In many ways, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is an oddity for the broader Final Fantasy franchise, but it’s one that made the Guinness Book of World Records thanks almost entirely to one man: Composer Masayoshi Soken.
Most Final Fantasy games are single-player RPG experiences, but FFXIV, much like FFXI before it, is an MMORPG akin to World of Warcraft in which players create characters and assume roles in a massive online fantasy world. The critical response to the original FFXIV was nothing short of disastrous, spurring Square Enix to rebuild the game entirely, including the music, which is where Masayoshi Soken came in.
He served as sound director of the original FFXIV while franchise regular Nobuo Uematsu composed the music, but when Square Enix rebranded a rebuilt version of the game as Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, Soken-san assumed the role of sound director and lead composer. The game rebounded and maintains a thriving community to this day. Earlier this year, it broke the Guinness Book of World Records when it reached 384 unique songs — and that was before the June 2017 Stormblood expansion.
Soken-san is responsible for almost all of it.
Inverse interviewed Soken-san recently about his experiences making Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn a record-breaking game, what music means to the greater franchise, and what it’s like maintaining the high standards of epic music that Final Fantasy is known for.
How did you get involved with the Final Fantasy franchise?
When I first came to Square Enix, my main responsibilities focused on sound effect creation, sound schematic designs, and other sound engineering work. Generally, multiple people would handle these things, but I really wanted to achieve something specific with my ideal sound, so I enjoyed doing these tasks alone.
Shortly after joining the company, I began to oversee small- to mid-scale sound projects for our titles. I was often asked to create musical tracks as well, so I would compose music for these projects on the side. I was eventually assigned to supervise sound on Final Fantasy XIV and then took over composing with A Realm Reborn.
How important is music to Final Fantasy?
I am sure this applies to any game, but I believe sound is integral and inseparable element of video games. A game’s soundtrack is a wonderful spice that drives the emotional control of the gameplay experience. I don’t think I would be exaggerating if I said that in the case of the Final Fantasy series, we look for the flavor of that spice — the emotions we want to impart on users — and that determines the overall sound in Final Fantasy.
When you look back on the franchise, what do you think of as the most memorable and important songs? Are there any that you draw inspiration from?
I would say that “Prelude” (the theme of the Crystal) and “Final Fantasy” (the main theme for Final Fantasy) are two very important and memorable pieces. Both songs have returned again and again since their debut in the first Final Fantasy game, and each time they color the game in some way.
What have been some of the greatest challenges composing music for Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn?
FFXIV challenged the unthinkable by rebuilding a game from scratch while continuing live operations of the original. The sound design, too, had to undergo the same process of continuing to update the live game’s sound while also creating sound for the new in-development version — that task in and of itself was quite a challenge.
At the same time, bringing closure to the original game and creating a brand new sound for A Realm Reborn was very exciting prospect. We had to create music that would help to clear any stigma that may have been associated with the original, while also creating a sound with not only a completely new image but also a traditional fantasy game vibe. I remember racking my brains quite hard during this process.
How did the music grow or change between the first Final Fantasy XIV and A Realm Reborn?
By starting with a clean slate for the game design [for A Realm Reborn], I was able to do an overhaul on the sound schematics and sound engine. As a result, I was able to integrate music more effectively into the overall game.
I composed the songs for A Realm Reborn while specifically considering the new gameplay design and game elements, and they have become songs that our players have now come to love. As a creator, this makes me so happy.
How exactly did Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn come to have so many songs? Was that always part of the plan or was it a happy accident?
Even after all of this time, I have never been given a specific order from anybody to create lots of songs for the game! It’s just that when I feel that I need a new song for a certain piece of content, I create a song for it on my own, and then implement it into the game without being asked! Before I knew it, there were already a massive number of songs in the game.
What are your favorite specific songs from FFXIV and why?
“Imagination,” which you will hear during the final battle in A Realm Reborn, and “RISE,” which you will hear during the latter half of the “Alexander — The Soul of the Creator” battle. The reason is simply that I think they sound cool (laughs).
How much has Nobuo Uematsu’s past work influenced your own work within Final Fantasy?
When we say Final Fantasy, we think Nobuo Uematsu.
I really do believe that Final Fantasy music equates to Mr. Uematsu’s music. [As we use some of Mr. Uematsu’s pieces] in Final Fantasy XIV, I approach arrangement of these pieces by thinking to myself, “How would I arrange this piece to make it resonate if we were implementing this song into a modern game?” Then, I execute.
Mr. Uematsu’s songs are inseparable from my creative process, and he has had a major influence on my work. I think I’ve also been influenced by him on a human level as well — I sometimes put a lot of focus into things that may not necessarily need it, and I also never fail to do something funny after a few drinks!
What does the future of your involvement with FFXIV and Final Fantasy look like?
I don’t have much time to think about the future!
Every single day I’m working for the latest patch updates, and then there is even more work when we have a new expansion. After that I’m working to put together the highly demanded OST albums, working on the sheet music for the orchestra concert, making preparations for a Primals performance, creating sounds for a new trailer, while also doing audio post production for a TV spot … So. Many. Things. To. Do!!! Oh, that reminds me — I need input all of my work hours into the system, too!
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is available now PlayStation 4, PC, and Mac.
The interviewed has been edited for brevity and clarity.