Squaresoft’s 1998 RPG Xenogears seems to have a way of pushing people to extremes. On the one hand are those who extol it as one of the greatest games ever made, citing its deep, complex story and flashy, martial arts-based combat mechanics. On the other side are those more than willing to declare it one of the worst games ever, claiming that its vaunted story is just a convoluted, pretentious mess that drags on for too long, and that its gameplay is half-baked at best.
For a long time I fell into the latter camp. But in preparation for this post I decided to revisit it to see if my thoughts had changed. Against all odds, I find myself enjoying the ride so far. It still may not be the greatest game ever, as it sports some egregious flaws. But time has put things into perspective, and I find myself more willing to appreciate its successes.
If nothing else, Xenogears is ambitious. From early on you can tell that the developers wanted to tell an epic story with a massive scope that would touch on various sorts of mature themes (and, if I put on my critic hat, this also winds up becoming a liability, as the game often winds up biting off more than it can chew. But I’m getting ahead of myself).
Anyway, Xenogears is set in the distant future on a distant planet. We’re introduced to a massive, centuries long conflict between the nations of Aveh and Kislev, with the former being backed by Gebler, the military force of the secretive Empire of Solaris. Ethos, an institution which functions both as a church and as a centre for scientific advancement, has changed the tide of the war by discovering giant robots buried underground. Battles are now primarily fought between these giant robots (called gears) rather than by normal infantry.
Things begin in rather standard fashion with an amnesiac protagonist called Fei Fong Wong living in a small village near the border. Having no memories of his life three years prior, he’s been adopted by the locals and lives a quiet existence as a painter. Predictably this doesn’t last, as a battle between two squads of gears spills over into the village, turning it into a battlefield. When the pilot of one of the gears is killed, Fei decides to hop in and fight back. But the carnage seems to make him go out of control and destroy the whole village. Ostracized by the survivors and pursued by the military, he goes on the run, with local doctor and friend Citan Uzuki in tow.
It’s not the most original opening to an RPG, but Xenogears starts laying it on pretty thick with religious symbolism, philosophical and psychological references (there’s even an entire quirky miniboss squad named after famous psychoanalysts) complex political intrigue, history and general sci-fi technobabble.
But what I want to focus on for this post is the Ethos. As mentioned, it’s a strange, hybrid institution. Notably, it looks a lot like the Catholic Church. Its members wear priestly and monastic garb, and have a hierarchy with bishops and a pontifex. Its headquarters resembles a cathedral, complete with rooms that look like confessionals.
The Ethos turns out to be hideously corrupt, and actually a little more than a front for Solaris’ own manipulative schemes. While the twist seems to exist for a cheap, “take that!” at the Church, it doesn’t do a good job of it: beyond the superficial layer of Catholic imagery, we’re never given any real insight into Ethos’ own doctrines, aside from vague words about God and mercy. There’s just a big question mark over what, exactly, is being debunked, and as a result the whole thing feels rather flat.
Still, there was one thing that stuck out to me: usually stories of this sort (particularly in a sci-fi context) will paint the Church – or church proxy – as an institution that holds back scientific and cultural progress. The Ethos, on the other hand, helps to make high technology more available and acts as a repository of learning. In that regard it resembles less of an evil church and more of a sinister version of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation.
For those not in the know, Asimov’s novel is set in a distant future where one man predicts that civilization is headed for another dark age. He creates two Foundations which will act as sources of knowledge and culture to help mitigate the length and effects of the dark age. As civilization increasingly slips into barbarism, Foundation begins to take the outward appearance of a religion. With scientific knowledge ebbing away, the technological prowess of Foundation becomes a sort of mysticism, a collection of sacred rites that the initiated have access to. Actual Foundation members know that this is all a sham, but an acceptable one. They are, after all, the heroes of this story, hastening the end of the dark ages.
Ethos and Solaris similarly see themselves as heroes, providing a sort of technological salvation to the masses they manipulate and experiment on – in particular, promising a nanomachine-augmented immortality. Yet Xenogears portrays them a lot more villainously for taking the power of life and death into their hands.
What is at stake here is the question of what the greatest good is. To a rationalist like Asimov, the preservation of civilization seems to take that spot. And, while that is a noble goal, a group of social engineers attempting to turn society in that direction inevitably hold a lot of power over individual lives; is that power something we can trust anyone with? If the summum bonum for you is societal preservation, you might find yourself willing to crack a few eggs in the process.
Xenogears’ own approach strikes me as being very libertarian at heart: the highest good is the individual’s ability to determine for themselves how to live and what to believe. Thus, the Asimovian social engineer would appear as a villain. While this strikes me as inadequate for other reasons, it also allows the game to highlight how attempts to perfect and alter society tend to become violent and totalitarian. The fully ‘rationalized’ society is the fully controlled one, and that level of control isn’t maintained by means of persuasion.
For the Christian, however, the highest and ultimate good is eternal union with God in the beatific vision. The individual will ultimately outlive civilization, and indeed all of history, and the perfect society will similarly only achieve its fullness outside of history. It is the recognition that every individual is created in the image and likeness of God, and hence has a unique and irreplaceable destiny; an individual soul is infinitely more precious than even the grandest civilization. But at the same time that soul was not created to be an island, but rather to exist in communion with God and neighbour. We are not the author of our own destiny.
Accepting this escatological hope is a relinquishment of control; it is a despairing attitude that seeks to preserve a perishable good at the expense of the Good, to extend something’s life by devaluing lives. It is Christian, on the other hand, to protect the good things in this world by recognizing that they find their origin and destination in God, the pursuit of whom remains our highest goal.