Xenoblade Chronicles X, Destiny, and building a perfectly complex world

Xenoblade Chronicles X and Destiny have a shocking amount in common. One might be an RPG with shooting elements and the other a shooter with RPG diversions on top, but at a conceptual level they’re awfully similar. Humanity hunted to the brink of extinction! Sprawling alien worlds rife with treasure and secret histories! An ever-deepening pool of mysterious artifacts, monster fights, and arcane quests. Hell, if Eris Morn was a giant-eyed anime girl with a penchant for giant robots instead of spaceships, Bungie and Monolith would probably have to have words. For all their similarities, though, there is a crucial difference between the two of them: Xenoblade’s complexity comes close to ruining the entire game whereas Destiny’s most oblique elements are some of its best.

Make no mistake, minutiae is the primary focus of both Xenoblade and Destiny. The design philosophy fueling both games guarantees maximum investment, in both time and attention, from players. They send you out into huge worlds promising scads of loot, quests, and diversions but they also lock their most desirable riches behind dense menus and obscure knowledge.

Want to fight the most exciting bosses in the Court of Oryx with your fire team in Destiny? First you’re going to have find some Reciprocal Runes or Antiquated Runes. But then comes the hard part of figuring out what the hell they actually do and where you can use them. The same goes for Xenoblade. If you plan on maxing out your relationship stats with Elma, you’re going to have to both learn how to best use Soul Voices and understand how to best find Data Probe locations across Primordia. Wait, Soul Voices? Better read the 50-page, in-game manual. It’s the only thing in Xenoblade that will explain what those three-dozen Soul Voice commands for your primary character actually are. Once you’ve done all that, you better learn which battle skills those Soul Voices correlate to. Back to the manual.

All these details pile up on top of each other and ultimately make you either want to take a nap or they invigorate your interest, guaranteeing you’ll want to keep tumbling down the rabbit hole of systems and story to see what’s next.. The idea behind this type of game design is that if you put in the time and all the ridiculous proper nouns, lore, and mechanics, that the complexity will melt away leaving you absorbed in the game’s fantasy world. If you manage to penetrate the thick cell wall of details, you’ll reach a nucleic core of addictive immersion.

This actually pans out in Destiny. When you start Bungie’s game for the first time, its future earth and the alien war that’s left it in ruins seems painfully shallow and devoid of meaningful characters or relationships. The little Ghost robot floating around you tells you you’re a special snowflake of a Guardian, but you can clearly see dozens of other Guardians all around you. As far as merchants go, Cryptarch is no Tom Nook. He’s a bald, blue pile of blah, just like everyone else you meet in the Tower. Eris Morn seems less like a fascinating personality with history in the post-Traveler world than a design from a discount poster at Hot Topic. As you play the game, though, all these elements that seem so shallow gain new dimension from reading the Grimoire, playing with friends, and simply spending time in the world.

What seems like a weakness in Destiny - the absence of more in-game lore presented through cutscenes or dialogue - bolsters an emotional connection with the game’s universe. Take those aforementioned Court of Oryx boss fights. When you first stumble on Antiquated Runes or the other items you need to summon them, there’s no detail in your menu about them. No secret Wizard characters pop in to explain what they are in the game’s fantasy future, no enormous paragraph shows up explaining precisely what loot you can get from using it where. Finding out what the Runes are for becomes an activity in itself. Maybe you’ll go to one of the many fanmade websites like Destiny-Grimoire and look it up, or ask a friend you’ve been playing with if they know what they’re all about. If you do ask a friend, they may want to join a fire team to go take on those bosses and share in the loot. Suddenly the fiction of your Guardian takes shape in real life, enriching the game world and its characters with a tangible experience.

Contrast how Destiny uses its intricacies to draw people naturally into its universe with how Xenoblade Chronicles X obfuscates something as simple as completing early story missions. X drops you smack into the thick of the action after its short prologue explaining how mankind ended up marooned on an alien planet full of freaky bug dinosaurs. An in-game manual is available to pore through from the start if you want to understand the interplay between your different abilities, all the different types of armor you can equip, and what some of the frequently used terms are, but neither the manual nor the in-game dialogue explains how to practically apply any of that information.

The very first mission as a member of BLADE, X’s surveyor-military, explains that one of your primary activities will be exploring Primordia’s segmented map and placing down Data Probes. The process seems simple enough; a character tells you that there are different kinds of probes and they can be set down on each little section of the map. Probes will gather money and raw materials over time depending on what type you use; the more a certain type of probe is placed, the more resources you receive. Which is all well and good but the game never explains that you also need to pour each of your Blade levels into a Mechanical skill. That’s an entirely different progress system from your character’s basic level or their specific class level. If you don’t raise the Mechanical skill, you can’t plant more Data Probes, which means you’re resource poor and you can’t fast travel over the game’s enormous world. Did I forget to emphasize that Data Probes are vital for fast travel? So does the game.

While Destiny doesn’t paint a giant target on intricate mysteries like the Court of Oryx runes, it does allow them room to breathe. When you find an Antiquated Rune, it sticks out like a sore thumb in a generally uncrowded inventory. Xenoblade Chronicles X meanwhile never draws specific attention to any of its items or systems. Every detail is buried inside a dense menu, interface, or manual explanation so it’s almost impossible to figure out what deserves your attention, let alone what's important. An Antiquated Rune popping up in your inventory invites you to try and figure out what it might be, but Xenoblade just drops information like what a Mechanical skill is into an already thick morass of information. Nothing distinguishes it, and that’s just one example. By the time you’ve progressed hours into the game and that skill becomes vital to proceed, you have to spend hours grinding to fix the mistake of not leveling it up, and that’s after you’ve gone to a guide or other resource online to figure out how these different skills and items are supposed to interact. With each hour spent fiddling with the game, you’re driven further away from the story, further away from getting to explore Primordia, and further away from enjoying the art and fantasy that is outwardly the game’s most powerful draw. Xenoblade Chronicles X seems like a marvelously deep, alien thing to explore but it does nothing but place barriers between the player and that experience of discovery.

Despite all their similarities, the core difference between the two games is how they approach world building. Destiny is built to encourage both physical exploration of its world and a mental exploration of its game systems. It wants you to dig for vital information, but the information itself is ultimately revealed to be part of a simple, elegant structure. Xenoblade Chronicles X unfortunately outwardly encourages exploration, but is sadly built in a way that traps you inside its gameplay systems, each layer of tinkering leading not to new experiences in the game but just another layer of tinkering. The lesson then: if you’re making a role-playing game about humanity surviving in a crazy sci-fi future, never forget that it doesn’t matter how specific and dense your crazy sci-fi future is if your player can’t find a way inside.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

I've been playing games since I turned four in 1986, been writing about them since 1987, and writing about them professionally since 2008. My wife and I live in New York City. Chrono Trigger is my favorite game ever made, Hum's Downward is Heavenward is my favorite album, and I regularly find myself singing "You Won't See Me" by The Beatles in awkward situations.
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