For long time franchise fans, there’s something special about hearing the latest Final Fantasy score for the first time. Be that in-game or, as was the case a few short weeks ago, hearing it performed live.
The London Philharmonic Orchestra took to the iconic Abbey Road Studios in London to play select tracks from the upcoming Final Fantasy XV for both attendees and those watching worldwide via livestream, offering an exciting glimpse at just some of the music that players will enjoy during their adventures with Noctis and his friends.
In attendance was the game’s composer, Yoko Shimomura. She’s a newcomer to the Final Fantasy series, but not video game music and is revered for her long and celebrated history composing rich scores for memorable games. Across two decades of work she’s penned instantly iconic music for the likes of Street Fighter II, and is loved by fans for her compositions in both Legend of Mana and the Kingdom Hearts series.
A few hours prior to the concert, we had the chance to sit down with Shimomura to discuss her approach to composing for the legendary series and her own favourite moments from the franchise.
You’ve an impressive resume covering so many iconic titles. But this is your first Final Fantasy. How does it feel stepping into such a big franchise? Is there pressure to follow in the footsteps of other FF composers?
Yoko Shimomura: It’s very interesting with XV actually because in some ways, it feels like I’ve been asked to do two projects! At the time the game was Final Fantasy Versus XIII, and it wasn’t part of the mainline series. I was on that project from the start, and because it wasn’t a numbered Final Fantasy, I felt like I could approach it a little more freely.
Had the development started as XV, I would probably have felt a lot more pressure from the beginning, but when this shift happened I had already worked on the project for a while, made a number of songs and had a clear idea of the concept and direction that I wanted to go with for the score. It made it a lot easier for me to continue doing that.
The game has been in development for 10 years – when in these 10 years did you start writing music for it? Has the music evolved or changed direction during this time span?
The first song I actually created for the whole project was right at the start, 10 years ago! It was the song Somnus, and this song is still in the game today. I think the overall direction of the music has been fairly consistent since the beginning of the project. There was music we knew we wanted to add specifically when the game became XV, so a lot of new things were added then, but it was because new things were being added to the game – things that needed to be supported by music.
Final Fantasy XV has been described as a lot darker and more realistic than the previous entries to the Final Fantasy series. There are themes of brotherhood, bonds and emotional realism. How does this transfer to the soundtrack?
It comes down to how to express realism in music. From my personal perspective, I was brought up with classical music so, to me, that’s very immediate and very real, but I know that it depends on individuals and the kinds of music they are used to. It’s a very difficult thing to pin down.
The other thing with the idea of realism is that it’s an abstract concept. Music itself is abstract; it’s not as solid as other forms of art. Trying to depict something abstract on an abstract medium… well, that’s challenging!
I really felt like I was better suited to approaching it by looking at the world of Final Fantasy XV, and I created what I felt fitted with each individual aspect. This is how the bond between comrades is presented in XV, with music that I felt suited that theme.
For the battles, I pictured music suited for battles and then specific visions with the scenery. I tried to get the best music to fit with each individual aspect rather than thinking about the bigger abstract concepts.
Final Fantasy XV’s gameplay is innovative for the franchise. Additions include the day-night cycle as well as the emphasis on real-time action and weapon switching during combat. Do you take those gameplay aspects into account when you compose music, or do have a more classic approach?
There certainly are a number of ways with which we tie the music into the gameplay, as well as certain conditions that govern the changes in the music. For example, with the day-night cycle we’ve got music changes covering early morning, day, mid-day, evenings and nights.
In battles too, there are specific trigger points that spark changes in the music. When you’re dealing the final blow to an enemy the music will finish in the right way and cut off when you need it to. There are little points like this there where the gameplay helps govern changes in the music.
Final Fantasy XV is a big cross-media project and you are composing music for both Kingsglaive and XV. Are there any differences in your process when you compose for the game versus for the movie?
I worked on some of the songs for the movie Kingslaive, but I didn’t create the whole soundtrack myself. I was given requests for a number of songs, so in that sense it wasn’t much different to how I usually approach music for games. If I had been asked from the start to make the whole soundtrack for the movie then I would have had to approach it a lot differently.
Do you have a favourite Final Fantasy?
(chuckles) This is such a difficult one to answer! I think the ones I played the most were 2 and 5. I really liked these two specifically because of how the gameplay and different mechanics fitted together.
And your favourite Final Fantasy track composed by someone else?
Once again, picking just one is too hard! There are so many pieces I like from Final Fantasy. Of course there are the ones that are present in the whole series – the prelude and the main Final Fantasy theme. I used those and rearranged them slightly for XV, but honestly every time I hear them I always think to myself – these are really really great songs. They still bring a tear to my eye.