Baba-san, as he likes to be called, is the lead producer on the Tales Of series – one of the cornerstones of the JRPG genre, an exemplar of the form. For those who don’t know much about the Tales Of series, they’re about as JRPG as they come. They make parts of Final Fantasy look decidedly Western. They feature overly-long skits where the characters talk to each other and tell jokes and get sweaty hair and nosebleeds and all that standard Anime bullshit. They’re fun, if you like playing the same game with little change in experience for upwards of sixty hours.
There are also butt-tons of them (around 12); I’d only heard of one, Tales of Symphonia, on the Gamecube, because my wife plays it once every two years or so as part of the intricate rituals that let her tolerate being married to me. It’s charming, for sure, but it’s very much yer standard pattern boy-in-a-scarf-and-too-many-collars fights to save the world. There’s a woman in hot pants, I believe. A guy with long blonde hair and a nice coat. And a small irritating child. I’m pretty sure there’s a checkbox they have to fill before they can ship the games out of the country.
PINK ARGYLL SOCKS
Tales of Xillia is the upcoming title, and Namco Bandai are just now putting the finishing touches on the localisation efforts, and I almost couldn’t care less. I write “Tales of SILLIER more like” in my notebook and laugh to myself, underline it a couple of times and think about how I could use that in an article. And then Baba-san appears.
Baba-san wears pink argyll socks. He has the sort of beard which looks like he puts serious effort into growing it every morning. He wears a nice jacket and jeans and colourful trainers and, crucially, he is carrying a sort of plush thing. He grins throughout his presentation. All of the other Japanese guys are either very polite and self-effacing or perpetually nervous and holding their energy in like a man trying to sit on too many springs, but he’s got this sort of boisterous, bubbling energy coming from within him. I want to take him out for a drink and see what happens.
He says hello, and then holds up the plush thing and shakes it and says hello again but in a daft voice. He talks about Tales of Xillia and I don’t know how you could manufacture the giveafuck to stay interested in this stuff. I can’t latch on to the way that JRPGs refuse to follow on from one another, and instead of recurring characters or storylines they have recurring airships or powers or elemental energies or some nonsense like that. Something inside of me worries at JRPGS like a loose tooth, looking for the underlying storyline behind all the serieses. Maybe there’s room for a Doctor Who/Final Fantasy crossover where Christopher Eccleston or whoever it is these days flips between the different universes and recruits spiky-haired androgynes to fight the Daleks, or something.
When he talks, Baba-San uses a sort of mellifluous Japanese staccato, and when he listens he goes “Mm!” every few seconds, like he’s really enjoying every single one of a packet of salt and vinegar crisps or struggling to get comfortable in a bus seat. I’m told this is a fairly common this with Japanese people. It doesn’t seem rude. It just seems like he’s so incredibly interested in whatever his translator is saying that he has to let them know all the time.
During the presentation, he starts to wax lyrical about JRPGS. I mean, I assume he’s waxing lyrical, because his translator seems to be giving the abridged version; he’ll talk for a minute and we’ll get fifteen seconds of English. It’s frustrating, because I know there’s something incredible there. There’s an article there. The lead producer on Tales Of talks JRPG design theory. I love it. I’d read it, and I hate JRPGs, for God’s sake.
He talks about anime being very important to people in Japan, much like Hollywood is important to Americans, and how those inform the design choices made behind games. But which design choices, Baba-San, aside from the obvious? I need you to tell me and I need to write it down so someone will pay me money. He continually teeters around the rim of insight, but never delivers. I guess it’s all lost in the translation. I just sort of listen to him talk and zone out watching the colourful characters backflip and emote onscreen. He is adorable. I could probably kiss him. Maybe. It’s a really nice jacket. He’s Head Producer, too, so he’d probably take me out somewhere nice before or afterwards or during or whatever.
“Of course, the biggest addition to this game as opposed to previous titles is that the camera now moves,” says the translator. “This is you, just walkin’ around a basic field.” Baba-san spins the camera and I write down “MOVEABLE CAMERA” in my notebook and, God, they’re just getting that now? This is a bust. I start scribbling questions for tomorrow morning’s interview session.
HEIGHT OF RUDENESS
A night happens, and then a morning, and a bleary breakfast burrito in the sort of diner where the waitresses chew gum and look down their noses at everyone no matter what they order, and then the interviews. We sit down on the sofa in the interview room, and it turns out that was where Baba-San was supposed to be sitting because there’s a Tales of Xillia backdrop there, so rather than ask us to move he grins and simply rearranges the whole room so he’s sitting on an armchair in front of the backdrop by the window. He has the little plush character with him again, tucked beside him on the chair.
The guy I’m in the interview session with has to ask his first question three times, making it simpler every time. Baba-san’s translator is not very good. He gets an answer and I can tell he’s kind of disappointed in it, and I take a stab myself: “The tales of games are a cornerstone of – a very important part of – the JRPG genre. What do you think defines a JRPG? What design principles do you use to uphold that?” The translator doesn’t stand a chance. “I’m really sorry,” I say, automatically correcting myself, cutting down the question to a manageable size. “What do you think defines a JRPG?”
“By, um, “defines,” you mean…”
I’ve never interviewed anyone through a translator before, unless you count the Dark Souls 2 guy half an hour previous to this which was essentially fine, but I’m not doing very well. She translates my question and I hear the occasional “Jay-Arr-Pee-Gee” in her speech, and he responds.
“I believe that character and story are the most important keywords in JRPGS,” she says on his behalf, “so we portray these two elements in a different way from the Western RPG.” He rattles away. He’s changed his shirt from yesterday. He still looks nice. Maybe I’m just far away from home, but there’s something comforting about him.
He notices that the little plush character has fallen over in the seat, so he sits it up and pats it on the head while she speaks.
“So, the main characteristic of JRPGs is that every character as a very detailed character in various aspects,” she continues, “and – what he said is very difficult to translate – but, um, when you begin playing the game, you can see some hints of the story, and when you reach the ending, you can say – oh, okay, that event that happened in the past chapter leads on to something. This is the most important thing about JRPGs.”
I smile and nod. This is useless. Maybe I’m asking questions that are too broad to be hammered through two languages. I wait my turn and go again.
“What do you think Western gamers can learn from JPRGs?”
“I think it’s very a interesting question,” she says after he speaks, “and personally I think that Western gamers can learn Japanese culture from JRPGs. So I mean that in terms of the visual approach, the way of expression in graphic is very manga and anime style, and this is very different from the Western games. So I think that Western fans can feel how and what the Japanese consider a fantasy world, because the fantasy world we are creating and the Western fantasy world are very different.
“So for example I think that when the Western gamers thinks of fantasy, it’s probably a Wizardly world.” I love the use of “Wizardly.” That’s a gorgeous word. It hangs in her mouth like smoke. She gets ten bonus points, despite everything, for that.
“When Japanese people consider a fantasy world, they tend to translate their own culture into the fantasy world to realise it. So the way of thinking between way of thinking between Western people and Japanese people is different; when you hear the world “castle,” you might think it’s a very beautiful, middle-ages castle. But Japanese people can imagine a Samurai-style castle.”
Smile. Nod. Useless.
Grasping at straws, I stick to my script: “Are there any design elements, or philosophies, from Western games, that you appreciate or find interesting?”
“Personally I think that Western developers keep the movies held in mind when creating and developing a game. So in the game there is a… it is seemingless?”
“Yes, yes – seamless. So in the traditional Japanese game it’s not seamless. It says – this is… a battle. This is… the game. This is an very interesting thing between Western games and traditional Japanese games. So I think that the seamless element is very interesting, and I think it is a constant possibility to introduce this seamless element into new Tales Of games in future.”
That’s it! Hideo Baba talks JRPG seams! That’s my leader! That’s my… one piece of useful insight from the day. The French PR lady leans over and tells us we have time for one more question, and it’s not my turn, and it’s over, and I’m pissed off because there’s clearly this massive, fascinating powerhouse of game design ethics and philosophies locked away in Baba-San and I can’t get at him because I don’t speak Japanese.
He’s a fascinating individual but under these circumstances he’s about as much use as a pinwheel. We stand up and say our goodbyes and Baba-San says “Thank You!” in English, and bows, and we sort of bow a bit too while we shake hands, and I ask get out my iPhone and motion at the backdrop whilst holding it like a camera and smiling at him. He gets it eventually.
I’m about ten seconds off asking for one of me standing next to him, too, but I resist. Until next time, Baba-San.