Number 3: Yoshinori Kitase

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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    • James
    • July 17th, 2008

    No offense, but I think your overrating Kitase a little bit. Kitase has said many times over that the stories in FFVII, VIII and X were done by Nojima. Kitase himself wrote the rather trite stories in Final fantasy Adventure and FFV. FFVI had a bunch of writers such as Nomura and Xenogears writer Kaori Tanaka to name a few.

    He is a great director, but I think it starting to become like what used to happen with Sakaguchi, in the sense that everyone likes throwing his name around when SquareEnix makes a great game, regardless of who really was responsible.

    • ruicraveirinha
    • July 17th, 2008

    You’re absolutely right. Yet, I think you partially misinterpreted what I wrote. Surely, part of the narrative leap that occurred from FFV to VI and beyond, is due to Nojima’s scripts (though some are co-written by Kitase himself). But Kitase was director, which means that he was the one who chose Nojima’s scenarios to begin with (with all of the implications that ensue). Not only that, a scenario is just that: a text. It took the direction of Kitase to translate it into an audiovisual, interactive language, and as I pin out in the text, the most interesting change in paradigm is in terms of tone and plot mechanisms (mostly, through the abandonment of the fairy-tale structure), a more cinematic flair and the greater focus on character characterization.
    For example, do you think that the death of Aerith would have had the same impact on players if not for some acute cutscene directing? First, the set: a mostly vacant, slightly surreal and mystic place, associated with an eerie soundtrack and a beautiful lighting mood. The main theme, starting precisely at the moment of her death, striking an emotional chord in player’s minds. The materia, gently falling trough the stairs, into the water, in slow motion (echoing Battleship Potemkin’s most famous scene). The gently placing of the body in the water by Cloud, in such a ritualistic manner. Such imagery, and such perfect comprehension of the meanings of each scenic element, camera placement and soundtrack use; something most game directors still don’t know how to pull off, even today, and probably one of the reasons why FFVII remains a unique experience to so many players around the world. I could write a small essay on this cutscene sequence alone, and why it is so important in videogame history.
    In the end, games, like other means, are of a collaborative nature, but the man who sits behind the artistic wheel is the director, for he is the one who is ultimately responsible for the project (on par with the producer, though that post is usually of a more logistic and inspirational nature). Of course, he’s not the one who wrote the dialogs or penned the conceptual artwork, but he IS the one who chose the ideas, philosophies and moods that were underlying the whole project: its art department, scenario, gameplay, and so on. That is why I attribute much of the breakthrough in RPG storytelling to him. Surely, Nojima wrote it, but it was Kitase that brought it to life as we now know it. And that is his legacy as game director.

    Thanks for the remark, and I hope you keep posting comments 😉

    • James
    • July 17th, 2008

    Nice read, ruicraveirinha. Just wondering, what do you think of Nomura and Toriyama? Wasn’t Toriyama the FFX director? I thought that was a really really great game. What are some differences you see between the way he directs and the way Kitase does it? I really hope that if FF7 does get remade, it’s either with Toriyama or Kitase in the directors chair.

    • ruicraveirinha
    • July 21st, 2008

    I’m not a big fan of Toryama. Mostly due to FFX-2, which is his most unique and, apparently, personal work (since he was sole director on that one). I think he relies too much on anime conventions, over the -top cutscenes, and sheer “wow”, “zomg”, “crazy stylish”, whatever you wanna call it, factor. His idea of art seems to be reduced to matrix and excel saga. The fact is, I prefer subtler stories and more introspect artistic analysis on subjects and characters (hence my recent appreciation for PD Saga). It’s not like FF was ever about subtlety, but it also wasn’t about cool hipsters that play some crazy underwater sport and dress like a pop star, let alone, one about a “de facto” pop star girlz band. FFX and FFX-2 are simply bundled up with obnoxious, infantile conventions that I’m not particularly keen on. FFX is very layered, and some of those layers I’m really fond of; I dare say that had some other director taken the job, it would probably be my favorite FF, but all the cheesiness, lame dialog, atrocious voice acting and modern pop themes just ruined my experience.
    As to Nomura, I still ain’t sure. I only played KH1, and I enjoyed the effort in simplifying the rpg complexities, ergo appealing to a greater audience. Narrative wise, I think he did a good job, conveying a welcome sense of magic wonder and naiveté, that successfully feeds on both FF and Disney’s mystical landscapes and characters.

    Sorry for the late reply, I’ve been working hard this summer 😉

  1. I agree that Kitase is underrated .
    But think of it as a gift. See what happened to Uematsu when he got famous, his compositions turned to mediocre / below that.
    Not only Kitase made Final Fantasy’s next generation. It was the whole team. Of course, it wasn’t Sakaguchi who made most of it, but it’s always good to have an emotional background, with the minimalistic genius of Sakaguchi . I can pretty much say that the wildest mind belongs to Sakaguchi, but he is now inert , because of..God knows what.
    I lol’d at the replies. Mostly because I thought I was an FF geek for speaking with just one of my friends about matters such as these. All our information is garnered from experience. There is no chart to tell us who made what. I recently found out that Sakaguchi was to make FF7 a detective story, having come with the Lifestream idea.
    Then Nomura and the gang changed that, along with Aeris.
    Final Fantasy started its first steps with Sakaguchi, then it matured with Kitase, and died with the FF12 era. (Please do not start with the “Sakaguchi-produced-the-first-ivalice-project-game-himself” bullshit.)
    Right before something dies, it leaves a gentle flash of light, brighter than anything else . That was Final Fantasy X, the FINAL final fantasy..imo.

    I could talk forever about this, but let me say this;
    FF was a team project.
    PS;Sorry for any spelling mistakes, it’s too late to preview my comment.

    • ruicraveirinha
    • March 12th, 2009

    I agree with you that it is a team effort. Video-games are a collaborative art-form, so it could never be in any other way. But, in the same way as you praise a football coach, a movie or play director first, you should do the same for lead designer’s/directors in video-games. They’re the ones behind the helm, it is their job on the line if something fails, and consequently if it is successful. Ultimately, it is their creative effort that glues all of the wonderful potential of those who surround him.

    The reason why I’m sure that Kitase is exceptional, despite the qualities of his team, has to do with a simple pattern – Final Fantasies he had a major part in (as director), are, in my humble opinion, vastly superior to the rest. Final Fantasy X, which you appreciate, I find utterly mediocre face the sheer brilliancy of what came before. Even FFXII, a game for which I have the highest of esteems, and which I find to be one of the best in the series, still falls way short when held side by side with VI, VII or VIII. The only way to explain this change in quality, knowing that the craftsmanship of Square’s staff remains impeccable, is to acknowledge the weight of the game’s director in the final outcome.

    As always, thanks for the delightful comment.

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