Tetsuya Nomura holds many titles at Square Enix and has had pivotal roles in the creation of Kingdom Hearts and several iconic entries in the Final Fantasy franchise; he’s a household name among those who follow Japanese games. He has also established instantly recognizable character designs over the years–gratuitous use of fashionable belts and zippers aside, fans of Square Enix games know Nomura’s influence when they see it. However, with the upcoming NEO: The World Ends With You (henceforth referred to as NEO TWEWY), a different generation of character designers have left their creative mark alongside Nomura in this game, supporting what he set in motion with the original game from 2007.
I had an opportunity to talk specifically about the development of NEO TWEWY’s character designs with those who led its development: Gen Kobayashi and Miki Yamashita, in addition to Tetsuya Nomura. With extravagant style and fashion at the forefront of NEO TWEWY’s expressive, youthful attitude, our brief conversation centered around keeping up with trends, reflecting the real world in their designs, and how creating characters has changed but also stayed the same over the years.
NEO: The World Ends With You is set to launch soon on July 27 for PlayStation 4 (playable on PS5) and Nintendo Switch, and a PC version is planned for release sometime this summer. For more on the game, you can read up on our NEO TWEWY gameplay impressions, our previous interview with Nomura and company on NEO TWEWY, or check out the game yourself with the demo available on PS4 and Switch.
The following interview was conducted through a video call with an interpreter from Square Enix who translated the questions and answers between Japanese and English. This was also edited for clarity and readability.
How do you keep up with trends and find inspiration and stay youthful? Since this is a game where it’s mostly young folks living in a modern world, how do you make sure that you’re portraying them accurately or creating something that players can identify with?
Nomura: I actually live very close to Shibuya, so it’s actually within the vicinity of where I would actually be on a daily basis. I didn’t really have to buckle down and go out to Shibuya to do extensive research. It was essentially part of my daily life. And then, as for looking at more newer fashion, I did look to social media and fashion model accounts for people in their teens to get an idea of what the latest trends were because they know best. I got ideas of what kind of things were most important in the current fashion. So I really utilized social media a lot.
Kobayashi: I’m not really the type of person to follow the latest fashion trends. When this project initially started, I kind of scrambled, went to Shibuya to look at their various stores and check the latest sorts of trends. Also, I did a lot of research online to take in as much knowledge as possible. But when I actually got down to creating designs, it really didn’t go well at first. There was a lot of advice that I ended up getting from Nomura-san, he did give me a lot of pointers, you should take a look at this. Through his guidance, I was able to cross the finish line and finish up these designs.
Yamashita: I tend to do a lot of my research online, so I would look up what kinds of trends there are for the modern age and among young Japanese people. What kind of trends, brands, or Japanese brands are setting, too. Those are some points that I looked into. I also referenced overseas high fashion brands to make sure that we weren’t veering too far away from the worldwide trends as well. So, that is something that I try to incorporate into my designs.
How has the team evolved in terms of designing female characters that are more representative of fashion in the real world? I’ve been playing the game and have also been seeing some non-gender specific styles of fashion as well. How has the team modernized how they design characters that aren’t always dressed traditionally male or female?
I’ve noticed some really stark design decisions for Nagi and Kanon for example, but also for characters like Kaie, who I didn’t want to assume how they identified, but really stood out through their style. I’m seeing a lot more variety in expression between non-gender specific styles and female characters, and that stood out to me.
Nomura: I wasn’t really overly conscious of the current kind of conversation that’s being had relating to those issues. I designed as I had done in the past as well. But some of the characters that you had mentioned were designed by Yamashita-san, and with the fact that we had a new female designer on the team this time around, that might have changed things around. So I think Yamashita-san can speak on this point.
Yamashita: Regarding the second part of your question, I think one of the characters you were referring to is Eiru, who is kind of non-gender specific. This is a character that I designed at the very end. When we look at the original TWEWY, we had Rhyme, who is also kind of non-gender specific or somewhere in the middle. We thought it might be a good idea to have a similar character in the mix as well for this game. I went back to the planner and was able to put this character into the mix at the very last moment.
I think what we’re seeing in the current age where people are living their lives, we’re not specifically confined to one gender or the other, which is what we’re seeing more. I wanted to incorporate that into the design for this character. That is one point. Then, as for the female characters, Nagi and Kanon, what I really focused on was trying to make sure that their personalities really shone through each of their designs. That is something that I was most conscious about.
As for Nagi, I actually don’t think anybody in real life really dresses this way, but I wanted to make sure that her inner characteristics were shown in her design and that her fashion was brought to the forefront. I think I was able to achieve that. The current sort of temperature that we’re seeing or the sentiment with female characters, that is something I didn’t really have to consider for her specifically.
As for Kanon, she’s the character that Fret [one of the core characters in the main party] falls in love with at first sight. I wanted to make sure that that was incorporated into her design as well, making her a beautiful, more mature lady that would catch the eye of the people. I tried to give her pants that aren’t exactly tapered, not skinny, but wider at the seam, which I feel is something that is fashionable amongst women in the current age. So, I wanted to use that as something modern in her design.
Yamashita-san, you’ve worked on several Kingdom Hearts games. Throughout those years, what’s something you’ve identified in character design you’ve really wanted to impact? Then, maybe you were able to with NEO TWEWY or still want to change or impact in the realm of character design?
Yamashita: Difficult question, but to answer, the foundation of the approach that I have is that I want to provide character designs that players really enjoy and like. That is the basis. Then, in terms of what I tried to accomplish this time around, is to let the characters wear what they want. Essentially, freedom or liberty in terms of what kind of design and fashion to incorporate into these characters.
Nomura-san, you’ve been doing this for a very long time–what are some of the biggest things that you’ve learned over the years in either designing so many characters and overseeing other people’s designs?
Nomura: Looking back at past games, let’s say, I would have just handled all the character designs myself. But more recently, for a lot of games, there have been more characters in the games themselves, a lot more character designs that need to be done, and more designs that are required. This is not just limited to NEO TWEWY, but more recently, we have multiple character designers taking care of one game. We’re seeing more and more of those games where we’re having multiple designers work on them and collaborating. But when we’re looking at NEO TWEWY in particular, we each took care of one of the characters in the main party.
This was a first for us where we had different people take care of the main characters in the game. Through this, they came up with various ideas that I would never have thought of myself. It’s great that different personalities are coming out of these characters. In a way, it feels more natural that we’re having different people with different ideas, creating different characters for this game. Whereas before, it was one person, me, taking care of or creating different characters. Then, also with Yamashita joining the team this time around, we also have a female perspective on the team, which was also a great addition. For me, this is a great kind of progress or direction that we’re going in.
Also, from a workload perspective, it’s nice that people are carrying the workload with me now. It’s a lot better for me. I do kind of oversee the character design as a whole, but what we’re actually seeing on the screen in terms of characters, that is overseen and handled by Kobayashi. So, it’s great that he’s able to handle that [taking] more workload off my shoulders. And it’s great [overall] to have multiple people where we can actually split the work amongst us.