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Shoebills and shortening stories in Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers

We chat with the devs responsible for the best chapter in the most beloved story in MMOs

Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers has proven to be another hit expansion for Square Enix’s increasingly beloved MMORPG, and that’s thanks in large part to the strength of its world and story. This should be absolutely clear if you saw the standing ovation at FFXIV’s PAX West panel, which nearly brought main scenario writer Natsuko Ishikawa to tears.

Ishikawa and art team lead Takeo Suzuki went into spoiler-filled detail on the development of Shadowbringers at that panel, but before that, I got to sit down with them and ask some questions – many of which were directly sourced from the Final Fantasy XIV community on Reddit.

They provided detail on what happens at the end of Shadowbringers, how the story has developed over time, and what the truncated version of the main story for A Realm Reborn will look like – along with some hints about what the deal with that shoebill is. Plus, I learned more than I ever thought I needed to know about the challenge of localising fist bumps.

Final Fantasy XIV has been building its story and world over the course of many years. Do you have an outline of where you want it to go over time, or do you start fresh with every update?

Natsuko Ishikawa: As a base, we do have the different areas and regions that are already established in the world, as well as some of the lore. It’s kind of like picking from the options that we have available.

That being said, of course, we do have toys in our toy box. We try to figure out which of these elements best fit with particular timing, depending on what we’re doing with the expansion. Sometimes there may be elements where there is an established lore and we have the option to go in one certain direction. But sometimes we might decide that we want to do something brand new – ‘let’s go to the moon’ or something.

So we do look at where we’re going when we do an expansion, and see how our players feel and what the reception was like from the previous expansion, or how we want to take our narrative.

Is there any specific element you’ve brought to Shadowbringers that you’re especially proud of?

Takeo Suzuki: The art team’s big challenge was introducing the new races, the Hrothgar and the Viera. The Hrothgar are very distinctive – they’re not human-like, and lean very much towards that beast-like look. I’m very proud of how that came out.

NI: We went to the First, which is a completely different location from where our adventures took place up until this point. I’m very happy to see that a lot of players enjoyed the base story of Final Fantasy XIV, but also the story that took place in the First. The reception was really good – people seemed to fall in love with the realm of the First. I’m very proud that we were able to deliver a new location but still have a very rich story to it.

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We’ve heard that A Realm Reborn’s main quest is getting condensed in a future update. Will that affect some of the details of the story, and if so, does that affect your approach in writing the plot going forward?

NI: To offer some clarification on the streamlining of the ARR quests, we’re trying to trim it down. We don’t want to destroy the story experience of the earlier narrative. We just wanted to look at some of the quests that are strung together in particular quest lines. If you’re trying to get from point A to point B, and there are extra tasks that are not as important as some of the key points, we would remove them.

Especially with the quest line after the base ARR game – patches 2.1 through 2.5 – your player character is level 50 at that point, and people were very eager to get into Ishgard. There were a lot of requests, so to speak, so we’re trying to review what we can streamline in that process.

As you’re going through your story quests, you will still encounter those people that you need to meet. We don’t intend on changing the general framework of how the narrative is supposed to carry itself throughout those patches – you can rest assured there. I don’t think we will change how we write our stories in the future.

Do you work closely with the localisation team as you’re developing the story?

NI: For sure, yes, there’s really close communication. With the game being available in multiple languages, we have to do it simultaneously – we don’t want a situation where we release certain content, and it differs between languages. The scenario team and the localisation team are actually on the same floor of the office. We consult each other on a regular basis, and communicate over IM and Skype – the localisation team might submit a list of questions on certain elements of a scenario, and we make sure that we are all aligned so that any questions will be answered.

TS: The art team actually works with the localisation team as well. Whenever we are showing different animations or emotes, things like that, there may be some gestures that would apply to a Japanese audience, but not necessarily to a Western audience. Sometimes we receive advice from the localisation team that we might want to change certain ways of expressing things to convey them correctly across a global audience.

The same goes for some of the cutscenes. We have planning documents that lay out what we want to do, and the localisation team might chime in saying ‘can we change it to something like this, so that it’s more culturally recognisable in different countries?’

Has anything surprised you in how players in other regions have reacted to certain elements, as opposed to Japanese players?

NI: By the time we deliver content to players, we’ve already had our discussion with the localisation team. So we haven’t noticed much of an instance where player feedback was different between the Japanese and Western audiences. But when we discuss it during development, sometimes we realise there are different ways to interpret things.

There’s one in particular that I remember being a topic of great debate. When we think of a fist bump from a Japanese perspective, we go knuckle-to-knuckle, but we’ve been told that Westerners go side-by-side when they do fist bumps.

[Ishikawa and Suzuki demonstrate various types of fist bumps]

It was to be shown in a very important scene, so we had to hash it out really well. We ended up going with the side fist so that it’s more easily recognisable outside of Japan, but I still hear the Japanese audience asking ‘why isn’t it knuckle-to-knuckle?’

Has there ever been a gear set or bit of world design that looked cool in concept, but just didn’t work in the game itself?

TS: To tell you the truth, yeah. There are times when we render something in 3D and we aren’t very pleased with it. But we have really talented 3D artists on our team, so we take that rendering and tweak it during our adjustment period. We really polish and brush up the quality – we always hope that whatever we do deliver to players is the best it can be.

One player mentioned how pleased they were to see so many Mesoamerican and South American references in Shadowbringers. What’s your approach to bringing real cultures and mythologies into the game?

NI: We do take inspiration from different cultures and visual aspects of civilisations around the world. Mesoamerican culture in particular is something I really love, so I wanted to incorporate that in the Rak’tika Greatwood.

With any culture that we reference, we have to make sure we’re not just literally copying and pasting into the game. It needs to make sense within the realm it appears – If we are incorporating it into the areas in the First, or if it’s back on the Source, it needs to look like it belongs there. We ensure that the lore and the history we’ve established makes sense in the context of the overall realm of Final Fantasy XIV.

TS: The same goes for the art side as well. There may be some requests from the different designers and game planners to take reference to different civilizations or different aspects of other cultures. So the art team will also think about how it’s going to blend in with the realm of the First. What kind of history would it have taken if it were in that area? We rack our brains on the background of how we’re going to incorporate it.


Toward the end of Shadowbringers, players defeat Hades without imprisoning him in the White Auracite. But Lahabrea was defeated in a similar way, and eventually returned. Is Hades is done for good?

NI: With Lahabrea, he wasn’t literally put into the White Auracite. But he was absorbed into the dragon’s eye, and Estinien pierced it. Although he wasn’t imprisoned in the White Auracite, you can technically say he’s in the same situation.

When Hades revealed his true form, and his soul was there, we didn’t capture it in the White Auracite. He was held down and pierced with a stake, basically. He was captured and not able to move at that point, and then the Warrior of Light struck him with the blow, so it is believed that Hades has been completely destroyed.

Did Ardbert’s soul join with the Warrior of Light, or was that a temporary transfer of power?

NI: It is a sort of merger between Ardbert and the Warrior of Light.

Will we ever learn who the Warrior of Light’s soul used to belong to?

NI: [forebodingly] We shall see.

One player mentioned that their favourite part of the story was the interaction between Thancred and Urianger at Amh Araeng. What’s your approach to writing and revising a scene like that?

NI: First and foremost, we make sure that we establish the characters individually. I try to think about the character to the point where I know exactly who they are, and there’s no deviating from their characteristics.

In the scene with Thancred and Urianger, Thancred now has this person he really wants to protect, which is Minfilia. I wanted to depict this new feeling of a bond towards someone he feels, like family. He’s never felt that before; I wanted to bring that out.

On the other hand, Urianger is very gentle and kind, but his choice of words tends to be very snobby, very holier-than-thou. So with this scene, we wanted to bring out the fact that he’s now being more careful in how he communicates with others.

You have those two characters, and then we have Minfilia, who has her own feelings in her heart. From there, I try to see how we can properly convey what each of them are feeling individually, but at the same time bring it together.

Finally, is there any significance to the shoebill that keeps showing up in the main story of Shadowbringers?

NI: It could be a very important character… maybe. Because it does appear in the level 80 Amaurot dungeon, it could potentially be something very important! With that being said, it is very much shrouded in mystery. It has been observing our Warriors of Light from afar. When you look back, there it is. So it may be quite a challenge to unravel what mystery it contains.