Introducing Aidan Moher
Aidan Moher 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.
Moher’s upcoming book, Fight, Magic, Items, guides you through the origin and evolution of Japanese roleplaying games, beginning with the two games that started it all: Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. Moher weaves in firsthand interviews and behind-the-scenes tales into a unique and entertaining tribute to a genre and games that inspired an industry and continues to capture the imagination of generations of fans. The book launches on October 4th, 2022, and preorder information is available here.
An Interview With Aidan
Liz Kelly, Editor of Cutscene University: You’ve written a history of Japanese roleplaying games in the West. What’s your personal history with roleplaying games like, and what inspired you to write this book?
Aidan Moher: My first encounter with JRPGs happened way back in the early 90s. I was visiting a friend’s cousin’s house, and he had a Game Boy—just like me—but instead of playing Mario and Ninja Turtles, he had this weird game called Final Fantasy Legend II. You moved your character around a grid-based map, combat happened on a different screen using menu commands, and there wasn’t a single member of the Foot Clan in sight. I… thought it was lame.
Fast forward a year or two, though, and you’ll find a gaggle of boys at my house being entertained by a 16 year old babysitter. We’d usually stay up late playing DOOM or Commander Keen, but this night he brought over a new game the play on my recently acquired Super NES: Final Fantasy III.
From the moment Terra stepped on that first save point—and the screen flashed blue, indicating brief solace and safety—I was hooked. Along with a couple of my close friends, we became obsessed with Final Fantasy III and salivated over previews of Square’s massive follow-up: Chrono Trigger.
After that, it was game over. I was a full-blown JRPG fan and I haven’t let up since.
Capturing that feeling is at the core of why I wanted to write this book. These games mean so much to me and millions of other gamers, and I wanted to explore how and why these odd games from Japan managed to capture the imagination of so many players in the west. It’s the story of Japanese RPGs, the people who made them, and the people who play them.
LK: JRPGs are known for their complex, compelling, and sometimes bizarre stories. What do you think makes these stories so effective, and why do they resonate with people?
AM: For me, it’s always been about their ability to transport me into their worlds and conflicts as an active participant. I’ve been a fan of big fat epic fantasy novels for as long as I’ve loved JRPGs, and the idea that I could play a story like that—not just as a passive observer, but as someone who creates ripples on the fabric of the story—continues to fascinate me.
On top of that, I love the way Japanese RPGs are rooted in western ideas—they’re borne of a desire to recreate the Dungeons & Dragons experience on living room TVs—but also heavily informed by eastern myths, storytelling modes, themes, and ideas. They’re this unique blend of cultures that continually explores new territory while also constantly referring to tried-and-true traditions and tropes. This combination makes them both exciting and familiar.
And now we’re reaching a point where the genre is expanding outside of its traditional bounds with western games like Cosmic Star Heroine and Sea of Stars being inspired by classic 90s JRPGs like Chrono Trigger and Phantasy Star—and major Japanese releases like Final Fantasy XIV being heavily inspired by western creations like World of Warcraft. This interplay between eastern and western creators, they way it weaves its way through all the games, provides a fascinating background for creativity and innovation.
LK: Which JRPG stories resonate with you personally, and why?
AM: I’m a big sucker for the way series and creators like Yasumi Matsuno and Suikoden balance traditional coming-of-age fantasy tropes with more nuanced explorations of war, politics, and power. Suikoden is particularly interesting to me because it eschews the small party and hyper focus on individualism that pervades a lot of JRPGs for a wider view of conflict. Each game takes its huge cast of characters—108 per game for the player to collect—and gives the player multiple lenses through which to view the story’s events. This culminates in Suikoden III, where the player alternates between protagonists, and, in the end, some scenes that seem heroic from one perspective, are heinous from another.
Few other genres have such a wide canvas to play with, and Suikoden ups the ante even further by having its games build on one another, adding to an overall series story arc that encompases hundreds of characters, several different countries, and a timeline spanning many decades. Similarly, Yasumi Matsuno’s games, like Final Fantasy Tactics, Vagrant Story, and Final Fantasy XII, bring this level of scope and nuanced storytelling into single games that remain some of the most memorable and influential games I’ve ever played.
That all being said, if you were to ask me about my all-time favorite JRPGs, I’d like Chrono Trigger and Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete right there at the top with Suikoden II, and they have very straight forward stories about saving the world with a kind, earnest group of teenagers. So, there’s room for all sorts of stories.
LK: In addition to writing Fight, Magic, Items, you’ve also written a collection of short stories, and you’re an experienced journalist. What do these different writing styles have in common with the writing you see in video games, and what sets them apart?
AM: The goal of all writing is to reach your audience—no matter the medium, the style, the subject matter. So, in this way, games writing isn’t far off from the journalism or fiction writing I do (these days I’m working on a couple of novels, moreso than short fiction, but the point remains) in that you need to identify your audience and goal early on.
Journalism and short fiction taught me the value of tight, concise writing—every word counts—and I think this has particular crossover with Japanese RPGs in particular because so much of the narrative in those games is driven by dialogue. Without the expanse and flexibility of a narrator’s exposition, Japanese RPGs need to convey their stories through their character’s words and actions in a way that feels natural and not like they’re hand-delivering a monologue to the player. Do they always achieve this? No, of course not. We’ve all sat through a monologue (or something like Xenogears‘ second disc), but the intent and desire is there.
With so much worldbuilding and scene setting handled by the game’s graphics and visuals, this frees the writer to imbue their characters with personality and use them to propel the story forward. This isn’t really available in non-visual mediums like short stories, so, as I’m banging my head against the keyboard trying to describe a cool set piece in my book, I’m often envious of the game creators who get to work with amazing concept artists and visual designers to create the amazing settings and free the writers up to just worry about the story bits.
LK: Do you have any advice for people who want to become more effective storytellers?
AM: Consume stories broadly across many different mediums and styles. It’s so easy to fall into our favourites, and to be defined by what we find there, but growth comes from pushing ourselves into unfamiliar territory. In a 2019 piece for Kotaku, I explored how Japanese RPGs have inspired a whole generation of science fiction and fantasy writers, and I think this is a beautiful example of how we can look to different mediums to inform our work. JRPGs were heavily influenced by Dungeons & Dragons, which, of course, was inspired by modern epic fantasy, like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, etc. Creativity like this flourishes when creators pull inspiration from various sources—and this applies beyond just mechanics or medium, but also into searching out work by creators that share different experiences and backgrounds than the reader. Consume broadly, be inspired, experiment, and write what you’d love to read. You’ll surprise yourself.
Oh, also, just write. Don’t be afraid to mess up on the first try. It’s okay to produce a first draft that’s imperfect. It’s okay to share your flawed work. I’ve always considered the first draft a chance to tell myself the story, and revisions are for getting the story into shape for other readers.
LK: A final question, just for fun: you’re a known Chrono Trigger fan, as proven by your Medium article detailing the history of the series. Who’s your favorite character?
AM: Oh, boy! There’s so many.
The easy answer for me, though, is Schala. I was obsessed with her as a kid (I even printed her official portrait on my dad’s ink jet printer and taped it to my wall) because she just carries this melancholy that separates her from so many other characters in the game. Zeal is this incredible setting—it’s beautiful, powerful—but it’s also flawed and on the verge of collapse. Watching her mother’s descent into madness, Schala sees the hubris of power bring down her entire world, but she still fights until the very last moment.
Chrono Trigger‘s entire plot wouldn’t exist without her—and, of course, Chrono Cross wouldn’t exist either—and she plays a more vital role in the game than any other character, including all of the protagonists. Schala was the first time, I think, I realized that a character didn’t have to be a story’s hero or protagonist to leave major ripples on its plot, and ever since then, I’ve always been drawn to how seemingly minor secondary characters can warp and manipulate a story even when they’re not on screen.
Thanks again to Aidan Moher for taking the time to talk to us. To preorder Fight, Magic, Items, head to the book’s website for more information.
How characters express themselves, using spoken or written words.
StoryScan: Chrono Trigger and Structure
Chrono Trigger tells a memorable story by hitting all of the key beats of the Three-Act Structure.
StoryScan: Final Fantasy Tactics and Character
Final Fantasy Tactics uses a Corruption Arc to show what happens when a character compromises his integrity in pursuit of his goals.