Dynasties end, empires fall, old men retire, fire is born in them again, decades begin, centuries shake, and a single pixel dies on my just-bought high-definition television one day in mid-May when I set about finally finishing a game I acquired two weeks before its street date back in March.
When we last left Squaresoft, they weren't doing so good, though only in the subtlest way. Well, in the world of grinning crunkmen with ice teeth and brushy mustaches playing craps with a chain of blonde beauties fifty deep radiating out of each arm, Square's loss of over a hundred million dollars on a horribly miscalculated computer-animated motion picture based -- though only in name -- on their "Final Fantasy" series of videogames was indeed a subtle misstep. It was subtle for the subtlest reasons: the film was a science-fiction epic in the tradition of Heinlein, rather than a high fantasy, like the games it supposedly represented. This decision was made because Final Fantasy series producer and mastermind Hironobu Sakaguchi was advised -- and considered the advice gospel -- that fantasy would never fly in Hollywood. This was a gross miscalculation because in just two years' time, the "Lord of the Rings" films would go on to gross hundreds of millions of dollars though they all ran longer than three hours and starred no one who spoke with a California accent. The analysts were wrong, for the most part, because prior to the year 2000, it was not yet a known fact to marketers that something that hasn't ever been popular in a specific medium is the most likely candidate to score a "suprise" "smashing" success.
At any rate, the film was dreary, and it was science-fiction, and it had a crushing, portentous narrative along with some pretty excellent computer effects. What did the movie in, conceded the critics, was how creepy the people's lips were. Basically, they didn't move perfectly. As the production company -- Square Pictures -- was Japanese, it can be assumed that this probably happened because there's some kind of Japanese tradition, conjured up out of the witch's cauldron of Japanese tradition, wherein you don't ever place motion-capture dots on a person's lips. Other miscalculations include making the main character a Japanese girl with a decidedly Caucasian last name ("Aki Ross"), and then having Chinese-American actress Ming-Na do her voice. Ming-Na, who would go on to finally find a niche of sorts as a doctor on television series "ER" had, at the time, previously starred in "The Joy Luck Club", and then as the voice of the Chinese heroine in Disney's abyssmal "Mulan" (which grossed reportedly $7,000 in China), and, most embarrassingly, as Chun-Li in Stephen E. De Souza's horror epic "Street Fighter: The Movie". In other words, she was Hollywood's biggest Asian actress, though only by default (that is, she was like the plumber: you called her when you needed her). In a good couple of years Lucy Liu would come along and save the collective face. Around the time of "The Spirits Within"'s release, though, with the critical buzz surrounding "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", the sudden spurt in the popularity of Jackie Chan, and the rise of Japanese animation, Asian entertainment was finally finding its feet in Hollywood. How would Sakaguchi have known back during pre-production that maybe Asianing his product up a bit might have actually given it a little more flavor?
Also, yeah, the main male character looked exactly like Ben Affleck, yet was voiced by Alec Baldwin, which was an uncanny valley in and of itself.
What did the film have going for it? Well, it carried the title "Final Fantasy". So it was quite assured that every person who had played more than two Final Fantasy games to completion would show up on opening day. Many of them, however, wouldn't go see the film a second time -- which would have really helped out Mr. Sakaguchi, at any rate.
What all this points to is the downfall of Hironobu Sakaguchi. All along, from his beginnings at Squaresoft, he was an aspiring filmmaker, and he saw videogames as something of a first step toward his dream career. The crucial part of Sakaguchi's plan was that he was a videogame pioneer at heart, and his Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy VI productions would end up leaving giant marks on Japanese game design, marks which haven't disappeared even to this day. Final Fantasy VII, steeped as it was in Final Fantasy VI's traditions, blended computer animation and a heavier pscyhodrama storyline into the outline, and ended up winning world acclaim despite the fact that for most of the game the characters look like they're made of LEGO blocks. Sakaguchi could feel his muse blooming; he took out an undisclosed slice of money and began a computer-graphics engineering studio in Hawaii while his trusted colleagues went on to craft a hit in Final Fantasy VIII, a game that succeeded design-wise because it turned its back on the traditions of its series. Sakaguchi took time to produce Final Fantasy IX, which felt far away from the world whenever it tried to emulate the series' roots. Here it was that the Final Fantasy games started to go astray. As Sakaguchi finished his "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" film, Final Fantasy X, the series' first installment for PlayStation 2, was getting ready to roll out. Sakaguchi was a busy man in those days.
The opinion that Final Fantasy X was more successful as a videogame than "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" was as a movie was essentially unanimous. The boat of love began to rock, and eventually sink, as the realization hit that "The Spirits Within" had been, from the start, headed straight for an iceberg. At this point, all we can do is be thankful that no one actually died because of the film*. (*Perhaps false.)
It wasn't a bad film, actually. I, for one, kind of liked it. It was cute. It was like crapping out a daughter who, at age seven, would write out the entirety of Shakespeare's "Hamlet" in green crayon on rolls of toilet paper -- word for word, without access to a library. I enjoy that kind of moribund experience. I would have liked to see Sakaguchi try his hand at another film, maybe even not animated.
Of course, this wouldn't happen. Sakaguchi, who had birthed Squaresoft's bread tree -- Final Fantasy, in case you've lost track by now -- could not be fired from his company, the company he put on the map. So he was reportedly confined to his self-made prison in Hawaii, to oversee computer graphics for Square-Enix hits like Chocobo Racing. Or . . . something. He toiled there, slave of that fucking gorgeous weather, for several years before, one day, (we're being dramatic on purpose) he stood up and walked out and started up his own company with which to make one-shot new RPGs with teams of talented, hand-picked designers, with the names of real-life pop-culture phenomenon novelists and artists adorning the boxes (for good reasons: because, well, they're actually lending their talents to the games) for the game console least likely to succeed in his native country. Mist Walker! AQ Interactive! (That stands for "Artistic Quality", according to their homepage.) With developers Artoon (headed by Sonic the Hedgehog's original creator, Naoto Ohshima) and cavia, who have yet to be given a chance to prove themselves, Sakaguchi has found himself the perfect opportunity to do what he might, at this point, feel like he's been fated to do. That is, to produce videogames. Godspeed him. (We'll wish him, and a mystery guest, godspeed again, at some point before this article is over, I imagine.)
Prior to his fleeing Squaresoft, Squaresoft became Square-Enix. What happened was, looking at it casually, Enix bought Square because Square had been spending too much money doing too much dumb shit like making movies that didn't succeed. Maybe someone at Square thought the company would be alright thanks to their lovely massively multiplayer online interactive spreadsheet (MMOISS) Final Fantasy XI, which sucked money out of players' credit card accounts monthly simply by promising them that if they click a couple hundred thousand more times they'll get to see a chocobo. (As an aside, Final Fantasy XI doesn't succeed merely because it isn't delicious. As in, it doesn't look amazing. It also, sadly, causes neither honey nor milk to drip from my computer's USB port, meaning that I would still need a refrigerator were I to devote my life to it. So it gets the dreaded "negative one star" review from me. Put that up on Rotten Tomatoes, someone.) Square ended up bleeding more money than they could drown in, and Enix -- slow and steady, ever-stable Enix, the friendly rival who had had the pride to promise never to release a Dragon Quest game within six months of a Final Fantasy game, back when the two series had largely the same aspirations -- took them in and gave them a place to sleep. Around the world, fans were stomping bleachers and shouting "DE-FENSE!" in Squaresoft's honor, by donning Cloud Strife or Sephiroth costumes, or writing imaginary stories about what would happen if Aeris from Final Fantasy VII came back to life. (The answer was almost always "Awwwww!! It would be so beautiful!") Square twisted their wills; character designer Tetsuya Nomura's leash was released, and he succeeded in making Kingdom Hearts, a lofty, ballsy combination of Final Fantasy characters with Disney animation characters. For those who came in late, Final Fantasy VI is to Kingdom Hearts: Final Mix as a flower arrangement technique VHS tape (not inserted into a VCR) is to the basic idea of fetish pornography. Tetsuya Nomura wrapped Square characters up in pleather (polygon leather) and superfluous zippers, and chaos began, and my lord, the kids loved it.
In November 2003, Square-Enix held an event in the Virgin Cinemas at Roppongi Hills in Tokyo. (That Virgin Cinemas apparently got manhandled somewhere along the line, because it is now a Toho Cinemas. As in, To-ho! Or Tohohohoho.) The event was to celebrate the abundant, prosperous, and healthy development of Final Fantasy XII, which was currently underway for the humble and revered PlayStation 2. The various lords and magistrates were assembled in the great hall. The producer for the game was none other than Yasumi Matsuno, who had previously garnered critical acclaim for his dark fantasy epic Vagrant Story (which amazingly received a resounding ovation in the form of a perfect 40/40 review from Weekly Famitsu), and his player-friendly strategy RPG Final Fantasy Tactics. Prior to Final Fantasy Tactics, Matsuno was already a demigod in the game-design-aficionado world, for Ogre Battle: The March of the Black Queen and Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together. With those two works (for the now-defunct, Square-absorbed developer/publisher Quest), Matsuno had placed bookends on the shelf of the strategic console RPG genre. Ogre Battle was active, real-time, and analog -- sending a squad out across the mountains felt vaguely and delightfully like dropping the needle onto a spinning record and hoping it would play your favorite song -- and Tactics Ogre was calculating, precise, and digital. To be certain, Tactics Ogre spawned a genre of isometric turn-based strategy games that continues to be tweaked and refined (or, in the case of games like Disgaea, where you can raise characters to level 9,999, some would rather say "exploited") even today. (To be even more certain, the main revision that Final Fantasy Tactics had made on Tactics Ogre's formula -- the AT battle system, which made the battle turns proceed in the order of characters' situational speed ratings rather than as simply "player phase" and "enemy phase" -- was definitely for the better, as Matsuno said himself.)
That Matsuno had been trusted with a major numbered installment of the Final Fantasy series could mean only one thing: that there were dozens of deeply rooted reasons for it. When the trailer rolled and each of the seven hundred hobby journalists seated in Roppongi Hills Virgin Cinemas Screen 7 had Memory Sticks full to bursting with pirate video footage and erections (maybe this is where the theater changed its name to "Toho Cinemas", who knows), the most apparent reason for Matsuno's being in charge jumped to the forefront. Matsuno was here to take the power back. He was here to make the Final Fantasy series about a young boy going on an adventure surrounded by great men who would change his life and shape his ambitions. He was here to make a game about noble knights, mysterious wizards, evil men in black armor, wonderful, fanciful flying machines, pretty girls, clashing swords, and roaring monsters. He was here to lend the game an ethereal air of taste, nobility, and stability. The voice actors would do their best to sound dignified -- and their best would end up being triumphantly more than enough -- and the on-screen representations of the characters would appear equally dignified. There was no Japanese animationesque nonsense -- or, if there was, it was very well hidden. From a short trailer full of booming voices and honey-bleeding music that bore tribute to the entire Final Fantasy series as evenly as it bore tribute to its own strong sense of independence, it was obvious that the game would be unparalleled in flavor and construction. Matsuno, at last, to the joy of his thousands of devoted, headband-wearing, keyboard-beating fans, had been given the money he needed to, at last, love us the way he wanted to.
The question and answer period of the press conference was drawing to a close. The host girl said, "We can take one last question." The last question was from a Chinese man, and it was, "Can we see that trailer again?" Up went the video cameras, hundreds of faces illuminated in the dark by the light of LCD screens. I felt like I'd walk in on a seance.
Former series music composer Nobuo Uematsu, who would go on to compose music for Sakaguchi's games after Sakaguchi left Square-Enix, delivered a video-recorded message, assuring fans that, though he wasn't composing the music for this game, he had in fact selected the performer who would deliver the theme song. He encouraged all those in attendance to look forward to the coming announcement. Yoshitaka Amano, former character designer (and currently a famous artist in his own right), gave a speech via video about how the game's logo had taken him only five minutes to draw. He chuckled about it. He said he did a more complicated one, and then rethought it, and did the simpler, messier one while waiting in the lobby of Square-Enix's offices, and Hironobu Sakaguchi had selected the sloppier one after thirty seconds of deliberation. It had been, in fact, Sakaguchi's only role in the game's development.
Hironobu Sakaguchi, in person, gave the presentation a send-off. Eyes fixed on the podium before him, he monotoned a speech about how it delighted him to hand the Final Fantasy series over to a "new generation" of game makers. His expression hypnotized me. In hindsight, I can tell that he was planning something even then. Hell, maybe he'd already set up the groundwork. He spoke each sentence the way a hardened detective sips a glass of water when he wishes it was whiskey. Pebbles dropping onto the ballroom floor. And then the music stops. He was so dignified, and so falling apart at the same time.
I caught up with him at the bottom of the escalator. He was standing before a flower shop, in the shadow of a luxurious office building, bright blue spot-lights punctuating the ground at his feet. An absolutely gorgeous middle-aged Japanese woman in a black dress and tasteful coat hooked her arm around his. Sakaguchi removed a pack of Lucky Strikes and a Zippo from his jacket pocket. Just as he stuck the cigarette to his lips, I approached him. "Mr. Sakaguchi?" I said to him.
"I enjoyed your presentation."
There was a flicker on his face. His expression was a dead ringer for Bill Murray's Mr. Bloom in "Rushmore", when he meets Max Fischer's father, Bert, the barber. Max had told Mr. Bloom that his father was a brain surgeon. Max introduces his father to Mr. Bloom with a noble "This is my father. He's a barber." And Mr. Bloom blinks and says it's nice to meet him. The blink says a million things -- nine hundred and nintey nine thousand more things than a picture, precisely. I felt like I'd weirdly glimpsed something about Mr. Sakaguchi that maybe I shouldn't have.
"So, did you come all the way from Hawaii for this?"
"Yeah. We . . . we flew coach."
"How was the flight?"
"We're going back tomorrow."
"Well. I just . . . good luck, sir."
". . . Thanks. Thanks a lot."
I'd get home and watch that trailer on my borrowed laptop computer. The release date rang out at the end in plain white letters: "Coming June 23rd, 2004."
The game would eventually be released on March 18th, 2006.
The next time I'd see Sakaguchi, it'd be nearly three years later; he'd be displaying Lost Odyssey to a hushed audience at Microsoft's Tokyo Game Show press conference in 2006, and he'd be grinning.
Looking back on it, there certainly was a lot happening within Square-Enix at that time. Sakaguchi's vague air of depression was weighted with many invisible realizations. Was he disappointed with the rampant zippers'n'pleather fetishism that had come to be associated with his beloved game series? Was said fetishism, truly, the thing that Square-Enix was working to counteract, conscientiously even, with Final Fantasy XII? Were they seeking to offer an alternative to their alternative? Were they seeking to wallow in taste rather than strangeness? Were they seeking to dabble in entertainment rather than in games?
Either way, the experiment would be two-thirds of a failure. Though Famitsu praised the game as highly as it ever praises anything -- that is, with the perfect 40 out of 40 score, making producer Yasumi Matsuno into even more of a demigod than he had been already -- the initial Japanese reaction was of fear, shock, and nausea. Literally -- people were getting motion-sick from the game, because of the 3D camera. These complaints arrived by the dozen-hundreds to Amazon.co.jp's customer review page. You could tell these complaints were coming from people who had never played 3D games before, probably because they had only ever played main series Final Fantasy games, and it had been five years since one of those had been released. The several hundred cries about the game's story being thin, flat, and boring were obviously coming from people under the impression that Mickey Mouse in a black cloak killing people alongside a spike-headed young man wielding a giant key like a sword was literature. Final Fantasy XIII, announced at E3 2006 for the PlayStation 3 superconsole (it's awesome! yeah!), would be back to what Square-Enix had long since considered business as usual -- a red haired girl with guns doing back flips, men in zippers, shiny robots, three games instead of just one (one of them being for cellular phones (for god's sake)), and promises of the biggest and baddest and longest attack animations of any game to date. It's obvious that even Square-Enix, who are veritable gods of schlock, hadn't cooked up the Final Fantasy XIII trailer in the short six weeks between Final Fantasy XII's release and E3. In other words, what we have here is circumstantial evidence that there passed a point during the, uhhhhhhmm, two-year delay in Final Fantasy XII's development wherein the producers began to fear that it wouldn't be successful. Gearing themselves up for a nine-point-"Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" on the Richter Scale catastrophe, they planned several exciting projects, like expansions to their darling MMOISS Final Fantasy XI, a strategyesque sequel to Final Fantasy XII for Nintendo DS starring chibi cutesy versions of the main characters, re-releases of Final Fantasies I and II on Sony PSP, an anime-blessed remake of Final Fantasy Tactics, also on PSP, delightful and charming (thrown-together) games like Chocobo and the Magical Picture Book on Nintendo DS, and the rebirth of the "Mana" series. (Which, I mean . . . really. They treated the "Mana" series like they'd stuck a cattle prod up Tolstoy's decomposed rectum and convinced him to write War and Peace 2. Seriously, now, people.) They were covering all the bases.
Oh, and Famitsu interviewed Tetsuya Nomura! Oh, and the interview was about Kingdom Hearts II: Final Mix! Oh! Behold! Famitsu got cheeky with him, and asked, "So, Mr. Nomura, you told us last year that you took so long to develop Kingdom Hearts II because you didn't want to have to make a 'Final Mix' [director's cut] version. What happened?" Nomura's answer, which was probably spoken while wearing an ironed T-shirt, was "Well, certainly, that was my aim. However, how could I have known what I wanted to add to the game without finishing it, releasing it, and seeing what became of it?" Yes! This guy is getting paid exactly as much as he deserves! In the same issue of Famitsu, he is interviewed about the PlayStation 3 exclusive "Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children: Special Edition" Blu-ray disc movie release. In said interview, he talks about it being possible to add more detail to characters' clothes and faces, thanks to Blu-ray. "We added dirt to Cloud's face, to better illustrate the extent of the struggle of his battle."
When asked if "Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children: Special Edition" would feature dual language tracks, Nomura let slip an amazing industry secret: "Well, I don't think both English and Japanese voice tracks would fit on the [50 gigabyte, dual-layer] Blu-ray disc. Also, we have forecasted that every purchaser of this special edition has already purchased the original edition, so we want to give them the English voices only -- to keep it a new experience for them."
Man, I wish I was making that up. I really do.
God, I love this guy. I really do. I might even love him more than Kawazu. (Actually, no, Kawazu wins because I played Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song (GAME OF THE YEAR, 2005, by the way) for over two hundred hours, and never felt like I won, and never felt like I lost -- and because he has some amazing fashion sense. Really. I'd post a photo of him if it wouldn't be violating hundreds of copyrights.)
Nomura goes on patting the head of the fanbase when he says, "Really, we're making this special package all about the fans." Be still my jumping heart: listen, people, it's okay to make things about the fans. Just . . . please don't say that's what you're doing. I would have expected better of Japan, where apologizing is as delicate an artform as origami.
So there you have the current situation: Square-Enix, mere months after releasing the insertcredit.com GAME OF THE YEAR, 2006, and one of the more significant videogames of all time, Final Fantasy XII, beheld beauty, beheld a fluke as a mere mistake, and proceeded to apologize to, coddle, and eventually fondle its basement-dwelling fanbase until everyone was wearing zippers again. Meanwhile, the series' father, Hironobu Sakaguchi, has bailed, started his own studio, and is employing literary heavyweight Kiyoshi Shigematsu and uber-acclaimed manga artist Takehiko Inoue -- two men beheld as gods in their fields, two men of actual talent the likes of which has never been directly applied to Japanese videogames -- to brew the blood and craft the face of Lost Odyssey, his RPG that would be literature, if the world would be so kind as to thaw its fingers and feel the pulse of the next generation.
And during the press conference at Tokyo Game Show 2006, when a French journalist asked, in English, "Is this the new Final Fantasy?" Hironobu Sakaguchi bared his teeth in the most maniacally delighted grin anyone has ever shown anyone.
"Don'to. Sei. Fainaru. Fantashii."
So be it.
Meanwhile, three years ago. In the future. In 2004. Probably three years ago today, in fact. Hironobu Sakaguchi's sudden departure from Square-Enix resulted in something like the reverberation of a Cataclysm-minor chord being plucked in the basement hallway. The janitor heard it and shat in his pants on the spot. He would later quit due to something unrelated (leukemia, perhaps). No one's quite sure how much time passed, exactly, between Sakaguchi's leaving Square-Enix and the foundation of Sakaguchi's new company, Mist Walker, nor is anyone sure where he got the money. For the latter question, at least, the answer "his pocket" is perfectly feasible. The former question can never be answered, thanks to Japanese companies' bowing, sweating, apologizing policies regarding confidential information and the like. It was just such policies that Sakaguchi was bending to the breaking point with his departure. Japanese corporations, you must notice, are near-notorious for never acknowledging mistakes when those mistakes occur on the highest level. See also the way Sony said the square button clicking against the screen on the PSP was "intentional" design. Sakaguchi's mistake had been investing money in something that didn't return the investment. Square wouldn't fire him because he was a treasure. Yet they also wouldn't let him touch a valuable project ever again; because Tetsuya Nomura's games always sell their target, in Japanese business terms, the man is a genius. Same goes for Akitoshi Kawazu's beautiful schlocksterpieces -- they sell what they're worth. Kawazu and Nomura can do whatever they want, regardless of ambition or quality, precisely because they haven't ever failed at doing what a business does: conducting business. They must see wonderful landscapes in their dreams. If I were in their position, I'd see a rolling plain carpeted with double cheese and piping hot tomato sauce. Sakaguchi doesn't get such tasty nightly visions, however -- because he put a lot of money on the table, and dared to roll the dice. By business standards, to put it as plainly as you can while still being terrifically vague, a man who has rollerskated precisely once, for one minute, without falling down, is a far better rollerskater than a man who has lived the last twenty years of his life on rollerskates, performing backflips for children, who happened to fall down once and break the first knuckle of his pinky finger. There is to be no assessment of quality in the real world, boys and girls.
And oh! There was Tetsuya Nomura, the court jester, grinning in his ironed T-shirt with portentous gothic Engrish bullshit written all over it! At the close of 2005 he, delighted to still draw breath, would tell Weekly Famitsu about the glory that it was to be working on Kingdom Hearts II. "Most of our staff were hired at the start of the project. We got a fresh start. And I tell you -- just about every person we had sitting down in the interview room was so delighted to tell me, 'Oh, how I loooooooove Kingdom Hearts!'" Were such giddy beings being interviewed by the director of a film, I dare say, they would be hired to deliver coffee to the actors, because that would be the highest honor, really, you can give them. (And, well, I suppose this would make Nomura, what, PR for an opposing studio?) Recalling his happy words makes me long for Kingdom Hearts II: Final Fantasy VII Mix, in which all Disney characters have been removed, and the Final Fantasy characters inhabit Disney worlds all alone, where every dialogue consists of the single line "He will awaken soon," spoken by a computer program, repeated, and the bonus Blu-ray includes a mini-application you can load onto your PlayStation 3's hard drive -- which, when activated, will place a real-time, internet-enabled picture-in-picture window in the upper-right corner of the screen, which will show the current state of Tetsuya Nomura's glistening, mumbling lips as he drools while listening to Gackt.
When Mist Walker was founded, many employees left Square-Enix. The numbers, again, are shrouded in secrecy, though it's widely presumed to be about half of the Final Fantasy XII development staff. Sakaguchi must have fired off an email to everyone, leaving his cellular phone number, or stating that he had a plan, or something. The mind races to think of what happened. I tell you, if someone put that email on Yahoo! Auctions, I'd bid on it, man, I'm not even kidding. I'm certain he didn't say anything rude; he has been a gentleman about the whole affair. To think, following years of friendly rivalry with Dragon Quest producer Yuji Horii, years of striving to make Final Fantasy as different from Dragon Quest as possible -- after being the first of the two producers to produce a work of worldwide acclaim and success (that would be Final Fantasy VII), Hironobu Sakaguchi was also the first to bow out of the friendly contest. Now he is often quoted as saying he will use the Unreal Engine and the semi-active turn-based battle system of Final Fantasy X (a wonderful innovation which wasn't used deeply enough) the way a novelist would use a word processor. He is devoted to telling compelling, charged stories with unique characters. And hey, his first production even has art by Dragon Quest artist Akira Toriyama. Basically, in summary,
A. Hironobu Sakaguchi is becoming a lot like Yuji Horii in his old age,
B. Who'd'a thunk it?
C. It looks quite good on him.
Yet in leaving Square-Enix, he left Yasumi Matsuno in ruins. Yasumi Matsuno, the emotional, would-be poet laureate of the Japanese videogame scene, was reported to suffer an "illness" later into Final Fantasy XII's development cycle -- just short of the first proposed (and missed) release date on June 23rd. Apparently, Matsuno had the keys to the game and he was willing to drive it into a brick wall if certain people (identities forever withheld) wouldn't shut the hell up and/or quit teasing their sister. According to sketchy insider reports, Matsuno was "deeply unsatisfied" with the actual system of the game, and encountering "enormous amounts of pressure" from the sponsors at Square-Enix. Shortly after the game showed up as a playable demo at E3 2004, Matsuno vanished. Criticism on the internet and in various print publications had perhaps hit him hard: people were upset and/or confused that the game seemed to play like an online RPG, instead of using the tried-and-true random battle system. This would have perhaps confused and upset Matsuno, as big a fan of the Final Fantasy series' historical aspirations as the modern beholders are fans of zippers, because he has no doubt seen internet messageboards wherein people bemoan random battles in RPGs and wish someone would create a solution. Matsuno, perhaps upset that you can't please all of the people all of the time, perhaps taking criticism to heart (and ignoring the fleeting, flaming, bleating, screaming raves of critics like myself), and most certainly upset about something, disappeared from the company.
"And he just . . . wouldn't even answer his cellphone. We called him, like, every day. For, like, six months," says someone in the know, who I happen to know.
Around this time, when Hironobu Sakaguchi was being interviewed left and right about his decision to leave the company he put on the map, whenever the inevitable question of "Whatever will happen to Final Fantasy XII?!" came up, Sakaguchi was sure to answer that he believed Yasumi Matsuno was perhaps the most capable videogame producer he had ever met, and a talented man who would find greatness and success at whatever he chose to lend his hands to. I remember reading this and feeling my heart slam against my ribcage. What powerful words. And what a poignant place and time to deliver them. And I got the pressing feeling, based on those printed words, that Sakaguchi wasn't lying. I recalled my experience playing Cave Story, which I didn't really love: I came away from it thinking, why the heck did this Pixel guy make a videogame? Why isn't he out there perfecting, I don't know, the Ultimate Toothbrushing Solution, which would keep all peoples' teeth free of plaque, tartar, and gingivitis at the cost of absolutely zero effort? There are certain game designers who happen to be the kind of people who could do absolutely anything -- Horii, Miyamoto, and, yes, Matsuno. Yet it's because they continue to make games that, well, anyone else is inspired to make games of their own. If it weren't for Dragon Quest, there would be no Final Fantasy, and if it weren't for Super Mario, there probably wouldn't be any Japanese games at all, anymore.
In the end, Final Fantasy XII was finished off by a relief team toiling overtime daily for close to a year and a half. The round of pre-release interviews that eventually popped up in Famitsu were with nobodies. Battle system programmers, map coordinators. (This is not at all to deny that these men may be geniuses with the literary ability to write the next Gone with the Wind locked up somewhere in their expensive hairstyles.) There were those who thought of SaGa's Akitoshi Kawazu, perhaps eager to get his shot at directing his first Final Fantasy since II, as something of a Cardinal Richelieu, patiently waiting in the wings for one monarch to vacate the throne, and for the successor to crumble under pressure. Either this didn't happen, or Kawazu wasn't scheming, after all. Either way, his name is listed in the credits as "Producer", though he did not give any interviews as such. He obviously had to do a great deal of something on the game, though what he did, exactly, remains unknown.
The game that eventually scored a 40/40 in Famitsu a week before arriving on store shelves and selling 2.5 million copies ended up a bloody, battered masterpiece. I honestly expected to open the case to find the disc pre-shattered. It's actually quite an exhilirating game. It's beyond impressive to see how many perfect ideas stud its leather hide. In the execution, it's far from perfect, though in setup and in concept it's easily one of the more important games of the decade. By now you no doubt know the meatiest hook of the gameplay -- the Gambit System, with which you program your party members. Say you make the top priority on a person's Gambit list "Cast Cure Magic --> Ally with HP < 50%". You make the second priority "Attack nearest enemy" -- that way, this character will attack the nearest enemy to himself, unless one of the allies' HP drops below 50%. In theory, it's an amazingly simple system. In execution, it's beautiful. Use the configuration menu to speed up the battle timer, and then set the battle mode on "Wait" so you can pause the battle at any time to micromanage: rearrange tactics, or handle something that your pre-programmed AI scripts can't handle.
Yet many players rejected this system like a bad organ transplant. These were the casual players, mostly, the players who led real lives with real nuances, the players who, every weekday, sat in an office and intoned a perfunctory apology every time they answered the ringing telephone. Man. Do you realize that in the hardcorest Japanese companies, the first thing out of your mouth when you answer the phone is a formal apology? That's the kind of world this is, man. When they go home to play games, they require everything to be concrete. Choose "Fight" to fight, for example. Gambits didn't confuse the many players who complained on 2ch.net or Amazon.co.jp so much as it just irritated them by making them feel useless.
This is only partly a failing on the game's part. If truth be told, Final Fantasy XII contains less great dungeons than I have fingers on my left fist. When it comes to structure, the game is a hybrid of Matsuno's Ogre Battle and Vagrant Story -- it's an analog dungeon-crawler. The feeling when the character you're controlling -- Vaan, for example -- starts to tug away from the direction you're pointing the analog stick is spookily reminiscient of the hopeless dread you might have felt while watching your wizard unit slowly zigzag up the mountains, suddenly pursued by an enemy birdman unit sailing in from the west like a bat out of hell, in Ogre Battle. It's much smaller in scale this time, though the mystery is still there; unfortunately, the dungeons are mostly just corridors, and the toughest challenge you're likely to encounter involves pressing the SELECT button to open the map screen. Well, the only tougher challege is when, for some reason, the map is scrambled and not viewable, which is a total cop-out. The treasure chests appear randomly, which is nice enough -- gives you incentive to explore -- and the "chain" system is clever enough -- kill enough enemies of one type in a row to score a chain, increasing treasure modifiers, and upping your chances of making big money, as well as giving you a reason to avoid (hold the L2 and R2 button to initiate "fleeing" mode, to cancel all party members' Gambit actions!) other types of monsters -- to keep you from screaming in boredom when you dash around, though hell. There wasn't any dungeon where I felt, specifically, challenged -- outside the first major dungeon that feels like a dungeon. That would be the battery dungeon -- you have to keep the electricity on in this catacomb place, right? So you have to kill these battery monsters, while keeping them away from the electric outlets. If they get near the outlets, they drink up the power and dim the dungeon. You can actually use your characters' bodies to push the monsters away from the electrical outlets. This felt . . . well, not clever so much as like a suggestion that clever stuff was on the way. It felt like the first battle in a Matsuno Tactics game -- where the other characters perform their own actions, and the player is free to enter commands for the main character, even though the battle is on rails and there's mathematically nothing he can do to derail it.
It's fuzzy-clear that this first dungeon might be the only part of Final Fantasy XII that Matsuno was actually finished with at the time of his departure. Matsuno had suggested in interviews that he would be bringing a level of subtle, Zelda-like delicacy to the dungeons of Final Fantasy XII. In the end, it must have just been too much work. Though the game stars some stunning environments -- the enormous, multi-towered wall in the desert is about as impressive as they get -- they end up being more like wallpaper. At their most "challenging", all the dungeons are doing is emulating the Marsh Cave in the first Final Fantasy, where the player enters, is horrified by the difficulty of the monsters within, and retreats to town to set his NES Advantage on rapid fire, weigh down the button with a bag of quarters, and come back in an hour when he had successfully bought 99 potions. (Do you realize that if the potion had been the second item on the shop menu, there probably wouldn't have been a Final Fantasy III?) I guess we can't blame Matsuno for not making perfect dungeons -- he had a lot on his plate: the story, for example, the direction of the cut-scenes, and, of course, the brilliant system -- the game's beautiful skeleton.
It's obvious that the game's system is constructed with careful attention to the vapor phantom game designers have heard whispered of in tavern toilets -- that phantom called "Common sense". The Final Fantasy "Active Time Battle" system was originally implemented -- in 1991, in Final Fantasy IV -- to make battles feel faster and more exciting than mere turn-based affairs. It was invented to push Final Fantasy further away from Dragon Quest: originally, one of the biggest draws of the first Final Fantasy, when compared to Dragon Quest, was that you could see your party members on the screen during battle. And when a character was near death, he would stoop onto his knees. This was crucial -- visual representation of character status. In Dragon Quest, when your character was near death, the menu borders and text would turn orange, which, certainly made everything look a heck of a lot more frantic. Still, it was nothing human or emotional. It was just archetype -- hot colors, hot situation, danger. When Yuji Horii's Dragon Quest VIII made the move to full 3D, many were puzzled, for the absolutely wrong reasons: here, they had all assumed that Horii had intended to keep the games pixelly, sprite-based affairs forever. Yet Horii told interviewers that he had never considered the forests of Dragon Quest to be gospel. A character walking in forest-patterned tiles, his body stained green up to his waist, was merely a representation of a man in a forest. That games like Namco's "Tales of" series went on to use it well into the PlayStation 2 generation was as unfortunate as it was understandable (understandable because they were obviously looking to Dragon Quest for inspiration, because the designers have no imaginations of their own; this is a good thing, sometimes, because it makes them into wonderful craftsmen). Yet Horii had never signed a contract in blood; he had never promised to be "Old Skool 4 Lyfe". All along, Horii perhaps entertained dreams of letting the hero enter the forest, and run beneath the shade of individual trees, when the technology made it possible to do so without draining the brains of all staff involved.
In the same way, the Gambit system was no doubt positioned against the current Final Fantasy battle system as the forests in Dragon Quest VIII were to Dragon Quest. It existed to untie many of the knots in the game design. Yasumi Matsuno had been brought onto the project to create a fresh new system and a scenario of political, mature intrigue -- and he produced something radical, though at the same time, firmly grounded in common sense. He must have looked at the previous battle systems and noticed a curious rift: after a decade of real-time battles, Final Fantasy X returned to a turn-based system. Yet, the system was even even more reliant on timing than the previous real-time systems -- this is because every action a character takes carries with it a time weight, which determines when, say, magic spells would be cast. The order of turns to be taken is constantly shuffling in a visible meter at the top of the screen. It's just about perfect (and it's just about completely inspired by Matsuno's "AT" system in Final Fantasy Tactics). It's most probable that this system seemed more feasible to FFX's planners than a real-time one because the real-time battle system was a placeholder to begin with. As the graphics and presentations in the games got better and better, it seemed silly for the characters to be standing around waiting for orders. The optimum setup would have displayed every battle in a dynamic fashion, with turns progressing with an "AT" a la Final Fantasy X, and with the characters frozen in mid-struggle during menu-selections. One can consider Matsuno's Final Fantasy Tactics as an abstract representation of a real, dynamic battlefield, just as, say, baseball is an abstract representation of some dynamic, flailing struggle. In baseball, the field waits for the pitcher to throw the ball, at which points everything goes into motion. The action is pausing at every turn, just as decisions must be made in the minds of the characters. The player makes the characters' decisions for them, and sets the battle back into motion for a fraction of a second. Matsuno had spoken of this in an interview before, saying something along the lines of "one could imagine an entire one-hour struggle of Final Fantasy Tactics as taking less than forty-five seconds in the 'real world', if one so chose". Needless to say, to make Final Fantasy X's battle system perfect would nonetheless require detachment of a lot of wires: make the characters stop moving and breathing, for example -- remove the life from them unless the battle is in motion. Only when the battle is flowing -- those split seconds out of every few real seconds -- would the characters move and animate. However, Final Fantasy's fans want dynamism, they want action. (Yes, they want characters to jump allllllll the way over to the enemy, slash, and then jump alllllll the way back.) They want movement all over the place -- they even want to dress up as the characters, and pose exactly as the character poses when waiting for orders in front of cameramen at Tokyo Game Show. I've seen girls dressed as Cloud who hold their cardboard swords and let their shoulders heave just as Cloud would in a battle, over on the right side of the screen, in Final Fantasy VII.
So Matsuno decided to answer gamer requests and remove random battles, at the cost of overhauling the battle system in such a way as to draw comparisons to a massively multiplayer online RPG. The comparisons, however, were mostly not fair, because MMORPGs host thousands of players, and the "time" variable is plotted out with consideration to dozens of other players at a time. Meaning: the games are slow. Final Fantasy XII, at its best, is a dynamo. It's always moving, breathing, in all directions. You can pause it with a press of the circle button, swing the right analog stick around and savor sparks echoing from a sword; it's your game.
Or, at least, it's mostly your game.
Despite all the dynamics, all the moving around, romping, running, and what have you -- there is still a firm foundation of numbers. The game is very much just a number-muncher at heart. To wit -- if there's a big fuckin' creepy ghost-horse-thing and it has targeted you, it's going to hit you even if you run away. We call this a "mandatory hit" -- or, more specifically, "taking your medicine". I can see how this might have irked Matsuno, whose Vagrant Story and Tactics Ogre were so damn near air-tight in their plotting that it might be possible (or it might seem possible) for a skilled player to complete a battle map or a dungeon segment without being hit once. Looking around at modern Japanese RPGs, one can find some virtuous execution in the Mysterious Dungeon games, which don't have a battle system because the dungeon system and the battle system are one and the same. As such, it's possible to avoid almost any dangerous situation, and when you die, it's because you fought someone you should have known not to fight. This means that Final Fantasy XII is almost too dynamic. You can enter a cave and your dudes are dashing at the ghost horses, and they get slaughtered. Then you get targeted for a confusion spell, and you're not sure why -- the spell must have a definite range, though how the hell do you measure it? Why doesn't it tell you the range of the spell? Why doesn't it spell it out for you, literally? Why the heck is the game making you so hungry for numbers?
The Gambit System tutorial, early in the game, sheds a little light on what went wrong. Balthier is telling you how to set up such-and-such a character to do such-and-such an action. He shows you, using the game's simple script, that you can program someone to "Attack --> nearest ally" or "Heal --> Monster", and then makes a comment along the lines of, "See, this would make me into a total moron." He's showing you what can go wrong with the system for the same reason, say, Shigesato Itoi makes a Japanese slang word for "Penis" one of the pre-existing selectable names for the hero of Mother 2 -- that is, basically, he's getting it out of the collective system. Airing out the laundry before it gets wet. Yet the game takes a weird little turn, and here is where the cracks that perhaps led to Matsuno's flight begin to show.
For starters, you have to buy gambits. Why? You have to go to an actual shop in town and purchase the ability to use "Ally: HP = < 30%". Why can't I use it from the start? The easiest conclusion to make is that, simply, it's the Relief Team's fault. With a team already hard at work throwing paint at a brick wall to make the story for Final Fantasy XIII, they had resolved themselves to thinking (perhaps correctly) that Matsuno's battle system was too quirky and difficult for "casual" fans. They were so convinced of this that they made the Gambit system inaccessible in the playable Final Fantasy XII demo included with the North American release of Dragon Quest VIII. For the most part, yes, they were right. The casual fans would revolt and write disgusted comments on the internet about how they didn't understand the Gambit system, and how there were too many battles when you turned the Gambit system off. One could argue that the Gambit system would have made the most sense if all of the Gambit choices had been available from the beginning. In the end, the game sold 2.5 million copies based on name alone, and absolutely no publicity in magazines until a month before its release, when they revealed the License Board -- a morbidly curious thing to reveal with pride.
The License Board is most certainly not Matsuno's idea. The License Board, in fact, is a pretty bad idea. Matsuno's character development systems are normally elegant. Take the job class ring from Final Fantasy Tactics, for example. The License Board is a weird, clunky hybrid of the job class ring and the Sphere Board from Final Fantasy X, on which characters powered up by using a shared stock of "Spheres" to activate spaces on a board-game-like track. On the License Board, characters can use "LP" ("License Points") to learn how to use new weapons, or earn more maximum hit points. Yet it's . . . lacking in complexity. It's not nearly as grand in scope as the Sphere Board. It's just . . . there. It consists of two masses -- one for equipment, and one for techniques. Techniques include new magic spells or passive proficiencies like "increased potion effect". There's something weirdly wrong here.
Delving into the past, I recall that Matsuno had said in interviews that he was a huge fan of Western-made PC RPGs like Ultima Online, Diablo II, and even Dungeon Siege. The latter is an especially interesting example, because it passively measures players' decisions to determine the growth of characters. Attack a lot with a sword, and you get good at using a sword. Attack a lot bare-handed, and you get good at using your hands. Cast a magic spell a lot, and -- you get the idea. However, maybe if you get more proficient with a bow and arrows, your sword skill drops. Get too used to wearing light armor, and heavy armor proficiency decreases. In Dungeon Siege, the player doesn't need numbers to develop his character. And because Final Fantasy XII is not an online game, full of paying customers, backed by hosts who need to give players numerical reasons to keep paying, Matsuno might have figured he owed no duty to digits.
In an interview in 1995 on the subject of Tactics Ogre, Matsuno slickly hinted at his desire to make a strategy game -- or an RPG, or lord know's what -- with "hidden numbers", "the way the code is 'hidden' in a game like Super Mario Bros". Thinking of that in light of Final Fantasy XII, I remember the stooping, near-death player avatars in Final Fantasy, and how revolutionary the critics of the time found the concept. Might Matsuno's brain have been working even back then? Might he have envisioned a game based entirely on common sense and (sometimes passively perceived (by AI)) visual cues, where character weapon proficiencies increase based on use, where characters make AI decisions to heal or not heal based on "hidden numbers"? I wonder what Matsuno thinks of EA Sports' Fight Night boxing game on the Xbox 360 -- you know, the one with no life meters, where all damage is represented visually (a hell of a jump, on paper, over arcade fighting games where characters' clothes tear in exactly the same spot when they get punched enough). I'm certain he considers it progress of some kind.
How might the Gambits have read? "Cast Cure magic --> Slightly wounded ally." "Cast Curaga magic --> Badly wounded ally." Oh, the internet FAQs would apply numbers, to be certain -- kids on the messageboards would say, "yeah I estimate 'Badly wounded' to mean at about 20% of max HP yeah". Though really, aren't the simplest Gambits free of numbers already? "Nearest Enemy" -- "Any ally". Logically, it all works out. The more complicated Gambits, such as "Enemy weak against fire" would be worked out with in-game solutions. Maybe, if you manually used fire magic on an enemy, it would spark (no pun intended) a mini-dialogue between the characters: "Hey, it looks like these guys are weak against fire!" Thus the knowledge would be registered into the game's hidden databanks: equip a character with an "Enemy weak against fire" Gambit from that point, and he would possess the shared knowledge that such-and-such enemy was weak against fire.
In this way -- number-free -- the Gambits might have not looked at all complicated or ridiculous to any casual player. "Moderately wounded ally" has a much more user-friendly air to it than "Ally HP = 60%", doesn't it? Furthermore, weapon proficiencies would be handled equally casually. Notice how each character begins the game with a certain weapon, and a look at the License Board reveals that they possess the License for that weapon. Notice how a certain dagger might unlocked by a square adjacent to a certain sword. Notice how, in order to progress from spear to crossbow one might have to endure various other weapon classes. How could this be handled in-game? Simply -- maybe a character could say to another, after a kill with a dagger, "I'm gettin' good with this thing, if I do say so myself!" Or something else off-handed. That would mean the character is now free to use other weapons of other weapon classes -- classes which, if laid out in a chart format, might occupy squares adjacent to the one occupied by the current weapon. The key would be the chat between characters. "Maybe I should try out a gun, huh Balthier?!" Vaan could chirp excitedly. And it's all up to you to remember who's said what up until the moment you go to the weapon shop.
Games like Rouge Galaxy, for example, had experimented with chat between party members during battle, though the chats never accomplished anything. It was always "These guys are tough!" or "Look out!" or "Man, let's be careful not to get lost in this dungeon right here, hey!" (amusingly uttered sometimes just at the entrance of a dungeon). Matsuno, perhaps, was seeing Horii's forest for the trees. He might have had a heck of a revolution planned -- he might have had something to show his peers and, finally, be truly proud of. He was probably even willing to sacrifice the quality of the dungeons, to devote himself entirely to building the bones of the battle system that would endure him to the ages. He perhaps fancied this as the perfect RPG skeleton -- and with abundant logical reason. It would be a genre unto itself. He could work the rest of his life applying the system to different stories, and maybe eventually try his hand at more complicated dungeons. It was a super-noble pursuit.
The problem was asserting and implementing this system. Supposing -- supposing -- Matsuno had harbored grand wishes to make Final Fantasy XII into a numberless RPG, might that have caused friction between him and the bosses at Square? How far were they willing to go to protect their precious visualized mathematics? Matsuno's first priority must have been overseeing the building of a working prototype of the battle system and the player-customizable AI scripting. It seems to me -- I'm donning my videogame detective hat for a second, here -- that Matsuno had laid the groundwork for the system using logic alone. He very well could have been considering gutting the numbers out of the game somewhere during the development cycle. When he left the project, I'm fairly certain the License Board did not exist, and the weapon proficiency variables weren't tied to anything concrete. As in every Final Fantasy since VI (well, except IX and XI, yeah), Matsuno had no doubt wanted to make a game where any character could become anything. It took Akitoshi Kawazu and the Relief Team to actualize this eventuality, with the License Board.
There are plenty of things that could have driven Matsuno mad. It might have been any or all of them. Whichever one or ones it was, it was enough to make him wash his hands entirely of the project. It must have been hugely frustrating; be not naive, dear reader: know that Yasumi Matsuno, a dedicated, emotional, passionate man, would not have given up on his big chance to helm an installment in one of the most respected game series in this country and the world because they didn't stock Sweet'n'Low at the coffemaker. Matsuno, from all accounts, is a man of steel; the only way to budge him is to smudge his aspirations.
At Tokyo Game Show, where Lost Odyssey and Blue Dragon commanded three-hour-long queues, when the CESA orginization decided the best games of the show, the remake of the decade-old Tales of Destiny crowned the list, and Lost Odyssey and Blue Dragon were nowhere to be seen. Included in the same press release was the list of the titles the CESA had chosen as the best games of 2006: Final Fantasy XII topped the list.
The head of the CESA committee that decided the game was Yoichi Wada's. He's also the president of Square-Enix.
It's amazing what you'll find, really.
And the quaintest rumor I heard in all of 2006 is that Matsuno's at cavia, under the AQ Interactive umbrella, sharing the shade with Hironobu Sakaguchi, making a game for the Nintendo Wii. Whatever you are doing, whatever revolution is brewing, your lordship, we await it with anticipation. And whatever became of you on the night of that fateful battle, we wish to inform you that somehow, we pulled it through in the end, and we regained our freedom, though perhaps only for a day.
One complaint among Japanese players was that the story was too thin, and too plain. To be more precise, they complained that the main character was ineffectual and drab, or else that his voice was too youthful, and his attitude was too plucky. They complained most fiercely that he really had very little to do with the story to begin with.
To tell you the truth, I thought this was kind of brilliant. He's a young boy with dreams and aspirations. He wants to fly the skies in an airship. He wants to be a sky pirate. And during a routine ragtagging around the city, he meets a sky pirate, and his life kind of changes. He is brought into the center of a swarm of political intrigue. He witnesses dynasties ending all around him. He meets a noblewoman who faces earth-shattering choices. He sees twins battle one another to the death over a case of identity gone wrong. And in the end, he basically just survives it all by the skin of his teeth. If he's leveled-up along the way, that's great. His only personal connection to the action is that his brother was killed, supposedly, by a knight named Basch. When he meets Basch, around eight brisk hours into the story, he lets his feelings get the better of him. He cries out, "You killed my brother." Basch informs him that he is mistaken. When I first witnessed that, I must admit I was floored by the subtlety of it. Up until that moment, though Vaan's brother's death makes up the entirety of the game's opening scene, we don't hear Vaan mention having a brother even once until that point. When he exclaimed "You killed my brother!" at first, I thought, "How does he know? We didn't . . . tell him." I was so conditioned to the ham-handed narratives of most Japanese games -- usually, if a game is talking, it's talking too much. Editing and careful story craft don't mesh well with the Japanese RPG industry. (See Xenosaga for a good example.) Late 2006 would show me Wild Arms: The Vth Vanguard, with a story written by Kaoru Kurosaki, a bona-fide novelist, and I would be equally floored by subtlety: in Vth, the first dungeon sees the main character escorting his female friend up a mountainside, to the place where they first met, so he can inform her of his decision to leave the village and go on his own grand adventure. Imagine that -- character emotions as the motivation for proceeding through a dungeon. Who else would think of that aside from a published novelist, huh?
Slowly, yes, the RPG tide is turning away from "game talent" and toward "actual talent". Would I consider Matsuno "actual talent"? Without a doubt.
And I mean, really, how realistic is it that a plucky little kid would end up possessing the psychic power needed to save the world when everyone else around him is, you know, already big and important? Who better to focus a story on than an eyewitness to the shift of the tectonic plates of time? Didn't you people ever read The Great Gatsby? We're (almost) dealing with that kind of subtlety here. That kind of actual talent.
Another "actual talent" in the game industry is hot (so hot) composer Hitoshi Sakimoto, whose music combines seemlessly with Yasumi Matsuno's scenarios and Akihiko Yoshida's character designs. His music in Final Fantasy XII is airy, classical, thinking stuff. It's also deep and rich on the subtlest levels. When many gamers complained that its not "Final Fantasyish" enough, I suppose I saw where they were coming from. Then again, Final Fantasy XII is a game that merely happens to be a Final Fantasy, the way "Spirits Within" happened to be "Final Fantasy". As has been tattooed on the left buttock of many a hardcore gamer, yes, Final Fantasy games are about reinvention, and change, and all that. One should welcome Hitoshi Sakimoto's compositions to Final Fantasy XII because he is an exceedingly talented musician who is above all else expertly talented at being himself. Likewise, Akihiko Yoshida's character designs are sublime, and suit the low-key nature of the plot and setting far better than the zippers'n'pleather of Kingdom Hearts ever could. His Basch looks the part of an exiled general; his Vaan (even in that little monkey vest) looks the part of a plucky game hero, teleported into a semi-real world. The bunny girl looks evenly creepy, the way you'd expect a bunny girl to look if she were biologically real; the swashbuckler looks prepared to buckle, and the girl knight -- well, has a really short skirt, just because in a mass-market product like this someone has to. There's another character, though I'm going to pretend to forget her, because she does even less than the hero -- or, perhaps, she does more, because she offers the player an alternative in which non-story character to primarily use. If you're a girl playing the game (or if you're not, or if you're me), you can primarily use the girl character if you so choose. Hey! Why not?
Perhaps the true female heroine of the game, however, is the big-haired piano-banging she-geek Angela Aki, whose song, "Kiss Me Goodbye", has an alright title when one considers its possibilities for tragic irony, is actually not a masterpiece unless you walk around with Elton John CDs duct-taped to the sweating small of your back for good luck. Angela Aki is, first and foremost, a gorgeous human being. I sent her a message on MySpace, telling her that I flipped over half of the copies of her single in Tower Records so that the side with her wonderful hair was showing, and not, you know, the side with the Final Fantasy XII characters; I told her I didn't flip over all of the CDs, because that way maybe people wouldn't know the song was connected with the game, and I wished her the utmost success. She kind of didn't reply, and she kind of did. She was on TV playing "Kiss Me Goodbye" with a grand piano, and man, she was totally wearing a T-shirt with a vintage "Dr. Who" logo on it, which is probably the greatest god damned thing I've ever seen on Japanese television -- an Italian-Japanese woman with beautiful hair, jeans, and supertasteful glasses, playing the piano, singing so hard her jaw was almost unhinged, all the while proclaiming with a T-shirt that she liked "Dr. Who". That's poetry in motion. That's moetry in potion. That's really great. That's really something, right there. Somebody should hold onto her. She's got something, she does.
[next: the killer question]