PAX West 2019 Interview with Final Fantasy XIV’s Natsuko Ishikawa and Takeo Suzuki

This weekend at PAX West 2019, we had a chance to sit down with Main Scenario Writer Natsuko Ishikawa and Art Team Lead Takeo Suzuki to talk about their work on Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers.

This interview discusses spoilers for Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers. Questions that contain main scenario spoilers are bolded and red.

Gamer Escape: The downside of talking before the panel is that I don’t know what you’re presenting! I was wondering if you could briefly talk about some of the things you worked on for Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers?

Suzuki: I am the design and art lead for Shadowbringers, primarily working on character designs, background designs, cutscene design. I supervised those.

Ishikawa: I handled the main scenario narrative for Shadowbringers as well as working with the design team for the requests they made for graphical assets as well as the sound team for background music requests. And also deciding on when those items would be used throughout the narrative.

Gamer Escape: What are some of your favorite things you worked on from this expansion?

Ishikawa: There were so many things to work on throughout the expansion, so each one of them has a heavy weight.

Suzuki: With any expansion, we have many elements that go into it, but from a design perspective, especially character design, we were able to introduce new races, so that’s something I was excited about.

Gamer Escape: With regards to character design. We have the new wardrobes for the characters, and they’re usual more original, but Thancred for example, just uses the Gunbreaker armor. What was the reason for that?

Ishikawa: From a realistic perspective, with the Scions, of course they’re part of the element that brings life to the story and sort of brings in some additional color to your adventures. Their wardrobe has been updated for the expansion, but we also introduced new characters like the Crystal Exarch, and of course Emet Selch played a large part as well and they were a completely original design. Realistically speaking, the development resources that we could allocate for the designs of these characters was limited. That being said, for Thancred, Uriganger and Y’shtola, because they drastically changed their jobs, we wanted to visually represent that they switched over their jobs so we took inspiration from the AF gear and sort of modified it.

Gamer Escape: When starting Shadowbringers, early on the story has a branch. You can either go to Amh Araeng and visit Alisaie or go to Kholusia and visit Alphinaud. Did that option to choose provide any narrative challenges?

Ishikawa: We decided to have that option to go either way so that we can prevent bottle necking so we would have the players decide where they wanted to go and not gather in one spot. We didn’t want to guide our player by saying “Well, typically I think players would go and join up with Alisae or Alphinaud.” We wanted the players themselves to make the decision instead of holding their hand. We made sure that both options are viable and that it’s not leaning towards one or the other.

Gamer Escape: It worked really well. I remember the issues with Raubahn in Stormblood so I thought that was a good choice.

Ishikawa: Thank you!

Gamer Escape: When traveling to the First, one thing I enjoyed was seeing a lot of the similarities to zones we have on the Source. What was it like creating the First and deciding where to add these pieces of familiarity?

Suzuki: If everything was just a 1:1 mirror between the Source and the First it would have been easy. From a design and lore perspective, because these worlds were split into shards a long long time ago, we do want to of course pay tribute to the original one, but with any of the landscapes, from the plains to the forests to the beaches, we wanted to introduce different elements. It wasn’t about where do we bring in familiar elements but the base is the original, and then where do we incorporate the different elements? That’s how the design team looked at it.

Ishikawa: From a lore perspective as well, the base terrain would be the same between the Source and the First, but they have different history. Plus, on the First we never really had a calamity, so some of the areas affected on the Source by the calamity may not apply to the areas on the First and that’s the thinking that the scenario team had. So, our concept was also looking at the history of the Source throughout A Realm Reborn and Heavensward, and then we thought about how it would differ if the First had taken a different path in history.

Gamer Escape: I thought it was interesting seeing some things… for example in the Rak’Tika Greatwood you have the group Y’shtola is with and it kind of reminded me of Gelmorra from the Source. Was that intentional?

Ishikawa: You have a really keen eye! When the development team was creating some of the dungeon areas for Shadowbringers, the ruins you travel through in that area, amongst the developers we kept calling it the Gelmorra dungeon. So yes, good observation there!

Gamer Escape: I also thought it was interesting… Il Mheg, which is the First’s version of Coerthas, where we had the Dragonsong War, but with Il Mheg, Man isn’t there anymore and everyone is talking about how much they miss Man and how great Man was.

Ishikawa: It’s interesting you say that because yes with Heavensward it was depicting a narrative about how Man and dragon were at odds with each other but in the end they came to terms with each other. With the First when you go to Il Mheg, which has the feeling of Coerthas, their resolution was that Man was completely gone. There was some intent that the scenario team did have in taking the history in that direction.

Gamer Escape: Suzuki-san, out of all of the different designs in Shadowbringers, I was wondering if you had any favorite characters or armor sets?

Suzuki: With the introduction of the new race, the character designs were really cool. Especially for the Hrothgar. They’re very beast-like, not humanoid, and it was an interesting experience to be able to create something so different because it was the first time we had taken on that challenge. Unlike the Au Ra from the previous expansion, which we weren’t able to incorporate into the game as much in terms of the narrative… with the Hrothgar we were able to work on it quickly and bring it to Ishikawa-san and the scenario team to have it incorporated into the narrative as well, not just as a playable character, but as part of the story we’re telling, so that was really cool. Of course, so that it can be incorporated into the gameplay experience, the art team had to work on it pretty early on, but we worked on creating the Hrothgar race throughout development, so that’s another reason why I have an attachment to it.

Gamer Escape: On the other side of things, what are your favorite areas from the expansion?

Suzuki: In terms of areas… of course Il Mheg is something that is very unique so that was one of my favorites, as well as the the final zone of Shadowbringers. Creating the First overall was fun, but with the final zone, we wanted to bring an element of surprise and have it be different from the rest of the experience. Seeing it in its final form and being able to confirm how it turned out was a great feeling. We believe what we tried to do with the design was a success.

Gamer Escape: I actually had a couple of questions about the Tempest and Amaurot. It was my favorite part of the expansion! It makes us feel sympathetic with the Ascians. What was it like coming up with the story there and what was it like establishing the look for the city and its inhabitants?

Ishikawa: I’m sorry… but this information will be the topic of our panel discussion. Please come to the panel on Sunday!

Gamer Escape: Amaurot had references to some literary pieces of work such as Thomas More’s Utopia or William Shakespeares The Tempest. I’m curious if there are other works you looked at or drew inspiration from?

Ishikawa: So with the naming, of course the scenario team and lore team work together and then the lore team would establish the names for the different areas. In the discussion between myself and the lore team, we thought, how do we describe this area of Amaurot and the capitol and what it’s supposed to be representing? We thought about this sort of utopia type place where no one has to labor but everyone is still happy. Of course, Eulmore had its own vision of what their utopia is, but Amaurot would be different from that philosophy. When we were thinking about how Amaurot is more about a complete society, what kind of wording do we use to describe that? That’s when we did look at Thomas More’s Utopia and decided Amaurot would be an appropriate name.

Gamer Escape: One of the bigger elements of Shadowbringers is the Crystal Exarch. When did you decide that you would bring back G’raha Tia?

Ishikawa: We definitely had the idea by the time we got to writing the narrative for Shadowbringers. Of course, when we first introduced the Crystal Tower series and the conclusion it had, the team did have this feeling of “Oh we would love to have him come back in some way, some time” and we still hadn’t pinpointed when we wanted to introduce him back. Those two ideas existed and when Yoshida brought up the idea of Shadowbringers, when we were trying to decide on the story and the central gimmick of where we want to take the narrative, I felt it would click to have him come back and that it was the appropriate time.

Gamer Escape: The design of the Crystal Exarch is interesting, like how he’s got that crystallized hand. How was the process of designing him?

Ishikawa: With designing the Crystal Exarch, I wanted to make sure we laid out how we got to where he is in the story. So when I made the request, I explained that he would have become one with the Crystal Tower and so parts of his body were starting to crystallize. When we were trying to decide which parts of his body were starting to crystallize, we remembered that he had tattoos on his neck and part of his hands. We wanted to make sure we hid those parts.

Suzuki: With that background established, the concept art design is requested and the rough draft is created, and that concept then goes to my team and the 3D team when we build the character model. By the time the order came into the 3D modeling team, the image was already fairly established, so there wasn’t much trouble bringing that to life. That said, there was a request from Ishikawa-san that we wanted to hide his face, and that was a challenge. So the face was sort of darkened on purpose. Typically with a 3D model we just want to use lighting to show highlights and shadows, but with the Exarch, we purposefully darkened his face so he was unrecognizable.

Gamer Escape: It’s interesting you mentioned him becoming one with the Crystal Tower. My first thought when we see the Exarch was of Nero in the World of Darkness, where Nero looks crystallized.

Ishikawa: The reason why Nero started to crystallize versus the Exarch were technically different, but it was an element that we wanted to bring to players attention to notice that commonality between them being affected by the Crystal Tower and feeling that nostalgia of “Oh yeah! I remember that happening before!”

Gamer Escape: With Shadowbringers, in a lot of the cutscenes, the expressions of the characters feel like they’ve been improved. How much work went into that?

Ishikawa: In terms of the players movements, and this will be talked about in the panel, but we did increase the motions that we added to characters during the cutscenes, to about 1.3x the movement compared to Stormblood. In terms of what we were specifically particular about in creating these cut scenes… that will be in the panel. But there was something we couldn’t fit into the panel so we’ll share it with you here.

With the Flood of the light, you constantly have light above you, so its difficult to see time progression because the shadows won’t typically move based on the movement of the sun. It was hard to feel the passage of time. We actually used that to our advantage. When we made these cutscenes, we were able to adjust it so that the lighting hit the characters perfectly in that situation and we froze time so to speak to illuminate them properly.

Suzuki: With Final Fantasy XIV, everything moves in real time, which includes the weather and the time. That’s one of the selling points of FFXIV is that we’re telling the story in real time. But, from an art team perspective it does posse a challenge to create this set image, so it does bring a challenge to if we were to raise the quality or improve upon ourselves in a visual representation. For example, because the story is told in real time, there may be certain scenes that would look visually stunning if it were nighttime and the light was shinning at a particular angle, but realistically speaking, we wouldn’t have that specific moment if the player runs into that part of the narrative during the daytime when its sunny out, it would be washed out and kind of ruin the picture. With the narrative of Shadowbringers, where the lighting is pretty much set, we would create the cutscenes and then go back, because we don’t have to worry about the brightness of the sky, we can adjust the lighting to present the visual elements better. We were able to go back and look at the different cutscenes we created and tweak it so it had a nice visual presentation.

Ishikawa: But now that the Warriors of Darkness have brought back nighttime, we have lost the ability to do that!

Gamer Escape: Yoshida-san has written in his Famitsu columns about how the graphics pipeline is older and how the team is using “tricks” to make it look better. I was curious if you could talk about what you do to maybe make things look less dated?

Suzuki: It’s true, there is some manual effort to make it look good…

This might be a very granular example, but if a character has a hood that they can put on and take off, these days with modern technology it’s not very difficult to have the motions do that. But doing that in real time is actually quite challenging, especially in FFXIV. The graphics team, and also the cutscene and presentation team, would have the character model with the hood on, and then a separate one with it off and we would manually have it switch over so it looks natural and seamless.

Another example is the Crystal Exarch with having that darkened face. Although it’s low tech, it’s something we utilized so it would sort of blend in and make sense in that environment. So there are a lot of manual things that we tweak to bring in that presentation.

Ishikawa: A lot of the developers have been around for a long time so it’s a very traditional way of looking at it. Seeing how we can overcome an obstacle with the means that we have.

Suzuki: A lot of the times the developers will come up with ideas to have that visual presentation and show it to people like me, rather than do top-down instructions saying “I want it this way.”

Gamer Escape: What was the inspiration behind the Great Serpent of Ronka quests?

Ishikawa: That was actually a pet project of one of the scenario writers. Of course we have the scenario and lore teams, but one of our new members that joined us had that idea and she kept pitching it multiple times. She worked on several drafts, after being rejected several times, and so we feel we’re not worthy to speak on her behalf about it, but it’s her pet project for sure!

Gamer Escape: It’s been quite popular!

Ishikawa: We’ll make sure to let her know!