Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Fight, Magic, Items: A Conversation with Aidan Moher

Aidan Moher (he/him) is a Hugo award-winning writer and editor who has written about almost every niche facet of geek culture you can think of from Terry Brooks to Dungeons & Dragons. And whether he’s penning wildly read essays on Lunar: Silver Star Story, the undeniable lasting power of Chrono Trigger (the best RPG ever made), or the forgotten history of Magic: the Gathering, he manages to infuse deep, personal, endearing hooks into every story he tells. He’s written for outlets like Wired, Kotaku, Electronic Gaming Monthly, Uncanny Magazine, Fanbyte, Tor.com, and more.

Joe Sherry: We've known each other for a number of years, well before A Dribble of Ink won a well deserved Hugo Award, but I think at this point more of our readers will know you online from your video game writing than your book reviews or curated essays.

We share a love of old school, classic JRPGs and I'm pretty sure we have a fairly similar history in gaming, but what's your origin story? How and when did you first get into JRPGs?

Aidan Moher: I got way back with Japanese RPGs, but with a bit of an early plot twist: my first encounter with them left a bad taste in my mouth that lasted a few years.

I grew up as a big PC gamer as a kid—all the way back to the Commodore 64—and my first real game "console" was a Game Boy, which I absolutely adored. I was obsessed with Super Mario Land and Fall of the Foot Clan, and tore through batteries like nobody's business. One time, though, while visiting a friend's cousin's house, he showed me the game he was playing on his Game Boy: Final Fantasy Legend II. I tried it out, moving an abstract hero around a grid-based map, kind of like a board game, and then whisking off to a different screen for a slow, menu-based form of combat.

I handed the Game Boy back, unimpressed. Whatever this was? It was lame.

Fast forward a few years, though, and my cool babysitter—who regularly brought over games to play, and we often spent whole evenings blasting demons on the moons of Mars in Doom—popped a game into my newly acquired Super NES. It was a lot like the game I'd played on the Game Boy with its grid-based map and separate screen for combat, and it even shared a name: Final Fantasy III.

By the time we hit the first save point in Narshe Mines, I was obsessed. A little bit older, and now devouring epic fantasy novels, the idea of a big, sprawling fantasy story I could play was too cool to resist. After that, I hunted the pages of gaming magazines for anything related to Final Fantasy III and soon discovered the creator's follow-up game: Chrono Trigger.

It was game over after that. I've been a JRPG fanatic ever since.

Joe: The Super Nintendo really was a formative system for JRPGs. I got my start on the NES with the original Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior, though my Dragon Warrior cartridge never could hold a save so I only finished that game a few years ago on my phone, interestingly enough, and thanks to quality of life improvements. But it was Final Fantasy II that really jump started my love of the genre.

With the wider RPG genre diversifying more and more (Western RPGs, Action RPGs, Japanese RPGs, Strategy RPGS, Tactical, etc) what has kept you coming back to the JRPG subgenre?

I ask this while I’m in the middle of Horizon Forbidden West, which is an action / adventure game with strong RPG elements. ARPG? Is that a descriptor that is used? But I also ask it while I’m incredibly excited about recently announced remasters of Suikoden I and II.

Aidan: I mean, what keeps us coming back to any of our favourite things? At 38, I'm still drawn to many of the same things I was as an eight year old: big stories, cool characters, epic encounters, scary monsters. From the moment JRPGs clicked for me, they latched onto the things that've inspired me as a consumer and creator of media my whole life. I just like stories about people overcoming obstacles by using fireballs and exploring worlds with lots of made up words. It's part of who I am.

JRPGs really had an ebb and flow to them, though, so if you rewind a decade to 2012, I was in a big console JRPG doldrums because the entire genre was having trouble transitioning to the HD era. I still played a ton of them on my DS and PSP, but the big, epic experiences in front of my TV were replaced by stuff like Deus Ex, World of Warcraft, and Skyrim. I wasn't even much into replaying retro favourites at that point, and all my old consoles/games were still buried away in a closet at my parents' house. It wasn't until a few years later, as JRPGs started to see a bit of a revival on consoles that they started to consume the majority of my living room gaming time again.

I think your last point is really interesting, though, because I credit a lot of the genre's revival on the way it started to adopt western game design ideas—with series like Final Fantasy taking on open world design elements from western hits like Skyrim and World of Warcraft—and the way western genres and games started to adopt some of the most popular JRPG mechanics—look no further than Assassin's Creed or Horizon and their adoption of JRPG-like systems. JRPGs and western games have always had a symbiotic inspirational relationship, and I don't think it's a coincidence that they saw a major resurgence right around the time they started more openly adopting each other's ideas.

Now, I think we're seeing the broad success of more mainstream JRPGs open the door for more traditional JRPGs. Stuff like the Suikoden remasters, Sea of Stars, or Eiyuden Chronicles probably would've have found a footing ten years ago, but there's a hungry audience for all of those games, and it's not just deep-down-the-rabbit-hole JRPG nerds. I think we're reaching a place where the kids who grew up playing Final Fantasy III, Chrono Trigger, and Xenogears are reaching the age where we're influential buyers, but also a gateway to a whole new generation of gamers: our kids. Reaching into the past to revive games like Suikoden and Final Fantasy VII is a great way to reinvigorate lapsed fans and get them reinvested in a genre they might've left behind—while still appealing to the hardcore audience who'll lap up all of these games.

Joe: Before we get to your book, do you have any recent JRPGs that you’d recommend? You and I chatted about Dragon Quest XI a few years back, which was just about a distilled experience of a classic JRPG could be while still having modern conveniences, but has anything else struck your interest?

Aidan: It's a great time for JRPG fans and, in many ways, feels like the next phase for the genre as we see new releases that focus on innovation and genre-blending (like, say, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 and Final Fantasy XVI) being released alongside more conventional titles (like Bravey Default 2 and Eiyuden Chronicles) that allows the genre to be in conversation with its past while still forging new territory. I've been enjoying Xenoblade Chronicles 3 a lot—its still way too system-heavy, but is generally an improvement over its predecessor in every way—and then I've been really enjoying other games that overlap with JRPGs on a Venn diagram, like 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, which is a great visual novel with a weird tower defense game built in, and, of course, Elden Ring, which fits the broadest possible definition of Japanese RPG, so I'm counting it.

I'm a very inclusive, big bucket kind of person when it comes to genre labels—I like to think of them as sets of inspiration, ideas, and themes, rather than constrictive, objective identities.

Joe: Now - about your book. I think to a point everything we’ve just discussed is a bit of “why this book” but what brought your love of JRPGs to book length?

Aidan: As mentioned earlier, I've been playing JRPGs for nearly my entire life, but it wasn't until five or six years ago that I made a conscious effort to start revisiting favourite games and earlier generations. I'd been keeping up with the genre, but started to wonder if I'd still enjoy the older style of JPRG that's less "immersive" and "realistic" and more interpretive and metaphorical in its presentation. Did I still have the imaginative chops (and patience) for that older style of game? So, I loaded up an emulator and visited two beloved Super NES JRPGs that I'd missed the first time around: Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals and Terranigma.

And adored them.

I missed Lufia II due to it being released near the end of the Super NES's life cycle, and Terranigma was never officially released in North America. So, I went into those experiences with nostalgia for the era and style, but not for the games themselves. Walking away enamoured with them, and suddenly in conversation with my younger self who'd grown up obsessed with Super NES and PlayStation JRPGs, I realized that if I felt this way, then lots of other people would feel this way, too. So, I started pitching freelance articles to gaming sites based around the idea of revisiting this nostalgia and examining these games as an adult and through the experience I'd acquired with the genre in the decades since.

On Kotaku, I examined how a whole generation of science fiction and fantasy authors were as inspired by Hironobu Sakguchi as they were by J.R.R. Tolkien, and looked at the lasting legacy of Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete for Electronic Gaming Monthly. Noted JRPG nerd and brilliant agent Eric Smith loved these pieces, and eventually we started chatting about a book based on these ideas. A lot of back and forth ensued, but we whipped together a great proposal, and here we are.

Specifically, I think the Japanese RPG is having a bit of a revival, especially with a more mainstream audience due to the Switch's popularity, and something I call "weaponized nostalgia" that explains why Square Enix and similar companies are bringing back all these classic games right at this moment. The idea is basically that all the kids and teens that grew up playing Final Fantasy VII, Chrono Cross, and Suikoden are now adults with purchasing power and, importantly, are gatekeepers to an untapped demographic of gamers: kids. I know I sure enjoy introducing my kids to my childhood favourites.

Joe: I dig it. I’m feeling likewise inspired by the JRPG renaissance. It’s definitely rekindled my love of the genre, as has the nostalgia factor. So - high level because obviously everyone should drop what they are doing right this moment and order your book - what can readers expect from Fight, Magic, Items?

: My elevator pitch for the book is pretty simple: Fight, Magic, Items is the history of Japanese RPGs and the people who made them.

But, my goal for the book was also to go above and beyond a technical, linear history of the genre that just regurgitated Wikipedia factoids. The most appealing thing to me about these games are the people—the ones who made the games, the ones who played them, the ones who continue to make new games because they fell in love with the genre as kids and couldn't let go. So, Fight, Magic, Items isn't just a history, it's an examination of the creative process, of what drove people like Hironobu Sakaguchi and Yuji Horii to attempt something as bold as they did when they created the genre, and to understand how their similar beginnings and parallel ambitions ended up leading to two series that are now vastly different from each other.

And then there's the people who play the games, the fans, lapsed and current. JRPGs are a core memory for me, they're baked into me as a creator, and there's millions of other readers out there like me. They might not share the exact same memories as me, we might've played different games, have different favourites, but that core warmth of nostalgia and love for the genre is a shared experience. So, I put a lot of myself into the book—my experiences discovering the games and growing up alongside them. It's not quite a memoir, but readers will turn the last page feeling like they know me a bit better, and hopefully discover some new stories and facts about the games they love along the way.

Joe: Aidan, Thank you very much for taking the time to chat about some of your gaming history and about Fight, Magic, Items. I am excited to read it. Everything about it, from the nostalgia to the games I still like to play, is exactly what I’m here for.

I assume Fight, Magic, Items is available everywhere fine books are sold?

Aidan: Thank you for having me! It's been such a joy to connect with other people who love these games as much as I do, and to share the stories of the people who made and play them.You can, indeed, pick Fight, Magic, Items up at your local bookstore! If you want more information about the book, including an excerpt, links to coverage and interviews, etc. you can visit its official website: FightMagicItems.rocks