Few people can ignite such passionate discussion as Tetsuya Nomura. Mention his name in online gaming forums or comment sections, and you’ll typically get one of two reactions: People who love the impact he’s had at developer Square Enix, and those who hate it. And if you put him in front of hundreds of hardcore Kingdom Hearts fans, they’ll go nuts.
I was in the middle of one of those crowds on Dec. 1, when Square Enix held a special fan event for the release of Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 Remix at the Walt Disney Studios lot in Burbank, Calif. Nomura’s presence was a tightly guarded secret: Square Enix told the few people who knew about him not to mention his name on social media for fear of spoiling the surprise. When he did show up, the audience rocked the theater with booming screams and cheers, and at least one person shouted “I love you!”.
The 44 year-old artist and director is a giant in the world of Japanese role-playing games (JRPG). He joined Square Enix in the 1990s, when it was finishing development on Final Fantasy IV for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Though he considers Final Fantasy V as his first big breakthrough, he’s perhaps best known for his work on Final Fantasy VII, the beloved JRPG for the original PlayStation console that became a massive success in both Japan and the West.
Nomura’s distinctive art style can be seen in almost every major Final Fantasy game since then. Eventually, he became the creator and director of Kingdom Hearts, an RPG series that combines real-time battles, Final Fantasy characters, and some of Disney’s most iconic animated movies. He has total control over it — even promotional materials can’t get made until he approves them.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from someone who has had such a big influence on Square Enix’s flagship franchises, many of which I idolized while growing up. All I know is that when I met Nomura, his unassuming appearance and candid responses about Kingdom Hearts’ legacy (he wasn’t ready to talk about the long-awaited Kingdom Hearts 3 just yet) totally caught me off-guard.
‘I’m not that good of a person’
A few hours before the day’s festivities began, Square Enix escorted me through a dark theater, past a large piano where Kingdom Hearts composer Yoko Shimomura (another well-received surprise for fans) was busy rehearsing, and into a dressing room where Nomura and his translator were waiting. His clothes had a noticeable Mickey theme: The famous mouse was jamming on a guitar on Nomura’s T-shirt, and I spotted a sparkling silhouette of Mickey’s head and ears on the back of his sweatshirt.
After a few minutes of talking, Nomura struck me as being somewhat shy. He had a habit of looking down or away, even when he showed up later on stage, and our eyes only met a handful of times. Though Kingdom Hearts is still going strong 12 years after its debut — the series has shipped more than 20 million copies worldwide — he isn’t too sure why it’s so popular.
“I can’t put my finger on why exactly it became such a fan-favorite,” said Nomura. “I’m especially not familiar with what exactly the Western audience enjoys in the games. But I feel that the story is definitely a big draw for it. Of course gameplay is there, and that’s enjoyable as well, but maybe it’s [also] because of the storyline.”
Following Kingdom Hearts’ story is tricky; I watched a nearly hour-long video just to get the gist of it before our meeting. But its main heroes (the ever-optimistic Sora and his pals Donald and Goofy) tend to show up or have some connection to the events in each game. A few themes persist as well: the importance of friendship, hearts, souls, light, and dark. In the games, they can come off as a bit cheesy and overly dramatic, but using such universal themes was important for Nomura.
“Friendship and bonds and things like that are things anyone can relate to and put their own feelings into. Anybody in any region can associate with the theme of friendship and bonds between people, so I felt that it was a very [personal] subject matter that I could portray in this story,” he explained.
Nomura isn’t just in charge of the franchise; he’s also the perennial director of each installment. He’s been living with these stories for so long that he says the characters almost feel like his own children … but he won’t be winning Father of the Year awards any time soon. Part of the reason he makes so many Kingdom Hearts games is because he likes to constantly test the heroes with new conflicts and villains.
“The characters that appear in Kingdom Hearts, especially the original characters like Sora, are very cheerful and happy, and they kind of resemble the light in the world,” said Nomura. “As well as the Disney characters: They’re inherently very bright and cheery. Personally, I feel that I’m not that good of a person, so I relate better to the enemy characters. The story continues to develop because I’m in that mindset of ‘How does this enemy confront Sora?’ and I pose those hurdles and challenges [to him].”
I told him that no one is truly a “good” person, at least not in the way that Sora represents, and that we all struggle with our own vices. He laughed when the translator said this.
“If you see throughout the series that Sora is struggling and struggling, that’s probably because I’m putting my evil schemes in there to see how much he can [handle],” said Nomura.