PAX West 2019: FFXIV Scenario Writer, Art Lead Discuss Work on Shadowbringers

Final Fantasy XIV has become one of the most popular MMOs in a long time, and with it a slew of various updates to keep players invested. Shadowbringers was an extremely-anticipated update that fans were looking forward to since its announcement and upon release did not disappoint. It was a huge success for the series, bringing praise to the overall writing and design of the story that had been crafted. We had the chance to sit down with Main Scenario Writer Natsuko Ishikawa and Art Lead Takeo Suzuki about their work on the massive expansion.

[Hardcore Gamer]: Can you give our readers a brief introduction of yourselves and your work at Square Enix?

[Takeo Suzuki] I am the art team lead on Final Fantasy XIV. For Shadowbringers we have three people in sort of the lead position in the art department with one art director and two leads. I oversee character designs, cutscene designs and some of the technical aspects of the artwork.

[Natsuko Ishikawa] I am one of the main scenario writers on the XIV team. I handled writing the main scenario for Shadowbringers and as a game designer I work with the other teams including Suzuki’s team to make requests for different design elements as well as working with the sound team to request different background music.

How was working on Shadowbringers compared to past entries?

[Ishikawa] With Shadowbringers being our third expansion we didn’t want people to see our expansion and think it wasn’t going to be as important or big as the past two, so we went into it with full force. As such we did go into a lot of things that we wanted to cover. We thought about what we could include in Shadowbringers. Just the sheer volume of things we wanted to accomplish within the expansion was a lot of hard work, but we were really putting our efforts into it.

[Suzuki] In terms of the art perspective, we had a major new introduction in terms of the characters that you are able to play with. We didn’t have new races introduced in Stormblood, but with Shadowbringers we were able to introduce two new races so that was very big. In terms of the different environments and backgrounds we presented in the game, with our previous expansions we would have the abilities of flying mounts or being able to dive or swim and go sub-aquatic and it leaned into expanding on the player experience and bringing something new in that aspect whereas Shadowbringers didn’t necessarily have a feature similar to those elements but we were able to bring in very new environments. We weren’t simply adding new areas as we would with our previous expansions, we are actually going to the First which is a completely new world that we were depicting.

Shadowbringers has some rather monumental revelations. Roughly how far in advance were the events of the expansion planned? Do you ever make last minute changes?

[Ishikawa] With the different elements that were introduced in Shadowbringers of course some were in the works from a while back but there were also some elements where we would oversee where we’re headed and then have to make tweaks. We have a template for how things will be planned out, but for some elements it’s fun to speculate if you believe that existing lore was already there from a long time ago and then just connected with the expansion that’s perfectly fine and if people believe it’s something that is brand new without being connected, that’s alright as well.

For those who never did the Crystal Tower Alliance Raid, they wouldn’t really understand the impact of the Crystal Exarch’s reveal. Was it a difficult choice to make its identity tied to an optional portion of A Realm Reborn?

[Ishikawa] The concern was definitely there for the players who haven’t experienced the Crystal Tower series but the intent of having the crystal exarch appear in this narrative is to provide that story element to Shadowbringers. We tried to make sure even if you didn’t experience the Crystal Tower series you would still travel along with the crystal exarch and fall in love with him anyway. Of course it is very important who he is but we wanted to make it that it wasn’t required or mandatory to do the Crystal Tower series. We wanted to be sure we were depicting him properly throughout the story of Shadowbringers as his own character so that for those who didn’t enjoy it will still come to like the character.

This expansion addresses the Warrior of Light’s, and all the world’s inhabitants, self worth; how did you handle writing this type of internal conflict with a character that represents the player?

[Ishikawa] So first and foremost, Final Fantasy XIV is an MMORPG but we are still a Final Fantasy mainline title. With an MMORPG you do create your own character, so to speak, but we also wanted to bring in the sort of element from Final Fantasy where you are the protagonist of a Final Fantasy story and doing the best to depict that. We felt that Shadowbringers was a good opportunity to take one more step into that exploration of the player character being the protagonist of the story. That being said we also wanted to give freedom to the players since it’s still an MMORPG. In terms of specific character traits or personality if the protagonist likes somebody or if there’s a particular food they find more tasty than others that’s something we don’t want to dictate and be sure that’s something the player experiences on their own. We try to keep that vague or leave it as a multiple choice so they can still pick their personality and have that sense of roleplaying.

What portion of the story did you enjoy writing the most?

[Ishikawa] I love to write the dialogue before and after an encounter. I would sit there listening to songs that best fit the battle and atmosphere and come up with dialogue and wording. Like, going into the battle what kind of dialogue would fit the battle and so fourth.

Outside of the raids, can we expect more stories to be told in The First or has most of what you wanted to convey been fully explored?

[Ishikawa] With Shadowbringers we did go into The First and dove into aspects about the realm. Just like with Heavensword the story didn’t end with just 3.0 there were the subsequent patches and our story kind of continue until the 3.3 patch. With Stormblood the story didn’t completely end at 4.0 so we do expect to continue the narrative for Shadowbringers beyond 5.0 and we would like to continue.

Shadowbringers flips expectations around with light being the source of destruction instead of darkness. What were some of the inspirations creating the world and inhabitants?

[Ishikawa] We wanted to make one thing clear in that Light isn’t completely evil or the key source of destruction either. Of course it did cause some troubles but we wanted to pose a question, get the players to start thinking, maybe light isn’t 100% great all the time and that was sort of our foundation. We have what we call the flood of light and before you go in to defeat it, it’s always light, so I’m sure the visual team wanted to depict this light weather so it’s not just beautiful but so there’s some kind of nuance behind it.

[Suzuki] With the flood of light there was some artwork created in terms of concepts but ultimately we did work with a 3D team to bring that to light in a visual aspect. The 3D team experimented with various lighting and how did we want to represent this light. We tried doing the option of blinding light with everything being washed out but we realized that wouldn’t be optimal from a gameplay perspective so we tried different ideas like a little bit of color but still keeping some elements washed out and white. I worked with the environment staff members to tweak how the light was being represented and once we had a working foundation we continued to work with them but also consulted with Producer/Director Yoshida to see if we could refine it even further so that we can finalize the coloring of the environment. There was another element I was concerned about in that if we had all the environments similarly bright it might start to get a little bland for players venturing through these locations. I made sure that there was a good variation in colors so you will see that different colors being accentuated more in certain regions and each region has a different expression.

What were some of the most memorable aspects of developing a new but somewhat reminiscent world? Are there any areas that stand out above anything else to you?

[Suzuki] In terms of environments and backgrounds I think the land of the pixies was very memorable. The art team made sure that we had that sort of difference from the source. So when you stepped into that land it had that sort of vibe. We were very careful trying to depict that in the visuals. The other visual would be the Tempest where the team was very particular about the visual representation.

What were some of the challenges you faced in creating The First?

[Ishikawa] The fact that lettering is different was a challenge.

[Suzuki] In the source we have the Eorzean alphabet but now that we have The First and you jump over to Norvrandt there’s another set of the languages. The lettering’s different, we had the pixie’s own language so that was a big challenge for us to show that we have come to another word and show that it’s completely different from what we were used to in the source.

[Ishikawa] Of course the dialogue itself is represented in whatever language the player is using so you might not see the difference there but if you look at some of the environments like say you see a box and there’s a label on it we can’t use the Eorzean letters. If you see signage on a house it’s actually different sets of letters that we had to create for Norvrandt. So those were some of the challenges that we had.

Almost all aspects of Shadowbringers has been greatly received, but looking back, is there anything you would have changed or better expanded upon given the chance?

[Suzuki] I would have loved to have Feo Ul the pixie that you had with be given her own rigging. The reason we’re producing character models there’s an order to which we are building these characters. It just so happens with the pixies we had a general rigging and order with them already and we had to paste Feo Ul on that as well. It’s difficult to bring out her own characteristics and how she’s expressing herself. How her pigtails would flow in the movement because there were limitations in building her. So if we had the opportunity to go back and visit it would have been nice to give Feo Ul her own boning and rigging. But that being said of course the staff members on the character modeling team worked really hard to give Feo Ul her own personality so we’re not dissatisfied with how she came out of course.

Was there anything cut from the story that you would have loved to have seen put in?

[Ishikawa] We tried to squeeze in as many elements as we possibly could so in that aspect we’re okay but of course with being able to stuff so much in did put a lot of strain on our staff members. We felt bad in pushing our staff a little too hard to get everything squeezed in.

What was some of the largest feedback you received from Stormblood you wanted to improve upon in Shadowbringers?

[Ishikawa] That’s actually quite tough as by the time Stormblood was released about a month after we were already planning for the following expansion. So the outline of what we wanted to do for Shadowbringers was already being discussed a little over a month after Stormblood was released so I’m afraid not much of the feedback would have made a large impact on the framework of the narrative. That being said some of the brand new elements such as having an instanced battle on the main scenario quest line we did learn from Stormblood that if we had an instanced battle closer to the beginning of the narrative it would cause a bottleneck so that was something we wanted to address in Shadowbringers. We tried to make sure we didn’t have one so close to the beginning of the story line.

Considering Final Fantasy XIV is an ever ongoing and evolving product, is there ever any time for rest?

[Ishikawa] If we go too much into details because we have our manager present we might risk stepping on some landmines! But we have taken a break!

Do you have any final words for your fans?

[Suzuki] First and foremost we’re happy to have such great reactions from people and it’s way beyond what we had expected. Of course with so many players enjoying the game they are spreading the word and we see new people coming in which is great to see. Our circle of players has increased in size so we have more players joining us so we will continue to fill this game together with great effort.

[Ishikawa] With Shadowbringers a lot of narrative did include trying to tie up the questions that were posed in the previous scenarios and narratives and tying the lose ends and that we’re completing things we were foreshadowing. But just looking back at the fact that we were even able to do Shadowbringers is proof of how much we were able to get to players and build upon their time playing while building the narrative throughout the experiences. Final Fantasy XIV and Shadowbringers wouldn’t be here without our players who are our warriors of light, or warriors of dark in this instance, but we would love for players to continue being with us and supporting us.