I’ve recently been on a bit of a bender of cinematic-gaming proportions, in which I have been chugging away upon a playlist of long-awaited media during relative isolation in quarantine. Included in this chronology has been a playthrough of a pair of JRPG classics (Japanese role-playing games) — one I played through in childhood but never actually beat and one I never got the chance to experience — in Chrono Trigger (1995) and Final Fantasy VII (1997), respectively. Both deeply absorbing, narratively rich and fun RPG experiences in fantastical worlds of heroes and monsters, the games are legendary, considered some of the best of all time, for good reason. They also share creators and many ideas between them (both being Square games) as can be read about in their development histories. And through a strange series of events starting over two years ago and continuing in early June — in this playlisting, I was somehow fated to discover a third JRPG developed by a Square subsidiary and also closely associated with these two renowned classics and their devs, though much lesser known in posterity…
Just as many mythic stories begin, this one started with a meme I saw on twitter a few years back:
Back then, I saw this image macro, with no context behind it, likely as a non-sequitur subtweet of some inane online discourse or other such bullshit, mentally chuckled at it and forgot about it. Until early June of this chaos-year 2020, when a twitter trending hashtag entered the fray, #AttackAndDethroneGod, and the meme resurfaced before my awaiting eyes, among many others. As a fast, one-day circle-jerk response to a Fox News graphic criticizing a defunct (and based) radical leftist organization from the 1970s — named the Weather Underground — the final bullet point of the graphic awakened people into the creation, and the reposting, of hyper-fixating memes relating to the source of heroic teenage ambition and aggression in many a JRPG and the content of their uniformly ridiculous final boss fights…
Once more, I bore witness to the meme. I meet someone > we talk > we fall in love > she dies / WE KILL GOD. Incredible. Of course, much JRPG & anime imagery surfaced inside of the trend, including references to Chrono Trigger and FF7, each of which include endgame bosses that resemble cosmic, god-like entities. All of it very good comedy. But this one was different; my instincts told me I needed to know more. I yearned to understand the story behind it.
Who was this sad anime boy? And how did he and his girl come to kill god?? Naturally intrigued, and with a flash of memory of seeing it for the second time within my twitter lifetime, I searched out the viral threads associated with this # then and there for the anime or game from which this delightful little meme sourced. At some point in my digging, I found a name: Xenogears.
Xenogears. Released in 1998 for PlayStation 1. Featuring the same core developers as Chrono Trigger, and carrying the original story idea for Final Fantasy VII, both of the games I just played through only weeks before… This connection was certainly… uncanny. Was this fate?! Quite simply, I had to play it. Never re-releasing on modern consoles or on PC, playing the game in 2020 would prove difficult. But not impossible. Knowing nothing about its gameplay or story — quite willfully, so as to spoil nothing — I set about finding a virtual ROM (https://romhustler.org/rom/psx/xenogears-usa) of the game and downloading a capable PS1 emulator (https://www.epsxe.com/download.php) to play it on.
Takahashi and his wife Soraya Saga had originally submitted the idea that would become Xenogears as an idea for Final Fantasy VII, only for it to be rejected for being too dark. Upon forming his own team, he and Saga repurposed it for a new game: Xenogears.
After some doing, including a decent amount of forum researching to get it all jerry rigged and working properly, from the inspiring ends of this little meme borne of #AttackAndDethroneGod, I finally booted up Xenogears. And man, I was not ready.
Speaking aside from the narrative components for the moment — which are fucking wild! and will get to later — this game wields what I can only call a “kitchen sink approach” to its gameplay methodology. A veritable smorgasbord of ideas, cinematic moments, mechanics, combat modes, plot delivery styles, and strange isometric camera angles — Xenogears is an RPG with many, many faces to its flows. At its heart, it is a turn-based party-battling RPG like Chrono and FF7. But it takes everything a step further, with its variety of styles in fighting, in its artistic delivery, and most definitely in its narrative scope.
Up close and in town & combat, its characters are presented as beautifully animated 2D sprites set amidst sprawling 3D backgrounds; you and your party travel across vast overworld maps with rotating isometric views, in a variety of vehicles, including a desert-laden sand submarine and a skyship that takes to the air and uses the Z-axis of the game world to ascend mountaintops and even to the ‘Tower of Babel’ itself. In combat, the cast of heroes fights with martial arts combos, using distinct button mashups like in a fighting game.
Some party members also fight with magic and with weaponry such as guns and grenades; the world’s aesthetic goes from rustic, agrarian hovelcore of small villages to epic cathedrals to untouched wilds to futuristic cyberpunkian laboratories and secret megabases and world-destroying skyships. Perhaps most important to the game’s whole feel — each character can also get inside gigantic mechas known as ‘Gears’ — piloting them to fight monstrous enemies and each other.
Oh and the game has full fledged anime cutscenes that show up through the saga to showcase pivotal scenes of our characters in dramatic and often weepy, bloody … or mystically nude circumstances. Like in Chrono and FF7, an epic original score backdrops the sequences of homely companionship, inner metaphysical revelation, and death-defying cosmic combat.
There are infuriating jumping puzzles inside multi-level dungeons and boss fights both as little human martial artists and as a three-man party of fully loaded Gears (which also fight with mystically-named martial arts combos that kick off their own cinematic in-combat cutscenes btw). There is a whole arena sequence of the game (one of my favorite parts) in which you use your Gear to fight in a tournament against other prisoners in the ‘Prison Ward’ of a futuristic megacity in order to gain your freedom… And it is an entirely 3D, real-time 1v1 battle Gear versus Gear (most similar to 3D iso-view fighting games like Power Stone or modern ones like the Dragonball Z Budokai series) utilizing an over-the-shoulder view with entirely new mechanics of boosting and jumping and firing blasts of magic, which requires its own recharging energy economy, alongside punching or kicking to down your opponent in a series of best of three contests. It is exhilarating and pretty difficult and it never appears in the game again! And it is the only multiplayer functionality of the game, wherein players could 1v1 each other in their favorite Gears of choice.
One gets the sense that the Xenogears creators, over the course of its long development cycle, had many a idea that maybe became relegated to smaller portions of the experience, and could even become the focus of an entire other game (especially the arena battles, or came into fuller existence in its spiritual sequels — the Xenosaga games), but that none of the ideas they brainstormed got entirely cast out of the finished product. And it owns because of — and not in spite of — this variety in it all!
As a whole, I loved it. The game is long (60+ hours), there are a lot of places to go, characters to meet and bosses to fight, and it doesn’t retread a ton of ground on the world map as your criss-cross over its landscapes. Xenogears remains a varied and engaging experience throughout the journey, which is no small thing in a single player game of this length (double the length of FF7 and triple that of Chrono). It does end up being a pretty easy game, and certainly not all of the combat mechanics and environmental sequences or puzzles ‘work’ as well as the more polished and concisely constructed gameplay within Chrono or FF7.
After experiencing all three greats to their ends just recently, I can say that Xenogears might be my favorite of the three. And though moments of the gameplay were memorable — such as the arena tournament, the ‘Deathblow’ animations, and some of endgame Gear battles — truthfully, much of that favor falls in with its hyper-ambitious narrative elements and quite satisfying storyline. Speaking of which…
~ The story begins with a spaceship crashing onto an uninhabited planet. The ship was transporting the physical manifestation of God called Deus, which trapped the higher being (“True God”) the Wave Existence within it…
Xenogears centers around the protagonist Fei Fong Wong, an adopted young male in the village of Lahan, brought by a mysterious “masked man” three years ago. The events surrounding Fei’s arrival at the village cause him to have retrograde amnesia.
The story of Xenogears kicks off with a spectacle in the form of a nearly nonsensical opening cutscene (pre-dating the events of the game by thousands of years, and only fully explained at the very end of the game) followed by a scrawl of exposition upon the present events leading up to the beginning of the tale, namely a centuries-long and currently stalemated war.
Opening scrawl: The continent of Ignas, in the northern hemisphere of our world. On this, the largest continent, a war has been raging between two countries for hundreds of years. In the north of the continent lies the Kislev Empire, in the south lies the desert kingdom of Aveh. The war has gone on for so long that the people have forgotten the cause, knowing only the pointless circle of hostility and tragedy. — The chronic war obsession was soon to encounter a devastating change. This was due to the ‘Ethos’, an institution that preserves our world’s culture, preparing tools and weapons excavated from the ruins of an ancient civilization. At once both countries excavated these ruins, and had the ‘Ethos’ repair the discoveries, in order to increase their military power. — The various weapons excavated from the ruins greatly changed the form of warfare. The outcome of the battles between the two countries was no longer determined by man-to-man combat but by ‘Gears’ — giant humanoid fighting machines — that were obtained from deep within the ruins. — Eventually, after continuous swings in the state of the war, Kislev gained the upper hand. The major factor behind this lay in the enormous difference in the amount of resources buried within their ruins. But suddenly a mysterious military force appeared in the continent of Ignas. Called ‘Gebler’, this force decided to make contact with Aveh. — With the assistance of this Gebler military force, Aveh was able to recover from being hopelessly outnumbered to being back on an even standing with Kislev. Then, taking further advantage of its new gained momentum, Aveh started to capture one territory after another from Kislev, showing no indication of slowing down in their invasion campaign. — The remote village of Lahan, in the outskirts of Aveh, near the border with Kislev. There is where it all begins…
In Lahan, ‘where it all begins’ — you take control of Fei Fong Wong, a young teen (the meme teen), who peacefully paints landscapes for no one in particular in a hovel in his small village. As you jog around town speaking with neighbors both pleasant and irascible, preparing for a wedding for your two best friends — one of whom is the girl you apparently have been crushing on since your mysterious appearance there as a child! — you are hard-pressed to understand how sympathetic Fei might be involved with the fiery, high-stakes geopolitical conflicts from that opening exposé… But of course, disaster soon strikes and casts him into the role of reluctant warrior, protector, nomad to kick off the plotline.
“Gears”, giant mecha soldiers, surprise attack the village > Fei is ‘awakened’, and inexplicably enters a Gear of his own > and in trying to fight back against the military marauders, he releases an energy blast from inside of his form and/or his uniquely powerful Gear … and ends up accidentally destroying the village himself … killing many, including his two best friends on their wedding day 😞. Seemingly fated in his relationship to this stylishly purple Gear, and exiled by the survivors of Lahan for his suddenly dangerous presence, without any memory or understanding of what he has done, a now restlessly saddened Fei and his mysterious mentor Citan venture forth into the wider world for answers… His wayward and hyper-complex psycho-political hero’s journey begins.
From there, the game follows the structure of an anime x game narrative not unlike the progression of the Final Fantasy games; you journey from town to town, fighting monsters in the wilderness and gathering allies to your party — outsiders, exiles and charismatic adventuring-types all — while steadily advancing toward your larger-than-life fate at the end of the world.
You and your ragtag group of interlopers traverse a landscape of intrigues and empires, fighting on the ground and in your Gears. Foregrounding it all is the war, the factions fighting it, and the real reasons behind it, which of course have everything to do with world domination, the development and control of advanced weapons technology, and… the real, material existence of a ‘God’ and his long history of intervention within this strange world.
God: a slumbering giant fated to return to save or smite humanity, some of the agents within the war wish to awaken Him while others desire to destroy Him. Fei, ever the reluctant fighter and agnostic toward this ‘God’ figure, develops into a true blue hero over the course of the game as he and his ‘nakama’ companions reap the sown seeds of rebellion against their unjust and inhumane imperial rulers. And of course, his real reward in the end is neither wealth nor glory nor any form of godhood — but all of the friends you make along the way 🙂
While the overall writing and beat-by-beat narrative chronology of Xenogears is a mess of mystic proportions, what is most striking about the game is the incredibly broad range of philosophies and social commentaries at play. Primarily, I read this future world that it builds — of hypertechnological advancements in the machines of production amidst still-existing slavery and endless warfare and far-reaching methodologies of social control utilizing totalitarian surveillance tech, invasive bioengineering, and the endlessly manipulated spiritual yearnings within the populace — as the evolution of all-encompassing class struggle taken to its logical, existential terminus.
The mass of Men, led along by a bevy of political and religious institutions angled toward one another in kayfabe conflict, are in fact controlled by one, unified class of elites. They, the Solarians, live in the sky in pure luxury; in a grand unfolding of plans within plans, they control all of these major forces and factions in the world, and in playing games with them against one another, experimenting with and culling the herds of ‘lambs’ below, they develop new technologies to further both their lives and their control.
Safeguarding their positions from their castles in the sky, these rulers use war, bioweapons, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence and the manufactured visage of a God, to the ends of their own perpetual — if internally competitive — dominance. Simultaneously as they run the world, they search for the real God that created Mankind, asleep but awaiting an awakening deep within the Earth to some inexplicable end yet… All the while, the masses of Men live in their villages, paint their pictures, work the land and die in war to the benefit of their tacit oppressors, and are altogether ignorant of the nefarious scope of their master’s current actions or future plans.
Xenogears initially takes place on Ignas, the largest continent of the Xenogears world and the site of a centuries-long war between the nations of Aveh and Kislev. A church-like organization known as the Ethos has excavated gears, giant robot suits, for the preservation of the world’s culture. Although Kislev originally had the upper hand in the war, a mysterious army known as Gebler appeared and began to assist Aveh. With Gebler’s help, the Aveh military recovered its losses and began making its way into Kislev’s territory. As the story unfolds, the setting broadens to encompass the entire world and the two floating countries, Shevat and Solaris. Solaris, ruled by Emperor Cain and an AI collective known as the Gazel Ministry, commands the Gebler army and the Ethos and secretly uses both to dominate the land-dwellers. Shevat has been the only country to evade the control of Solaris.
Much of the Xenogears plot and backstory is detailed in the Japanese-only book Xenogears Perfect Works. Produced by DigiCube, it details the history of the Xenogears universe from the discovery of the Zohar to the start of the game. According to the Perfect Works schematic (as well as the game’s end credits), Xenogears is the fifth episode in a series of six, with events spanning multiple millennia.
The master value the Solarians hold is a literal elitism: they speak of their superiority as pre-ordained truth, their naming of the people living on the ground below them as ‘lambs’ is no tongue-in-cheek jibe, it is the core of their philosophy of a well-earned mastery over such a world. Their “sins” of subjugation and illiberal control over the masses are not so, because they are the ‘deserving’ ones, to their eyes — the only ones deserving of power.
“You already own the world! What more do you want?” / “I, we, everyone… we just want to make a place where we belong…”
“It is much easier to be given a place to belong than to make one yourself.” / “Do you know why people can not exist alone but only under some bigger concept such as a group or country? People need a place to go be themselves. The Ministry gives them such a place. Under total surveillance, there is no need to bear the risk of maintaining one’s own individuality.”
And the social and materialist class struggle perspective within Xenogears’ conflict is just that, one singular component of the game. There are also deep Freudian / Jungian / Lacanian / Nietzschean psychological struggles within the principal characters (namely Fei and Elly) and their own past ancestral lore. Fei has a dissociative psychological disorder to go with his amnesia in which he embodies three different personas (including a pair of the prime antagonists you face throughout the game!) / Elly is the living reincarnation of Mother Earth and carries the transcendent essence of the first human being on the planet.
Go on, try to read the full plot of this game — it’s fuckin wild! All of the psycho-mystical progressions within Fei and Elly are just as interesting as everything else going on, though less coherent by the end.
More than either Chrono or FF7, Xenogears is akin to a visual novel, and a cerebral, complex one at that. The story takes precedence over the gameplay as the focal point of the player’s attention; these profound themes and social commentaries are what I will remember from the experience. And aside from the similarities in mechanics to these two game-cousins, Xenogears’ overall dystopian, mecha-laden worldbuilding and character conceptions seems to be inspired more than anything by Hideaki Anno’s legendary anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion.
Below, in a bulleted format, I have listed out the major themes of the game, trying my best to concisely summarize what makes them so compelling. And yes, ALL of this is in Xenogears, in force and fully instrumentalized in one way or another within the story being told:
Themes within the narrative of Xenogears, to my eye, from my copious playthrough notes (compare to the official themes from the game’s official wiki):
- War ~ specifically, the state of endless war — as a capitalistic productive force and as a distraction — and amidst its constancy, the striving for the endless accumulation of military power as a central tenet of political efforts and research & development funding; Solaris uses the Gebler special forces as an end-all, be-all to dominate the final bouts of armed conflict to their designed end — perpetual dominance. ~ “Think about it. What’s the purpose of fighting each other on such a tiny planet as this? Fighting out of fear of being hunted into a corner… Rushing in to fight as if there were only so many ‘reserved seats’ to the rights of life… Starting a war is stupid. Inciting it is also stupid. Killing people as an act of terrorism or as a protest of against wars that kill people is just as stupid. You’re all fools!” ~ Kim Kasim, venting to Elly
- Technology ~ more than material betterments for the underclass, its advancement promises additional forms of power and control for the ruling class / in the middle of the forever war, a whole industry crops up of treasure hunters scouring ancient ruins which house secret powers in the form of lost technologies to sell to the military, and not for the sake of science, civic progress, public health, etc.; Solaris uses ‘Ethos’ as an institutional arm to control the excavation of these technologies and imbue them with a spiritual essence affording the church the implicit ‘right ‘ to do so / there is an exploration, and example refutation, of the theory that highly advanced technology — such as nanomachines and A.I. — will be a liberating force for the masses of people, the literal “salvation of humanity’” ~ as Bishop Stone of Ethos tells (lies) to Billy / Nanomachines — controllable robots smaller than human cells — carry the potential to cure diseases and enhance people en masse — Solaris created mutated ‘demi-humans’ like Rico by messing around with DNA, sacrificing many ‘lambs’ in the process. Solaris says they intend to use nanomachines to ultimately restore humankind and ‘free them from their yoke’ / However, in actuality there are secret nanomachine “limiters” in the ‘lambs’ to keep them oppressed / Even every Solaris citizen — the ruling class populace — save for select few like Citan and Rasmus — have their own limiters installed when they are born. Physical and psychologically-compelling, they subconsciously pump fear and veneration for the Gazel Ministry and the Emperor into the minds of their subjects… The A.I. council, known as Gazel Ministry, under Emperor Cain are just as greedy and pathological in their calculating actions as their human counterparts, because they used to be humans themselves; more than power and control, the A.I. simply desire bodies and to be ‘alive’ again. This ambition, a crucial weakness, allows them to be manipulated by the Emperor and Krelian.
- Spirituality ~ the inherent oppression of monolithic institutional religion in Ethos and its illusions of saviorship, liberality / “The Ethos were created to save people — to save people’s souls and revive lost technology. We witness happiness to all the people of the world.” / “The ‘Ethos’ uses a human rights movement to usurp political power.” / Ethos is an effective melding of faith and technology into a single organization — By unearthing ancient, powerful technology they can spread and enforce their religious doctrines through both directly violent means and indirectly faith-based ones. / Ethos is a secret subsidiary Solarian org with plans for humanity’s entire course — “Lambs… Great War…collapse… re-education… post-war rehab plan… schedule for building ‘Gate’ foundations…” / Ethos is a political tool masked as a humanitarian non-governmental org = “Excavation findings, goods and natural resources from the surface are transported to Solaris by the Ethos.” ~ Ethos abuses orphaned children, such as Billy and it’s upper ranks are cynical men of politics and wealth and don’t really believe in God. (Catholic Church parallel) / “Ethos was an organization created by Solaris aeons ago solely for the purpose of managing ignorant humans. Its doctrines are just receptions designed to control the masses. The Ethos used the two sweet fruits of faith and technology well to skillfully manipulate global affairs and people’s zeal.” / Essentially, Ethos helped perpetuate Solaris’ war and then used a ‘God’ to 1) soften the blow within the battered people by providing an existential foundation to their lives in the form of an attainable afterlife; and 2) get them to turn their material animus horizontally — toward one another, in the form of worship and scolding/rectification of sin — and not vertically (i.e. revolutionarily), toward the ruling power structures in Solaris truly manifesting their miseries. ~ “God? Where does such a being exist? …Can’t you see that such a divine being just never existed from the beginning? And you don’t seem to realize this, but you yourself were passing judgement on sinners as much as we were!” ~ Verlaine, talking to Billy Lee Black
- Psychology of conflict (internal and external) Why do you fight? What does fighting get you?? ~ Fei’s reluctance to fight, his demand for a reason to dominates his entire arc / Exploration of individual alienation and the psychosis of trauma — the perceived ‘cowardice’ of the reluctant soldier, the pacifist / deep psychological trauma to the point of dissociative identity disorder & amnesia ~ Fei/Lacan/Grahf (and Elly) ~ Freudian/Jungian concepts of separate personas within a single person as a coping mechanism due to trauma and material conflict — i.e. id, ego, superego x anima/animus x the ‘shadow’ all have some semblance of representation within the characters
- Power ~ Solarian theme of power and rulership: a God complex fully consummated, totality over unity ~ on a societal level in the population of Solaris, the people living in the sky who see themselves as either beyond humanity or the only real humans, either way as utterly superior ~ The ‘Gazel Ministry’ (shadow council of cyber-advisors) acting as agents for Solarian interests and toward their own transhumanist godlike ascendency, exert machinations within the world of social control, eugenics, genocide, endless warfare and technological monopoly, through which they forge their “perfect” civilization, netting their own self-interests most of all — They do it simply because they believe themselves worthy of the task. There is no moral quandary to it, it is like math, and their rulership is the only rational solution due to their inherent superiority. Over their thousands of years of control, relatively unchallenged, their ambitions extend without end, until it becomes a pathological will to power toward some kind of ill-fated ultimacy — They want to kill god, awaken god, become god, etc. because they can and because they are the only ones worthy of the endeavor. They rule the planet but it isn’t enough, they want to eventually build an ark to leave the planet and instead dominate the universe — the Solarians want EVERYTHING; even as they control everything they are ambitious ever for more (hubris, replaying of the Icarus myth, the unsustainability of the god complex) // They do not trust the underclass ever, because subjugation will always be resisted and if they give any ground, or any material betterments to the people, then expectations will be raised and they will demand more, etc. / “Some things only the weak can feel…” ~ Elly’s philosophy of power counters the Solarian one. The dynamic theme of power comes in context of the revolution led by Fei and Elly and your squad — the previously weak vs the forever strong, the advantages and disadvantages of each in perpetuity. The weak rebels, in fighting the empire, better develop instincts toward cooperation out of necessity. The strong live in fear of losing their empire, and in-fight with one another for more control, to become higher within the hierarchy. “It’s because they are weak that they can develop kindness, and never look down on people.” ~ the imperial agents, ‘The Elements’, which Elly spares, cannot understand the mercy that she shows them. And that is why they lost.
- Oppression/genocide based on blood ~ the commoners as “lambs”, to the eyes of the ruling class they are weak and fit for nothing more than subsistence, cannon fodder in warfare, even mass experimentation, and from time to time genocidal purges ~ Solaris does all manner of race science and religious inquisition-led ethnic cleansing — “What is wrong with eliminating the people not fit for salvation? Why, isn’t our very faith based on the precept that ‘only the chosen will be saved’?” ~ mutant prejudice in the commoners establishes a new form of racism and another subtle layer of social control from on high, peer to peer ~ “Soylent System” of food and medicine production (reference to the 1973 film), the primary source of public health for the commoners is their own mutated demi-human brethren, the ‘failed’ experiments are recycled into the food supply to save resources and further control the masses with designer-drugs and additives
- Endgame class struggle ~ the long-game political intrigue of empires and rebels ~ Solaris (empire) vs. Ethos (religion/science — potential usurper to the empire) vs. Shevat (independent liberal rebels fighting for survival) — Solaris perpetuates a status quo that rarely goes beyond maintaining their own empire, dominating the underclass and farming them for biotech & A.I. advancements ~ the class struggle ended long ago, the typical democratic fight for concessions and rights & productions within the people is completely gone — any change now can only be achieved via violent revolution (i.e. late-capitalism>barbarism>extinction vs. socialism, or at least something else) — Solaris effectively exercises the negative politics of self-preservation and safeguarding of hoarded assets to amplify themselves vs. positive politics of revolutionary change and mass betterment (Citan’s fight, as an awakened former Solarian now fighting against them) / Discover midway through that Ethos was planning to break free of Solaris using an ancient progenitor race’s tech they uncovered, displacing the previous rulers by keeping the technology to themselves and attempting world domination on their own. / The fall of the prior rebellion (Shevat) gave way to the totality of control we see from Solaris today, a warning and a stepping stone to Fei’s own go at a rebellion ~ “This city used to be the capital of Shevat, an independent liberal country that fought against Solaris. A place that turns yesterday’s tears into tomorrow’s smiles… that’s what they called this city a long time ago…”
- Fate ~ elements of reincarnation & past fated to repeat itself — Fei and Elly and their ancestry. All of the endgame metaphysics and long historical drama of the human race is tied to their relationship, fatherhood and motherhood, creation itself is housed within their love…
- Love ~ The love between Elly and Fei as more than just mutual support of the problems in their lives, or the companionship toward a common goal — it is a mutual understanding, a oneness between their beings, it is a love as absolute truth between two people. It is rare and therefore powerful. And more than general benevolence, their mutual love is what drives them to the end of their road of rebellion — fighting the proverbial good fight — with the world bettered for all.
Xenogears narrative as a whole is a long journey through such themes and tragedies. In their fight for freedom and rebellion against injustice, the consistent saving grace for Fei is the relationships he forges along the way, as I said. Your ‘nakama’ or adventuring party/family includes a fascinating cast of characters in their own right: Citan Uzuki, mysterious mentor/watcher of Fei, man of science, and top-notch katana swordsman(?!) / Elly Van Houten, a prodigiously competent Gebler special operative who turns against her masters when she finds common ground with Fei, falling in love with him in the process of their collective fight / Bart Fatima, fiery leader of a group of sand pirates riding around in a sand submarine called Yggdrasil who is secretly a prince — saves Citan and Fei due to their common enemy / Rico Banderas, a muscle-bound demi-human and champion prisoner in the capitol’s Prison Ward who passionately joins Fei’s fight after being defeated by him in the arena / Billy Lee Black, a sharpshooting yet peaceful priest of Ethos with daddy issues who joins Fei’s quest after helping heal him / Maria Balthasar, a young girl from Shevat, daughter of the great Gear-engineer Isaac Balthasar, who joins Fei’s squad after being defeated by him at the peak of Babel Tower / Emeralda Kasim, a strange little girl who is in fact a nanomachine colony built over three thousand years ago to save the human race from extinction!! She is the adoptive daughter of Fei and Elly’s ancestors discovered in a Solaris lab that you infiltrate / Chu-Chu, a stuffed animal-looking creature, the insufferably cute companion of Marguerite, Bart’s sister, Chu is part of nearly extinct race rarely seen through the game but when you do encounter them offer rare bits of philosophical life advice, always readily paired with a Chu pun…
“You humans are truly unusual living beings, aren’t chu? You’re all like shattered fragments of a mirror.”
~ a Chu-chu NPC in Shevat
There are many other characters in Xenogears, each with their own philosophies and relative roles to play in the conflicts. But perhaps the most important character is the one not seen until the final battle of the game: God. Or ‘Deus’, as the creature becomes known. After all your fighting — against the creatures of the wild, fellow prisoners, future allies, both sides of the ongoing armed military conflict, and eventually your skybound Solarian rulers — there lies at the end of the road the throne of God, the promised haven of your long battle as prophesied by Grahf, Fei’s own ancestor-persona’s inner heart.
The final question at the end of the world in Xenogears is at last presented: what is God? And what are the true implications of attacking and dethroning Him?
Xenogears, at its heart, tells a story about power. As the mysterious figure of Grahf the gear-slayer repeatedly asks of the targets of his gifts — do you desire power? — we understand that the question is rhetorical. The world is awash with the powerless in need of material agency over their circumstances; that is, power and its ability to change them.
Everyone desires power, even if it is only subconsciously. It comes in many forms, be it intrinsically developed in an individual (strength, intelligence, charisma), or wielded from institutions or positions within the social hierarchy. Power is the ability to change the world around you; the conditions of your own life and the lives of those in your community stand to be affected by the necessary consequences of its use toward any end, intended or not. These changes and consequences illuminate the instrumentality of power’s acquisition and utility; in fact, power is practically never an end in of itself.
In the realms of Xenogears (as in many a JRPG, anime, comic book, etc.), the most important currency of power in the era happens to be fighting ability. In such times of warfare, military might in the swaths of foot soldiers and in the regiments of Gears becomes the primary way for the nations of peoples to effectuate change. Specifically, in defense or conquest, the collective fights to preserve or spread a certain way of life.
The leaders of the world, up in Solaris and within Ethos, Gebler and in the Gazel Ministry — so far gone with generation after generation of control firmly within their grasp — have naturally gone mad with power. But their endless ambitions are always toward the same general goals. They discover, they control, they kill for the sake of cultivating and perpetuating the livelihoods and institutions they have built for them and theirs. Their will to power is a will to continue being as they’ve been; naturally, the rulers fight for self-preservation.
Fei and Elly and the gang spend their whole journey acquiring strength in the form of improved martial ability and increasing mastery over advanced Gears — until the legendary ‘Xenogears’ itself comes under Fei’s control before his final fight. Distinctly, their saga of battles are the steps toward an eventual control over their fate and the fate of the people as a whole. They, the rebels, fight for change.
What’s any of this to do with God? Well, what is more powerful than a god? And what might the mortal Man, whether complete with material wealth, influence and power or completely displaced from it, fear more than God? Who better to awaken and defeat to proclaim your ultimacy than God himself? Who better to worship in hoping for a better after-world from this miserable material one? His mythic power, though perhaps unknowable and untouchable, shakes the Heavens, and is therefore forever worthy of consideration no matter how powerful a Man may become. Mortality is always lesser than God, who is immortal.
“Haven’t you heard of this story…? They say that humans and God lived together in a paradise in the sky. With God’s protection, there was no fear of death, and natural disasters were entirely unknown. Then one day, humans ate a forbidden fruit which gave them incredible wisdom. But God drove mankind from the paradise for their sin. Bitter at having been driven out of paradise, humans used the wisdom they had to make giants. With these giants, they planned to challenge God himself. But God poured his wrath down on them. All who defied God were destroyed. But God himself did not escape unharmed. Taking paradise with him, the wounded God buried himself deep beneath the ocean to sleep for eons. Before going to sleep, God used his remaining power to create right-hearted humans to live on this planet. These people are said to be… our ancestors. Well, anyway, I’ll stop my ranting now.”
~ Isaac Balthasar
The ‘God’ in Xenogears, or Deus, is a being from the deep past, composed of relative omnipotence via technology (and not of a supernatural character.) Deus, this ancient creature that the principal Men of power come desiring to discover, understand, and dethrone in one way or another, is no divine beast. It is just another of Man’s wayward creations run amok, a semi-conscious weapon of mass destruction built by Man’s progenitor race in need of being taken offline. There is, in fact, no throne to dethrone God from.
In Xenogears, the throne is empty; Man swings at shadows. Compelled by the tired traditions of the dead generations before them, Mankind wages his endless wars, wills his power toward ultimacy, and deigns to approach God to fight him – and become him.
Deus (デウス, Deusu) is the core of an interplanetary invasion system, built ten thousand years prior to the game’s story. Because of its power, Deus was placed on the Eldridge spaceship, but it soon became fully self aware and took control of the entire ship. When the captain of the Eldridge self-destructed his ship, Deus was not destroyed, crashing into a nearby planet. Deus then created The Complement named Hawwa (Miang), she gives birth to Emperor Cain and the Gazel Ministry. Hawwa’s task was to establish a human civilization on the planet in order to one day use the humans for its resurrection.
Because of the nature of Deus, much of the game’s controversy stems from Fei’s goal of killing the god that created mankind. This plot was the main reason as to why there were questions of a North American release of the game.
Deus, though latin for God, does not resemble the God that we implicitly recognize in our myths and religions. A self-aware bio-powered computer, while immensely powerful and aged, is nowhere near omnipotent or omniscient. Or immortal. This god is not infinite, thus disqualifying the capital-G signifier. It is, however, the nigh invincible final boss for Fei and his companions to fight and save the world from. And like God, it is the mythic progenitor of the species of humanity upon the planet from aeons ago.
Consequently, the source of its strength arises from something called the ‘Wave Existence’, which does exhibit the infinitude of a conception of God. Described as ‘a divine being pulled from a higher dimension,’ the Wave could be interpreted as the Spinozian aspect of God — as something that cannot be named or truly understood by Man, as it is by definition All-encompassing and transcendent of categorization, the faceless face of the universe itself. The Wave Existence, though possibly only as a model, or thus a symbolic aspect, may be a window into the stream of the whole material universe, the past, present, and future of the big ‘All’ at the end of Time…
Regardless of the true cosmology of Xenogears, it is true that in the endgame, in facing off against Deus and in speaking to some level of mutual understanding with the Wave Existence, Fei, and subsequently humanity, come to understand the truth of our origins. And from a limited, mortal, materialist perspective, as far as we can manage clarity in such a thing — this is no small matter.
Staring back through a cosmic scope to bear witness to the dawn of Man, being able to see how it all began for our species and what conditions were wrought throughout history to bring about its rising and falling communities and empires and ‘goods’ and ‘evils’ from that very beginning — such a sight could be thought to be akin to godhood.
For a mortal, rational, ‘right-hearted’ man in his material space and limited time, this is as good as it gets. This is as powerful as one could hope to be within the known universe: the complete knowledge, though finite, discrete and historical, of our origin as a species from a previously space-faring alien craft of proto-humans who lost control of a god-like, suddenly self-aware superweapon and crashed it onto this earth, birthing us and our long story up to now…
A quote from an interview with Soraya Saga, the wife of the lead designer of Xenogears and its co-author, jives with my developing thesis concerning what the game is about, and what God might end up being within its narrative threading:
[Soraya] Saga [Takahashi’s wife] recalled in a 2010 interview with Siliconera, “The works of Nietzsche, Freud and Jung happened to be part of common interests I shared with Takahashi. Xenogears is basically a story about ‘where do we come from, what are we, where are we going.’
“God,” in Xenogears, from my perspective in playing it, is simply our history in its totality — it is the story of Mankind. Most importantly, what makes it God is how unassailable such a truth appears to us as at present. Though finite, our long path of history is fraught, deeply buried in untold events, and full of multitudes within the hearts of our ancestors — their lives, desires, discoveries, despairs.
History is full unknowns, past and present. And alternatives — what could-have-been’s. And there is where we step toward infinity — in the potential paths of humanity. Our future is everything, where everything lay ahead, where the only conception of infinity that we can dream of lays. And so, the run of humanity, his actions and consequences, his power and his possibility — and his consciousness as the driving source of it all — can be said to be godlike.
To know its full run, from stem to stern, is to inch toward the ultimacy that the Solarians foolishly dreamt of along other avenues, such as in advancing technology and the perfecting of oppression. These traditions that the Solarians and others before them carried on — of endless war and hierarchical exploitations of the lowest within society — are the lurching, pathological ghost that we can no longer see the face of, let alone its birthing.
How did this long war begin? Who built the first Gears, and for what purpose? Why do we keep running the Soylent machine, threshing the bodies of mutated Men without good reason? Without a grasp of history, such source understandings of the conflicts of our time and their perpetuating institutions at their roots can become forever lost, to be replayed into extinction.
Another name for the game is ‘Xenogears: Episode V’ (despite being the first official game, and technically, the only one, released within the wild saga). So not unlike Star Wars, its passages are a sequel to a manifold, thousand year reign of prior events leading into its first moments in Lahan, with Fei painting his pictures of beauteous apocalypse.
Those ancient, originating actions and reactions making up Man’s history are imperative to hope to understand what is happening in the now; that is why so much of the narrative of Xenogears is exposition-heavy, flashbacks to ancestors, and all manner of lore-laden backstories.
The backstory is everything. In Fei coming to know his own story within his fraying psychological profile — that is, the story of humanity — he defeats God by understanding Him, by understanding himself. Not unlike the individuation theory/process within psychoanalysis, the metaphysical revelations within this integration are infinitely meaningful. Such a wide understanding — once shared — begins to bridge the gap between the opposing swaths of humanity.
Humanity: a long-lived yet self-destructive entity known mostly by their misunderstandings, their wars, their subjugations, exploitations and manipulations of one another without end.
What is God? He’s everything. Only God can see all, the burdens of tradition and of history lifted in his omniscient gaze. The beginning and the end, the past, present and future, the good and the bad of all our actions unto one another — i.e. all of history. To know the full truth of our history is, in effect, to defeat God, to dethrone him, to dethrone our history from its mystifying obscurity.
To become God? Maybe. Insofar that humanity was already directing its own path, Fei and Elly and Citan and Bart and all the others will continue to do so, now just carrying more knowledge and more of humanity into the fray with them. Therein, a form of godhood can be resolved as the mere observation of all that God is.
And so I say that while the #AttackAndDethroneGod meme is accurate to describe the core drive of Xenogears’ fiction, it is not in the way one might think. More than the battle against the literal godlike figure(s) at the end of the game, the real ‘God’ that is attacked and dethroned in the telling of Xenogears’ tale is the enshrouded past of human history, the origin of the species and its initial organization back there at the “Alpha and Omega” beginning setting the course toward the observable present moment.
The totality in such an understanding finally coming into the hearts and minds of our heroes is the only semblance of godhood within their grasp, it is the instrumental reward for society’s restless will to power up to that point. In reality, Fei and Elly’s fight is a fight for Truth, for the discovery of the world as it is, as it was and as it might be in the future. Fei falls in love with Elly and they do kill “God” — the ineffable mystery of humanity, our past, our relations.
With the origin in hand, finally free from the suffering that traditions of misunderstanding bring — that they are all too well personally aware of from their own past and present — Fei and Elly and all the rest of humanity can go forth with their lives from there, best equipped to create better futures. ~