How Square Enix built Final Fantasy XVI’s fantastical, believable, lived-in world

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How Square Enix built Final Fantasy XVI’s fantastical, believable, lived-in world

The development story of environmental artists, level designers and combat teams joining forces to flesh out Valisthea.

There’s one particular Final Fantasy XVI development story Naoki Yoshida admits he’s unlikely ever to forget. The producer describes a particular port city the studio conceptualized. Its key feature: a colossal stretch of huge wall that runs the length of the city, separating it from the surrounding ocean and which has successfully protected those behind it from invasion for over three centuries. It’s a visually impressive sight, one that fits perfectly with the larger fantasy world of Valisthea. There was, however, one issue.

“You look over these designs,” explains Yoshida-san, “And in the far corner of the town, on the sea side, there’s a natural cliff. And this cliff is maybe 15 meters high. And the leader of this city, the most important person, is housed right there beside it. What stopped pirates just coming up, destroying the house and taking over? It made no sense.” 

The result was a proverbial – and literal – return to the drawing board to correct the oversight.

It’s a recollection that articulates the careful work to make this fantastical world believable, lived in. And that story is but one of numerous examples of the complexities the producer, alongside Art Director Hiroshi Minagawa and Localization Director Michael-Christopher Koji Fox have navigated as they built Valisthea and the player’s journey through it.

A youthful Clive Rosfield explores a castle’s inner courtyard, passing by training grounds and soldiers unpacking supply crates

A world’s design, of how Valisthea rests at a crossroads between multiple teams at the studio – environmental artists, level designers, combat teams and more – is the focus of an insightful conversation with the three midway through their two-day stopover in London. That stay is just one stage of a multi-country tour for the game they’re attached to, each stop giving attendees several hours with the near-final PS5 game.

It’s a robust hands-on. We first sample the game’s opening hours, a flashback to a key period in Clive Rosfield’s youth that sets up what’s to come. (It’s this section that players will experience in a public demo which drops ahead of the full game’s launch.) We then play through the two hours and change directly following that demo’s conclusion. Lastly, we’re left to roam for thirty minutes in one of the game’s open areas, a lush valley filled with optional beasts to defeat and side-quests to take up.

In that collective time we wander through castle grounds and hideouts, battle our way through more guided scenarios, partake in a spectacular, cinematic Eikon versus Eikon clash. As such, we get a better understanding of the game’s structure, the environment design. I have answered a question I never thought to ask: what is Final Fantasy’s version of gardening tools?

Boss battles, be they Eikon versus Eikon or Clive’s clashes with bigger threats, promise to be unique encounters. FFXVI has a specific team, a small group of game designers, animators and programmers, dedicated to creating these. 

From chocobo stables, ruined towns amid murky swamp land, mountainscapes under repeated Eikon devastation, all is lavish, detailed production. On this first, lengthy glance at least, everything placed throughout is purposeful, every area has a backstory. That, obviously, takes work and collaboration. (“You made us remember things we don’t want to,” Yoshida-san jokingly concludes at the interview’s end after revisiting the challenges that yielded such fantastic results.) 

The first step was the story concept, a decision made when looking at what worked, and what didn’t, for Final Fantasy XV. While the majority of Final Fantasy game stories are standalone adventures, they don’t sit in a bubble. Adding to the larger tapestry naturally meant looking back at what came before. Yoshida-san points to players being unhappy with FFXV’s story. “It was incomplete. Things were promised, things weren’t delivered. So that’s what we wanted to avoid for FFXVI.” 

One of Clive’s earliest boss encounters is against FFXVI’s take on the series’ multi-tentacled, poison–spewing Morbols. Its tentacled slam attacks are signposted early, letting the player perfect precision dodges.

Next, they had to envision what was driving the world, driving the characters. The producer likens Valisthea’s Mother Crystals – a staple of Final Fantasy games – to oil fields, the crystal’s Ether production akin to oil. Ether powers magic, powers the world. With that resource dwindling, conflict breaks out. Certain regions felt a natural fit for particular elements, which organically led to matching those with Eikons of similar elemental power (the FFXVI version of the franchise’s monstrous summons). These in turn are controlled by Dominants, unique individuals who as a result of that power can alter the tide of conflict and are thus nation states’ prized assets.

With those aspects envisioned and placed the art team and story writers commence work. As exemplified by a natural cliff nearly bringing a port town low, the complexities of world creation aren’t straightforward. Neither is ensuring locations feel authentic to that area’s backstory and lore.

The world’s dense backstory is easily digested by the Active Time Lore system. A click at any time brings up a shortlist of characters, factions and nations with a short text all of which update contextually based on what’s happening on screen.

“This is not something that can only be done just by the designers. I mean, they tried. They put objects down and they realized quickly that this is not going to work… It didn’t feel real,” Art Director Hiroshi Minagawa remembers, recalling a moment of time early on when there was an overabundance of generic barrels placed across the world. “Go into the desert, nothing but barrels everywhere,” he laughs. “You’ll have some staff that just think ‘the more barrels the better’,” interjects Yoshida-san. “It doesn’t feel like it’s something that’s lived in.”

The solution: cross-pollination between teams. “We brought a member of the scenario and lore team over to give them feedback on what this town is, what the town’s lore is,” explains Minagawa-san. “We had that person provide pictures about what their image of what each area would be, what they were aiming for in the lore, working with the designers with that information to get the proper feel. Something that would fit better with a team. And once that person from the lore team entered, you know, joined with the designers then things got a lot easier.” With clutter reduced and shrewder choices of set dressing made, towns started to reflect the regions they were based on, hinted at a locale or people’s backstory through visual cues alone.

The game’s vertical slice allowed the studio to finesse its vision, experimenting what it could achieve visually on PS5 and use that chosen area’s design to help define what the wider game would feel like. Environmental artists and level designers review and adapt to each other’s suggestions, while the combat team tests if the spot is spacious enough for battle. That gameplay slice incorporates the Caer Norvent stage, which will be playable early in the story campaign.

After being mesmerized by composer Masayoshi Soken’s score from the sections I played, I ask whether music is the final bow that ties any area together. “We didn’t have music until literally right at the end,” Yoshida-san confirms, saying they’ve more than 200 unique tracks in the game. “Early on, we decided on themes for the different nations as well as for the different characters. And it was about taking those core themes and then using arrangements of those for the different situations.

“So for us, it was very surprising as well because we’ve been playing through these with no sound… even we were moved hearing [that music] those first few times towards the end of development.”

The swell of an orchestra or choir is one detail of many that aims to make you feel fully immersed in Valisthea, and all those rich details, no matter how minor, have been made with careful decisions by its developers. Yoshida-san returns to that port town wall of how to sell a lived-in world.

“It’s not been invaded, not fallen. But certainly over 300 years, people have tried. And so you wouldn’t have a nice, clean, unbroken wall after three centuries. You’d have places that are cracked and maybe crumbled, but the wall has held. And just by having that visually, it tells that story. That yes, it hasn’t fallen, but people have tried. And so making sure that the history and the lore that we’ve built is making its way to the design team so they can make sure that that’s in the visuals. It’s very difficult, but that makes the game better.”

Final Fantasy XVI launches on PS5 June 22. 

Read more about Final Fantasy XVI

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