On Xenoblade Chronicles and The Goodness of Videogames

1: Of Hot-N-Ready Pizzas and Regret

The part where I began to question the validity of how I was spending my time came around hour five. Earlier, I had sallied forth to GameStop, traded in a few old games, and picked up Xenoblade: Chronicles. On the way I home I stopped at Little Caesar’s and got myself a pizza. Five bucks, always ready, almost-but-not-quite hot  - they’re cheap, spongy, and in the morning make my stomach feel like it’s full of daggers.

The moment I took the bag from the clerk’s hands, I knew, once I got home, that I wasn’t going to be leaving for the rest of the night. I knew I was going to be up until some unholy hour. I knew I was going to feel like shit at work the next day. I knew I was going to have a bevy of unmentionable digestive issues for at least 48 hours. It was going to be a gloriously self-destructive evening.

My first experience with Xenoblade was passionate.

My first experience with Xenoblade was passionate. I was smitten with the British voice acting. The MMORPG-esque combat was liquid and engrossing, especially without the annoyance of other people. The story tugged the right strings to grab me and pull me in, despite myself. I shoveled pizza in my mouth and drank down a mixture of beer and Mountain Dew that would make most people want to die. It was an unabashed binge. I felt good.

Mechanics-wise, Xenoblade is a decidely post-Final Fantasy XII JRPG. The combat is in real-time, and you spend a lot of your play running around the games’ massive environments.  The setting is unique: long ago, two massive gods – Bionis and Mechonis – appeared out of nothing and started fighting. Eventually, something happened, and they stopped moving. They are now frozen forever, mid-battle. On Bionis lives the biological creatures – the main characters and his allies;  on Mechonis lives a mechanical army hell-bent on destroying organic life.

The Mechons, as they are called, are very difficult to kill unless you have the Monado, some kind of strange, arcane sword-like device. Luckily, it falls into our hero’s hands fairly early in the story. Soon after receiving the sword and leaving his Mechon-devastated home on a revenge mission, the hero finds out it can also show him the future.

It’s a pretty absurd premise, and one that could easily descend into JRPG drivel – but the execution is great. The key story characters are all strong enough to humanize the madness, and not over-designed into absurdity. The art direction is inspired, with massive, varied environments appearing often enough that you’re never bored and enemies range from hulking elephantine beasts to a variety of strange critters. I could ramble for days about how dynamic and exciting the combat is. What I’m trying to say is this: it’s an exceedingly well-crafted game.

Back to my night of videogame decadence: things didn’t get bad until the game opened up a little bit and showed me its Collectopaedia and quest system. These are elective features, but I would come to realize later that anyone who skips them is missing the whole soul of Xenoblade. The quests are fluffy affairs; some minimal expository dialogue and your objective. Once you complete the quest, you magically get the rewards. The Collectopaedia challenges you to find certain item-drops from enemies. Once located, you input  them into the Collectopaedia. Each item falls into a category, and if you fill a category you get a reward. The whole thing works on zones, so the challenge becomes getting 100% Collectopaedia completion for a certain area.

Both of these things are very easy to do, but they take time. Basically, you just have to run around the zone a lot. You’ll kill some monsters, but they’re not hard. I don’t mind doing things in videogames when they’re like this – the equivalent of busywork, mind-occupying nothingness that fills a role in my life like bullshit television does for others – and somehow the inertia and easiness of such things makes my completionist side come out.

So I spent from 7 PM to 4 AM on a Sunday night traversing the world of Xenoblade, the soundtrack filling my apartment with warmth. The only light was the low-resolution glow of my television. I did every quest, I collected every item. The in-game rewards paled in comparison to the sick pleasure of doing things. I moved the story along millimeters at a time, with massive gaps between plot events to fulfill my newfound fetish. I fell asleep on the couch that night.

I woke up to my cat’s hungry meowing. My stomach ached and my eyes were crusty. The Wii, accidentally left to run through the night, buzzed on solemnly. As I rubbed the sleep from my eyes I realized I had to hurry or I’d be late to work. Still: my Collectopaedia was bursting at the seams and my completed quests screen was prodigious.

Physically and mentally, I felt like shit.

2: A Crisis of Exertion

That day at work, the considerable chunk of time I lost to Xenoblade bothered me. What could I have done with those nine hours? That’s an entire work day. That’s enough time to write thousands of words. That’s a full night’s sleep.

The thing that bothered me the most wasn’t that I was playing a videogame – it was that I was doing such pointless things. I was filling a ridiculously named, fictional, virtual book with objects that don’t exist for rewards that aren’t real and experiencing the oft-cited ‘checking off to-do list items’ satisfaction that we see all the time in videogames.

I wondered if that was a good way to spend my time. Was it right for a videogame to ask me to do that, and give me nothing but a false sense of accomplishment back? Usually, I think of the effort I put into games as being reciprocated by the way the game makes me feel – sad, happy, angry, triumphant, whatever. But was this perverted sense of satisfaction worth the effort? Was it worth my time? Was it even satisfaction? Was there any joy in this shit?

It came down to this: is Xenoblade an evil videogame – some kind of time-eating monstrosity?  Am I just a binge-eating idiot?

The answer is that I am definitely an idiot, and Xenoblade is a very, very good videogame.

3: Discovery in Disguise

What I have had to realize about the ‘busywork systems’ in Xenoblade is that they involve more than the menial task they ask you to do. When you go to hunt down some elusive enemy because an NPC can’t plant their crops because of them, or whatever, you have to walk there. You have to search the areas pixel-by-pixel to fill your Collectopaedia. You have to open your goddamn eyes and look around.

And remember:  it’s a beautiful game. The view distance is astronomical and hardware-defying; the vistas are plentiful. The grass sways in the wind and the atmospheric noises are loud in the mix; at night, you hear crickets chirp. I mistook it for ones outside my window more than once. The bright blue sky will shine above your character as you run about, the gorgeous soundtrack encapsulating everything. The best games and game-worlds feel good to just move around in, and Xenoblade is definitely one of them. Tasks that are menial, repetitive and somewhat pointless feel vital and engaging in a world this gorgeous. They bring you joy.

If you were just running from plot point to plot point, simply following a path, you’d see only a fraction of this stuff. There wouldn’t be enough to let it all sink in, either. I’m not sure I would have this much to say about how incredibly enjoyable the nuances of this game are if I hadn’t spent so much time doing the ‘busywork.’  Even if  the world was still open, if we didn’t have these quests, I’m not sure how many gamers would take the time to drink it all in. In some ways, this busywork turns into a crash course in appreciating a well-designed world.

It’s discovery, an inherently formless act, given a sneaky sort of structure.

I can say for sure that if the developers didn’t give me a reason to traipse through their masterpiece of a world, I probably wouldn’t have. I would have ran from cutscene trigger to cutscene trigger, scarfing pizza along the way. And it would be less of a game for it: the story is a firm ‘pretty good,’ but the environments and the exploration are so much better.Once you realize that, you see that Xenoblade is not evil. It’s made with love, but maybe the people who made the game didn’t trust us enough to see all the care they put into it without a little incentive. That’s simultaneously sad and inspired.

The minimalism of it is brilliant. The tasks are simple. You don’t have to think too much –  so you can simply be in the game world. You feel the sensation of height, of distance, and the breeze combing through everything. It’s a beautiful thing, a sense of freedom and adventure you can’t always feel in real life. It’s a good a way to spend your time.

Some videogames aren’t so nice. They are just trying to eat your time, to get you addicted, and get you coming back for more. There’s no beauty to it, just cruel psychology. These are cancerous; the kind of evil I feared I had partaken in on that rumbly-tummied morning. Avoid them. Act to destroy them. And always, always avoid sleepless nights and shitty pizza. They’re bad for your health. If you must have one, and every gamer needs them sometimes, just make sure you spend it with a videogame that’s worth your time – so the hangover is worth it too.

  • Mala

    Really nice article. I’ve yet to play Xenoblade, but this is exactly how I feel about Guild Wars 2.

  • Jp Bonepiller

    very accurate. i recently started playing Xenoblade, and between the questing, exploring, item sorting, and learning the billion + 1 mechanics, sometimes i’ll play for 3 nights and barely accomplish a damn thing! makes me question whether or not i should be chipping away at my giant 360 backlog instead.. but the world and music in Xeno are so undeniably beautiful that i think i’ll forge on.. slowly and steadily.