Something I find frustrating about a lot of RPGs is that, while characters and world building are both big priorities, they rarely merge the two. They create well-developed characters and relations with one hand, and shape the world with the other hand. The result is that I often feel like the characters I’m playing as have no connection to the world, even though they’re supposed to be saving it, and the world feels distant from me because I’m always looking at the characters. Enter, Xenoblade Chronicles.
Recently I’ve been watching a lot of Chuggaaconroy’s Xenoblade Chronicles Let’s Play, and falling in love with the game. For those of you who don’t know Xenoblade or aren’t far in the game yet, I’ll warn you now, this article has spoilers. Lots of ‘em. And if you think you don’t care about spoiler for this game, you’re wrong. This is a fantastic story with great twists, and I would hate to ruin that for anyone. So please, if you don’t already know the story of Xenoblade up to at least the Fallen Arm, don’t let me spoil it for you.
With that out of the way, I’ve noticed one of the running themes in Xenoblade Chronicles is multiculturalism, or at least cooperation between different societies and races. This is something I’m all for, but I have mixed feelings about the way Xenoblade goes about it.
Let’s start by running through the lore, and the different societies and races in Xenoblade. Long ago two massive titans, the Mechonis and the Bionis, fought. The quarrel ended when both titans suddenly ceased moving, frozen in the heat of an unfinished battle.
Strange as it may seem, the Bionis and Mechonis are actually capable of sustaining life. Long after their battle, behind the right kneecap of the Bionis, the game begins with one Homs. The Homs live in two settlements, Colony 9 (behind the kneecap) and Colony 6, at the top of the Bionis’ right leg. They look identical to humans and presumably have similar lifespans. Generally, of the four races in Xenoblade, the Homs are the most similar to humans. They also have the greatest grudge against the mechon, autonomous robot weapons that come from the mechonis, as Colony 9 has been attacked by them before and Colony 6 was destroyed by them. But despire the struggle, the Homs push on.
Next there are the Nopon, furry, egg-shaped creatures with long prehensile ears. Many Nopon live in Frontier Village, the inside of a giant tree at the heart of Makna Forest, on the Bionis’ back (in a hole in the bottom of the sea), but many more are found all over Bionis, primarily as merchants. They speak an unusual dialect, and tone and body language plays a large part in their expression. Because of this they are very lively and eccentric, and often sound and act really silly. There is no evidence of the Nopon ever coming into significant contact with the mechon.
The last of the races on Bionis are the High Entia, who, like the Homs, look very similar to humans. The main difference in their appearance is the wings that grow from the sides of their heads. However, in other ways they are very different from the Homs. The High Entia live for several centuries, and have the ability to use ether naturally. They have the most advanced technology on the titan, and it shows in their sci-fi looking city, Alcamoth, located above Eryth Sea, the head of the Bionis. This position reflects in their attitude, as the High Entia tend to ignore the problems of the other races and remain isolated. Within their own society, the High Entia appear to be very ordered.
On the other side of Sword Valley (or more accurately, on the Fallen Arm), the Machina live. Of all the races, the Machina are the least known. They are a form of mechanical life, some of whom have supposedly been alive since the war between the titans. After being significantly hurt by the battle, the Machina on the Fallen Arm have lived like refugees, salvaging scrap from Wreckage Beach.
Now let’s look at the story. This ain’t no Ugly Barnacle stuff. The relations between the different races don’t become significant until after the party finds the High Entia. Once their existence, security, and technology become known by the Homs, the High Entia become the targets of criticism. They ignored the needs of those lower on the Bionis, and if they had helped fight the mechon, many fewer Homs may have been killed.
Kallian, representing the High Entia, acknowledges their past mistakes, but urges other leaders to look to the future. The High Entia agree to join in the war from this point on.
Soon after this, the party meets the Machina. Initially Shulk is amazed by this discovery, life on the Mechonis, and wants to share it with the other Homs and wonders why Dickson (who’s known about the Machina for some time) has kept them second. Dickson reminds Shulk that it wasn’t that long ago that he might have taken vengeance against all of Mechonis– if the Homs knew about the Machina, some would be understanding and peaceful towards them, but there would also be those who would want to attack them.
These two are both more political issues, and are difficult to comment on, especially since I haven’t seen how the story ends yet. Though the events with Kallian and the other leaders present cooperation in a positive light, even if it’s not quite so simple.
One area where the game addresses race more directly is in a handful of side-quests. Some NPCs are very frankly racist, such as Lesunia. She is a High Entia who flat out says, “I do not feel the need to speak with those from other races.” Even halfblooded High Entia have to earn the right to speak with her. But through a series of side-quests you discover that Lesunia’s disrespect for other races is a recent development, caused by a prophetic dream. By completing the side-quests, you convince Lesunia to realize her mistake.
While these narrative elements are a nice touch, they’re a small part of Xenoblade’s large story. If we want to find diversity throughout the arc of that story, in a way that continues from start to finish, we should look to the party. Xenoblade is an RPG, with a final count of seven playable characters. Each of these characters brings something in terms of racial diversity to the party, but the representation isn’t exactly even handed.
First, there is the main character of the game, Shulk, a young Homs man. Then his best friend Reyn, a Homs warrior. And then there’s Sharla and Dunban, two more Homs. That’s four Homs in a party of seven, three of them from Colony 9. I don’t mean to undersell them as individual characters, they are of course more than just their cultural background, but it isn’t the most balanced representation of the larger world. And that’s not even counting another character who we’ll get to soon.
While they may be overrepresented, the Homs certainly aren’t misrepresent in these characters. The Homs’ defining characteristic that sets them appart from the other races of Xenoblade is their spirit; while Nopon and High Entia have avoided the battle against the mechon, the Homs have been on the front lines. Even after the many hardships both Colony 6 and Colony have faced, the people remain resilient and brave. Some of the skill trees from all four of these Homs represent this; Dunban has Bravery, Skulk Integrity, Reyn Spirit, and Sharla Perseverance. But the best show of Homs spirit comes from Dunban’s little poem when he uses his talent art, Blossom Dance,
“Born in a world of strife!
Against the odds,
we choose to fight!
Next up is Riki, a Nopon, but not just any Nopon, the great Heropon! Riki is a great character in his own right, and he certainly does a good job representing the Nopon. The bunny-eared, odd-talking puffballs are pretty weird for the player at first, and hard to take seriously. But having Riki in the party soon shows that the Nopon aren’t just silly little animals, even if they are still silly. It’s hard to imagine their egg-shaped bodies being that flexible, so I’m not sure how well Riki’s Flexibility skill tree describes them, but his Vivacity is a Nopon trait through and through. The crazy Heropon father of eleven is one of the toughest fighters and most endearing characters.
Melia is in an interesting position, as she’s not a pureblood High Entia; she’s half Homs. And while this puts her in an interesting position here, we shouldn’t just a person by the size of their wings! Melia represents the High Entia in more ways than one, being the princess and eventually leader of her people. While her Reliability skill tree may not embody her people very well (sorry High Entians, but you did kinda leave the Homs to die in The Battle of Sword Valley), Honesty and Reticence are big High Entia values.
Finally, Fiora, who is admittedly a disappointment here. While she’s a great character in her own right, she fails to add much to the team’s diversity. She’s a Homs in the beginning of the story, but reappears much later with an altered, semi-Machina body. This does technically add a Machina character to the group, but Fiora doesn’t represent the Machina in any way. When they are discovered on the fallen arm, the Machina are as new to her as they are to the rest of the group. She wasn’t raised a Machina, and she doesn’t know their experience. All she has connecting her to the Machina is a body, and her experience of it is much different than the Machinas; to her it’s alien and hard to adjust to, but to the Machina, well, Machina bodies are natural. While I love Fiora, it is frustrating that the Machina don’t get a single representative in the party while the Homs get five, especial when the Machina are the most misunderstood and mysterious race in the game.
All that said, let’s end on a high note. While plot and characters are components of any story, story is only one component of a game. Let’s look at some actual gameplay instead. When the party first arrives at Colony 6, the settlement has been ruined by mechon attacks. Throughout the game after this, the player can work to rebuild and repopulate the city by completing side-quests. These side-quests appear all over Bionis and the Fallen Arm, and lead to a city of all races. Essentially this is a mechanic of literally building a racially diverse city.
So those are just some thoughts I had while watching Xenoblade Chronicles. Just watching the game makes me feel more engaged with it than almost any RPG I’ve played. The way the characters reflect their cultural background creates connections to the world and gives it weight. I do hope to get a copy Xenoblade and play it myself eventually, but for now Chugga’s LP does the job.
Don’t Lose Your Way