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By Simon Parkin

May 2009

"I wonder how much something like this is worth?" asks the journalist to my left, ignoring the sign underneath requesting visitors refrain from taking photographs.

It's a map of a world that doesn't exist: Vana'diel, the setting of the eleventh game in Japan's best-selling RPG series, Final Fantasy. The painting is ten, maybe twelve feet wide and as tall as a Tataru - one of the five races that inhabit the game - which is to say, about as tall as a five-year-old Japanese boy. Yoshitaka Amano, the respected fantasy artist called upon to conceptualise each entry to the series is less manga than Klimt. Here he holds fussy details in tension with curvaceous swathes of empty, gold leaf space. It is the sort of picture that, as a child, I imagined adorned the wall of every videogame developer, a treasure map to a virtual land where the treasure isn't a spot marked with an X, but rather the very world itself: emerald hills intersected by sapphire rivers and bordered by mountains whose necks are draped in ice white pearls.

In this particular example, a map that owes more to imagination than cartography, a dragon lounges oversized and watchman-like over the lands, its presence implying the all-important peril and adventure necessary in any videogame landscape. It's pure Tolkien, of course, the kind of map printed on the inside of the hardcover of endless editions of The Hobbit, but that's fitting for a Japanese game developer who owes the fantasy author its very existence.

"I couldn't begin to imagine," I reply.

Amano's artwork decorates every wall in Square Enix's Shinjuku-based headquarters, his delicate, intricate designs incongruous to the otherwise routine, unremarkable office surroundings. They are the only clue to the fact that the computers here are for building worlds, rather than recording insurance claims, or tracking the rise and fall of stocks and shares. The company chose to hire a clutch of floors in the Pfizer building in Tokyo's skyscraper district because it makes it less likely their fans will come knocking at the door, distracting the workers. The dry, corporate sheen is a façade. At least, it was to begin with.

As such, you've no clue as to the company's whereabouts till the elevator doors unclasp and you step out into the bright-lit reception. Here, glass cases line the walls, showcasing game boxes cherry-picked from the company's twenty-odd year history in neat, curated rows.

The receptionist, who can't have been much out of primary school when some of these artefacts were first released, smiles politely without looking up. I press my nose to the glass, and unwillingly, reminisce.

January 1998

The 14-inch CRT television lights up my bedroom like a magnesium bonfire. Characters previously squat sprite clusters are now, for the first time in gaming's short history, popped into 3D. Their bodies are awkward clusters of polygons, all jagged edges and stuttery animations - when one character addresses another, they both rotate on the spot to face one another without shuffling their feet, like mechanical dolls signalling the hour in an Austrian cuckoo clock.

With 330 CG maps and 40 minutes of Full Motion Video representing over two years work by over 100 full-time team members at a cost of over $45 million Square Enix's first 3D RPG, Final Fantasy VII, broke numerous records upon its 1997 release. But the most significant of these was, for me, that it sold videogames to my father.

No, too generous. It started the conversation about videogames with my father, who, in the middle of the school holidays, sits down next to me as I flee the game's opening scene: a terrorist attack for which I pulled the trigger moments earlier.

Together we marvel at my derring-do leap from a bridge onto the back of an underground train headed for the slums. Together we empathize with the new comrades I meet there, the impoverished and downtrodden inhabitants of Midgar's underclass, who plot their uprising in steampunk squalor. Together.

Videogames are systems, not themes, but dress a system in the right theme and you can catch the attention of someone who would not otherwise be interested. So it is for my father, who, in these awkwardly rendered moments, catches a glimpse of what I'd been seeing my entire childhood.

August 2000

"Sit down on the bed, son. You've probably guessed what I'm going to tell you."

His face is tired.

"Oh gosh... You haven't had a car crash have you?"

The house, otherwise empty, holds its breath.

"Er, No. It's that... I mean, I... I've found someone else. I'm leaving your mother. I'm not going to be living here any more. I'm so, so sorry."

June 2001

"It's not that the dialogue's bad, though, it undoubtedly fucking is. But the entire stories are always such a muddle."

She never liked JRPGs.

"It's Tolkien through a glass darkly and, God, if that weren't bad enough, Tolkien through a glass darkly written by computer science nerds for whom English is a third language. After Basic and C++."

"That's very funny," I say. "But, that's precisely what makes them culturally endearing or, at very least, interesting. It's art. Made by mathematicians."

She ignores me. "Not only that, but you're in constant fear of these random battles. It's like there's someone sitting behind you while you're playing, whacking you round the head every 30 seconds or so. You can't see it coming, so you're continuously on edge. Even despite the fact the battles rarely hold any sort of challenge. You hit the same set of buttons a hundred times over, and the machine spits out small change for the effort.

"You say videogames are beautiful, expansive puzzles. I say: bullshit. You may as well be working on a factory assembly line; the challenge is exactly the same: one of perseverance, not intelligence."

"Right, but there's more to it than repetitious combat," I say.

"What, like talking to townsfolk? Jab the talking doll in the stomach with the X button and have it spit out its solitary line of dialogue about the earth's lifeforce or some other hotchpotch pseudo-philosophical twaddle? 'Hey! Would it be OK if you fetched me my lost straw doll from a town on the OTHER SIDE OF THE OCEAN?!' Or: 'Oh-God-Have-You-Heard-The-Rumours-About-This-Evil-Wizard-Who's-Stealing-All-The-Crystals-In-The-World-And-Who-Will-Save-Us?' Yeah, super enriching, Simon."

"No. I mean. Yes. You're sort of exactly right. But you're also sort of missing the point. Yes, games are power fantasies. But more than that, they show us the way things are supposed to be..."

"What?" She puts down the controller and, for the first time in the conversation, listens.

"I mean, deep down they function how we want the real world to function, right? There's a set of rules and, if I follow them and do the right things in the right order, success is kind of guaranteed. That's true of all videogames, but in JRPGs there's the story too. They have a set trajectory that leads me out of the bastard confusion of adolescence towards an endgame of maturity and identity and, er, status I guess. And all you need to do to experience that is follow the breadcrumb trail and keep turning the cogs..."

"You're mixing your metaphors," she says, smiling. "You definitely play too many of these things. The bad writing's rubbing off on you."

It's my turn to ignore her. "Because, while the battles may be random, the war's outcome is always predestined," I continue. "You're predestined to succeed. Just so long as you keep going. And jeez, that may be escapism or a gross oversimplification of the reality we live in, but isn't that sense of... of justice the yearning of every human being? Are not JRPGs maps of perfect worlds where everything behaves how you expect it to."

"Um..."

"Because, when your life turns to shit and people let you down, or when you study hard but still flunk your exams regardless, or when you work your ass off and your boss doesn't notice.... Or, or even if he does but is too preoccupied with his own quests to congratulate you... I mean, that's sort of a broken system. It certainly feels that way. That's just not how things should be. JRPGs counter all that disappointment and unfairness with dependable justice. They reward you for your efforts with empirical, unflinching fairness. Work hard and you level up. Take the path that's opened to you and persevere with it and you can save the world. You can fix the things that break...

"Simon..."

"No, wait. They give you that power, sure. But more than that, they give you consistency. This world, and the people in it, do not. JRPGs are, well, er, I guess they're sort of like heaven in that regard. Except with, like, improbably large swords and nuclear-grade hair gel."

June 2003

"So, how have you been? What have you been up to?"

His face is tired.

"Oh, you know. This and that. I've started writing for a couple of magazines."

"Really? Oh, that's great. What are you writing about?"

"Videogames, mostly. They give me reviews to do."

"Yeah? That's great. Really great. So, er, what sort of games are you reviewing?"

"Well, they give me a lot of the Japanese role playing games. Do you remember that summer when we played one together?"

"Er, I'm not sure..."

"Oh. Well, that was a super popular JRPG. Anyway, these things take so long to play through that most magazines can't afford to put their in-house writers on them. So they farm them to freelancers. Each one can take up to sixty hours to complete you see. Of course, you don't get any more money for all that effort."

"Jeez. That's terrible."

"Yeah, I guess. But I don't mind. I kinda like them."

May 2009

"Simon, this is Kitase-san," the PR man gestures to a portly Japanese man in his early forties. The producer, who's had a key hand in every Final Fantasy game in the past fifteen years bows a little less deeply than his surrounding entourage. He's wearing a smart suit. A corporate façade? It probably was to begin with.

"Dozo yoroshiku," I say, deploying one of the few pleasantries that remain in my leaking vocabulary from the beginner's course in Japanese I took a decade ago.

We talk for forty minutes. Kitase is restrained, in that way so many mainstream Japanese corporate game designers are, but there's a twinkle in the eye, the odd flash of the keen imagination that made Final Fantasy VII the memorable hotchpotch of creative, daring successes and failures in his younger days.

The interview will make for good copy. The magazine will be pleased.

"I think we've got time for one more," says the PR man, before settling back into his moderating chair at the back of the room.

"I was just wondering whether," I begin, addressing the translator. "Well, many of Kitase's fans grew up with his games when they were teenagers. And they've stayed with them into adulthood and are now in their thirties and forties. I guess my question is, if much of Kitase's audience are older now, why do his games still so often feature young protagonists, setting out on life, trying to find their identity and place within the world?"

The translator nods, almost masking his confusion. I continue: "Doesn't he have anything to say to older players? In adulthood, the JRPG's lessons can seem a little trite and simplistic. Life rarely follow that trajectory in reality. Things don't get fixed so easily. Doesn't he want his to reflect more mature themes and perspectives, to express a new story, to, um, explore new territory?"

Kitase takes a deep, thoughtful breath. There's a long pause followed by a short burst of Japanese. The translator leans toward me. "He says his games aren't really for people in their thirties. The JRPG is intended for younger players because the journey of the character leaving the village to conquer the world resonates with them. He's happy to continue serving this audience."

We leave the conference room, a single file of middle-aged men, consumers turned creators and commentators. We pass the map in the hallway, where it hangs expansive and impressive. No-one looks up.

Simon has contributed extensively to Edge magazine, Gamasutra and Eurogamer since 2002. He is currently producing the Channel 4 webgame, The Curfew, and writing his first book on videogames for Anness Publishing. His work is collected at his personal website, Chewing Pixels. Simon also keeps a daily scrapbook of awesome videogame box art.

Images courtesy of Square Enix

18 Responses to “Maps”

  1. dd528 says:

    I really enjoyed this article. Thank you.

  2. Anonymous says:

    It’s a good article.
    It’s just, one tiny thing that bugs me.

    As a player of Final Fantasy 11, the game the map comes from, the race he mentions is Tarutaru, not Tataru.

  3. will_orz says:

    This is why I continue to play JRPGs. Much respect for this article.

  4. Matthew_H says:

    I think I remember reading this interview in… Eurogamer, right? His reply stuck with me, quite an interesting view of the world and his place in it.

    I don’t get the use of maps as a motif, though. Doesn’t connect clearly for me, sorry.

    On an unrelated note, I love that glow behind the titles. A bit of HTML5 trickery? Adds quite a bit to the aesthetic. People always concentrate on the [video] tag, but these little things will prove to be quite valuable at times, I think.

    • chalkley3 says:

      It’s in CSS3. It’s one of the few CSS3 tags that are actually supported by all the browsers, not just webkit, so it’s one people notice.

  5. coyote says:

    “treasure isn’t a spot marked with an X, but rather the very world itself: emerald hills intersected by sapphire rivers and bordered by mountains whose necks are draped in ice white pearls.”

    This is why I love JRPGs. That sense of the larger world, ready to be explored. I love a game that isn’t driving me on to save the princess, where I can take time to explore and discover the world’s lesser known places, like a virtual tourist. FFVII was the first time I really felt this, having waited for it for years. The world felt real somehow.

    Kitase’s answer to your last question is interesting. We all spend a lot of time internally convincing ourselves that these are more than children’s toys, and it’s right for adults to carry on playing, but I think secretly everyone thinks that they might be wrong. It hurts to hear it from him though!

  6. Sway says:

    Nice piece. Thanks for posting. I always enjoyed the inevitability of JRPGs. The only actual choices you were allowed to make were about whether or not you wanted to complete a side quest. You were going to be the hero of the main story whether you wanted to or not. And, like the article said, the worlds, no matter how new and unusual, always worked with the same predictable fairness.

  7. mehilow says:

    “I mean, deep down they function how we want the real world to function, right? There’s a set of rules and, if I follow them and do the right things in the right order, success is kind of guaranteed. That’s true of all videogames, but in JRPGs there’s the story too. They have a set trajectory that leads me out of the bastard confusion of adolescence towards an endgame of maturity and identity and, er, status I guess. And all you need to do to experience that is follow the breadcrumb trail and keep turning the cogs…”

    Almost to the word how I’ve on several occassions expressed what I think is the secret attraction of not only JRPGs but video games in general. And I am also a freelance video game journalist. Thank you for the lovely article.

  8. jamiethehutt says:

    Ok wasn’t that interested the the article but the text-shadow CSS attribute on the dates is really awesome, I’ve never seen it used before and think it looks kick ass!

  9. Anonymous says:

    JRPG’s are all about characteres that the thing american developers (and most of gamers too) dont seem to undertand… Trying to make charismatic characters is why PS2 core CPU was called Emotion Engine by japaneses, while american developers said:”emotion engine? what the fuck are you talking about!!!” ha, ha….

  10. Elijah says:

    Great article – touching and well written. Readers interested in the June 2001 segment might want to following up with Naomi Clark’s interview in the podcast ‘Another Castle’ (http://gamedesignadvance.com/?p=2166) in which she discusses the idea of a ‘Fantasy of Labor,’ a term she credits to Mateo Romeo and Dave Serling (apologies if I’ve misspelled the names).

  11. Anonymous says:

    It’s an interesting article, but a wee bit too Squeenix-focused. I wonder how the author would’ve approached this if he had grown up on Atlus’s SMT franchise – even in the more lighthearted Persona sub-series, all your efforts will still likely land you a dead protagonist at the end.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Reread it. I think the point (or one of them) is that japanese RPG companies- such as square enix- grew up making things in a certain way for a reason, but are now just making them that way because that’s what their company does now.

    “A corporate façade? It probably was to begin with.”

    They grew up as a bunch of guys in a basement making games for children, and now they’re kind of just a shell- huge amounts of experts trying to make the exact same kind of game, just because that’s the Final Fantasy brand. Final Fantasy 13 was made with no goal in mind other than “Make a Final Fantasy game”. Good fences make good neighbours, etc.

  13. dw_funk says:

    This was a really excellent article. I’ve always had a lot of trouble figuring out why I love JRPGs, and this pretty much nails it.

    Leveraging my ability to grind for probably billions of EXP points over my lifetime into things like exercise and writing is probably my biggest struggle. Because it’s not like RPGs are any more fun than, say, a treadmill, when it comes to accumulating experience anyway. Leveling all my characters up to 100 in FF8 was a mind-numbing experience. But somehow, the fact that when you finish, everything’s going to turn out fine does end up changing that.

    I love these BB features, and this one was especially good.

  14. Daedalus says:

    This really resonates with me.

    And for those more mature stories, you can always make them yourself.

    It’s a bit of a WIP, but it’s already at the place your adolescent mind wants it to be, just waiting to be nurtured to maturity. :)

  15. Anonymous says:

    Wow. I love the subtle sting here. So subtle you almost think you imagined it. Maybe I did?

    I’m always a fan of things that don’t actually tell you what they’re trying to say. I think this article’s going to need some re-reading.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Is it just me or did all the comments thus far posted miss the point or haven’t yet done the growing up that the author has?

    Good article btw.

    • Will/Nobilis says:

      No. I think, in fact, that you miss the point that growing up is as subjective as the view of the worlds within the games. The games may not be made for people in their thirties, but there is no reason that the same feeling cannot resonate with them and inspire them to do something that grow up/old and wither.

      I also find the reasoning as to why people escape into JRPGs a bit flawed. We all have the opportunity to make up what rules in life we choose to live by. For the majority, it is easier and less risky to live by and within the rules that everyone else lives in.

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