The following feature contains substantial spoilers for the game Xenoblade Chronicles.closing. I had only just started my "Who The Hell Is" series, where I gave a brief history lesson on video game characters such as Johnny Gat. After all, if you're going to be playing a game with the character's name in the title, you want to know who he is, right? So for one last time, let me help you get to know someone.
Say hello to Shulk.
For many players, Shulk's first appearance is not Xenoblade Chronicles – the 2010 Wii game he actually stars in – but Super Smash Bros. for Wii U/3DS. There, Shulk can boost his abilities to become harder, better, faster, stronger. He's also the only character possessing a costume equivalent to Samus' sports bra/short-shorts combo thanks to his form-fitting boxer-briefs.
So, why does Shulk get to change his fighting abilities in a way that no one else can? To answer that, we have to go back. Way back. No, further. To the beginning of the world.
The Way Things Were
One of the perks of game development taking a fair amount of time is that ideas can change. For example, you can take the somewhat confusing and long-winded title "Monado: Beginning of the World" and change it to, oh, we don't know, "Xenoblade Chronicles." And that's precisely what Monolith Software did as they developed the game that would introduce Shulk to the masses.
To understand who Shulk is, we first need to know where – or more accurately, what – he comes from. In the universe of Xenoblade Chronicles, the world exists as the literal grave of two titanic beings: Bionis and Mechonis. Years upon years after these godlike creatures slew each other, life began to grow from their corpses. On Bionis lived the Homs, while on Mechonis lived the Mechons and Machina. At the outset of Chronicles, the Hom are under siege from the more mechanical races. Shulk, a Hom, begins his journey toward hero-dom when a group of Mechons attack his colony.
Thankfully, his colony is also the residence of a man named Dunban, who once wielded a sword called the Monado. While there are many weapons within Xenoblade Chronicles, none are as powerful as the Monado, which can not only transform particles around it, but grant its wielder the gift of foresight as well. (Note: There are actually several Monado, but for simplicity's sake we're going to focus on the one Shulk specifically comes to wield.)
No longer able to wield the Monado himself, Dunban gifts the sword to Shulk, who uses it to fend off the Machina, but not before his love interest, Fiora, is seemingly killed. Shulk sets off on a quest for revenge, coming face-to-face with a plethora of gods and monsters. Of course, we're not here to learn who Shulk fights, we're here to learn who Shulk is.
A Likeable Hero
Art evolves in cycles of push and pushback. For example, the Realism (with a capital R) movement began as a rejection of Romanticism, which was itself a reaction to Neoclassism. But let's keep this related to gaming and simplify it a bit, shall we? Right now, space sim games are getting lots of love. But before that, zombies were the "in" thing. And before zombies were modern military shooters, and before those it was World War II games.
This is important to know because it's a major factor in what drove Shulk's development as a character. Tired of the whiny, Negative Nancy attitude of many JRPG heroes, Xenoblade Chronicles creator Tetsuya Takahashi set out to create a more likeable protagonist.
"Essentially, the heroes and heroines in RPGs often end up being disliked," Takahashi told Nintendo President Satoru Iwata in an installment of Iwata Asks. "Naturally, there are well-loved characters too, but I'd say that in general, they end up being hated."
Takahashi partnered with anime writer Yuichiro Takeda to create a more positive hero, one that players would find more favorable. This is why during the game, Shulk often compliments his fellow party members, introducing them and cheering them on with aplomb. He enters battle with gusto despite not being an experienced warrior, relying on his will and spirit to carry him through.
In side missions, more quirks about Shulk are revealed, such as his disdain for vegetables and fear of ... caterpillars.
Good Guy Shulk
Shulk is loyal to his friends, steadfast to his cause, and puts others before himself. Nowhere is this more evident than the conclusory act of Xenoblade Chronicles, when the boy's true nature is revealed. As it turns out, the attack on his colony is not the first time Shulk came into contact with the Monado. Another character reveals to Shulk that long ago, a scouting party searched for the mythical blade, and were all killed by its power. This scouting party included Shulk's parents and Shulk himself.
The Monado, it turns out, functioned as one half of a prison to hold the game's true villain. By possessing Shulk and laying dormant within him as he grew up, the villain had set in motion a plan to reunite his spirit and body, thus allowing him to wreak havoc on the world again. It's also revealed that the world Shulk inhabits began as an experiment, meaning there is no greater purpose to life; Shulk and everything he knows are just happy accidents.
Despite this existential crisis, Shulk resolves to press on and eventually defeats the villain, becoming a god himself. With unlimited power at his command, Shulk decrees that he will remake the universe, this time without gods. A kid who started his legend by seeking revenge gets the ultimate power handed to him, and he chooses free will and world peace. Not too shabby.
It's not clear if Shulk will show up in the forthcoming Wii U RPG Xenoblade Chronicles X – his face appears at the end of the game's reveal trailer, but we know very little about the game's plot. But at least if he does, now you know who the hell he is.