PAX East 2018 Interview with Natsuko Ishikawa and John Crow

This past weekend at PAX East, we sat down for or first interview with Final Fantasy XIV Main Scenario Writer Natsuko Ishikawa and English Localization Lead John Crow, discussing their take on the development process, story arcs they’ve worked on, and more.

For those unfamiliar with the development side of Final Fantasy XIV, scenario writers like Natsuko Ishikawa create characters and narratives that take place within the setting developed by world lore creators such as Banri Oda. On matters of lore and localization, we’ve heard from Koji Fox many times in the past, and within the department he leads, John Crow specifically oversees the English localization team.

Gamer Escape: I know that you’ve been working on the project since at least 2.0. How did you get started in Final Fantasy XIV?

Natsuko Ishikawa: My boss at my previous company, which also made RPGs, was planning to move over to Square Enix to help the rebirth of Final Fantasy XIV and once they had moved, I followed soon afterwards.

John Crow: I touched on it a little bit in the panel, but I just applied to a general localization position. I wasn’t specifically applying for XIV at the time, though I did understand that they were ramping up towards the development of 2.0 and it would be likely that I would be placed on the project. At the time, I hadn’t played the game, and sure enough when I joined the company it was right around the time that we were wrapping up to do alpha work, so I only spent a couple of weeks familiarizing with the old version before shifting over to the new engine and seeing Gridania for the first time.

GE: You’ve worked on a variety of content, from Main Scenario to Raids to class arcs. What is your favorite type of content to be assigned, and is there any kind of hallmark you try to bring to it?

NI: With each scenario that I get to work on, it’s all memorable. Of course, that being said, I think the Binding Coil of Bahamut is definitely a great scenario that sticks in my memory. This is the first time we get to interact with Alisae, and we’ve had her appear in the main scenario quests, as well, so that’s very memorable for me.

JC: I think there’s something to be gained from every type of content that we do, and they all offer different challenges and different rewards in the end. One thing that I’ve appreciated a lot over the years, though, is Hildibrand. Especially in the Main Scenario, everything tends to be more serious, so you really savor those moments where you push it all in the exact opposite direction and have crazy fun with it, even while still having those heartful, moving moments—like Gigi at the end of the 3.x line.

GE: With the base game of a new expansion, there are many sub-arcs in succession, with different people working on different segments. How are these woven together, and do you ever have conflicts where they might not mesh together at first—or has that settled by that time?

NI: To answer the latter part of your question—about conflicts—there definitely have been cases where we wanted to introduce a given element into the story, but it didn’t fit the particular narrative that we were trying to depict and we would have to change the order in which other elements were used so it meshed better.

In any case where there are elements that may not fit perfectly together, our decisions prioritize making it interesting from the perspective of a player rather than the perspective of a creator—I might have fun making it, but would it be fun for me to play? I think that’s the kind of decision-making that’s done, as well as how we mesh all of the different elements together to create one big story.

JC: In a similar vein, in the lead up to 4.0—back when we were talking about the job and class storylines—there was some discussion internally about what older characters might be good to bring back. We’ve introduced so many characters over the years and wanted to look back at who resonated with the player base, who was memorable, and who can we look into bringing back into these future storylines—as opposed to making someone completely new that some people may find interesting, but you’ll be wondering what happened to that other guy. We put a bunch of lists together and some of those characters did make it into the 4.0 quests.

GE: How finalized is the Japanese script when Localization first gets involved? Is it set in stone by then, or is there still a bit of a collaborative back-and-forth at that stage?

JC: Pretty much never set in stone. It depends on a lot of factors, but it’s really not in our best interest to wait until the last minute because—even if we did have that spare time—it would be better if we took advantage of it by getting a lead on everything else.

For 4.0, we had access to plot outlines and very general ideas of the stories’ directions before anything was even written in detail. Sometimes these would include a draft of a key scene, but for the most part the actual text hadn’t been written yet. Those were useful for familiarization and understanding where the stories were going to go. Later, we actually got the first drafts and they were in a workable enough state that we could start. This was before things like grammatical/formal checks, tweaking the Japanese, and also before Yoshi P did his own checks from which additional rather significant changes might arise (laughs).

I know that there was at least one quest line where, after reading it, he was like, “I want you to change this rather significantly,” and those were cascading changes throughout. That’s not even getting into the whole issue of minor editing—which will happen up until the deadline because it’s in the best interest of the Japanese writers as well to have the option to tweak the text until the last minute. Depending on the nature of those changes, we may decide to make no changes on our version or to tweak ours a little bit as well.

GE: As one of the three main authors of the Encyclopaedia Eorzea, what would you say your experience was like working on that? Would you be open to doing another someday?

NI: In terms of our daily duties and tasks, we were working on the next major patch while planning for and working on elements of the next expansion—always thinking about the future and making updates. But then on top of that we made a book. It’s not like we were allocated a separate schedule for this, nor were we getting paid extra to take on this extra task…so it was quite an undertaking (laughs).

That being said, it was a lot of fun to create the lore book, and whenever I get the opportunity to speak with fans and interact with the players, they mention, “We bought the lore book!” and that’s very heartwarming and makes me really happy. This first book depicts up to Heavensward, so we’re hoping that we’ll get an opportunity for future installments.

JC: It’s a lot of extra work, but, like she said, it’s extremely rewarding in the long run. A lot of these extra projects, whenever the opportunity arises, we like to try and pursue them, so keep your eyes and ears open and when we can tell you more about whatever we’ve got in store we will.

GE: [to Ishikawa] I noticed that your signature includes a goobbue, and now I see that your staff sketch depicts one with you, as well. Are you a big fan of goobbues?

Editor’s Note: Ishikawa-san signed the Encyclopaedia Eorzea that we gave away during our Contest for Knowledge.

NI: (laughs) The fact that it’s a very, very simplified rendition of a gobbue and you were able to identify it as such, I think that also shows how much you guys love the gobbue, as well! (laughs)

GE: [to Crow] I believe I know how you ended up with a voidsent avatar…

JC: Mhm.

Editor’s Note: Back in Lorecast 7, Koji Fox explained that the Localization team is made up of people who are “not of the realm” where the game is created, and so he took a voidsent avatar and basically made everyone else do it, too.

CE: Did you choose that specific one (a purple flan, aka pudding) for any reason?

JC: I think we had a limited number of icons available. Oh no, they made that one, I think, maybe custom for me? I forget. But, yeah. I don’t… (laughs) Sorry, It’s been so long. I’d need to double check. But yes, there is a restriction we have in place that traditionally that all members of the localization team should have voidsent avatars. I think it just felt appropriate of all the available choices at the time. Flans are surly and I’m surly and, maybe flan-like, I don’t know.

Actually, maybe the new version was custom and the old one wasn’t…?

I’d have to get back to you. (all laugh)

GE: I recall an old off-the-cuff, venting kind of joke that referred to the ending of 3.0’s development as Hellsward. [To Crow] I know you mentioned you ended up working over 300-hour months.

JC: I don’t think that that came from us. I would remember if I’d coined that. But yes, I did in fact mention at one point that I’d worked a 300 hour month or something.

Editor’s Note: Masayoshi Soken and Koji Fox used this moniker while discussing the nigh-overwhelming workload at PAX Prime 2015.

GE: Was Stormblood just as hectic or was it a little better this time?

NI: Oh, there was definitely BLOOD. (all laugh) A storm of blood.

JC: At least for Localization I would say it was difficult. Every single expansion is difficult, and there’s going to be a lot of overtime and stuff like that. But I think that compared to past expansions, it was less difficult. Even though there’s been a lot of change on the team over the years—experienced people have left and new people have come in—a lot of the core members have stayed the same. We’ve learned a lot over the years to streamline the process. 3.0 was better than 2.0, 4.0 was better than 3.0 and we’ve found ways of taking the bottlenecks in the process and dealing with them so that we’re able to finish the text sooner and have more time to polish it up and deal with every incidental thing along the way, at least for localization.

NI: I think we can say the same for the rest of the development team, as well.

GE: With these experiences behind you, do you have any goals for what you’d like to bring out in 5.0 respective to your roles?

NI: First and foremost, it was a lesson learned for us with the congestion around those first quests—getting through Raubahn. It was so early on in the main scenario, and having people being bottlenecked there was such a poor experience. We definitely want to improve upon that and not let that happen again.

And—to speak of the content, we of course just want to make it interesting. I’m afraid we can’t go into much detail on what exactly our plans are, but we definitely want to—even outside the main scenario, as well—make sure that players are having a smooth experience. We want to offer usability and ensure that our users are comfortable playing the game.

JC: This doesn’t just apply to Localization—I think it applies to the whole of the development team—but one of our goals, increasingly over time, is bringing in new people and training them up while giving them more opportunity to do the things that more experienced people have been doing for so long. Ultimately, unless you want to have the same people serving as core members for a decade—or however long we manage to keep the game going, I mean 11 is still going—it’s going to be frustrating for the people that have to still take on those major responsibilities and frustrating for the people that are stuck not taking them. So we want to continue to bring in this fresh blood, this fresh storm blood, and train it up to give these individuals new opportunities to prove themselves and move into more experienced roles.

GE: These next questions are rather specific by comparison, but if you feel that you’d like to generalize and talk about whatever you’d like, please do.

GE: Seeing as this is a unique opportunity—having the writer and localizer of the dark knight quests in the same place at the same time—I’ve noticed that the Japanese script paints the Warrior of Light as rather sad and lonely, as though they’re taking on too much of a burden and, in trying to prevent people from losing too much, they end up losing the most. In the English, however, the predominant impression is a bit more bitter; that they’re resentful of people feeling so entitled to their sacrifices and that they’re sometimes seen more as a weapon than a person. This feels like it very much reflects feedback from the fans themselves in each region. Was this deliberate or am I reading too much into it?

NI: We didn’t have feedback specifically for the dark knight quests, yet, of course, but as for the difference in interpretation in the Japanese versus the English, I actually feel the same way. There is a different light being shone. I recall that—in a different interview—John mentioned that he did what he felt he wanted to do with the dark knight, so I’d like to hear his excuse. (laughing)

JC: Oh, boy… (laughs) It’s really quite simple. It’s a unique type of quest where it’s a much more personal story, first of all. It’s not about other NPCs—other people—but about the individual.

Because of that particular narrative focus, I felt that it was key to take into consideration how the player base tends to think of themselves—how the players tend to react to the story in general. While the player base that’s been the most vocal on the internet is hardly a distinct or equal sampling of all attitudes—and while there is always going to be variety—over the years it’s been clear that there’s a vocal part of the player base that sometimes finds it frustrating to have to be treated in certain ways in the narrative. So, the question then is—if we’re going to explore a narrative that touches on the darker, more repressed feelings within the self, shouldn’t we try to potentially try to touch on what the most commonly voiced resentments are?

I wouldn’t characterize it as a different approach, but more of a different focus. It’s a different exploration of the same underlying feelings. Even in the Japanese, there is anger in the sadness, and in English there is still sadness in the anger.

NI: I did say I wanted to hear an excuse, but (laughs) I’m not mad at him. There has been feedback from the Japanese players, overseas users, American and European users, about how the dark knight quests unfold their narrative in a unique way. This is the first time we were able to—in an official setting—bring light to how we thought about depicting it—I think it was a really good opportunity. Thank you for asking this question.

JC: As she said. I know that some people have looked at those quests and they’ve tried to translate and compare different language versions—that’s gone in both directions English to Japanese, Japanese to English, and probably the other languages as well.

GE: To speak a bit about Binding Coil, did you know ahead of time that you would like to bring Nael and Louisoix back for the story or did that come up during development?

NI: Both definitely were very key characters that we wanted to have involved in this narrative, so this was decided fairly early on in the development process. But we didn’t expect—with Nael—that she would be so strong in the end. (laughing)

GE: It seems that there were more Coil entrances that we actually made use of. Perhaps in Boulder Downs is the most obvious example, but even Singing Shards we only visited for a moment. Were there other possible plans considered that didn’t come to fruition or…?

NI: (pauses, thinking) Yes, I think that makes sense. The Dalamud pieces were scattered everywhere, but considering that we are limited in our designing of the raid, we tried to pick the best, most suitable pieces for entry.

GE: To move to another scenario you’ve worked on, when I run instanced content, I look around the environment and the names on the maps and I notice little untold stories everywhere. In the Crystal Tower arc, it seems like the Labyrinth—where we started—was much older than everything else. This wasn’t something that was explicitly explored in the story, but do you remember anything about what that place was or what made different from the rest of the tower?

NI: First and foremost, as you probably know, Crystal Tower was a structure that existed in the realm of Final Fantasy III, so we paid homage to that lore and the structure itself first and built from there. We wanted to also make it Final Fantasy XIV, so we incorporated the wars of the Allagan Empire which we had depicted previously.

Of course I’m afraid that we don’t have a visual reference to show you—I’m sorry if the answer is kind of vague, but—with the Allagan Empire, you may get the impression that they’re very a mechanical and industrial society. However, the Empire had its own history dating back 3000 years and beyond. They excelled at wielding magicks, as well, so we wanted to focus on that element of magic and represent that as part of the structure in depicting XIV’s Crystal Tower.

GE: We know that different sections of the team have at times had to make excuses for—or reframe—existing lore, applying new ideas to make an inconsistency go away or to make room for something that you were excited to add in the future. Do you have any particularly fond memories of trying to work your way around something that didn’t work at first, but you pulled off in the end?

NI: Again, this goes back to the Coil series, for me. Considering that the shards of Dalamud were once a cage—a restraint for Bahamut—trying to make sense of the different pieces and how they were supposed to be connected without any sort of diagram or visual aspect was very difficult. Of course, it was already in plans for the the map created for A Realm Reborn, and so we had to depict it in the narrative somehow. It was so difficult in terms of, “How do I make this make sense? How do I depict this without any reference point?”

JC: One thing comes to mind now that I think about it. I think back in 2.1—when Elidibus first makes his appearance and starts saying a bunch of fun cryptic things. I did the main scenario for 2.1, so I had the pleasure of getting first crack at his characterization in English. He has this line, something like “knowledge dictates expectation and expectation dictates perception”. I like that line and I can’t even remember it. (laughs) Along with certain references like “shadowless, fleshless, formless”.

That was worded in a very specific way because back in 1.0 we told people, “Scour certain cutscenes for people with shadows and without shadows”. We wanted to emphasize that if you look within these scenes you might find something hidden, that maybe somebody might not have a shadow and therefore that person is an Ascian. But there were occasions in some of those cutscenes where people should not have had a shadow did. We definitely messed up at least one. Then—in transitioning into the 2.0 version—there were going to be plenty of occasions, but everybody didn’t have a shadow or people did have shadows. It was inconsistent and out of our control. So we had this whole idea that, “Oh yes, Ascians will never have shadows!” which was already inconsistent in 1.0, and now there’s no way to make that work in 2.0 in the new engine. So it was just like, “Yeah, we’re screwed.”

GE: Are you able to say who those figures were? I assume one was Corguevais, but..,

JC: I really can’t touch on that. You know, things change. I remember when I was going through some of the older files and looking at the dev. comments and I’m like, “Wait, that’s supposed to be an Ascian!?” and it’s like, but I saw, hrm, hmm, mmm…ok, all right, sure whatever, but yeah.

GE: My final question is less pedantic, but perhaps just as bad…

JC: Okay… (suspicious look)

GE: Throughout Stormblood, we’ve seen people receive some pretty grievous injuries—things that perhaps at one point we wouldn’t have thought were possibly survivable.

JC: Mhmmm… (suspicious look intensifies)

GE: For example, a building falling on a man who had just been repeatedly shot.

NI: (laughing)

GE: Do you think—in retrospect—that we can really safely assume that Gaius van Baelsar is definitely, definitely dead?

JC: (vexed) REALLY?

NI: (laughing) We could tell you yes or no, but I think that would rob you of one of the greatest sort of experiences—finding resolutions! At the same time, I understand that a lot of people are wondering and we totally understand that feeling. It might not be immediate, but we will depict a resolution for this in the not-so-far future.

GE: Thank you for humoring a silly question.

JC: You get tired of being asked about it. I mean, we had people dig up Zenos’s grave and be like “Oh, there’s no body!” Maybe we’ll send people the Praetorium, digging around like “Oh, there he is…” (laughing) “He ain’t pretty no more…” But it’s like asking if God is real—I mean, do you really want to know? Aren’t you a little bit happier with just the possibility of it, somewhere out there. Let some mystery live.

GE: That’s true.

NI: By the way, would you prefer that he was alive?

JC: What do you think, we’re not asking for you to make a decision one way or the other, but…

GE: (panicked) Oh, no! It actually feels weird saying it out loud. Personally, I feel like when he was put on hold between 1.0 and 2.0, he became a different character. As though, perhaps he should have died in 1.0, but in being utilized through other stories and returning in A Realm Reborn, wasn’t who he originally was, and then died, which made it feel like perhaps his tale was not over. Keeping the hope alive has been a sort of running gag, trolling about it and throwing around #GaiusLives. Seemed like a lighthearted place to end.

NI: (laughs)

JC: Hmm… So it’s like, when he first appeared he was one thing and when he appeared again he was another thing. If he actually did appear again, what if he was still the second thing, or even a third thing, but not the first thing? Wouldn’t you still be disappointed? What if he came back as a Namazu!?

GE: (hands up) They’re going to hunt me down if this is taken seriously!