The symbols that the artifact in Spirits of Xanadu uses are esoteric -- at least for the average Western gamer. It is Chinese culture reflected back at us through the lens of alien understanding.
Spirits of Xanadu has some terrible graphics. Let's just get that out of the way first.
From the robots and guns made out of basic 3D shapes to the flat texture-less walls of the ship, the game looks like a student project from the early 90's. It certainly lacks a lot of visual flair, but I'm telling you about it now because it still manages to do a lot with the very little it has.
This post discuss major story points, including each of the endings. I recommend you play the game before reading, trusting me that it’s worth the cheap asking price (especially if you get it on sale) and its short time investment.
The premise is simple. It's the same premise for any number of sci-fi horror stories, after all. Basically, a research vessel has gone dark, no communication and no movement, so X number of people are sent to investigate. In this case, there's just you, and your mission is to secure the payload, fix the ship, and return it to earth. The crew is not a priority. Naturally things get more complicated.
This is an impressive little horror game because of how heavily it avoids typical horror imagery. Sure, there's a blood trail marking the path of a body that was dragged to the airlock, but that's the only bit of gore in the whole game. Instead, Spirits of Xanadu leans into the surreal and the mystical, like floating kabuki masks and lotus flowers casually placed in a briefcase, all taking place in an alternative futuristic 1983. This is an alt-timeline complete with its own alt-religious text. There's much in the game that feels purposefully symbolic yet deliberately obtuse, but I think that there is in fact a thematic through line connecting it all.
The artifact that led the crew to go crazy is never really explained. While in a dream state, we see it as a floating black orb, but in the real world, there's nothing but some minor debris left where it was in the laboratory. What it actually does is also up to interpretation. In audio logs, the crew describe it as something wonderful, which then immediately raises their suspicions. In her final audio log, Captain Lucy Zhou describes it as “…not a virus…it’s not anything like that. It’s too beautiful, a wonder too great to be allowed”. The most concrete, yet most abstract, and therefore most unsettling description comes from one of the crew, Solomon Agnew. He tries to write up an incident report, and when asked to describe the nature of the incident, he writes:
Has been compared already to a large figurative spider but also in one of our minds a shytan from the book or some other thing which spins in the middle. Spider is best analogy? I don’t know how better to say it. Poetic? We some of us wants to say it is a great wave to be welcomed. We are a [trembling] nephew again and to the black ocean it will pull us in and show us etc. It loves our words, rolls them like pebbles.
In the same report, when asked about the consequences of the incident, he also writes:
The incident has led me to fill this form, reflecting upon prior incidents and also considering there may be future or further exacerbated incidents of same. We all feel this will become increasingly possible. There may later be some confusion as to who is who.
I think that it’s important to quote him in full because this is a particularly nice bit of writing that hides important clues amidst its seeming nonsense. A “shytan” or Shaytan or Shaitan, as it’s more commonly spelled, is the devil in Islam. Or at the very least, an evil spirit or person. This is an important description because it’s the only time that the artifact is every described in a way that implies personality. Solomon then worries, “There may later be some confusion as to who is who”, which suggests the artifact is tampering with their minds in a way that erases their identity. It’s “wonderful” because it’s a seductive trap, making us want to fall into it.
This is where the masks and flowers come in. The kabuki mask is not actually a kabuki mask, but more likely a Chinese opera mask. It’s important that these mystical elements have a Chinese origin because Lucy Zhou, given her name, was very likely Chinese, and she is possibly the only physical body still aboard the Xanadu. But regardless of her physical presence, it’s likely that the artifact, after assimilating Zhou’s mind and thoughts, also assimilated her culture and is trying to communicate with us through those cultural symbols.
The colors on the mask are fascinating in their meaning. A white face indicates evil or hypocrisy, gold indicates a god or spirit, but yellow can also mean evil and hypocrisy. Black represents neutrality, and red represents many possibly positive traits. Overall, with the way that the colors are used on the mask, it looks like an evil spirit (white face with gold/yellow eyes) trying to disguise itself as something helpful (prominent black and red designs that still leave white as the dominant color). This is a truly impressive piece of art design as symbolism, world building, and foreshadowing.
The lotus flowers follow this same logic. In Buddhism, an important influence on Chinese culture, purple lotus flowers represent the path to self-awakening. Specifically, they represent the Noble Eightfold Path, which is the path to end suffering and pain. With this in mind, it’s interesting to note not only where the flower path leads, but also where it begins. And which is which.
The flowers appear after we’ve fixed the engines. An automatic voice on the intercom suddenly asks all crew to go the bridge, and along the way, we’ll stumble upon the lotuses. They seem to lead us to the bridge, as if the artifact is encouraging us to bring it back to earth. That’s the natural assumption, but the path could also be leading us to the remnants of teh artifact, as if it’s asking us to come be a part of it like the rest of the crew.
The distinction is important. If we’re meant to go to the artifact, that suggests its consciousness is mainly concerned with assimilating the things in its immediate vicinity. If we’re meant to go to the bridge, that suggests a much greater intelligence, one that can plan and think ahead and even knows about earth, if not how to get there. Is the artifact an animalistic thing acting off instinct or a more intelligent thing acting in self-interest? Either way, the artifact is asserting itself as the end of our path, but each still represents very different ends.
The Chinese symbolism is a form of direct communication with something that doesn’t quite understand the symbols that it’s using and doesn’t understand that we might not interpret those symbols as it intends. It’s a neat example of how this possible hive mind entity has no understanding of cultural differences. The symbols it uses are esoteric -- at least for the average Western gamer like myself. It is Chinese culture reflected back at us through the lens of alien understanding.
Sadly, we’re not all that different.
There are several pages torn from Lucy’s copy of The Book of Veils, a fictional account of the holy warrior Harun Al-Din, Prince of Automata. The first pages that we find are meant to make us suspicious. The first page that you’re likely to find describes Harun’s fight with a jinn and his praises of Allah at his victory, identifying this as a foreign religious text (which shouldn’t really arouse suspicion, but such is the world that we live in, and Spirits of Xanadu is aware of our own modern clash of cultures). After finding a few more pages, we’ll realize that Harun is a robot, and that’s the source of his power over men and demons alike, which throws suspicion on the current automated defenses protecting the Xanadu, the only antagonistic forces that we encounter in the game. Is there a rogue AI involved, or did someone turn the ship against the crew?
The pages serve to misdirect our attention and fear until we get the full story, and then they’re revealed to be a much more literal guide than we ever could have initially believed. Lucy wrote the coordinates of a star onto the pages, hoping that whoever found them would find them all, and would then steer the Xanadu into the ball of fire, destroying the artifact. In case the coordinates weren’t enough of a clue, the story itself tells us to do this as well.
Harun is a powerful being, called the Fourth Marvel of the World, who should “work only for the glory of Allah,” but at the start of the story, a bandit chief steals the key to Harun and demands the automaton retrieve the other three Marvels of the World. Harun does this, but when he returns, he kills the bandit chief and seals away all the Marvels of the World, including himself, “so that never again might any of them be used for evil purposes”.
The Marvels are amazing, powerful, wonderful items, and that’s what makes them dangerous. They are, like Lucy says, “wonder[s] too great to be allowed”. She’s indirectly asking us to sacrifice ourselves, like Harun did, and hiding the request behind a cultural story that the artifact can’t comprehend. The alien thing is in her mind, so it can prevent her from steering the ship herself, but it can’t block what it doesn’t understand.
Spirits of Xanadu creates tension by reflecting different cultures back at us, changed in some way to seem at once foreign and recognizable, surreal but also familiar. This weird, paradoxical relationship is similar to the crew’s description of their visions. They fear this alien thing that they don’t understand, but they’re also attracted to it. They are drawn in by its cultural symbols but suspicious of their misappropriation.
Culture is alien -- for the player and the artifact. (I did, after all, just spend several days looking up Chinese opera traditions, lotus flower symbolism, and the translation of the name “Harun al-Din”).