Kingdom Hearts II Tetsuya Nomura interview

Kingdom Hearts IITetsuya Nomura was the director, concept artist, and character designer for Kingdom Hearts (on PS2), Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories (on GBA), and Kingdom Hearts II (on PS2). The Japanese Kingdom Hearts II Ultimania did an interview with him. You better have finished Kingdom Hearts or you’ll find lots of spoilers in an interview that is actually answering lots of questions 🙂

When did KHII’s development officially start?
In the previous game, I inserted a secret movie in hopes of creating a sequel, but to actually pull it off, KHII had a number of hurdles that I had to clear first. Like our wish “to give Mickey more spotlight”, we had to wait until Disney allowed that and once it’s settled, then we could finally talk about KHII’s development.

Once the project started, did you have an image of how you wanted KHII to be like?
One of (our goals) was to recover all the foreshadowing from the previous game. Then we took all the complaints we heard from it and fixed it to bring satisfaction. At the same time, we also thought of adding more into direction and increase choices in the battle system. Like this, the development was going towards the path of increasing the volume of the game from the start, so we thought “There are a lot of things that need to be done, but let’s do all of them” and stuck to that thinking.

So is the finished game’s volume just like what you expected, Nomura-san?
No, I didn’t expect it to go this far. My staff just wouldn’t stop working. (laugh) I thought we would start cutting back some things if we ever run out of time, but many of the staff just wouldn’t stop. I asked them “Are you alright with this?” and they would simply answer “Yeah, I can do this.” I’ve always been nervous all the time but in the end they accomplished and I was moved. “Wow, you all really did it.”

In the huge battle where we have to go through 1000 Heartless, all the staff thought they couldn’t pull it off but in the end they could, eh?
Yes. I always estimated that “If we have to drop something, it’ll have to be this part” but instead the staff demand for something higher. When it came to “No, we can’t do that but if we go a little lower, that should be okay,” I thought we would leave it at that but the staff would still make something of a higher level. (laugh) That is why I didn’t think that huge battle would actually materialize to that point in the end.

Kingdom HeartsCompared to its prequel, there are a lot of impressions on how there are less Jump actions, more user-friendly help menus and the difficulty level is lower; did you put that into thought?
Yes. Last time we made a lot of things less user-friendly and we end up really being told it’s “not friendly”. (laugh) So that’s why this time we added information, navigation maps and so on, and created it to be very user-friendly.

Did you have troubles because this is a sequel?
The game’s story is a direct sequel of the first game so yes, there was that fear. Initially I didn’t bear it in my mind as “a sequel”. But, as I sat down and thought calmly before the game’s release, I thought “How will those who didn’t know about the previous game think of KHII? I wonder if they won’t buy it. Maybe this isn’t good.” But still many people accepted it so I’m glad.

3 days after the game’s release 1 million copies of it got shipped out in Japan, after all. Do you think there’s a reason on why the fanbase has widen?
I get the feeling it’s because we made something that has a wide ‘frontage’, something that doesn’t have age or gender as its threshold. I hear things like “My 6-year-old son is playing this” and “People in their 40’s and 50’s also play this” quite often. I guess that means it’s because the game has a ‘wide frontage’.

What’s the theme that you most wanted to express this time?
Not just this time; “Kingdom Hearts” always have something like “a person’s heart” and “connection of hearts” as its theme. Like the strength of an invisible “heart” or what’s the most important thing to you, that’s what I was thinking while drawing the story.

One of the surprises of playing KHII is that the scenes and lines foreshadowed in the “deep dive” secret movie in KH:FM were actually cleared. On solving the underplots, how much was hypothesized back in the first KH?
I think half was thought up back in the first game, another half was thought up once we started working on KHII. Even so, that doesn’t mean we didn’t think of them at all in the first place, but more like a rough “maybe we should do this.” We also changed somethings we thought up at that time so that’s what I mean by half-half.

For example, the heart-shaped moon in the previous game’s key visual showed up this time as the Kingdom Hearts. Did you think of doing this right from the start?
No, I didn’t. I asked Nojima-san (Nojima Kazushige) to write KHII’s scenario and in his scenario it was written that the Kingdom Hearts Xemnas created is “like a moon that floats in the World that Never Was.” When I read that, I thought “Oh, this can be connected!” (laugh) so I made it to look like the moon in the previous game’s key visual. The World that Never Was has the “Dark City” right from the beginning of the game’s development and since then its background is night. That’s why when Nojima-san wrote that Xemnas was creating Kingdom Hearts in the sky, coincidentally he wrote “it looks like a moon” but I thought it got connected by destiny.

If KHII was never released, what would happen to the mysteries left in the first game?
I guess they’ll just stay untold. (laugh) I have a severe opinion about that but I think a game that doesn’t sell just shouldn’t have a sequel. If many people want a sequel, I’ll have to answer to that but if not, I have to bravely give up. Thank goodness we had a lot of fans saying they want a continuation so we were able to make it, but if KH was a game that nobody wants a sequel of, then it’s not that bad for the unsolved mysteries to stay that way, anyway. Besides, even if KHII was not released now, the fans can still have fun with the underplots in the previous game and make their own speculations. In that way, although the game gets old, people can still continue being happy with it so I think it’s possible to draw the curtain like how the previous game did.

A game sure needs elements where people can discuss and make speculation.
When we were kids, we always thought “there’s not enough things to imagine from this” when reading manga, watching anime or playing games, and I thought that is strange. Whether it’s game, anime or manga, there should be a place where you can speculate things. I have that feeling so I wanted to make a game that gives space for your imagination. That’s why I don’t like revealing everything and say “This is the answer.” Just like when I was a kid, I want to make something that can allow people to let loose their imagination with.

How did you choose the worlds that get inserted into KHII?
Just like in the first KH, we make sure we don’t overlay each world’s outlooks. In abstract, we make world categories like “lots of greens”, “gothic”, “near future” and so on, and then think which world fits those categories. For example, in the first game there was the “Tarzan” world and at the same time there’s an idea for a “Jungle Book” world, too. But both worlds’ appearances look almost the same so I took some opinions from the staff and make a choice between those two. KHII’s worlds were chosen one-by-one like that, too, but at that time I was at Disney’s HQ in Los Angeles to make contract negotiations. On the day we had an appointment with the Disney HQ on requesting which worlds we wanted to use, I sent emails (through handphone) to the staff asking “This world got the OK sign, so what do you think?” and so on and made the choices at real-time.

Half of the worlds in the first game were major Disney titles so did you have a hard time choosing new worlds?
Before choosing a world I certainly wondered if the choice was okay or not. But when I thought of “Tron”, “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Steamboat Willie” and so on, I got the feeling those are good choices. Half of the worlds overlayed with the previous game’s but the new worlds give great impact so I thought they would be alright. Besides, this is still a sequel so people might want to re-visit some old worlds. In that way, both old and new worlds are inserted at the right ratio.

I heard it was you who suggested to insert the Seasalt Ice-cream in the game.
Yes, I did. When the Tokyo Disney Sea opened and I went there by invitation, they were selling Seasalt Ice-creams at the time. You would think a “salty ice-cream” seems a pretty weird idea, right? I was like “What is this?” so I tried it out and it turned out to be very tasty. My impression of it back then was so strong that I overlapped Disney’s image with seasalt ice-cream. Besides that, Roxas’ story is set in summer break and I wondered what did I eat back in summer breaks when I was a kid and I remembered “Ah, of course, ice-cream.” Although I was the one who said I wanted to use it, Nojima-san was was the one who actually made it show up that much. Even I was surprised; “You’re using it this often!?” (laugh) I think that shows the playful-ness of Nojima-san’s scenarios.

The text that’s written on the photos in Jiminy Memo’s Album is written by you, right?
Yes. The project and menu leader came to my booth and said hesitantly “I want the text in the Album to be hand-written.” I answered “I think that’s okay” and he replied “No, I want you to write them down, Nomura-san.” At that time there weren’t that many sheets of paper so I said, “sure, I can write it” but just as I finished writing and gave back those sheets, more and more sheets kept coming in to the point of making me wonder when exactly they would stop coming in, and that’s when I thought, “Oh, shoot.” (laugh)

Since those writings were ‘written by Sora’, that means Sora’s handwriting is the same as your handwriting, right? (laugh)
Yeah, I suppose so. (laugh) My handwritings have been used in websites and advertisements so when I asked “Wouldn’t people recognize it’s my handwriting?”, they just answered “That’ll be okay.” By the way, those text will be erased in the international version and just be something limited to the Japanese version. I asked them “You’re not saying I should write English for the NA version or French or German in the UK version, right?” and they answered “No, we’re not inserting the text in the international versions” so I was saved by that. (laugh)

On what kind of basis did you choose the Final Fantasy characters?
In a way, we selected characters that are on demand. We considered from both fans and the staff’s opinions and it all ends with just characters that are highly on demand.

And Tifa from FFVII showed up.
In fact, back when we were working on KH:FM, some of the staff members wanted to have Tifa show up. They said “Battling with Tifa would be fun, in a melee sense” and originally wanted to add both Sephiroth and Tifa (into KH:FM) but due to tight schedules, we could only go with one character so we inserted Sephiroth into KH:FM. Because of that, we decided to let Tifa show up in this game. When we were recording the voices for KHII, coincidentally they were also doing the recording for FFVII:AC so somehow we end up doing “Today we record FFVII:AC, tomorrow KHII”… (laugh) The voices were recorded in the same flow so I’m glad about that.

Speaking of Tifa, there’s an event where she talked to Cloud after beating Sephiroth.
In Nojima-san’s scenario, it explained Cloud and Tifa’s connection more in-depth but I deleted it away. I thought it would be more interesting to let the gamers think about it. For example, “If Cloud’s darkness is Sephiroth, then Tifa is light”; in that sense you can take it that Tifa isn’t really human. The reason Tifa doesn’t talk to anyone else besides Sora and co. may be because she doesn’t exist as a human. Of course, I also presented her in a way that she could also be a resident of Hollow Bastion, so I think you can feely think for yourself about her.

So Yuna, Rikku and Paine showed up as faeries this time.
I’ve always wanted to have a FF character showing up as “something that looks human but isn’t human” at least once. Since “Kingdom Hearts” is a deformed world, I wanted to have a little fun with that. And as a plus, if all three showed up in their normal human size, I was kind of worried that the screen might get a bit too crowded. At least I’ve aways thought that if I were to make them appear in the game, having them as faeries would make them as very interesting beings. I wasn’t deeply involved with FFX-2 but from the impression I got of looking at them as an audience, their positions in this game is how I see them.

Were you planning to insert Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children (FFVII:AC) characters into KHII initially?
No. I didn’t want to insert too many things from my newer works and FFVII:AC’s world is very serious and has a little madness mixed into it so it was quite difficult to familiarize it to KHII’s mood. I wasn’t thinking of forcing to insert something that wouldn’t fit in.

On the subject of characters, all the mysterious XIII Organization members finally appeared in KHII. Was it you who thought up of their settings?
No, I didn’t completely decide on everything; a few people were also part of it. But Xemnas as #1 and Roxas as #13 has always been in the initial settings of the creation of the XIII Organization.

Kingdom Hearts Chain of MemoriesWas there any mentioning of making the members that disappeared in KH:COM to show up as guests in the Coliseum?
I did want to do that but I never said it out loud. If the members that died in KH:COM showed up, I would have to think of the details on why they’re there, prepare the events and we’ll need more work on creating the battles. Some of the staff said “It’s kind of a waste since we already have CG models (of them) for the movies” but because of the schedule, nobody would go ahead to do something reckless.I actually like the XIII Organization a lot. Especially Luxord, I like how he’s stylish and strangely has a glossy demeanor.

Looks like Zexion has a lot of fans.
Probably because he’s quite enigmatic. He’s the only member who showed up with no weapons but it’s not because he doesn’t have his own weapon, it’s more of because he died without fighting so nobody knows what’s his weapon. I have an idea on what his weapon is and I might have a chance of showing it in the near future so I’ll keep it as a secret for now. That reminds me, in the World that Never Was, each XIII Organization member had a gravestone for them and each of those have a picture of their weapons and that’s when Zexion became a problem for us. “Eh, we’re gonna put a spoiler on Zexion’s weapon there!?” (laugh) That’s a bit too much so we decided to destroy the gravestone so that his weapon couldn’t be seen.

Previously you said “The members of the XIII Organization have something hidden in their names”, can you reveal the answer to us now?
Before this I’ve mentioned that when their names are spelt in Roman alphabets, there will surely be an “X”, right? The truth is that when the “X” is taken away, the alphabets that are left behind is an anagram of the members’ real names when they were humans. I actually wanted to insert an event scene showing how Roxas got his name. First the word “SORA” popped up and those letters were rearranged into “ROAS” and BAM, suddenly the “X” got inserted in the middle and he was told “Take this name….” Well, I had an image like that but it was something difficult to do time-wise so I gave up.

Kingdom Hearts II Original SoundtrackFollowing the previous game, Utada Hikaru also sang the theme song for this game, “Passion.”
Many fans seem to have the image Kingdom Hearts = Utada Hikaru so I didn’t think of changing that at all. This time I wrote a story explanation for her that’s longer than the previous game’s. We decided to have it played at the last scene, so for me the theme was “Sora and Riku’s reunion.” I wrote stuff like “An image of a reunion, a happy moment in a way” and “Like a Hikari 2” in there.

In the single version, there are phrases like “Seems like a child will be born in winter” and “The New Year’s card has a photo attached to it” in it…
After getting the finished song, we worked on the movie to make it synchronize with the song, and when we were almost finishing, suddenly I was told “we’ve made a single version” so I tried listening to it and noticed those phrases were added into the lyrics, so we didn’t know about it initially. Come to think about it, if those phrases were added earlier, we would have been brainstorming how to make the movie fit that part of the song. (laugh) I guess it’s because Utada-san understood that “Kingdom Hearts” won’t be using that part of the song.

It was amazing on how the ending synchronized well with the song and movie.
The first KH’s ending also stuck well with the theme song, but this time it was a bit more difficult because the song started with soft piano keys. Before, the scene that synchronized with the start of the song was Sora letting go of Kairi’s hand but this time this two would hold each other’s hands. In the editting process, we were arguing on how many seconds we should show them holding hands. Someone said “Shouldn’t it look better if we show it longer?” but I said “No, we’re going to show it for just a split second” so we cut it short enough to just show them holding hands. The external editors told me “you’re a really cold person”, though. (laugh)

In the last scene in the ending, they received a letter from the king. I’m quite curious to what’s written in it.
I was troubled for a very long time on whether I should show the letter’s contents or not, and in the end I decided to let people speculate it themselves. You can guess what’s in the letter by looking at those three’s facial expressions: Sora looking at it blankly, Riku smirking and Kairi looking slightly worried. If it was just a “Hello, it’s been awhile”, they would be smiling instead so at least it’s hinted it is not that kind of simple letter. Actually, it was planned to have a little more scene to it and by watching it you could tell what’s in the letter. I might be able to show that scene when I get the chance to.

After the ending, there’s a secret movie this time, too. What exactly is the movie trying to tell?
I actually have a solid idea on what the movie’s setting will be in my head. In the previous game’s secret movie, I wasn’t even sure if I would be making a sequel or not, so some parts of it were quite vague. But this time I already have an idea my head where I think “This is it.”

Did that scene happen in the future or in the past?
I would at least say it’s an episode in the past, but…. Hmm, how should I say this? It’s in the past but you can also think it’s in the future, something like that.

Who are the 3 armoured people?
Those 3 are completely new people who haven’t shown up at all. In fact, I’ve already thought of their names. Back when I was making that movie, I only had their settings but now I’ve even drawn their faces to give myself a clearer image of them.

The king, Sora and Riku’s keyblades were there, too.
It’s to show that those three armoured people aren’t them but that doesn’t mean they don’t have connections. The words “Keyblade War” that showed up in the middle were to implicate that there were fights between Keyblades. Most of the puzzles in the first KH have been solved in KHII but there are many things about the Keyblade that haven’t been revealed yet. A line from the previous game’s Ansem Report #8 appeared in the movie but that is to say “It means this but it’s not explained yet.”

Does that mean you already have a plot for KHIII?
Hmm… I have an idea but it can’t be helped because my team are planning to work on our next different title. So we’re not working on KHIII now and we’re not planning to work on it for some time, too. I have a plot in my head but I’m not sure if it’ll be released to the world or just stay in there.

Well then, is there a possibility for a Final Mix version to be released like the previous game’s?
Actually, I wasn’t planning for KHII to have a Final Mix. In beginning of the project, I wanted to have the English voices inserted, too, but the disc space was almost full and the recording of the English voices got delayed so that plan couldn’t be realized. Compared to FF, there’s a high demand for the English version of “Kingdom Hearts”. I assume it’s because there are many fans who came in through KH:FM so it felt quite weird to play KHII in Japanese when they played the previous game in English. Thanks to KH:FM selling very well, many fans think the English voices are meant for “Kingdom Hearts” so right now I’m in the middle of wondering what to do about Final Mix.

Seems like many gamers are hoping there will be many extras besides the English voices if Final Mix is ever released.
If I were to make it, I’ll have to answer to that demand and I shouldn’t put it at the same level as the previous game’s. But more things have been done for KHII compared to the first KH so I’m troubled on how to make the ‘tuning’ for Final Mix. We still have to think how to solve the disc space problem, too.

Since it’s you after all, Nomura-san, you probably already started thinking of some plans for Final Mix, right?
In fact, I’ve prepared a very big trump card for it but I can’t say what it is yet. It’s something to look forward to if I’m able to make it. (laugh) Besides that, I regret not putting the mushroom Heartless in KHII. In the beginning of the project, I had new ideas that I wanted to use for the mushroom Heartless but it was too grand that it would take a lot of time to make so it got cut out. And the result