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What the Game Designers Forgot: The Untold Stories in Xenogears

What the Game Designers Forgot: The Untold Stories in Xenogears


As a gamer for over 20 years, I’ve seen all types of RPGs come and go.  Long ones, short ones, good ones, bad ones. Engaging adventures that filled out the week between semesters.  Sprawling epics that kept me playing for years.  I’ve seen twisted betrayals, pyrrhic victories, inspiring redemptions, touching reunions, and surprising triumphs—all through the characters in those games.

Now, anyone who starts a piece like that runs the risk of sounding like an old codger who’s getting ready to tell you about the good ole’ days when he went down to his favorite fishing hole in Mayberry. You know, a real nostalgia trip.

Well, that’s exactly what this is.

Recently, in the middle of a tough cross-country move, I decided to unwind by picking up a copy of one of my all-time favorite video games—Xenogears.  It’s a unique vision of that Mayberry I was talking about, chock full of sympathetic characters, plot twists, and Aunt Bee and the gang riding around in mechanized death machines.

This game had everything: amazing story, fully developed characters, and creative game mechanics…all packed into a system that shouldn’t have had much room for anything more impressive than some wobbly 3D graphics. Xenogears revolutionized games as storytelling devices, and any one of these elements would be a topic for an article in and of themselves. But what I found myself most attracted to 15 years and multiple play-throughs later weren’t the fully-realized characters or stark settings. What caught my attention almost two decades later were the parts of the story the developers didn’t tell.

 Xenogears Image 2

"Here comes the pain"

The Gist

But before we get into narrative intricacies, I want to point out that this game was a massive undertaking. A full clear took somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 hours.

Take a moment to let the sink in. In today’s market, a game is considered long if it clocks in at around 30 hours.

Xenogears more than doubled that. Literally three days of your life are required to finish this game—three days without sleep, food, or bio breaks. To be privileged enough to watch the final cut scene (YouTube notwithstanding) meant weeks of time and effort, but it was worth it, because that last four-minute curtain call tied up one of the most controversial and emotionally resonant storylines to ever grace the medium.

What is the nature of man, the game asks, and does he need God to be complete?

Heavy stuff for something that was rated T for Teen. For those of you who have never played this game, let me get you up to speed; for those of you who have, the next few paragraphs will be pretty old hat.

You play as protagonist Fei Fong Wong, a deeply scarred young man who is forced into extraordinary realms of superhero-dom. It’s a typical storyline for a JRPG, nothing special so far.

Our character’s village, Lahan, is caught in the crossfire of two feuding countries, and the story kicks off when our boy climbs into the cockpit of a Gear—a giant war machine built in the shape of a man—and lets loose death and destruction on both friends and foes.

Dan’s Offscreen Evolution

Dan Portrait

"The world has done him no favors. Just look at the hairline. He's only 10"

The casualties in Lahan include Alice—Fei’s close friend, a woman soon to be married to a man he admires and respects. This leads to the first subtle story point I want to talk about: Alice’s kid brother, Dan, spends weeks tracking Fei (all offscreen, completely separate from the narrative), before confronting his sister’s killer in an unexpected fight to the death.

Xenogears Dan

"Sorry kid, no turning back now"

Dan is terribly outmatched, and in a popular bit of Xenogears trivia, defending (but not attacking) forces the frustrated young man to flee the battle, cursing your name as he retreats.

Early in the story, it’s made incredibly clear that Dan is a young boy who has neither friends nor family left in the world—in large part because of Fei’s actions during the destruction of Lahan.

So Dan begins an odyssey that leads him around the world—the same unforgiving wasteland that Fei and a group of superpowered companions struggled through for the entire game.

It speaks tremendously to the character’s sheer mental toughness. How strong is this child that he has the wherewithal to cross deserts, climb mountains, and swim oceans?

Even more curious, how does a child his age survive the destruction of his entire village while standing at ground zero? That’s right—Dan was at the center of the explosion that killed his sister.

It’s not really something we’re supposed to think about, but how many among us, before hitting puberty, would have the fortitude to stare Armageddon in the face without blinking and then cross the world to hunt it down?

Dan Ground Zero

"Today I have become Death"

The Big Joe Sideshow

 Big Joe

"You handsome devil"

And then there’s Big Joe.

Big Joe is a muscle-bound, green-haired, Elvis-looking enigma found at random points throughout the game, often for the slapstick comic relief purposes. He spends a large chunk of the narrative as a colorful outlier to the story, but as the game progresses, Fei uncovers clues to Joe’s shrouded past.

Big Joe2

"You're damn right you, you do"

It comes to light that Joe was one of history’s elite athletes, who later hit his head and developed a personality disorder. Fascinating though this is, Fei discovers this backstory in the ruins of a civilization that perished thousands of years before the modern era.

Geographical location can be easily dismissed, but it doesn’t explain away other odd aspects about the character. Joe appears in the same ruins where Fei uncovers his past, and stranger still, Joe starts peddling rare objects—technology that is far more advanced than any other civilization currently holds. There’s no explanation given.

Joe is Xenogears’ Tom Bombadil. Mysterious and genial, but also overwhelmingly powerful. You get the idea that, if he was so inclined, Joe could overthrow nations and topple kings, but instead he’s dealing lost technology to the highest bidder, wandering the world pranking Fei and company, and encouraging everyone to stop taking life so seriously.

Big Joe 3

"Joe brand, the name you trust, the power you love"

It’s unsettling.

The Devil in the Details

 Id Gear

But it’s not quite as unsettling as some of the religious mythology that surfaces later in the story.

Upon arriving in Shevat—a floating metropolis and cosmopolitan center that serves as the last bastion of resistance against the game’s antagonistic force—Fei begins to get a feel for the dirty politics of the outlaw city.

If Fei speaks with a few of the local scholars, he learns that 500 years ago, Shevat was struggling against Solaris in the Great War… but the history doesn’t detail the war’s conclusion.  It just ends. And it doesn’t become clear until Fei learns about the Diabolos: a force so powerful that it interrupted the war and brought both Shevat and Solaris to their knees.

It was only with their combined efforts that the warring nations were able to drive the Diabolos back and save the world. The struggle left both sides weakened—their differences still divisive—and forced them into the uneasy stalemate that exists centuries later, because it’s heavily implied that the Diabolos are primed to return at any time

The name Diabolos is an obvious play on the Latin word for devils; and curiously, in a story built on collapsing religious ideologies and symbols, Fei never gets to interact with them. He squares off against prophets, angels, and even God—and they’re all staggeringly intimidating figures.

… so what form would the Devil take?  And even more intriguing, whose side would he be on?  Does he take up the mantle of friend or foe in a game that completely distorts the line between the righteous and the evil?

In a game about overcoming God, the absence of the Devil seems like a gross omission. Was relegating him to quiet hints and hushed whispers a purposeful choice by the game design team, already running long on time? Or was this another one of the masterful strokes of subtle storytelling that permeate through the veins of Xenogears?

Whatever the case, it is inspired prose that fits in wonderfully with the rest of the narrative, and it leaves people like you and I guessing and dreaming of possibilities and sequels (disappointing prequels notwithstanding) where an older, wiser, sadder Fei Fong Wong could once again stand tall and shake the heavens.

Ah, nostalgia.

 

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About the Author
ElementBoxer

870 Points, 10 Comments, and 4 Articles.

A gamer with a deep love for reading and writing as well. I gravitate toward RPGs and Fighting games, but I\'ll pick anything if I think it has good storytelling and game play.

11 Comments
  1. Date: September 25, 2013

    Amazing article! The writing was superb…..give this guy a raise

    [Reply]
    • Date: September 25, 2013
      Author: elementboxer

      870 Points, 10 Comments, and 4 Articles.

      Thanks Sarah!

      [Reply]
  2. Date: September 25, 2013

    2220 Points, 25 Comments, and 44 Articles.

    That was a wonderful article, very well done! Xenogears is also one of my favorite games. It left a lot to the imagination, and some things leaving me sorely dissatisfied :/ Great angle :D

    [Reply]
    • Date: September 25, 2013
      Author: elementboxer

      870 Points, 10 Comments, and 4 Articles.

      Thanks for the kind words! I’m a little mixed on this myself. A part of me would like to think that they just “…[left us] wanting more”

      [Reply]
  3. Date: September 25, 2013

    1830 Points, 21 Comments, and 21 Articles.

    Xenogears is hands-down one of my all-time favorites. Great in-depth article!

    [Reply]
    • Date: September 27, 2013
      Author: elementboxer

      870 Points, 10 Comments, and 4 Articles.

      Mine too. Always seems like I can pick it up and finding something new to love about it.

      [Reply]
  4. Date: September 25, 2013
    Author: Jay Glass

    Awesome article Mr. Sobol, yes, give that man a hefty raise, you’ve provided excellent representation of your employer.

    [Reply]
    • Date: September 27, 2013
      Author: elementboxer

      870 Points, 10 Comments, and 4 Articles.

      Thank you! I hope you continue to read my articles in the future.

      [Reply]
  5. Date: October 5, 2013
    Author: Ian

    The Diablos were explained. They were the “Seraph” type enemies you encounter late in the game. After coming into contact with the Zohar, Lacan/Grahf somehow found the Eldridge wreckage and activated the independent sentry weapons of the Deus system, instigating the Diablos War. Five hundred years later Krelian used nanotech to strengthen the Diablos, turning them into Seraphs.

    [Reply]
    • Date: October 6, 2013
      Author: elementboxer

      870 Points, 10 Comments, and 4 Articles.

      That is really interesting. I don’t remember coming across this in the game. I’ll have to go back, and see if I can find it. Thanks for the info.

      [Reply]
      • Date: October 6, 2013
        Author: Ian

        As I recall a lot of the story and background were left out due to budget and/or time constraints as Square was working on Final Fantasy VIII at the same time. The things I mentioned in my first post plus many more stuff were detailed in the Japan only Xenogears encyclopedia called Perfect Works. If you look around on the internet you might find a site that has translated it but the book itself has been out of print for several years. You might want to try http://xenosaga.wikia.com which also covers Xenogears but you might find conflicting info.

        [Reply]
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