Xenogears, and a Regret
As someone who’s written huge tracts on role playing games, both Eastern and Western, over the years, I’ve always had two secret shames. The first—never having played Baldur’s Gate 2 beyond its introductory dungeon—was resolved two years ago; it ended up being perhaps my favorite Infinity Engine game, a hundred hour crawl I’m seriously considering replaying.
Not having played Baldur’s Gate 2 was pretty bad; never having gotten more than an hour into Xenogears, however? Atrocious. I am the man who declares the oft-maligned SaGa Frontier to be one of his favorites, after all. But I’ve never gotten far into Xenogears much beloved corpse, about thirty-five minutes before, like a modern gamer, I get bored, turn it off, and go blow some shit up.
Here’s what I know about Xenogears:
- It’s a Squaresoft-published Playstation RPG, which puts it squarely in my wheelhouse.
- It’s about philosophy. And giant robots. It’s the Neon Genesis Evangelion of video games, which places it roundly in my wheelhouse.
- It stars an amnesiac painter slash martial artist whose friends are getting married and who is friends with crazy science hermits in the mountains, which makes him sound like a lost Murakami protagonist. He just needs a whiskey fetish and a jazz obsession.
- Visually it’s aged about as well as a Picasso. Unpack that.
- It has a soundtrack by the immense Yasunori Mitsuda, who is not physically immense but rather one of the best composers of video game riffage around. His soundtrack to Chrono Cross might be my most listened compilation of the past ten years.
- It has about eighteen sequels, all of which have, at one time, been disavowed as a video game, as a Xenogears video game, or as a good video game by every member of the series’ fanbase since its inception. Fun fact: I have played its first sequel, Xenosaga Episode One: Der Wille zur Macht. It has the least silly German subtitle of any game in the series. Video games, everyone!
I’m giving it another chance, though, despite all that. I’m going to treat it like reading Dickens: here’s something odd, unwieldy, brilliant, and it’s going to take some work.
Once, somewhere, I read a lovely comment about watching films: sometimes you need to watch something that’s work, that’s difficult, to let you appreciate the others. A filmmaker can’t just watch Transformers a hundred times and expect to make the next great action movie: you need other works, ones that make you think about how to frame a shot, to make something of quality. Similarly, as someone who criticizes games, you have to approach games that are difficult, whose very existence and design challenges you. It can’t all be FTL and Dark Souls and games you love: there have to be some you plum don’t understand.
And heck, maybe I’ll understand Xenogears one day. Maybe it’ll be a revelatory experience, like Baldur’s Gate 2, where I feel like a fool for having missed it for so long.