I am increasingly optimistic about the expressive capabilities of video games as a story-telling medium. Lately, I’ve been working my way through Monoliftsoft’s Xenoblade Chronicles, a role-playing game for the Nintendo Wii that came close to never being released outside of Japan. Thankfully, an English port made its way on to U.S. soil after a European release. Although I’ve logged about thirty-one hours of playing, it’s hard to tell how much longer I have to go, but I’ve come far enough to reflect on some of the great things successful RPGs have been doing to drive the video game medium toward greater narrative heights.
Art design, story, sound, and character are essential to an engaging work of interactive fiction. These combined characteristics are more relevant to film than prose, which depends more on description and writing style to take the place of visual and audible elements. The RPG (role-playing game) genre has been most successful when all of these elements come together to create a world worth being immersed in for the average forty-hour completion time. The Final Fantasy series has successfully laid this foundation since the glory days of the Super Nintendo, as have a slew of stand-alone titles such as Chrono Trigger and Legend of Mana, to name just a few. It is easy to lose oneself without notice of time while progressing toward the end of these stories, and it is no less an engagement in Xenoblade Chronicles.
But it is another element entirely that really separates this medium from film or television, and that is interactivity. Whereas cinematic cutscenes and dialogue are one way to press the plot in a RPG, directly controlling a character’s commands, equipment, and skill or talent progression exceed rote description to create an attachment between the player and character. This attachment makes the world more believable and relatable, and it helps create a focal point from which a narrative perspective is created. Often it is a single character that plays host to the adventuring party, and when it is the player that decides this host, that narrative bond can be as wholesome as that found in literature.
The player-customization of equipment is also a supportive element for the progression of narrative in the RPG. Like traditional archetypes in literature, it is often that the armor and weapon choices of a party member reflect that member’s personality and character traits. The protagonist typically bears a single sword or other basic weapon, not overbearingly but dutifully, with the air of one chosen to play the hero (the armor is also typically of a medium set to denote the hero’s balanced dimensions); others of the hero’s party wield their own distinct weapon and armor sets reflective of their own character attributes, including the brutish but likable sidekick, larger in size and wielding a two-handed weapon, filled with strength but who devotes that gift to the aid of the unlikely hero, the mage or healer who is often scholarly or of royal lineage, among other archetypes.
The most successful RPGs alter or redefine these archetypes in creative fashion while remaining faithful to the genre. These are not only attributes to bring the characters to life; in likeness to skill and talent progression, they are symbolic of each character’s journey. As players advance their party’s tale, stronger equipment is obtained, usually with increasingly impressive art design. Combined with the progression of plot and the development of newly acquired skills, a powerful impression of advancement toward a greater climax is created. This impression is played out, of course, through countless battles and dungeons through chapters that each end with a dramatic hook greater than that which preceded it. RPGs follow the plot structure of the epic narrative, and can be as successful as some literary epics that immerse us in such a manner that we are devoted to finishing the tale.
Xenoblade Chronicles is one such RPG. The world is a rich, expansive setting. The story takes place on two continents created by two dead gods who defeated each other in battle ages past: Bionis, who exudes life and all things natural, and Mechonis, a haven of technology and things engineered. The overarching conflict is symbolized here quite literally, with the Homs or humans of Bionis utilizing technology to aid them in their peaceful settlement, and rogue machines draining the Bionis and its inhabitants for ether or life energy.
Following a tragic attack by Mechons on Colony 9 (based on the foot of the fallen Bionis god), our unlikely hero Shulk joins a band of other memorable characters on a journey for vengeance that is ultimately intertwined with larger schemes. The setting in which the story takes place is memorable through and through (I am currently in a locale called Sword Valley, which consists of the sword that bridges the two gods together), and the story moves along at a brisk pace. There is no shortage of new developments in each chapter pushing me to the next. The unique and colorful art design that unifies the character and setting also lend authenticity to the story, thus creating a greater impact.
Shulk wields a legendary weapon known as the Monado, which only he can use and seems to hold great significance to Bionis. It also happens to be very effective against the Mechonis. Though it is typical for an unlikely hero to hold some hidden power that brings him to meet his fate (Frodo with the ring of power in The Lord of the Rings, for example), it is not a detracting element of Xenoblade Chronicles because the rest of the story remains distinct from the typical RPG.
I could be wrong, though; I feel as though I am more than halfway through, but it is equally hard to say because there seems to be a great deal unanswered at this point and that I don’t think can be wrapped up in a brief denouement. I expect that I will traverse the neighboring Mechonis quite a bit before all is said and done.
Image: Nintendo, Monolith Soft