Spirits of Xanadu wrings emotion and style out of its low fidelity graphics.
Last week I wrote about the story content of Spirits of Xanadu. This week I want to write about its graphics, those terrible graphics that "look like a student project from the early 90s". That description still holds true, but what's impressive about this virtual world of simple geometric shapes is how much emotion and style it wrings out of such low fidelity graphics. It might not showcase much detail, but it know how to frame a scene, and in this case, composition is more important than detail.
There are two scenes in particular that I want to call out. Both can kind of be considered spoilers, but one can definitely be considered a spoiler, so I recommend that you play the game first before reading on. It's only a few hours long and only $10.00 on Steam. With that said...
The first one that you'll see will be when loading up the game: the main menu. The camera starts below a planet and pans upward. The planet is larger than the frame, so for a few seconds, it swallows our view. Then, we emerge above it to focus on the Xanadu in orbit, a small ship dwarfed by the giant black orb below.
The image is reminiscent of the main menu for Alien: Isolation, but with a few notable differences. On the technical side, the dichotomy between planet and ship doesn't have the same intimidating effect as it did in Isolation because the graphical fidelity prevents the planet from being portrayed as an almost living thing. It's surface is a mass of roiling clouds. But that's okay because Spirits of Xanadu is going for mystery rather than fear, and in that respect, the blackness of the planet is more appropriate. The planet is still considerably larger than the Xanadu, but is it something to be feared or appreciated? Will it swallow us like it did the camera, or is the darkness hiding something helpful?
The blackness is doubly important once you play the game and encounter the artifact at the center of the story: a large, floating black orb, described in equal parts as “beautiful" and “dangerous." The planet in the main menu effectively conveys mystery, and it does so with an image that's far more literal than we ever could have guessed.
The planet is so dark because a sun is behind it, putting us on its night side, which also means that the sun is within our line of sight. That doesn't mean much to us on the menu screen, but it's another piece of foreshadowing, this one hinting at a surprisingly emotional ending.
The ending in question is one in which we choose to steer the Xanadu into the star, destroying it, the artifact, and ourselves in the process. It's an ending that you can see coming the moment that you realize that you're infected with whatever it is that the artifact infects people with -- obviously you're too dangerous to live -- but the execution of that ending is unlike any other that I've seen. It is shocking, subdued, yet frightening, paced both too slowly for comfort and too quickly for comfort.
We stand on the bridge, looking out at the star. We're standing past the ship controls, so there's nothing between us and the glass to interfere with our view, but we're just far enough away to see the steel frames of the window. The star itself looks alive, like Jupiter on the Alien: Isolation menu, filled with a maelstrom of swirling reds and yellows. Even though it's a fair distance away, the blackness of space around it is glowing red with heat. As we fly closer, the steel frames begin to glow and the ship shakes. It's an intimidating sight.
The scene goes on for an uncomfortably long time, the star growing bigger and bigger in the window until it encompasses your entire view, and then it keeps going still. For a moment, it's easy to think that you'll actually fly into the star, but then the screen fades to white. It's slow, but it feels fast because we don't immediately notice the changes around us. By the time that the frame begins to glow, the heat has spread out from the center, and we have to wonder how long it's been like that. It's slow until we realize how much we've missed.
What strikes me about this scene is the lack of any heroics. This is the “good" ending in which we save earth by sacrificing ourselves, but there's nothing noble about this sacrifice. As the game portrays it, the star is scarier than the artifact. Both are beautiful and dangerous, but the danger of the latter is abstract while the danger of the former is obvious as we feel the ship break around us. It's a “good" ending that doesn't want to be seen as purely good, but rather as the lesser of two evils, letting a giant monster take care of a smaller monster. It's a “good" ending that wants to make us think, if only for a moment, that we made a mistake.
Spirits of Xanadu makes a strong argument that the composition of an image is more important than the details within that image. Graphical fidelity doesn't matter much if it's not being used in an interesting way.