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THE MOONLIGHTERS A NARRATIVE LISTENING APPROACH TO VIDEOGAME STORYTELLING

by

Teddy Diefenbach

A Thesis Presented to the FACULTY OF THE USC SCHOOL OF CINEMATIC ARTS UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree MASTER OF FINE ARTS (INTERACTIVE MEDIA)

May 2012

Copyright 2012

Teddy Diefenbach

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Acknowledgements
To Richard Lemarchand, my good friend and thesis advisor, who every week challenged me on design decisions I hadnt even realized Id made. To my chair Jeremy Gibson for trusting me with a subject he cares so much about, and to IMD faculty Tracy Fullerton, Laird Malamed, Mark Bolas, Steve Anderson, Vince Diamante, and Chris Swain for guiding my work. To the shadow council Jamie Antonisse, Scott Gillies, Anthony Ko, Matt Korba, and Asher Vollmer for parsing my design rants into the wee small hours. To Mari Arakaki, Sara Engelhardt, Alexa Rockman, Kenny Wood, Katie Gately, and the rest of the Moonlighters team for breathing life into my ridiculous Hollywood JRPG vision. To my design partner Mike Sennott, who supported 1950s dragons from the start. To my friends and family for not forgetting my existence when I vanished. And to Samantha Diefenbach, ever enthusiastic, smiling, and supportive as I stole her brilliant ideas and disappeared for days at a time.

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Table of Contents
Acknowledgements................................................................................................ ii Abstract ................................................................................................................. v Project Description.................................................................................................1 Narrative Listening Introduction ..................................................................1 Goal ............................................................................................................2 Game Genre ...............................................................................................2 Heist Movie Influence..................................................................................3 Aesthetic .....................................................................................................4 Narrative Listening in Detail...................................................................................5 The Effect....................................................................................................5 Design Implementation ...............................................................................6 Technical Implementation ...........................................................................7 Narrative Listening Prior Art........................................................................8 The Tenets of Narrative Listening.............................................................10 The Advantages of Narrative Listening.....................................................12 Other Narrative Systems: Prior Art ......................................................................15 Morality Systems.......................................................................................15 Branching Path / Choose Your Own Adventure Systems ......................16 Multiple Endings........................................................................................17 Relationship Systems ...............................................................................17 Evaluation ............................................................................................................19 Findings ....................................................................................................19 Challenges ................................................................................................20 Conclusion ...........................................................................................................22 Contribution to the Field............................................................................22 Potential Benefits ......................................................................................22 Next Steps ................................................................................................23 References ..........................................................................................................25

Abstract
Videogames that feature pre-authored, scripted stories for their players face a fundamental conflict with the nature of interactive media they do not react to the players choices and actions. Game narrative designers have attempted a number of solutions to this conflict, creating systems that allow the story to change dynamically in response to the player. The Moonlighters is an action role-playing game I developed to experiment with Narrative Listening, a new dynamic storytelling technique. Narrative Listening responds to the actions the player takes using the games core play mechanics, and adapts small, isolated fragments of the story to react to these actions. Narrative Listenings goal is to give the player impact on the story without breaking the fourth wall to put her in an authorial position. It gives her influence without demanding that she step back from gameplay and consider that influence.

Project Description
The Moonlighters is a videogame that I designed and created for this thesis. I developed it in the Unity game engine with collaborators for art, music, sound, and acting contribution.

Narrative Listening Introduction


The Moonlighters was created as an interactive experience to test my hypothesis regarding Narrative Listening, a term I have coined for a new game narrative design technique that creates a dynamic storytelling experience for the player. This technique is inspired by a narrative dynamic I have observed in a number of games. However, this dynamic has to my knowledge not previously been discussed at length in game design circles as a valid, reproducible method for dynamic narrative. Narrative Listening is a high-impact, low-scope approach to videogame dynamic narrative. That is, changing the outcome of narrative events based on the players actions, and not just an unchanging plot. Using this technique, the designer plants Listeners at specific moments in time during gameplay, and then uses these listeners to make decisions later on about the outcome of a narrative branch, where the story can proceed on one of two paths.

Goal
The stated objective of this thesis is to promote an approach to game narrative design that is both more impactful to the player and less grand in production scope. It is my hope that the techniques I use in the narrative design of The Moonlighters will influence others to branch out beyond more traditional designs.

Game Genre
The Moonlighters is an action role-playing game (action RPG), as defined by the popular game genre definition that merges an action game with a role-playing game. An action RPG uses the primary interaction presented by an action game that of real-time control of a player-avatar with challenges that test her ability to maneuver the avatar with quick reflexes and precise control. The action RPG uses the structure and rewards systems of role-playing games. The role-playing elements typically serve secondary purposes indirectly related to the action challenge, but also pivotal to the experience. They include systems such as allowing the player to upgrade her characters traits and abilities to make her more powerful in gameplay, and placing non-enemy characters in the world for the purpose of conversation. Though The Moonlighters is certainly an action RPG, the design takes liberties with some of the tropes of the genre. Its primary departure is in its structure. Most action-RPGs create an open-world structure that the player can

3 explore at her leisure. Games like Secret of Mana allow the player to travel anywhere, at almost any time. The Moonlighters is a structured, wide-linear experience. The game follows a storyline that takes the player to different locations. Though the player does revisit the same locations and characters, and can explore the game space with some leisure, the games story, not the players exploration, determines the timing of these visits. I do this in The Moonlighters to create a directed, cinematic and story-driven experience, allowing me to put focus on the narrative design. Also of note is the way The Moonlighters handles the concept of a town. In traditional RPGs, a town is usually a safe haven, where the primary interaction is conversation instead of combat. The Moonlighters has this safe haven in the Headquarters lounge, where the player can speak to the protagonists and upgrade her characters. However, town elements extend into the action gameplay areas, as well. During a mission, for example, the player may pause to speak with a woman at the bar in the casino, or play a few hands of blackjack. Neither of these actions occurs in pursuit of a reward-driven goal. They are tangential, explorational, and stress-free.

Heist Movie Influence


The heist movie genre influenced my design heavily from the beginning. One of my project pillars was to ensure that the player felt clever and charismatic, like the smooth criminals in a movie like Oceans Eleven. I chose this genre because

4 it relies heavily on an ensemble cast of characters. I decided early on that an ensemble would offer rich opportunities for Narrative Listening scenarios. Beyond this, heist movie structure dictated the structure of the game. Each episode of the game revolves around one heist, which is broken down into the tasks completed by different team members.

Aesthetic
The look and feel of this game were designed to be a slowly introduced blend of 1950s Hollywood glamour and the exaggerated Japanese high-fantasy aesthetic of Japanese RPGs circa 1996. In all creative elements, I strove to reach an 80:20 balance of the former to the latter. The motivation for this was purely personal and artistic. The theme of the games story is adapting to change. The story follows 1950s entertainers who are unable to adapt to the fast changing and fragmenting tastes of popular culture into the teen-pop/rock-dominated landscape of the 1960s up to present day. The game takes place in 1960 at the fulcrum of this change.

Narrative Listening in Detail


The Effect
Narrative Listening is a new approach to adaptive game narrative that focuses on a few specific moments in time during gameplay, and determines the outcome of a future event based on each moment. This creates a simple one-to-one cause and effect connection that is presented to the player at the time of effect. This provides more emotional impact and more nuanced meaning, because instead of presenting itself outwardly to the player as a narrative system, it resides in the background and keeps the player feeling and behaving like a character in the story, and not an author of the story through a playable system. Since any moment of gameplay could affect the future of the scripted story, it imbues more emotional meaning into each action the player makes. It does this while requiring less depth of system development than traditional narrative systems that do more constant analysis of the players decisions. Narrative Listening reflects the real world, in which the outcome of an event is not always a result of the sum of all our decisions up to that point. More often we look for a more comprehensible one-to-one causality, attributing a single decision to the effect we are observing.

Design Implementation
Creation of Narrative Listening is straightforward and relatively simple to execute, depending on the scope of the Narrative Listening Event in question: 1. Choose a point in the story for the Narrative Listening Event (NLE) The NLE is the point in the game where the effect of a cause-effect relationship is revealed. The narrative designer and writer must choose a moment that is ripe for a branching path, where multiple possible outcomes are interesting in the grander scheme of the games full story. 2. Choose a point or points in gameplay for the Listener This is the cause of the cause-effect relationship with the NLE. The numbering here is misleading. In practical implementation, the Listener should be chosen in tandem with the NLE, and the two should be narratively connected with real meaning. 3. Design the outcomes The NLE will have to present the player with one of multiple outcomes, based on its analysis of the Listener. These outcomes should all fit and make sense in the world, and each outcome should connect to the Listener and NLE in a perceivable way. The creator must consider each of these steps simultaneously. They must be narratively tied in a way that makes clear, logical sense to both the writer and

7 the player. The cause-effect relationship must make natural sense to the audience.

Technical Implementation
There is no specific technical way in which to implement a Narrative Listener or NLE. Since this approach is by definition non-systematic, there are no technical hurdles that designers inherently face. Each NLE is only as complex to implement as it needs to be. For example, say a designer wants to setup a Narrative Listener in a game level that pays attention to which of two doors a player opens first. This is as simple as recording a single Boolean value to store the players decision. Notably, replaying the Listener moment to the player at the moment of the NLE can be more technically challenging than the Listener, again depending on how the designer wishes to do so. If, in an action game, the narrative designer wishes to play back the exact gameplay moment of the Listener, the development team may have to implement some form of gameplay recording and playback engine. Fortunately, the team can take as many shortcuts in this implementation as possible, since the engine would only be used for a handful of NLE moments. Perhaps the engine could ignore small details, and only record player positions every few seconds. Ultimately, the technical challenges vary widely between NLEs, from a single stored Boolean to a complex playback engine. As in any game design

8 task, the designer implementing Narrative Listening must be mindful of the cost and benefit of any given technical solution.

Narrative Listening Prior Art


I typically refer to two examples when discussing Narrative Listening: Chrono Trigger Squaresofts 1995 RPG Chrono Trigger for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System features the most striking and direct example of Narrative Listening inspiration. Several hours into the game, the protagonist and main player character Chrono is arrested and hauled before a judge. He is then put on trial, during which seven previously insignificant side characters come forth as character witnesses and give testimony. Each witness refers back to a moment during real action gameplay in which the player made a split-second decision that, in the eyes of the witness, reflected on Chrono either positively or negatively. One juror, for example, observed the first encounter between Chrono and his now-companion Marle. The two met by running into one another and falling over. Back at that moment during gameplay, the player regained control of Chrono after he stood back up. In order to progress the story, the player had to pick up a pendant that Marle dropped. One witness in the trial testifies about this moment in gameplay. If the player chose to return the pendant immediately to Marle, the testimony reflects

9 on Chrono positively. If the player chose to talk to a shop vendor and perhaps sell it, or even later admits to being tempted, it reflects negatively. Though this action is viewed as a moral decision in retrospect, the player had little reason to consider it would have such an impact at the time. This event creates a meaningful narrative moment for two reasons: 1. The player does not view it as a narrative choice, but rather as a regular gameplay decision. This keeps her in the role of a player and participant in the story, instead of presenting her with an explicit narrative choice and forcing her to be an active author. 2. The player does not see this coming, but is shown the events that led up to the current accusation in court. This causal link created between gameplay and story echoes for many hours into the game. Though no such moment occurs again for the rest of the game, players feel as though the games story could be listening to their actions during gameplay at any given moment, making every action more meaningful in their eyes. Bastion Supergiant Games Bastion was released this year on multiple platforms. The game features a voiced narrator, who narrates the gameplay from moment to moment, commenting on the action and the story events. Throughout the game, the narrator speaks based on listeners setup in the game, telling the narrator to make certain comments based on the players actions. Here, the players actions

10 do not affect the outcome of the story in any way, but like in Chrono Trigger, the player feels as though the game is listening to her every move. Later in the game, the narrator comments on gameplay actions less frequently. Presumably the designers chose to ease off on gameplay play-byplay to avoid it becoming repetitive or bothersome to the player. Instead, the narrator focuses more exclusively on telling stories about the history of the environments the player travels through. Though the narrator late in the game is commenting on player actions less frequently, the impact of the early gameplay listening echoes on. Since the player is taught early on that the game is paying attention to her actions, she holds onto this assumption for the remainder of the game, even when the game is not listening at all.

The Tenets of Narrative Listening


In exploring this concept, I brainstormed and fleshed out many different ideas for NLEs. As I weeded through them to find the best candidates for The Moonlighters, I discovered common razors by which I was doing so. Through this process I identified a list of tenets that could guide my thinking and others in the selection of NLE opportunities. As the project moved forward, I refined this list:

11 1. The Cause-Effect relationship should be showable The connection between cause and effect must be clear and logical, so that the player can easily comprehend. The player will understand the cause-effect relationship best if the cause can be played back, either in a flashback or a specific recounting. The cause can consist of a multiple moments, but they must be easily explainable without relying heavily on statistical calculation. If the player cant do the math, the NLE shouldnt. 2. The Cause should be a conscious player choice If the player is to feel responsible for this choice, it must not be so minute that the player doesnt feel that she knowingly made it. Furthermore, this choice shouldnt involve a constraining skill check. If the player isnt skilled enough to make a choice, then it isnt really a choice at all. Ideally, this conscious choice also steers clear of explicit moral lines. Since players are likely familiar with moral systems in games, this could easily reveal a hidden Listener and pull the player out of her experience. 3. Listeners should be as unique and discrete as possible As soon as the player begins to recognize commonalities between Listeners, she may be able to predict them, or at least be distracted by the hypothesis that she is able to do so. While the approach to creating variety between Listeners will vary between games, it is safe to assume that one should avoid overusing them.

12 As soon as NLEs become frequent, the player will start to smell a system at work and be distracted. 4. The player should never miss an NLE No matter what her decisions in the game, the player should encounter every implemented NLE. If there is a path through the game that misses one Event, the player community will quickly identify this, and players may begin to look up hints online. Ease the players minds by ensuring that NLEs are guaranteed. 5. NLEs must provide balanced gameplay benefit Every outcome of a given NLE should reward or punish the player in comparable ways, lest the player be made to feel she has made the wrong choice and is being punished. However, it is notable that Narrative Listening allows for unequal narrative impact. As long as each outcome provides a balanced gameplay result, one narrative result can be decidedly more negative than another. For example, if a member of the players party dies from one NLE outcome, the game should compensate by introducing a new, mechanically similar character. In this example, the gameplay outcome is balanced, but the narrative impact was explicitly negative.

The Advantages of Narrative Listening


Narrative Listening keeps the player in the role of active audience/story character, and not of an author. Since it doesnt present itself to the player as a

13 manipulateable system, there is no pressure on the player to try to optimize her success by making right decisions for the story. Instead, she makes the right decisions for her instincts, and the story reacts accordingly. This makes the story feel more like an adaptive, complex, nuanced experience, and less like a system to be prodded and poked. This non-systematic approach has the added advantage of touching on the nuances of consequence that traditional adaptive story systems do not. Systems, for example, that change a story based on the players dialog choices are inherently more clear-cut than their real-life counterparts, in which context, framing, and even vocal tone can have an impact on the outcome of those choices. Narrative Listening, on the other hand, though it is technically just as simple, can make the player feel as though the games consequences are nuanced. Since the cause of any given outcome is difficult to foresee, it mirrors that same dynamic from real-world human interactions without actually being so complicated as to feel unfair to the player. It is also more flexible. Each NLE is a one-off execution. It doesnt require a holistic system that applies to all facets of the game, or all story situations. Each event can be custom-tailored to the experience it is trying to create. This flexibility provides the creators with an adjustable scope. For shorter games, the effect is even more noticeable. With zero investment in a large story

14 system, any game creator could implement just one NLE in a game to create a memorable moment, much like the one trial event in Chrono Trigger. The main challenge in implementing Narrative Listening is that it cannot be designed until the story itself is designed. I faced this challenge in the production of The Moonlighters, as it was impossible to create a Narrative Listening design until I had written the story, and was difficult to test an NLE in isolation from gameplay context. In other words, the NLE cant be built in parallel with the gameplay it listens to. It must be built afterwards.

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Other Narrative Systems: Prior Art


There have been many approaches to adaptive or dynamic story for scripted games. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, for many of which Narrative Listening provides a balancing alternative. Narrative Listening can be used either as an alternative to these, or in conjunction with them to keep the player guessing (or giving up on guessing). Narrative Listening is not inherently better than any one of these. Rather, I used this list to identify what current adaptive narratives were unable to accomplish emotionally.

Morality Systems
A morality system ascribes moral judgment to the players actions, typically giving feedback in the form of a meter that swings from evil to good in describing the players sum moral choices in gameplay and/or dialog. Sources: Fable series, Mass Effect series, Knights of the Old Republic, Black & White Strengths: The system is very readable. The player immediately understands the nature of her decisions. The game gives direct, instant moral feedback to the player. It is easy to connect this meter to gameplay consequences.

16 Weaknesses: The player becomes an author in this system when presented with explicit moral choices. The narrative system is presented so clearly, and is often so relevant to gameplay gain, that the player will begin to game the system and try to milk it for the best mechanical outcome. Systems of this nature mostly punish what might otherwise be interesting moral ambiguity, and the player is encouraged to become a pure hero or a loathed heel.

Branching Path / Choose Your Own Adventure Systems


A branching path system locates key character decision points in the story, and then presents two or more options to the player at each point, creating a branching tree structure of story outcomes. Sources: Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together Strengths: It gives a powerful level of player interactivity with the story at key junctions. The tree is highly replayable for players who wish to explore different branches. Weaknesses: It is highly authorial. It creates a high demand for content creation, much of which most players will never see or appreciate.

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Multiple Endings
Similar to a Branching Path system, but with a focus on one important outcome at the end of the story. Sources: Chrono Trigger, Bastion, Catherine Strengths: The user feels as though all their work meant something at the end, since the story resolution is customized to her playthrough. Weaknesses: It only occurs once, at the very end of the experience, so a player who does not research the game beforehand will be ignorant that her decisions matter. She only gets that reward at the very end. Since it comes after so many decisions, it can be difficult to impossible for the player to know which of her decisions were meaningful. It can be difficult for her to understand why she earned the given ending that she did. It has also been played up by the industry as such a feature that players are highly aware of it as a system.

Relationship Systems
The game tracks the relationships between characters in the game, often all under the players control. Gameplay or dialog choices dynamically affected these relationships.

18 Sources: Valkyria Chronicles, Sakura Wars, Persona series Strengths: The system is constantly reacting and developing. It can affect the story both on the grander plot level and on the level of minor relationship growth between characters. Since it supports multiple characters who may be interacting in gameplay, the system can have dramatic impact on challenges. Weaknesses: To be consistent and effective, the system must usually be complex and integrated into core gameplay at all times.

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Evaluation
Findings
The intent of this project was to test the boundaries of Narrative Listenings effectiveness. From my review of prior art, I was certain from the start that Narrative Listening, when implemented clearly, would have an impact on the players emotional experience and connection to the story and game world. Specifically though, I set out to find answers to the following two questions: First: what are the unexpected requirements (tenets) of effective Narrative Listening? What key attributes can bolster or destroy the emotional and immersive effectiveness of any given NLE? Second: How many NLEs are too many? Previous examples of techniques representing Narrative Listening have one or only a few of these in their entire experience. In my most prominent example Chrono Trigger, only one occurs, and takes up ten minutes out of a 40-hour game. Is there a density of NLEs at which the player begins to expect them too much? The first question was fairly straightforward enough to at least begin to answer. Paper walkthroughs of Narrative Listening situations demonstrated some obvious factors that spoiled Narrative Listening, or simply muddied its definition. I cant say how refined my final list is, given limited testing at the time of writing, but I know that I have begun to assemble a functional guide for others who may wish to try this.

20 Answering the second question has proven difficult. While the first question could be touched on with paper testing and discussion, the second one is more directly dependent on my test NLEs falling within the digital game I designed for them. As a result, I am only just beginning testing of this (see the next section). My suspicion from research and interviews with players is that I will be able to employ multiple NLEs in a game, provided that their characteristics and temporal placement in the game seem too random for the player to anticipate.

Challenges
Production Demands By far, the biggest challenged I have faced in exploring Narrative Listening was the production overhead required to test the concept. I was able to do limited testing of the concept with paper playtesting, but those findings were merely preliminary. Narrative Listening is based on tracking choices that the player makes using regular gameplay mechanics and the actions they provide to the player. This is important so that the player cannot distinguish between any given regular gameplay moment, and a moment that is being followed by a Listener. As a consequence, this required that I build an engaging and entertaining core mechanic before I could conduct any Narrative Listening. I spent the first four

21 months of study working purely on the gameplay systems, as they were a prerequisite for my final Narrative Listening results to be worthwhile. Compounding this challenge is that any narrative design technique must reside within a narrative. That is, I had to develop the story before, or at least simultaneously with, the adaptive narrative in question. Even more demanding is the fact that Narrative Listening is event-based. For it to feel properly fitted into a larger story experience, an NLE cannot be the only story event the player experiences. Thus, any given NLE requires that I write and design multiple story moments. Non-Duplication Since Narrative Listening is inherently non-systematic and unpredictable, each NLE must be unique in what it listens for and how it responds. This makes iteration and running multiple discrete tests a very high-scope endeavor. Each NLE is unique and built from scratch. For any given game, this can be a production scope benefit, but for the purposes of testing many NLEs for research beyond the scope of one game, it proves laborious. There is little to no efficiency found across multiple unique NLEs.

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Conclusion
Contribution to the Field
This project has produced a good primer on Narrative Listening, at least enough for an introduction to the community of narrative designers and encourage others explore it. The basic tenets I have determined provide an easy Do/Dont Do checklist for others who wish to learn the technique. Any game design innovation, no matter how unique, insightful, or powerful, can only impact the field at large if it is engaging enough to players. Simply, if a game is not fun to play, no one will play it. A brilliant game design achievement contributes absolutely nothing to the medium if it remains unseen. Following this sentiment, I believe this project will contribute very little to the field until I am able to release the game itself to a large audience. Thus, much of my immediate follow up to this thesis will be the continued production of the game itself, containing a number of NLEs that I will determine players will most enjoy. Only at that point would a larger discussion of this technique break through into the popular dialog.

Potential Benefits
Narrative Listening can provide a powerful and more nuanced alternative to traditional game narrative systems. All existing systems treat human interactions as systems that can be predicted too easily. In a game of Mass Effect, the player

23 always knows that his dialog choice to act as a Paragon or Renegade will directly impact the current mission; the more extreme her moral choice, the more reward she will receive. On the contrary, Narrative Listening treats any human interaction moment as unpredictable. As people, we have no clear understanding of how our actions will affect those around us. Sometimes seemingly insignificant moments can have grand repercussions. Narrative Listening explores this concept in the videogame medium.

Next Steps
Beyond my own continued production of The Moonlighters, it is my hope that this game will inspire another designer to explore Narrative Listening in a different game. As game designers, we recognize that our medium is an interactive and iterative one. No amount of discussion in response to this thesis will prove whether or not Narrative Listening is a viable narrative technique for many games, or whether it is merely a niche approach to storytelling. That data will only come from multiple games exploring variations on this technique. Data on the effectiveness of Narrative Listening will come in the form of indirect observations, at best. NLEs inherently do not define any game. The technique is designed to be subtle, and bolster the emotional effectiveness of the game. Most discussions I read of my primary inspirations Chrono Trigger and

24 Bastion do not reference their Narrative Listening-like dynamics as their primary appeal. Instead, designers who utilize Narrative Listening will have to look to its impact on players memories. We will look to see whether the Narrative Listening events were particularly powerful to the player in order to judge whether they are worth including in more and more games to come

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26 Soejima, Shigenori, prod. Catherine. Dev. Atlus Persona Team. Atlus, 2011. Tanaka, Shuntaro, dir. Valkyria Chronicles. Dir. Takaharu Terada. Dev. Sega WOW. Sega, 2008. Tokita, Takashi, dir. Chrono Trigger. Dirs. Yoshinori Kitase, Akihiko Matsui. Des. Hiroyuki Ito, Hironobu Sakaguchi. Dev. Square. Square, 1995.