Last year, when I first created this blog, one of the features I had planned was called “Gallery Mode,” which intended to provide close analysis of various gaming elements. Despite only lasting a mere three articles, it was always my intention to come back to it. And so, here is the newly-branded “Deeper Waters.”
The first article I wrote for Gallery Mode was an analysis of a screenshot for the original Sonic the Hedgehog. It was based on an exercise used in film classes in which a single frame of film is dissected. Attempting the same sort of analysis for a video game screenshot was a challenging, but interesting experiment that I felt was pretty successful. It made a good springboard for the type of in-depth reading I was hoping to go on with. So, in re-launching the feature, it made sense to have another go at it, and it’s something I hope to continue to do in the future.
This time, I decided to choose a game that was radically different from the one I did before. Instead of a 2D action game from 1991, I went with a 3D RPG from 2010: Xenoblade Chronicles.
This is quite a busy screenshot, with a lot to take in. We see what is clearly a battle between two human characters and some fictional animals. The character that seems to be the center of focus is Shulk, the main character of the game. He is currently in mid-swing with his weapon, as evidenced by his pose and the glowing trail of his sword. Just beyond him is his companion, Reyn, who seems to be in a much more defense-oriented posture, or possibly even taking damage from an attack. The creatures, which we see labeled as White Smoke Hox, are curiously complacent, simply standing around rather than assuming a threatening posture. A couple of chests are visible in the foreground.
The battle is taking place on what is, in fact, a bridge. The background is very dim, but it shows us some strange, rocky cliffs, some grassy hills with trees, and a cloudy night sky. The environment is rather surrealistic.
The HUD (Heads-Up Display) is often an overlooked part of a game’s display, as it’s primary function is to provide information, and isn’t inherently part of the game world. However, it’s very hard to ignore here, as it overpowers nearly everything else in the scene (something that Xenoblade Chronicles has been criticized for). To the left are portraits of all current party members with their stats. Along the bottom are the icons for the various actions that are available, along with their descriptions. Various meters are scattered about the screen for the different characters. A map and “clock” are in the upper-right corner, and various other things that we don’t need to get into are shown as well.
Phew! Now, where do we begin?
One interesting thing about this screenshot is that even though Shulk is near the center, he is not the current party leader. As we can see on the left, his companion Sharla is at the top of the character portraits, yet she is not visible on screen. This is explained by the “Chain x 1” message on the right, indicating that the party is in the middle of a chain attack, with Shulk having the current turn. He is using the attack “Shaker Edge,” which we are told, “Inflicts Daze on an enemy suffering Topple.” The White Smoke Hox that is currently targeted is, in fact, inflicted with the status ailment “Topple” as indicated by the green, circular arrow. Thus, Shulk is about to “Daze” the White Smoke Hox.
That explains some of the gameplay mechanics, but what about the situation? At first glance, it almost looks like a defense scenario. Reyn is clearly the focus of attack, being highlighted by the red “Aggro” ring and yellow targeting arrows. All of the White Smoke Hoxes are facing him, as well. However, Reyn is actually in no real danger, as he has almost full HP. In fact, the purpose of his character type is to draw attacks from enemies (and thus, away from other characters). Additionally, if he were about to be dealt a fatal blow, Shulk would’ve been shown a vision of it, and an additional countdown timer would be present at the top of the screen. Rather, this seems to be an offensive attack, in which the characters are fighting for personal gain, in this case, the treasure chests that are visible at the bottom of the screen. The expressions on the portraits also suggest aggression. We can’t know for certain who initiated the attack, but given the evidence, it seems unlikely to be the White Smoke Hoxes at this point.
Under the circumstances, if we are to read into this, we might wonder who the real “enemies” are in this particular scene. The main characters are initiating an unprovoked attack on some weaker animals all in the name of collecting loot. Naturally, in the course of the game, this minor battle would have no major implications in a broader sense. It could also be argued that any benefits gained (experience, items, money, etc.) would ultimately be used towards the greater good. The characters need the items and experience they would gain in order to progress further towards their goals.
Thus, perhaps this screenshot demonstrates that the characters must do what is necessary, even if it means getting their hands a little dirty. Such encounters are extremely common in Xenoblade Chronicles, and while the moral implications are not emphasized, the game does discourage attacking significantly weaker creatures by severely minimizing the rewards. These creatures are not “enemies,” per se, but simply natural animals. If players ever feel guilty about engaging them (and some do), then maybe there is a statement to be found here.