Generation JRPG: The Cutting Room Floor

Photo by Aidan Moher

Yesterday, my epic article about the influence of the Golden Age of Japanese RPGs (from the SNES to the PlayStation 2) went up on Kotaku, and it’s been a blast seeing so many people reach out on Twitter and message boards to tell me about their similar experiences. I spoke to several SFF writers, such as Scott Lynch, Tamsyn Muir, Peng Shepherd, and Troy L. Wiggins, about their experience growing up as gamers and how that’s influenced their popular SFF work.

The final version of “How Japanese RPGs Inspired A New Generation Of Fantasy Authors” clocked in at a weighty 5,500 words, but the original draft was over 10,000 words long before we started whipping it into shape. And, even then, there was a TON of great content from the authors I interviewed that didn’t find a home in the piece. They didn’t fit into the overall narrative, they were too much a divergence from the main path, etc. So, I wanted to use this space to pull a few of those stories forward and given them the home on the Internet they deserve.

If you haven’t already, go and give it a read, and then come back here for the juicy outtakes after the jump.

Thanks for reading!

Tamsyn Muir waxing poetically about Illusion of Gaia’s unique melancholy:

Illusion of Gaia traumatised me. I loved it. It’s part of Quintet’s Soul Blazer trilogy, three games absolutely obsessed with God, creation myths and evolution. I’d only played Illusion of Gaia at the time, which is a bog-standard “evil force is coming to bring despair to Earth, this teenage boy had better do something” but is leavened by also being unremittingly nuts. One explores huge, sombre, empty ruins in different Earth-adjacent locations — Angkor Wat, the Tower of Babel, the Nazca lines — while dealing with the slave trade, the fallout of teenage romance, assassins, and a pig with a martyrdom complex. As a kid, I loved that it had romance. I always wanted to make up little stories about everyone kissing, which I felt had very low cultural capital in the video game world, and then to have it included in Illusion of Gaia made my child self feel extremely seen.

Mainly, though, Illusion of Gaia included narrative prop storytelling bones. Sad little heaps of bones were left in loads of different locations. You could interact with them, and you could find little journals on their bodies, or talk to their ghosts. Due to the game’s relationship with time travel you might visit a place, come back a lifetime later, and find that everyone had (unnervingly, if bewilderingly) turned to… bones!! I feel as though it is Illusion of Gaia‘s setting-contextual relationship with bones that inspired me to write Gideon the Ninth, which is just that cranked up to eleven. 

Illusion of Gaia has almost no sense of humour about itself, but is high on the melodrama. The later Final Fantasies managed to strike what I found was an incredible balance between taking themselves extremely seriously and taking themselves not seriously at all. I love the juxtaposition of these huge, epic stories sitting with absolute comfort next to frog-eating minigames and that time in Final Fantasy 7 where you have to find Cloud Strife the best wig. I’m sorry that a lot of modern JRPGs seem to have lost that sense of play, or gone in the other direction and turned up the sense of ridiculous too high; you need the exact right balance struck between get this yak a hat and the world is ending.

More from Isabel Yap on why Gideon the Ninth is the closest thing you’ll get to a JRPG in book form:

You’ve got this large, diverse cast that feels incredibly distinctive, and so much of that distinction comes from dialogue or recurring actions they do. It’s sort of like how, in 90s JRPGs, you had the text box with the character’s face changing to match expressions, and they spoke in certain ways to make them memorable. You had the diva character that would go ohoho (like Coronabeth); the overly formal one who who can’t speak a single line without insults (like Harrowhark); and the one who always has a humorous quip (like Gideon). Naberius Tern always appears sneering, with perfect hair; the bad teen kids whisper, and it’s evident in the font. Every time a character is introduced in Gideon we’re reminded of who they are and how they are, and it felt a lot like how ensemble casts are assembled in games like Suikoden or Chrono Cross.

Scott Lynch putting me in my place after suggesting JRPGs added airships to the epic fantasy tool belt:

I’m going to have to offer a bit of friendly disagreement here. FFIV came out around 1991 if I recall correctly; airships were an intrinsic part of the aesthetic of WATCHMEN (1986-87), THE DIFFERENCE ENGINE (1990), and a whole bunch of Moorcock’s fantasy from the late 60’s to the mid-70s, not to mention Bryan Talbot’s LUTHER ARKWRIGHT (started late 70s) and the airship/dirigible craze kicked off by stuff like Jules Verne’s ROBUR THE CONQUEROR/MASTER OF THE WORLD, back in the 1880s. And you have airships as a major element of Burroughs’ Barsoon stories, starting in 1912. And SPELLJAMMER appeared a year or two before FFIV… NAUSICAA OF THE VALLEY OF WIND from the early 80s… so I can’t agree it was a major first in an objective sense. But did it kick open that door for me, personally? Oh hell yes. Ultimately, despite all the stuff I’ve just rattled off, I believe that magnitude of influence is at least as important a consideration as chronological precedence, and the aesthetics of Final Fantasy landed on hundreds of thousands of people roughly my age with the full force of delightful novelty. The message of the Final Fantasy aesthetic was that you could unchain yourself, be more glib and flexible with your elements. The games rarely feel claustrophobic. The wide world is full of promise, and ever-increasing mobility in that world is one of the core gameplay features.

Troy L. Wiggins on Dark Souls:

Dark Souls hit me like a wrecking ball–I’d played Demon’s Souls and enjoyed it despite its fabled difficulty because I was a sucker for anything with swords and dragons. Demon’s Souls, and later Dark Souls, hooked me with my love of swords and dragons and told me a story that, to this day, is one of the best stories I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience. It was a story that you had to work to understand, and it was well worth the labor. I’d read grimdark fantasy before and enjoyed it, but Dark Souls was beyond grimdark. It was bleak, nihilist, and dripping with pathos. I vividly remember setting down my controller and taking a pause when I realized that my player character wasn’t the hero in this game. They were an invader, a rogue virus set on ruining the fragile order keeping the bones of this faded world together. And the game told you the story in every way except actually telling you. NPC’s spoke in riddles. Key lore was obscured in item descriptions, or in level design, or in game assets. Dark Souls taught me the importance of obfuscation, of hiding the details of your story in plain sight and letting the most intrepid readers discover the intricacies of your plot and world. It also showed me that you can make a dark, terrible world that does not hinge on the same kinds of routine oppressions that exist in everyday life. Dark Souls story is, at its core, about the inevitability of change and eventual decay. I’d much rather push against that in video games than, say, racism.

Bryan Camp describing his Chrono Trigger sequel novel (be prepared to defend your favourite ships):

I usually tell people that the first thing that I ever wrote was an unfinished portal fantasy that I started in high school that borrowed pretty heavily from Stephen R. Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant books. While that’s technically true in the sense that it’s the first thing I was writing as consciously trying to be a writer of novels, it’s not literally the first narrative I created out of my own brain. That dubious honor falls on the sequel to Chrono Trigger that I wrote when I was supposed to be paying attention in math class. I say sequel, but let’s be honest, I had my ships, my revisionist takes, and my obsession with details from the source material. This was fan fiction. The core of the story was the idea that some minor villain steals the Epoch, the time machine, and goes hopping around in the timeline of the first game, undoing the plot of the first game and causing a new, worse Lavos apocalypse. The children of Crono and Lucca, Marle and Frog, and Magus and Ayla (I told you I had my ships) all have to come together to follow back through the first game and try to re-establish the happy ending their parents had achieved. Yes, basically just like Back to the Future. I went deep into this game, figuring out how the original characters’ elemental powers would combine in their kids, how their techs would interact, and even a twist: Marle and Frog’s daughter would be the sword-wielding badass, while Crono and Lucca’s son would be the group’s healer. (Please forgive my teenage self his relatively unenlightened ideas about gender roles; he doesn’t get out much.)

Marie Brennan on how and why she started writing videogame fanfic:

It started with the Might & Magic games, which are not what you’d call thick on story. I had a tendency to imagine the conversations my party members were having as they traveled around — yelling at the wizard for setting off a fireball so close it burned my knight, for example. But then I started playing some games that had much richer narratives, like the Gabriel Knight series from Sierra or Bioware’s Dragon Age games, which engaged my brain in much the same way that novels and such do.

Most of the fanfic I’ve written has been for exchanges, where I’m constrained by which fandom my recipient has requested; that means I’ve written for everything from mythology to novels to movies to TV series to songs. But I wrote a small series of fics for Dragon Age, fleshing out my headcanon for what my Inquistor was thinking and why she made the decisions she did, both during the games and afterward, and that was just for my own entertainment. I think games strike an interesting balance in terms of engagement: they provide you with the visuals and audio of a movie, and they leave the internal state of the character much less defined than a novel does, but they also involve you-the-player as an agent in a way that fixed media doesn’t. You’re the one making decisions, which depending on the game can even influence how the story turns out. So I think they hit a sweet spot in terms of leaving space for you to imagine the reasons why things happen, or different outcomes that could have occurred.

Those Dragon Age fics unexpectedly influenced the novel I have coming out in August. I had fixed enough of a headcanon for my Inquisitor in my mind that when she learned some difficult truths about the history of her own religion, it threw her into a terrible crisis of faith and identity; that wound up resonating with a character in Turning Darkness Into Light. I didn’t borrow any of the text of the fic, of course, but that feeling of having the ground ripped out from under you was one I’d already explored a little, which helped me run with it in the novel.

An ode to my super cool babysitter who introduced me to Final Fantasy VI and how he set me on my current path:

I vividly remember my first encounter with a Japanese Roleplaying Game when I was eight. I hated it. It wasn’t my copy of the game—not even my GameBoy. I was visiting a friend, and his cousin, who was also visiting, had this weird, plodding game that seemed dreadfully boring compared to Fall of the Foot Clan or Super Mario Land 2. In all its monochromatic glory, details lost behind a well-loved plastic lens, Final Fantasy Legend II was utterly uninteresting—even to a kid who usually had his nose buried in a book.

(Looking back, and understanding more about Akitoshi Kawazu and his particular brand of wackiness, I feel a sort of melancholy pity for that younger version of me, blissfully confused by FFL2‘s weirdness.)

See, I didn’t understand yet that video games could be more than an endorphin rollercoaster—that they, too, could create whole worlds for me to explore, just like novels, and that, eventually, they would introduce me to characters I loved as deeply as anyone I met in the pages of a book.

A few years later, another person reintroduced me to JRPGs in a more convincing and long-lasting fashion. My babysitter (he was 16 and, in my childhood eyes, super friggin’ cool) brought his copy of Final Fantasy VI to my house and. Once my brothers were down for the night, being the oldest, I got to stay up with him as he plumbed the mines beneath Narshe and explored Figaro Castle. A clever thief. A nameless sorceress. Mechs. Magic. Mayhem. An evil empire. A snowy town under siege. Espers. Action. Daring. Intrigue. Adventure. Final Fantasy VI had it all.

All of a sudden, I understood.

Like many other people my age, Final Fantasy VI set me on a path of JRPG fandom. And it’s become one of my favourite games of all time. I replay it regularly. I write long essays about it. I’m inspired by it.

Now, I’m in mid-thirties. I’ve got a couple kids. I work. I write. I read. I play games. Often, those hobbies overlap. Thanks to the wonders of emulation (and save states), I’ve been able to rediscover my library of old games—the ones I never let my mom give away—and, while juggling modern games like Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Persona 5, and Breath of the Wild, I’ve spent a lot of time playing SNES JRPGS. Some familiar (Final Fantasy V & VI, Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG), some new (Terranigma, Seiken Densetsu 3). Above and beyond having a blast—and discovering how my tastes have changed—I’ve been startled by one realization: these games, which I played during my most formative years, have influenced me as a fantasy writer just as much as any novel I’ve read.

As I play through them, I see the seeds of the themes I enjoy writing about, characters or bits of characters that have reappeared in my own works, world building cues, plot structures, relationship archetypes. I see airships and huge, sprawling worlds. I see the melding of technology and magic. I see fights with monsters. Daring adventurers. Huge set pieces. I see the types of stories that I aim to write.

Read “How Japanese RPGs Inspired A New Generation Of Fantasy Authors” on Kotaku.

When you’re done that, you can find more retro video game goodness by reading my essay at Uncanny Magazine, “Was Trials of Mana Worth Growing Up For?” It’s an exploration of growing up, nostalgia, and gaming through lens of recent Nintendo Switch release, Trials of Mana.