The Last Story: Innovation where you don't expect it
Though Takuya Matsumoto worked at Sega during its big booth heyday, on titles such as NiGHTS and Sonic Adventure, at E3 2012 he was tucked into half of a tiny meeting room. There, he spoke to Gamasutra about his latest title, The Last Story, on which he was the development lead, overseeing both level design and programming.
He now works at MarvelousAQL, the game's developer, which collaborated with Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi's Mistwalker studio on the title.
Unlike most recent Japanese games, The Last Story is a successful blend of Western and Eastern design philosophies -- the Japanese strengths bolstered, not smothered, by influences from Western games. It's a refined game, with a strong and continuously evolving battle system and a compelling cast of characters.
And unlike Lost Odyssey and Blue Dragon -- the latter of which Matsumoto also worked on, and which is almost indistinguishable from a 16-bit game, aside from its Xbox 360-powered graphics -- The Last Story successfully fits in the present. It's simply a clever, fun, and surprising game.
He told Gamasutra of his desire to create "variation and excitement throughout" the game by balancing the story and gameplay elements. Unlike most JRPGs, which are still broken up into discrete story and gameplay segments, The Last Story has on-the-fly character dialogue during its dungeons, which keeps the game's pace quick and helps develop its cast.
Balancing the game's pacing was "really difficult", said Matsumoto. "If we balance the gameplay aspect and emotional aspect as even, it becomes a flat game altogether," he said.
"The most important thing with this title is the tempo of the game," said Matsumoto. "We had a really difficult time cutting out all the unnecessary stuff -- even though we thought it was necessary. But for the tempo of the game, we needed to take it out."
He was surprised, though, that Sakaguchi wasn't precious about his story -- he was "completely open" to letting Matsumoto nip and tuck it where necessary.
"Whatever Sakaguchi-san wrote as a scenario, I thought that was the base of the game, so you canít really touch that," he said. "But more than anything he cared about the gameplay -- how the players will interact with it."
It turns out, says Matsumoto, that the Final Fantasy series went through the "same trial and error," Sakaguchi told him.
While the on-the-fly dialogue sequences in The Last Story bear a strong resemblance to Western games like Uncharted, it turns out that wasn't the feature's only inspiration -- though it was an influence.
A writer who came onto the project, Masaru Hatano, proposed an in-game dialogue feature. More interestingly, Matsumoto himself, however, found inspiration elsewhere -- television. He "really loved" the way The West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin "explains everything, and so I wanted to implement something like that in a game from a long time ago -- but if you do that in a cutscene, then itís just not the same, because itís basically just watching."
The appearance of the feature in Naughty Dog's top-selling series vindicated his instincts, he said, over the years he worked on The Last Story.
"This probably took four years to create, and every year we came to E3. And in checking out E3, we were able to look at different types of games -- especially Western games -- and we saw the same type of direction that we were going. And that was like a reassurance that we were taking the game in the right direction."
In fact, he says, the final game's first dungeon was the fourth he worked on -- and the game's in medias res opening moments are a testament to this style of storytelling.
Another big influence on the game was its Japanese publisher -- Nintendo. (The North American release, due next month, is handled by boutique publisher Xseed.)
"There were a whole lot of requests from Mario Club," said Matsumoto with a bit of a smile, referring to the company's famous testing subsidiary, which tunes its own games. Though he didn't share details, it's clear that these requests were not trivial to deal with.
They were difficult for Matsumoto's pride, too. However, he doesn't begrudge his publisher: "All the requests that we got were spot on. They really know what theyíre talking about, because they have a lot of skill and knowledge."
"In a way, what we created was fine, but it was still rough around the edges. But I think by going through Nintendo, it really took out the unnecessary parts and refined it as a game." This drive for refinement, he said, "is the reason why it took so long" to release The Last Story.
He thinks they taught him something invaluable, in fact. "Refinement is one of the most important aspects" of development, he said. "The Nintendo influence was big, in a good way; at the same time it gave me confidence that if I really pushed my boundaries harder, then I can get to this level on my own."