Legendary designer Fumito Ueda reveals the peculiar practices that gave birth to Ico.
There are few developers in the industry who can match Fumito Ueda’s reputation as an auteur. His games (Ico and its sort of sequel Shadow Of The Colossus) rank among the highest critical successes of all time. We spoke to Ueda before he went on stage at the Nordic Game conference, where attendees were given a rare opportunity to listen to him discuss his own games and how he went about creating them.
It should come as little surprise, perhaps, that his methods are rather idiosyncratic. In fact, in our somewhat erratically translated discussion with Ueda it became clear that his objectives for those games did not always readily match what they are commonly thought to achieve. It may just be modesty, but Ueda suggests that many of the themes that players have inferred from his games were largely unintended – the ideas of love, devotion and loss that seem to consistently underpin Ico and Shadow Of The Colossus are all happy accidents, apparently.
“One thing I don’t want my products to be is a time-killer,” he says. “I always want my games to be something that would inspire. But you picked up on devotion and love? I did not have a specific message for it.” Ueda also claims to be surprised by the reception of his characters. The emotional connection that players made with the few allies that populate the bleak, lonely worlds of Ico and SOTC – Yorda, Mono and Agro – is something he did not expect, particularly not outside of Japan.
As incredible as this seems, it makes more sense in the context of the games’ unusual order of development. Both Ico and SOTC originated as single images in Ueda’s mind. For Ico it was a boy leading a girl by the hand; for SOTC it was a tiny figure challenging a giant. The game and narrative are separate extrapolations from this kernel. During the presentation to conference attendees, Ueda showed early footage developed internally as part of the concept-approval process.
Ico’s sequence (created using the original PlayStation) suggested mood and setting more than specific gameplay – but all the elements were there, even if at that stage Yorda had horns, too. The demo for SOTC (then called Nico) was even more surprising. Apparently the game was intended to be multiplayer, with gamers taking on the role of three horned boys, riding on horseback and working together to take down a colossus.
Before he got into the creation of these games, however, Ueda took the audience through his CV, pointing to his early love of the Amiga (an uncommon machine to own in Japan at the time) as a major motivating factor in his career choices. Prior to becoming a game developer he had been a conceptual artist – and one with a slightly mischievous sense of humor, it seems. A video of his installation work ‘Tyrant Kitty’ showed unwitting art gallery patrons peering into an apparently empty cage before being sprayed with dirt, supposedly kicked up by an imaginary subterranean cat.
Ueda then showed a slide detailing his responsibilities on Ico and SOTC – a list far too long to reproduce here, but suffice it to say it seems he was personally responsible for a huge portion of the game’s execution.
“It’s the most unique team that actually exists,” says YeonKyung Kim, a producer in Sony’s international software department. “I know in the western culture it’s mass production. You get a designer, level designer, programmer and you give them a design document and say: ‘Do it’. But he doesn’t do that.”
moscallout“I am aware of the artistic sense of the product I’m producing, but that is not the goal throughout”/moscalloutOf course, Ueda’s next game was a topic conspicuously unmentioned in both the presentation and our meeting with him. He certainly wasn’t letting anything slip – even refusing (after a moment’s internal debate) to draw something in the spirit of his next game. However, he did make one assertion that may well have relevance to future projects. When we ask whether the underwhelming commercial response to his previous games would mean he would consider sacrificing an amount of his artistic vision in order to create something more appealing to a wider audience, there was some lengthy discussion between Ueda and his ever-present translator.
“I am aware of the artistic sense of the product I’m producing, but that is not the goal throughout,” says Ueda. “That’s just part of the game’s contents, but I’m also more interested that the product will be well played in the future. I guess we are currently looking at a lifespan of two and a half years [for a game] in Japan, whereas I’m hoping for the consumer to be able to play this content over and over.”
And with SOTC starting life as a network game, it’s not a stretch to speculate that this might be one way in which Ueda extends his next game’s life.