Talking Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts & Development Philosophy with Tetsuya Nomura

For readers of a site like RPG Site, Tetsuya Nomura really needs little to no introduction. To most he is the character designer of Final Fantasy VII, arguably the most beloved in the series, but his career extends far beyond that. He's responsible for much of the design in the eigth, tenth and thirteenth FF titles, too, and is the creator and Director of the Kingdom Hearts series - a franchise with unprecedentedly rapid growth that led it to even threaten eclipsing Final Fantasy sales for a period. 

It's no surprise that so much of the current Japanese output of Square Enix hinges of the creative juices of this particular individual. He's now at the helm of both Final Fantasy XV and Kingdom Hearts III, the company's two biggest next-generation bets. In a sense, Nomura embodies all that Square Enix currently is - and after rocky financial returns, his vision needs to produce results. 

We catch up with Nomura at the tail end of a rare slew of interviews. He's known for his privacy, preferring to remain with the team working than head out on press tours, and this is his first time being interviewed in Europe since around 2006. He tells me he's very tired, but still puts in the effort to answer my questions on development, philosophy and the bizarre sort of fame his characters have gifted him in detail. 

Though notoriously private, we finally managed to snag Nomura for an interview.

RPG Site: It must be an interesting time for you right now - in Kingdom Hearts 1.5 you're revisiting a major milestone in your career, while building two new ones in Final Fantasy XV and Kingdom Hearts III. When you look back at your older titles, such as KH1 or FF7 and 8, what do you see? Do you see changes you would like to make, or do you release your creations once complete?
Tetsuya Nomura: Well, as a creator I always create something new - I keep challenging myself to create something new. Looking back on my old games and everything I was involved in, I often think to myself 'I could have done this' or 'I could have added that,' and stuff like that. It's part of the process.

Right now, though, for Kingdom Hearts specifically - the original game was released more than ten years ago now, but looking back, the original Kingdom Hearts Final Mix... I don't feel like I should add this or that, or any more. Back then, it was perfect as it is.

Even though I've played this HD version of the game knowing its age, I don't feel that it's very old when I play it. I can still feel the passion I had back then in this original game - so, yeah. If we remake a game, maybe we then go and think about adding new elements and sequences and stuff like that, or making large changes - but I think a HD remaster, with the visual upgrade, is the right thing for this particular game.

RPG Site: One thing that fascinates me about you, as with Kojima-san, is your taste in and love of movies. I saw a great quote from you at E3 about Les Miserables. I'm curious about your personal taste in movies and how that inspires what you do - can you tell us a bit about that, and how your taste in moves effects your game creation philosophy?
Tetsuya Nomura: Hmmm... Well, yes, I watch movies a lot. I mean -- a LOT. Sometimes I watch a film to try to get some inspiration from it, and sometimes I just watch them for fun, with a really flat feeling about it, not thinking anything. Basically, normally, I'm not feeling anything - I just put the film on and watch.

Because I watch so many films, I struggle to remember specific ones that I got my inspirations from, but if we were talking genres, I love watching horror films probably the most. If you look at my work on Final Fantasy or Kingdom Hearts -- [laughs] Is there any horror influence there? For me personally, it doesn't work that because I have been inspired by something I then create something similar - it doesn't work like that for me.

With such a love for movies, it's no surprise Nomura made Advent Children happen.

It all depends on the genre, and the kind of feeling I get from a particular movie - that all depends on what I feel after I've watched a film. Maybe I get something, maybe I can't.

If you take Les Miserables, which you mentioned - I don't like the musical genre anyway. It's not because I like musicals I liked that film -- but as a total score, that film was really good.

It's not like I love one particular type of film - it's all about the balance. The balance of artwork, actors and actresses, also story - if everything matches, it can make one particular film great, like Les Miserables.

Les Miserables and Romeo and Juliet [The 1996 movie version], which of course I also like - they are old, traditional plays that have been updated. I've never actually seen the original stage play, but the reason why I really like those classic plays is because of the total balance of everything - the balance of all the levels.

For me, especially the last scene of Les Miserables where everybody is singing together - that scene was unbelievable.

RPG Site: Even the dead get their encore, right?
Nomura: [laughs] It's amazing, isn't it? Very moving - all the music, it's a very powerful scene. That kind of classic play always has a really good total balance.

RPG Site: You use the word balance a lot; is that something you seek in your game design? Do you think there's a parallel between movie and game creation?
Nomura: To an extent, but of course there's a massive difference between balance in films and balance creating a game. Especially creating some games for next-gen consoles - because the next gen consoles have a high spec and a lot of new functionality and everything - there's a kind of gap between the film-making and game creating at the moment.

Especially at the moment for game-making, there's just loads of staff involved... as a director, I can't do anything by myself! A director on a film can control things more, but I can't instruct all the people by myself. If the game is triple-A, a big, big project... the way I can use my power, and how to direct people... it's very difficult!

RPG Site: After the E3 announcement and showing, a lot of people online are defining FF15 as having Kingdom Hearts style combat. When 15 was Versus, I always figured it as an experiment - that your team would then go on to KH3 after completing that - but now Osaka is on KH3, which also looks to have that signature gameplay style. Does that concern you - that the two games could end up too similar in gameplay?
Nomura: Okay, so... [pauses] Two games. Both directed by myself. [laughs] However, both games are developed by two completely different teams. The two of them - they don't fight, but they compete - in a friendly way - and they try to create better things together. Both sides are, of course, developed for next-gen consoles as well.

KH3 and FF15 share some base action RPG gameplay mechanics, it's clear, but Nomura seems unphased.

There's a difference between the two, of course; Final Fantasy XV is a numbered title - the big history behind Final Fantasy, the task they have on their shoulders is huge, because it's the latest Final Fantasy game and has to live up to that history.

For the Kingdom Hearts team there is less history, but there are thousands of people around the world who are so passionate about the Kingdom Hearts series and have been for years - and this of course is the first announced numbered Kingdom Hearts title in many years, as well. People's hopes and expectations are very, very high there, as well - so that is on their shoulders as well.

So, the two teams have different kinds of tasks, different kinds of missions they have to complete and accomplish. That's the most important thing for both teams.

From the user's point of view, I don't think they worry about these things, or think 'which is better?' or anything like that - both teams look in a different direction. The most important thing for me is that they focus on the tasks - the missions - that each team has.

RPG Site: It's appears it's all about sequels and spin-offs now. There were many Kingdom Hearts titles between II and III, while on the FF side we have sequels - X-2, XIII-2, Lighting Returns - and you've already announced FF15 will have sequels. How does planning for multiple titles at a time instead of just one effect you as a creator?
Nomura: To start, the reason why we have had so many Kingdom Hearts spin-off games... well, look - it's above your imagination, seriously, believe it or not - creating a HD game is unbelievably difficult. [laughs]

People think  it's easy - even a HD remake like 1.5, they think 'Ah, easy job' - but it actually isn't like that at all. Everything is difficult in the process, even with a HD remaster of a game. For 1.5 for instance, when we decided to make it, we had to decide where we were going to concentrate because it was so difficult, there was so much work involved.

We'll likely spend the better part of the console generation with FF15's core cast via sequels.

The main reason why we had so many spin-offs for Kingdom Hearts is because we couldn't start preparing for Kingdom Hearts III for a while - for a long time - because... well, because of some reasons, basically. However, if we didn't release any Kingdom Hearts games after the second at all, people might forget about the game, might forget about the series.

Obviously, I didn't want to do that - that's why we decided to make a spin-off game until the preparation for Kingdom Hearts III was ready to do.

So, in a way, because of this, if there were no spin-off games, there was no Kingdom Hearts III. It was kind of needed to have all those spin-offs - a lot of spin-offs - because the time was quite long before the Kingdom Hearts III preparation started.

With Final Fantasy, each game has a different reason why we decided to do sequels and stuff - for Final Fantasy X, for XIII...  Of course, with Final Fantasy XV, we announced at E3 that there will - probably - be a sequel to this game, as well.

There's a lot of different reasons, and they all depend on the game and the situation as well. Of course with FFXV I wanted to release the previous version of the game constantly - but it was very, very difficult to do so.

Now we have re-revealed the game, I'm excited to bring more information in the future.

RPG Site: For creators like you, your famous characters will follow you forever. Cloud, Squall, Sora - and now Noctis - they'll follow you everywhere, and likely live on long after your career is over. In turn, you have become somewhat famous for creating them. I once asked this question to Sakaguchi-san, and he said that he did sometimes think this - Do you ever wish you could escape that legacy, and create something as an unknown, like 20 years ago?
Nomura: I've never actually felt that way ever before! [laughs] I'm not sure if you know the term, but in Japan I'm what you'd call a salary man! [laughs] The company's slave, basically - I don't feel any fame too much. I never feel the pressure - and because of that I've never felt the desire to drop my name and go anonymous.

I've really never felt burdened at all. All the characters I've created up until now... they're my kids! My children. I've obviously never thought about dropping or abandoning my kids! [laughs] Really, I've never felt that way before.

Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 ReMIX is out this September, and you can read our hands-on thoughts from a complete play-through of the Japanese version now. Kingdom Hearts III and Final Fantasy XV, née Versus XIII, are TBA.