Final Fantasy VIII – 1998 Developer Interviews
How does one follow up a zillion-selling, standard-setting smash hit? Square’s Final Fantasy team leads discussed that and much more with Famitsu as part of the press tour for Final Fantasy VIII, the second 3D Final Fantasy title and one that sought to break new ground in terms of cinematography, graphical fidelity and narrative pretensions—strangely, it continues to be passed over for remastering.
Yoshinori Kitase – Director
From the start, our principle objective with Final Fantasy VIII was to tell a story that revolved around the two characters Squall and Rinoa. Up to now, Final Fantasy games have featured large ensemble casts, and a story balanced between the different characters, who each have their own individual dramas. But this time, we were serious about using the sub-characters specifically to prop up the story of the hero and heroine.
Another new idea we added was the Garden academies. Tetsuya Nomura was the first to suggest it. (laughs) I had been thinking of something similar though. FFVII’s story was a little gloomy, what with starting you right off in a slum, in a dark city without much sunlight. We all really wanted to do something brighter for this next game.
However, as this would be another Final “Fantasy” game, we also wanted to preserve that fantasy world aesthetic. We absolutely did not want to make school segments where you had to do boring, everyday school stuff. The vehicles and buildings may look futuristic, but we wanted a world where, behind it all, it’s dominated by fantasy and fantastic elements.
In the beginning of the development, Nomura had an idea for a neat conclusion to the Squall and Laguna stories, in a way that would tie them together. But somewhere along the way that idea got dropped, and forgotten entirely. (laughs)
Nomura also did the character designs, and his original idea was that all the characters would be the same age, and you’d start with everyone together in the same class at Garden. That didn’t feel very “RPG”ish to us though. I think the fun part about RPGs is meeting new party members and learning what kind of character they are, what their past is, and as the game goes by, gradually building an emotional bond with them. At the scenario-drafting stage, then, we revised it to be that way.
Making the character models full-sized was another idea we had from the start. The characters in FF7 still looked a little doll-like. Right now we’re creating a CG movie in Hawaii, and that will feature characters that look nearly human; FF8 is like halfway between that and the earlier cartoonish style. When I saw the finished movies, I realized it was the right choice. Also, in the very first drafts Nomura finished for Squall, he had a more vacant expression, and I didn’t like it much. He went in a different direction at our request, but honestly I don’t think he liked the earlier draft much either.
Besides Squall, there were a few other characters that got reworked or dropped because they were too handsome. All of Nomura’s characters end up looking like pretty boys. (laughs) We asked him to “rough up” the design for several of them, including Irvine.
The big highlight scenes are definitely the sorceress’ parade and the dance party. The dance party was Nomura’s idea for how these two characters would meet. For the parade scene, I knew very early (like right after starting the development) that this was going to be a key scene. It’s a scene where your “enemy” really makes their presence felt for the first time. I think a player’s excitement and engagement in a game greatly depends on how they perceive the threat they’re facing, so that scene was especially important to me. I really wanted it to have a grand scale… an eerie atmosphere where throngs of people have all their attention fixated on this one thing, as if they were possessed. I thought if I could convey that, it would be a success.
In terms of the gameplay systems for FF8, it was a lot of trial and error. I guess creating a new system isn’t as easy as it looks. (laughs) RPGs are all about creating your own customizable characters though, so we put a lot of effort into it.
We updated the visual design for the windows and UI too. There was such a huge jump in character and art design from FF6 to FF7, so we thought we’d try to give the UI the same treatment this time. We were also aware of the stylish UI that Final Fantasy Tactics had employed, and we wanted to beat them. (laughs) We ended up taking a lot of inspiration from other Square games, actually.
The workload was pretty intense. The story was about the same length as previous games, but in terms of content, it was denser. There were a lot of new challenges we took on, and it wasn’t all easy, but there’s a reason for that: you see, these games take us 1.5-2 years to produce, so if we don’t set new challenges for ourselves, we can’t sustain our motivation through the development. For example, we added motion capture technology for the movies this time—if we had just used the same technology from FF7, I know the movie team would have gotten bored. I personally found it extremely interesting to direct live actors for the motion capture. The actors themselves bring their own interpretation to the mix too. If I say “I want this character to show sadness here,” they bring their own image of the sadness to the scene. It was very inspiring to me.
In the game industry, when motion capture is used, it’s usually been for fighting games or action games. At first, that’s mainly where we thought we’d use it, but when we experimented with motion capture on the movies, we realized it was absolutely necessary there too. The ability to convey detailed and nuanced hand gestures with the motion capture was a big part of it.
The staff did a great job for FF8. There were over 100 people involved… when I saw the staff roll in the ending, I was shocked at how many names there were. There were even some people I didn’t know. (laughs) Because I was on-site working everyday, I started to feel bad for the team. I’d say, “I don’t know, do we really need to do this? It looks difficult.” But the staff would dutifully reply, “No, please tell us what you need. This is our job, if there’s work to be done, we’ll do it.” I’m very grateful to them. We have section leaders for our developments at Square now, and for FF8, I left a lot of things up to their supervision entirely—and they delivered a really good game even without my direct oversight. In fact, things would often be so complete, there wasn’t any room or need for my input. (laughs) They really hit it out of the park.
During the development, I would relax by taking breaks and watching movies. It’s a hobby of mine. A typical workday wouldn’t end until late at night, though, so the only things playing at cinemas were all-night features. During FF8 I watched Saving Private Ryan, which left me speechless. It gave me a lot to think about… about the way we depict war as game designers, and about the possibilities of the “video game” medium itself. Could games one day take up heavy themes like that? And is there a special perspective or impact that only games can deliver?
Tetsuya Nomura – Character Designer
Immediately after the FF7 development wrapped, we started having meetings with Kitase and everyone to discuss FF8. During one of those talks, Kitase said he wanted to use a character who I had drawn a long time ago… 3 years ago, actually, before FF7. That was the sorceress Edea.
Even though the Final Fantasy series has the word “fantasy” in it, it’s become routine for us to feature technological civilizations and machines, and I feel like the fantasy aspect has been steadily weakening. Edea, then, was a character I really wanted to include in order to counteract that—a full-on, high-fantasy sorceress. That reminds me, Raijin and Fujin were also characters I had created around FF7, and I had originally wanted to include them in that game. We thought they would overlap too much with the Turks though, so we scrapped the idea. Raijin and Fujin seem like characters that would appear in some old shonen manga, and that’s the image I had in my mind when I drew them.
Besides the characters, I also designed several of the Guardian Forces. Unlike the summon creatures we’ve used in previous FF games, the Guardian Forces can be raised and leveled up, so from a design perspective, my starting point was that I wanted them all to be bizarre creatures—no humanoids with clothes. That’s why Ramuh doesn’t appear in FF8, but was instead replaced by Quetzalcoatl. Plus Ito (battle designer) was saying you can’t “raise” an old man any further. (laughs) For the same reason I re-designed Siren from FF4 to not have any clothing, too.
I also drew some of the concept art for the Guardian Forces. The first I did was Leviathan, who appears in the demo disc. That scene with Leviathan garnered a lot more attention from players than previous summon scenes, so that became the model for the rest of the Guardian Force summon scenes I did.
Itou told me he wanted comical summons too, not just serious / cool ones. So I tried to give them distinct personalities. And you can give them names now too! That was a smart move, as we wanted players to develop an affection for the Guardian Forces.
For the length of the summon scenes, we took Leviathan again as a model, and set that as our upper limit… no other summons could be longer than that. I wasn’t involved in the actual work there myself, though—as usual I just offered my (unrequested) opinions from the sidelines. (laughs)
Speaking of which, one of my more unreasonable requests was for the opening movie. It begins with a scene on a beach, with lapping waves, and that was something I had requested to movie director Sakakibara, even though I knew how hard it was to do water and waves in CG. (laughs) It came out amazing though, didn’t it? I don’t think there’s a CG studio in the world today that has put out better-looking ocean waves. Then, after the waves, the opening shows more beautiful natural scenery: the field of flowers, the petals scattering, the feathers and wings… that stuff is all really hard to do well in CG, and they’re all things I selfishly requested. (laughs) It all has a meaning though. All the thematic keys for the story are hidden within that opening movie.
[[Note: Nomura goes into more detail about the individual character designs, but that portion has already been translated elsewhere. Be sure to check it out!]]
Kazushige Nojima – Scenario Writer
In creating the basic outline of the story, the whole staff would bring me their ideas, pointing out how they wanted this part to have such-and-such atmosphere and mood, and in this way we collaboratively built up the story. It was funny, the first ideas they brought tended to be extremely detailed with regard to little things. I had the overall plot structure worked out, but people would bring me these very specific sections, little things they wanted to see. I changed some small bits here and there, but I don’t really remember the details. (laughs)
What’s hard about writing a story for a game, is that if you want to make it as interesting as possible, there will come a time when the story you originally wrote gets in the way. My feeling was that if a change would ultimately be for the best, then we shouldn’t hesitate to alter the original plans. I also wanted FF8 to focus more on the present, not the past, and for the emotional weight to come from what happens in the plot as it unfolds… not in flashbacks, like FF7. (laughs)
One challenge for me with writing the story, was that I would sometimes write scenes rather casually, but the test players would really get into it and read into it things I never intended. They gave me their feedback about once a week, and I’d hear things like, “Oh, what was going on there?” and “I can’t wait to see how that mystery unfolds”, and I’m just like… uh… I hadn’t thought about it that deeply. (laughs) I mean, part of the fun of being a writer is seeing people’s responses to your work that you didn’t predict. But sometimes I’d write things that threatened to elicit these huge misunderstandings, and I’d wish I hadn’t written anything in the first place. (laughs)
As for Squall and Laguna, the basic idea was that we wanted Laguna’s character to do things that Squall was unable to. In the beginning, when I talked with Nomura, we decided Squall’s character was aloof and unsociable. And he doesn’t like to talk to people… I thought, ok, cool, but that might be a problem for the story. (laughs) But I figured, no matter how aloof he may be, he’s still ultimately a 17 year old, and that youthful spirit would finally win out. So he starts out distant, but gradually becomes more open as the story goes on.
I talked a lot with Nomura about the tone of the characters and their personalities, but I was the one writing the dialogue, and in the end I had the final decision. So I added a lot of things on my own, and aside from Squall and Laguna, most of my decisions were sort of approved ex-post-facto. Some things were like, I don’t want Nomura to see this. (laughs) Nomura was constantly giving me his opinion about Rinoa. She should be like this, she shouldn’t do that, etc. He practically created a “Rinoa Dictionary” to refer to. (laughs)
For FF8, I wanted the dialogue to be somewhat nonchalant and unassuming, yet also convey something about the characters’ inner thoughts and feelings—as if these innocent words were hiding something deeper… The characters all have their own anxieties, you see. This meant that a “manga” style wouldn’t work for FF8’s dialogue. The previous FF games sometimes had that slapstick or comic book sensibility, but I knew that would feel weird here.
The Academy setting was also very difficult for me. I had imagined that it would be more of a normal school at first, but it was really different. (laughs) Naora and a couple others actually went to a real college campus to take notes and get ideas, and when I saw the rough draft of their initial designs, I was like, huh? …what is this?
Sakaguchi was the one who started saying the theme of FF8 was love, and well, at some point that stuck. (laughs) For me, when I hear that, it’s like, what do you mean? What kind of love? It was a huge challenge carrying that theme throughout the game, with the space station scene, the parade, and elsewhere. To be certain, love is a theme of FF8, but in my opinion, to be more specific, it’s more like falling in love. But what comes after—after you know you love someone? I tried to suggest that question, to drop hints of that idea in the story. In the end there are many ways to enjoy FF8, but I hope that some of those little moments which at first glance seem insignificant end up sticking in your memory… their real meaning may become apparent later.
Yusuke Naora – Chief Graphic Designer
The first challenge I had with FF8 was dealing with the new full-size character models. They’re very different from the “chibi” size models we used in FF7. The FF7 models have some advantages: you could see their faces even when the camera is zoomed out, and their smaller size allows the backgrounds to feel relatively larger by comparison. In contrast, with the full-size FF8 models, we had to use close-ups to show the characters’ facial expressions, but then we couldn’t show their whole bodies at the same time, and vice-versa. This all meant that we had a much harder time showing the characters acting and expressions in FF8.
In turn, we spent more effort on the camerawork for this game than ever before. We tried to create scenes that combined wide-angle, zoomed-out shots with close-ups of the characters. But that approach meant we had to create double the amount of graphics content for FF8 than FF7 had, which of course meant double the amount of work. (laughs) In actuality, there were many other reasons for the increased workload for FF8. I guess it’s befitting for our first 4 CD release. (laughs)
FF7 also had over 500 map screens, but FF8 has over 800. Partly that’s related to the close-up/zoomed-out camerawork issue I mentioned above, but the actual reason lies elsewhere: the deeper we got into the development, the more ambitious we became. “Let’s add this… oh, that would be cool, let’s add that too.” By and by the volume just got out of control.
We had talked about using full-size, realistic models much earlier, before FF7 actually. We were worried that jumping suddenly from the pixel artwork of FF6 to full-size models in FF7 would be too sudden and huge a leap, though. But now that players were more used to 3D, we decided to take up that challenge with FF8. I think it was a wise decision, to do things incrementally like that. On the other hand, we were determined not to be outdone by the achievements of FF7… our ultimate rival was our own work from FF7.
There was one other way in which we wanted to surpass FF7, and that was to have a “brighter” presentation for FF8. The truth is, bright scenes, like an airy town in open daylight, are very difficult to do in CG. But that’s the image we wanted for FF8, so we took up the challenge. You can see the result of those efforts most clearly in the opening movie, with the sea, the flowers, and so forth. I think we succeeded in creating a distinct world from FF7.
FF7 has often been compared to Blade Runner. That was one of our aims, of course, but this time we wanted to evoke a different mood. You can see it in the towns and such, but FF8’s world has more natural imagery. I think it matches the characters better too. I especially like Balamb Garden, which really nails that brighter aesthetic. We drew a lot of different designs for the Garden building, but none of them felt quite right… until we put that angel’s ring above it, that really tied it all together. In reality it makes no sense being there, but it works in the world Final Fantasy, we figured.
Everyone on the team contributed ideas to FF8, and in doing so a common knowledge was built up between us. One of the goals we set for ourselves was to see how far we could go in portraying “unrealistic” things (like the Garden) realistically. I’m not talking photorealism exactly, but rather realistic depictions of picturesque and fantastic imagery. Anyone can do simple photorealistic graphics, given enough time, and the right equipment. We didn’t want that though… we wanted something that would evoke a sense of creativity, of a handcrafted world. That isn’t to say we didn’t use photography in the process of creating the graphics though. I would say it was a 70:30 ratio, in terms of hand-drawn to photographed elements. That was a ratio we decided on in the planning stages, and we actually managed to mostly stick to it throughout the development.
In creating the towns, we spent a lot of time imagining the lives of the residents living there. “This town would definitely have someone like this living here… I bet they have such-and-such a lifestyle here…” I hope the locations spark players’ imaginations similarly. We put thought into every detail, from the look of a parked car, to the design of a wastebasket.
Now that the FF8 development is concluded, there’s just one thing troubling me… how are we going to surpass this, and how insane is the next Final Fantasy development going to be?! FF8 has such a high level of polish, I’m worried we’ve set an impossible bar for next time. Honestly I don’t want to think about it at all right now. (laughs) We can’t just release something at the same level. Well… I guess with some time, we’ll be refreshed and ready to take up the next challenge.
Hiroyuki Itou – Battle Director
I wasn’t involved in the FF7 development… I returned to the Final Fantasy series with FF8. That meant I didn’t have the influence or burden of FF7 hanging over my head. My first question with FF8 was: how complex of a battle system will players be able to handle? FF7 took things pretty far, so I wasn’t sure stuffing more complexity into FF8 would work. Well, actually… I guess “complexity” isn’t quite the word I’m looking for. What I’m really talking about is a battle system that would actively engage player’s imaginations and creativity.
My ideas eventually took shape and became the junction system. FF8 has significantly more realistic graphics than before. That realism meant that when you equip a weapon, it should show that individual weapon’s graphics on the character… but creating graphics for every different weapon would have been prohibitively difficult. I asked myself, well, if we can’t do that, what system could I have that would feel rewarding to players for getting a new weapon? And from that idea, I came up with the junction system.
If magic is something you acquire by junctioning, then the whole concept of MP doesn’t make much sense. Likewise, buying magic in a store doesn’t make sense either… magic isn’t a “thing”, right? That line of thought led me to the Draw mechanic. I like the lore it suggests to players too, that the reason you draw magic from monsters is that all living creatures are composed in some way of different elemental substances.
Once I had the Draw mechanic in place, I felt like the general outline of the Junction system was complete. All that remained was to get rid of that pesky MP, and replace it with something else. (laughs) Final Fantasy is a series that allows for a lot of experimentation, I think, so I thought I’d do just that and experiment to my heart’s content. Or experiment on thousands of players, that’s another way of putting it. (laughs) The thing is, with RPGs, in the second half of the game it usually becomes trivial to defeat most enemies. With the Draw system though, even late in the game, you can’t just bowl through everyone. If you want a particular monster’s magic, you’ve got to be more deliberate.
As I mentioned, I didn’t work on the FF7 development, so this was also my first time working with 3D. It felt like making an RPG for the very first time. As for what was difficult about working in 3D… I would say it was being unable to clearly predict the outcome of your ideas. With the Super Famicom, if you had an idea, you could do a mock-up and see it running on-screen that very same day. With 3D, it took about a month for any idea to be implemented. It was very difficult working that way, with no ability to predict things. Was your idea really a good one? Wait a month and see! It was rough. (laughs) And time became our enemy. But, while several of my ideas did end up shelved or deferred for the next Final Fantasy game, I think FF8 came out quite well. I hope players enjoy raising their own Guardian Forces, and that the ability combinations are pleasantly surprising. Let your imagination run wild, and please enjoy grappling with the “experimental” system. (laughs)
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