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Saturday, 3 October 2015

Editorial: Why Tetsuya Nomura is Bad for Video Games

Editorial: Why Tetsuya Nomura is
Bad for Video Games.

Many people say to me 'Murphy, why do you hate Tetsuya Nomura, long time character designer and games producer at Japanese RPG company Square-Enix so much?'

There are dozens of reasons why, really, but here are five.

1. Development schedules? What are those?

Kingdom Hearts III has been in development for ten years. Ten years. The last time I mentioned that, someone flung themselves to Nomura's defense with 'Oh no, it's not been in development for that long, it's only been in development for a year or so,' which is a pretty damning thing to say given that Nomura was purportedly approached about making it before Kingdom Hearts II was even released.

Then there's Final Fantasy XV. Long used as a reason for why Kingdom Hearts III was taking so long, with Nomura giving repeatedly interviews saying that it had to be his main focus, it too has been in development for nearly a decade, and seemingly, absolutely no progress had been made on it until Nomura was replaced as developer by Hajime Tabata in late 2013.

Late 2013. This game, with a team of two hundred people working on it, had seen no progress made on it for seven years with Nomura at the helm, despite his protestations that he was focusing so much effort on it. Seven years of development, and the game was so incomplete that we know, for example, that Tabata and his team were basically building the gameplay from the ground up, because no work had been done on it.

The game was so underdeveloped that we know, for example, that as late as 2012 Nomura was suggesting changing it entirely - from scripts to voice work to all the other things that are generally done first - to make it into a musical.

It has taken so long that it's changed titles, because the sub-series it was meant to be a part of finished. 

So there we have it: Given two big projects to work on, Nomura had to be removed from one before it even managed to make any progress, and the other will apparently not be out for years yet, coming after yet another re-release bundle. Good job.

2. Incoherent plots, spread too thinly.

Here's a game: Describe to me the plot of the Fabula Nova Crystallis (yes, that is a ridiculous title) in three hundred words or less, in a way that somebody who wasn't familiar with any of the games in it could understand.

Alternately, describe to me the plot of the Kingdom Hearts series, such that someone would be able to start playing Kingdom Hearts 3, having never played any of the earlier games, and understand what's going on.

I'm going to bet you can't do that, and there's a couple of reasons for this: Firstly, Tetsuya Nomura's plots are utterly incoherent. The first Final Fantasy XIII on its own feels like it was written in three hours by someone who was very drunk, but when you add in every other game in its little sub-series (which include time travel, multiple dimensions, several different orders of godlike being, a shadowy substance that gives life but also kills people, everyone becoming immortal, and France), it becomes a tangled mess that you could spend hours trying to explain in a way that didn't make you sound like a lunatic.

Secondly, Nomura disperses his plots over as many games as he can, or so it seems. Take, for example, Kingdom Hearts, which has something like nine or ten games on the Playstation 2, the Playstation 3, the Playstation 4, the PSP, the Nintendo DS, Japanese web browsers, smartphones, and the Gameboy Advance. Sometimes, important story elements are randomly shoved into re-release bundles, meaning that you might well find yourself in the position of owning the same game three times, because with each iteration of it about three minutes of new story has been added.

I shouldn't need to explain why both those things are a problem - especially the latter, which apparently assumes that the franchise's entire audience is possessed of infinite supplies of money and patience - and why they put the lie to the idea of Nomura being a writer of any ability.

Which is not even getting started on how his stories always take themselves so very, very seriously.

3. A total lack of respect for the rest of the team.

For a lot of people, including myself, their first exposure to Nomura will have been Final Fantasy X, one of the great commercial and critical successes of the series. I'm never entirely clear on how much Nomura was actually involved in that game, but one thing that we do know for sure is that he designed your team's resident maternal figure and doll-wielding Black Mage, Lulu.

You'll note in the above picture Lulu's skirt. It's made out of dozens, or maybe even hundreds of interlocking belts, and while that's a ridiculous idea all on its own (how many hours of travelling are lost each day because Lulu has to spend three hours taking off her beltskirt, and then four hours the next day putting it on?), what really stands out is why Nomura did this.

According to him, it was his challenge to the game's visual programmers, that they would have to recognise the ridiculous pattern of belts and reproduce it consistently throughout the game. He said, at the same time, that he makes a point of giving the game's visual programmers a 'challenge' with each game he designs on.

How absolutely disrespectful to them. Let's not make any bones here, the job of the visual programmers is more difficult than the job of the character designers - and I say that with the utmost respect for the character designers, because it's not that that's an easy job, it's that it doesn't involve working within the limits of available technology, it doesn't involve attempting to translate someone else's two dimensional work into a three dimensional format, and it doesn't involve having to consistently do these things over the course of a forty-plus hour game.

It is astounding to me that Nomura, the one with the objectively easier job, would take it upon himself to challenge his colleagues, as if their job is a cakewalk that needs to be spiced up.

4. The fan hype problem.

It's difficult to blame Nomura for this one, but it's certainly something he reaps the benefits of in no small part.

It's no secret that amongst the audience for video games, there is something of a hype problem - it's why review sites don't dare give a game anything lower than a 6/10 anymore, why obviously shady development practices can be and often are passed off as features to get excited over, why even deeply broken and nigh unplayable games will often find their share of ardent defenders.

We could devote an entire editorial to discussing why this is (and at least some of it is that, with three-hundred odd pounds being dropped on a console and fifty pounds on each game, gamers are understandably invested in believing that their purchases are entirely worthwhile and flawless).

But Nomura is a particular target of hype, with fans raving about his unending genius and how every game that comes from him - regardless of whether it's an entirely new game, a sequel that nobody asked for, or even just games he's already released being re-released - is a great, shining gift delivered from on high.

The reason for that can largely be traced to, well, a combination of nostalgia and undue credit. Nomura is associated with Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy VIII, and Final Fantasy X, which may well be the fondest remembered games in the franchise. But the thing is, Nomura wasn't that heavily involved in most of them: He was the character designer and battle visual director for VII, but neither the producer nor the writer (in a game which most people remember for its story, not for its designs, which tend to be fairly roundly mocked); for Final Fantasy VIII, the main story was created by two entirely different writers, with Nomura contributing 'character stories'; and for Final Fantasy X he was just one of several character designers. Yet these games are often nigh exclusively attributed to Nomura, and so hype builds up around him.

But even if he was as heavily involved with those games as people like to make him out to be, it doesn't change the fact that too much fan hype is, ultimately, a bad thing: It's too often a means for game developers and publishers to do wrong by their audience and play it off as something to be excited about, and if there's anything the endless Kingdom Hearts re-releases have taught us it's that Square-Enix, and Nomura, are not afraid to do that.

5. And at the end of the day, he's just not a good designer. 

Nomura does sometimes do good designs. Sometimes. But not often: Instead, the man has single-handedly given the entirety of JRPGs a reputation for ridiculous designs. Cloud, with his absurd solid mass of hair and a sword that's literally bigger than he is, is the poster boy for absurd JRPG designs, but in many ways he's one of the milder examples.

We could spin an entire editorial out of this, and we probably will some day, but until then, I invite you all to look at Lightning's design in her most recent appearance on our consoles.

Behold. To head into battle, Lightning has - for reasons never fully explained - chosen to wear a backless, sideless leotard with what appears to be some kind of backless, sideless corset; massive boots; a short cape; weird gloves which only cover one side; and massive shoulderpads. That's not a holy warrior setting out to save the world, that's an 80s pop star.

Alternately, take a look at Nomura's reinterpretation of Batman:

Look at him. Look at him. It's like someone took Batman, filtered him through Garo, and then dragged him through every Final Fantasy game ever released. It's a monstrous, clumsy, over-designed mess, with nothing to draw the eye, nothing to focus on, because everything is just a mess of unnecessary details. It's design by way of the tree branch, endlessly branching out into smaller and smaller details piled up on each other.

Nomura sometimes does good character designs, but give him free reign to do what he likes and he'll give you something terrible, every time.


  1. Great read!

    I think there were enough reasons to dislike this man, but I was oblivious about the "challenging the programmers". That's a move propper of a massive asshole with ego problems.

    If you think Female Clo-I mean, Lightning, is bad, just take a look at Dirge of Cerberus.

    Feast your eyes on the designs of Shalua and her amazing skirt of WAT, Blue the Blue, Red the Red, Black the Black and White the White... or Reeve Tuesti and his giant shoes and super long Zipper Jacket (Nomura trademark).

    About that "Batman"... I don't know. The first time I saw I thought "Oh god, Why this mand made a Mecha-Bahamut"... Then I read "DC Comics" and my jaw dropped.

    So yeah, "Bahatman".

  2. you don't know shit this is the most ignorant post i ever saw in my whole entire life

  3. While I agree with you on Nomura being an annoying designer with how he fails to get shit done...I can't say I agree with you on the character designs and this "practicality" that most western RPG players are obsessed with.

    Just get over it...These games are in different worlds and settings than ours and things don't work the same way; sure some designs may look "ridiculous" to you but I like to call them creative...and it's not like in our real life we don't have ridiculous fashion either.

    I am saying that and I am not even a fan of the FF series in general.

    1. There is no world in which a skirt made of belts makes sense as an item of clothing for someone on an adventure to wear.

      Also, 'fantasy' is not a catch-all for 'whatever you want.' Fantasy still has to be believable to an audience on a practical level, or suspension of disbelief is broken.

      There are also plenty of JRPG designs that have both an 'otherworldly' creative quality and aren't also patently absurd. Fidel from Star Ocean I&F, most of the human characters from The Last Remnant, Ardyn Izunia from FFXV, the characters of The Last Story (usually).

      You've also missed the point that while practicality is a massive problem with Nomura's designs -- and one that quite often scuppers some of his better designs -- it's not the main problem. The problem is that they're *over*-designed.

      One key principle of designing characters and they're clothing is that the eye needs to be drawn to key details that create a sense of identity. Simplicity in character designs often equals elegance and effectiveness -- which is why Nomura's best designs are easily those of Org XIII, who wear a very simple all-purpose uniform with minor customisations and with distinctive hair, eye colours, and face shapes to serve as their key details.

      But if you take Lightning's XIII-3 design or his Batman redesign, they completely lack that: They are overdesigned messes, details piled upon details piled upon details with nothing to focus on. The result is that they are ultimately not memorable, interesting, or effective designs, they're just messes, fit only to be laughed at.

  4. Thank you. Generally how I approach character design myself is that I try and imagine the poor sod putting it on, taking it off, or how one is to wear it while they are performing the tasks they plan on doing. If one is a knight, belts and zippers on the outside are a big no-no. There was a reason buckles were placed on the inside, or in places where a stray sword stroke won't cut the straps. In light of finding out why he does that, I can say I would be rather pissed if I worked as visual programmer with the guy. Of course from the look of it, he also has a nasty habit of 'challenging' the voice actors. (Look at Birth by Sleep for an example. Especially when regarding the way the X-blade was pronounced.)

    1. Yeah, somebody above was grousing that Western players are obsessed with 'practicality,' but clothing is meant to fulfill a function. A character has to be able to put it on, do the tasks they need that clothing for, and then take it off again without it being An Event.

      Nomura's 'let's challenge people on my team' attitude has always struck me as deeply arrogant, because it functionally implies that he thinks everyone else's jobs are easy and that he needs to spice things up for them.

  5. Kinda surprised you didnt mention sephiroth and psaro's suspiciously similar character design