Xenogears, Psychoanalytic Theory, and Jacques Lacan’s Mirror Stage concept

Originally published for G4@Syfygames on 4/15/16

Psychoanalytic Theory states that the human mind is dominated by our subconscious. That’s well understood, but what does that have to do with Xenogears? Well, everything, actually. In fact, the main protagonist, Fei Fong Wong, and his ancestor, Lacan, are based on Jacques Lacan’s Mirror Stage concept, which is heavily rooted in Psychoanalytic Theory. Today, I’d like to discuss what these two critical concepts are, and how they tie into my most beloved JRPG of all time, Xenogears.

For the uninitiated, Xenogears was a science fiction JRPG developed in house by Squaresoft. The story’s premise was deceptively simple. It followed Fei Fong Wong’s journey to uncover the truth behind their planet’s existence, as well as the cabalistic and mysterious entities operating the world from the shadows. It was extremely dark for a Squaresoft title, as it delved deep into the key principle philosophies of Carl Jung, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud. Xenogears also dabbled with semiotics and theological concepts, including practices of several world religions that were represented in the title. Psychological themes such as self-identity and human memory also played a major role with Fei Fong Wong, as these concepts relate to dissociative identity disorder, which he suffered severely from.

So, what is Psychoanalytic Theory? It’s a groundbreaking theory of “personality organization and the dynamics of personality development.”[1] Sigmund Freud founded this concept way back in the 19th century, and it involved three crucial elements: the id, the ego, and the superego. So, what do these represent? Why do they relate to Fei Fong Wong’s character? How does it contribute to Lacan’s Mirror Stage concept? To better understand this, allow me to break the three elements down individually.

The id is part of the personality that’s internally driven by basic needs. These are instinctual, such as libido and hunger; therefore, it seeks to avoid pain and thrives in pleasure. This is extremely important in Xenogears, because Fei Fong Wong’s alter ego, Id, is a literal personification of this. The id is the most powerful part of our subconscious, so it’s only sensible for Id to be a nigh-impregnable demigod. Throughout the narrative, Id’s power is virtually unrivaled. He’s able to destroy Gears (giant mecha) with his bare hands, and even able to toss a gargantuan sand cruiser with one arm. As the story continues, we discover that Id is actually Fei’s repressed maelstrom of anger and fear from his traumatic childhood. Whenever Fei is psychologically overwhelmed, he blacks out, and that’s when the Demon of Elru awakens. Id, just like the personality aspect, is impulsive and unaware of the implications of his actions.

The ego is the reality principle, and it strives to balance the id and the superego. In other words, it rationalizes id’s instinctive needs while also being realistic about the standards set by the superego. This is worth noting, because the mind blowing twist near the end of the game won’t make sense without understanding this. The Fei that players were controlling for three quarters of the entire game wasn’t his ego, it was his superego. In reality, his ego was actually suppressed alongside Id, as Fei refused to see the reality of his childhood’s implications. Fei was destined to be the Zohar’s contact in Xenogears, and his mother, Karen, was possessed by the tertiary antagonist, Miang.

As a result, Fei was subjected to horrific scientific experiments as a child. Fei was truly alone, since his mother was no longer the loving caretaker he once recognized. He shut off his ego and created Id so that he could survive his mother’s torturous experiments. This comes to a halt when Id’s power spirals out of control, and a surge of energy barrelled towards himself, which would’ve killed him. To save her son’s life, Karen temporarily reawakens and dives between the blast and Fei, sacrificing herself in the process. Realizing that his mother’s death was his fault, he could no longer control himself, and his ego would ultimately be suppressed for nearly a decade. Fei eventually repressed Id as well, and his superego (AKA “Coward Fei”) took its dominant role in Xenogears.

The superego is the morality driven principle, which acts in accordance with higher thought and action. Unlike the id, it works in socially acceptable ways as it employs morality to judge right from wrong, and it uses guilt to encourage socially acceptable behavior.[2] This is the Fei Fong Wong we see throughout the game. This Fei is a gentle soul who despises unnecessary bloodshed. He’s a valued member of his village, and even dabbles in painting, like his ancestor Lacan (more on that later). The player is misled to believe that this is Fei’s default personality, when it actually isn’t. In reality, this is Fei’s most selfish personality, as he only believes in the good memories from his past, not the traumatic ones. This is a classic psychological defense mechanism that we use every day, as it (artificially) eliminates stressors and anxiety by distorting reality. In other words, it prevents threatening unconscious thoughts and material from entering the consciousness.[3]

Now that these elements have been elaborated upon, let’s move to Fei’s ancestor, Lacan, and how he ties into Jacques Lacan’s Mirror Stage concept. Despite the obvious allusion, there’s major importance in their relationship. Jacques described the Mirror Stage as the “formative function of the ‘I’ as revealed in psychoanalytic experience.” In other words, it formed part of the permanent structure of subjectivity, as it dealt with one’s perceived visual experience and one’s emotional experience.[4] Therefore, the relationship between Lacan (visual experience), and his personified will, Grahf (emotional experience), was no accident.

500 years prior to the start of Xenogears, Lacan was once a gentle painter — like his descendant, “superego Fei” — but after his love interest (Sophia) sacrificed herself to save the holy city of Nisan, Lacan completely lost himself. Unable to overcome his grief, he sets off to make contact with the Zohar to obtain power. After making contact, a new, insidious persona emerged: Grahf (AKA “The Seeker of Power”). His goal was to merge with Fei and reclaim his original form as The Contact (currently Fei) to awaken the planetary weapon Deus and destroy all life as punishment for his lover’s death.

Given the context, we can better understand the correlation between Jacques’ Mirror Stage concept and Lacan’s character development. In Jacques’ fourth Seminar, La relation d’objet, he stated that “the Mirror Stage . . . illustrates the conflictual nature of the dual relationship.” This is explored even further when Fei’s mentor, Wiseman, is introduced. It’s eventually revealed that Wiseman is actually Lacan in disguise, which demonstrates the tug-o-war relationship between the two personalities. Grahf, not unlike Id, selfishly uses Fei for his own purposes, while the latter selflessly helps Fei to realize the truth behind his existence. In other words, Mirror Stage initiates then aids the process of the formation of an integrated sense of self, like a crutch. In context, Grahf/Lacan doesn’t achieve this until his death, where he sacrifices himself to merge with the Zohar and delay Deus’ awakening, allowing Fei to escape and prepare for the final battle.

In hindsight, it’s easy to see the heavy influences of Psychoanalytic Theory and the Mirror Stage concept in Xenogears. Narratively, the title was ahead of its time for JRPGs, as no other game would come close to the depth and scale of Fei Fong Wong’s tale. Academically, the mentioned concepts are extremely important to understand, because they deal with human identity. This is something we all share, regardless of race, ethnicity, or religious affiliation. Psychoanalytic Theory emphasizes the importance of childhood experiences, which is clearly shown through Fei’s character development. It addressed the importance of the unconscious, sexual, and aggressive drives that make up the majority of all human beings’ personalities[5]; which was exemplified by Id and Grahf. Lastly, it also explained psychological defense mechanisms and why every person reacts differently to similar situations; which were personified through Id, Fei’s ego, and his superego.

Despite its flaws, I personally praise Xenogears for its valiant attempt at painting the broader picture on life, love, existence, and the human condition. This has been my academic perspective on the title, and I hope you enjoyed it; but more importantly, I hope you gleaned something valuable from this. Personally, I believe that misunderstanding is the root of all conflict. To alleviate this, it’s paramount that we understand ourselves first.

 

Citations:

[1] Tere sa de Lauretis, Freud’s Drive (Basingstoke 2008) p. 3 Friedman, H. W., & Schustack, M. W. (2011).

[2] Personality: Classics theories and modern research. (5th Edition). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

[3] Freud, A. (1937). The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense, London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis. (Revised edition: 1966 (US), 1968 (UK))

[4] Dylan Evans, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis

[5] Lacan, J., “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I”, in Écrits: a selection, London, Routledge Classics, 2001; p. 5