Sunday, October 21, 2012

Cancelled Before Prime Time: Xenogears/Xenosaga

In my last article, five projects I wish I could have worked on, I placed Xenogears at #1.  Xenogears was a video-game, not a book or a TV show or magazine.  I suppose I could have placed it at #2 and put The Economist, a British newspaper, as #1; but that weekly publication is ongoing and going strong, and maybe some day I will be worthy of such an honor.  The point of the list was to mention series or shows that were no longer being produced, or were probably going to be full-up on staff for a long time.

It's only fitting that I make Xenogears, a Playstation One game by Squaresoft released in America in 1998, and it's "spiritual successor" trilogy Xenosaga, the next subject of my own little series, the one you're reading now!

Xenogears; Image via Wikipedia, copyright Squaresoft

Xenogears:  Stand Tall And Shake The Heavens

As I said in my previous article, Xenogears is a very complicated game.  Spoiler alert - it involves reincarnation, psychological melodrama, and the reinterpretation of the Bible in order to create a new mythology.  Giant robots called Gears fight one another, always a pleasure.  The primary character, Fei Fong Wong, is an amnesiac who has lived in a peaceful little village for three years; a village which so far has been spared the fall-out from a war between two nearby nations.

Since this is a Squaresoft game from the PS1 era, you probably already know the village is doomed.

The long and short of it is that Fei is a destined figure, existing more or less at the whim of some supernatural fourth-dimensional power called Zohar, which has been shackled by ancient peoples to power a super-weapon, Deus.  I wouldn't spoil the nature of those ancient peoples, but the game'll do that within the first anime sequence, so I'll make it simple - it's aliens, humans from another world.  Deus is evil and it's keeping Zohar imprisoned - not to mention messing with humankind as a whole.  So, Fei's job is to kill that super-weapon, this world's version of "God," thus freeing this "wave existence," and generally liberating the world from it's heritage.

It sounds like your standard cliche set-up of destroying the bad guy to save everyone, but what made Xenogears awesome was the way it was written.  Ten thousand years of history are brought up in this world's final battle against Deus.  Multiple lifetimes culminate in this one final show-down.  The second half of the game plays in some ways similar to a novel, with exposition (occasionally too heavy to bear, but we'll get to why) replacing the usual monotony of "Buy gear, explore dungeon, find better gear, fight boss, dialogue, buy more gear" that roleplaying-games take.

The biggest problem with Xenogears, also as I mentioned, was that it's final production was rushed - especially with regards to its conversion into English.  People have surfed through the data and found plenty of incomplete scenes, and a follow-up book called Xenogears:  Perfect Works has a full explanation of what exactly Xenogears is about.  As a result, the later half of the game is a bit awkward, with some confusing changes-of-scenery that can be irksome primarily because they aren't well executed.

One final issue of curiosity is that, as expansive as Xenogears itself is, it is described in a very Star Wars manner as "episode five", of six.  That's right - a 40+ hour game is only one part of a six part story, and interestingly enough it's the second-to-last one.

And that brings us to...

Xenosaga:  Follow-Up To A Cult Classic

Before any follow-up plans could be executed, the creator of Xenogears (who'd worked on a number of Final Fantasy games, to boot), Tetsuya Takahashi, left Squaresoft and found his way to Namco's doorstep.  He got authorization, under his own sub-company called Monolith Soft, to create Xenosaga, a Playstation Two game series which served as a "spiritual successor" to Xenogears.  Episode One was set well after the discovery of the Zohar on Earth, which by the way has long since been ditched.  Mankind has built an interstellar empire.  Nanotechnology, giant robots (similar to the Gears from Xenogears), android and starships abound.  Rebels fight federal forces - it sounds a little cliche, to start!  If that sounds familiar, it's because Xenogears starts off that way, too!

At the onset of Episode One, however, humanity faces a crisis. Aliens called Gnosis are invading, and they are not to be trifled with.  They're ethereal, for lack of a better term, and it takes special technology to even be able to interact with them.  As the plot progresses, all sorts of conspiracies are unearthed.  The Zohar is fought over by some, while it's destiny is explored by others.  Three episodes were made, and unlike Xenogears the three games were chronologically condensed - characters from the first are alive during the third.  The series was planned to run for six episodes, but halfway through it got the axe.

I have to admit, I'm part of the problem here; I played Xenosaga:  Episode One, and I believe I've played a bit of Episode Two as well.  I've never played Episode Three, and as we know, low sales can lead to series cancellations.  Others chalk this collapse up to internal collapse; Takahashi and others either changed their level of involvement, or left the project before its completion.  With the old links to Xenogears drying up, Namco called it quits; eventually it sold its stake in Monolith Soft to Nintendo.

However, I feel like Xenosaga ran into a second problem, one that I don't think any amount of sales were going to solve:  Xenosaga was Episodes 1, 2, and 3.  Xenogears is Episode 5.  What would Episode 4 and Episode 6 be?  As it was only a "spiritual successor," would Xenogears be essentially re-made and re-written?  Most importantly, how quickly would Squaresoft sue?  After all, it held the rights to Episode 5, or at least what we figured Episode Five to be.  So what would happen?

The Fate of the Xeno-Games

I love playing little fantasies out.

Well, Episode Three apparently leaves off with the characters searching for Earth.  I can imagine Episode Four as a relatively simple sketch; Zohar is harnessed, and ultimately the characters attempt to stop Deus from being constructed.  They fail, because they have to, and they fight to save their world by shipping Deus off.

Episode Five is Xenogears.  It isn't changed, although if it were possible it'd be awesome for it to be cleaned up and re-released.

Xenosaga Six, however, is what's interesting.  I'd like to give a little shine to one person's project; Bobbincranbud created "Xenogears:  After The Fall," a serialized "after-the-end" that really helped shape my early writing career.  It's fascinating, but it doesn't serve as much of a conclusion for what Xenosaga ultimately became - an interplanetary, interdimensional conflict.  Xenogears, after all, comes off as more of an explanation of what happened to Zohar and how it finally sought to achieve liberation.

What about the rest of the universe, the one that Deus bailed on ten thousand years ago?  Was the liberated Zohar the only one of it's kind?  Well, we know there are "emulators" that are tied into it - was Deus' just one of those, or was it the real deal?

I suppose I envision a sixth game wherein the humans who survived Xenogears have rebuilt their world and, eventually, make contact with the humans that originally sent Deus away.  The Gnosis still exist, after all, and while Deus was clearly designed to fight against a superior foe (say, aliens that are very hard to injure without special powers?), it ultimately was only one project.

Will we ever find out what Takahashi and the series' creators wanted?  Probably not.  Despite the title, Takahashi's latest work, "Xenoblade Chronicles," isn't tied into the Xenogears/Saga world.  Namco no longer owns the rights to Xenosaga, and Squaresoft only has the rights to Xenogears.  Nintendo is far from the boat-shaker that is required to produce such cerebral works.  They make great Mario games, but they're the last people I'd imagine raising Biblical allegories and committing what some might consider to be sacrilege.

Whatever the case, it's a truly tragic loss that neither one of the original visions (Xenogears Episode 1-4, 6; or Xenosaga 4-6) were completed.  And there's always hope - after all, Xenoblade Chronicles required a lot of effort to be ported over to America, and Operation:  Rainfall succeeded, so you never know...

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Five Projects I Wish I'd Worked On

As a writer, there's plenty of opportunity in the world.  Sometimes, however, you don't get to work on the very best creative projects you will ever see.  Others, you just aren't old enough; other times, you aren't known enough.  Finally, a lot of times those projects come to an end at some point before they even get started - they had potential, but they just drifted away.

Here are five projects, heavy-in-writing, that I wish I had been able to work on.

#5:  Undergrads

I've talked about Undergrads before, so fully detailing that series would be a grievous misuse of my powers. Which are writing, and writing.  Now, I've mentioned how the show was forced to be non-edgy out of the fear of censorship and all that, whereas real college life is nothing but that edge.  How would I have changed things?  No idea.  I would definitely have been a force for it's edginess, to keep recycling a word, and I would have thought about taking the Arrested Development approach of cleverness and double/triple meanings - though that would be risky, as the target audience for the show was too young to really get such jokes.

Nevertheless, not only was the series a very small project (without a large need for external writers), but it was too short lived and before my time.

Speaking of...

#4:  Arrested Development

Another series I've talked about!  What are the odds?

Here's the thing that made Arrested Development so awesome:  Its humor was character driven, but also driven by the writers' distinct ability to talk about absolutely and totally forbidden topics on a major prime-time network...And get away with it.  They did this through both blunt-but-not-over reaching jokes, like how Tobias is an Analyst + Therapist.  Making him an Analrapist.  Then there's more subtle times, like when Tobias believes his children are heavily into leather clothing, so he goes to a store and asks if there's anything that would make him a "Leather Daddy."

Insert every "Tobias Is Gay" joke out there.

Working on Arrested would have been awesome.  Considering it's coming back, well, there -is- a very minor chance I'll get on it!  Unfortunately, they're already filming, so it'd have to involve a time machine.

#3:  Moral Orel


Moral Orel is just one of those shows waiting to have a "Cancelled Before Prime Time" article.  It's the first of two Adult Swim shows on this list, surprise surprise, and why is Orel on here?

Because Orel is about as gritty a drama as you can get in the world of Claymation, with dark humor and serious social commentary all wrapped into one.  Robot Chicken, similar in visual style, is much more light-hearted, and considering the number of gruesome deaths on that show?  That's saying something.  Moral Orel doesn't need death to be bleak.

The upshot is that there is apparently a made-for-TV movie in the works for Moral Orel, but its cancellation after three seasons (with the absolutely depressing trimming of the final season, to boot) just served as an honestly crushing blow.  So, chances are, I'm not workin' on this, either.  But let me tell you - if you haven't, you need to watch Season 3.  Shortened as it is, it's one of the finest seasons of TV I've ever seen in any medium, ever.

#2:  The Venture Brothers

Okay.  This one...Is probably the only one I'd ever have any shot of getting in, mainly because it's the only one still being actively, aggressively produced.  Unfortunately, it's also way too high profile for a TV newbie like me!

Where do I really begin?  Well, with it's beginning.  Venture Brothers really started as sort of a spoof show, a parody of the old Johnny Quest TV show.  As it grew into its own production halfway through the first season, however, character complexity took center stage.  No longer was it just about whatever random adventure Rusty happened to be on; it became about the state of The Monarch's relationship with Dr.  Girlfriend.  It became about Hank and Dean growing up and, in time, becoming more than just tag-along nuisances.

It became its own show.

With this Adult Swim show having suffered from production troubles due to a company going under, the stage is quickly being set for a fifth series.  It will be awesome, because it's production is in the hands of people who truly care about it.

#1:  Xenogears

Oh yes, I said it.  A video game.  Not a TV show, not a comic book, not a novel project; a Playstation One game.  And I'm going to show the very first scene which will explain why...

In case you're wondering, yes; this game very nearly got banned from the United States for scenes like that one.  It's plot is somewhere between a scathing Biblical launch-point, an episode of Mobile Suit Gundam, a Final Fantasy game (It's made by Square), and an awesome psychology lesson.  I don't want to spoil things because, frankly, the game'll do that in due time if you can pick up a copy, but here are some highlights...

 - Umpteen years ago, a space-craft crashed on Earth.
 - Your protagonist pilots a giant robot of destruction.
 - Battles between sand-submarines.
 - UFOs.
 - Religious iconography that's powerful and creative.

The biggest weakness Xenogears had was that it didn't get perfectly translated when it came to the U.S..  That, and sometimes dungeons can get a bit long-in-the-tooth, with old-school random encounters that today seem to only get in the way of a story...Except that typical RPGs of today are nothing but story broken up by bits of tutorial mode.

I would have loved to work on this project, if for no other reason than to provide an extra degree of precision on the final product.  Any translation runs some risks, but Xenogears - with its dialogue-heavy plot - ended up very well, despite not attaining perfection.

Oh well.  That's what Perfect Works is for.