I'm standing on a metal grating with a real sword in my hand in a sound booth somewhere near the 12th floor of the Shinjuku Bunka Quint Building, in the busy Shibuya district of Tokyo. This is legendary Japanese publisher/developer Square Enix's Japanese headquarters, where some of the greatest role-playing games in history have been conceived and constructed. Two members of the sound team stand next to me, and an assorted throng of UK press and public relations staff stand opposite. Everyone's watching me, and I feel as if I should do something to entertain them.
This is where all the real world sounds you hear in Square Enix's games are born. Thoughts of classic Final Fantasy VII battles flash across my mind: Cloud and his Buster Sword going at it against the white-haired Sephiroth in a cacophony of clashing metal. A Square Enix staffer picks up an actual piece of shining armour, for the foot and shin, and gently lowers it onto the ground then raises it, like a puppeteer, creating the remarkable sound of soldiers marching. A sword is smashed against a shield - the sound team actually make these sounds as they watch the cut scenes - even the footsteps, they watch the movie and synch it in real time.
The grating I'm standing on isn't just for show - they fill it with different materials, like soil, to create different sounds. I ask for a demonstration of a fight, hoping to see the sound team engage in a bit of sword fighting. Shame - apparently the weapons they've got on show are only for recreating the sound of drawing weapons from sheaths. I'm told you can actually get those in a weapon and armour shop in Akihabara. Must have missed it.
I'm in town to check out The Last Remnant, Square Enix's latest role-playing game, due out this Thursday on the Xbox 360. It's a game full of firsts: it's the first Square Enix title to be released on the same day both in the West and in Japan. It's the first Square Enix game to have motion captured from Western actors. And it's the first Square Enix game ever to contain blood - the sound team use a kid's toy filled with fluid that's then squashed. Lovely.
My time holding a sword in the Square Enix sound booth comes as a respite of sorts, despite the embarrassment. I've just interviewed four members of the sound team, sound director Kenichi Mikoshiba, synthesizer operator Yasuhiro Yamanaka, dialogue editor Yuji Isogawa and legendary composer Tsuyoshi Sekito, whose long list of credits include the PlayStation remake of Chrono Trigger, Parasite Eve 2, Final Fantasy X, Romancing SaGa, Final Fantasy VII Advent Children and Final Fantasy III DS. Read on for the inside scoop on some of the best music games have to offer.
VideoGamer.com: The soundtracks to Japanese role-playing games are very popular. Sometimes people will even buy the soundtrack separately to the game. It seems the music for these games is enjoyed by gamers more so than other genres of games. What makes the music in JRPGs so special?
Sekito-san: The games tend not to be so fast paced. An RPG game, it tends to be not as fast paced as an action game or something, so there's more time to enjoy the music, get used to it, to like it. You don't enjoy the music in an FPS! It just gets in your way. And obviously I think the RPG music composers in Japan are excellent!
VideoGamer.com: This question is for Sekito-san. In the 22 years since you've been at Square Enix console hardware technology has developed a lot. Has that in any way affected the way you go about composition?
Sekito-san: Since coming from the days of the NES there's just a lot more ways you can make sounds. You can have a lot more different types of sounds in your game, there's a lot more ways that you can express the musical things that you want to have.
VideoGamer.com: Do you find that liberating or is it more of a challenge?
Sekito-san: Because there's a lot more you can do there's a lot more you have to do, so it can be difficult because there's a lot more work. Because of that there's definitely a need for people like Yamanaka-san to help out with the synthesizers and the other instrumentation.
VideoGamer.com: Did you use an orchestra for the score?
Sekito-san: We did use an orchestra. I didn't use a particular orchestra but studio musicians. I chose the instruments that I liked from one orchestra and the other. It's the cream of the industry in a way. There wasn't any core orchestra that I hired but I had individual players from many different orchestras, which is kind of unusual.