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.
VideoGamer.com: How do you decide what kind of music to have in the various parts of the game? Do you compose each area's music, like a track, or do you compose an overall soundtrack then fit it in where it feels best?
Sekito-san: I did create the piece for each area, the dungeons or cities.
Yamanaka-san: When you're making music for a dungeon you really want to have a certain tension in there, so you're going through and you're playing and you feel the tension, and maybe a little bit of fear as you get into situations. You don't want to have too many different musical themes so that you do get that feeling of unity, that you're in the same game and the same world and same place. I wanted to simplify the music so that it doesn't have too many sounds.
VideoGamer.com: In film the soundtrack is static but in games it can be dynamic and respond to what's happening on screen. Does that require a different approach in the composition and which do you prefer?
Sekito-san: For the event scenes, the cut scenes are more or less like a movie, so they're scored more or less in the same way. One thing about the battle music is that depending on how you are doing in the battle the battle music will change. So if you are doing really well and everybody is like, 'yeah!' the song will change to something that's pretty much like, 'yeah come on you can get them!'. But if you're doing really poorly and everybody is not doing so well the music changes to something more tense and kind of like, 'oh oh, look out!'. But the approach to films and games aren't so different. They just change depending on the scene.
VideoGamer.com: During the process of taking the music and putting it onto a DVD, is it compressed? Does it lose quality? Does that have to be taken into account when creating it?
Mikoshiba-san: In general when we make the music we make it at CD quality, and so it does get compressed a little bit to put it onto the DVD. But we don't necessarily do something thinking that it will be compressed, or we don't need to use a sound, because we are releasing it on CD as well, we just create it at CD quality. But for voice and sound effects it's completely different. We're constantly keeping in mind that those sounds will be compressed, so we won't target CD quality.
VideoGamer.com: Traditionally JRPGs would normally come out in the West after they are released in Japan, but with The Last Remnant it's coming out on the same day in all territories. How much of a challenge was it to get all of the voice over work for all languages done in time?
Isogawa-san: We did the English voice recording first, so it made it difficult for the Japanese side of things. Things like having the ad libs in the script, in the Japanese it's OK just to say 'ad lib', but for the English script we needed to write down exactly screams or mumbles or whatever, and write that out and so figuring out, 'oh my gosh, we're missing all this stuff!' and putting all of that together, that took a while!
VideoGamer.com: What do you look for when casting Japanese voice actors?
Isogawa-san: When we were casting for this game it wasn't one person making the decisions. We actually got a bunch of people together, the character designer, the scenario writer, the director and others and we all threw out this is what we're thinking for the character so this is who we think would be a good idea, and put that all together. It worked out because everyone seemed to have more or less the same idea for the characters so we were able to get things done pretty smoothly. So we weren't actually looking for named actors.
VideoGamer.com: How do Western voice actors differ from Japanese voice actors?
Isogawa-san: The Japanese version is a little bit more towards a Japanese taste. There will be differences in nuances of certain lines.
VideoGamer.com: Do you ever play the Western version of your games? One of the most important things from a Western fan point of view is the quality of the voice acting. What do you think of it?
Isogawa-san: For this game we matched the facial movements, the lip movements and everything to the English, so obviously everyone for a while listened to the English voices. Because the mouths are done to match that the quality is maybe a little bit higher in general. The Japanese was lip matching to the English mouth movements, a reverse of what usually happens in games. As for thoughts on the actual performance and line delivery, I think it's pretty good!
VideoGamer.com: Which was created first, the voice over or the cut scenes? Which matched which?
Isogawa-san: The voices were first. For the action scenes we waited until the cut scenes were finished so we recorded to those while watching the action scene. We didn't do just a single recording. We had two or three sessions so we could do the event scenes first and then do the action scenes on a later part of the recording.
VideoGamer.com: When creating the event scenes was there any editing to reduce the pauses, to make them more snappy, or to increase the pauses?
Isogawa-san: Of course. We did a lot of editing for the sound and the actual cut scenes after the recording had been done. Even if it didn't match we took the same lines in a second or third recording.
VideoGamer.com: One of the things a lot of the fans have always wanted from JRPGs is the original Japanese dialogue with English subtitles because they feel it's more authentic but that never seems to be an option. Why is that, and do you think that games on Blu-ray might allow that because of the increased capacity?
Isogawa-san: Because this is the 360 version and it's just a DVD we didn't end up with enough room on the DVD to have two languages worth of voice. There's a lot of voice in this game. It would be cool if we can do that for a Blu-ray release. We'll see!
VideoGamer.com: What game in your opinion is the best of all time for your specialist areas?
Yamanaka-san: Final Fantasy III DS, just for my area!
Isogawa-san: Final Fantasy X, for the dialogue and script.
Mikoshiba-san: God of War 2, for sound effects.
Sekito-san: Fable 2. I listened to it on YouTube. I'm going to buy it.
The Last Remnant is due out for Xbox 360 tomorrow, Thursday November 20. A PS3 and PC version is also in the works. If you missed it, be sure to check out our exclusive interview with the main development team right here.