Friday, April 11, 2008

Xenogears' Opening

Since I have been writing about games with giant robots in them lately, I feel like I should give a nod to one of the greatest games in the mecha genre, and one of the greatest RPGs of all time: Xenogears. Despite the fact that the game is tragically incomplete, there are a lot of good things to say about its story and gameplay. One small sample of this I would like to dwell on for now is the complex opening sequence.

The game starts out with an animated movie segment (using the same combination of computer graphics and hand-drawn animation as the rest of the game), set on an incredibly huge spaceship. The spaceship, the Eldridge, suffers a mysterious calamity at the hands of a mysterious biomechanical organism, resulting in the destruction of the ship and the appearance of a woman with long indigo hair. When I first encountered this movie, it was in the demo for the game, so I actually had no idea about what kind of game Xenogears was supposed to be (never having heard of it before). As such, the movie made me expect it to be set in a traditional space-faring sci-fi setting.

Immediately after the movie ends, though, the game uses a sequence of paragraphs to relate the story of two nations at war on the desert continent of Ignis, and the rise of "Gears" built from lost technology. This sudden change in tone radically changes the player's perception of the setting, and establishes the idea that the opening movie was just a brief glimpse into the backstory of the game that foreshadows things that will occur a lot later into the game.

At the end of the text narration, the story is suddenly focused upon a small rural community put on the border between the two warring nations. There, we see a battle between the giant mecha called Gears (with a character standing next to one for a size comparison), that involves a desperate youth and a man trying to dissuade him from fighting. Mention is made that some of the enemy Gears are not falling like they should, and a fairly evil-looking Gear appears at the end, shortly before the scene focuses on the flames in the background, before shifting to a different image of a flame. This flame turns out to be a painting drawn by the same youth who was in battle, who is now in a peaceful situation, and the real gameplay finally begins. Essentially, all of this last scene turns out to be ominous foreshadowing of an battle that will occur some time later in the game.

The next stretch of the game (which can take quite a bit of time) is built around establishing both the identity of the main character, Fei Fong Wong, and his place in the peaceful village of Lahan. There are quite a few characters introduced here, including Fei's wise adoptive father, Fei's friend Timothy, Fei's other friend Alice, and Alice's annoying brother Dan. It is also established that Fei has amnesia and has only lived in the village for three years, Alice and Timothy will be married the next day, and that several people (including possibly Alice) wish that Alice was marrying Fei instead of Timothy. Also, there are a number of minor sidequests and minigames to be found, as well as a lot of helpful and nice people to talk to, and the whole place is made out to be a likable little refuge from the conflict gripping the continent. The characters are likable and their situation is interesting, and the whole thing feels like a classic start to a traditional RPG. At this point, I would not have been surprised if Timothy or Alice were main party members or long-term allies (or, in Alice's case, a major love interest for Fei).

Further gameplay takes the hero to Citan's home, where the player is introduced the Citan (the man from the ominous battle sequence) and his family. Here, Fei is introduced to a music-box playing a beautiful and sad-sounding melody (originally seen as Marle and Crono's love song in Chrono trigger, actually, so the connotations of it being a love song is clear to anyone who has played that game), which leads to Citan musing to himself that Fei would be happier if he could live like a normal man (a clear indication of Citan knowing more than he lets on about Fei), and the ominous shattering of the music-box (which, coming right after Citan's musings, indicates that Fei will not have that chance of happiness). Shortly afterwards, Fei returns towards Lahan village, only to see two groups of Gears flying towards the village, and he rushes home to see if his friends are alright.

The village is in a panic because of the battle raging between the various Gears inside of the village, and several people (including Alice) are convinced to flee the village to find safety. While looking fort the missing boy Dan, Fei spots a gear that has collapsed, its pilot dead, and something unusual happens. An animated movie starts, showing Fei looking at the Gear, when an image of a cross-shaped pendant is suddenly displayed, and Fei sees a mysterious boy whose eyes are hidden by his hair sitting in the Gear's cockpit. The movie ends, and an oddly quiet Fei suddenly climbs into the Gear. An easy Gear battle against two enemies follows. Afterwards, Citan muses about how Fei has a terrible fate (more evidence that the man knows something, and that Fei is someone special), and more enemies appear, the evil-looking Gears from the foreshadowing battle. Presumably, the events from then repeat here, but the player does not have to suffer through the repetition. At this point, Timothy appears, looking for Fei and Dan, the evil Gears seize Fei's Gear, and the evil group's leader makes a gesture. This is the point where the original demo ends.

The moments after the end of the original demo transform the game completely. In another animated sequence, the evil gears open fire on Timothy, killing him while Fei looks on in horror. Fei blacks out, and a bright light erupts from his Gear, filling the whole area. The screen briefly shows Alice being enveloped in the light. A short time later, Fei awakens, and learns from the angry villagers that he has just destroyed the tranquil, lovable village of Lahan and killed both his adoptive father and dear friend Alice, while Dan, who once looked up to Fei, now curses him as a murderer. Instead of being an unusually pleasant town full of allies to support the hero, an exaggerated version of something commonly seen in earlier RPGs, Lahan is destroyed, and what few friends and little identity that the amnesiac Fei may have had are lost. The contrast between the happiness of the earlier gameplay and the grim agony of this loss drives Fei's feelings into the player in a way that any less involved telling of the story could not.

I could probably go on a bit further and describe Fei's first encounter with Elly and the appearance of Grahf (both excellent scenes), but this probably suffices as a description of the opening. The way the game deeply involves the player in the stories of the characters in Lahan village, and then goes against expectations to completely destroy the village, is a great piece of storytelling. At the same time, countless minor details are mentioned that hint at the complex forces working in the background of the story, including many details that will not be clarified until the second disk of the game. Even minor details like an random NPC's comment that painting just came naturally to Fei will combine with other information later in the game to add depth to the story. The complex and emotional beginning hooks the player and provides a great start to one of the best stories ever told in a videogame.

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