Live a Live - 1994 Developer Interviews
These two lengthy Live a Live interviews were originally published in Famicom Tsuushin and Gamest magazines. The first, with director Takashi Tokita, discusses some of the big-picture themes and how the original omnibus concept was conceived. The second interview covers some similar ground but includes three other members of the team and a discussion of their respective contributions.
Takashi Tokita - Director
—What made you want to make Live a Live?
Tokita: The World Select idea was the biggest motivator for me. Square has made many different games, from the Final Fantasy series to Hanjuku Hero, but these all have grand stories that take dozens of hours to complete, and in that sense, they're all the same. If I could change that, I thought, it would also breathe some fresh air into our development process, and maybe enlarge the scope of the gameplay too.
—How did you create the different scenarios (chapters)?
Tokita: I wanted to make a game with a core central narrative thread, but at the same time something that would allow for different worlds, different eras. So the first thing I did was solicit several scenarios from the team, and from those submissions we whittled it down to 7 different worlds. There were some who thought it would be better to have even more smaller scenarios, but I didn't think it would be fun if they were too small, so we settled on 7 as a good number.
—What were some of the challenges you faced in implementing this "World Select" system?
Tokita: To be honest, the actual system we have now, where you select your scenario and play it all the way through… I didn't know how that was going to turn out until it was finished. When I tried it out, it gave me a mysterious, completely different feeling from the RPGs I've played up to now. It made these individual scenarios feel very distinct--more than I thought it would--which is great I think. We had thought about making it so you proceed through the scenarios in a set order, from the easier gameplay mechanics to the harder ones, but that would have made everyone have the same experience so we canned that idea.
—Live a Live features a checkerboard battle system, but was that also part of your original conception?
Tokita: With the battles, the first thing I wanted to do was remove the idea of "turns". At the same time I wanted something a little different from Final Fantasy's Active Time Battle (ATB) system, too. We also talked about incorporating movement into the battles. If we were to add movement, though, and keep the same old battle system, it would probably make for some annoying controls, I felt. On the other hand we didn't want to make a gimmicky movement system where you only get to move one time, so we decided to think up a whole new combat system.
It went through about 2 or 3 revisions (mostly small details), but ultimately we came up with the idea of a system where the more you move, the more time passes—you're basically in control of the time. I kind of think of it as "real-time shogi."
—The themes of Live a Live seem very deep to me. Was it hard to bring those themes to life in a video game?
Tokita: It wasn't like we were trying to make "deep" themes. Rather, I think establishing a clear theme helps make everything else come into view. I feel like manga and anime stories today are too equivocal in that regard. Our founding experiences, I would say, come from the older 70s movies and stories, and manga, and the authorial voice and themes were very strong in those works. I think seeing those things as children, for better or for worse, is very important. There's a ton of games out there today, but none of them have interesting, quality stories—they just change the game mechanics and system. The story content is always the same old "let's do our best guys!"
That's why we dared to try something different for Live a Live, and the themes were informed by that effort. Maybe in that sense, yeah, you could definitely call it deep.
—One surprising twist in Live a Live comes after you finish all 7 stories, and you find yourselves in a medieval world.
Tokita: Things are pretty normal until you finish all 7 chapters. The Middle Ages chapter is also the promised "ensemble cast" moment too. Then suddenly, at the end of that chapter, it's like boom—there's a total reversal that upends everything. (laughs) I think events that thrust you into the lower depths, the nadir of the story—those events are more memorable, they stick with you more than comical events or sentimental scenes. So I was very conscious in wanting that nadir to be the crux point of the game.
Given that construction, I think the people will have totally opposite impressions of the game depending on whether they've reached that point or not. I want people to feel like they've been deceived...! Ultimately, in most normal RPGs, one's impression of the events and what's happening doesn't change that much from the beginning to the end, and in that way Live a Live is a mysterious game. I think players are going to have goosebumps after finishing the Middle Ages chapter.
—What is Live a Live to you, Tokita, from your perspective? You seem to have played the role of both director and writer this time.
Tokita: I'm the general director/scenario writer/presentation "do-it-all" guy. I was originally a graphic designer, and thought I would get a chance to draw the characters here after a long hiatus, but pixel art has really advanced… my meager abilities can't keep up anymore, I'm afraid. (laughs) Up to FFIV, about half of my work was graphic design. I worked on the battle sprites, and the summons, while also creating the story events. But the technology has really come a long way and left me behind.
—What are you hoping players feel from Live a Live?
Tokita: I think one's impression of Live a Live will be completely different at the end, so I want players to experience that visceral moment when they realize what it's all about. Also, there's a lot of themes, and the interpretation and reaction to those will be as varied as the individual players themselves, I think. I'm very curious about that so please send me your feedback postcards. And I won't mind if you complain! (laughs)
Live a Live - 1994 Developer Interview
originally featured in Gamest magazine
Takashi Tokita - Director
Fumiaki Fukaya - Programmer
Yukiko Sasaki - Graphics
Takaharu Tanaka - Graphics
—Live a Live is an RPG featuring 7 different stories. What was your initial concept for this game?
Tokita: My personal feelings after playing FFIV and Hanjuku Hero was that, while one is an RPG and the other is a strategy game, insofar as they both follow a single storyline throughout the game, in that regard the way they are developed is ultimately quite similar. To make everything tie together, you always have one person writing the whole story, one person's graphical tastes holding sway… and in that sense, it's very limiting, you know? Working like that, it ends up dividing the work up very starkly, where some people are doing interesting stuff, and others are doing boring stuff.
So part of the reason behind creating Live a Live, was trying to find a way to create a working environment that would allow each person to express what they personally liked and found fun. That search for a new style of game development was the real start of this development… like, could we make this work? Let's give it a shot.
—So, did you have the idea that this would be an RPG from the start?
Tokita: I did, but I take a very broad view of what constitutes an RPG. If it has battles, a map, and a story… then I guess it's an RPG! Things like experience points and MP are common genre tropes, but I didn't necessarily want to be bound by those conventions. I guess… you could call it an experimental approach, and that would be true enough.
—What was the team's first impression of this game?
Fukaya: Is this going to work…? (laughs) No, I mean, we'd heard it was going to be an omnibus style game or something. In the beginning I couldn't really see the big picture, but as the project took shape it was like, "ah, ok, so this is the kind of game we're making." There was a general idea of what would happen in the story, too, but as time went on it ended up changing completely. The work we did 2-3 months ago, it's ended up totally different now.
—Sasaki, what was your first impression?
Sasaki: Up to now the standard role-playing game has taken place in a medieval setting. That basically means castles and exotic things that aren't a part of our everyday lives, which I feel are easy to draw. But for my chapter, with things like Japanese castles, I didn't know how to put those together. I mean like, how the traditional roof tiles fit together and details like that. I tried to get some reference materials but there wasn't much out there! That aspect of the development was very hard for me.
—I see. And Tanaka, how about you?
Tanaka: With all the changes I thought it would be a tough project, but as a creator it looked fun, and my ambition was definitely sparked with all the things I wanted to do for it. So I guess it was a mix of excitement and foreboding.
—How did Square react when they heard you were making an omnibus RPG?
Tanaka: The way things are done at Square, I don't think the proposal seemed all that unusual to them. It went pretty smoothly. They were just a little concerned whether it would fit within memory.
—I think you must have thought a lot about the composition of the team, but did you put your team together in a different way from usual...?
Tokita: No, not really… it was almost the same number of people as always. The way we used those people, though, that was intentionally different. Normally we'd have a graphics leader, and beneath them a person working on the character art, and a background designer. This time it was more like, you'll work on this world, and everyone got assigned to one. By letting people do what they wanted, it transformed it from feeling like a burden to work that they personally felt was worthwhile. I thought it might engender a positive sense of competition within the team, too.
Fukaya: One of the special features of this development was having three people, including Tokita, writing the story. That lends a distinct quality to each chapter. Like for the prehistoric chapter, they can add their own super-detailed points, and make the speech feel a little different.
Tokita: Each person gets to focus on their own thing.
Fukaya: In the prehistoric and bakumatsu chapters, for instance, there's a lot of hidden things—there's some secrets that I think not even 1 in 10,000 people will find. (laughs) In that way, every chapter is totally different depending on the predilections of the individuals making them. Programming-wise they're not that different from each… maybe the biggest change there is the window system. Aside from the normal text bubbles, there's small fonts, "excited" fonts, and green computer-style fonts for the SF chapter. I believe there's 5 types in total. If you don't do things like that, all the chapters will feel the same. One issue though, is that when a certain cool function was created for one chapter, everyone wanted to use it in theirs too. (laughs)
Sasaki: Yeah, you had to keep it on the downlow… and only tell one person.
Fukaya: I thought I had only told one person. But somehow everyone knew. (laughs)
—Sasaki, what excited you most about this project?
Sasaki: Hmm, what indeed…
Fukaya: You drew that western-style toilet very well. (laughs)
Sasaki: There's an incredible number of toilets in this game. (laughs)
Tokita: We didn't have the details of the specific scenes written out yet, and when I looked at the art Sasaki had drawn there were a lot of toilets, so I said let's make a scene where something happens when you sit on a toilet.
Sasaki: In normal role-playing games, you don't get to see normal houses, you know? But normal houses have toilets, baths, washing machines and refrigerators. I thought it would have been a shame if that bathroom, which I carefully made out all those little sprites, wouldn't have been used in a scene… but thankfully it made it in at the end.
Tanaka: I restarted the game from the beginning thanks to that though.
—Tanaka, what are your feelings looking back on the development.
Tanaka: I did the storyboards for the opening and ending. That was the biggest thing for me. This was my first game since joining Square, but I wanted to do something new here that I hadn't been able to do at my last company. I told that to Tokita and he let me do the endings. Being an omnibus game, it was an awful lot of work!
—I can imagine. How long did the whole development take, in the end?
Tokita: We began around December of the year before last, but that was mostly just initial planning. The actual work started at the beginning of last year, so I think it took about 1 year and 4 months in total.
—That seems like a good amount of time. What was your initial schedule...?
Tokita: We had a year and a half budgeted. You've got to strike while the iron's hot, as they say. I think it's better to finish in a short time rather than letting things drag on, to prevent people from getting burned out.
—Were there any new recruits on the team?
Tokita: About half of the planners were new.
—Was it hard for them?
Tokita: Very. Especially in the final stretch. The bugs were scary to them I think. They were telling me how they dreamed about them! One person said he had a dream where he was summoned to this room with 50 people monitoring him, and all these bugs were happening right before his eyes and he was getting blamed for it. (laughs) I wondered if anyone would come to me over drinks or something, and vent their spleen and say "enough is enough!"
—But no one ever did.
Sasaki: I would never say that. But I did ask for things to be fixed. (laughs)
—This illustrates one of the strengths of Square's production style, I think.
Fukaya: I think in other companies, the planners alone work up the plans, and no one else is allowed to butt in to their work. Then the programmers create their code according to what the planners did (with small deviations here and there, of course). At Square, it's more common to have the programmers and graphic designers giving their input on the planning phase.
Sasaki: Yeah, you've got to have that kind of sensibility to work here.
Fukaya: Our company doesn't really do "proper" planning docs per se.
—There's no planning documents...?
Tokita: Well, in the classic sense of officially titled spec sheets and planning documents, no, we don't have those. We do create documents for the story and the overall flow of things, but we leave the freedom to flesh them out—they are really just skeletal outlines. The planners create the bare bones, but everyone decides what form it will take according to their tastes.
—I imagine it was challenging to create multiple independent stories for an omnibus game like Live a Live. It must have taken some clever ingenuity to unite them all into a single work.
Tokita: Well, I figured it would all come together as we went on, one way or another. (laughs) In any event, at the end of the day, I figured it would be better to focus on making the individual stories interesting and unique rather than try to tie everything up with a shiny bow.
Fukaya: You can't know how it's going to be until it's finished.
Tokita: That was especially true for Live a Live, yeah. We had to get to a certain point before things started coming into view. Of course, we did have a general concept for each scenario. Laying traps, special things on the maps, a battle-focused scenario, an adventure-focused scenario, a scenario where there's no dialogue… I think those came out very well. Live a Live is kind of like an "RPG Aptitude Test". (laughs) And in that sense I think it's the polar opposite of FFVI, which weaves everything into an inter-connected grand narrative by the end. I wanted to see how a game would look if we took these disaparate strands and simply arrayed them side by side. It's not like eating a Manchu-Han Imperial Feast, you know… I mean, what I'm trying to say is…
Sasaki: You've lost us again. (laughs)
Tokita: What I mean is, today you can have Chinese, tomorrow, umm, taiyaki or something, that kind of diversity. (laughs) But I think the appeal of Square is that it can produce a game like Final Fantasy, and then turn around and make a game like Live a Live. If we don't tweak the formula somewhat, I think players will get bored, as will we creators. The fact that Square gives us the latitude in that regard makes it a wonderful company to work for, I think.
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