Transcending the Material: Xenosaga, Religion, and the Fear of Death
Xenosaga’s philosophically-crafted narrative still resonates years later
You are going to die. It doesn’t matter how old or young you are. It doesn’t matter what you try to do to stop it. It doesn’t matter if you spend your days worrying about death, or if you push that fear completely from your consciousness. Eventually — regardless of your failures, your successes, your mistakes, your worries, your loves, and your pains — you and everyone you know will cease to exist.
For many people, this is a point of great consternation, anxiety, and hopelessness. For others, this is a comforting thought against the pains of reality. Video games, like all great fiction, have spent much of their existence wrestling with the philosophies surrounding death, and eternal life.
A part of the great JRPG tradition, the Xenosaga trilogy attempts to assuage humanity’s fear of death by crafting a story thousands upon thousands of years in the making, one that spans from before when Jesus Christ walked the Earth to thousands of years into an unknowable future. It’s a saga of spiritual discussion, garish aliens, variant mechs, and impossibly powerful robots. For a series soaked in the most pristine tropes of anime bullshit, Xenosaga walks a fine line of deeply emotional narratives and kaleidoscopic philosophy. This feast of concept attempts to unify the works of Friedrich Nietzsche and Carl Jung with the teachings of Jesus Christ, and ties it up with hot anime stereotypes, Kurosawa sword duels, literary references and ancient religions.
Xenosaga is a masterwork of the genre — and twenty years later it has plenty to say about who we are, and where we might be headed.
Beyond Good And Evil
At some point in human history — roughly 5,000 years ago — humankind invented written language. As we transitioned from hunter/gatherer archetypes into herded communal networks, our language and needs evolved. Humankind was no longer satisfied with the lonely and desperate survival tactics that it had endured up until that point, but in order to live in a community space, we had to adapt to selflessness, empathy, and camaraderie. In order to save our species and look to the future, we had to learn how to live with one another.
Structuring itself around real-world philosophies and religious ideas, Xenosaga explores a space familiar to all of us by placing the fiction of what might be possible within the boundary of what is. When I was a young person — when I was still a Christian — Xenosaga resonated with me through its adaptation and perversion of common Biblical tropes, stories, and lessons, all of them altered through the game’s futuristic lens. As a fourteen-year-old testing the structure of my world and religion’s place in it, Xenosaga was a blasphemous and shocking interpretation of all things holy. Common Biblical stories and ideas were altered for the heavy-handed symbolism that Xenosaga served, from the Gnosis turning you to salt upon physical touch (an allusion to Lot’s wife), to the cross-shaped Zohar and the E.S. units named after the Tribes of Judah.
I recognized it all, but had never considered that fiction could bend, re-establish, and break the sacred traditions and texts. Xenosaga, as a video game, was neo-literature to the eyes of a young man who was curious about the world, the universe, and the ideas that bind and separate us.
It opened my mind to the possibility of religion and philosophy as creative playgrounds, with instruments and ideas that were as much mine as anyone’s.
“Concerning religion, Young’s fundamental argument is that although Nietzsche rejects the Christian God, he is not ‘anti-religious.’ Rather, Nietzsche is a religious thinker precisely because he adopts Schopenhauer’s analysis of religion as an intellectual construction that addresses the existential problems of pain and death, and gives authority to community-creating ethos.”
Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Religion by Weaver Santaniello
Chaos And Order
Fiction is the great tool that allows us to safely explore the boundaries of the unknown, and move beyond them. Video games have rapidly become the evolving literature of the 21st Century, empowering us to engage in new frontiers of existentialism, philosophy, and experience — especially when it comes to experiences outside personal understanding. Games like Kentucky Route Zero and Disco Elysium have paved the way for a sterling future of inventive prose and abstract ideas that were explored by Phillip K. Dick or Ursula K. Le Guin decades ago.
Xenosaga sits in rough obscurity, a PlayStation 2 JRPG that was designed to potentially compete with the likes of Final Fantasy, but was weighed down by the ambition and scope of its creators. Xenosaga Episode I was an impressive effort to canonize a series in six parts — a degree of planning and development that was unheard of at the time and is still challenging today. While Xenosaga floundered in sales, we still received a trilogy, though it is a truncated and absurdly compressed version of the planned hexalogy by the husband and wife team of Tetsuya Takahashi and Soraya Saga.
The works of Nietzsche, Freud and Jung happened to be part of common interests I shared with Takahashi. […] Regardless of differences in religion, I’ve always had a deep interest in the power of belief people have. Biblical references in the game might catch the notice first because it’s widely known, but also a variety of religious ideas can be seen throughout the game.
Takahashi and Saga, like all revered futurists, had a vision for the next stage of humanity. Xenosaga takes place in the year T.C. (Transcend Christ) 4767, though the number itself only hints at the actual timeframe, since faster-than-light travel alters our perception of time. Like the recent NieR: Automata, Xenosaga firmly sets itself so far in the future that it fragments our understanding of the present, and allowed Takahashi and Saga to make Xenosaga as dramatic, prophetic, and inventive as they desired. It’s upon this stage that Xenosaga works as their vehicle for exploring philosophy and religion — and is a story of life and loss and the end of the universe.
There are too many philosophical concepts in Xenosaga to cover in a single story, though much of the existential woe over life, death, and the next life stems from a being called U-DO — the “wave existence” that the characters of the game perceive as God.
“God” in Xenosaga, this U-DO, is an ambivalent and intelligent being that resides in a dimension parallel to ours, the Upper Domain. This dimension of imaginary existence is the source of existential dread for the characters throughout the series — once you are aware of U-DO, the imaginary domain, and the truth of the universe your consciousness is irrevocably scarred. The Upper Domain is where Xenosaga’s alien menace — the Gnosis — stems from, it provides power to those who can tap into its source, and it allows U-DO to see into our dimension. God in Xenosaga is more akin to an eldritch being than a benevolent creator, and takes the concept of God’s terrifying power to a literal place. Making contact with U-DO is the door of curiosity that can never be closed again.
“And he said, Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live.”
For most of us, the exploration and belief in a particular religion is tied to our natural fear of death and its inevitable and sudden occurrence. Death makes cowards of us all, and we desperately want to believe that there is something beyond us, that there is a place for our loved ones who have passed on, that there can be something more. It is this fear of death and the unknown that drives much of the plot of Xenosaga, especially in the case of its villains. In the pursuit of eternal life and the prevention of death, characters must sacrifice their humanity. Characters such as Albedo go insane because of their aversion to death and eternal life — once Albedo realizes he will outlive everyone he’s ever loved, he becomes a maniacal and sociopathic evil.
The core plot of Xenosaga is the preservation of a metaphysical loop — the Eternal Recurrence — that will continually pause the end of all things at a destined point and then return all life to the beginning of time. Similar to the Nietzschean concept, Eternal Recurrence resets everything, but we retain our personal selves. The details of the world remain essentially the same, except that every single time Eternal Recurrence is engaged anomalies are created, cracks that form in the collective unconscious of humanity. The crux of Xenosaga is, as with many great JRPGs, the importance of choice and the defiance of the will of a godlike destiny. Even if everything might someday end, it’s more important to live your life to the fullest than to constantly seek out perfection. Disengaging Eternal Recurrence, and facing the reality of the end of all things, is a humanist choice.
"Living the same life over and over again, but living those lives without any regrets is what really matters. That’s probably what the ideal vision of being human is all about. However, we humans are really not that strong. And we know that we can’t live like that. We’re creatures that are much more flawed, weak, and smaller than that. We hurt others, we lie to ourselves, we hate, we blame others, we regret, but, even if we are weak, and even if it is our fate to disappear entirely. I think the will to change the future is still an important one. We must try to change the things around us, little by little. Even if it is one step at a time, And even if everything is already pre-determined, it’s not something for us to be sad about. No. On the contrary, the future is overflowing with hope."
Shion’s final words in Xenosaga Episode III
A Single Human Thought
Death, and eternal life, look different to all of us.
Many people the world over choose their religion because of the comfort it brings. Most religions have something to say about life after death. Life after death is an essential aspect of our sense of self, and it can profoundly change your perspective of the world. For many, that fear of death is so strong that it drives violent action. The afterlife, reincarnation, and the effects of the physical body are things constantly explored in fiction, and Xenosaga places them front and center to its narrative philosophy.
“I became a Testament to escape the fear of death, and to obtain eternal pleasure. It had nothing to do with you, Jan Sauer. The reason I concern myself with you is extremely simple. I just want to enjoy my eternal life along with you.”
Voyager, Xenosaga Episode III
While I have spent a lifetime dealing with sideways looks from people who consider my avid obsession with video games a childish frivolity, games like Xenosaga have profoundly influenced my personal philosophies and my life. I am no longer a fourteen-year-old boy in private Christian school, learning what my parents wanted me to learn. Growing up with Xenosaga pushed me to explore the philosophies and religions that inspired the game, and I am still learning from it years later. Reading the works of Nietzsche and Jung, learning about religions beyond Christianity, seeing the differences of Gnosticism, and exploring my own understanding of atheism has defined me as an adult.
Although “just a video game,” Xenosaga’s heavy-handed science fiction approach to religion, philosophy, and death set me on a path. Its a piece of storytelling that deserves an audience, where we can all come together with our own ideas of what exactly Monolith Soft’s first journey was trying to say.
I recently finished another play of the entire trilogy; every few years I dust off my PS2, pull my original copies out of storage, and relive them. Every time I play Xenosaga, I learn something new. JRPGs have a rich history of stories packed with existential questions and answers, and there is nothing quite like Xenosaga (or its cousin, Xenogears). As pieces of literature, games like Xenosaga can make us think, and expand our worldviews. They can give us new ideas to consider, and even make us conquer our fear of death.
“Death is rest for the soul. Who was it that said that? If the body did not die, and the fears borne in the mind just continued to pile up, the world would be nothing more than an eternal prison.”
Ziggy, in Xenosaga Episode II
Like the characters in Xenosaga, I truly believe that a single human thought is powerful enough to change the entire world. Part of the human experience is the discussion of ideas, and Xenosaga packs itself like a history lesson. Takahashi and Saga used the medium to explore human consciousness — and to give us an epic unlike any other.
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