Masayoshi Soken Interview: Shadows Withal

Masayoshi Soken has been the subject of many accolades for his soundtracks for the MMORPG Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn and its expansions Heavensward and Stormblood. In Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers, Soken continued his role as main composer and sound director, crafting an equally impressive soundtrack to accompany the tale of a world engulfed in eternal light and the efforts to restore balance to it. 

In our fourth interview with Masayoshi Soken, he discusses various aspects of the music of Shadowbringers, from the main theme to more specific details regarding certain areas and battles. 

Interview Credits

Interview Subject: Masayoshi Soken
Interviewer: Don Kotowski, Emily McMillan
Editor: Don Kotowski
Translation: Square Enix
Coordination: Square Enix

Interview Content

Editor’s Note: For those who may not have completed Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers, the interview does contain some story and location spoilers in regards to the questions and answers.

VGMO: Masayoshi Soken-san, thank you once again for your interview with our site. From the first trailer that was released, it was clear that Shadowbringers had a very different tone – it’s the first expansion to feature a male vocalist in the theme song, and a male choir in the menu. We also get a lot of gritty electric guitar in the field battle theme “Rencounter”, the first dungeon theme, and of course in the theme song “Shadowbringers” itself. Can you reflect on the overall approach to this expansion, and some of the compositional choices you made while putting it together?

Masayoshi Soken: When it came time to begin work on Shadowbringers, I was contemplating whether or not the main theme—which almost serves as the bones of the game—should be the typical orchestral piece often associated with a numbered FINAL FANTASY title. I think an orchestral approach would still have fit well considering the storyline for Shadowbringers. However, the keyword “darkness,” the dark knight job being a focal point of the expansion, and the key theme of taking back the night sky drove me to pursue something different.

Historically speaking, no numbered FINAL FANTASY title has featured a title track that has the guitar as its main instrument or focus. I knew that trying something new would be quite
ambitious not only from a production standpoint, but also from the perspective of the players and their expectations.

I spent many days pondering how I could make this work and create a guitar-led theme that matched the Shadowbringers I envisioned in my mind. I was confident this could be a main
theme that matched the gameplay experience much better than an orchestral piece. At the same time, I couldn’t help but wonder if our players would expect the theme to be orchestral
because it was a FINAL FANTASY title. Would the production team reject my idea to feature the guitar and not show any understanding?

Then a thought occurred to me, which showed me the way.

One key theme that I have always taken away from FINAL FANTASY titles is that of taking on new challenges. How could I call this FINAL FANTASY if I did not take on my own challenges?

That settled it—I was adamant in creating a piece that would feature the sounds of a guitar that matches the gameplay experience, no matter what! Surely the FFXIV community would
understand why I chose to feature the guitar in the main theme once they play the game! I remember running to producer and director Naoki Yoshida and telling him all of this—that I
wanted to create a main theme that features a guitar sound.

The main theme, “Shadowbringers,” has a very distinct characteristic in the guitar’s sound. Typically, we tend to distort the guitar sound a lot to produce a very heavy tone. However, to
leverage the fleeting, poignant, and melancholic facets of the story, these heavier tones would not fit at all. I deliberately tried to make the sound of the guitar as clean and dry as possible.
I will admit that creating a song that would be featured as the main theme with these cleaner tones was quite the challenge. However, once the theme song was set, I was able to quickly
decide on the overall musical direction of the expansion.

VGMO: Each area in the world of Norvrandt has a distinctly different sound from one another. What were some key inspirations for the areas of Amh Araeng, Il Mheg, Lakeland, and Rak’tika

Masayoshi Soken: Whenever I work on music for the different areas, I start by physically walking around each area with a character in game; there is a huge amount of visual information you can absorb just from looking at and experiencing the scenery. After that, I will read any reference materials that can provide more information on the unique qualities of each area: the state of mind the players may be in when they first enter the area, at what part of the story one first enters the area, and anything else the team has provided.

I take this information in and mull it over in my mind—from there the music starts to naturally flow and come to life, one track after the other!

VGMO: Kholusia is unusual in that it has a completely different theme at the beginning of 5.0 from the end – it starts off as “Unmatched Pieces” and becomes “The Quick Way” and “A World Divided.” Why did you decide to give Kholusia a new day theme, in addition to its night theme?

Masayoshi Soken: The initial songs requested for Kholusia were completed relatively early, and it was implemented into the game pretty early into development as well. Truth be told, the
Shadowbringers narrative was not fully implemented on the development servers until right before the final deadline.

By that time, there was no time left to create new tracks, but it just so happens that in times like these, Yoshida will come running over to my desk and say something like, “When you arrive
here at this point in the storyline, the cheerful and bright tone of the song here doesn’t match. I need you to do something about it!” Honestly, I receive a request to change songs, but there is
just no time left for production, you see? (laughs).

There was no way I would have the time to redo it from scratch, so I took the original song and made some modifications—I changed all the major chords to minor chords, took the sparkly
tone of the flute and changed it to a darker piano tone, and did what I could to fulfill the request as best I could. Basically, I created a special song that would never be heard again after beating
the game (laughs).

There are actually a few other songs that you aren’t able to hear in-game after you’ve finished the story; those, however, were implemented according to plan.

VGMO: With the Eden raid released thus far, we are treated to another series of remixed tunes, some from Final Fantasy VIII and some from Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. Could you discuss the direction you wanted the arrangers to take both with Nobuo Uematsu’s classic battle theme, “Force Your Way,” as well as with both “Blinding Indigo” and “Landslide?” Could you discuss some of the challenges that came with recreating the music for Eden: Inundation and Eden: Sepulture?

Masayoshi Soken: We just welcomed two new recruits to our sound team this past spring, and interestingly they had absolutely no experience in the industry. What did we do to get these new staff, who may not even know right from left, into the game sound production world? Have them arrange a song they know, that’s what!

Each of our new recruits have differing strengths, and the genres they seemed most capable of producing were different as well, so I had one of them handle an orchestral arrangement, and
the other a rock arrangement.

I have a particular flow and certain rules when it comes to creating arrangements from past songs. In this particular case, I first taught them about how to go about arranging the track to
match the gameplay experience while teaching them what goals we try to reach with the arrangement. Next, I let them go through many rounds of trial and error, bringing the song to
near completion. At this stage I would only step in for something I really felt the need to, and then finalize the song. That’s how my new recruits and I worked together within our time
constraints to produce these very important songs.

Both of these new members were very excited that FFXIV was their first project after joining Square Enix, and watching them put so much focus on song production made me realize how
important they were to our team. It was a truly rewarding experience, because we were able to encourage and challenge each other to reach our limits.

VGMO: I wanted to ask about two tracks in particular that really stood out to me in the score. The first is “What Angel Wakes Me,” which to me is one of the most unique trial themes to date. The
second is “‘Neath Dark Waters” the theme from final area of Shadowbringers, and a very big surprise—there are so many directions this piece could have taken, but the piano and ticking percussion result in a haunting final area theme. Can you talk to us about composing these tracks, and how you decided on the tone and direction you wanted to take them in?

Masayoshi Soken: In terms of “What Angel Wakes Me” [the Titania trial], the pixies’ personality, the position in which they were put, and the atmosphere of Il Mheg and Titania’s domains provided the inspiration for the song immediately. I listen to songs like these fairly regularly, and I remember being able to create this theme fairly easily.

That being said, due to the sheer number of notes in the score, I’m sure Koji had quite the time coming up with the English lyrics… (laughs)

As for the Tempest theme, I had many discussions with scenario writer Natsuko Ishikawa when creating this theme. Typically, if we were to have the players traverse to the deepest parts of a
final area and reach a giant metropolis that surpasses the imagination, you might think an epic song would be necessary, right?

However, I received a request from Ishikawa, who was very adamant that the theme for this area be quiet, despite the fact that this area was the deepest depths of the final area. I
remember beginning to compose this song and having decided that I would use the piano as my sole instrument.

Once the song was done, and I was thinking about adding a little something for extra flair—the idea of keeping the beat with something that expressed time came to my mind.
I went straight to Ishikawa with that idea, which she was thrilled to hear, and we felt it was the right fit. That’s how the ticking sound of a clock was utilized as the percussion for this song.

VGMO: The expansion features two vocal themes: the aforementioned “Shadowbringers” as well as “Tomorrow and Tomorrow,” sung by a female vocalist. As these were the first vocal theme
songs you have written for Final Fantasy XIV, what were some of the challenges and expectations you faced regarding the music? We were wondering if perhaps each tune is being sung from the perspective of Zodiark and Hydaelyn, respectively?

Masayoshi Soken: Unfortunately, I am not the type of person who creates music while overly focusing on people’s expectations. (laughs)

The only thing I’m really thinking about is how to deliver a better gameplay experience to our players. After all, the blood of a gamer courses deep through my veins, too! Once I decide to do
something a certain way, I continue to push forward like a runaway train until I am done.

As for Zodiark and Hydaelyn, unfortunately I cannot comment on this! (laughs) Perhaps you can ask Koji, who wrote the wonderful lyrics, when you get the chance!

VGMO: During your experiences with Shadowbringers, did you have a favorite track to compose for the latest expansion and if so, what was it and why?

Masayoshi Soken: That would be none other than “Shadowbringers”!

Following the teaser reveal in October at the Las Vegas Fan Festival, the trailer continued to grow, and the song evolved with it. Eventually we included “Eternal Wind,” and then came the
male choir, and then male and female vocals, and finally we closed it out with “I am Shadow, I am the Light.” I can’t think of any song that was more exciting as this!

VGMO: Thank you so much for speaking to us today about your work on Shadowbringers. Is there anything else you would like to share with readers about the music of Shadowbringers, either its
current form (through 5.1) or a tease/preview for what’s to come in 5.2 and beyond?

Masayoshi Soken: Shadowbringers delivers so many exciting songs which are like nothing we’ve heard before. I would love for you all to crank up the volume to enjoy each of these tracks!

As for me, I am currently working on my creations for Patch 5.2. Let me tell you—Patch 5.2 is great in so many different ways!! Super look forward to it!!!!

Posted on December 17, 2019 by Don Kotowski. Last modified on December 17, 2019.

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About the Author

Currently residing in Philadelphia. I spend my days working in vaccine characterization and dedicate some of my spare time in the evening to the vast world of video game music, both reviewing soundtracks as well as maintaining relationships with composers overseas in Europe and in Japan.

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