I've always had a soft spot for the soundtracks in Square Enix's role-playing games.
Even when the games themselves stumble, you can always count on the soundtrack to deliver. In recent years, a new voice has emerged from the the company -- one that stands apart from the time-tested classics of old Final Fantasy and Mana titles. Takeharu Ishimoto has brought a sharper, more rock- and rhythm-oriented sound to games like Crisis Core: Final Fantasy and using hip-hop tunes in the street-scene RPG The World Ends With You. We spoke to him this year at Tokyo Game Show about his influences, his work, and how to make RPGs rock harder.USG: Are you allowed to talk about what you’re working on now?
Takeharu Ishimoto: Yeah, at TGS I’m currently working mostly on Final Fantasy Agito, the iOS application we’re working on that has to do with Final Fantasy Type 0.
USG: My impression about Agito is that it has a lot of the same content as Type-0. Are you composing new music for it?
TI: A lot of the material is being reused from Type-0, but there are some new tracks that I’ve incorporated into the new game. Initially, the company said we wouldn’t be using any new material as far as music for Agito, but I’m not very fond of just recycling old material. So I convinced the company to use some new tracks I would make.
"I didn't try to think too much in terms of a game-music mentality. I wanted to put more of a popular music accent on the new title, so people will listen to is as kind of like just fun music."Takeharu Ishimoto
USG: Are you facing any logistical challenges with the change from a large two-UMD game to something that has to fit in the App Store download limit?
TI: I never felt any restraints as far as memory or cache. I didn’t feel like it was that much of a difference. Budget-wise, there were more concerns. [laughs] That was the biggest concern when we were creating the music for this title. That was my major challenge. There’s not a whole lot of new music in there, but the stuff that I’ve put in is really interesting. There are some intriguing tracks that I hope will become a big attraction among our fans.
USG: As an American I’m not too familiar with your work for that game. Can you talk about the style of music that you’ve composed for the original Type-0 and how you’re approaching the new content for Agito?
TI: As far as the direction… In general, it’s very similar to Crisis Core, which I’m sure you’re familiar with. Because the story is kind of dark in nature, I tried to follow that same direction. In terms of Agito, I sometimes joke that we need to make it popular, so it’ll make more money and I can make more music. I didn’t try to think too much in terms of a game-music mentality. I wanted to put more of a popular music accent on the new title, so people will listen to it as kind of like just fun music.
USG: My impression of your work has been that you don’t necessarily compose music that sounds like “video game music.” Especially with something like The World Ends With You, it seems like you bring in a lot of eclectic outside influences.
TI: I’m not a big fan of game music to begin with. I don’t like how… When you say “game music” or make music specifically for video games, you limit yourself to the video game market. It’s music for a video game. People who play video games maybe are the only people who hear it. An example I would give is in the movies.
Look at Avatar and then look at the new Tron movie. Avatar was a huge success, a big hit, but if you go up to someone and say, “Do you remember the music from Avatar?” they’ll probably say, “No, I don’t.” I don’t think anyone would really remember the music from that movie. But Tron used all that music by Daft Punk. Even if you don’t know who Daft Punk is, I feel like it’s distinctive in a way that people will remember it and think, “Hey, what was that kind of music all about?” It’s different enough that people remember it, even if Tron as a movie wasn’t as big a hit as Avatar.
Personally, for me, that’s the kind of direction I want to go in. I want people to hear my music even if they don’t play video games. I want it to be recognized outside of games.
"Look at Avatar, and then look at the new Tron movie. Avatar was a huge success, but if you go up to someone and say, 'do you remember the music from Avatar?' they'll probably say 'No, I don't.' But Tron used all that music by Daft Punk. It's different enough that people remember it."Takeharu Ishimoto
USG: So, the music in Tron… how do you apply the philosophy behind that kind of music to the work that you do?
TI: I don’t think too deeply or philosophically about how I approach my work. In general, whenever you encounter music in games and such, it’s often representative of the emotions in the game – happy, sad, angry, these kinds of things. I try to mold the music around those emotions, so that they’re fully expressed.
In terms of the The World Ends With You, I was told that I had free rein to do whatever I wanted, so I went and did exactly that. Everything there would be representative of my own tastes.
USG: Looking back at the Square games that I played in high school and college, they always had really good music, but there was always a certain sound to it – that very orchestral sound. The work of Nobuo Uematsu, Yasunori Mitsuda, Yoko Shimomura. The games that you worked on have a very different kind of sound. It was unique. It stood out from the "Square sound" that I was used to. Did you deliberately strike out to make your own mark with your music, or was it just something that was maybe more of a natural expression for you?
TI: I do kind of consciously think about the historical context of Final Fantasy music. Initially, when I started out, I wasn’t one of the people actually making the music. I was kind of frustrated, because I wanted to be making stuff too.
But at the same time, I don’t like being restricted into that mold, the Final Fantasy tradition, that sort of thing. If I was going to make music for it, I would want to have my own voice in the music. That could possibly lead to traditionalists and long-time fans of the games pulling away from that. But I think… In my mind, that’s okay. In order to develop a distinct voice, there are always going to be people who are against that, but you can’t really create anything new if you keep worrying about that kind of thing. That’s how I tried to establish myself.
USG: So, did you find working on Crisis Core frustrating? It’s not just a Final Fantasy game, but one very specifically tied to the most popular Final Fantasy. It was very closely related. Where did you find room for expression within that sort of limited context?
TI: Well, I’m a big fan of rock music. I play the guitar. Not well, but I like rock and roll. [laughs] My personal thought about Final Fantasy VII was that that game world really matched rock music, so that’s the direction I wanted to go in.
The other thing is, I don’t like music in a game that’s just there, that’s just music for the sake of having music behind the game. It’s like a meal where you don’t even remember what it is you ate. I’d rather remember that it tasted bad than not remember anything about it at all. That’s the kind of music I really don’t like, and the kind of process that I really don’t like either. So I said, “I like rock music. I’m going to use some rock music influence here. If people say it tastes good, that’s good. If they say it tastes bad, that’s how it is.” That’s how I approached Crisis Core.
"When I initially heard One Winged Angel, it's just so full of tension. I felt like it was beyond my ability, perhaps, at the time, to exceed that, so I mostly left it alone."Takeharu Ishimoto
USG: When you come to the very well-known, established tracks from Final Fantasy VII, something like "One Winged Angel" -- how do you manage to take that and fit it into the new sound you create without it seeming like you’re changing the intention of the piece, but at the same time without it seeming too different from the distinct style that you’ve created?
TI: In terms of your example, "One Winged Angel," if you change it too much it might disappoint some people. I personally thought that the rock direction was wrong for that, so I treaded carefully around there. I decided to make it more majestic, more flourished. I just tweaked it a little, so I wouldn’t step on any people’s memories. I was careful to take those kinds of older elements and not change their direction too much.
When I initially heard that track, it’s just so full of tension. It has so much of its own life to it. I felt like it was beyond my ability, perhaps, at the time, to exceed that. So I mostly left it alone.
Another example I would give, it’s the same general point, but think of the Beatles. Beatles songs have been covered by a whole range of artists, some of them very big artists, but nothing has ever really exceeded those original recordings. Their technology or audio quality might not have been as good, but initially, when the Beatles came on the scene, it was this big huge thing that people were crazy about. You could have the greatest musicians ever come together later and try to remake that into something bigger, but it would never work out.
It’s my feeling that that’s how it is with a lot of old songs like that. It also has to do with how many times you’ve heard the original, as opposed to the new one that you might have only heard once or twice. When you incorporate all those elements, I just feel that certain great assets from the past shouldn’t be messed with arbitrarily.
"I love music. It's kind of all I think about."Takeharu Ishimoto
USG: With the new compositions for Crisis Core, were there any scenes or pieces of music that you put special attention to? Anything where you thought, “I have to get this one right”?
TI: I liked “Price of Freedom.” It’s probably one of the more memorable tracks, one of the places where I knew I had to get it right.
I don’t know if this is really the right answer to the question or not, but for the game at the time, we as a company were aiming a lot toward the Western markets, like America and Europe. The perception of rock-type music in Japan is still not the same as it is in the West. I feel like in Japan, rock is still interpreted as kind of loud and cacophonous, maybe? It’s not as accepted into the mainstream. A lot of popular music won’t have many very strong rock elements. Whereas in the West it’s much more widespread.
Usually people who play games in Western markets are avid music fans as well. So I veered more in that western direction. It’s not quite for a Japanese audience, perhaps? But it’s something I hoped would resonate with a Western audience.
USG: You mentioned that you play guitar -- what's your background as a musician? How did you get into composing game music in the first place?
TI: I’ve been really into music ever since about junior high school. I started playing guitar around then. I love music. It’s kind of all I think about. I always wanted something to do with music as a career. So even now, at my job, I don’t really feel like it’s a job. It’s just an extension of my hobby or my passion. I didn’t even really want to go to high school.
Initially, out of school, I went into a more straight music-oriented company. But something just wasn’t clicking there, so I put out a bunch of resumes to different game companies. Square Enix was one of the first places that responded. Yoko Shimomura was at the interview and everything.
To my amazement, almost every company I applied to asked me to come in – almost everyone in the game field. It wasn’t like something where I decided that I had to work at this company and that was really what I wanted to do. But it just naturally progressed from there to what I do now.
"I felt like music at Square wasn't very... selfish in any way. There wasn't one voice that came out of it and said, 'this is mine.' That just wasn't there at the time. I took that element and put it back into my own music."Takeharu Ishimoto
USG: You mentioned that you started out here doing sound programming. How did you make the move over to composing?
TI: Initially, I joined the company as a sound programmer, yeah. I really didn’t enjoy that job very much. Within the first three days, I was just thinking, “I’m gonna quit.” [laughs] I didn’t want to do the job. It didn’t feel like what I wanted to do. But then the company came over and said, “Well, we have this project started. Can you get it done?” They came to my house and said, “Come on, let’s just get this thing done.” I felt like, well, if they’re asking, it’s really not polite to not finish what you start. Eventually I grew into the job, but I always felt that if I was going to stay at the company, I needed to be able to create music myself. So that’s the direction I started pursuing.
There were these intra-company competitions where people within the company would just submit work for consideration in games. I’ve never really received any formal education in music, and there are other people here who have a lot of schooling in that area. So I’m kind of… Not necessarily a black sheep, but just this distinct voice among that crowd. So I tried to sell myself in that way.
I was unsuccessful in my first three tries, despite making this grand statement about, “I’m gonna be a music guy here!” [laughs] In the first three competitions, I wasn’t considered. But on the fourth one, I finally got a chance to be heard. Before the fourth one, though, I was like, “Okay, if this doesn’t go well, I’m really gonna quit.” It got to that point. But just my luck, that fourth time, I made it. That’s how I landed in the position I’m in now.
USG: What was it about that fourth submission that you think was different, that might have made people sit up and take notice?
TI: Well, there were several factors involved. The fourth time was the first time I tried to incorporate the kind of rock elements that you heard in Crisis Core. I spent my Saturdays and Sundays composing this rock score. I was really burning the midnight oil. I put myself through a lot of pressure – this “now or never” kind of attitude. That probably contributed to the eventual success.
But what that also gave me was this freedom to think, “Well, this is it. I’ll just do whatever I want.” It was almost this liberating feeling. Even at the time, I felt like music at Square at the time was very calm and even, you might say. It wasn’t very…selfish, in any way? There wasn’t one voice that came out of it and said, “This is mine.” That just wasn’t there at the time. I took that element and put it back into my own music. That’s probably part of what made it stand out, that made it fulfill a need that hadn’t been filled in the company.
USG: You mentioned that, with the soundtrack for The World Ends With You, you didn’t get a lot of direction for it. Did you take that same kind of liberated approach for that soundtrack? Does that soundtrack represent your style and influences and the things that you enjoy? Or were you trying to communicate with an audience that maybe isn’t quite like yourself?
TI: For the most part I’ve enjoyed a lot of freedom of expression. But say some game director comes up and says, “This is the kind of music I want for this scene here. This is how it should be.” If I were to just make something based on that, it just becomes work. I don’t like to think of music as work. Again, it’s just something that’s there. It’s not my own voice.
I try to avoid that as much as possible, because in the end, when you get to the position where you can make music for a particular game, it’s my face and my name that goes on the music. I don’t want that music that people will know me for to be something that’s not my voice, for it to be something that someone else told me to do. I don’t like thinking about music in that way. So that’s why, even during a process where I’m given a direction – like, the director says, “This is how it’s supposed to be” – I try to provide feedback and counterpoints as much as possible. I try to keep my own voice in everything I do.
"I feel like there's more value in doing something when no-one else is doing it. It's important to pioneer things instead of going along with everyone else."Takeharu Ishimoto
USG: The specific style of the game, that unique rock/hip-hop fusion sound, was very distinctive compared to other games. It's very different from what people usually associate with an RPG soundtrack.
TI: In terms of The World Ends With You… In general, the kind of music that I’ve been exposed to and was influenced by… I listen to a lot of pop songs and rock songs, as opposed to something like a composition for a game – stuff like the Final Fantasy theme. Initially, game music was always in that kind of composition mold. Possibly, from a technological standpoint, that was all that could be done.
But when we got to the point of making games like The World Ends With You, when we came to that era in handhelds with the DS and the PSP, it was possible to include music not in the form of that kind of score, but individual songs in the game itself. That’s how I approached it. I wanted to create a bunch of songs that I was into. The setting is Shibuya, too, which is this hub of all sorts of popular music. Not that I imagined Shibuya as the overall style, but…
At the time, we had new technology, and we could do all sorts of things that we hadn’t done before. Now, everyone does it, so I’m losing interest in that again. I feel like there’s more value in doing something when no one else is doing it. It’s important to pioneer things instead of going along with everyone else. At the time, I felt like that was important, to be able to make that distinction.
USG: One thing that really set that game apart was the fact that songs are thrown around and used in a lot of different contexts. You don’t always hear the same song in battles, and you don’t always hear the same song in a certain area of the game.
TI: I did have a hand in that kind of formatting, where the songs are put in at random in different places in the game. I don’t feel like having battle music play when a battle starts… It’s very old-school. It’s kind of dated, I think. The age of Crisis Core was probably the end of that kind of thing.
You need to move beyond that if you want to be innovative and creative. You can’t just be tied into those kinds of conventions that we all seem to buy into because that’s how it’s always been. Why do you only hear that one piece of battle music play when there’s a battle? It’s just kind of…ordinary. Game directors in general have to start thinking about those kinds of things. Maybe when a battle starts you should just cut all the music, or something like that. Even that would be different from what we’ve always done. So I do feel like that’s something important in the future.