Number 3: Yoshinori Kitase
Of all the developers in this list, Kitase should’ve been the one with the most notorious name, but sadly, he got completely overshadowed by his mentor: Hironobu Sakaguchi. Kitase, as a writer and director, is behind the 4 more influential and well regarded RPGs in gaming history: “Chrono Trigger”, “Final Fantasy VI”, “VII” and “VIII”. So you see why he should be better known to the grand audience: just as Sakaguchi had been the father of the classic RPG genre, Kitase became the father of its modern current. And though his style feels like an evolution of Sakaguchi’s, he improved on many aspects of the formula and added a few twists of his own.
The first thing that pops up when you look at Kitase’s RPG’s, is the change of a predominantly high-fantasy scenario to a mix of sci-fi and fantasy. In earlier “Final Fantasies” technology existed, but magic clearly had a more important role in the development of the plot; with Kitase, technology and magic were seen side by side, as two faces of the same coin. Though this is probably a shallow change, since the allegoric meaning of magic or technology remained the same (a representation of Man’s power and thus, a danger to the planet and Humanity), the fact is that it ended up establishing an iconic, aesthetical and conceptual trademark that would later be replicated in nearly every other RPG.
But what really made him a great developer, was the way he deepened the narrative aspects of the genre. Though he followed Sakaguchi’s approach, of focusing the narrative on emotional “motifs”, he also complicated the plot mechanisms used to move things along. When you look back, Sakaguchi’s stories were no more than simple bed-time fantasy stories, where an evil man wants to destroy the world, and a couple of specially gifted magic-users fight back. All you had to do, as a character, was to follow the trail of the big baddie, from point A to point B (repeated “ad infinitum”), until you could terminate the threat; along the way the big bad evil monsters would destroy villages and kill some of the good guys, but in the end, good would triumph over evil; all in all, it was a very simplistic, straightforward narrative (even if at the time, it was the best you could find in a console). Kitase’s narratives are much more complex and above all, are highly manipulative, in an “Hitchcockian” kind of way: they’re conceived so that the flow of information can be controlled, allowing the director to effectively influence the gamer into believing certain facts, while hiding important plot details for a grand, exciting twist afterwards. From the memorable destruction of the Earth in “FFVI”, to the multiple fates of “Chrono Trigger”, not forgetting Cloud and Sephiroth’s mysterious past, every Kitase story is filled with complex and interesting plot twists. These are, of course, essential in capitalizing the focus of the audience, which becomes all the more engrossed if the stories are twisted and unpredictable. Add to that the emotional side of Sakaguchi’s stories, and you can begin to understand why everyone who played his games, fondly remembers Cloud and Barrett’s environmentalist struggle to save the world or Squall’s undying love for Rinoa (in what is probably the only good love-story ever to grace a videogame).
Story-telling also took a slight shift from Sakaguchi’s games; Kitase opted for an epic and operatic overtone in his games, in direct opposition to Sakaguchi’s more intimate and somewhat “fairy tale-ish” approach. This tone was largely imbued in the cutscenes that bolstered a cinematic flair into the game, turning it into a more dynamic and touching way of getting across to players. It is hard to forget such memorable moments as the openings or endings from his “Final Fantasies”, or the all too famous death of Aeris. Of course, without the technology he had at his disposition, it would be hard to convey what he did, but still, he potentiated the means at his disposal with a far greater success than anyone else. He also deviated the style of the art department from Sakaguchi’s lines, by using a more anime-like art design, in charge of Tetsuya Nomura, and a more epic and grandiose soundtrack by series’ veteran Nobuo Uematsu. The result blended perfectly with Kitase’s more cinematic and epic outlines, giving the franchise exactly what it needed: a slightly more mature aesthetic.
In the end, whatever your view of Kitase is, you have to admit it: he is one of the genre’s most influential developers: he opened up the world to the genre, by giving it a more complex and mature narrative structure, a different aesthetic goal, and taking advantage of the CD-medium to create highly-stylized cinematic cutscenes. If you’re a fan of RPG’s, than you’re definitely in love with at least one of his games, but chances are that you’re in love with all of his games. Today, if you think about a JRPG, you don’t think about childish and endearing bedtime stories, you imagine epic, complex and touching narratives, just like the ones Yoshinori Kitase told… when everyone else was still dreaming about the idea.