An enormous part of Xenoblade Chronicles beguiling power is it’s fascinating premise – the entire world is set literally on the body and limbs of a massive benevolent creature known as the Bionis. In doing so it manages to ably sidestep one of the most tired conventions in JRPGs – the staleness of divinity and its impact on the game world.
And therein lies the fascinating concept of Xenoblade – the movement between the very very large, and the very very small.
The Bionis and Mechonis
Xenoblade boasts a massive world with the entire spectrum of nature on display; massive waterfalls, valleys, mountains and civilisations – all working in paradox with the core idea behind the world. The first (enormous) city you explore is undermined almost immediately by several views later on, one of the most powerful of which is the whole circumference of the first (enormous) city explored clearly visible below you on the ankle of the creature you are currently standing on.
Each new area you stumble across is introduced by indicating whereabouts on the Bionis you are, and this is the idea that both mystifies and bothers me – as the game progresses the gameworld (and in turn the giant that houses it) becomes more tangible. It is often shocking to realise where you’re standing on this creature. It is for me equal parts horrific and awe inspiring.
Here’s a short video that puts the unique geography of the world into perspective.
This unique view of a universe is at the center of Xenoblade’s narrative. The Bionis is not the only giant in this strange universe, it’s rival world – the Mechonis (the colossus that appears on the boxart) – looms over many of the starting areas, blocking out much of the sky above your characters as you explore.
The renewal of the Bionis and Mechonis from former gods into the physical basis of a world is such a potent idea. It doesn’t surprise me at all that it was this central idea that entirely inspired both the story and setting of Xenoblade (as discussed here in a fascinating Iwata asks which focuses on Xenoblade’s design decisions).
It’s a very interesting take on spirituality in a genre that frequently overuses ancient powers.
Divinity at the heart of the game
The ideas at play here allude to our own ancient understanding of the universe. The game literally plays with the idea of a creator that sustains life forming the body of the world. As such each step on the Bionis haunts me, it feels as though I am looking at the physical presence of something that I simply shouldn’t be able to. By playing the game I am encouraged to literally walk on the back of a God-like creature, it feels like one massive (but beautiful) taboo.
That’s without discussing some of the games incredible world physics – the examination of which would spoil some of the later games more mind-blowing moments, where you literally spot something far above, or far below you and your mind whirrs as you attempt to process what you are seeing. It goes without saying that the rules and boundaries of our universe do not apply.
And yet it feels so natural. The story of the Bionis and Mechonis is ancient story passed down from one generation to the next. The Bionis becomes the life-giving creature that battled the Homs (essentially humans) ancient arch enemy. Both Gods now stand slumbering, pinned together in a vast, unseen ocean. The proof of the legend is in the sky, therefore the giant haunting their horizon is not something to be feared as they stand on an equal power.
But I still find the paradoxical idea of the gameworld troubling me as I attempt to explore it further, it makes me ponder what lives outside of the Bionis’ and Mechonis’ vast horizon. The Bionis is a world without a map, judged not on the continents that are amassed on a sphere, but the steeper or lower points on a enormous creature paused in a moment of battle.
It’s troubling to see such peaceful (and beautiful) lands nestled in such a way, but I cannot help but admit that Xenoblade’s universe could well be one of the most compelling game worlds that I have ever had the pleasure (and occasional discomfort) of exploring.
Micro decisions in a delicately designed universe
As such Xenoblade has a carefully choreographed atmosphere. You’re tasked with not only exploring the massive god-like Bionis but also to really get to know and influence it’s inhabitants. There are numerous characters in every area that follow their own routines and have their own problems to attend to. As your understanding of one area of the world improves.
Think about the relationships that Link attempted to influence in Majora’s Mask and you’re halfway there – except on a much larger scale. Every single dot in this picture is a person I have actively sought out and slowly gotten to know, this chart also indicates how each of the character I have met relate to one another.
Every named NPC in the game has a particular routine to their day, appearing at a certain point (and in a certain place) during the day night cycle. As you progress you connect more individuals together. As you play more, you find yourself genuinely starting to understand and appreciate the inner workings of the communities in each area. This makes the motivation to be complete rewards less about crossing something off a list and more about putting the player in the mindset of the Bionis’ citizens.
All characters are grateful for their world – evidently proud and respectful out of reverence for the sacrifice two Gods have made. The giants in the sky do not scare, but comfort them.
And in my view Xenoblade presents one of the rare applications of in-game divinity that I can understand. The Gods of this game are tangible, impressive, protective and powerful all at once. Not just from being huge, or mighty, but for literally sustaining life quietly and silently until you take a moment to stop, and look up again at their massive, frozen forms.