or ten years, I'd like to revisit this world if I have the chance. Speaking of that, if people would regard it as a masterpiece...
- Hirohide Sugiura (Xenosaga II Weekly Volume III: Act 5, 2004)
"When I was younger [making Xenogears and Xenosaga], 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."
- Tetsuya Takahashi (Iwata Asks - Xenoblade Chronicles interview, 2010)
In order to fully understand Xenogears and Xenosaga, there are some things that should be established beforehand. Since people will go into any work of art with different experiences, attitudes and expectations, I find that to truly understand something and even appreciating it fully, it is often necessary to listen to its creator and his or her intent for making it. It can make a world of difference in how one chooses to approach the work. This is not necessarily due to a failure on the part of the creator but will inevitably happen since people are in widely differing mental states and attitudes when encountering a work. Luckily, the creators of Xenogears and Xenosaga have made several interviews and written quite a lot of supplementary material that will make it easier to follow their train of thought, such as the citations listed above.
The literary allusions, Takahashi's interest in reading and even writing novels, as he had stated during the making of Xenogears and Xenosaga, gives them that special literary quality that has become quite apparent to people, who have written in their reviews things such as:
"Xenogears is essentially literary (and for that reason I only with reluctance apply the term videogame to it); its primary aesthetic value is its story, which is supported by its game, music, and visual art. I do of course think games can have artistic value apart from their story, it's just that here the main value is the story. It is obvious the director
knew this: there is no place where those supporting elements overshade the main element. It is not that those supports are done poorly, only that they know their place in this game, unlike many games where the visual element steals primacy, or where primacy fights back and forth between game and story.
The plot construction of Xenogears is usually good, often unusually good, and sometimes can compare with the greatest novelists -- which is impressive considering the length and complexity of it (it can take up to 100 hours to finish). As I said in the first sentence of this review however, Xenogears was rushed to completion and much of the later sections of the plot are not filled out, with many cuts from what was originally planned. But even with
these cuts, which do give it an unfinished feeling, it remains an epic
and meaningful plot"
- Paul Eres, Xenogears 4-Part First edition review, 2003
"The plot is magnificent. Marvelous. Sublime. It shares a similarity with almost all the great works of this century: the opening of the plot is rather slow, but this consequently strengthens the proximity between the player and the characters, to an almost unbearable extent. And when it truly starts taking off, Xenogears (what a wonderful name) delivers its inspirational message with defiant eloquence. Saying that Tolkien himself wouldn't have disliked the story and that some of the lines seem to deal with existential questions with a vividness rivaling the works of most renowned Jamesian authors wouldn't be exaggerating much, really."
- Kane, Xenogears review "Enfant terrible", 2002
Xenogears and Xenosaga are thus not merely two more "JRPGs." Xenogears and Xenosaga are the "Russian novels" of gaming, and that term was even first used by a detractor. Comparison with Russian literature is somewhat fitting since a recurrent theme in Russian literature is suffering, and they are written with Character Emotional Development in mind as the great ones are holistic "Character-Driven" writers rather than Action-Driven writers. Religion and Christian symbolism are also important themes in both Takahashi's Xenogears and Xenosaga as well as in the works of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov. A huge difference, however, is the context - which is why comparisons don't get made much. Xenogears and Xenosaga are science fiction, so Roddenberry's Star Trek, Kubrick's 2001 and Tarkovsky's Solaris, etc, have a better context for comparison.
Furthermore, unlike the Character-Driven works of Russian literature, Xenogears and Xenosaga are more evenly scaled between the Character-Driven elements and the Action-Driven elements. An Action-Driven (also known as Plot-Driven) story focuses on action while a Character-Driven story places the emphasis on emotion and reflection. We find both of these in Xenogears and Xenosaga. Whether a story is considered Plot-Driven or Character-Driven depends greatly on the main focus of the story. In a Plot-Driven story, the actual events take priority. In the Character-Driven story, the character's thoughts, decisions, and coming to some greater understanding play a more important role than the action. For example, Writing Fiction @ Suite101.com writes:
"If a novel is plot-driven, the reader will probably remember the main event and be hazy about the characters. (can anyone name one character from Jurassic Park?) If it is character-driven the characters will remain in the mind long after the last page is read, but the reader may not recall exactly what the book was about. (does anyone really remember what Catcher in the Rye was about?)
In a character-driven mystery, the plot develops from the emotions of the characters involved. In a plot-driven story the murder and catching the criminal will take precedence over the deep-rooted motive. Motives of a character-driven mystery usually center around dark emotions such as hate, revenge, guilty, jealousy or fear rather than the desire for a bag of diamonds or a suitcase full of money.
There is no reason a book has to be strictly plot or
character-driven. Some books, perhaps the best books, are a well-balanced blend of both."
In 2001, academic scholar and literary critic Susan J. Napier wrote on the subject of Japanese animation that the issues they explore, often in surprisingly complex ways, are ones familiar to readers of contemporary "high culture" literature. But if anime, such as the works of Hayao Miyazaki, are so surprisingly "complex" and familiar to readers of "high culture" literature, then what might not an academic scholar have to say about Tetsuya Takahashi's labyrinthine double-opus "Xenogears" and "Xenosaga"?
Although masterpieces can go unnoticed and underappreciated, Xenogears did manage to leave an impact on the RPG genre. Developers themselves became fans and a large portion of Square's talent didn't hesitate to follow Tetsuya Takahashi when he left to form his own company. To this day many developers in the industry find his story-telling abilities intimidating.
Ten years after first playing Xenogears, after having waded through all kinds of works - from the classics, to the Russian giants, and various science fiction novels - I kept coming back to the same thought: "Where is this great novel that will awe me to the same extent, and make me feel as strongly and passionately about, as I did Xenogears and Xenosaga?" For sure, there were many subjects that were handled better in certain novels, and many fascinating ideas and truths in them that Tetsuya Takahashi's works did not at all address. But even so, I could tell that, of all the classic fictional works I'd experienced, Xenogears and Xenosaga were no less brilliant, no less a work of artistic genius than any other. Xenogears and Tetsuya Takahashi were no less worthy of study than Dostoevsky, Milton, or Kubrick.
As scholars often devote their lives to single artists, sometimes a large portion of that to single works, I also felt that dwelving into these particular works had been incredibly rewarding, and I was surprised to find that there was no legacy worthy of these works being preserved. I felt, with good reason, that these works were in the hands of immature consumers of popular media, who often made more fun of them than actually learning something from their deeper texts. And those who might really appreciate their content, the academics and the "high culture elite" if you will, would not even have any knowledge of their existence. Indeed, with even the creators seemingly turning their back on them at the time, the threat of oblivion seemed to be facing these deeply fascinating works.
The situation is not unique in cultural history. Shakespeare wasn't always a sacred author or seen as a symbol of high culture. In America before the late nineteenth century, Shakespeare's plays were well known and commonly performed all over the North American continent even on barroom pool tables. Audiences were familiar enough with the plays to appreciate jokes and parodies of the material, not unlike the sarcastic, callous or low-brow parodies and the "Let's play"s of games you see on the internet today. By the end of the nineteenth century, cultural elitism managed to convert the popular playwright whose dramas were deteriorating in the hands of the masses, into a sacred author who had to be protected from immature audiences and overbearing actors threatening the integrity of his creations. Critics argued that Shakespeare should become the Shakespeare of the college and university, because he will never be perfectly himself and perfectly at home anywhere else.
Even moreso than in the case of Shakespeare, who I consider to be vastly overrated, something like this may need to happen to popular media (such as video games) - which is still mainly influenced by an immature mob of popular consumerism - to protect works such as Xenogears and Xenosaga. It is not so much a question of whether or not video games should be regarded as "Art," since many already consider video games to be a form of "popular art," as there should be someone that can determine which video games should be considered a higher form of art. The main problem with video games is that they are considered toys for pleasure, not substance and growth (high art), and the classic artistic elements that adds to a game's high
culture merits - such as story, artwork, and music - tends to be completely separate from the "game" elements. It is not that Xenogears and Xenosaga have merit because they are games, rather, they have merit in spite of it. This is also why they are not always popular with gamers, and why they would actually be more perfectly at home in college, university, or with the high culture elite. As even one of Xenogears' casual fans remarked in 2012:
"I think I still love this game. This was clearly an attempt to make the best game of all loving time. Not the greatest rpg, not the best game of the year, they thought they were making The Greatest loving Game Ever. As crazy as all of it was, I just find the whole thing charming. They wanted to make something that would be taught in video game literature classes in the year 2356 AD and just spewed their crazy all over the place unabated until Square kicked in the door and stopped the party."
Apart from entertaining on a basic level, these games also move and provoke viewers on other levels as well, stimulating audiences to work through certain contemporary issues in ways that older art forms cannot. Moreover, precisely because of their popular reach they affect a wider variety of audiences in more ways than some less accessible types of high culture exchange have been able to do. For this reason it was not wrong of Tetsuya Takahashi to turn his games into a platform for self-expression and sending messages to a young audience through popular media. He himself admits, in hindsight, that it might have been reckless, for a majority of the audience he reached was not ready for it, and was not looking for something like it. But Takahashi need not make any apology. If something doesn't want to focus on gameplay, or even fun at all, and is still rewarding in a way other than the sole category one want to look at, then that's the artist's prerogative. There are, after all, hundreds of games on the shelves that don't contain a philosophy lecture and one or two that does. Isn't there room for those two?
Also, with the likes of Tolkien and George Lucas being studied in university courses alongside Shakespeare, I eventually wanted to create a study guide type website like this, something that could potentially be taken into "academic" consideration - should anyone desire it - in addition to fans of Tetsuya Takahashi. Though it is yet uncertain how much recognition gaming will receive in the future as a form of art or self-expression, if there is ever a history book on gaming as art, then it should include a mention of Tetsuya Takahashi's Xenogears or Xenosaga series at the very least. While a book on gaming will no doubt mention games like Mario and Zelda, generally those kind of games contain little to no substance or relevance to human culture beyond escapist entertainment. On the other hand, simply because Takahashi had something to say doesn't mean he is guaranteed a lasting legacy like Lucas, Kubrick, or Shakespeare. Being attached to gaming as a media is both a big obstruction as well as favorable. While gaming won't allow him to be recognized as "an important writer" or "brilliant film director," he is certainly unique
as a game director, and will always stand out that way.
And to his critics, specifically of these two works, I will say that in describing Takahashi as a bad writer or game director you are not saying something demonstrably untrue. But in reality there is no kind of evidence or argument yet by which one can show that Tetsuya Takahashi, or any other writer/director, is 'good'. Ultimately there is no test of artistic or literary merit except survival, which is often an unreliable method to measure merits. There have been many frustrated authors who have been disappointed that some of their weaker works went on to become more famous than their magnum opus. "Popularity" is thus untrustworthy, and "survival" is often arbitrary and the result of popularity.
I also wanted this site to be a restoration of Xenosaga - a work that was poorly handled by MonolithSoft and cut into pieces with two thirds of it abandoned altogether - where audiences could find assistance in piecing it all together to comprehend more fully what the originally experience was supposed to be like. Xenogears and Xenosaga are, as far as I know, the first specific video games to get a study guide devoted to them. Something which, as a starting point, should illustrate some merit.
Yet ignorance remains, and these works - especially Xenosaga - have fallen into obscurity. And even those who are fans have mostly failed to perceive the deeper text. Even in 2016 it is not uncommon for me to find comments by fans of Xenogears that attribute its merits to very limited aspects, such as "good villains," or for superficial story aspects such as having a longer and more detailed in-universe history than other games, or even due to misinformation such as "Masato Kato directing and writing the script" (the guy behind Chrono Trigger).
In particular something interesting happened when Xenoblade Chronicles was released in 2010 and it became apparent that even a large portion of the Xenogears and Xenosaga fanbase based their preferences on subjective whims and emotional mood rather than on understanding and clear perception. Despite the rather obvious differences, there have been many arguments that Xenoblade is still similar to the previous Xeno games. However, for the most part I identify these fans' identification of "similarities" to be a misinterpretation in perception filtered through their many JRPG experiences. Since our experience tend to be filtered through layers of pictures from the past, 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 people 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 Chronicles will not seem to be all that different. However, this is not even touching upon what really makes Xenogears and Xenosaga good or the masterpieces they were intended to be. The funny thing is that the developers even stated that Xenoblade Chronicles was not aimed at previous Xeno fans, but at a younger audience with a "boys' manga" type story.
There's also a lot of misconceptions about Xenogears and Xenosaga and their approach to "referencing" other works. This is what is properly called intertextuality: homage, parody, allusion, quotation, etc. And as many have noticed, Xenogears and Xenosaga gives intertextuality an important role, utilizing information that is often neither explicit nor obviously implied by a casual first viewing and creates a deeper text. This supersaturates the text with meaningful content, making the work more complex and immersive the closer you look. While the creation of such deeper text might seem trivial, it is not. It invites the viewer further in participating and creating their own experience of the work. It gives the audience, and especially the fans, something more to contemplate than just the plot, characters or fictional narrative. Thus it can help us to get smarter. The author doesn't hide his influences but transforms them with new context and ideas, and the viewer is left with more than if the author had simply attempted to create something out of nothing (which is pretty much impossible anyway).
As for what these influences are, it has naturally been difficult to keep track of them all. As far as the merits of these works go, knowing what all the influences are is perhaps not so important as understanding why they are there. The references and allusions to Jewish mysticism, Gnostic Christianity, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Karen Horney, and so on, is not merely a decorative choice of aesthetics but are there because Xenogears and Xenosaga deals with religion, philosophy, psychology, science, and the nature of existence on a thematic and integral level. Tetsuya Takahashi thought, for example, that by choosing a Christian motif it would have historical weight and they would be able to mix in and blend anything associated with Christianity. Of course, there are influences and allusions that are not so important to the works' intended ideas and messages, which is why the merits of these works cannot consist of merely listing a number of influences. (According to Takahashi the 'parodies' of movies and Anime that you can see throughout Xenosaga were mostly created by the other staff members.)
The central story line is built around the question of "How does religion come about?" with the history of a new mankind in Xenogears alluding to our own Earth history, and the twist of it actually being our future. Setting his story as a part of an infinite flow of history in a fictional representation of our own universe, Takahashi intended its 'truth' to be reflected in its audience as "light from a mirror" while touching their hearts. Another premise of the works was the idea that it is the interaction between people with different personalities and backgrounds that creates the drama of life, hence the inspiration for the 'Xeno' title according to Takahashi - which alludes to something different or strange.
As works of science fiction, all their rich elements are in balance and often plausible - not the patchwork confederacy of made-up languages, contrived customs, absurd aliens, and meaningless histories that are the hallmark of so many other, lesser science
fiction works. They don't take place on the bodies of giant corpses or dragons like some of the later Xenoblade games, being set in a universe more comparable to our own, and their tone is darker and more mature for JRPGs. Xenogears does, however, at times suffer from less mature elements, which can give it an uneven feel. Whether this is because Takahashi didn't want to alienate the team who he made the game with, as they were more used to fantasy worlds, or some other reason is unclear. But given that Xenosaga largely got rid of these aspects makes me think they were due to a compromise.
Xenogears and Xenosaga also use the element of mystery to a large extent, telling a very complex and intricately written story line that is filled with western theological references (such as the Christian undertones that mankind is alone in the universe with Earth as the center or being in some sense "holy") and historical allegories (most notably the Catholic church and Nazi Germany) while emphasising on characterization; exploring human psychology with a depth that at times even rivals the literature of Dostoyevsky. The script is written in a very high level of Japanese. Several Japanese players have even expressed problems understanding parts of the story due to the difficult symbols, some even preferring the English translation as it is easier to read.
The works have many of the elements that define epic form. They're long, narrative stories; they follow the exploits of a hero (or anti-hero); they involve warfare and the supernatural; they begin in the midst of the action, with earlier crises in the story brought in later by flashback; and they express many ideals of humanity. Xenogears, as much as anything, is a series of arguments put forth by the characters, which in turn ultimately expresses Takahashi's personal truth.
While Xenogears, on a superficial level, is about "destroying God," and Xenosaga's episodes have subtitles that are named after Nietzsche's books, the creators of Xenogears and Xenosaga are not necessarily adherents to Nietzsche's philosophy either. Rather, the Nietzscheian elements found may mainly serve to illustrate the points that the series attempts to refute, such as the "transcended man." Many gamers assumed that since Xenogears rejected the idea of organized religion and "God", it was in spirit a Nietzscheian game, and therefore Xenosaga would be Nietzscheian as well. However, neither series appear to promote Nietzsche's philosophy. Tetsuya Takahashi probably mostly finds his ideas fascinating and useful for creativity, similar to how he regards the works of Carl Jung:
"I don't think I can thank Jung and Lacan enough. (laughs) If you look at Jung's work through a logical lens, you'll realize that a lot of what he writes is actually not sound logic, or makes you go, 'wait, what?'. He's got a bit of the crazy gene in him, but as a resource for writing, or just as an entertaining read, his stuff is gold."
- Tetsuya Takahashi (Hakoere Vol.20 Special Interview, 1998)
The basic element in Nietzsche's philosophical outlook which provides a basis for understanding human behavior - that of the "will to power" - is one of the things Takahashi does appear to agree with, and this is why he often refers to consciousness and souls as "wills" in the stories.
"We tend to depict human characters as a strong will in a fragile flesh and blood."
- Soraya Saga (Interview with Siliconera, 2010)
When it comes to the characters in the stories, Xenogears and Xenosaga often use ideas from modern psychology. There are a number of names and concepts of psychoanalysts that are alluded to in these works. Between Xenogears and Xenosaga you have references to Sigmund Freud and his "Id, ego and super-ego"; Carl Jung and his "Anima," "Animus," "Persona," "Archetype," "Shadow," and "Collective Unconscious"; Karen Horney and her "theory of neurosis"; Jacques Lacan and his "Other" and "Desire"; Erich Fromm and his "escape from freedom"; and Donald Woods Winnicott's "transitional object," "true self and false self," and "the anti-social tendency." There are also references to Josef Breuer, Otto Rank, Frantz Omar Fanon, and possibly others, even though Breuer, Rank and Frantz have been regarded as "unjustified" or superficial references. However, even dismissing these as unjustified may be premature since most gamers don't know a thing about them. For example, Rank's "here-and-now" approach fits well with Rank's characterization in Xenogears.
The characters in both Xenogears and Xenosaga were also written using the Enneagram of Personality (referred to in the Xenosaga -Official Design Materials-); a somewhat obscure (especially in the 90s) but dynamic psychospiritual typology of human personality. It is interesting that characters' personalities appear to be disintegrating and intergrating throughout Xenogears and Xenosaga as per this model. While following such a typology may appear limiting or something that doesn't allow for the idiosyncrasies that real people have, especially since this typology doesn't have much empirical support, Xenogears and Xenosaga are still praised and loved for their characters as much as anything else.
Takahashi used to be called the "science and ideology" game director at one point, and many scientific ideas have inspired Xenogears and Xenosaga, such as the aforementioned psychology (which is also a type of science). You'll find, for example, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and Hawking's imaginary time being used and referenced in the stories. While these are implemented in very creative ways, I haven't looked too deep into the "science" of the series as it is not my main interest in it.
As for the "ideology" part, you'll find that Takahashi is fascinated by the clash of human wills. He sets characters in opposing, contrasting roles, and he pits ideas and philosophies against each other. In Xenogears and Xenosaga, he illustrates many foil relationships between characters, which places each character in a complex position on a multidimensional grid of ideology and philosophy. It is, in fact, not unlike the Duality and the clash of ideas that Dostoevsky was so famous for incorporating into his writing.
Actually, many people seem to be rather confused over what it is Tetsuya Takahashi is trying to say in these works, and there has been much discussion and debates. From what Tetsuya Takahashi has said and written, it seems that his personal ideal is "living like a carefree child who doesn't think too deeply about things" and his aim for the two works have been to show "a mirror that reflects truth," offering "much food for thought," and asking "what would you do in this case?", among other things. I myself cannot claim to have the final answer on what it is he is trying to say, apart from what has been stated, but a big theme appears to be that humans are all flawed and "imperfect", and at the end we will all have to realize this and be forced to become humble in the face of our own exposed weaknesses, using this to support and appreciate one another as we are instead of chasing imaginary perfection.
The games do contain their fair share of plot holes and problems with the narrative. The cinematography and pacing in Xenosaga also leaves something to be desired. But whenever things "aren't realistic," I think people are getting a bit too anal about things that ultimately isn't the point of the work. The point, according to Takahashi, was to use an imaginary sci-fi setting to get messages across to a young audience, similar to Star Trek. In Star Trek you also had Scotty drinking alcohol which wouldn't be suitable on a Federation Starship, but that wasn't the point. Since the Enterprise was a metaphor for "starship Earth," and as alcohol is common on Earth (or in the Navy, which the Federation Starships were also based on), the abuse of this substance was sometimes necessary for the plot or to get the message across (e.g. showing the difference between 'good' Kirk and 'evil' Kirk, or how aliens can be seduced by human weaknesses and vices). While it might be fun to disect inconsistencies and absurdities, I do not think it is realistic to expect a 100% accuracy and logic in any work. If such expectations of the most pedantic research and accuracy were placed on every author then they'd never be able to complete their work. Usually the surface narrative and world is only a covering to be able to tell something else, something deeper. But this argument would not excuse every kind of fantastic or silly elements in the surface narrative, however, since the covering must still set a tone and style that matches the message.
With all of that addressed, we come to the question of what did these works do wrong since we never hear about them much. If Tetsuya Takahashi's Xenogears and Xenosaga series is one of the grandest epics in the annals of imaginative story-telling; if they are gaming's, and science fiction's answer to Russian literature; if they are a brilliant existential science fiction epic of high adventure, great cast of characters, commentaries on religion, ideology, philosophy, science and psychology, with immense scope; if they are even leaving The Lord of the Rings and the much praised Dune science fiction series far behind... Then why did they "fail"?
I'm going to suggest the fact that Xenogears and Xenosaga are video games as the main reason for their failure and current obscurity. And while Xenogears does have some small fame and good word of mouth still in the gaming - and especially the Role-Playing - community; it is precisely this that shows us how limited the reach of the video game medium really is.
That doesn't mean that these works being games is the only problem. Far from it. Other problems include the official English translation for Xenogears, while the Xenosaga trilogy fell short of accomplishing what Takahashi set out to do; getting split up in shorter disjointed parts, including cellphone games and online flashmovies, due to a different director taking over the helm of the series, and therefore less popular than the earlier work. Yet I will argue that even these problems are mainly because these works were games and not novels, TV-serials or anime (the ideal mediums for these kind of works). A common observation has always been that, in his use of gaming as a story-telling medium, Takahashi seems to cripple what is the basic foundation of enjoyment for a game.
Now, it is understandable why Tetsuya Takahashi was using the video game medium for telling these stories. It simply happened that way since he ended up in that industry, probably before he even knew he wanted to create such a work. The original idea that sparked his ambition was, after all, not even his own. And at the time it seemed possible enough since Japanese RPGs were always heavy on story and still popular. Final Fantasy VII did manage to become a pop-culture phenomenon of sorts after all. But is Final Fantasy VII a work of art or still mostly a game? Where is the academic or "high culture" praise for it?
I think by now everyone is familiar with the late film critic Roger Erbert's famous 2010 article 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. Yet this argument can only be taken so far.
Video games struggle to be considered art for a few reasons. One of them is that a large portion of adherents to the video game medium - much like the adherents to, say, pornography - 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 actually find somewhat 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. Art does not need the addition of interactivity or hardcore sex to enhance its artistic expression or cultural superiority. That does not mean that these elements cannot be part of a great and timeless work of art, but it becomes very hard when the main work or idea is centered on these elements.
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')
But Sawaduki You's notion is flawed. As time have shown, Xenogears has suffered more from being a game than it has gained, and was, in a sense, 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. It 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.
And Tetsuya Takahashi has of course acknowledged the problem himself:
"With games as a form of media, no matter where you set it you have to make towns and all the little accessories. With movies, for example, if it's based in present times you can just shoot on location. You end up doing annoying work with games. That's why I don't think it's a good medium for telling stories. I think it's better to call it a media for telling narrative things. Without a doubt, there are things you can't get across in a game."
- Tetsuya Takahashi (Xenosaga -Official Design Materials-)
Furthermore, one should perhaps be careful in championing gaming as a cultural achievement when you recognize how much it contributes to the depletion of natural resources and damage to the environment. This is a huge problem with the entertainment industry as a whole, and for the sake of our health and survival on this planet we should probably think of limiting our consumer culture into quality and necessity instead of quantity, sales numbers, and wasteful mediocrity. As for Xenogears and Xenosaga... I would suggest perfecting them with the above in mind, making a series that isn't as overtly commercial in aim and scope, focusing on the core soul and a compelling presentation from a more economic and essential perspective.
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