Interviews

Final Fantasy’s Hajime Tabata: “Having a good story is as essential as good gameplay”

Watching the conference room doors, I can feel the weight of every accumulated moment: dreaming up a plot for Mario Kart 64, powering through Ocarina of Time for the next cut-scene, sinking completely into Final Fantasy X’s richly drawn world…

My fondest gaming memories are tied to storytelling and for that reason, from the PlayStation 2 onwards, the games I’ve invested the most time with are Final Fantasies.

And I’m on the edge of a thirty-minute conference call with Hajime Tabata, the director of the next Final Fantasy game.

Cue writerly geek-out.

The doors open. I glance down at the questions I’ve scrawled across two notepad pages. One stands out: How do you craft a story worthy of the Final Fantasy brand?

Hajime Tabata laughs. He says I’ve jumped right in with a real question. He notices my shorts (the joys of video conferencing). He’s envious of our Australian weather… We discuss it at length.

This isn’t the Tabata-san I was expecting. I’ve spent some time with Final Fantasy Type-0 HD, it’s gritty, by Final Fantasy standards anyway. The opening cinematic features a lot of Chocobo blood. And yet here we are, joking about the weather…

He eases back into his seat. “It’s really difficult to succinctly explain how we go about putting together a Final Fantasy story,” he tells us. “Personally, what I place the most importance on is that there’s an emotional response, that there’s something strong waiting for players at the end of a game.”

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Aware of just how much time players invest in RPGs, to Tabata-san, “having a good story is as essential as having good gameplay”. He sees it as his responsibility to see the two elements merge into a seamless experience for the player.

“When you get to the end of the development period, you always realise that you can’t tell the story in full, that certain parts need to be pared down, but you never want that to come at the cost of the emotional reactions of the players,” he says.

The realities of development affect the story. It’s his job to “find what’s essential and what needs to be told”.

While he is currently directing Final Fantasy XV, Tabata-san previously worked on spinoff titles including the PSP’s Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core and Final Fantasy Type-0, soon to be rereleased in HD on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One along with a demo for Final Fantasy XV.

I felt more free working on Type-0,” Tabata-san confides. “But honestly, thinking about working on XV, I’m pretty free there too.” He laughs. “Maybe that’s just my way of doing things.”

In terms of the differences between developing a numbered Final Fantasy and a spinoff, he says you there’s more of a burden in developing the former.

“Given the scale of the flagship numbered games, there are a lot of stakeholders concerned. The dev team has a certain responsibility to fulfil there,” Tabata-san explains.

“Depending on how well the flagship title does, that will determine the future of the company and impact the individuals in the company. And then obviously, being part of the larger series, you have to think about what the impact is going to be on the next flagship title.”

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Working on Type-0 allowed Tabata-san “more freedom to experiment”, and now that he’s seen how successful those experiments were, he’s bringing them to the flagship numbered series. Fans will be able to preview the fruits of his labours in Episode Duscae, the upcoming playable demo included as a downloadable voucher with purchased copies of Type-0 HD.

“We want to give the player an idea of what it feels like to control the new Final Fantasy XV heroes,” Tabata-san says.

“Not simply manipulating the characters, but exploring the world, feeling it out… becoming the characters, so to speak.”

We’ve heard Final Fantasy XV is a “road” game, and Tabata-san explains it as built on the pillars of the journey, the car and brotherhood. It’s that feeling of controlling friends that Tabata-san wants to resonate most with players of Episode Duscae.

Final Fantasy XV is the first single-player flagship title to follow the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy, which attracted a heap of criticism (both fair and unfair). The series is known for taking risks with new battle systems, and while the experiences of last-gen won’t change this, Tabata-san is aware of gamer concerns.

“Of course, the expectations of a numbered title are huge. Diplomatically, I am aware that I want it to be something players can get behind. It affects my awareness,” Tabata-san tells us.

“Making XV like this, we really got a sense of how difficult AAA development is for the West. We see it first-hand now, and appreciate that more now.”

Announced alongside Final Fantasy XIII, it’s safe to say Final Fantasy XV (previously Final Fantasy Versus XIII) has had a longer-than-anticipated development. Tabata-san took over after original director Tetsuya Nomura departed the project to focus on Kingdom Hearts III.

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Final Fantasy Versus XIII was precisely Nomura-san’s vision. That’s what he was looking at. But before I joined the team, it had already switched over to XV, and so it had already started moving in its own way, with its own vision. My role as director, while carrying the legacy of Nomura-san’s vision, is to realise Final Fantasy XV’s vision.”

Before the arrival of the next flagship title, Final Fantasy debuts on new-gen consoles with Type-0 HD, a port of a Japan-only PSP title, which began it’s life as Final Fantasy Agito XIII, a mobile-only game.

“It would’ve been easier to do the reverse, scaling down instead of scaling up,” Tabata-san laughs.

“I now realise I should aim for the high-end device first and scale down as I go. I’ll look at that way of doing it from now on,” he jokes.

Despite the technical challenge involved in jumping two generations from PSP to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, Tabata-san has not been turned off returning to his spinoff Type series.

“There are themes that I want to address and a direction I would want to take the series. But there’s still the matter of Final Fantasy XV, and first things first, I’d like to resolve that,” he says of the game we assume would be called Final Fantasy Type-1.

“I definitely like the prospect of taking this series in a new direction. I’ll have to wait until that time comes.”

Final Fantasy Type-0 HD releases 19 March on PS4 and Xbox One.

About the author

Will Kostakis

Screenwriter, author, gamer and purveyor of all things inappropriate. His new book, THE FIRST THIRD, is out now via Penguin Australia.