The Holy Mother of Nisan

This month’s round table topic (hosted by Corvus Elrod at Man Bytes Blog) is “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”. It asks those contributing to write about a character relationship that they found memorable or compelling in some way, and why.

Well written romance has always seemed rather beyond the pale of console games. There are those that don’t try (7th Saga), those that try and fail (Final Fantasy 8), and even some that do a pretty good job (Chrono Trigger), but only one console game romance that really stuck with me in all my years of playing story heavy RPGs.

I won’t explain the plot of Xenogears (it’s complicated enough by itself, and its ham-fisted delivery ensures that playing the game is no guarantee you know what the heck is going on), but I do feel obligated to talk about why I felt the romance was effective and memorable, as opposed to the lackluster romances found in most console RPGs, or the frequently awkward romantic exchanges between the players’ personal avatars and NPCs.

The game deals with the subject of reincarnation, which provides the handy little storytelling device of flashbacks to hundreds of years ago that give important plot info, but also build the relationship between the two main characters, Fei and Elly. This conveniently telescopes the amount of time you need to build a satisfying relationship, which is kind of a must, given that romantic relationships are barely ever at the forefront of RPGs, and not being given enough time is usually the problem with establishing compelling relationships in games.

Well, the amount of time given and the quality of the writing in the first place (which is not to be confused with the quality of dialogue, which I’m astonishingly forgiving about). Xenogears delivers on this front as well. I won’t go into every event that determines the course of the relationship, but the story pays very close attention to how their personalities interact:

Fei can’t have a healthy relationship with Elly because he has too many unresolved issues towards his mother, and alternates between treating Elly as a surrogate mother figure, and hating her because she reminds him of his own mother. Someone put enough thought into this to see that this leads to an interesting approach/avoid behavior on behalf of Fei. He’s glad to see her, and tries to look out for her well being, but can’t bring himself to spend any actual time with her.

Likewise, Elly, having a mediocre mother figure herself, is unsure of how to relate to Fei, and unsure of how to make use of her power and natural maternal instinct until she is no longer under the thumb of her own mother. She develops romantic feelings for Fei fairly early on, but matches his ambivalence with her inability to free herself of her parents (represented originally as the military).

Ultimately, she reconciles with her parents, and splits from her home country for good to travel with Fei, and is rewarded with the unlocking of memories from past lives (reincarnation, remember?), which serve to very quickly mold her into the person that she is destined to become, an almost perfect embodiment of The Warrior Mother.

Fei’s resolution, however, hinges on the moment where you finally learn that his mother died in an accident that was (possibly) intentionally caused by Fei. Despite their terrible relationship and her complete disregard for Fei, her maternal instinct kicks in, and she sacrifices herself for the life of her child. He realizes this, and in the final chapter, he steps up enough to be able to save Elly, while at the same time saving himself from the guilt of (possibly) killing his own mother.

This kind of metaphorical puppetry of the whole story is what fascinates me. In all previous reincarnations, Elly reaches this perfected Warrior Mother state, then loses her life saving Fei from overwhelming danger (the suggestion being that the sacrifice of one person of overwhelming virtue can do amazing things, stepping up the Christian Allegory of the game from “clumsy” to “half-way thought out”). However, when Fei successfully saves Elly at the end, he is (metaphorically, of course) saving his own mother, and breaking the cycle of Elly’s inevitable death.

I don’t know about you, but compared to any other inter-character romance in a console game, well... there’s just no comparison in my book. Nothing comes close to this in terms of level of complexity, attention to subconscious motivations, and ability to withstand literary criticism.

There’s a great deal to be said about why few other games rise to this level, but that’s for another post.

Next week: Another entry in my audacious attempt at Lexicon building. “Mature and Guns”!

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