As soon as the music begins to play, in those first three notes, you know immediately what kind of game you’re playing. The notes rise swiftly and fall in time while a story of heroes and crystals is laid out before you. The man who wrote this song did so in ten minutes, and almost thirty years later it is one of the most recognizable songs in the history of video games. It is not this man I have come to praise, but the man who came after.
While Naoki Yoshida was hard at work salvaging the remains of Final Fantasy XIV’s disastrous launch, the task of Lead Composer was not given back to Nobuo Uematsu who had composed and arranged 1.0's score, but to the relatively unheard of Masayoshi Soken.
Soken, Mexican-born and later Tokyo University of Science graduate, had joined Square in 2001. His first big break into the business was as lead composer for Mario Hoops 3-on-3, a basketball game starring characters from both the Mario and Final Fantasy series. The same year he also composed the score for Dawn of Mana. In 2010, Soken was given the position of Sound Director for Final Fantasy XIV.
During redevelopment into A Realm Reborn, Soken was rehired as Sound Director and Lead Composer, though he dedicated the most of his time into composition. Where Nobuo had been given free reign to compose as he saw fit for the game, Soken was given much tighter reins. Naoki Yoshida had told Soken to “give [the team] something straightforward that anyone could identify as Final Fantasy, with an easy-to-understand, expressive orchestral sound”. Soken and his sound team were given less than a year to create the entire soundtrack and effects for the entire game, all the while being requested by the rest of the team to create new tracks. Soken had remarked that he and his staff did enough work for two games during this period of time. Despite his strict guidelines, Soken was allowed to do whatever he liked with the Titan battle theme, sang some vocals on the soundtrack including the Leviathan battle theme, and remixed classic Final Fantasy songs for special event battles.
With less than a decade of experience compared to Nobuo’s thirty years, Soken was instructed to do the impossible: follow in the footsteps of the man who had crafted many unforgettable tracks. It wouldn’t be easy, but Soken was more than up to the task. Much like Nobuo did before him for XIV, Soken utilized both orchestral and rock influence for his tracks. The themes for the various lands in Eorzea cover a wide range of styles. The upbeat drums and flute of Thanalan’s To the Sun, the militaristic trumpets, drums, and highland bagpipe of La Noscea’s On Westerly Winds, the soothing piano and strings of The Black Shroud’s Serenity. These themes are beautifully crafted and inspire a sense of adventure tailor-fitted for their respective regions. These songs truly invoke the feeling of playing a Final Fantasy title.
Where Soken’s work begins to drift are the Primal battle themes. Titan’s battle begins with electric guitar and drums in Weight of a Whisper, a steady beat that almost personifies the element of the earth. As the battle progresses, Weight of his Will increases in intensity, the drums and guitar much stronger than before. Weight of the World, the third part dips deeper in tone and paired with the fight growing steadily more difficult it adds a sense of desperation. Heartless, the fourth part of Titan’s battle adds vocals and another steady drum beat and guitar. When the phase changes upon Titan’s Earthen Fury, Under the Weight begins with its much heavier and cohesive drums and guitar. The chanted, guttural and screamed lyrics clash to distract against the task of staying alive in this difficult fight. While difficult to focus on game play and music at the same time, the entirety of these works make this fight feel larger than life. While dodging attacks and dishing out your own in kind, the heavy rock music pumps you up just as much as the fight itself.
Soken’s music also seems to find influence from other sources. Good King Moggle Mog XII takes the classic theme of the moogles and twists it into something that sounds like it came out of Tim Burton film. The lyrics are fun and hard not to sing along to. Unbending Steel, Ravana’s theme, has deep vocals that sound similar to Rammstein which fit perfectly for this proud marching song. Soken even landed into a little trouble with Powerman5000 when Sephirot’s theme, Fiend, sounded a little too much like one of their hits.
The music in Final Fantasy XIV isn’t just good from a musical standpoint, but also from a technological one. By utilizing multiple audio channels music in game can transition seamlessly from calm to intense as battle begins. This is most obvious during raids such as The Void Ark where the moody Aetherpause plays while outside of combat then ramps up into In Darkness There is One upon the very first blow. This is done by playing three different tracks at once in different audio channels. Aetherpause, In Darkness There is One, and an unnamed transitional track. By prioritizing channels in time to battles it also creates amazing effects. In the Soul of the Creator, the final battle against Alexander Prime, the theme Rise plays. During combat, Alexander freezes time and the entire battle, save for him, stops. During the freezes in time the music transitions to a far-away sounding ambient track of beat and beeps, then picks up immediately where Rise stopped when time resumes. Planning something as spectacular as this requires working alongside the Battle Team to make fights as spectacular, both audibly and visually as possible.
Soken also works closely with the Lore Team when developing these songs for battles against important bosses. The lyrics in every song are just as important to the game as every line of spoken dialogue and are often subject to numerous interpretations. One recent song, Equilibrium, has been transcribed* (*see update below) and tells two stories based on one’s interpretation.
The song of the shifting sea; the kiss of the salt-sweet breeze
The warmth of her silken dress; stained in red
Her memory fading fast; her mother sits, eyes downcast
A tormented form in hand; farewells unsaid
Not once a certainty, lost in grief;
A daughter’s desperate cries, unheard pleas;
Forsaken ancient rite, on her knees;
A prayer passes from her lips;
Into her soul the Goddess whispers:
“A heartbeat without melody
is moonlight without dark.
The heart seeketh equilibrium;
With balance fill your world with calm.
So sing this broken melody,
And let wings shelter thee,
One must start by believing,
An empty heart the light will seek.
An empty heart the light will seek.“
This song plays during the battle against the second of the Warring Triad, Sophia the Goddess. On the surface it tells the story of a mother who has lost her daughter, an innocent life taken by the war between the Allagan and Meracydian. Taken by the grief of losing her daughter she summons forth Sophia to exact her revenge, becoming her thrall in the process. On a deeper level, we know that the Primals and Eikons of Eorzea feel their worshipers are their children. This song could also be telling of how Sophia watched her children being slaughtered by Allag before intervening.
Working in conjunction with both the Battle and Lore Teams Soken has made his music contribution to the game just as important to the experience as the visuals, story, and game play. This is much like how Nobuo’s music has become such an integral part to the Final Fantasy series over all these years. It’s impossible to guess what kind of musical direction Final Fantasy XIV would have gone in if Nobuo had been rehired for the task, but it’s safe to say that it has been left in more than capable hands. With any luck, in another twenty years we will see this man leading his own world-tour concerts. In my eyes, he’s the only one worthy of following in the footsteps of legends.
Official lyrics for Equilibrium were revealed this past weekend at the Final Fantasy XIV FanFest. Along with these lyrics, Soken revealed the true story behind the song. A woman’s husband is killed in battle against the Allagan Empire and in her grief begins to beat her daughter. The daughter prays to Sophia and the Goddess tells her that the death of her father has brought imbalance to the family. To bring back equilibrium she is tasked to kill her mother. Upon doing so, Sophia tells the daughter that there still isn’t balance and she must kill herself, which she does by walking off a cliff.