Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers Narrative and Visual Insights at PAX West 2019

This year at PAX West, Square Enix hosted a Final Fantasy XIV: Shaodwbringers panel that was broadcasted from the main theater. The panel featured Art Team Lead Takeo Suzuki and Main Scenario Writer Natsuko Ishikawa.

You can find the panel summarized below and if you haven’t, make sure to check out our interview with them here!

The panel began with introduction of Art Team lead Takeo Suzuki. He has worked on previous Square Enix titles such as Final Fantasy XII as a Lead Animator and the classic Chrono Cross as an Animator. He has been a member of the dev team since pre-production of Final Fantasy XIV in 2006. He joked about the development of 1.0 being “hard times”, even likening it to Ardbert’s journey on the First! Next they highlighted the Art Team leads that oversaw the development of Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers with adorable drawings of each one.  

Natsuko Ishikawa introduced herself next, receiving a thundering applause that transformed into a standing ovation. For those of you who don’t recognize her name, she was the main writer for Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers Main Scenario Quests and also contributed to the zone concepts and background music. Previously, she was the writer behind many of the community’s favorite quest lines such as the Binding Coil of Bahamut and the beloved Dark Knight quests. After another huge round of applause for her work the panel began in earnest.

Narrative and Visual Insights:

The development process for Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers started in Summer of 2017 shortly after the release of Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood. Producer and Director Naoki Yoshida approached the team with a few directives: “Let’s go to the First!”, and “It would be cool to add trusts and bring the Scions into the dungeons.” True to his usual antics, his last mission for them in that initial meeting was: “The opening movie needs to be done in a month!” The development team was excited, but felt that the Trust system might make it feel like a single player RPG. They expressed the need for a story that is not limited by being in an MMO, but rather, made better because of it. 

The first benefit of being an MMO that they identified is that you have the history and resources of the previous story elements all the way back to 1.0. If they could leverage this, they could tell a richer story by building it out of the past. The next benefit they listed was, us- the community. Because of our past efforts to delve into the lore of the game, they added lines of dialog that could be interpreted in different ways, or dialog options that greatly differed. In that way, we’d be happy to discuss and debate all of the nuances. As an example of this, Ishikawa-san mentioned the enigmatic shoebill. It apparently appeared in 5 different main scenario quests for a total of 6 appearances. How many did you spot? The last and greatest benefit of Final Fantasy XIV being an MMO is that everyone loves their own character. Because of that attachment, the development team wanted to make our character shine. They wanted to make scenes that people would be dying to screenshot. There were many new character animations added to enhance the storytelling in Shadowbringers. In the end, they ended up adding 1.3 times the normal amount of movements this time around compared to the previous expansion. 

To harness the power of these benefits, Ishikawa-san and the development team needed a JRPG World that they’d love too, so they asked themselves: “What have we always wanted to do in a Final Fantasy MMO?” Ishikawa-san mentioned that she has played the games of the Final Fantasy series since the Super Nintendo era. This time the boundaries of the world were much smaller, given a majority of the first is desolate wasteland. So, it gave her a smaller, more intimate world in which to set the story.  Her first draft of the full Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers main scenario had Ascians, Ardbert, the Crystal Exarch’s narrative and the Scions plot lines. An interesting omission from that draft was Vauthry’s sections, as the Sin Eaters were originally controlled by Eden. The idea of restoring night to the areas of the world one by one by defeating the Lightwardens was not featured at all. In fact, there was only Eden as the final boss. What could have spurred such a huge change in the script? That’s right it was Yoshi-P! He introduced the idea of a world filled with light, in which you return darkness to each area as you defeat the Lightwarden within. This would be illustrated in the actual game areas as well, with them having permanent sunlight until you, as the protagonist, defeated the Lightwarden and returned the normal day/night cycle. So, they went to work on figuring out those details. Next up, they talked about designing those areas.

Designing new Areas

Suzuki-san joined in on this section. They didn’t really have the time to cover all the areas, but decided on The Tempest, the sixth and final field. Ishikawa-san began to describe her intent and ideas behind the area, as they played “‘Neath Dark Waters”, the variant of “Full Fathom Five” that can be heard when in Amaurot. She mentioned that they really wanted the music playing when they talked about it. Final battles on the source were huge with lots of people and armies so this time, she wanted to end the story in an isolated place. That is when they began to brainstorm ideas.

The first idea was that the area would be on the seafloor with the first part of it consisting of ancient ruins. Deeper in, the city itself was to be a modern cityscape, but made of stone. They also wanted the Ancients to be 2-3 times larger than the character. The music should be soft, beautiful and poignant. Final Fantasy XIV‘s Sound Director, Masayoshi Soken, suggested using the sound of a clock ticking because of the impending calamity. Additionally, the noticeable pause between the looping of the song was on purpose. While Soken-san was worried about this strange moment of silence, Ishikawa-san insisted on it, as she thought it added gravity to the overall composition. Based on all of those ideas they began to draft the visual design of the Tempest and Amaurot, which was referred to as “Atlantis” early in development. After that, they had members of the team submit concept art. Initially, they struggled with how best to depict that it is surrounded by a bubble.

Eventually they decided against a Ruby Sea-like dome effect seen in the town of Sui-no-Sato. They decided to use a “Caustic” effect on the ground of the area to show that it was lying on the bottom of a body of water. Caustic is term in optics relating to the ring like light rays visible on the ground of a shallow body of water. Because of the recent development of Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood, they already had water effects figured out, however they still had to develop new tech because of the layering of many of these caustic effects. Suzuki-san mentioned that they also wanted to show wet surfaces and bubbles to hammer home the feel. Once they had the art drafts, they worked on the structure of the map of the zone. 

Towards the top would be the Ondo and their town, and below that would be the bottom of the area where Amaurot would be located. They really struggled with how to depict descending into Amaurot from the rest of the area. Initially, they had a cliff that you would have to descend, however this brought in an issue that they had already seen in Eureka: Pagos. This issue was that if the difference in height from the ground in one part of the area to the next was more than 1600 meters it would be impossible to incorporate a Navmesh on the lower portion. A Navmesh is basically a grid of points that can be imagined as a mesh along a surface that are used as waymarks for AI movement. The NPCs in the area move from point to point along the mesh in order to navigate to their intended destination. The Navmesh also includes points that the NPCs are not allowed to pass through which keeps them from passing through walls and other NPCs. So, if they couldn’t get the Navmesh applied to the lower level, there wouldn’t be an easy way to have NPCs traverse the area! But then, if they kept Amaurot at the same level. As the rest of the area, you could see it when you enter! They went through many iterations, trying to add fog, or visual effects to hide it, which ended in the illusory effect that made it into the final game.

Another element that they changed was the lighting. They wanted the area near the ruins to be lit similarly to the areas before the player returned the normal day/night cycle, bathed in light. Then, the area would gradually become darker as you descended into Amaurot. Towards the end of development, they swapped this light transition. They wanted to do that to contrast the light from the surface areas when you first enter the Tempest. They also wanted Amaurot to seem fantastical and majestic so they needed to keep it well lit. The lights in the windows on the structures in Amaurot are on because it was going to be in a dark area of the zone. Inside of Amaurot, the proportions were a challenge, but a fun one. As a side note, one of the developers was playing Spider-man on the PS4 which may have served as an inspiration to the designers of Amaurot’s cityscape. Once they placed the Ancients in the city and gauged how they wanted to depict them, they made adjustments to make the area’s size fit. Ishikawa-san really wanted to have the player sit on a bench at some point, which is why we have that scene with Hythlodaeus. Once they had the design finished, they brought in the Lore team to talk about naming and granular details.

Ordering and Designing new Assets

Next they spoke about new props, characters and animations. They showed the scene with Minfillia and… Minfillia, when they spoke just before Ryne’s transformation and drew our attention to the background. They were very concerned about the lighting of the scene, and spent a great amount of time on it.  Next they mentioned “Feo-chan”, or Feo-Ul, as she apparently needed a lot of adjustments. By the time the team was ready to create her, they already had a Pixie skeleton so they needed to tweak it quite a bit. They specifically mentioned having to do custom work for her facial expressions and pigtails. In her cutscenes they paid special attention to the lighting as well in order to preserve her color scheme. Next they showed off the “Plus-Size Miqo’te” which actually has Lalafell undergarments as it was created from the Lalafell skeleton. They were testing making a chubby Miqo’te child, but they ended up making the Plus size Miqo’te instead! 

Making the Cutscenes

Ishikawa-san mentioned that cutscenes are not their specialization so there are some limitations on creating them. Because of that they showed some tricks they had to use. The first of these was trying to implement more auto advancing text in the cutscenes. Most of the dialog is advanced manually by the player pressing a button after they’re done reading the text box. Because of that, cutscenes are harder to time. When a character does an action while talking, the cutscene will pause until the player advances to the next text box.  They wanted to have the cutscenes all auto-advance on a timer to improve the timing of the animations and camera moves, but they really wanted the player to be able to read the boxes in many different languages. That made it hard to time how long a text box should appear. An example is the scene from the opening with the gentleman in the forest. Most of his dialogue was automatically shown and that cutscene had a much better flow. This allowed them to make him very expressive. They also did the entire ending scene with auto advanced text and noted how well the scene flowed while still giving the player ample time to read each section of text. They mentioned that they’d like to use this technique more in the future. 

The next element that they mentioned was the scene in which Alisaie’s friend, Tesleen transforms into a Sin Eater. Suzuki-san gave a little content warning beforehand because that scene is a little disturbing. The development team wanted to show the Sin Eater transformation in all of its horror. Of course they had to stay within the limits of what they could show due to ratings. During the creation of the part of the scene when fluid is leaking out of Tesleen’s face, they wanted to utilize technique they found for depicting tears on an NPC’s face. This method was to make a mask like model that they’d place inside of the NPC’s face that they’d push out to the outside of the model when they wanted.

They brought a prop to show an example, a Namazu face mask! I recommend watching that part of the presentation if you get the chance! After that hilarious demonstration they showed the effect in stages to show that because of how they layered the mask, pushing it out of the confines of the NPC’s face would slowly reveal more of the mask in a convincing way. It wasn’t an actual animation, it was just showing another model on top of the original model. A very low tech method, but it helps to push the boundaries of what they can show us in FFXIV. This section ended with them mentioning that there are other areas where they do these sort of tricks, and they’d love to speak more about it. 

The panel only showed a small portion, but this overall process continued for the rest of the content. They mentioned that the sheer volume of work was very trying. However they made it through to the first full playthrough of all of the Shadowbringers MSQ content by none other than Yoshi-P. After he finished playing they awaited his response. When he finally spoke, he said: “I was crying toward the end there. Constantly…”. They were overjoyed! “We did it!”, they exclaimed! But not so fast… Immediately after saying that, Yoshi-P started working on his list of tweaks he wanted to see done before release. So they continued the grueling work, all the way up to the release of the expansion. Ishikawa-san and Suzuki-san mentioned a shared sense of relief in how much everyone enjoyed it, and how much they love all of the player’s reactions. They thanked the audience and players, with a gif of Emet-Selch walking away while waving to end the presentation.