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A screenshot from Fantasian, which merges digital characters with miniature dioramas. Photo: Mistwalker

Final Fantasy creator’s new game Fantasian uses 150 handmade dioramas to build a world ‘that cannot be replicated’

  • Looking strikingly different from any other game, Fantasian sees digital characters traverse landscapes that are heavily stylised, living photographs
  • Players can delay battles until they’re ready by sending enemies to a mystical dungeon, giving them time to explore the intricate environments
Video gaming

Before Hironobu Sakaguchi began work on his latest role-playing game – he’s championed and explored the RPG genre throughout his career – the creator of the famed Final Fantasy series opted to look back before setting his sights forward.

Sakaguchi not too long ago replayed Final Fantasy VI, the 1994 entry in the franchise that is still considered among the series’ best. Having turned his attention to mobile game development – with his next, Fantasian, launching as an exclusive to Apple Arcade, the tech giant’s subscription service – Sakaguchi says Final Fantasy VI offered a number of reminders and lessons for modern game development.

“Back in the day, everything was done in tiles,” says Sakaguchi via a translator. “Your character would move one tile at a time. That introduces puzzle-like elements, in which you might see a treasure tile that you can’t access. But if you walk around the building and go through the back door, you might be able to reach that chest.

“When the player reaches the ending, it feels like they have seen everything this world has to offer. That desire – that craving that humans have – we’re trying to recreate.”

A screenshot from Fantasian. Photo: Mistwalker

For Fantasian, Sakaguchi wanted to present players with an overview of a game world, offering them a universe that invites curiosity via what is shown rather than what is hidden.

The renowned Japanese game designer didn’t want to create a retro game, but Fantasian is a bit old school, at least in how it places century-old storytelling techniques at its forefront – in this case, using about 150 hand-built dioramas. It is a rare video game doesn’t just use physical environments but also celebrates them.

Those environments add a feeling of fragility and a lived-in, aged look to the game. Digital characters traverse landscapes that are heavily stylised, living photographs. A tiny bed looks like a cloud made of porcelain, towns and buildings emerge from hand-sculpted caverns, and the very real rocks have a foreboding presence when they clash with the game’s animation.

A screenshot from Fantasian. Photo: Mistwalker

Video game engines today are capable of powerful, cinema-ready graphics, but with Fantasian Sakaguchi has created a mobile game that feels tactile – a world we want to touch.

“To be able to get that feeling from the other side of a glass screen was almost a poetic experience,” he says.

Sakaguchi isn’t kidding. When he speaks of the intricate dioramas for the game, he talks not only of a renewed appreciation for game design but also life itself.

“A big surprise for me – there’s a mountain-scape stage – and in the dioramas, there’s a little bit of green and flowers littered about the pathway,” he says. “I’m sure it was just a small decoration, but as we photographed it for transitioning into a 3D mesh and bringing it into the digital world, I would zoom into these flowers and – my goodness – it was amazing how strong their presence was inside of these scenes.”

A screenshot from Fantasian. Photo: Mistwalker

And although the game could have been made entirely with computer graphics – rather than by building dioramas, taking hundreds of photographs of them and then scanning them – Sakaguchi says he wasn’t interested in that potential “short cut”, although he stressed that development time would have been about the same.

In part, he simply wanted a role-playing game that looked strikingly different from anything else on the market. Also, after decades of working in the RPG space, the 58-year-old wanted a challenge.

“It’s possible to create something that is diorama-esque in the 3D, CG [computer graphics] space, but I think [with Fantasian] there’s a unique handmade touch that cannot be replicated,” Sakaguchi says.

“For instance, if you’re creating a vast forest in CG, regardless of whether you put in diorama-esque fixtures or give it that shading to give it a handmade feel, at some point it will become repetitive, too symmetrical. When making something with your hands, it warps the visual in a very unique way that can’t be replicated.”

Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi. Photo: Getty Images

The 150 dioramas were crafted by a staff of about 150. Although the battle scenes will be fully animated, Sakaguchi is betting on players wanting to absorb the dioramas. Thus, when enemies are encountered, players can send them to a mystical dungeon. Or, in other words, they can delay the battles until they’re ready for action, allowing users to dictate their own pace.

The game, about three years in the making and with no current plans to be made available outside the Apple Arcade ecosystem, is nearing completion. Apple began a promotional push recently by touting the exclusive, without a specific release date, in its App Store.

Multiple intricate settings were created for Fantasian. Photo: Mistwalker

Although Sakaguchi’s Mistwalker studio has worked in the mobile space before, with Fantasian he says he wanted no direct concessions to the smartphone- and tablet-focused medium, saying it is his job, and goal, to create a game worthy of ignoring text message notifications.

“On a technical level, there have been some learnings from recent projects Mistwalker has undertaken,” Sakaguchi says. “But Fantasian is a full-blown console RPG experience. I drew upon that experience. I want to recreate that feel and touch for Fantasian.”