It's when we see the crowd that my resolve fails. "Are you sure you don't..." I begin, before my friend cuts across me. "Is there a bookshop nearby?" she asks. "I'll pick something up and go and sit in Starbucks." I nod and direct her to Borders, across the road. I'll call her when we're done. She likes Final Fantasy, sure, and it might have been nice to meet some of the guys behind the game - but god, she doesn't like it this much.
The ground floor of HMV on London's Oxford Street (the largest music and movie store in the world, I'm unreliably informed) is thick with people, rammed in the aisles between the CD racks and threatening to overflow the heavy crowd control gates carried in to contain them. "It's like a bloody sheep dip in there," observes the genial security guard, allowing me to slip in the side entrance. "And look at this..." He twiddles a tiny joystick, adjusting a camera somewhere outside the store. "They've made a right bloody mess of the pavement, queuing up all morning."
He's not wrong. Note to gamers: when queuing up, take your rubbish home with you.
Still, the queue itself is remarkable. Normally, in gaming terms, it means that a console is launching. This time, it's not even really a launch, although HMV and Square Enix put a brave face on and claim it as such anyway. The game at the heart of the affair has been openly on sale all morning, and pretty much everyone in the queue already owns a copy. Nonetheless, they're here for Final Fantasy XII; seven hundred of them, patiently queuing not to be the first to buy the long-awaited game, but in the hope of a scrawl of pen on a piece of merchandise from one of the game's softly spoken Japanese creators.
Producer Akitoshi Kawazu and director Hiroshi Minagawa, who took over the development of FFXII when original creator Matsuno-san left Square Enix, look faintly bemused when they're led out on stage, in front of HMV's enormous wall-screen looping footage of the game. It's hard to blame them. Along with the normal enthusiastic gamers in the crowd are the cosplayers. There's a Cloud (Advent Children model) in the front row, and a few more scattered about. Yuna queues up patiently to have her game box signed. A black mage lurks on the sidelines, near someone valiantly trying to turn it into a Square Enix free-for-all in a Kingdom Hearts costume.
Some are clearly taking it seriously. We note more hair gel on display than an entire series of VO5 adverts as a few bravely attempt to mimic the gravity-defying hairstyles of their chosen characters. Others are more game for a laugh; a man in a giant papier-mache Cactaur costume is hard to miss, while a valiant but clearly ironic Vincent Valentine outfit constructed largely from felt by a cheerful girl near the front raises a smile. Among those taking things seriously are the three winners of Square Enix' costume competition, who accompany the game designers on stage. Brief interviews reveal that the three young women in question own between 15 and 30 costumes each. Most people don't own that many pairs of socks.
There's a TV camera there for an interview; professional photographers with the kind of lenses which are to camera geeks what real, working light-sabers are to sci-fi nerds have come along for a photoshoot, making my D50 (normally a god among game journalist cameras) feel inadequate and flaccid. The crowd waits patiently while the formalities are completed for the rushed members of the proper press, obediently roaring their approval for their celebrity guests when the MC tells them to. They're in fine form. The guests are holding up as well as can be expected. Square Enix veteran Kawazu sports his habitual grin. The significantly younger Minagawa looks like a rabbit caught in headlights. Cosplay can have that effect on a man.
There's a brief on-stage interview, tame as might be expected, with the only sign of discomfort coming when the MC presses Minagawa on the question of whether Kawazu, his immediate superior, ever bought him lunch at work. Minagawa insists that he can't remember. We check our watches, but then it's the turn of the crowd to ask questions. There's always one troublemaker, and a question comes from someone determined to know whether the Final Fantasy VII technical demo shown on PS3 a couple of years ago is going to become a full remake.
The crowd roars its approval; the two Japanese men glance at one another. "Well, we're working on Final Fantasy XIII right now," the interpreter relates, "but when that's done, we could think about it." It's as non-committal as you might hope, but apparently even thinking about it is good enough for the choir being preached to here. A throaty cheer rises, and security guards start letting the first fans mount the stage to have their games, art books, soundtracks, posters and god knows what else signed.
They stream past for an hour, while Final Fantasy XII's sublime soundtrack plays and HMV's normal Friday lunchtime shoppers gawp in astonishment. Cosplayers are initially rewarded with t-shirts; by the end, the props on the stage are being signed and handed out. Watching the lengthy process, we try to work out how many people were in the crowd and quickly remember why the promising career as a mathematician was dropped in favour of one with more words and less numbers. We collar a PR person instead. "They've handed out 500 of the leaflets so far," he says. We estimate that about two thirds of the crowd have passed; call the total number 700, conservatively.
Kawazu and Minagawa must be suffering from sore hands by the time they disappear backstage, but it's hard not to be in a fine mood when confronted with so many loyal fans of your work. Kawazu is positively beaming; Minagawa's deer in headlights look is still present, but we start to suspect it may be more to do with the jetlag than the cosplayers. Either way, when we get a chance to sit down with both men and ask some questions about their latest opus, their answers are brief - but occasionally revealing. Who would have taken the producer of the PS2's "last great game" for an Xbox 360 fan...?
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