This is the second post in my ongoing series on the JRPG Xenoblade Chronicles.
One of the tropes of Xenoblade Chronicles is the ability to see the future. The main hero, an 18-year-old science geek named Shulk, has acquired the ability to use a magical weapon that, among other things, gives him the ability to see the future. These visions lead to the phrase “change the future” being said with political ad frequency.
It’s not clear yet what the game’s ultimate take on prophesy is. So far, Shulk has mostly been able to successfully evade fate based on his visions. However, in one case, despite his foreknowledge, he was unable to prevent the death of a close friend. Is this a Cassandra-like ability – will Shulk be forced to suffer with the knowledge of future catastrophe that he is powerless to change? Will it eventually prove to have Oedipus-like consequences – his visions will be self-fulfilling? Or does the capacity to see the future give you the ability to change it?
“The future isn’t set. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.”
– John Connor quoting Kyle Reese quoting John Connor
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
The question of fate, or of determinism, is an ancient one of course, and one that crops up frequently in popular media. Innumerable sci-fi movies deal with the possibilities of time travel or prophesy (which is really just a message that travels back through time). The new Bruce Willis flick Looper is only the latest, and seems to be the spiritual successor to Twelve Monkeys, which I just watched again a couple weeks ago. Whether it has the same take on fate, I couldn’t say, not having see it yet. (In Twelve Monkeys, it seems clear that what will happen will happen – it is impossible to meaningfully change the course of events.) Ted Chiang also deals with this question – he comes down pretty strongly on the side that we have no free will because the structure of space-time is unchangeable whether or not we can see the future.
This trope takes on a particular kind of weirdness in this game. This is not the first JRPG to deal with fate by a long shot. In Chrono Trigger, the characters hop back and forth from distant past, to present, to distant future. But when they are actually traveling through time, it relieves the player of a certain kind of narrative pressure. After all, no matter how much time it takes you to get there, you wind up when you need to be. In Xenoblade, the visions add an immediate narrative urgency: you need to go do something RIGHT NOW or someone is GOING TO DIE. But the way the game is structured, you can futz around chatting with people, exploring the area, buying new stuff, killing monsters, and the like for as long as you want before you continue with the story. This gives an odd kind of tension between continuing the story and playing the game. This happens in other games as well, but the visions of the consequences of failing to take immediate action make it that much more apparent.