hen you have a chance to talk to the most renowned video-game composer in the world, you take it. That’s why we were stoked when we found out that Nobuo Uematsu was slated to appear in Minneapolis for a special performance from the Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy tour.
So what do you ask the man who has been asked nearly everything? We began by discussing Uematsu’s early life and his introduction to the world of music. From there, we chatted about the fateful day he was approached by SquareSoft to work on upcoming projects, including the Final Fantasy franchise. We then walked through the process of composing. What part of a game is most difficult to write? How do you keep battle music feeling fresh? And then we asked the tough questions—favorites. What is Uematsu’s favorite project? Best moment with a fan? Favorite composition or collaboration?
All in all, we spent a full hour with the music mastermind. Read on for the full interview. As a special treat, click the media tab above to catch several video highlights of our time with Uematsu.
Game Informer: As a self-taught musician, what inspired you to take up playing piano in your youth, and did you know from early on that that your passion for music would evolve into a career?
Nobuo Uematsu: When I first touched a piano, I was playing it as a hobby, so it was something that I really liked. But when I was around 12 or 13 years old—right around middle school age—I realized that I wanted to do music as a career.
GI: Were videogames an interest to you when you were first approached by Square for work? And did you expect that video game composing could turn into a career?
Uematsu: At first when Square contacted me I had really no interest at all in games. It was a time when even the Super Famicom—Super Nintendo—was not as popular. But I got into working with Square through a friend who actually worked at Square, and so he offered me a position where, you know, “Would you like to write music for Square games?”
GI: It seems that the Final Fantasy series has really set the standard for quality in game soundtracks. Were you surprised when your compositions started being recognized almost as much as the games themselves?
Uematsu: I was very surprised. I never thought that Final Fantasy music soundtracks would ever come this far.
GI: When it comes to composing, how far into the game development process do you start writing? Are you a part of the development team from the very beginning?
Uematsu: I start writing music as soon as most of the major scenarios are done. By the time I start writing music, most of the major characters, pictures and designs are done, so I have an idea what I’m working with—what characters I’m working with. So from then on I have about eight months to write my music.
GI: What piece of music do you generally begin composing first? Do you pick a thematic arc for all the music in a game?
Uematsu: When I begin writing songs I first work on the main theme song—each Final Fantasy game has a different theme song. Upon completion of the first main theme song, that already means 50 percent of my work is pretty much done, so I can build on from there with the other music. And I stress the theme song’s importance—as it becomes almost the face of the game and is what people remember.
GI: The battle theme tends to be the song that’s heard most often in any particular title. Does that make you approach writing it differently?
Uematsu: In fact most Final Fantasy songs, especially the battle songs, it sounds all the same, even to me, they all sound like similar songs. But what I put the most effort in is perhaps the final battle against the big boss, or the final scene. And so, I try to make something different every time.
GI: In almost all of the Final Fantasy games there’s a character that has their own theme song—how do you write these songs in a way that represents Cid or Aeris, or the characters in that game?
Uematsu: First I read the scenario to try and figure out what the character’s personality is. Deriving from the personality, I would start writing the songs. At times I would not quite know what the character is doing or feeling at this certain scenario, so I would actually go to the scenario writer asking for, “Oh what kind of actual—kind of movement—is it going to be dancing? What kind of—is it a battle scene?” All of these questions are asked with the scenario writer.
GI: Tracks featuring vocals tend to be some of the most memorable and best received work, especially with “Eyes on Me” or “Melodies of Life.” Do you have a vocalist in mind when you write such a song?
Uematsu: I don’t have any specific vocal singer in mind when I writes the songs. So first of all the song, the melody, the vocal, the lyrics come first. And then when the song is actually completed, we have a meeting with all the staff members and decide on which singer would be most suitable for this kind of song.