The Big Idea: Aidan Moher
There are a number of mass culture phenomena that came from Japan to the United States and western culture generally, and in Fight, Magic, Items, author Aidan Moher delves into one such phenomenon, that the casual fan might not know had sprung from there at all.
Back in the 1990s, I became a Dragonmaster, flew to the moon on a gigantic whale, and lived inside the dream of a different flying whale. I was a Warrior of Light, and lived a thousand lifetimes awaiting the rebirth of a manmade god. I traveled through time, survived an apocalypse, and saved the Lifestream.
Didn’t we all?
My book Fight, Magic, Items: The History of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the Rise of Japanese RPGs in the West is exactly what is says on the cover: a deep dive history of how an unusual sub-genre of roleplaying games left Japan and reached meteoric popularity in the Americas and Europe. But, it’s also more than that. It’s the history of those games, and also the story of the people who made and played them.
It’s a story about people. A story of creativity, perseverance, vision, and dreams. It’s about how two young artists left their chosen art fields for video games and ended up creating a genre adored by millions. It’s about the kids staying up all night to beat Chrono Trigger, or missing school because they’re crying their heads off at Final Fantasy VII‘s big twist. Fight, Magic, Items is about finding universal human experiences in recorded history, and understanding how who we are shapes what we make and enjoy.
From the earliest inklings of the idea, I had two big goals for Fight, Magic, Items: 1) Write a detailed history about the games and how they became popular in the west, and 2) Make it feel like the reader was sitting at a pub, drink of choice in hand, gabbing with an old friend about their favorite games.
Achieving the first was pretty straight forward—a lot of research, reading, and finding the right narrative thread for the best version of the genre’s history. I did this by focusing on the lifelong journeys of its progenitors: Yuji Horii, who created Dragon Quest, and Hironobu Sakaguchi, who created Final Fantasy. Fight, Magic, Items starts with a look at how they abandoned their dreams of becoming a manga artist and a musician respectively, and how their desire to bring Dungeons & Dragons to Japanese living room televisions created a new genre. As the book closes, Sakaguchi, still making games, looks back at his life and career, wondering if his latest game is his last, and pondering the future of the genre he co-created.
Along the way, Fight, Magic, Items checks in with dozens of creators, and, thanks to wonderful archives like Shmuplations.com, I was able to source incredible interviews that reveal not just what they think of their games now, decades after making them, but also what they felt in the moment. What drove them to create? How did technical limitations force them to come up with clever creative solutions? Why it was so important Phantasy Star featured a female protagonist all the way back in the 80s? It’s a living history, and many of the creators featured in the book are not only still around, but actively making games, and discovering the underlying human experiences provided an opportunity to reveal the creative ingenuity and drive that underlies art of all stripes.
The second aspect—making it feel like a shindig at a local pub with friends—was a little trickier. At its core, Fight, Magic, Items is a very personal book. It looks not only at creators like Horii and Sakaguchi, but also digs deep into what makes this genre so appealing to fans all over the world. To do that, I knew early I needed to center a fan in the narrative, in the same way I centered the Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy creators. Fortunately, I knew a very passionate fan who has lived and breathed Japanese RPGs since they first played Final Fantasy VI over 25 years ago: me.
By far the most consistent feedback I’ve gotten from readers since Fight, Magic, Items released last week was that they love how the book feels like a personal conversation, that my experiences, whether about a specific game, or just a shared feeling, are so recognizable from their own lives. I stop short of calling Fight, Magic, Items a memoir, though my personal stories are littered throughout and form the book’s emotional foundation. But, it’s not about me, It’s about the emotional journeys we’ve all gone on as fans. It’s about universal human experiences, about sharing joy, and becoming part of a large community of equally passionate fans.
We didn’t all become a Dragonmaster or fly to the moon. Some of us journeyed through the Algol solar system or fought in the Hokuten. Whatever our path to fandom, though, we all know the feeling of sinking into a story you just can’t put down, and the magical ability of video games to transport us to new worlds where we play an active role in the world. We’ve all shared tips and tricks at school, or finally borrowed the hot new game from our best friend. We’ve helped each other get unstuck against a tough boss and theorized about plot twists and dramatic endings. These are the experiences and feelings that took us from casual interest to full blown obsession, and by placing such fan experiences alongside creator experiences, Fight, Magic, Items was able to become so much more than a 320 page Wikipedia entry with a bullet point summation of the history of Japanese RPGs.
It became a story about people.