Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi is ready to release Fantasian, his first full-scale RPG in 10 years. The game is “coming soon” to the Apple Arcade. Sakaguchi’s longtime collaborator Nobuo Uematsu has contributed what could very well become the Final Fantasy composer’s last full-fledged soundtrack.
IGN sat down with these two legends to talk about Fantasian’s music, art and setting. If you want to know more about the actual gameplay, be sure to check out our previous interview with Sakaguchi as well.
In a nutshell, Fantasian is a classic turn-based JRPG. While innovative tweaks like being able to stock random encounters to fight your enemies all at once later have the potential to make the experience feel fresh, Sakaguchi says that the emphasis is still on recreating the glory days of JRPGs. When he had the chance to replay Final Fantasy VI together with other members of the original development team, Sakaguchi realized that he wanted to make more of a classic game this time.
With a few notable exceptions like Persona 5 and Dragon Quest XI, JRPGs with turn-based battles are not as popular as they once were. Some might even go as far as calling it a genre of the past.
“The video game industry is still relatively young and advances with so much speed that doing the newest thing is often seen as the right way to go,” said Sakaguchi. “But now that about 40 years have passed since video games became popular, I think it’s time to realize that old styles can be great in their own right. Being an old genre alone should not be a reason to no longer make such games. For me, RPGs of that era are the games I could make by just being myself. I realize that modern users might call Fantasian old-fashioned. Sometimes, that idea can scare me, but I think it’s important to step away from that fear and simply make what I feel is right.”
After listening to Sakaguchi, Uematsu started laughing.
“I can hear you’ve become a bit older!” he said.
“When you’re young, you want to stand out by doing something no one has ever done before,” Uematsu continued. “For me, it was the same. I wanted to make better music than anyone else. But now that I’ve become older, I think about why I make music in the first place. In order to reach your true essence as a creator, it’s essential to be yourself. It can be embarrassing to express your true self, but without ‘going nude’ there’s not much meaning to being a creator.”
The Soundtrack Nobuo Uematsu Is Most Proud Of
Uematsu thinks that Fantasian could become the last game he creates a complete soundtrack for.
“After making music for Fantasian for over a year, I feel that giving my everything for one soundtrack might become difficult in the future, both from a mental and physical perspective. Composing the soundtrack for a big RPG is time consuming, and once you’re at it there’s no time for anything else. This time, all my concerts were cancelled due to the pandemic, so I really had the chance to focus just on Fantasian. But now that I’ve composed so much music in my life, I want to create more opportunities to play music in front of people in the future, rather than just working on the next game,” Uematsu said, indicating that fans should be able to look forward to more live performances in the future.
Uematsu tried to approach Fantasian’s soundtrack with the mind of a fresh, dreaming young composer.
“Of course, my soundtracks for Final Fantasy titles each have two or three pieces that I’m really proud of,” he said. “But for Fantasian, there’s a lot more pieces in there like that. I really did everything the way I wanted it. Quality of music is mostly a matter of taste, but for me personally, I think that Fantasian has become the best soundtrack I have ever made.”
Coming from someone often referred to as the Beethoven of video game music, that’s quite a statement to make. Even after over 30 years of stellar soundtracks, Uematsu truly seems to believe that he has surpassed himself. Could it be that his music is still evolving?
“Actually, I don’t think that my music has evolved that much at all,” he said. “I always make the same kind of music. For video games, music has evolved together with what technology allowed us to do. For Final Fantasy VI, I could recreate an opera scene for the first time. Then with Final Fantasy VII on the PlayStation, it became possible to implement actual songs recorded in a studio. The world of Final Fantasy’s music really evolved for each new entry in the series. For me, this evolution was really exciting as it gave me new ideas each time.”
Uematsu said he is happy that video game composers no longer have to worry about such limitations, including himself. Yet, he feels that at some point, he started playing it safe.
“Without really realizing it myself, somewhere along the way I established a pattern for what RPG music was supposed to sound like,” he said. “After that, it kind of became a matter of just following that pattern. But lately, I’ve come to realize that following a pattern isn’t much fun. For Fantasian, I tried to forget about all that and went in with the mindset that anything is possible. I guess you could say that I got tired of playing it safe. I really tried being more adventurous this time.”
Rediscovering his true nature as a creator and forgetting about established patterns within the RPG genre were the two key goals Uematsu sought to achieve for Fantasian’s soundtrack. Uematsu said that the game’s main theme is a good example of the former.
“Creating Fantasian’s main theme took me a lot of time,” he said. “The main theme of a soundtrack is the equivalent of a person’s face in relation to the rest of their appearance, so you want to make sure it’s something special that you haven’t done before, but trying to do something new is always hard. Even with more experience, you are merely an extension of the person that you already were, so doing something completely new each time is a difficult task.”
But then Uematsu realized that he didn’t have to do something new. He could do something unique by simply going back to his roots.
“After taking a deep breath, I came up with the idea of doing a piece just with the synthesizer,” he said. “I’ve used it in bands and orchestras, but I never really published pieces I played on the synthesizer just by myself. I really love the synthesizer, as when I was young it was the instrument that made me want to become a composer. I went back to my old self and just started playing the synthesizer. From there, it all went pretty smoothly.”
Uematsu believes that Fantasian’s main theme shows a personal side that he hasn’t really shown before. At the same time, Fantasian’s soundtrack includes completely new challenges as well. For example, Uematsu implemented improvised music, something he had never done for any of his video game soundtracks.
“There’s a piece we recorded like free jazz,” he explained. “I took three of four jazz musicians to the studio, gave them 12-bar blues to work with, and from there I pretty much just let them do their thing. I recorded the whole performance, and from there I started editing to make it a fitting piece for the game. Creating video game music in this way is pretty unheard of, but it turned out really great.”
This new method of creating video game music made Uematsu realize that there are still many possibilities. Furthermore, he humbly mentions that this improvisational piece of music is a good example that indicates that although he is the composer, he cannot take all the credit for making a soundtrack good or bad.
“I’m just the guy that comes up with the recipes,” he said. “You’re still going to need someone that actually bakes the cake. Depending on the chef, the end result will be very different. Luckily, for Fantasian’s soundtrack we had many great ‘chefs’ on the team.”
Still, Uematsu is the one that selects those chefs. Many of the talented musicians he has worked with in the past joined him again for the soundtrack of Fantasian.
“When thinking who would be the right person for each piece, people I had worked together with naturally came to mind,” he said. “I didn’t intend it to be this way, but as a result, Fantasian’s soundtrack has really become something like a reunion.”
Interestingly, Uematsu didn’t just ask the musicians that had performed great music before, but also some that had failed him in the past.
“For example, there was an arranger that worked on a project with me and Sakaguchi before, but it didn’t work out,” he said. “‘Last time went badly, and you ended up crying in the restroom… But do you want another shot?’ I asked him, and he said ‘Absolutely!’. To make sure that things wouldn’t go wrong this time, I gave him very thorough and strict instructions. As a result, he did truly remarkable work this time. “
The reason that Uematsu gave some musicians a second chance is because he believes that once you know where they failed, it becomes easier to guide and instruct them.
Finding his true essence as a composer while also seeking new challenges and working together with the musicians he knows best, Uematsu was able to finish the soundtrack. With around 60 pieces of music, Fantasian’s soundtrack could be seen as a culmination of Uematsu’s video game music. At the very least, it has already made Hironobu Sakaguchi cry several times.
“I always receive a demo version early on, long before the music gets finalized, so those were already attached to the game,” said Sakaguchi. “Before listening to the final version, I already knew that the melodies were something special, but once I heard people singing and playing instruments in the final version, it was really touching. It almost felt like I could hear Uematsu’s soul singing. I listened through the whole soundtrack at a loud volume on the stereo, and it made me tear up three or four times. His music somehow always manages to touch the heart.”
Sakaguchi himself might have been the one that made it possible for Uematsu to put so much heart into the soundtrack of Fantasian. In a newly released video, you can hear Uematsu say, “I thought, ‘Wow, Sakaguchi is serious!’”.
What being “serious” exactly refers to is something only Uematsu knows himself. The obvious way to interpret it is that he felt that Sakaguchi was commited 100% to making a great game. But after this interview, it feels to me as though Uematsu’s words could refer to Sakaguchi’s effort to seek his true essence as a creator.
“When Apple gave me the chance to make a game of a bigger scale for the first time in about 10 years, one of the first things I decided was not to simply seek the newest trends and technology,” said Sakaguchi. “Instead, I wanted to recreate the sense of warmth I used to feel in video games. Like Uematsu says, I started realizing that creating a style that comes natural is the best thing to do as a creator.”
How Human Beauty Comes from Making Mistakes
While from a gameplay perspective Fantasian is a classic RPG, its visuals are actually quite groundbreaking. Over 150 handcrafted dioramas were scanned into the game, creating a graphical style different from both CG and 2D sprites.
“I love how you can feel that the dioramas are handcrafted. It recreates that ‘warmth’ I was looking for, but in a new way,” Sakaguchi explained.
“It’s kind of ironic when you think about it. With games like Final Fantasy VII and the movie Final Fantasy: Spirits Within, I always believed that CG was the future of games, but now I’m suddenly saying a handcrafted style has more personality.”
Hearing Sakaguchi’s comment, Uematsu mentioned that this longing for handcrafted art might be the result of what Sakaguchi has learned on his journey of game development. Indeed, like a samurai who has decided to no longer draw his sword, it feels like Sakaguchi has learned what he feels is truly important as a creator.
“In the old days (developing games for) the Apple II, you only had four colors,” recalled Sakaguchi. “But by positioning a blue sprite diagonally between a red and green sprite, you could make it look yellow. Those are the roots, and in a way I think that Fantasian’s dioramas resemble those roots.”
“It’s that moment you put the needle on the record. That’s what Fantasian’s dioramas felt like to me,” Uematsu said, comparing the handcrafted visuals to vintage vinyl.
Both digital and handcrafted art have their own strengths and weaknesses, but sometimes it can be hard to find the right balance. This is not just an anecdote on how Fantasian was made, but functions as an actual theme for the game.
“Fantasian has a multi-dimensional universe with many different realms,” said Sakaguchi. “Each realm is different, and the game’s main theme is ‘order and chaos’. In a realm governed by machines, everything is always organized and under control as technology maintains order. But in a realm of chaos, things are analogue and messy. There is a conflict between these realms, but in the end neither of them is perfect. It’s all about how chaos and order are balanced.”
Listening to Sakaguchi, it was hard to not to compare this theme of chaos and order to Sakaguchi’s own story: the journey of a young creator striving for the newest technology, only to rediscover the beauty of handcrafted art 30 years later.
“In the end, there’s just something magical about the sound produced by the human hand,” Uematsu said. “Whenever someone plays the violin or the guitar or when someone sings, they’ll go off-key at some point. But it’s the imperfections that make it beautiful. Something that deviates is always more appealing. I think this is because our ears recognize this deviation as warmth.”
Uematsu seems to believe that it’s the small ‘mistakes’ that create human beauty. Sakaguchi said something similar about Fantasian’s dioramas.
“In CG, we would be able to scale the size of the grass down so that it looks in balance with the size of a tree’s leaves,” he said. “In that regard, there’s only so much you can do when creating a diorama. When sprinkling a green sand-like texture, you know that you won’t be able to create grass on a completely realistic scale, but that’s what makes a diorama feel so much cozier.”
The first half of Fantasian is “coming soon” on Apple Arcade. This first half is around 20-30 hours long and story focused. The second half – which will be released at a later date – is more freely structured and centered around quests. According to Sakaguchi, in this second part the player will be able to freely travel around with Ship Uzura, an airship that will remind you of the JRPG glory days. But first, we hope to get lost in the world and story of Fantasian as soon as the first half releases.
Esra Krabbe is an editor at IGN JAPAN. He is already dreaming of Uematsu’s new soundtrack.