Among the pantheon of video gaming saints, Hironobu Sakaguchi resides among that echelon. As the creator of the Final Fantasy series, Sakaguchi has since created Mistwalker—his own video game development studio—to focus on the mobile gaming world for the better part of the last decade. But now, Sakaguchi returns to his narrative RPG roots with a video game that's nothing that you've ever seen before.
Titled Fantasian, players control Leo, an amnesiac who has to explore a world that's controlled by machines. Leo needs to rediscover his memories that can solve the mechanical infection plaguing the world. Set against a backdrop that's made from over 150 handmade dioramas, the RPG mixes physical environments and 3D characters; the analogue look of the game is unlike anything you've ever seen before.
The hand-crafted elements were seen in Sakaguchi's Terra Wars but with Fantasian, Sakaguchi wanted to push the concept further in a traditional RPG medium. Due to the laboriousness of the process, a longer conceptual planning time is needed since the development team could not go back and alter things in a 3D modelling program.
Sakaguchi also teamed with his long-time collaborator, the composer Nobuo Uematsu, who composed the soundtrack. Uematsu added improvisations to some of the music, a first in his long career.
We spoke with Hironobu Sakaguchi about Fantasian and other topics of interest. Here's what he has to say about them.
Three years ago, with some of my old colleagues whom I made Final Fantasy 6 with, we started going down memory lane, and we played the game together and it reminded me how much I love this genre. I wanted to make a game like that.
Fantasian has everything you might expect from a traditional RPG—going into different towns; talking to NPCs; going into dungeons; turn-based combat—like the old Final Fantasy series but I wanted to keep that spirit of innovation and applied some new elements into Fantasian.
Fantasian has a mechanic called the dimengeon system (portmanteau of "dimension" and “dungeon"). Usually, when the player explores the dungeon or an area, they would encounter random monsters and enter into a battle. But with the dimengeon mechanic activated, players can send any randomly encountered monsters into a separate dimension. And later when players are better equipped, they can fight all these saved monsters at once.
And the actual dimension battles have different power-ups that the characters can activate. For example, some might increase the characters' attack power, others might give them another consecutive turn to perform another action. This is a very satisfying method to engage all the monsters you've encountered over the course of your exploration. The boss encounters involve a little more strategy where even if the player is below the recommended level, if they are skilled enough if they can use the right spells, skills and items they can still defeat the boss.
Last but not least, is the music that's composed by Nobuo Uematsu. He and I have worked on various projects over the last 35 years. With Fantasian, he scored 60 different tracks for the game with all the songs being performed by an orchestra.
The diorama style
Any kind of handmade visual expression is something very unique. There's a sort of charm and beauty that you really can't replicate with any other medium. And with the game being played on Apple Arcade that involves a lot of touch interface devices. There's a kind of poetic beauty of people using their hands to control and manipulate these characters and environments that were also created by the hand of these artisans.
Also, the game's story and themes are heartwarming and uplifting. Dioramas have this very unique charm that you can only get from that sort of visual medium that can't be recreated through any other methods.
There's a limit to the dioramas that any interaction like moving a vase or opening a door, those are animated in CG. We were careful not to add too many post effects on the game because it takes away from the game's natural charm and beauty of the dioramas. In terms of post-processing, we are going for "less being more" of situation.
Square Enix’s bankruptcy
I'm not sure where that story came from. I can't really confirm how authentic it is [that Square was going through bankruptcy at the time] but the reason for the name of Final Fantasy, was because the games I was developing weren't hits. Nothing clicked, nothing worked and I thought, maybe I don't have what it takes to develop games but this one… this will be the last one I'll put everything into. And it doesn't sell, maybe I'll switch careers and do something else. That’s why it’s called Final Fantasy because I thought it might be the final game of my career.
The finality of his games
I don't intend to create games from a really negative space but it's interesting that you bring up the game titles: Final Fantasy, Lost Odyssey, The Last Story… they do carry negative connotations, but I just really gravitate towards that nuance that word carries.
With Fantasian, people might associate it with Final Fantasy but the word "fantasy" really resonated with me. That's something that I wanted to pour into this game and bring me back to my origins.
Growth in the video game industry
I believe there are parts of me that have changed and, perhaps, parts that still remained the same over the years. I can say that with such a long career, a lot of my colleagues, who know me, will say, “back then Sakaguchi-san was way more scarier. If he didn't like something in the game, he'll get really angry”. I haven't really heard any feedback of that sorts now so, in a way, you could say I grew up as a designer and creator.
Working through the pandemic
It was almost exactly a year ago when everything started locking down and the world came to came to a halt. We were already in the latter half of Fantasian's development and at that point, we were scaling up and mass producing some of the assets so the transition to work from home or remote working was rather smooth. That was very fortunate because people already knew what they needed to do.
If this pandemic had happened during the brainstorming or conceptual phase where we needed to have close interactions and bounce ideas off one another, that might be challenging. We would have stopped that brainstorming process.
Developing for Apple Arcade
The basic architecture of the game was similar to developing a console game. That was the intentions of what Fantasian was supposed to be as a video game experience. The challenge about developing for Apple Arcade is the wide range of devices that Apple Arcade supports. This means taking into account the different aspect ratios and screen resolutions that we have to adapt the game for.
Everything from the iPad, which is much closer to a square ratio, to the iPhone, which has an elongated display ratio, it was a challenge to make sure the user interfaces looked good and conveyed all the necessary information to players using the range of devices.
But one thing I could say, with regard to resolution, none of the UI elements or 3D elements deteriorates when we scale the resolution to 4K.
Views on Apple Arcade's subscription model
First it was music and then the audiovisual mediums like movies and TV series shifted towards a subscription model that's become the mainstream way on how people consume media. With video games, there are challenges that make it really difficult to replicate that subscription model.
Whether Apple Arcade's subscription model is the correct method of operating a business I'm not quite sure whether subscribers will be for it. I guess we'll find out a lot as the marketplace and industry kind of develops. What I can say is that with every turning point in the industry, whether it be new hardware or new services, I'm really happy to be at that frontier. It's a good position that I derive a lot of enjoyment from. I'm fortunate to be at the launch of Apple Arcade.
This goes all the way back to the beginning of my career. If I hadn't had my Apple II computer, I would never have been in the video game industry. At the time, seeing what the Apple II could do was a huge shock to me and that kickstarted my career. Now that I'm working with Apple, it makes me happy on a personal level.
Challenges in creating 3D dioramas
Initially, when we were adding 3D scans of the dioramas into the game, I thought we would have to completely lock the camera angle because the diorama is a physical object. You can't turn the camera around a physical object even though it's a video game. But that's when the LEAD program and director of the game started experimenting with a technique where we would do a 3D scan of the dioramas and see what it would look like in the game engine and environment. We would light the dioramas up in a studio and take a lot of different photographs from different angles.
We use projection mapping the texture onto the 3D model. So you're looking at the actual photograph that we took in the studio and that's projected onto the texture, where the characters are walking through them. After doing this, we're able to come up with a technique where we can switch perspectives, where the camera would pan a little bit and you would see the environment from a different view. That's a technique we devised during the development process to allow for the perspective to shift. It almost looks like you're moving through a 3D space but it is just a projection map onto a 3D model of a city.
Working with Nobuo Uematsu
There weren't too many instances of us disagreeing. And I think this applies to a lot of different artistic practices. If I draw a line, I'll know that single line has characteristics that might be unique to me. If anybody else see that line, it would just look like any other line drawn by other artists.
The same can be said for music and melodies. The type of melodies that Uematsu-san comes up with are very unique to his style of music composition and scoring. That's something that I really like and enjoy about what he does. When I heard those compositions for the first time, I could see his heart and soul being poured into this project. I even got a little emotional and tears came to my eyes. I really want to thank him for all the hard work and dedication he brought to Fantasian.
If there's something I had to bring up, I guess it was some health issues that Uematsu-san had right before I was going to work with him on Fantasian. He had to step away from composing for a little while because of some health reasons and there was a concern that he might not be able to work on the rest of Fantasian. But he got better. I was sharing some images of the dioramas with him and showing him what we were working on. That's when he realised how serious I was with this project and said let's go ahead with it.
Uematsu-san said that this is probably the last time that he will to score an entire video game because composing 60 tracks for the soundtrack takes a lot of work. I'm sure he'll compose individual tracks, maybe a small portion for other games in the future.
On developing that trademark moustache
That's a tough one. I'm not really sure… I guess I'd occasionally shave my moustache and for some reason, I feel that whenever I shave it all off, the hairs will regrow with even more gusto.
Fantasian is now out on Apple Arcade.