With the release of Final Fantasy XVI right around the corner, I flew to London to play the game, which is certainly different from previous titles of the familiar franchise in a few key ways.
My playthrough left me with questions, and I had a couple already haunting me before I played. Luckily, I could sit down with producer Naoki Yoshida and art director Hiroshi Minagawa (with localization director Michael-Christopher Koji Fox translating their answers) and hear their thoughts about their work on the new game.
Incidentally, you should definitely read my hands-on Final Fantasy XVI preview with my impressions, which will give you more insight into what sparked some of the questions you'll read here.
Giuseppe Nelva: I know a guy, you probably know him as well, he's the producer and director of Final Fantasy XIV. At PAX East he said that he wanted to ask you about a possible collaboration between Final Fantasy XVI and Final Fantasy XIV. Did that conversation happen yet? and what was the answer?
Naoki Yoshida: (Laughs) Yeah, I read online about what the producer and director of Final Fantasy XIV said about the collaboration. I know him very well but currently, that guy is hard at work on patch 6.4 and he's basically locked up in his office and hasn't really come out. So I haven't had a chance to talk to him yet. Now I'm here in London and I'm going to be here in Europe for a couple of weeks, but when I get back I need to go knock on his door.
Nelva: So, is it undecided yet?
Yoshida: Yeah, we need to discuss this properly first, so it's undecided.
Nelva: While playing the game I noticed that right from the very start it feels darker than the usual Final Fantasy game. Yet, it isn't just darker, but it also depicts more mature themes more realistically. There is even some sexual interaction between characters right from the very beginning. That's something that normally you see more in Western RPGs like Mass Effect or Dragon Age and you don't see much in Japanese RPGs. So I wanted to hear from you about how far this goes and what is your reasoning behind this shift towards more mature themes that perhaps may be enjoyed by a more mature audience. After all, we've all grown up a bit from the original Final Fantasy.
Yoshida: The first reason behind this is that with the current generation of technology, the graphics are much better. So when you're going to try to create a story that is based in reality, which is what we're trying to do, if you don't show what's going on, then it's going to end up looking fake.
If you try to hide the things that are happening in a war... You have the Iron Kingdom and the Republican Army that are fighting for their lives and they're fighting for their families' lives. If you try to hide the violence behind war, it becomes less real and ends up looking fake. It ends up looking cheap. Since you have these realistic graphics, it's going to draw into a more mature feel overall.
The second reason is that I'm going to be 50 years old in almost two weeks and my senpai is older than I am. While inside we're still junior high school kids, we are adults that have lived a long time, have seen a lot, and know how harsh the real world can be, and we wanted to create a story that felt real and that resonated with people around the world who also experienced the same things that we have experienced. In the real world, not everything is good. There are bad things out there and so you have to show the bad because by showing the bad it accentuates the good. By showing the dark, you can have the light, and the light can shine. So we wanted to express that in our story.
In the early game, one of my favorite scenes is a scene with Clive and Joshua's father, Elwin, and their mother Annabella in their bedroom Chambers. How that scene gets across, not just with the dialogue, but with the facial expressions, their distance... You get this thing that feels very, very real. You can do that because of the technology. You can get the subtle movements of their faces, and a lot is told without just the dialogue.
And if you tried to do that with only dialogue, it's going to end up feeling cheaper. It's not going to end up feeling as real and visceral. And again, that's the type of thing that we want to get across and we could do it because of the technology. There are a lot of scenes like this moving forward. It's not just explaining, but it's also telling the story in these types of different ways.
As for mature themes and violence and sexual content, it's not like we went out of our way to add them into the game. That wasn't our intention from the beginning. It was more that we had a story that we wanted to tell and those things kind of fit in the story, and that's why.
Hiroshi Minagawa: Actually, while the game does feel very dark and violent, sometimes there's a lot of stuff that we actually pulled back on because we didn't want to make it too violent. For example, there's one of the areas, and early on we had a lot of bodies on the ground, and they were just covered in all of this blood and it looked kind of like a splatter or horror movie. When we looked at that, we could do that, but that's not the story we wanted to tell. That doesn't enhance the story in any, so we removed that to make it better fit what we wanted.
Yoshida: That said, we still want to make those props feel real. So that dead body that's going to be there, since it's over in the edge, obviously, that guy didn't die there. That guy was dragged there. So it's about having that trail of blood that tells the story that maybe he fought there and was dragged over here, while not going over the top with it. So again, it's never been about violence for violence's sake. It's about making it real and telling that story and not going over the top.
Nelva: Personally, I think this is kind of in your DNA as a developer, as you have started showing these somewhat shocking scenes already in Final Fantasy XIV. Perhaps not to this extent because the engine is more limited.
Yoshida: Yeah. Indeed. There are certain limitations on Final Fantasy XIV, but there are things that we tried to do with the graphical quality that we have in that game. We're also a little bit more limited by our rating, but again, there are things that we wanted to show and we didn't want to shy away from that, like a character having his arm cut off, for instance. There were things that that we wanted to show, but we couldn't show, but we tried to show them in a way that will still get that across while not shying away from these types of things.
Nelva: You're portraying a real realistic war, and we're now looking every day at a real war happening in front of our eyes. I'd say that the world itself is a darker place now than it was when you started making Final Fantasy XVI. Has this influenced you in any way as to how you portray war in your game?
Yoshida: With the fact that a war started while we were in development, we actually didn't change anything about our story or the main theme, based on that. However, it did affect us in some ways. We had to decide how we were going to release the information, when we were going to release the information, and how we were going to do that in a way that wasn't going to hurt people in any way.
So, then the question becomes, why didn't we change the story, having the opportunity to do that? In the end, our story isn't a story about war. It's a story about how people can overcome war and finally reach something that's hope. And we think that that's something that we can give the public and show that in all of this chaos - and by showing the chaos there - that there is a way out, that there's a way to hope, and that's what's very important to us.
Nelva: While you put a lot of effort into making the combat more approachable, the boss battles are actually quite challenging. In many RPGs, you don't necessarily need to turn down the level of difficulty, but you also have the option to just grind and outlevel the content. Can you do this in Final Fantasy XVI?
Yoshida: I mean you can do that a little bit but it's not going to get to the point where you're so overleveled... So yeah, you probably can't grind so much that you're going to be super powerful. However by getting your level up and also improving your gear to the max early on and maxing out the Limit Break bars, this will give you an advantage where you can just kind of force your way through the content, but this is probably only going to work on the first playthrough.
But I mean, you have the option to grind, but if you're going to grind, I would recommend just using the timely accessories anyway because that's going to be a lot more fun. Grinding is not fun.
That being said, the real challenge comes again with the new game plus. As developers, we really believe that the new game plus, specifically the Final Fantasy mode, is the real difficult mode and the challenge really starts there. You carry over all of the abilities that you learned. You carry over your level, and all your attributes and you're using that in a new, very, very challenging game. And it's all about your skill, your technique, and about choosing the right accessories that are going to enhance the abilities that you're using at that time.
Nelva: So it's Savage all over again. Speaking of Savage, is there something the producer and director of Final Fantasy XIV learned from the producer of Final Fantasy XVI? Are there any learnings that you may apply back to XIV from the development of XVI?
Yoshida: It's difficult because the game design is fundamentally different. Probably the biggest thing is just learning how to make those hard decisions. It doesn't matter how many people are on staff. It's about knowing what to cut, what to keep, and making the hard decisions there. Having had to do that in Final Fantasy XVI I'll be able to use that on XIV.
Nelva: I see. That makes sense.
Yoshida: If you use too much money you're going to be in trouble, so I'm gonna make sure to tell the producer of XIV to be careful with the budgets. (Laughs)
Nelva: Is the new CEO going to be cross with you otherwise?
Yoshida: (Laughs) The new CEO is very nice to me so it isn't too big of a problem.
Nelva: I heard he's a fan.
Yoshida: (Laughs) That's probably because we make him a lot of money.
Nelva: Well, let's hope it works that way with Final Fantasy XVI as well, right?
Yoshida & Minagawa: (Laugh)
Final Fantasy XVI will be released for PS5 on June 22, 2023. If you'd like to read more, you can check out our brand-new hands-on preview.