[WARNING: There be spoilers for the FFVII Remake's narrative, as well as discussion of what may follow in upcoming followup installments.]
For many players, the dust has largely settled and you've experienced at least one full playthrough of Square's latest critically and commercially lauded release. With everyone's eyes now trained to look at the future of the Remake project and where the protagonists' long road ahead will next take them, Square Enix released The Ultimania for Final Fantasy VII Remake approximately a fortnight ago. This compendium of juicy trivia, details and interviews with key senior members of the development staff sheds considerable light into a lot of the designs that went into building the world, character biographies and of course, insight information on the development process of the game and what the team aspires to accomplish on upcoming titles.
Below are excerpts from interviews with key development staff members. Though the Ultimania has already been out for a couple of weeks and has seen no short of widely reported articles on many corners of the internet using various translations, this particular translation was done by no other than our very own ribbit and his FF7 Remake Walkthrough Team over at his website, Game8. Please check out the site for the full translations as well as a plethora of walkthrough guides for the game - if you're looking for boss tips or a guide as to the correct dialogue choices for certain desired character cutscenes, Game8 has you covered. We wholeheartedly thank ribbit for his commendable translation work. And someone please throw him a Remedy or Esuna spell. I fear he may be a frog.
For a quick contextual overview as to who is who:
- Yoshinori Kitase is game Producer
- Tetsuya Nomura is game Director
- Motomu Toriyama and Naoki Hamaguchi are Co-directors
- Kazushige Nojima is Scenario Writer
- Teruki Endo is Battle Director
The first thing I'd like to know is how the remake development team got together.
Naoki Hamaguchi: Initially the remake was being handled jointly with an outside development team and I joined around that time. Some time after we moved development internally and with new staff joining we asked Motomu Toriyama and others to come on as well.
Motomu Toriyama: I had been under the assumption that a remake of Final Fantasy VII using modern day technology was going to happen for some time and I thought “This might end up being my last work,” so I wasn't able to make the decision to join so easily. But I had a duty as a member of the original development team, and even if development had continued externally, I figured I would end up lending a hand at some point.
Hamaguchi: I really had to commit myself as well. We had already announced that development had started and we were preparing a game that fans had high expectations of, so I felt I had no other choice to but to dive in.
Teruki Endo: I was originally working on another game at a different company but when development changed and they were looking for more staff I applied and joined the team. Ever since I was young I had wanted to try and make a Final Fantasy game myself, so when I had gotten experience I saw the recruitment for Final Fantasy VII Remake and thought this was the only way to go.
Hamaguchi: When it came to hiring staff for previous Final Fantasy games, we would often keep nature of the project quiet and put out a recruitment notice, but for Final Fantasy VII Remake we were able to say what game we were working on and got a lot of people who really wanted to make FFVII to join which made development proceed a lot smoother.
With the development of the remake, what sorts of things did you try and emphasize?
Hamaguchi: My main focus was to avoid simply borrowing the world of the original and to take the parts that fans love and adapt them for modern day entertainment standards. The graphics being improved is one thing and the other staff were free to do with them as they'd like, but the biggest thing for me was to preserve the core essence of the original throughout development. Even when adding new things, everything came from the original in one way or another.
Toriyama: The issue is that there were times when sticking to the original was more limiting than anything. Staff members who have strong emotions regarding the original often didn't want to stray too far from the original. Of course when we made the original we didn't have any of those issues and made the game as a brand new Final Fantasy and added in whatever we thought was interesting. This time I wanted to do the same thing so anytime I realized I was limiting myself, I told myself “It's okay to do what you like,” and pushed those misgivings away.
The story of the remake is only up to the escape from Midgar from the original, were there any side-effects to splitting up the story?
Toriyama: Because we stuck to only Midgar for part 1 we were able to better use all of our resources to recreate Midgar with current technology. As far as game content goes, we were also able to include more events that dove deeper into other characters and strove from the start to create a game with the same amount of content as a mainline FF game.
Hamaguchi: For me, while I had no issues with the volume of the story, when it came to the battle system I ended up talking a lot with Endo about how much we should add in. For example with magic, we talked about if we had a situation where you can use Fire and Fira but not Firaga, players might not be pleased with that, so we make it so you can unlock up to Firaga and save spells like Flare for future releases.
Endo: After making a list of the things we wanted to include for the battle system in one game, we would compare it to the battle system from the original and decide what we could keep, what we could change, and so on. It wasn't deciding how to take the original's battle system and put it into the remake, but rather first figuring out what was necessary and then taking what we could from the original in that order.
Hamaguchi: For the summons, you actually don't gain access to them until after leaving Midgar in the original, but they're a big part of FF and players would be expecting them to be there so we added them in early.
Endo: Since summons were initially slated for the next release there were some worries about whether it would be okay or not, but I figured we could just figure any issues out as they came (laughs). Anyhow, we decided that putting anything that would be in a mainline FF game into the remake was our top priority.
When you compare society now to when the original came out 23 years ago a lot has changed, did this have any effect on the story for the remake?
Toriyama: With the improvement of graphics, things like character's facial expressions become more realistic, and how much of that you depict, or don't, becomes something you need to take into consideration. For example, when the original came out we were all pretty young and things like “Is it really right to destroy the Mako Reactors to save the planet?” didn't really cross our minds at all. However with the remake, a lot of things have happened in the real world, so we as the developers have a responsibility to figure out how to make things relate as well as how far to go. In the original there aren't a lot of other NPCs around in Sector 8 so you only meet Aerith, but in the remake we added more people. Showing the player how destroying the Sector 1 Mako Reactor affected the people of Sector 8 was something I felt was important so we added it in.
Does this also relate to how there's a new plot point where Shinra is using Avalanche's actions against them?
Toriyama: That's right. With how the story flows we can't change the fact that Barret and the others are destroying the Mako Reactors, but we could add in that they're being used by Shinra to help soften their more extremist image.
It's also believed that the scene at the Honeybee Inn was changed to reflect the changes in society.
Toriyama: That's also true. The way games are rated has changed since the original, so from the beginning one thing we wanted to do was expand on the Honeybee Inn as well as Wall Market as a whole. We figured that if we were going to be changing it up, we may as well boost the entertainment factor and added in the dancing mini-game. The sort of sexy route that was at the Honeybee Inn in the original got moved to Madam M's portion.
Was the hand massage bit also hard to get past the rating check?
Toriyama: The way ratings are handled are different for each country so trying to make sure everything would be acceptable in any region was difficult, but thanks to the internal checks we started doing early on, I think we managed to get it just right without going too far.
Hamaguchi: This time the game is being released worldwide on the same day, so making sure that there wasn't anything that might be hurtful to other culture's took a lot of time.
Toriyama: Something more difficult for the rating check was actually Jenova. We all thought “Well she's not human so it should be fine, right?”, but the fact that she was both naked and headless ended up being a bit of an issue. To rectify this, we added a mecha-type thing to her head and made it so she was covered up when Sephiroth was carrying her in the Shinra Building. Jenova is a pretty big part of Final Fantasy VII so I didn't actually want to change it, though...
Hamaguchi: Lines regarding human experimenation would also run into trouble so we had to make more changes there.
Toriyama: But if we changed the fact that SOLDIER are a result of human experimenting done by Shinra, then the game stops being FFVII, so we really pushed for that to stay unchanged.
Hamaguchi: We also really wanted to leave the blood trail that was left behind by Jenova, but in order to keep a lower age rating we couldn't use red blood. Instead we chose to use a purple magma-like substance that has more of a fantasy feel yet still leaves that feeling of unease. We worked really hard and ended up getting that checked about 5 or 6 times before we got the okay. There were a lot of times we had to think about the current day ratings while figuring out how to adapt elements of the original.
There's also the scene where Scarlet puts her legs up on a Shinra Troop on all fours that had a pretty strong impact.
Toriyama: We wanted to show Scarlet's sadistic personality through that one scene so we had her use her underling as a leg rest. What would be considered power harassment by today's standards seems to be totally fine with people who work for Shinra (laughs). Behavior like this that gets totally overlooked might also be the result of Shinra's abusive dictatorship. The poor Shinra Troop on the ground might be fulfilling their duties as a loyal underling to their superior.
I'm sure everyone who played through part 1 is excited for the next release, have you already started work on it?
Hamaguchi: We're at the point where we have a vague idea of where we're going.
Toriyama: I was in charge of the Midgar portion in the original as well so a lot of my memories of that have stuck with me, but anything after that I've forgotten quite a bit of so for now I'm watching videos and reviewing. I didn't even remember how the party got to Kalm after leaving Midgar (laughs).
I'm pretty curious about how the world map is going to look myself.
Hamaguchi: That too is something that we're still in the planning phase for. For part 1, our main goal was to fully realize Midgar and have players experience everything it had to offer so for the next one we want players to be able to experience the large world of FFVII. With that set, we really want to think about how to make players feel the scope of the world while also having a dramatic story as well.
Finally, I want to hear what you're all excited for in the next release.
Endo: This is just a personal goal of mine, but I was only the Battle System Director this time so I want to expand my role in the next release and immerse myself in desiging a new FF game. I want to challenge myself by skillfully integrating gameplay into a story focused game.
Hamaguchi: I feel we were able to recreate Midgar and its story with modern day technology and successfully show it to fans. However, if we do the same thing for the next part, there will be less excitement and emotion. How exactly to go about doing so may be difficult, but I'd like to try and put in new things and make the next game differently from part 1.
Toriyama: With just Midgar we were able to make a game as big as this, so I have my worries about how to go about creating the enormous world after this. But I strongly feel I want to try and polish up the rest of the world in the same way we remade Midgar with improved technology or even some other method. I still don't know how exactly it'll turn out, but I hope players are excited for what's to come.
When did work start on the FFVII Remake project?
Yoshinori Kitase: To tell the truth, the remake has been in the works for quite some time now.
Tetsuya Nomura: As we continued to develop the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII, we had planned to continue it with a remake, but with only me working on it at the time and being was busy with other project, we silently shelved it.
What brought you to pick the project back up again?
Kitase: The 25th anniversary of Final Fantasy got me thinking about FF's and my own future and wondering if we were to actually remake Final Fantasy VII and see it through to the end, when would we need to start to make it in time. In an unrelated event, while Shinji Hashimoto (Final Fantasy's Brand Manager), Nomura, and I were talking, I asked them about resuming production. Hashimoto had previously said he wanted to improve the original's graphics with those from Advent Children, and after some talks we started working.
In the beginning the game was being worked on externally, right?
Kitase: We had internal staff working on it as well, but the majority of our staff who had experience working on Final Fantasy games were busy with other projects so we got started with more outside help. But in order to retain the quality FF is known for, I felt that it was better to have the majority of production done by more experienced staff so we started shifting development internally.
The Remake Project is planned to be released in multiple parts, when did you decide that part 1 would end leaving Midgar?
Kitase: We had actually already decided that when development began. We were already working under the assumption that we would fully realize Midgar, a widely recognized symbol of the game, but we also had to factor in the amount of time it would take to create the foundational features like the battle system and assets that will be integral for future installments so we had to dedicate ourselves to that.
Also, escaping Midgar is a turning point in the game so systems related to the world and level design would increase, which led us to making this decision. While there were many worried about the length of the game with the releases split into parts, I didn't think there would be a problem. I watch plenty of gameplay videos myself so I was fully aware that it takes only roughly 7 hours to escape Midgar in the original. With the switch to 3D movement, the amount of information as well as time it takes to traverse the map will inevitably increase, and knowing that we would be adding more to the story as well I assumed that the length of the game would be just fine.
Kazushige Nojima: And we really couldn't think of a better place to end it.
Nomura: Like Kitase said, when leaving Midgar and stepping out onto the World Map, the level design changes a lot. With how we've split up the game, even with adding in new things, there'd be a higher chance of us ending things poorly. With that in mind, there was no other choice but to end part 1 at Midgar. We had plenty of requests to add more to part 1 or make it all into one game, but looking at the quality of the game we released I'm hoping they can understand that this was the right decision.
Kitase: It looks like instead of releasing the game all at once and splitting it up with Midgar as the stopping point for part 1 we were really able to realize the Remake Project, doesn't it.
What sorts of things were you most particular over in regards to development of the remake?
Kitase: In the original, life was supposedly better due in part to Mako, but we focused on the slums a lot and you don't get to see how the people above the plates are truly prospering. For the remake I really wanted to emphasize this so in the opening movie I added things like streets with cars coming and going or kids riding bikes. On the other side of this, partway through the movie it transitions into a darker scene that shows the darker side to using Mako. I also wanted to show the top of a plate like where Jessie's parents live so we added that as well.
Nomura: For me, I wanted to leave as much of the original in as possible. Like with battles, we chose to bring back as much as we could from the ATB to materia, limit breaks, and so on. Things that made the original what it was. When it comes down to it, though, this was for the fans of the original, so we also had to keep new players in mind. In order to satisfy players of the original and those who would be playing for the first time, we took things from the original and revamped them for the modern day in the hopes that we could find a common ground with prior fans. Even with character designs, with the originals being over 20 years old at this point, a bit of a facelift would be acceptable, but if we went and flattened Cloud's hairstyle that would be pretty weird. Trying to find that balance was difficult.
Nojima: When writing the scenario, with the way graphics have improved since the original, I focused on more deeply developing the characters in the game. For example, in the original there were only a few buildings within the Slums, but in the remake we added a lot of houses and the city feels lived in. I thought to myself, “I really want to show the people living here.” Each member of Avalance was delved into further as well, I intended to explore their backgrounds, like why are they doing what they do?
Like how you revealed that Jessie was formerly an actress at the Golden Saucer.
Nojima: I wanted to make Jessie's words and actions a little more theatrical, so we planned to add an episode in where her past was like this, and her family is currently in this situation, and so on.
Kitase: Around the mid-point of development, all of the previous sub-scenarios were put in with the main story and then we added and cut as we went. There was even a sub-scenario for the Turks at one point.
Nojima: Right, “what are the Turks up to right now...” or stories related to characters from the Compilation. There was also one where Tifa gets help from Marlene to pick a dress to infiltrate Don Corneo's mansion.
Kitase: It was a chapter after Cloud falls from the Sector 5 Reactor about what Tifa was doing and how she got into the Chocobo carriage that we had in the game until the latter half of development but due to issues with the schedule we had to cut it.
For the story in the remake, while new events were added in, the general outline remained the same as the original but part of the way through I was surprised when realized there was more to it than meets the eye.
Nomura: You betcha (laughs).
Nojima: I'm positive I got players to think “How is this going to play out?”
How did the story develop like this?
Nomura: When I first approached Nojima to write the scenario I told him I wanted to do it in this way. Going from there, the plan was to go beyond just a remake. The battle system may use things like ATB from the original, but now everything is in real time. I wanted do something like this with the story as well; at its core it's Final Fantasy VII but new.
Nojima: Personally I wanted to focus on Cloud but also include things introduced with the Compilation. Those who played the original may feel like we've created an entirely new world with the remake and I wanted to place importance on that. That's how I came up with the story. I couldn't come up with any other ideas besides this so when I first showed it to Nomura I had to explain everything to ensure he didn't say no (laughs).
Following the story, the next major scene should be the flashback in Kalm, right?
Nomura: Our first objective was to avoid that kind of foreshadowing while in Midgar.
Nojima: Just enough that players realized something was different.
Nomura: In the ending you see Biggs for a moment and we assumed players would think “Wait, what's going on?” What ended up happening is the staff working on the videos would add in things here in there where they could. Everytime I'd find something I'd tell them “Nope,” and take them out but there were so many that some of them ended up staying in.
Nojima: I think I put in 2 or 3 when writing the scenario... Not sure what ended up happening to them (laughs).
Compared to the original Sephiroth appears a lot more as well.
Nojima: When we started we didn't intend for him to show up as much as he does, as our initial goal was to just hint at his existence, but midway through development we changed things around to have him appear more often so we added more scenes.
Nomura: At one point Naoki Hamaguchi (Co-director) came to me in a strange way and said he wanted to talk. He said “I want to have a fight with Sephiroth in Midgar,” but because Sephiroth's first true appearance in the original is in a different location I thought players might not be too happy. Apparently he had prepared things to convince me but I just said “Sure” and went with it (laughs).
With part 1, players expectations for future parts are pretty high. Have you decided how many parts you want to have?
Kitase: We have a good idea of how we want to do it but no concrete decisions have been made yet so we can't make any announcements at this time.
Everyone seems to believe there will ultimately be 3 parts.
Kitase: We haven't confirmed anything about how many parts there will be, so I think it's just rumors spreading.
We're also curious about when the next part will be announced.
Nomura: That also is dependent on how many parts we decided to make. Large parts will take longer while smaller parts could be released sooner.
Kitase: That being said, in order to maintain the quality and volume established with this release, it wouldn't be realistic for an announcement in, say, a year's time.
Nomura: Personally I would like to release the games quicker to make things easier... The fans likely feel this way as well (laughs).
Building upon part 1, is it possible that subsequent parts will stray further away from the original's story?
Kitase: I've talked with Nomura about this quite a bit. There are a lot of locations and scenes that fans of the original are looking forward to seeing in the remake so I'd like to avoid removing them. So for the following parts we have no plans of making something completely new and continue with FFVII staying FFVII.
Nojima: When writing the story I, for the most part, followed the story of the original with changes here and there. Personally I'd like to try and add some cities and locations that debuted in Crisis Core as well.
For the full two-part interviews, check out Game8 (Part 1; Part 2). Once again, we thank the frog for his diligent translation work.