By Simon Parkin
"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.
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.
"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."
"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."
"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...
"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."
"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."
"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