Final Fantasy XV’s soundtrack continues the series’ proud tradition of excellent, emotionally-powerful music.
Siliconera caught up with Shota Nakama & Yoshitaka Suzuki, two composers who worked on tracks for the game’s soundtrack, to learn more about what it was like to compose for the venerable series, how the creative process worked, and some of the other video game projects they’d worked on over the years.
As an introduction, can you tell us what you did in regards to the Final Fantasy XV Soundtrack?
Yoshitaka Suzuki, Composer/Arranger for Final Fantasy XV – My name is Yoshitaka Suzuki. I did composing, and also arranging, for Final Fantasy XV.
Shota Nakama, Composer/Arranger/Orchestrator for Final Fantasy XV – My name is Shota. I live in Boston, MA. I’ve been living there for 11 years, now. I run this group called Video Game Orchestra (VGO). We do rock symphonic concert stuff, and we got into the recording industry as well. We worked our way up and got contracted for Final Fantasy XV. I’m credited as composer, arranger, orchestrator – many things, from conducting all recording sessions to contracting all the orchestras, the choir, everything. Every line ensemble was through my company, and my team mixed it as well.
Even in some of its most cheerful moments, there’s always that hint of sorrow in Final Fantasy XV’s soundtrack. How hard is it to work an emotion, like sadness, into all of your work on the soundtrack?
Suzuki – The way I composed for the game, was I got a whole bunch of gameplay videos. I imported all those things to my software, then composed to the video as if I was in the game as a player. The sadness came very intuitively. It was an intuitive composing experience to me. Visually, I realized what was happening in the game, seeing it from two different points of view – composer and player – and naturally tried to incorporate the sadness, and whatever emotion I was experiencing, into it.
You’ve composed for Metal Gear Solid 4, Peace Walker, Portable Ops, and many, many more game soundtracks. What sorts of things do you enjoy doing with your music? What different genres of games and gameplay styles do you enjoy covering with your music?
Suzuki – I’ve got the Metal Gear gene in me. I am good at Metal Gear-influenced kind of scenes. There is one scene in Final Fantasy XV where the characters go into a base, and it’s a lot easier for me to come up with themes for that kind of scene because I have this Metal Gear foundation (laughs).
Is it a similar creative process for all your games? Where you watch as you compose?
Suzuki – Yes. For Metal Gear, I watched the cutscenes to compose. But for XV, I watched gameplay videos. A lot of gameplay videos.
Nakama – I was given a lot of gameplay video, rather than cutscenes. I worked the same way for XV, yes.
Do developers often give you these materials for your compositions?
Nakama – Sometimes you’re given enough materials. With XV, we got a lot of things, actually, which I’m thankful for. Sometimes, nobody gives you anything (laughs). They’ll give you a concept, like a piece of art. In that case, you have to let your imagination flow.
Is that harder, creatively, or is it just different?
Nakama – It’s harder, especially since your image of the game is not consistent, or might not be what they were looking for.
Was this the first Final Fantasy you two had worked on?
Suzuki – I also worked on Final Fantasy XIII-2 and Final Fantasy XIV.
Nakama – Me, I worked on Lightning Returns, and I did a little bit of work on Final Fantasy XIV. I just did a concert arrangement for three pieces.
Out of curiosity, what tracks did you work on for Final Fantasy XIV?
Suzuki – There’s a piece called ‘Ultima’. A boss fight. I did that piece. I did a lot of pieces, though, so I can’t really detail everything that I did.
You’re freelance composing now. What sorts of projects are on the horizon?
Suzuki – I’m working on the DLC for XV.
Nakama – I’m working with a guitarist – a pretty famous, legendary guitar player – and I’m going to be working on his next CD as an orchestrator. It’s really exciting. It’s not a game, but that’s good. I don’t want it to be like I do only games. Good music is good music and bad music is bad music, right?
I think by bringing in that kind of influence to the gaming world, I think it infuses the gaming industry with a little something more.
How long were you composing tracks for the game?
Suzuki – I worked on it for one year, on and off, but we did have a crunch time. In total, I did twenty-five or twenty-six pieces. At the same time, I was also composing for the movie, Kingsglaive.
Nakama – I started working on the game back in 2014, I think. I worked on the trailers. Almost all of the trailers, actually. I did a lot of trailers, including the Platinum demo version, and the actual game. So yeah, two years.
What’s crunch time like for a composer?
Suzuki – For me, particularly talking about XV, it was basically: you wake up in the morning, you go straight to your computer, you don’t eat breakfast, you DO eat lunch (but in front of your computer), and just sit there working until you get sleepy (laughs). XV, as a project, though, was really, really rewarding. I was very happy working on it.
Nakama – Crunch time was pretty much the same, for me. Wake up, sit at the computer, go on until you can’t go on any more, wake up the next day, and do the same thing.
Sometimes you get the pieces to arrange super last minute. Like, you have a session coming, the clock is ticking, you’re wondering when it’s coming, then you get it around 10pm the day before, and you stay up all night long and come up with some good orchestration and scores. Then, you head over to the recording session and just get through it.
It gets bad, but like Suzuki-san said, it’s rewarding. After it all, it’s fun, and the soundtrack for Final Fantasy XV was an astonishing product. It was great, and it’s something we can be proud of. I think it exceeds anything else released in 2016, and we believe that very strongly.
Coming to a series that Nobuo Uematsu has done so much with, does that put a lot of pressure on you to make it special? To make it your own?
Suzuki – There was no pressure. I was determined to make something better than what I had left as a legacy. Like Tabata-san always says, Final Fantasy went back to being a challenger. It was challenging but fun, and I think we did exceed the previous soundtracks.
Nakama – I felt the same. I was really, really determined because of Tabata-san, who was dead serious when he said we would make a really awesome game that’s going to be unlike any Final Fantasy before it. We’re going back to being a challenger. I firmly believe that, and I wanted to make something that really stood out, and we made it happen.
Is it different to compose for a game with such a long legacy?
Suzuki – Yes, definitely. Final Fantasy has such a long legacy, and we both did value its spirit, so we would throw in the prelude, and put in little fragments of the previous melodies and motifs. For example, if you listen to ‘Hellfire’ – Ifrit’s theme that plays in the beginning, at the end of the song, you’ll hear Prelude in minor key.
We throw in things like that to make people aware that we are keeping up the legacy, but we are evolving.
Who would you like to work with in the future?
Suzuki – I came to GDC for the first time, and I’m really looking forward to expanding my career opportunities to the West. I’m not just going to do Japanese gigs. I want to do gigs in Europe, America, South America, Asia – anywhere that wants my music. So, let me know!