He told me to go ahead — but conversation quickly turned to why I like the Tales series so much, when he’d never been able to get into it. We started to talk about it, but we both quickly realized I should write about it instead.
The in-your-face anime aesthetic of the series is what turned him off. This is comprehensible. It advertises what the series is about; it’s a stake firmly planted, and depending on where you’re at, it just as much says “not for me!” as it says “come on in!” to the people who like it.
I’ll start where I started: I like the series because of what it’s not. This all began for me in 1998, when I’d got fed up with the tedious, self-important Xenogears and, on a lark, followed it up with Tales of Destiny. I found it to be everything Xenogears wasn’t: cheerful, dopey, energetic, unassuming, entertaining, fun.
I know that if you’re like Brandon, and you haven’t really played a game in the series, what you’re thinking is “it looks like it’s a bunch of generic anime bullshit,” and in fact, that is inarguably what the series is. It’s full of high-pitched girls, corny jokes, melodrama, and idiotic plot twists.
There are two mistakes you can make at this point.
1. Assuming that this is all there is to the Tales series
2. Assuming this overwhelms everything good about the games.
The Tales series is special because of its beautiful attention to detail — both in terms of the visuals, which are charming and toy-like, and the gameplay, which is precise and rewarding. There’s really no other RPG series that’s anything like it; the battles are fluid and fun but also nuanced and polished. It’s a gameplay-driven series, which I think runs counter to the assumptions people make about JRPGs these days, especially candy-colored ones. Playing Symphonia, the first game in the series that I really loved, I found myself often running toward the enemies oh the map screen rather than away from them.
While the games can get bogged down in everything I listed above, it’s also easy to overlook the fact that anime storytelling is good for something: establishing a strong cast of characters and defining their relationships. There’s a reason fans of the series are obsessed with the optional dialogues, or “skits”, that play out every so often. These little sequences add shading to character details, perspectives, and backstory in ways often overlooked in games.
The series has a pervasive, pleasant wistfulness; nostalgia is one of the key elements of Japanese melodrama. What ends up shining about these games is their pop fantasy realms, and the sense that the world would be beautiful and simple if we just let it.
It’s not as simple as it looks, though: the games are built very deliberately, with all elements carefully arranged to appeal to sub-groups of fans. This approach has delivered the series a devoted constituency in Japan. The single most crowded event I’ve ever seen at a Tokyo Game Show was a Tales of the Abyss voice actor panel at the Namco Bandai booth in 2005 — more crowded than the Sony booth before the release of either the PlayStation 3 or the PlayStation Vita. This says something.
Yes, anime is often formulaic, and so are these games; but I think what’s easy to forget is that anime is formulaic because that formula works, and that while being formulaic may limit creativity, it also offers a boon to craft. When you know what works and you aim for it, you can pursue that without hesitation. You have a framework.
All of this came together for me with Tales of Symphonia, for the Gamecube. I played it the most in one weekend that I’ve ever played any game — around 25 hours over two days. My hands stung. I turned right around and New Game Plused it a couple of days after I beat it, too. It’s hard to explain why, because it’s certainly not the best game I’ve played; it’s arguably not even the best Tales game. But it just works — very, very well.
The simple truth is that there is a lot to like about the series, and if you play it — really play it — that stuff stands out. That’s why I like the series. In almost every Tales game, something about it stands out. It doesn’t need my help. Look harder.
Conveniently, two new Tales games: Tales of Graces f for the PlayStation 3, and Tales of the Abyss for the Nintendo 3DS, have been released recently in English. It’s easy enough to find out for yourself.
What follows is an email interview with Hideo Baba, General Producer of the Tales series.
The Tales series is extremely famous for having strong casts of characters — how are these characters devised? Do you begin with the artwork and then proceed to scenario, or is the other way around?
This can vary a bit depending on the title’s producer, but generally we start by creating the characters first. In particular, the hero and heroine serve as the core of the story, so we decide things like their age, sex, and how they talk, and then work on creating the supporting characters. Once we have the characters developed to a certain degree, we can start work on the game’s story.
What is the most important element of an RPG’s gameplay design, and why?
Even though RPGs are games, they are also stories, so I think the depiction of the hero and heroine’s experiences leading up to the end of the game is particularly important. How do they change and grow through their interactions with their friends and through their adventures? The player takes on the roles of the hero and heroine, so it’s important that they are able to empathize with them. Once you have this, then you can work on making it enjoyable as a game.
Tales is also famous for having action-based battles. How do you design these battles to make them accessible to casual players, yet deep?
We always try to make sure our battle systems have the right balance of fun. RPGs feature a lot of combat, and that’s because it’s an indispensible way of having your characters grow and develop. But it’s a game, after all, so you have to keep it fun as well. So we try to design systems that let the player fight battle after battle and still have fun with it.
How do you balance battle control schemes to make them easy to understand and execute commands, yet deep, as well?
There are many different kinds of players — some want to enjoy the story, while others care more about the gameplay itself. So we use things like different levels of difficulty to make the game enjoyable for both types — players who may not be very good at combat, and players who want to delve deeper into the battle system. But regardless of which type of player you are, we always try and make the game enjoyable without requiring difficult controls.
The Tales series has dedicated fans in the U.S. but not the same success as in Japan. What do you think about its status in the West? Are you satisfied?
The Tales series has been developed with Japanese players in mind, so achieving success in Japan is a major goal for us. But when the development schedule makes it possible, we do like to create localized versions for some titles in the hopes that players outside of Japan will hear about the series and get to like it. While Japanese consumers remain a priority for us, as long as certain conditions are met, we do plan to continue releasing localized versions of our games for our fans outside of Japan.
In the U.S., players are often in their 20s or even above, but it seems most Japanese RPGs are aimed at teenagers — they often feature young protagonists. Is this true, and if so, why?
It is true that the number of teenage JRPG players is higher in Japan than elsewhere, but I wouldn’t say that teenagers are the main audience overall. We think of people in their late teens and early twenties as being the main audience for JRPGs. As for the issue of young protagonists in JRPGs, this is just my personal opinion, but characters in Japanese anime have traditionally been relatively young, so having grown up watching this kind of anime, I think we Japanese don’t feel that having young protagonists in JRPGs is particularly unusual.
If you agree, does this make it difficult to create products with global appeal?
When you’re trying to come up with a global strategy, it’s tempting to use gameplay or artistic expressions that can be easily accepted outside of Japan as well. But as I said earlier, the games in the Tales series are created first and foremost so they can be enjoyed by Japanese players. Then we give them to players outside of Japan. If we worried too much about what foreign players might think when we were developing them, we wouldn’t be able to take full advantage of our strengths as game creators. That’s our first priority — to preserve what makes the Tales series so great. It’s up to the foreign players whether they like them or not.
As I understand it, Tales of Graces was the first 3D game from Team Destiny. How was the transition, both from artwork and gameplay perspectives?
While there are of course some fundamental differences between 2D and 3D graphics, there weren’t really any big changes. The Tales of Graces team was able to make use of the knowledge we gained from Tales of the Abyss and Tales of Vesperia. We were able to carry over the warm, watercolor-like art style that we used in the 2D games, and there weren’t any major changes in the basic gameplay either.
Tales games usually have detailed 3D backgrounds — environments that give you a sense of the place you are visiting. Can you talk about why this is important?
We think of RPGs as games where you experience an adventure along with the main character. They give you a chance to get away from the city or town where you live and have an adventure in a new world. When you go to a different country, they have a different culture, and with a different culture comes another lifestyle. We try to make each new location memorable, and we work hard to allow the player to experience a location’s culture and enjoy its atmosphere, so I’m glad to hear you mention that. The interiors and props are all made with the town’s culture and characteristics in mind. We try to maintain a uniform look, whether it’s the outward appearance of a town, or the inside of its buildings.
Every single Tales game has a different, sentence-length “genre” in Japanese. [I.e. TOGf is “守る強さを知るRPG”, or “To Know the Strength to Protect RPG”.] Can you talk about the philosophy behind these? How are they chosen? Is it something that’s set out before the project/writing begins, or at the end?
Of course, the “genres” chosen for each game all have meanings. Each of the Tales games has a theme. You can think of this theme as a message that we want to communicate to the player through the game, and we thoroughly incorporate the theme into the game’s narrative.
Once the story is complete, we come up with a “genre” that expresses that game’s theme or message in a way that’s easy to understand. So while we might have a general idea of what a game’s theme or image might be when the project starts, we don’t make the final decision about the “genre” until after the game story is finished.
How is Tales Studio structured? Tales of Graces and Tales of Vesperia were by different teams, correct? How many teams are there in the studio right now?
Yes, each game was developed by different teams. However, at the moment we don’t have our staff strictly divided into development teams. Instead, we create teams for each title, taking into account the staff members that are required for a particular project.
– Christian Nutt imported Tales of Graces f, sure it would never come to the U.S.