A few weeks ago, I laid out With a Terrible Fate‘s plans for celebrating its one-year anniversary. One of the several things that I promised readers was that I would re-release some of my most popular analyses, with bonus commentary reflecting on the strengths, weaknesses, and reception of the piece. Today, on the eve of the North American and European releases of Xenoblade Chronicles X, I am offering the first such retrospective: a critical review of my analysis of Leibniz’s influence on Xenoblade Chronicles.
Read on for the full text of the original article, which I wrote back in February of this year, and read on after the article for my critical review.
Finding your Monad: Xenoblade and Leibniz.
We are about to bear witness to the birth of a universe.
Once, only a god could perform such a miracle.
–Klaus, “Xenoblade Chronicles”
The clock counts down to the release of “Majora’s Mask 3D” on Friday, February 13th. At the moment, however, I want to turn elsewhere, and give fans a sample of what is coming beyond “Majora’s Mask.”
You might reasonably wonder exactly where an enterprise named With a Terrible Fate could go beyond the analysis of “Majora’s Mask.” However, I believe that my analysis of the game over the last four months has, beyond examining the architecture of “Majora’s Mask” as a work of art, has provided the basis for a mode of general video game criticism. The major points I draw your attention to are best articulated in my works of line analysis on the first line and last line said by the Happy Mask Salesman in the game. If we want to be snarky about it, we can refer to the analytic mode I have in mind as ‘the Majoran critique’: ‘examination of the narratological architecture of a universe, the metaphysics of which reflect existential contingency on an agency exogenous of that universe.’ Put another way: we’ve seen that Termina very deeply depends on the player as a character in its story in order to exist. This mode of literary criticism takes player agency as a crucial, central element to the stories of video games, and aims to uncover how different games architect worlds and stories in relation to that agency.
If you want to read more about this, you’re in luck. I wrote an academic paper about it, which you can check out here. Drawing from various parts of my analysis of “Majora’s Mask,” the paper models how the game creates a world whose coherence and narrative are functions of the player as a participant.
But it’s sometimes easier to teach by example. So today, “Xenoblade Chronicles” meets With a Terrible Fate.
Before proceeding with analysis, a disclaimer. I never felt the need to warn about spoilers in “Majora’s Mask” — partly because I’m a delightfully callous video game analyst, and partly because, as far as RPG’s go, the narrative of “Majora’s Mask” doesn’t really depend on sudden twists and turns. “Xenoblade” thrives on twists and turns, and I promise you that the narrative is far more rewarding if you experience it for the first time by actually playing the game. This analysis will heavily focus on the end of the game — and, callous analyst that I am, I’m going to be using spoiler-worthy details all the time. Consider yourself warned.
“Xenoblade” has become a modern classic in gaming, to the point where its main character, Shulk, has “earned a spot” in the latest iteration of the “Super Smash Bros.” series. The reasons why it’s enticing are pretty clear: it’s a great example of a massive overworld, with a lot of potential for exploration, and an epic-length plot to match. It’s a world with rich history, and this history stretches out before the player in two directions: ontologically, the side quests of the game offer tremendous insight into the ancient history of species and civilizations across the world; metaphysically, the game’s main plot reveals how the world itself came into existence, and how the world functions as a closed system.
There are also subtler aspects that make the game memorable. For one, it’s directly informed by Leibniz’s metaphysics — the sword upon which the plot turns is called “the Monado,” a direct reference to Leibniz’s monadology, something to which I will return later. It’s also a great example of storytelling that utilizes thematic mirroring of the macrocosm and microcosm: the same questions of identity and teleology emerge in the case of individual characters as emerge on the universal scale.
I offer this all by means of background; the point is that there are a lot of different things one could say about “Xenoblade,” because it’s an appealing game from a variety of angles. What I’m going to do in this article, drawing in part from the different game elements I just mentioned, is use the theoretical machinery first outlined in my work on “Majora’s Mask” to defend the following thesis: the narrative of Xenoblade describes the ‘death of the author’ by transferring metaphysical authority from the game’s creator to the player.
To understand how the world within “Xenoblade” functions, it’s crucial that we understand some of Leibniz’s mature metaphysics, because, as I mentioned above, the game’s narrative turns on an object explicitly referring to that metaphysics. This will be a rough gloss, but my hope is to provide enough context to do Leibniz justice, while also equipping us to move into a well-reasoned analysis of the metaphysics in “Xenoblade.”
Leibniz’s metaphysics is grounded in his theory of monadology, which describes the real world as constituted by mind-like substances with perception and appetite, but without extension. These substances are called ‘monads’, and physical entities in this framework are understood as less-real phenomena grounded in the interactions of these monads. Each being can be described by a ‘dominant monad’, which in living beings (e.g., humans) is equivalent to a ‘soul’. Importantly, each monad, while lacking extension, possesses a unique perspective with respect to all other monad — and, consequently, to the world. ‘God’, which we can frame here as something like a ‘first cause’ in the causal chain of the universe, is knowledgeable of all monads, and therefore perceives the universe from all perspectives at all times.
So much for Leibniz, for the moment. Moving to “Xenoblade”: the Monado is a sword which, over the course of the game, reveals itself to be a tool that allows its wielder to see and change the world’s future. The explanation of this is that the sword is able to tap into the flow of ether, the fundamental element of the universe; as ether constitutes the world, its flow, by extension, is numerically identical to the causal chain of the universe as it moves forward in time. This turns into a plot point and game mechanic because, by virtue of viewing the future as it presently stands, one (Shulk / the player) is able to take actions to change the future, altering the causal chain as the universe proceeds in the forward direction.
“Xenoblade” is also a world of gods, and a story of killing the Zanza, the god who claims ownership of the universe. In the final moments of the game’s main plot, the ontology of the universe is explained to Shulk (27:24 in the video; we will return to the matter of who explains it to him in just a moment). We learn in the final moments of the game that the universe was created by two scientists — Klaus and Meyneth — who, in turn, entered the universe and became its gods, with Klaus taking the name of “Zanza.” The world created by Klaus consisted of two enormous titans, the Bionis and Mechonis, serving as manifestations of Zanza and Meyneth, respectively; Zanza thrust the universe into a state of decay and rebirth, in order to ensure that the creatures of the world would never forget his place as their god.
Meyneth, however, did battle with Zanza, believing that the people of the universe they created should not be subservient to gods. In the battle, Meyneth was rendered dormant, and Zanza was imprisoned on the Bionis. Ultimately, it is revealed that Zanza had inhabited the body of Shulk, the player’s main character; at the climax of the game, he shrugs Shulk off in a way similar to Majora’s Mask shrugging off Skull Kid; he takes Shulk’s Monado, and moves to destroy the world and create a new one yet again. Meyneth, who had inhabited the body of Shulk’s childhood friend, Fiora, manifests herself, summons her own Monado and dies fighting Zanza.
Zanza claims both Monados and leaves to complete his plot; but Shulk and his friends return to challenge Zanza. When Shulk first confronts Zanza, he finds that he cannot properly anticipate the future, because Zanza is the god wielding the Monados. Yet as the battle continues, Shulk’s resolve strengthens, and a third Monado appears in his hands. Throughout the game, the Monado has shown symbols on its hilt reflecting the creatures it can fell; in the moment when the third Monado appears, it bears the symbol for “god.” Shulk reclaims his ability to see the future, declaring that “the future doesn’t belong to [Zanza],” and he kills the god.
At this point, something unexpected happens: Alvis, a man who has guided Shulk from the periphery of the narrative for much of the game, reveals himself to actually be Monado itself, and says that Monado is “the administrative computer of a phase transition facility.” He then tells Shulk the history of the world, beginning with how Klaus and Meyneth created it in an experiment on a space station; he ends by saying that, in killing Zanza, Shulk has become the new god, and must choose the world he wants to create. Shulk decides to create “a world without gods,” which is “boundless” in nature.
Even on a flat analysis, I find the game’s storyline compelling; however, moving to full analysis by adding the player and Leibniz is where things start getting really interesting. Recall that the thesis I am after is a narrative describing the ‘death of the author’. To be specific, I use this term to denote a position in literary criticism that examines art object independently of the author’s intention, background, context, etc. In other words, this approach “kills” the artist, and only looks at the art for what it is. So, for a narrative to describe this position, we would expect the narrative’s architect to appear within it, one way or another. A theoretical diagram will help show how this happens in “Xenoblade.”
One of the metaphysical stratifications to notice in games that refer to their own universe from outside of it — like “Xenoblade” — is the difference between the universe as conceived within the game, and the totality of the universe established by the game. Klaus and Alvis are both literally within the game, but they are also outside of the universe described by the game, which Klaus created in his “phase transition” experiment. The player, too, is outside the universe conceived by the game, but is still an agent within the game’s narrative. A return to monadology will explain what I mean here.
Recall that monads, the fundamentals of reality, describe the causal chain of the universe, according to Leibniz. God sees from the perspective of all monads at once and is therefore omniscient. This coheres with the usage of ‘Monado’ within “Xenoblade”: Klaus uses a system administrator to facilitate the construction and maintenance of his own universe; as its creator and the progenitor of the Monado, he knows the totality of its causal structure, and is able to inhabit whatever perspective he wishes — as when he inhabits Shulk’s body. When Zanza first exits Shulk’s body and reveals himself, he speaks to this effect: “Do not be surprised,” he tells Shulk’s friends, “everything in this world is dictated by the passage of fate. As all that exists is interconnected, time can only flow toward the inevitable. That is the vision of which I, the Monado, am the origin.” By equating himself with the Monado, Zanza is describing himself as the first mover in the causal chain — which, as the universe’s creator and god, he is. We can say that Zanza is the dominant monad when the entire universe as conceived by the game is taken as a closed system.
If the metaphysics of Leibniz were imposed on the universe of a film or book, then this would be the end of the story: there is nothing beyond a god who is the causal chain of the universe. But we have already seen that games have a different set of narrative mechanisms in their toolkit, and it is player agency that allows this story to end with the death of a god, as opposed to his conquest.
What can fell a god? When Alvis reveals himself as Monado, he speaks to Zanza about the limitations of gods. Zanza exclaims in fury that “the power of a god cannot be overcome”; and, given my analysis, he has every reason to believe that this is categorically true. Alvis replies that “even gods are merely beings restricted to the limited power determined by providence. That power, although great, is not unlimited.” Returning to Figure 2.1, notice the distinction between the universe as conceived by the game, and the domain of the game beyond that universe: it is readily apparent that Zanza is limited in precisely the way described by Alvis, because he is bound within the system of the very universe he created. The player is not. By controlling Shulk and his friends, the player is able to perceive the future and change it, by looking and acting upon the universe’s system from a vantage point external to the game itself — a vantage point which renders Zanza a mere character in the causal chain, rather than an omnipotent metaphysical agent. The reason Shulk is able to persist, challenge, and defeat Zanza after the god tosses him aside is that the player continues to engage with him, and with his world. The third Monado, for which Zanza cannot account, is actually identical to the player’s agency within the universe of “Xenoblade.”
There’s an even stronger claim that we can make about “Xenoblade” at this juncture, which drives home just how well-composed its story is: from the beginning of the game, the only possible outcome is the destruction of the current universe. Of course, the player has no way of knowing this at the start of the game, but it is clear in hindsight: the universe, as conceived within the game, operates in accordance with Leibniz’s metaphysics. This entails a closed, determined causal structure, of which God is omniscient. The instigation of another metaphysical entity with the capacity to alter this causal structure — namely, the player — breaks the deterministic causality of the universe as previously conceived. It follows that the only outcome for the universe, once the player is introduced to it, is decomposition; so, besides oblivion, the creation of a new universe at the end of the game is the only logically possible conclusion.
“Xenoblade” does something remarkable on the level of second-order narrative: it shows how video games can be used in aesthetically powerful ways to create a universe with a complete metaphysics, and then perturb those metaphysics with an external agent. A universe of Leibniz’s metaphysics leaves all being subordinate to god, which reflects the structure of games as a program, the path of which is determined prior to the player ever finding it; yet the design of the universe as something that can be externally observed allows the player to disturb the universe’s determined structure, and tell a story whose narrative arc is only valid by virtue of the player’s interference. This feature, then, reflects the value of the player acting upon the program of a game to bring its narrative from the realm of possible paths into the reality of a single path from start to finish.
How does this deal with the death of the author? Well, with the analytic work in place, a generalization of Figure 2.1, shown below as Figure 2.2, has an answer for us.
The game designer, or ‘architect’, designs a universe through and within the confines of a game system. Also through the game system, a character is instantiated through which the player is able to enter the game’s universe (the ‘avatar’). The game’s architect is in a position to establish a world with a particular metaphysics, which can be as complete as a gloss of Leibniz’s theory; and in this way, the internal structure of the game’s world is a remnant of its designer, who is analogous to the world’s ‘God’. Yet the player, by virtue of connecting with the avatar, is able to exert agency from outside of the universe’s closed system, and is thereby able to perturb the world’s initial structure, as architected by its designer. In this way, the narrative of a game can be described as the perturbing of the world’s prior structure by introduction of a metaphysically external agent. We saw “Majora’s Mask” metricized a certain way in terms of Termina’s metaphysical dependency on the player; “Xenoblade” shows us that this can be generalized, and that, as Alvis says, it can be described well as a “phase transition.” An effective way for games to tell stories, we see, is by setting up a world so ordered as to have been designed by a god, and then introducing a being with the power to kill that god by subverting the world’s metaphysics. This is precisely how games, to paraphrase Klaus, allow their players to give birth to a universe — a miracle that was once reserved for gods.
I generally agree today with the analysis I initially put forward about Xenoblade Chronicles. However, there are several points which warrant elaboration and clarification.
Leibniz and Gnosticism
I should first point out that my work on Xenoblade has often been referenced and discussed alongside work that interprets Xenoblade in terms of Gnosticism. I am not going to comment on this at length because theology is far from my area of expertise. I will, however, make two brief remarks. First, it seems to me obvious and undeniable that much of Xenoblade‘s lore is inspired by Gnosticism. Yaldabaoth, Egil’s Faced Mechon, shares its name with a Gnostic demiurge; various characters in the game bear resemblance to figures in Gnostic scripture; some strands of Gnosticism are also monadic (this bears no relation to Leibniz–it means merely that the Gnostics posited a first being from which the universe emerged). Second, I see no reason why such an interpretation, if one wishes to pursue it, would be incompatible with my own analysis. My philosophical analysis of the game’s aesthetic dynamics are primarily concerned with how the game’s story works, not “what it means” in some interpretive sense. So one can accept the dynamics that I propose and still acknowledge Gnostic influence without contradicting oneself.
Here is a somewhat different example making the same point: regular readers may recall that, during my extended analysis of Majora’s Mask, I wrote a piece analyzing the apparent influence of Buddhism on the game. This bore no immediate relation to my much larger project of analyzing the aesthetic dynamics inherent to the game: rather, I was applying an external tradition in order to interpret the meaning of the game in a certain way. This is exactly what we have in the case of Xenoblade and Gnosticism: if you buy into my work on the game, then you can take or leave the Gnostic interpretation in good conscience.
“We can say that Zanza is the dominant monad when the entire universe as conceived by the game is taken as a closed system. If the metaphysics of Leibniz were imposed on the universe of a film or book, then this would be the end of the story: there is nothing beyond a god who is the causal chain of the universe.”
In my original work on Xenoblade, I only gestured at the idea that its kind of death-of-the-author narrative — i.e. narratives in which a character, whose existence is determined by some other “author” character, interferes with the author and interrupts the course of his own story — only makes sense in the narrative medium of video games. Some time later, I returned to Xenoblade in order to flesh out a much more robust explanation of why this is the case. You can read that explanation in full here. I compare Xenoblade to the film Stranger than Fiction (Zack Helm, 2006), and argue that Stranger than Fiction, in trying to to present a death-of-the-author narrative, actually has an incoherent plot because films (and novels) lack the representational resources necessary to coherently represent such a narrative. (Actually, at the time, I said that Stranger than Fiction’s narrative was coherent, but inherently paradoxical. I now think that the paradox renders the narrative incoherent.)
The problem is this: suppose the “author” in a death-of-the-author story to be some agent x. In Xenoblade, this author is Zanza, god of the universe that he created; in Stranger than Fiction, the author is Karen Eiffel, a novelist whose characters, unbeknownst to her, come to life in her world and live out lives that are determined by the stories that Eiffel writes. Now, there also exists some agent y, which is a character created by the author, whose actions are determined by the author. In Xenoblade, the relevant agent y is Shulk; in Stranger than Fiction, it is Harold Crick, portrayed by Will Ferrell. By the definition of death-of-the-author narratives, y is able to impact x and thereby change the course of events in the world. But this is a problem for Stranger than Fiction, as well as for similar stories in novels and films, because their plot then takes the following form: ‘the choices of x are affected by the actions of y, which were determined by choices made by x‘. This is irreducibly circular and therefore incoherent.
Xenoblade, however, shows that video games have a special method by which they can tell the same story without falling into the trap of incoherence. Because the player extends her agency to her avatar, controlling the avatar and dictating its actions, she can determine the actions of a character that was initially created and controlled by an author character. This is exactly what we see happen in Xenoblade: Shulk is able to confront and kill Zanza, his creator and god, because of the agency of the player. The player is external to Zanza’s universe and therefore not bound by Zanza, meaning that Shulk is, by extension, also able to ultimately act independently from Zanza. If we call the player a third agent z, then we can reformulate the death-of-the-author plot for video games as follows: ‘the choices of x are affected by the actions of y, which were determined by choices made by z‘. There is nothing circular about this, and video game narratives like Xenoblade‘s are thereby able to remain coherent. Because this coherence depends on the player as an agent external to the universe of the author character’s control, I take it to be the case that video games are uniquely able to render death-of-the-author narratives coherent.
“By controlling Shulk and his friends, the player is able to perceive the future and change it, by looking and acting upon the universe’s system from a vantage point external to the game itself — a vantage point which renders Zanza a mere character in the causal chain, rather than an omnipotent metaphysical agent.”
This is a trickier claim than I initially supposed. The issue is that we typically take it to be the case that entities lacking spatial extension in a given world cannot exert causal influence upon that world. The player obviously lacks spatial extension in Xenoblade‘s universe–that is precisely how, on my account, she is able to perturb the universe’s deterministic structure and bring about the death of Zanza. But, you might respond, I have already offered an obvious solution: the player’s agency is extend through Shulk and his friends, and Shulk+friends act as the player’s spatial extension within the universe of Xenoblade. Yet this only relocates the same problem: just how is it that the player is able to causally influence Shulk and his friends, given that the player lacks spatial extension within the universe of the game? I see two ways to go here, one of which I find much more plausible than the other.
The first way to respond is to simply say “That’s just the way things work in video games.” All artistic media, we might say, have conventions–for example, even though actors in a theater can obviously see the audience, we take it to be the case (except when indicated otherwise) that the characters in a play do not actually see the audience. We may even suppose that these characters do not exist in the same “world” as the audience, even though the audience can obviously see what is happening within the world of the play. It is therefore perfectly in keeping with the tradition of artistic convention to suppose that players can influence the worlds of video games despite not being a part of those worlds.
I don’t find this line of reasoning convincing. Even if we grant that some aesthetic conventions don’t make sense when taken literally, the case of players causally impacting video games is problematic for reasons that go beyond cases like actors ignoring an audience. In some video games, I have argued, we must understand the player as part of the game’s narrative in order to make sense of that narrative–again, this is the only way I see in which we can understand Shulk’s ability to kill Zanza. There is no analogous way in which the narrative of a play, for example, depends upon the audience in order to cohere. Because of the interactive nature of video games, questions of player-instigated causation are of immediate concern in aesthetic analysis, and so we had better hope that there is a better response to the problem available than “That’s just the medium’s convention.”
I do think that a better response is available, although the response is far from orthodox–so, bear with me. The literal answer to the question of how the player can causally influence events within the game, obviously, is that the controller acts as a mechanism by which the player can input commands that are processed by the game system and influence how it runs the program that constitutes the video game. I think that this answer can also serve to resolve the issue of the player’s causal influence within the context of the narrative.
This is a particularly perspicuous explanation in the case of Xenoblade. By stipulation within the narrative, the universe that Klaus created was computer-generated–this is why Alvis, the metaphysical arbiter of the universe, described himself as “the administrative computer of a phase transition facility.” If we already need to recognize the player’s agency in order to make sense of Shulk killing Zanza, and the basis for this player agency is that the player exists in the same universe to which Klaus originally belongs (I argued this in my original work on the game, above), then it seems reasonable to make the further inference that the game system itself is what allows the player to access and exert her will upon the universe, using the avatars of Shulk and his friends as proxies for herself. We have now solved the problem of causal influence without physical extension: the “universe” of the game, conceived as the program that the game system is running, is directly influenced by the real-life, physically extended player, through the intermediary of the game system’s controller.
Is it utterly bizarre that we have to conceive of the universe of the game as a literal computer program in order to understand its narrative? I don’t think so–at least, not as bizarre as it may initially seem. Consider these analogous cases: many novels are written in the form of diaries or journals (e.g., Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). When we read these narratives, we are supposed to imagine of the literal book that we are holding that it is a journal or diary, written by whichever character that the story tells us wrote it. Likewise, in the “found footage” genre of film, viewers are meant to imagine, within the conceit of the narrative, that the literal film they are watching was recorded by whichever character in the movie had the video camera. In ways such as these, narratives include facts about their literal representational vehicles all the time. Though understanding game consoles in this way is unintuitive, it makes good theoretical sense, and, as I have just argued, it allows us to solve the problem of how a player can causally influence a game’s narrative.
Moreover, seeing game consoles in this way allows us to think clearly about the aesthetic effects that result from video games being played on particular consoles. For example, I think that there are aesthetically meaningful differences between games that are played on stationary consoles (i.e. consoles that are connected to televisions) and games that are played on portable consoles. I will not go into the details of these differences here because I have yet to play the 3DS version of Xenoblade–however, if you’d like to read more about this, I have written about it extensively in relation to Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Check out this article, written prior to the release of Majora’s Mask 3D, in which I hypothesized how playing the game on a portable console might change the aesthetics of the game; and, check out my analysis of Majora’s Mask 3D, in which I analyze how playing the game on a portable console actually does change the aesthetics of the game.
“[the Monado] is able to tap into the flow of ether, the fundamental element of the universe; as ether constitutes the world, its flow, by extension, is numerically identical to the causal chain of the universe as it moves forward in time. This turns into a plot point and game mechanic because, by virtue of viewing the future as it presently stands, one (Shulk / the player) is able to take actions to change the future, altering the causal chain as the universe proceeds in the forward direction.”
This piece of analysis would work well if Shulk were the only avatar in the time–i.e. if the player controlled him and no one else–but the fact is that the player controls Shulk and his friends. So the ability to change the future of Zanza’s deterministic universe cannot be grounded in Shulk alone, because the player’s agency is extended to characters other than Shulk.
Thankfully, introducing the game console to the narrative analysis, as I just did above, solves this problem in an easy way that would not have been available to my original analysis. The player’s agency is directly able to allow Shulk and his friends to change the future by virtue of the player’s ability to control them through the game system.
Of course, this analysis is not yet satisfactory. Even if we have an accurate causal explanation of how the player extends agency to Shulk and his party, it would still be nice to have an explanation that grounds this causal explanation in the content of Xenoblade‘s narrative. Why exactly is it the case that Shulk and his friends are connected to the player’s agency? I propose to answer this question using Shulk’s Monado III in combination with general observations about dynamics underpinning the way in which Shulk and his friends associate.
I said in my original analysis of the game, above, that “[the] third Monado, for which Zanza cannot account, is actually identical to the player’s agency within the universe of ‘Xenoblade’.” I still think that this is the case: it grounds Shulk’s ability to kill Zanza, and makes plausible how he is able to continue his quest after Zanza ceases to control him from the inside. But I also think that the player’s agency, in its form as the Monado III, is “shared” amongst Shulk’s companions. Let me explain what I mean.
One of Xenoblade‘s basic mechanics is an ‘affinity system’, whereby various characters become more or less fond of each other based on various interactions that they have with each other. High affinity between party members is required to unlock a variety of things, such as ‘Heart-to-Hearts’ in which party members speak one-on-one and deepen their bonds with one another. So we have grounds to assume that party association has meaningful consequences within the universe of the game, as represented by the gameplay.
One of the primary ways in which affinity is strengthened between party members are in the player’s ‘active party’: this is the group of characters the engages in battle, undertakes quests, and so on. In other words, the active party is the group of characters most directly controlled by the player. I don’t think this is coincidence: rather, it seems to me that party characters are most predisposed to gain affinity in the active party because this is when they act most dynamically with one another, and they act most dynamically with one another in virtue of the player’s agency.
This tight connection between affinity on the one hand, and player agency facilitating dynamic action on the other, leads me to believe that the Monado diffuses its agency amongst those who bond with Shulk. Of all beings in the game, Shulk’s party companions are undoubtedly closest to him. And those who spend more time in the active party both develop greater affinity and are more directly controlled by the player’s agency. And this coheres deeply with the game’s theming of friendship: the stronger Shulk’s friends are bonded to him, the greater the extent is to which they, too, can change the future.
There are, of course, difficulties with this argument, but I don’t think they are enough to overshadow its plausibility. There are select moments in the same during which Shulk is not in the party at all, and the player need not always have Shulk in her active party. Yet the game’s proper narrative begins with Shulk, and all characters join the player’s party after meeting Shulk–in a substantive way, Shulk is the central focus of both the narrative and the player’s experience engaging that narrative. (I say “proper narrative” because the player controls Dunban in the introduction. But Dunban also holds a Monado here, which can plausibly explain the player’s short-lived relation to him in the introductory scene.) Because he is the focal point through which the player meets other character that later join the party, it also makes sense that he is the nexus through which the player’s agency is generally disseminated to other party members. So I think that the argument is in good shape–in fact, when one considers how difficult it generally is to explain how a player can extend her singular agency to multiple avatars in party-based RPGs (e.g., Final Fantasy, Namco Tales), I think we should be impressed with the extent to which Xenoblade‘s affinity system and Monado concept combine to give us a plausible account of a mechanism for the extension of player agency to an entire party.
I contend to this day that Xenoblade is one of the most interesting, complex, and well-articulated game narratives in recent years. I don’t doubt that I will return to analyze it further in the future.
And don’t be surprised if you see an analysis of Xenoblade Chronicles X from me in the coming months.