Ask the Developer Vol. 6, Xenoblade Chronicles 3–Part 2
Content pre-recorded in accordance with current COVID-19 health and safety guidelines.
This article has been translated from the original Japanese content.
Check out the rest of the interview:
Part 2: A sound that hasn’t been heard before
We have asked you about the story and the background of this work, but we would now like to hear about the visual aspects you worked on to express them. How were the characters designed?
Takahashi: As with Xenoblade Chronicles 2, we asked Saito-san (4) to design the characters. However, since the story is more serious than the previous titles, we designed the characters to look more mature by making them taller. We also designed the costumes to be not too flashy to match the tone of the story. In the scenes where the main characters make their first appearances, they are wearing the military uniforms of their respective nations, although they are dressed differently in the key art. We asked Saito-san to tailor the overall design, including the clothing, to a dignified style that fits a serious story.
(4) Masatsugu Saito: A freelance character designer and illustrator who designed the main characters for Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and Xenoblade Chronicles 3.
Do you feel that you were able to decide on the visual design of the main characters quite smoothly?
Kojima: No, it was a hellish process of trial and error... (Laughs) We especially struggled to decide on the design concept for Noah. During development, Saito-san came to the MONOLITHSOFT office and worked with us. His seat was in front of Takahashi-san's workspace. We used Takahashi-san’s words to conjure up an image of the characters and convey the intended feeling to Saito-san, who drew various illustrations based on that. However, Takahashi-san looked at the illustrations at the end of the day and said, "No. This isn't it." (Laughs) We had to repeat this process again and again.
Takahashi: We particularly struggled with Noah's design. Saito-san came up with all kinds of illustrations, but somehow none of them quite looked like Noah... I think I mentioned earlier that I wanted Noah, the main protagonist, to be positioned as a philosopher or poet, but I didn't want him to be seen as a weak-willed character. However, I also didn't want him to look too pompous.
Kojima: The drafts he drew seemed to be at the two extremes. Some made him look fierce, while others looked somewhat gentle.
Takahashi: I was also worried that his speech might sound pompous if the character design was too noble. We struggled to come up with a design concept that made us think, "Yes, this is Noah!"
Kojima: On the other hand, we could agree on the other characters' designs relatively easily because their appearances, including their races and physiques, had already been defined in their character profiles.
Once you decide on the characters' designs, you have to turn them into 3D for the game, right?
Takahashi: The development staff worked very hard on this part. In this title, I wanted to utilize Saito-san's illustrations as much as possible without making the characters look too figurine-like or computer generated (CG). Our staff put a lot of effort into expressing details such as the skin, hair, clothing, and contours.
Wasn't it a challenge to translate the illustrations to CG?
Kojima: Takahashi-san really wanted to keep Saito-san's touch in the game. Of course, we had Saito-san draw the illustrations using digital tools, but all hand-drawn illustrations have his unique touch. Even in contouring, there is not a single contour with a fixed thickness of line, and each contour is drawn using different kinds of weak and firm lines. However, if we simply translate the illustrations into a 3D model, the characters will look flat, and we will not be doing justice to Saito-san's art skills. Takahashi-san's task for the team was to maintain the styles of the original drawings and turn them into CG. Again, we all stayed until nighttime to discuss... (Laughs) While we were discussing this and that, Takahashi-san, who was leaving the office, walked by and muttered, "Start over again." (Laughs)
Yokota: This happened all before you started working from home, right?
Kojima: Indeed! We might not have been able to have this kind of intense discussion about development if we were working from home.
Are you satisfied with the final product, Takahashi-san?
Takahashi: Yes. I think we reproduced the facial expressions and hair very accurately. In particular, I think you can tell that a lot of effort went into creating the hair. We used special shaders (5), and there were some scenes where the characters would have looked jagged and noisy if it were done normally, so both the designers and programmers made a lot of adjustments. I remember that it was a very challenging process.
(5) A program that performs rendering processes such as shading in 3D computer graphics.It is used to create a wide variety of visual effects, such as materials and textures of objects, through calculations.
I have asked you about the visual aspects of the game, but now, I would like to ask you about the sound. Speaking to the sound, flutes appear in this title as items symbolizing Noah's and Mio's off-seer role. Why did you choose flutes?
Takahashi: I thought that people would understand universally the use of musical instruments when expressing the role of an off-seer. In other words, we knew that we wanted to express the role using music, but it took us time to decide which instrument to use. During a discussion with Mitsuda-san (6), who composed the music for this title, he told us that there are roughly three families of musical instruments: percussion, string, and wind. However, if an off-seer had a percussion instrument, I thought it would be a little difficult to express the somber and emotional scenes of this title.
(6) Yasunori Mitsuda:A composer who composed game music for Chrono Trigger, Xenogears, Xenoblade Chronicles 2, and other games.He is a representative of PROCYON STUDIO CO., LTD.
I agree. (Laughs)
Yokota: It’s interesting to imagine how it would have looked in this game, though. (Laughs)
Takahashi: While strings wouldn’t have those kinds of problems, you’d need a stringed instrument of a reasonable size for it to make a sound that would go nicely with an off-seer. As Noah and his friends need to fight, only a portable instrument would meet the standards. They couldn't possibly fight with a double bass on their back, and if it suddenly appeared, players would think, "Wait, where did that come from?"
Takahashi: Then, when I was looking for a good wind instrument, Mitsuda-san suggested, "How about a shinobue flute (7)?" After listening to the sound of the instrument, I thought this would be a good choice. I also liked it because we could incorporate a distinctive Japanese taste.
(7) A transverse flute made of shinotake bamboo with holes drilled in it. It is a Japanese musical instrument that has been used across Japan since long ago at such occasions as Japanese-style festivals.
I see. So that is how you chose the flute as the instrument and incorporated the flute phrase in the main theme.
Takahashi: I think it must have been difficult for Mitsuda-san to use flutes as the main sound because they had to be used in touching scenes, sad scenes, tender scenes, and battle scenes. Using these flutes, he had to create melodies that sound good in isolation while keeping in mind that the flutes' sound would also be used as a theme across different scenes.
By the way, were those pieces really recorded using flutes?
Takahashi: Yes. The musical track, A Life Sent On, released on the official Twitter account, starts with solo flute melodies, and this was the first track Mitsuda-san wrote. From the beginning, I wanted Noah’s flute and Mio's flute to be different sizes and tuned to different scales, so I had two types of flutes prepared and used in the music.
Yokota: Actually, we started off by making these flutes.
Wait, you made the flutes? So, you didn’t use shinobue flutes that already existed, but rather made new ones?
Kojima: Before Mitsuda-san started writing the music, he said, "Let's make flutes." I wondered why we should be making them, but Mitsuda-san said, "By making the flutes from scratch, you can create a sound that hasn't been heard before." Since we had told Mitsuda-san in advance that Takahashi-san wanted to interweave the two melodies of Noah and Mio into a single piece of music, Mitsuda-san seemed to have thought that creating the flutes from scratch would enable him to choose a scale freely and express himself more easily. Above all, he said to me that the fact that the same flutes used in the game exist in real life would be compelling and unique. It sounded interesting, so I decided to give it a try.
So you went as far as making new flutes. Is it possible for you to show us the flutes you made?
Kojima: These are the ones... We designed them at MONOLITHSOFT with the intention of actually using them for recording. Then, we had a shinobue flute craftsman make them based on our design and had a Japanese urushi lacquer craftsman decorate them.
Oh, wow! They are the exact flutes of Noah and Mio that appear in the game. Yokota-san, how did you feel when you heard that the music creation would start from making the actual flutes?
Yokota: As in the previous titles, I wanted to respect the world Takahashi-san was creating, and Mitsuda-san was eager to develop new sounds in order to create this world. To create music that matches the feel of this game, I thought it would be better to make new flutes from scratch rather than using existing instruments. Also, since I believe that people who have played the previous titles in the series also look forward to the music, I appreciated having this kind of initiative that would lead players to immerse themselves in the game.
So that is how you achieved the unique sound expression in the world of Xenoblade Chronicles 3.
Yokota: Yes. Furthermore, the music is comprised of two distinct melodies, one of Noah and one of Mio. Noah’s melody is played by a larger flute with a slightly lower pitch, whereas Mio’s melody is played by a smaller flute with a slightly higher pitch.
The design on the surface of the flutes is also very beautiful.
Kojima: A 2D designer at MONOLITHSOFT designed this, and it is quite detailed. Naturally, MONOLITHSOFT had never designed a real musical instrument, let alone one finished with urushi lacquer, so we must have sent a highly unorthodox design to the craftsmen. But they made them exactly as requested.
Takahashi: A red gradation was applied to Noah’s flute, but we heard that this gradation is very difficult to express with urushi lacquer. It is expressed very beautifully.
Kojima: We actually used these flutes for the recording, and the music we recorded can be heard in the game.
Yokota: We have around 140 musical tracks in this title, including short jingles.
Kojima: One hundred and forty musical tracks in a game is extraordinary, right? (Laughs)
Takahashi: But I feel it was still not enough. I wanted at least 15 more.
What? You feel it was still not enough?
Kojima: Well, I want to reduce the number next time... (Laughs) But I do understand why Takahashi-san wanted more. A movie is only about two hours long, but a game takes a very long time to play. Even if the melody is the same, we want a slightly different sound in scenes where the emotions are different. To achieve this, we want to have more variations.
I see. So, this title is a culmination of your efforts, also in terms of the number of musical tracks, 140 in all, that are tailored for various scenes.
Takahashi: The music was composed by several people. The musical tracks related to the story were mainly written by Mitsuda-san, Mariam-san (8), and Kiyota-san (9), and the musical tracks related to the environment were composed primarily by ACE (10) and Hiramatsu-san (11), and we had other composers who helped us. With those composers working with us, we decided to use the flute as the instrument that plays the motif. When viewed as a whole, I think we could join all the musical tracks together smoothly into one cohesive piece of work. In this third installment, I think we were able to bring out the best of each composer’s unique characteristics in many musical tracks by utilizing the knowledge gained from the previous two titles.
(8) Mariam Abounnasr: Composer and arranger. She works at Procyon Studios and has been involved in the music creation for the series since Xenoblade Chronicles 2 for the Nintendo Switch system.
(9) Aimi Kiyota: Composer, arranger, and singer. She has been involved in the music creation for the series since Xenoblade Chronicles for the Wii system.
(10) A duo comprising Tomori Kudo and CHiCO. They have been involved in the music creation for the series since Xenoblade Chronicles for the Wii system.
(11) Kenji Hiramatsu: Joined ACE as a temporary member and was involved in the music creation in Xenoblade Chronicles for the Wii system.
This kind of attention to detail helps to create a sense of immersion in the story, I see. The cutscenes interspersed throughout the game also seem to have a major role in creating a sense of immersion for players.
Takahashi: Kojima-san always tells me to make the cutscenes shorter. (Laughs) With motion capture, we can show the characters' abundant facial expressions in cutscenes. However, not everything can be expressed using motion capture. To make the difference less recognizable between scenes with motion capture and other scenes, we made adjustments by inserting scenery or emotional scenes in between to make the transition between the two scenes seamless. This is the thing we were most particular about in the game's production.
The transitions definitely look seamless enough that you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
Takahashi: In addition, when there is a transition in a scene, from a field scene to a battle scene or from a battle scene to a cutscene, we tried to make the transition as seamless as possible without loading data. This was our first attempt, and it was quite a challenge.
The transitions may be seamless, but it sounds like the process of achieving this was difficult.
Kojima: Well, it was very tough... However, that's not to say that we were being reckless. The programmers and designers were also willing to take on this challenge. The development staff on site was also eager to carry through the project to the very end, so it was not all that difficult. However, the work didn’t go smoothly and consistently, and we want to apologize to Nintendo and Mario Club (12) for the inconvenience caused...
(12) Mario Club Co., Ltd.: A wholly-owned subsidiary of Nintendo that handles debugging and monitor testing of video game software.
Yokota: Not at all. We have talked for some time about how we want to achieve a better transition to a cutscene or a battle scene with a boss. I think we made a step forward in this title. There were some difficulties, but I am glad we did it.
Kojima: Absolutely. This title is one of the culminations of our efforts, and I feel that from the next title onward, we can aim to create highly immersive works that seamlessly connect any scenes from any kind of situation.
Yokota: The cutscenes, the music, the character design, everything is the culmination of what we have cultivated throughout the Xenoblade Chronicles series. I believe that the challenges we faced in this title will help us create something better in the future.