While speaking with Yoshitaka Amano, the legendary designer who created art for almost every game in the Final Fantasy series, I asked him about his dream project. Would he want to work on a direct sequel to Final Fantasy VI? Maybe a Dragon Quest game? Some sort of crazy Chrono Trigger spinoff?
"Something with cute girls," Amano said. "Where it's maybe not so dark and weird. A really cute, pretty fun world."
Jovial, friendly, and full of energy even at age 60, Amano spoke to me through a translator in a private room during Comic Con in Manhattan last weekend. We talked for 20 minutes, during which he told me all about his work process, how the way he works has (or hasn't) changed with the advance of graphical technology in gaming over the past two decades, and even his favourite Final Fantasy characters. The veteran designer is partial to Moogles, and one certain green-haired heroine.
(Note: The translator referred to Amano via third-person, but for clarity's sake, I've switched all pronouns to first-person.)
"I like all of them, but I think of some more fondly than others," Amano said. "One is Tina." (Better known in the U.S. as Final Fantasy VI's Terra.)
"And Kain in Final Fantasy IV — he and Tina really stick around to me because I feel like they were actually actors, like they're actually coming to life for me," he said. "I spent a lot of time putting my heart into them, and it feels like they're almost like people acting in roles rather than just characters I created. I like drawing good-looking guys and really cute girls — if you had to project a stereotype of what each one of these ones is to me, that's Kain and Tina."
Maybe that's why Amano wants to stick to more lighthearted fare. He's currently doing art for a project called Candy Girls, which he says is full of cute girls he likes drawing. He's also working on at least one new video game, but he wouldn't tell me anything about it.
"Anything you can hint at?" I asked.
Amano chuckled. "It's not a tennis or baseball game."
Okay. Is he still working on the much-delayed Final Fantasy Versus XIII? And what sort of art did he create for that game?
"I don't remember much about that anymore," he said. "You know, when you work on one specific project, a lot of time passes from when you first start talking about it to when you're done... As Final Fantasy goes on, I've just done so much that I'm not — you know, it could've been five years that I'd worked on that project and I only did it every 13 days or something like that."
Like his art, Amano's creative process is bizarre and inimitable. Instead of working on one project at a time, he'll throw a ton of scrap paper on his desk and bounce from drawing to drawing, sketching up a storm of games, comics, and all sorts of other fantastical works of art.
"I prefer it that way," Amano said. "I need that to keep things fresh for me... it's how I keep my freshness, basically, in between projects."
Amano is a freelancer — though he works with Square Enix a great deal, he's not committed to any one company. So he has the freedom to be chaotic and creative, a freedom that Amano says has become an essential part of the way he works.
"They'll come and say we need a character: here's the age, it's a boy or a girl, or it's this kind of personality," Amano said, "and just the very basic things like in the game it's a bad guy or a good guy or whatever it is, and I'll go from there. It's important for [me] — even though they'll tell me something — to break away from those elements so you never know what'll happen. You probably produce your best stuff when you don't listen."
"Do your bosses get mad?" I asked.
Amano laughed. "No, you just draw another one."
The designer referred to his work as "just drawing pictures," which, while more difficult than it sounds, is spot on: he does not create 3D graphics or animate characters. He just sketches designs and sends them off to the team, hoping that "at least 70%" of what he had in mind will show up in the final product.
So when I asked Amano how he felt about the evolution of Final Fantasy characters from 8-bit sprites to stunning polygons, he said it didn't really make a difference — that it's "not something he thinks is really good or bad." His work hasn't changed. He just draws pictures.
"Back in the day you could have a 16-bit character, and it was a lot more reliant on the imagination of the player," Amano said. "And the people who play video games are that kind of people — they have a lot of imagination... You're looking at the character, but inside your head it's something totally different.
"So maybe when you were playing Final Fantasy whatever, the box cover — those characters were running around in your head even though what's on the screen might be totally different."
Amano seems to be a huge fan of gaming as a form of expression, so I was curious: does he ever play video games?
"No," he said. Back when he was first working on the original Final Fantasy, some 25 years ago, Square would send him games to play, but his kids would just grab them off the counter. Amano's kids, now 35 and 33, grew up with the games that he drew art for.
"The kids would just take the controllers and start playing," Amano said, laughing. "I wanted to play, I just never had the opportunity."
Amano might not have played any of the Final Fantasy games, but it's hard not to disagree with his personal favourite. When I asked if he was particularly proud of his work on any of the Final Fantasy games, he said yes: Final Fantasy VI.
"It kind of included this industrial Mecca," he said, "and it was kind of the first time that Final Fantasy did that. So it was kind of a change of pace, but it really worked well in my opinion. So Final Fantasy VI would probably be my answer."