Unlike the plot of a novel or a film, writing a video game storyline is a delicate balancing act between expectation, gameplay, user experience, and more. When you’re writing for a world as large as Final Fantasy, the pressure is immense.
Banri Oda is the World Lore Creator and one of the Main Scenario Writers for Final Fantasy, a series which needs no introduction. He quite obviously loves his job, where every day he’s “very much tasked with the challenge of using [his] imagination”. From the constant updates to Final Fantasy XIV to the development of brand new titles, Oda has played a hand in many of the franchise’s most iconic story arcs.
And although it may seem like a dream job to gamers and writers alike, it’s not without its grievances. The writing process from concept to creation is marred by required gameplay events, play testing, and of course, the constant driver for the plot to be satisfying for the player.
It’s a complicated process, and that’s putting it lightly. We were lucky enough to speak to Oda recently, and he broke down how a quest is usually written by himself and his team, start to finish. Take it away, Oda!
“Quests are prepared following the structured stages below. At the conceptual stage, the general specifications – quest level and job requirements, number of quests, number of cutscenes, word counts – and the main theme or concept of the story are decided. Based on that…”
Fix the main characters to feature and decide on a simple profile
“In particular the motive, goal, personality, and behaviour of the character are clearly defined. These aspects can change as the story progresses but since a change in one’s motive is not the same as a change in one’s goal, I write them out to ensure that I don’t get them mixed up.”
Write out the ‘required events’ that must take place in the story
“The protagonist encounters the featured character. They find themselves involved in an incident. Fight the enemy. Defeat the enemy.”
“Like these, I write out the required elements. At this point, they don’t necessarily need to be in chronological order.”
Chronologically arrange the ‘required events’ and adjust the pacing for the tension of the plot
“To give a simple example, it can be making a plot development such as: ‘turn things around at crisis point’ when ‘lose to the enemy’ and ‘defeat the enemy’ are arranged together. The excitement of the plot will change based on where and how many negative and positive ‘waves’ are formed therein.”
Divide the arranged events based on each quest and incorporate ‘hooks’, ‘reels’, and ‘trigger points’ into the quests
“A ‘hook’ is the first impression you get, with which you feel the story has caught your interest. A ‘reel’ is an element toward which you’re curious about what will happen next. And a ‘trigger point’ is an event or plot development that links directly to the player’s emotions including those of feeling touched, angry, or sad. At this point the rough plot is complete.”
Create the detailed plot outlines
“Based on the rough plot, we then prepare the specifications outlining details such as the locations of NPCs, battle specs, and locations where cutscenes will take place. In the FFXIV team we call these documents the ‘detailed plot outlines’.”
Extract the cutscenes that will be prepared by the cutscene team
“…and create scene overview documents containing both the spoken lines of the characters and general instructions/information about the scenes.”
“Since we need to release a patch every three and a half months for FFXIV, we write out the characters’ lines for the cutscenes in advance. This is so that the implementation of the quests and creation of the cutscenes can be carried out concurrently. If we have voice recordings scheduled, there are even times when we start the work around half a year in advance!”
Write out the rest of the lines for implementation
“At this point, the work is handed over from the scenario planners to the members in charge of implementing the quests.”
Test playthroughs and fine adjustments!
“When the quests have been implemented, the cutscenes completed, and the battles incorporated, enabling us to conduct a general playthrough, we will test the content and make fine adjustments as we go along.”
Checking, checking and more checking!
“On top of the QA checks, the dreaded Producer and Director check begins. We tremble as we wait!”
Bug fixes and final adjustments!
“If any bugs are discovered we fix them, and if the Producer and Director provides instructions for revisions, we carry them out while weeping! At times when we really want to avoid those revisions, we must convince Producer and Director Yoshida accordingly. However, unless we can clearly organise our thoughts and explain the reasons logically, the negotiations will likely end up being a waste of time.”
“Everyone, enjoy the new content! An unintentional bug was found? Hurry, we have to prepare a hotfix!”
To enjoy some of Banri Oda’s fine work, find out more about Final Fantasy XIV here.