My interview with VGO CEO/Producer, Shota Nakama

In August 2015, I was given the honour of interviewing the CEO/Producer of VGO – Video Game Orchestra, Shota Nakama. VGO is a combined orchestra and rock band that performs contemporary arrangements of video game music. They’re located in Boston, United States where they have in recent years recorded the soundtracks for BD1’s LIGHTNING RETURNS: FINAL FANTASY XIII, BD3’s KINGDOM HEARTS HD 2.5 ReMIX and now BD2’s FINAL FANTASY XV. I asked him about how he started working with Square Enix, what its like playing the games after working on their soundtracks, differences between working on LIGHTNING RETURNS’s and KINGDOM HEARTS HD 2.5 ReMIX’s soundtrack, what its like working with Masashi Hamauzu, the lead composer of the FINAL FANTASY XIII series and Yoko Shimomura, the composer of the KINGDOM HEARTS series and more. You can read the entire interview below. Big thanks to VGO for making this happen.

Sora96: Firstly, how did you first start working with Square Enix? How did you get the honour of working on Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII’s soundtrack?

Shota: Masashi Hamauzu and I became good friends after our first encounter back in 2012. VGO had an opportunity to perform with his project, Imeruat, at a large anime convention over in Chicago called Anime Central. We had such a great time there performing, talking about our life and everything. Shortly after, he called me saying if I want to work on “that”, which I had no idea what it was about. Of course I said yes just like I do to pretty much everything. That is how the collaboration began, and that was the first time I worked with SQEX.

By the way, I must mention that Masashi Hamauzu is one of the very few gifted composers in the video game industry who writes music at such a high level of artistry. His music is just at a different level and I truly love his works.

Sora96: During the development of Lightning Returns did you work with all 3 composers or just Masashi Hamauzu?

Shota: We did not work with the other two although I got to meet both of them during some production meetings over in SQEX.

Sora96: How do you communicate with the composers with the language barrier? Do you have translators working at your studio or do Square Enix have theirs work with you?

Shota: As my name kind of implies, I was born and raised in Japan. Being bilingual both in English and Japanese really did help. We do have an assistant, Maho Azuma, who is native in both languages and also a diehard video game fan, helping out sessions too.

Sora96: What was it like working on Lightning Returns’ soundtrack? Were you daunted at all by the prospect of working on such a massive franchise? Or were you simply excited by working on it?

Shota: When something new comes up, it is always exciting regardless of what the project is. For that particular gig, yes personally I was more excited because it is Final Fantasy that I played so much when I was a kid.

Sora96: Was it much different working on Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 ReMIX’s soundtrack than Lightning Returns’? What were some similarities or differences?

Shota: The working method itself was not that different, but there were several differences between those projects such as the instrumentation and how we managed the entire production. By the time we did KH2.5, we knew what not to do so everything went a lot smoother.

Sora96: Do you get to meet directors or producers of the titles you’re working on? Eg. Motomu Toriyama or Yoshinori Kitase for Lightning Returns or Tai Yasue for HD 2.5 ReMIX?

Shota: I actually did not get to meet them. I am sure they were all busy trying to complete the games. Maybe someday!

Sora96: What’s it like playing the games after working on the soundtrack?

Shota: It is a pure glory. Every scene that played our music made me smile and reminded me great moments while we were in the production.

Sora96: What are your favourite Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts games?

Shota: Final Fantasy 6 is the best one of all to me. The story is so dark and there is pure evil guy who is unforgettable. I actually played the game in real time (I am an old school) and leveled everyone up way too much. The mighty Kefka was defeated in 3 turns after many 9,999 damages.

My favorite Kingdom Hearts was the second one, but now it is 2.5 because of the story and music.

Sora96: What’s the best part of getting to work with Square Enix on such amazing titles?

Shota: I was a huge Squaresoft and Enix fan when I was a teenager. I can tell you that I played most of their games that came out in the 90s… the Dragon Quest series, FF series, Front Mission, Live a Live, Hanjuku Hero, and so many others. It is such an honor to be a part of their history.

Sora96: After working with legendary composers like Masashi Hamauzu and Yoko Shimomura have your admiration of them raised to new heights?

Shota: Definitely. Shimomura-san is so amazing at creating beautiful melodies especially when she writes a piano piece. Hamauzu-san always denies it when I say it yet he is truly a gifted composer. I love his music and I don’t know how he can come up with something so dynamic but delicate and sophisticated.

Sora96: What are your favourite Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts songs? Blinded by Light is a particular favourite of mine and I loved your recent performance you uploaded to YouTube of it.

Shota: Thanks for your kind words! I have always loved their epic battle music such as Blinded by Light and Big Bridge in Final Fantasy. For Kingdom Hearts, The Other Promise is the best one for me. The Shimomura-ness really shines there.

Sora96: If a new entry in the Final Fantasy X series were to be created would you like to work on its soundtrack?

Shota: I would love to. I don’t think anyone can decline an FF project.

Sora96: What are you most excited for in Final Fantasy XV?

Shota: The gameplay and music. The gameplay is just so different from the past numbering titles, and I am looking forward to see some innovative ideas in that. For the music, I cannot wait to listen to Shimomura-san unleashing her inner musical genius-ness. Music really does dictate the emotional expression of video games (and films and anime too) and it sometimes is more important than having the best graphics. I am really looking forward to the game.

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