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Interview: Serializing RPG Storylines On Final Fantasy Legends
In this interview, Gamasutra talks in-depth to Square Enix veterans Takashi Tokita and Naoshi Mizuta about producing and composing for the Japanese Final Fantasy Legends mobile title.
Naoshi Mizuta and Takashi Tokita at Square Enix's offices in ShinjukuWhat do you see as the major advantages of releasing a game like Final Fantasy Legends episode by episode as opposed to as a single package? TT: The greatest advantage has been witnessing the reactions of game players as each installment goes live and then integrating that feedback into the development of the following chapter. This is a familiar process to developers of online titles, and I think that updating the game experience through downloadable content is a more likely standard for the future than fully packaged and finalized retail games. Also, serializing a game scenario still leaves room for publishing the title as a full package after all the episodes have been completed. Although this particular game was designed for mobile devices, the experience provides insight into strategies for various platforms.
©2010,2011 SQUARE-ENIX CO.,LTD. All Rights Reserved. ILLUSTRATION/©2010 YOSHITAKA AMANODuring Square's inception as a game company, you had worked in the sound department, for instance on Red Racer. Was being a colleague of sound designers and composers something that has added to your ability to make games as a director? TT: Mentioning that does brings back memories. During the NES era, the company only had [Nobuo] Uematsu working on Final Fantasy titles, together with one outsourced sound programmer. At that time, Uematsu-san was going as far as to implement the sound file data himself. To help out, graphic designers and planners such as myself would create sound effects in our spare time. After all the scenarios had been written and designs were completed, we would chip in on the sound design during the latter half of production. Back then, numerous employees were participating in various stages of the production. This did offer a kind of hands-on experience that was applicable to work in direction. Today, game production is divided into very specialized fields so that it's nearly impossible for a single person to be deeply involved in every stage of development. However, that was routine in the early console eras. It's kind of like you were in a four-member band and learned to play every instrument. Among the younger generation of game designers, in my observation mobile teams are creating their own products in a similar manner. Were you working with an Iranian programmer named Nasir Gebelli on Rad Racer? TT: That's right. Back when NES developers were focusing exclusively on 2D graphics, he was the one who was able to simulate that perspective of the scrolling oncoming road. It was a very tricky program to write for that game system. We had only one programmer per game back then, so it was an asset to be collaborating with critical thinkers. The programmers at Square had that engineering mindset paired with strong personalities. Nasir Gebelli was originally making games for Apple. [Hironobu] Sakaguchi was a fan of his work and that was how he was recruited to work for Square. I remember [Hiromichi] Tanaka, who's more recently been a central contributor to the design of Final Fantasy XI, would communicate with him in English back in the day. It was an interpersonal dynamic that seems to have anticipated our current climate of globalization in the industry.
The visual design of Final Fantasy Legends is built up from the pixel art style that was prominent in '80s home consoles. Do you see this as an artform with timeless appeal, or is its inclusion meant to target a niche audience? TT: As with Final Fantasy IV: The After Years, the central idea was to create a new game that captured the vibe of the original Final Fantasy series. It's part of a revival. You could see it as a "back-to-the-basics" approach for us. I've since realized that those super-deformed characters with their low-res look have an iconic appeal even among many younger game players today. It evokes nostalgia among some and carries pop culture significations among others. It's the kind of thing that is capable having an appeal among different generations. As a scenario writer, what unique opportunities were presented by the serialized format of Final Fantasy Legends? TT: In exploring the theme of warriors of darkness and light, the episodic treatment allows the focus to shift to each new protagonist, one after the other. At the same time, the origin stories for each of these characters is situated in the same location, regardless of where they are in the darkness versus light dichotomy. This allowed for the exploration of an unusual narrative structure, consisting of two contrasting storylines that are consciously interwoven into one. Another vital factor informing the storytelling process was leaving room to integrate player feedback into the latter half of development. The protagonists' origin stories had already been set in stone, but their fate was still up in the air, so we had a unique opportunity to listen to our audience and act accordingly. The results were a game whose narrative unfolding was kind of alive. It was a novel experience to be a part of.
Announcement trailer from the Square Enix YouTube ChannelHow would you describe the process of working with Takashi Tokita during the development of Final Fantasy Legends? Naoshi Mizuta: Initially a meeting was held where we discussed the direction of the game. After that, I was free to work on my own, keeping in contact through email, sending in demos to hear if changes needed to be made. It was a fairly unimposing environment to work in creatively. Your music has set the tone for multiple titles in the Final Fantasy franchise, including Final Fantasy XI and Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light. Do you have a personal philosophy concerning what game players have come to expect from a Final Fantasy music score? NM: When it comes to music in a Final Fantasy title, it's difficult to escape the monumental figure of Uematsu-san. The music he created has established an ideal. That's why I feel a little pressured whenever I'm asked to write something for a Final Fantasy game, because there are so many passionate fans who expect a certain sound. For me, the challenge has always been to create something that meets those expectation but without sacrificing what I feel to be personal. It's not easy, but yeah, I feel it's worthwhile. Your music for Final Fantasy XI has thrived outside of the game itself. There are the arrangements performed by your Star Onions band, as well as acoustic renditions appearing on the Piano Collections album. As a composer for games, what are your thoughts on these alternative presentations of your music compositions? NM: My priority in writing music for a game is to make sure it suits that particular title. Once that goal is met, certain repercussions are out of my hands. That's a consequence of the music interacting with different people in different places. Sometimes it returns, having taken on a different form. It’s kind of a reward for me and something I'm able to look forward to. Oftentimes these music tracks are transformed in unexpected ways. For instance there are arrangements created by listeners that I get to watch on YouTube. Observing that level of interest is a source of inspiration and sparks new ideas. How do you approach recording music in the studio versus performing live on stage? NM: They are very different from each other. If a live performance is planned, I have the freedom to call the shots and do it pretty much any way I want. Because my responsibilities as a composer are are to ensure that the music works well in the game, once I've satisfied that demand, performing on stage is like an omake extra. It's meant for me to have a good time with the audience.
The music tracks found in Final Fantasy Legends, particularly the battle and fanfare themes, share certain qualities with early Final Fantasy titles. Are you looking to emulate certain traditional soundtrack styles for the mobile game? NM: What you notice in the earliest Final Fantasy games is that the music tracks are comprised of three sound channels, resulting in a very strong melody line. More recent game scores tend to focus more on atmospheric sounds and downplay the presence of melody lines. There was a point in time when it was crucial to have a strong backbone to your melodies, something that the player could hum or whistle. I think it's something we might want to preserve in games. The challenge with this title is to build strong melodies while working within the hardware limitations, and also finding evocative colors to introduce to the background music. It doesn’t necessarily matter if the technology is groundbreaking or not. My motivation is not so much to do something technically advanced, but to pursue how far we can push the artistry on this mobile platform. In closing, what are you most interested in communicating to your audience with Final Fantasy Legends? TT: The theme for this game is darkness and light. Making comparisons to contemporary society, you find that judging what is good and bad has become ever more complicated. There are no simple answers. Through this theme, I hope we have explored some questions that players actually deem applicable to their lives. It used to be that games typically took a very moral, strident tone. Over time, as visual design has grown in complexity, so too has there become a greater need for increasingly nuanced storylines. In this game we've returned to a limited graphical presentation, but we didn't want to overlook novel avenues for using those visual elements to evoke unfamiliar emotional tones. For me, that was a central concern. I haven’t yet decided how it will end, and user feedback will influence that as well. Living in such an uncertain economic climate cannot help but impact the way the story will arrive at its conclusion. NM: Ideally, you want for people to enjoy your games. The way that music factors into that enjoyment is kind of a magical in that it's hard to describe. How do you put it into words? Above all, I'm looking to find an atmosphere for this game that people can feel and enjoy. This content will be available in Japanese as part of the Videogame Music in Context DVD series. Images courtesy of Square Enix. Photo by Jeriaska.