The Art of Final Fantasy

In light of the US release of Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII for PlayStation Portable, PSU thought we’d delve further into the bowels of this illustrious series, and scrutinize a particular element that has become virtually synonymous with Final Fantasy as a series; art direction. Indeed, from the perspective of Isamu Kamikokuryo, Art Director at Square-Enix, expression through art is what impels the Final Fantasy universe as a whole.

Final Fantasy has always been identified by its distinctive artistic expression through environmental detail and character appearance. It is what separates itself from the profusion of other videogames and their innovations. While it may be a great joy to look at, a lot of thought is placed upon this aspect that many may not distinguish. For instance, Isamu Kamikokuryo has taken trips to New York City to observe architecture both new and old, visited the Grand Canyon for its evocative scenery and ventured Italy to view ancient ruins. All these elements have been put to use on future Final Fantasy projects, such as the Fabula Nova Crystallis Final Fantasy XIII compilation, which he is currently working on.

For Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy Versus XIII, it took nearly a year of pre-production solely centralized inside the art department. Surely it can be concluded that the art of Final Fantasy is something to be undertaken with only the most refined level of care and responsibility. As a result, I would like to take the time to highlight some of the inner details to the art of Final Fantasy through the perception of Isamu Kamikokuryo.

In terms of visuals, what is the initial thought that springs to mind when you hear or read the word, “Final Fantasy”? Perhaps it could be the ultramodern clothes, the profligate hairstyles, or the dazzling environments. Who knows, perchance it could be all those I just outlined. Either way, many individuals would probably conclude that there is essentially a distinctive “Final Fantasy look”. Kamikokuryo, however, insists this is not the case, as each instalment receives many changes in terms of the art direction taken. Just think of the modern design of Final Fantasy VIII compared to the more renaissance design of Final Fantasy XII.

Personally for me, the fashion is something that has always stood out. Being the fashion enthusiast that I am, I utterly adore the direction that many of the Final Fantasy games have taken in this field.

Regarding this particular aspect, Kamikokuryo explains:

“When you look at the games in the past, there are some limitations on expression. So you have to let the user expand their imagination. We take in some trends from fashion, to make it more entertainable for the game user. So people who like games enjoy the game and people who like fashions will enjoy the clothes.”

Kamikokuryo presents an appealing outlook on each character’s fashion, something of which can be noted with much of the Final Fantasy games from FFVII and beyond. No Giorgio Armani here, but the wardrobe of an individual character is more than just sheer design; it is almost an expansion of the character’s personality itself.

Beyond the fashionable aspects in Final Fantasy resides something that numerous gamers have associated the series with – namely, its breathtaking CGI sequences. Whether it is the heartbreaking FFVII scene where Aeries loses her life to Sephiroth, the touching ballroom dance sequence in Final Fantasy VIII, or the dark and gritty trailer for Final Fantasy Versus XIII, CG has always played a significant role in many of the most recent Final Fantasy titles.

Kamikokuryo explains the how the CG teams working closely with the in-game art teams to ensure that the experience is gratifying:

“The CG and in-game teams are separate, but in a natural way we want the two to work together and be in harmony with another. The CG section also works on some high end visuals and visual expressions so there are not ceilings for that, no limitations.”

There is a notion that CG graphics and in-game graphics is beginning to narrow. This can be seen in all games from many developers as the technology improves, it is coming to the position where there is no clear disparity between what is in-game and what is CG. Konami’s Metal Gear Solid 4 is a perfect example of this and we shall see the same with the upcoming FFXIII titles.

Kamikokuryo explains how the studio approaches graphics in general now that the line between CG and real time is beginning to blur:

“We have a very high quality execution. So we have to nature our staff and have a good program to train our staff at all times. We want the best people to work together and enhance their capabilities. When I first started, nobody guided us, you just had to watch in learn back in those days.”

With the lines between CG and in-game visuals starting to draw thin, what is to become of the overall quality of the graphics? For the past decade, gamers have pondered over the hope that maybe someday, videogames would render near life-like visuals. On the flip side, not everyone is willing to reach the stage of photo-realism in videogames as that would take away the core vision of playing videogames in the first place. However, in the case of Square-Enix and Final Fantasy, photo realism is fundamentally an attractive proposition, as Kamikokuryo explains:

“Well….that in itself will be quite valuable mainly in FF since there has to be a real expression. So with FF, itself or the creators individual flavors, it has to be brought together to make this possible I think.”

Square-Enix has constantly hard-pressed the videogame industry with their creative detail in CG and graphics. The very belief that they seek out the opportunity to recreate photo realism in videogames, primarily Final Fantasy, is something remarkable on their behalf and, speaking as a fan, it would be a great pleasure to see where and how this concludes. I have always maintained that I would love the fact videogames may one day reach the same pedestal as many of today’s Hollywood movies have achieved.

Think of Star Wars’s General Grevious or The Lord of the Ring’s Gollum; fully CG rendered characters but they present nearly like-like appearances and qualities. Imagine if you will, a Final Fantasy title where all the characters, in-game, represented that same visual detail. Having barely scratched the surface of what videogame are able to achieve from a visual perspective with next-generation consoles, it’s entirely conceivable that Square may ultimately strive to render this level of quality in future instalments.

Another avenue to quickly bring up while on the topic of visuals is the certain abundance of young, attractive individuals featured throughout the Final Fantasy series, typically in the shape of the main protagonist. This is another subject I would like to raise, and one that has concerned me over time. In relation to this, Kamikokuryo himself stated that it has become a tradition in Japanese story telling that whenever a “good-looking” individual is featured, he/she is typically depicted as the main character. As such, this would explain why the majority of female characters looks as if they should be up on the catwalk, while the male characters are typically shown to be attractive young hunks for the female gamers to salivate over.

In closure, Kamikokuryo has a strong vision of what he would like Final Fantasy to look like. Twenty years into the future, how will the franchise be portrayed? Even more interesting is how will Final Fantasy help the videogame industry progress in the art/graphics department? It is to my estimation that we will look back into the archives and see that Square-Enix, along with their Final Fantasy franchise, revolutionized the way art is expressed in videogames.

With twenty-eight titles under its belt the Final Fantasy dynasty has sold well over 80 million copies worldwide. This is a huge testament to the creative talent assembled at Square-Enix, and there is no doubt that this great endowment known, as the art of Final Fantasy, and its influences, may be felt throughout the industry for many years to come.