Number 1 – Tetsuya Takahashi
Ah, Tetsuya Takahashi, how I wish things would have turned out different to him. His story is so ill-fated and downright unlucky, it almost bears the same traces of tragedy which his games revolve around… It’s a long winding narrative that would transform one of the most visionary storytellers of a stale, immature genre into an almost unknown figure. To this day, he only lead two projects – “Xenogears” and “Xenosaga Episode I”, and much to my dismay, neither of his titles were ever released in the old continent. Both were received with relative disregard, only establishing themselves as cult classics in a very strict niche of J-RPG lovers.
Takahashi’s career is small, but impressive. After several collaborations in art and graphics departments, of the best Square titles of the early nineties (“Final Fantasy IV”, “V”, “VI”, “Chrono Trigger”, etc.), Takahashi rose to the director’s chair in “Xenogears”. And it’s no accident that his first project is such a landmark in J-RPG history, so oft revered as one of the best games ever made in its genre. Comparisons with “Evangelion” abound, and with good reason, for besides featuring similar themes and aesthetic elements, they both represent strong signs of a mature intellectual discourse in what are otherwise immature means of expression. “Xenogears” clearly shows that for Takahashi, story is not a complement to game-design as much as it is the other way around. Which is not to say that his games’ RPG mechanics aren’t good, quite on the contrary, but the focus is ever the story. The infamous second CD of “Xenogears”, bearing almost no actual gameplay, is the ultimate proof of Takahashi’s commitment to telling stories. Though many attribute it’s existence to a lack of funds (a startling parallel to what happened to the ending episodes of “Evangelion”), I personally feel it was the right call for the game, as the gameplay-thin second CD is actually one of the most memorable parts of “Xenogears”.
The grand scale of the plot-line is “Xenogears” most powerful aspect, with hundreds of different threads weaving together into a fabric that touches so many different areas of human knowledge – philosophy, religion, science -, while maintaining classical narrative structures and themes – love, betrayal, death. It’s a testament to both Takahashi and his wife (co-author of his games), that in the end, all of it makes sense, with every storyline fitting perfectly into a sprawling network of events covering thousands of years, deep in meaning and subtext. In their games, every dialogue counts, and there’s always a new revelation hiding beneath each word. Add a flavour for the erudite, with constant references to Nietzsche, Wagner, Jung, Kubrick’s “2001”, “Soylent Green”, amongst many others – and you have the sort of work that is especially rewarding for those who appreciate deep ramblings [i.e.: me]. Sure, there’s always an element of adolescent pretentiousness in such writing madness, but it beats teenager mediocrity everyday.
But it’s not just the script, as its conveying that makes Takahashi’s stories so powerful. His cutscene direction gave a whole new meaning to the term operatic, with stylized framing of characters giving them a theatrical poise which transformed every line, movement and scene into a small piece of cinematic magic. And considering that in 1998 Takahashi already employed in-game cutscenes with such finesse, gives him all the more value [see an example below, and notice how, with such meager means and technology, the cutscene still manages to retain such a dynamic flow]. Yasonuri Mitsuda was critical in this aspect, as his compositions always added a great deal of dramatic effect, manipulating pathos through the delicious alternation between melancholic lullabies and heavy brass lines in pounding tempos, making you jump out of your seat in anticipation for the each upcoming twist.
Alas, a whim of lady luck would have Takahashi release his masterpiece less than a year in “Final Fantasy VII’s” wake, eventually casting his game in the shadow of the most beloved Japanese role playing game of all time. His game was never given a chance, despite being superior in many ways to Kitase’s own breakthrough. With a tighter budget, Takahashi not only delivered a far more profound narrative, but also a 3D world unlike anything at the time, much more lively and interactive than “VII’s” beautiful, yet static, pre-rendered backgrounds. But unlike “VII”, “Xenogears” lacked mind-blowing CGI, and wasn’t accessible to the younger audiences of Playstation, as its flair for the erudite, complex and operatic made it too obscure and obtuse for younger audiences.
Despite lacking George Lucas’ commercial success, Takahashi seemed to share similar delusions of grandeur – “Xenogears”, an epic game if I ever saw one, was actually the fifth tome of a grand saga of six episodes, a fact revealed in the last of the credits screen, and further dissected in the “Perfect Works” art-book. But despite positive reviews and moderate commercial success on part of “Xenogears”, Square never supported Takahashi to pursue his original creation and design the remaining 5 episodes of his saga. Surely feeling betrayed by the fact, he left Square with other dissidents to found a new company, “Monolith Software”, lead by Hirohide Sugiura, and funded by Namco.
Despite being unable to continue his saga directly, for Square remained adamant in upholding author rights over the original “Xenogears”, Takahashi was now granted the creative freedom to pursue his original work… or so he thought. He started working on “Xenosaga”, a six tome work very much like the one of which “Xenogears” was part of. It was a re-write of sorts, different enough only as to not be made the subject of a copyright’s quarrel between Monolith and Square. But once again, Takahashi suffered at the hands of fate, releasing “Episode I” a year after the big Square title of the time, Tsuchida and Toryama’s “Final Fantasy X”. Comparisons were drawn, and “Episode I” sit inevitably on the short end side of the stick: it lacked the mainstream appeal and, let’s be honest, the budget to be able to compete in the same league with “Final Fantasy”. Critics were dismissive, and it failed to sell. Personally, I find but one element that detracts from Takahashi’s work in “Xenosaga”, and that’s in the aesthetic department, with its super deformed anime aesthetic which made a serious work look seriously childish. As to the rest, I find it as clever and provocative as “Xenogears”, though few seem to agree with me.
Namco was not pleased with the results and decided to take charge of the project. As a result, “Episode II” wouldn’t be handled by Takahashi or his wife, Soraya Saga, as both were removed from any involvement with the project. With them, also left Yasunori Mitsuda, series composer and long time friend of Takahashi, and Kunihiko Tanaka, character designer. In an attempt to make the game commercially viable, Namco changed character design and voice-overs to become more western-friendly, and ordered a complete re-write of the script penned by Saga. The result was a plot-thin, fast-paced, action-heavy sequel to “Episode I”. Irony of ironies, Namco’s aggressive posture would get them no credit. Takahashi’s fans felt betrayed and were disappointed with the end-result, and new-comers wouldn’t be drawn in to the series. Sales were poor, critics remained unmoved. Curiously, by some random act of production policy, the second episode was actually released in Europe, with a cutscene filled DVD to make up for “Episode I”. This was obviously a huge disservice to Takahashi’s vision, and a commercial failure nonetheless.
“Episode II’s” failure convinced Namco that “Xenosaga” was beyond commercial success – it was too niche, too outside the box, too uncommercial for its own sake – and so, the following episode would be the last, the remaining three canned. An attempt at compromise between the teams from previous episodes was made for the final whisper in Takahashi’s grand opus, and he was re-instated as creative consultant. As a positive outcome, he tried to recover Saga’s original scripts, and in what must have been a gargantuan task, attempted to wrap up the saga by fitting all remaining episode plot-lines into one neat finale. Despite being a convoluted mess, it almost felt like a Takahashi game. Once again, his six-episode saga remained untold, only this time, it will likely remain so forever.
Eventually, Namco sold its share of Monolith to Nintendo, with whom the company had had good relationship regarding the “Baten Kaitos” series. It is doubtful that Nintendo, a very conservative company, will ever award a big enough budget and amount of creative freedom that would allow Takahashi to continue his works in the same line as before. From an economical perspective, his career is a total flop. And so, under Nintento, Takahashi limited himself at producing “Soma Bringer”, a DS RPG… only released in Japan. Meanwhile, the J-RPG genre continues to decay: increasingly generic, unwilling to break from its tropes and juvenile tone, and lacking commercial appeal to westerners, it is a genre slowly waiting to die. Simultaneously, a visionary remains unheard, a man who I am sure could have taken the J-RPG genre to a new level, with his (and his wife’s) superb writing and storytelling capabilities. If he already delivered one of the most mature and thought-provoking games of its genre, more than a decade ago, who knows what he would be able to come up with today, with different (dare I say, more mature?) audiences and advanced technology and storytelling mechanisms? I’ll keep on hoping that history will give him a chance, and prove me, and Takahashi, right. It is a vain hope, I’m afraid.