Nihon Falcom's president talks about the secret sauce of its beloved JRPGs

(Image credit: Nihon Falcom)

Trails in the Sky: Second Chapter has a significantly longer script than all of Lord of the Rings. It's longer than War & Peace, which is just over 500,000 words. Translating it was a herculean effort and, as I recently learned from Nihon Falcom president Toshihiro Kondo who directed the Trails in the Sky series in the early 2000s, so was writing it. Most of SC's three million Japanese characters were written by just three people.

"For Trails in the Sky FC, the first one, I started with two writers and then from the middle, a third writer came along," Kondo said, speaking through an interpreter.

Just three?

"Yes, three. It's probably the same for SC. The interesting thing, though, is that when you start writing scenarios, you actually get better at it and it becomes easier to write and it becomes quicker. You'd think that would mean you'd finish earlier, but that's not the case. What ends up happening is that you end up writing more."

Anyone who's played a game in the Trails series knows that checks out. It's what makes the games beloved by a small but fierce fandom—the main story unfolds slowly and deliberately, giving you a sense of the characters subtly growing, and letting you look back on how far they've come after dozens of hours. The real selling point of the Trails series for many fans, though, is how much effort Falcom put into dialogue for the NPCs in every town, and how they'll always have something new to say or a little sidestory if you go back to visit them between events. Half of SC's enormous script was devoted to text that you'll only see if you obsessively talk to these characters to get snippets of their lives. 

Kondo knows that Falcom's fans care about those sidestories. He knows because before he was president, before he was a game developer, he was a Falcom fan, and a Legend of Heroes game (the long-running series that Trails in the Sky is a part of) changed how he thought about videogames.

The Legend of Heroes 2: Prophecy of the Moonlight Witch, released for the PC-98 in 1994, was, according to Kondo, even more detailed in its handling of NPC dialogue than his Trails in the Sky series. You'd start in your home village and travel the world, but at any point if you traveled back to any place you'd visited, including all the way back home, there'd always be new dialogue for every character.

"I remember as a player really being impressed with that level of detail, that level of thought that went into it," he said.

One story stood out in particular: An old man in your home village is the town weirdo. But if you follow the story closely, he turns out to have had an amazing past.

"From a point of how you can express yourself through videogame storytelling, this blew my mind. The fact that what would in any other game just be 'Yep, the village weirdo' actually turns out to be someone really cool. It's this whole optional thing, but it's something I wanted to emulate. The fact that you could miss all of this little extra stuff and all these hints and all the things that make him special, was really a course in and of itself for NPC writing, and what you could do through storytelling with NPCs."

"What kind of started as an homage to that, once we got over to Trails in the Sky, has kind of become the series' identity," Kondo added. "There's definitely times when it's really hard to do and the writers want to stop, but I can see from fan reaction everywhere that it impresses people. Not just impressed in terms of, 'Wow, they did that,' but impressive in terms of like, 'Wow, this is a living, breathing world.' That's something that we definitely want to maintain and keep doing because it's such an important part of why these things resonate with people so much."

Kondo said that when he instructs new scenario writers, he tells them to write NPC dialogue that will enrich the main story or add to the world in some way. When he was working on the Trails in the Sky, the writers were spending a lot of time on the sidestory of two characters named Anton and Ricky. Older people at the company criticized it as a waste of time, but fans ended up loving the characters, and they've popped up in the Trails of Cold Steel series, too. 

"The reason I took over the job of becoming president was because to be able to ensure that we could continue to make games this way, and that creators who came to work for us were able to make games in this way as well," he said.

Nihon Falcom is now a company of 62, still tiny compared to some of Japan's other RPG studios. There are also multiple teams: While one focuses on the Legend of Heroes series, the other works on Ys, like the upcoming Ys IX: Monstrum Nox, which is due out in Japan this year. There's no word of a PC version yet, and Nihon Falcom sadly hasn't been a PC-first developer for many years. In Japan, consoles are simply where the money is, and Nihon Falcom doesn't work on PC ports of its own games, because Kondo would rather forge ahead, letting his developers work on new games. That's why Falcom partners with publishers like XSeed and NIS America for its PC releases.

"I grew up playing Falcom games on PC. For me, Falcom is a PC maker and always has been," he said. "I would love to be able to keep it that way, but we just came to a real crossroads where if we wanted to continue as a company developing video games, we needed to open up a new market. Honestly from a development perspective, it was more fun to make games for PC."

(Image credit: Nihon Falcom)

PC development doesn't come with the oversight and regulation of console makers, and they could keep making their games down to the wire. And while Falcom currently seems focused on its latest Trails and Ys games, Kondo is interested in getting more of the studio's classic games, remade or touched-up for modern players, onto platforms like Steam. And if that ever happens, it'll come from Falcom itself, not a partner.

"It would have to be done internally," he said. "There's a way of making Falcom games that only Falcom can make. These games are developed by small teams. There's a real sense of camaraderie, almost like a family aspect of it when making these. That's such an important part of what makes the games what they are."

When he's not 50 hours into a JRPG or an opaque ASCII roguelike, Wes is probably playing the hottest games of three years ago. He oversees features, seeking out personal stories from PC gaming's niche communities. 50% pizza by volume.