If we aim to define the recurring and distinct aspects in the style and themes of prominent RPG creators, what specific elements would be highlighted? What are the signatures left in the creations of the foremost Game Masters in the RPG genre? These are the questions I intend to address in this series. Today, I will explore this topic, focusing on Yasumi Matsuno’s body of work.
Although there is a long discussion on this subject, and there are very particular contemporary works of art, some of which are made by objects without direct manipulation of the human being, in a classical sense (Hegel’s Aesthetics), we can understand art as something that a human being freely molded to express something to someone. It is in this sense that:
"Art proper, for Hegel, is the sensuous expression or manifestation of free spirit in a medium (such as metal, stone or color) that has been deliberately shaped or worked by human beings into the expression of freedom."
The concept behind this series is that video games are created with creative freedom and reflect their developers' unique signatures. I traced the origins of the concept of ‘auteur’ (fr., “author”) back to cinema in my essay Auteur Theory and Videogames (2022) and argued that some video game directors (such as Yoko Taro) qualify as auteurs based on three criteria:
- they have their own recognizable style and/or a recurring theme in their career;
- they have a high degree of control over the parties involved in the development of the work; and
- they have autonomy in the general creative process of their work.
Defining an author’s “signature” is not a simple task, but it is easier to observe when an author has a good number of recognized works and not just a franchise. That’s the case with Yasumi Matsuno, although his most popular RPGs are set in the same world, Ivalice.
Yet, what adds intrigue to Matsuno’s profile is that his distinct style shines through in plot and narrative design. While he is a remarkable director, his work as a writer might just be even more exceptional. Even though auteurism is more about directors, we'll be including Matsuno's work as a writer in this analysis.
- Conquest of the Crystal Palace (1990) - Planner
- Ogre Battle (1993) - Planner & Director
- Taiyō no Tenshi Marlowe: Ohanabatake wa Dai-Panic! (1994) - Planner & Director (uncredited)
- Tactics Ogre (1995) - Director & Game Designer
- Final Fantasy Tactics (1997) - Director & Writer
- Vagrant Story (2000) - Writer, Battle Designer, Producer & Director
- Final Fantasy XII (2006) - Story & Concept*
- MadWorld (2009) - Story Writer
- Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together (2010) - Game Designer & Scenario Writer
- Crimson Shroud (2012) - Director & Scenario Writer
Recurring Themes in Yasumi Matsuno's RPGs
As is familiar with cinema or video game auteurs, especially when they are also writers, Yasumi Matsuno has recurring themes in his work. These themes are notable plot trends from character concepts to world-building.
Starting with the surface of the plots written by Matsuno, we can highlight the persistence of medieval themes. This has been noticeable since Conquest of the Crystal Palace (1990), a 2D action platform game developed for the Nintendo Entertainment System.
Since then, all games directed by Matsuno have been themed around medieval fantasy. However, unlike all of his later games, Conquest of the Crystal Palace has medieval Japanese elements, not medieval European ones.
Medieval European influences on Matsuno's fictional worlds are everywhere. In Vagrant Story, for example, we see architecture with a clear late medieval influence, such as stained glass windows in Gothic cathedrals.
The medieval elements encompass not only aesthetics but also narrative depth. For instance, in Final Fantasy Tactics, the world map clearly draws inspiration from the European continent, along with indirect references to historical events. The Fifty Years’ War appears to allude to the Hundred Years’ War between England and France, with Ivalice symbolizing England and Ordallia embodying France.
In this medieval fantasy context, Matsuno often develops social and political themes. We often find characters who establish power relations not only through military force but also through rhetoric and the manipulation of public opinion. These characters are often nobles, religious leaders, or leaders of terrorist organizations.
"The reeking masses yearn for gods and miracles. It is their opiate, and they consume it greedily. The people do not endeavor towards greatness, but rather mire themselves in their petty strifes—shackles on the feet of man."
— Wiegraf, Final Fantasy Tactics character
Matsuno's plots often revolve around wars related to ambition, honor, and freedom that can cause chaos in the fictional societies he creates. It is interesting to note his care to represent the tension between the need for social cohesion and maintenance of hierarchy on the one hand and inequality on the other. Perhaps the most explicit representation of this polarization is in the city of Archades in Final Fantasy XII.
I think it’s especially interesting how Matsuno pits his main characters with different opinions (and sometimes equally plausible opinions) against each other, not only in battle but also in dialogue. Many times these characters are allies (temporarily or permanently), so, in the plot's course, they provide a complex social perspective for the player instead of giving him a simplistic and superficial moral message.
This type of character writing works really well for reflecting on actual issues, even within a fantasy world. This has inspired other RPG developers to do something similar, such as Banri Oda, one of the main writers of Final Fantasy XIV.
"Final Fantasy XIV's approach to reflecting real-world issues is influenced by Tactics Ogre. There is an element of massacre there, and if I didn't play this game the approach to Final Fantasy XIV's story would have been different. Tactics Ogre has a story that includes ethnic cleansing that greatly influenced my desire to reflect real-life conflicts and issues to make Final Fantasy XIV more realistic."
— Banri Oda, RPGSite interview, 2019
The real-life themes that inspire Matsuno change over time, and usually concern political, military, and social phenomena. These themes are often an important part of their plot content for players at the time of the game’s release, even if they are not as overtly noticed later on by new players.
On the other hand, some of these themes seem relevant again. The premise of manipulation and the difficulty of knowing what is real and what is not in Vagrant Story, for example, is still very current.
See Matsuno’s quotes below for some of the real motivations for Final Fantasy Tactics, Vagrant Story, Ogre Battle, and Tactics Ogre. Note that these motivations can interfere not only with the content but also with the way the story is told.
"[...] the themes I’ve included in my games have usually reflected the people and the situations I was working in at that time.
For example, in Final Fantasy Tactics… the theme of the class-based society, of nobles and commoners, that came about because when I joined Square, as you can imagine, there were individuals there who were like royalty: their talent, and the social capital they had amassed… it made me doubt whether someone without those gifts could ever succeed there, no matter how hard they tried. And those ideas found their way into the game.
For Vagrant Story, I had experienced personally the way in which information and facts can change so dramatically depending on who is conveying that information… everyone interprets things in a way that is most favorable to their own circumstances."
— Yasumi Matsuno, Vagrant Story – 1999 Developer Interviews (via Shmuplations)
"For any game at any given time, I think you can look at the players and ask what concerns are on their mind. For example, when Ogre Battle came out, the Gulf War had just broken out, and you were hearing about it and seeing it on the news everyday. Whether you intended to or not, the circumstances of war were etched into your consciousness. In that atmosphere, I think it was only natural for a war simulator like Ogre Battle to find an audience. Or to put it another way, the people who bought it had those concerns on their mind.
For Tactics Ogre, we’ve got the problems in the former Yugoslavia and the Bosnian War all over the news. I don’t have a very clear understanding of what’s happening, but I know that there are a number of different ethnic groups fighting in Yugoslavia. The world of Tactics Ogre is extremely complex, so I think it might be rejected out-of-hand if we weren’t immersed in this kind of news right now. But because people are aware of the conflicts in Yugoslavia, people will accept a game with a story like this, I think. I could not have made a game like this in the past. If I did, I don’t think people would have paid attention. But it can be made now, given the times we’re living through."
— Yasumi Matsuno, Tactics Ogre – 1995 Developer Interview (via Shmuplations)
Yasumi Matsuno's Style
Yasumi Matsuno's signature has unique stylistic features that pertain to the form, not the content. As a game director, he often has an indirect influence on art and other aspects of game design. This indirect influence comes from the team of developers he works with. An example is the case of Vagrant Story.
"With Vagrant Story, I had almost zero involvement in the visual presentation. I left most of it up to Akiyama, but in talking with him, I discovered he loved a lot of the same movies as me. What happens when you work with another human being who has some of those same genes with you? Unconsciously, it brings a feeling of unity to your creation."
— Yasumi Matsuno, Yasumi Matsuno x Hideo Kojima – 1999 Developer Interview (via Shmuplations)
Cinema is one of the primary sources of inspiration for Yasumi Matsuno, and not just in Vagrant Story. When I once asked him on Twitter his favorite film directors, he replied with the names that you can read below:
Yasumi Matsuno is good at creating unique designs and taking advantage of opportunities in the gaming industry. Many of his fans think he doesn’t follow market trends, but that’s not exactly true.
In fact, one thing that explains the success of Matsuno’s games is his ability to reconcile his personality with opportunities. Check out his lines below how he did it in Ogre Battle, and in MADWORLD.
"For example, when I made Ogre Battle, at that time RPGs like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest were huge hits, but people were also starting to get tired of them. Players were ready for something new—the timing was right for a strategy RPG like Fire Emblem, something which was a midway point between extremely difficult simulation games like Nobunaga’s Ambition and regular RPGs. So I first looked at the state of the market, and only then did I decide to make a strategy RPG. At that point I thought, ok, if we’re going to do this, let’s weave a really grand story into it, and that was how Ogre Battle began."
— Yasumi Matsuno, Vagrant Story – 1999 Developer Interviews (via Shmuplations)
"The development team gave me two guidelines. First, “Jack is not a righteous person”. This is because he has no hesitation in regards to his violence. Secondly, “Violence is accepted in the world”. This was from the same reasoning as the first point. During gameplay, they did not want the players to doubt their action when performing an extreme act of violence.
On the other hand, the producer believed that “Violence should ultimately be denied in the end”. It meant that we had to be concerned about the current circumstance surrounding the videogame industry. I thought it was a quite reasonable request because, as a company, both SEGA and PlatinumGames did not consider violence right.
The setting of DeathWatch (an illegal underground live show) came from these two contradictory orders - the acceptance and negation of violence. In the extraordinary world of the DeathWatch games, violence and brutality is not only required, but accepted. However, once you step out of the show, the world outside is ruled by normal conventions. It’s not only in MADWORLD. Haven’t you felt that big contradiction in your life? I would like gamers to play the game so that they can experience the unusual world & its story that was created from these two conflicting orders."
— Yasumi Matsuno, IGN interview, 2009
From a gameplay point of view, it’s important to remember that some of Matsuno’s games had battle designs developed by other people, like Hiroyuki Ito, with Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy XII. However, Matsuno has experience with strategy RPG design, most notably Ogre Battle and Tactics Ogre.
Besides strategy RPG elements, it’s easy to see a lot of tabletops RPG elements in Matsuno’s games. This is especially noticeable in a high customization of characters for battles in Vagrant Story, in the beginning of Tactics Ogre Reborn, and finally in Crimson Shroud (with tabletop RPG dice rolling).
With Final Fantasy XII, we also see MMORPG elements. Final Fantasy's Ivalice world is full of detail and the dungeons feel like a MMORPG adventure. Additionally, developers created the protagonist (Vann) intending to allow players to feel like an ordinary person within the fictional world.
By the way, it is possible to see a significant influence of Final Fantasy XII in Final Fantasy XIV. It is no coincidence that Matsuno enjoyed this game so much and contributed to the Stormblood and Shadowbringers expansions.
"Mr. Matsuno is a game creator that I look up to, and he is also a hardcore FF14 player. We talk quite a bit about FF14 outside of work as well, so creating that kind of mutual excitement through those conversations may lead to me asking Mr. Matsuno, or even other creators to work on FF14 again, [...]"
— Naoki "Yoshi-P" Yoshida (Final Fantasy XIV director/producer), USgamer / VG247 (2020).
In turn, from a narrative design point of view, I think three characteristics stand out in Matsuno’s signature. First, the way his dialogues are both succinct and profound.
Many often assume that Matsuno’s games feature long conversations with a great deal of text, yet this is far from the truth. In reality, such instances are rare. His games typically feature sporadic dialogues during battles, coupled with well-written sequences before and after combat, allowing the narrative to develop gradually. Lengthy cutscenes, usually confined to the initiation or conclusion of his RPGs, are the norm.
The only exception is Crimson Shroud. This is a very textual game, without voice acting and with basic animations. The experience is largely a narrative tabletop RPG. Crimson Shroud is perhaps the best Matsuno game to enjoy his writing, as it involves not only dialogue but also descriptions and comments as if we were reading a Visual Novel.
A second frequent aspect of Matsuno’s narrative design is his preference for non-linear narratives (Ogre Battle and Tactics Ogre) or else with multiple layers of roleplaying. As we’ve seen, Vagrant Story is a game case specially designed to have multiple interpretations*, but we can also notice this in a less obvious way in other games.
Finally, the third salient aspect of the narrative design of Matsuno’s RPGs is world-building. Matsuno's RPGs feature organized fictional worlds with well-defined races, detailed geography and geopolitics, and clear limits on what is possible and what is not, unlike most JRPG fantasies. I think this is the most clear in the world of Ivalice (especially Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy XII).
Matsuno avoids clichés, whimsy, and exaggeration in his fictional worlds. This is because his plots are often highly focused on relationships between humans and other intelligent humanoid creatures. While there may be monsters that inhabit the world, the real antagonists are never among them.
Identifying an auteur's "signature" isn't exact, but we can still recognize common elements in their works. Here are some of the main features of Yasumi Matsuno's RPGs in the video game industry:
- high fantasy with a dramatic political plot usually inspired by a medieval European context
- tension between social cohesion and inequality
- interaction between politics, rhetoric, and public opinion
- power relations between hierarchy, nobility, and religion; and war for ambition, honor, and freedom
- inspirations in current political and social events
- deep influence of both Western and Japanese cinema
- reconciling a challenging approach to game design with opportunities in the video game market
- RPG design with strategy, tabletop RPG, or MMORPG elements
- dialogues that are both succinct and profound
- characters with realistic dramatic roles rather than based on popular stereotypes
- complex plots that provide non-linear experiences or have multiple interpretive layers
- coherent fantasy world-building that avoids ad hocs and extravagances; Matsuno carefully delineates the races, ethnic groups, and geography of his fictional world, as well as the boundaries of what is possible and what is not
In parallel with these characteristics that are more or less constant in his works, the different Yasumi Matsuno games also have unique things. Vagrant Story, for example, is the only Matsuno game in which we control only one character and have a partial, subjective, and personal view of the plot. That’s one thing that makes this RPG special, as I showed in another story: The Rashomon Effect in Vagrant Story (SUPERJUMP, 2021). These concepts and features are present in every Matsuno game, accompanied by diverse approaches to the aforementioned aspects. This amalgamation ensures that each of his RPGs offers a memorable experience, rather than a mere reiteration of his distinctive style.
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