Hugo season is upon us and nominations for the 2023 Hugo Awards will close on Sunday, so it’s time for another Non-Fiction Spotlight. For more about the Non-Fiction Spotlight project, go here. To check out the spotlights I already posted, go here.
For more recommendations for SFF-related non-fiction, also check out this Facebook group set up by the always excellent Farah Mendlesohn, who is a champion (and author) of SFF-related non-fiction.
Today’s Non-Fiction Spotlight is a book about video games, particularly SFF-related RPGs from Japan.
Therefore, I am thrilled to welcome Aidan Moher, author of Fight, Magic, Items: The History of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the Rise of Japanese RPGs in the West to my blog today.
Tell us about your book.
Fight, Magic, Items: The History of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the Rise of Japanese RPGs in the West is a book about the history of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the rise of Japanese RPGs in the west.
Uh, I mean, the title tells you exactly what you’re gonna get inside. Haha. “Fight, Magic, Items” explores the early days of RPGs like Ultima and Wizardry, and how they inspired young Japanese creators like Hironobu Sakaguchi, Yuji Horii, and Rieko Kodama to create their own spin on the RPG genre with an emphasis on living room play on low-powered gaming consoles. It follows the genre through its niche popularity in the West during the 16-bit era, and its meteoric rise to superstardom thanks to Final Fantasy VII’s immense global success, and beyond to current day and the rise of indie JRPGs and the cultural exchange between Western and Japanese creators that’s lead to games like Final Fantasy XVI. It’s the story of Japanese RPGs, the people who made them, and the people who played them.
What the title doesn’t tell you is that it’s also a personal story about growing up during the genre’s golden age. Through the lens of my experiences, I examine the cultural and creative impact these games had on generations of young Canadians and Americans, and try to show the reader just how magical this time was for the people living through it.
With video games becoming more and more entwined with SFF culture—and specifically the Hugo Awards themselves, with the new “Best Video Game” category—it’s essential that we broaden our search for the stories that shed light on our genre, communities, histories, and creators from all angles. We live in an age where Hugo-nominated books and stories are as likely to be influenced by Hironobu Sakaguchi and Rieko Kodama as they are J.R.R. Tolkien and Ursula K. Le Guin, and a book like “Fight, Magic, Items” celebrates the broad, global idea of how creators across the world inspire each other constantly and across mediums.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’ve been kicking the tires in the SFF fan community for over 15 years, since starting my blog A Dribble of Ink, which ended up winning a Hugo in 2014 for “Best Fanzine.” Since I closed it in 2015, I’ve shifted over to freelance writing for places like WIRED, Washington Post, Tor.com, Uncanny Magazine, Game Informer, and many other places. I love to tell stories about creative communities, and the people who give back to the fandoms and creations that inspire them. In the past, I’ve written about the surging popularity of video game “book clubs,” the ethos of pixel art, how Hayao Miyazaki uses magic to examine the loss of childhood innocence, and what it was like to localize Japanese RPGs in the late 90s.
What prompted you to write/edit this book?
I grew up in a house packed full of books, a voracious reader like both my parents, with a particular love for science fiction, and, eventually, fantasy. One day, my babysitter came over to look after me and my brothers for the evening. He’d usually bring a game with him—for us to play after my younger brothers were asleep—but instead of DOOM deathmatch, this time he pulled out a cart for my Super NES: Final Fantasy III. From that day, I fell head over heels for Japanese RPGs. They were like epic fantasy books I could play, and they started to influence me and my writing in the same way as the novels I devouring. From that point forward, my two loves were JRPGs and books, and… that just never changed. Fast forward a few decades, and I’d started to carve out a niche as a games journalist with this Kotaku feature on how there’s a whole generation of SFF writers like me who were shaped by Final Fantasy, Phantasy Star, and similar games. Recognizing that this crossover between audiences not only existed, but was basically a given for many young SFF writers, I started writing more about the genre, including a piece about Trials of Mana for Uncanny Magazine (a traditionally book-focused SFF semi-prozine that’s won about a million Hugos), and exploring the intersection between SFF fandom and JRPGs/gaming.
Then, one day, my agent Eric Smith—also a writer, also a big JRPG nerd—emailed me and said, “Hey, dude, when are you gonna do a JRPG book?” I rolled with it, we started pitching the book, and eventually it found a home with the amazing Running Press team. It started life as an essay collection—a mixture of reprints and new stuff—but eventually I realized there was more than enough there for a full-fledged book about about creative drive, cultural exchange, and the history of JRPGs.
Why should SFF fans in general and Hugo voters in particular read this book?
We’re at a point now where video games are decades old, and, no matter what anyone says or thinks, they’re not only here to stay, but they’re becoming an intrinsic part of our culture—just like books, just like film, just like music, art, sport, and so on. The Hugo Awards are doing their part to recognize this by creating the new “Best Video Game” category, which I think is wonderful because it helps illustrate that “SFF” isn’t just books. It’s every sort of creative medium that explores speculative storytelling, and JRPGs are full of that. These games trace a clear lineage back to Michael Moorcock and J.R.R. Tolkien, Dungeons & Dragons, and so forth—they’re a branch of the same tree already celebrated broadly by the SFF community and the Hugo Awards—and they’re inspiring new creators (of books, film, etc.) in turn. They’re deeply entwined with what we create and consume as a community, and “Fight, Magic, Items” tells a vital part of the story.
Do you have any cool facts or tidbits that you unearthed during your research, but that did not make it into the final book?
One of the book’s narrative pillars is the concept of cultural exchange—that JRPGs were initially inspired by western RPGs and TTRPGs, and eventually ended up inspiring future Western creators, in turn, to the point now where Western creators are creating RPGs in the style of Final Fantasy, and Final Fantasy’s Japanese creators are creating massively popular Western-style MMORPGs. What I didn’t realize before I set out to write the book—but which I explore with great enthusiasm within its pages—is how you can go back to the genre’s very origins to find the first examples of this cultural exchange.
For example, the first Final Fantasy game was programmed by a legendary Iranian American programmer named Nasir Gebelli. His work was so impressive, he got hired on to do Final Fantasy II and Final Fantasy III—but he had trouble extending his Japanese work visa. So, instead of hiring a new programmer based in Japane, the Square team moved development to Gebelli’s home of Sacramento, California, and finished the games there. From its very beginning, the Final Fantasy series has always been an exchange of Japanese and Western ideas, experiences, and philosophies.
SFF-related non-fiction is somewhat sidelined by the big genre awards, since the Nebulas have no non-fiction category and the Best Related Work Hugo category has become something of a grab bag of anything that doesn’t fit elsewhere. So why do you think SFF-related non-fiction is important?
As a non-fiction writer and reporter, I think it’s vital to seek out the compelling and inspiring stories of the people who create the things we love. The number one thing I wanted for “Fight, Magic, Items” was to tell a story about people—those who create games, and those who play them. Every piece of non-fiction is, at its heart, about people and what drives them. Why do we create what we create? Why do we love what we love? What does that tell us about the time we’re living in? How can stories of the past help us understand the present and the future? Without non-fiction, we lose sight of who we are as creators, fans, and communities.
Are there any other great SFF-related non-fiction works or indeed anything else (books, stories, essays, writers, magazines, films, TV shows, etc…) you’d like to recommend?
My friends Daniel Dockery and Mary Kenney wrote wonderful gaming books last year, also from Running Press. Dockery’s “Monster Kids” is a lot like “Fight, Magic, Items,” except instead of broadly looking at JRPG history, it focuses on the creation, success, and subsequent legacy of the Pokemon series. Kenney’s “Gamer Girls” looks at the role of women in game development through examinations of 20+ influential creators—it’s a joy to read.
Outside of books, I highly recommend various newsletters, like Matthew Claxton’s Unsettling Futures, Alasdair Stuart and Marguerite Kenner’s The Full Lid, Wendy Browne and Nola Pfau’s Women Write About Comics, and Jason Sanford’s Genre Grapevine. I’d also love to see Andrew Liptak’s Cosplay, Levar Burton Reads, and “Too Dystopian For Whom? A Continental Nigerian Writer’s Perspective” by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki recognized with nominations. Any and all of these creators would look lovely on the “Best Fan Writer” ballot.
Where can people buy your book?
Anywhere you can buy books! Your favourite local bookstore, online at your vendor of choice, anywhere! For more information about “Fight, Magic, Items,” including excerpts, review blurbs, interviews, and more, you can also check out its official website.
Where can people find you?
I also run a newsletter called Astrolabe (eligible for “Best Fanzine”!) where folks can sign up for free issues brimming with every geeky thing you can imagine: book reviews, gaming, writing, movies, etc. You name it, I write about it.
My award eligibility details (“Best Related Work” for “Fight, Magic, Items,” “Best Fanzine” for Astrolabe, and “Best Fan Writer” for me) and selected pieces for each category—along with more recommendations—can also be found on Astrolabe.
Thank you, Aidan, for stopping and answering my questions. Check out Fight, Magic, Items: The History of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the Rise of Japanese RPGs in the West, if you’ve ever played Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Pokémon or any other Japanese RPGs or are interested in the history of video games in general.
About Fight, Magic, Items: The History of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the Rise of Japanese RPGs in the West:
Press start and discover the fascinating history of JRPGs.
The Japanese roleplaying game is a special genre that includes some of the most creative, influential, and beloved video games and series of all time. In Fight, Magic, Items, Aidan Moher guides you through the origin and evolution of the genre, beginning with the two games that started it all: Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. Moher weaves in firsthand interviews and behind-the-scenes tales into a unique and entertaining tribute to a genre and games that inspired an industry and continues to capture the imagination of generations of fans including:
- Chrono Trigger
- Phantasy Star
- Kingdom Hearts
- Fire Emblem
- Tales of…
- and more.
About Aidan Moher:
Aidan Moher (he/him) is a Hugo award-winning writer and editor who has written about almost every niche facet of geek culture you can think of from Terry Brooks to Dungeons & Dragons. And whether he’s penning wildly read essays on Lunar: Silver Star Story, the undeniable lasting power of Chrono Trigger (the best RPG ever made), or the forgotten history of Magic: the Gathering, he manages to infuse deep, personal, endearing hooks into every story he tells. He’s written for outlets like Wired, Kotaku, Electronic Gaming Monthly, Uncanny Magazine, Fanbyte, Tor.com, and more.
Did you publish a work of SFF-related longform non-fiction in 2022 (and can answer my questions in three days) or are you publishing one in 2023 and want it featured? Contact me or leave a comment.