Tabletop RPG’s are incredibly visual, however, a majority of these cinematic events take place in a groups collective imagination. Now, we have maps and minis to help us establish scenes, but the key to any successful world-building has always been one thing: Art. Artists such as Larry Elmore, whose work donned the cover of the Dragonlance series, took us to new worlds. From novels to cover art, these pieces create a shared touchstone that we as players use to visualize far off realms. So, this new series will highlight artists that has been pivotal to world-building in RPGs. Perhaps you’re familiar with their work or the worlds they inspire, but may not know the man or woman behind these visual splendors. For our first entry, into what I’m calling Art and Inspiration, we are going to look at the man behind the Final Fantasy franchise. Though not a tabletop RPG, the FF series, along with Zelda, was my first foray into the RPG genre. Crafting epic stories that contains the same call to adventure we experience at the table. Obviously a video game, but the characters and world building captivated to me as a young teen. This visual style originated with one man; Yoshitaka Amano. It’s here where our story begins.
It was FF7 that really opened my eyes to what an RPG could be. Far from your standard, defeat the dragon and take his loot, this was a sprawling adventure with twists and turns. Though many artists/writers work on books and games, everything comes together if they have a shared style or inspiration. Mr. Amano is a renowned concept artist for not only the FF series, but also Speed Racer, Gatchaman, and many others. Born in Japan (1952), Mr. Amano was inspired to draw by comic books he enjoyed as a kid. Specifically, the work of comic artist Neal Adams, who is most famous for the creation of Batman. Young Amano got his start in the industry at Tatsunoko Productions, and was part of the early Japanese anime movement. His first project will be familiar to many of my generation as Speed Racer was played often during Saturday morning cartoons, and late at night during Toonami on Cartoon Network. Developing the visual style of anime’s in the early 1980’s it wasn’t until breaking off from Tatsunoko Productions, that Mr. Amano got his big break.
While his early works, such as Gatchaman, was inspired more by pop culture, comics, and anime, it wasn’t until his transition to a freelance artist that Mr. Amano further developed his style. Using his studies of Art Nouveau and Ukiyo-e, a Japanese art that involves woodblock prints, Mr. Amano produced covers for the novels Demon City Shinjuku and Vampire Hunter D. It’s this shift in direction that lead to the notice of Square, a company that would later be known as Square Enix. At the time, Square had a contract with Nintendo to develop the first Final Fantasy game. As is frequent in his work, Mr Amano utilized wispy lines to create an almost dream-like feel to conceptual works created for the game. The use of this technique emphasizes the fantasy aspect of the series, and Mr. Amano’s quickly became the lead artist for Final Fantasy all the way until FF6 in 1994, when he stepped down as the main graphic designer for the series. Though, he has continued to work in a freelance role for Square Enix to this day, and you will recognize his art as he still provides the logo art for each Final Fantasy game.
Since leaving Square Enix in 1994, Mr. Amano is once again a freelance artist that has been busy with numerous projects. Putting together exhibitions, working with Neil Gaiman on Sandman, or creating manga for Dark Horse Comics, Mr. Amano still enjoys a wonderful career as a creative. His whimsical and vibrant style is easily identifiable, and has had a tremendous influence on the Japanese RPG genre. So, let’s take a closer look at some of Mr. Amano’s work to see how he was able to captivate the imagination of players around the world.
Style and Works
What fascinates me about Amano and his works is the global influences meshed together in order to make the style you see today. How a bunch of New York kids, such as Neal Adams and the rest of the western comics industry, would influence a young Amano, who would then go on to contribute to the early anime movement in Japan, just goes to show how truly universal art is. Filtering these early interests with Japanese culture and the Ukivo-e technique, you can see the use of vibrant colors, as well as negative space used in Amano’s work. Much like the story telling the comic-books coming out of America, Ukivo-e often depicts scenes from history and folk tales. These two art-forms are so core to Amano’s work that each piece seems to tell a story. Either about the scene or who the character depicted is fundamentally. This story telling element is vital to RPGs both as video games and at the table.
Not only is there an emphases on the color selection, so that it pops off the page, but we also see this more dream-like state within this Ukivo-e style. Bodies are not atomically correct and relay on more loose or wavy lines. Making it more surprising that Mr. Amano also studied Art Nouveau, which is an international style of art, architecture and applied art. Architecture traditionally requiring straight lines and symmetry, would seem to go against the more free-form style of Ukivo-e. However, when combined, you can see how structures and cityscapes drawn by Amano feel both fantasy, as well as, a tangible place to visit. This fusion made Amano a fantastic designer for an RPG video game, such as Final Fantasy, as the setting needed to feel both fantastical, as well as, real. At least, real in the sense that the worlds created could be constructed in game. The art needed to lure players in, but the studio also had to deliver on the promise shown on the box art.
While all of these influences are fun to analyze apart, the truth is, only when brought together do they create such magnificent works. While Mr. Amano’s settings and landscapes are beautiful, my favorite pieces tend to be the lone characters. There’s something about the way he draws characters that tells you everything you need to know about them. Their stance, clothing design, and sometimes it’s hard to put your finger on it, but looking at some of the early FF7 concept art, you can clearly see these characters had a personality even before a single line of text was written for the game. That’s why I love art in tabletop RPGs. I want to be sucked into a world and meet new people. To this degree, the inspiration we as players get from artists is immeasurable. Like me, if you plan on jumping into the FF7 remake, I hope you learned something new about where the ideas for these beloved characters were planted. As I wrote in my Character Creation Process, art plays an important role in this visual medium, and it’s worth your time to check out some of the talented men and women behind the pens/paints!
I hope you gained some inspiration today, or got turned on to a great artist. What artists or tabletop RPG series do you want us to cover next? Let us know down in the comments!
Also, while your hear, you can read our article on why we want a Final Fantasy Tabletop RPG!