Shadow of the Colossus – 2004 Developer Interview

Shadow of the Colossus - 2005 Interview

This Shadow of the Colossus interview originally appeared in the 10/05 edition of The Playstation 2 magazine. It sees producer Kenji Kaido and director Fumito Ueda expounding on the merits of their just-released epic, discussing the project's origins, the design philosophy of the colossi battles, and how it differs from their previous hit ICO. Keep your eyes peeled for an early reference to The Last Guardian, also!

Fumito Ueda - Director
Kenji Kaido - Producer

—How did Shadow of the Colossus (hereafter SotC) begin?

Kaido: After ICO was finished, we spent awhile figuring out what we wanted to do next, and Ueda had two ideas he had been thinking about. One was a solid, meaty action game—this was the kernel of the idea that would eventually become SotC. The other was a very different game, a lighter action puzzler. We hadn't decided on any titles at this point, so we referred to the former as the "Man Game" and the latter as the "Woman Game." (laughs) Ultimately, Ueda felt that he wanted to make something on a grand scale—which was also the team's opinion—so we ended up making the "Man Game", which became SotC.

Ueda: ICO was a large-scale game that took us over 4 years to make, so I thought for our next game, it might be fun to make something lighter that you could easily pick up and play. Maybe that would make the production a bit more relaxed, too. But we ended up making SotC so my dreams were dashed for a laid-back, "chill" game. (laughs) I'm joking a bit, but yeah, in the two or three years following the release of ICO, I watched many games come out, and I spent a lot of time thinking about what makes a game memorable to players, and what makes a game popular.

Kaido: ICO did very well overseas, and ultimately it made us a tidy profit, but when it was first released it went mostly unnoticed. I think that was largely because we failed to effectively convey ICO's appeal, its strong points and what makes it fun. So this time I wanted to do something more straightforward, something players could understand right from the get-go. In that sense, I think that SotC's more directly apparent strengths: its epic scale, the awe-inspiring impact of the visuals, and its easy-to-convey premise, will be help it succeed.

SotC producer Kenji Kaido (L) and director Fumito Ueda (R)

—I see. I do think it's odd, though, that you chose not to make a direct sequel to ICO given its success overseas.

Ueda: ICO's gameplay premise, of leading around an NPC, was directly tied to its story, so for my part, I didn't feel that I could make a "better" ICO. It was already complete as-it-was, in the sense that it represents the full extent of my vision at that moment in time. That's why I didn't think it would gain anything from fiddling with it, nor was I inclined to try. Instead I wanted to make an entirely different game from ICO.

A key theme that ran through the development of ICO, from the very start, was that we wanted to remove some of those stereotypical gameplay tropes, and make "a game that didn't feel like a video game." With SotC, on the other hand, we didn't really impose any such restrictions on ourselves. In my mind I wanted to make something different from ICO, as simply as possible, but I also wasn't against adding elements where needed. As a result, SotC went in a more "gamey" direction compared to ICO.

—With its dynamic graphics, SotC certainly feels more like a video game. The colossi are an unforgettable sight to behold.

Ueda: In most games you progress through the story by beating up small enemies who are weaker than you, right? When I thought it over, though, I realized there was something lame about that. Pummeling someone who is obviously weaker than you… can that really be called "heroic" behavior? My image of a hero is someone who stands courageously against a foe stronger than themselves. That's why I wanted the overwhelmingly powerful colossi to be the only enemies in our game.

While its true that weak enemies can help enhance the sense of a boss' power by dint of contrast, including them would have entailed a lot of other gameplay concerns. Stronger non-boss enemies, for example, would actually weaken the impact of the boss fights. So I thought just having bosses would be fine, and by purely focusing on the colossi we would raise the overall quality of the game.

Kaido: I wholly agree with this bold, decisive approach to game design. Just doing what everyone else does is boring; the fun lies in what changes, in what you can change. I'll be very happy if players feel that SotC has a unique impact, quality, and fun that can't be found in other games.

—ICO's protagonist is a young boy, but SotC features a slightly older, more adult youth. Was there a reason for this change?

Kaido: Overseas audiences, particularly in America, don't tend to like games where you control a child. That's partly why we made the protagonist older this time…

Ueda: That's true insofar as it goes, but the truth is, we didn't really have some grand justification for it in our planning documents. (laughs) Both Wander and the girl, as characters in a video game, were the product of the various restrictions and considerations that arise when you make a game. First and foremost there's the PS2 hardware specs and the particularities of its design, and those characters were simply our best effort given those conditions.

It may be an overstatement, but if the visuals just click, I don't think you have to have any complicated backstory or explanation for them. To protect a girl, a young man rides out to face a huge beast in the distance… that image alone is cool, I think. Even an image of just him riding his horse can be enough. That's how I make a video game: first those kinds of visuals appear in my mind, and then keeping the hardware limits in mind, I flesh out the backstory and imagery.

Kaido: We took the same approach in designing the colossi themselves. First we have an image of the scene of the battle, and then we put on our game designer hats and flesh that image out. The final result is a colossus.

Ueda: I think that image of Wander fighting against the colossus looks so cool, and more than anything else, very heroic. That simple mental image was the starting point for the entire game.

Kaido and Ueda discuss the "time attack" approach to SotC below; their in-house fastest time for the first colossi is <1min.

—What does "cool" mean for the two of you?

Ueda: That's not something I'm normally very aware of… but for SotC, I would say it's the relationship between Wander and the girl. Almost nothing is explained about their relationship, but that's because I didn't want to portray them as being tied by a "commonplace reason" like love or something. I want to save this girl from the darkness. A pure, innocent emotion like that is what I wanted to convey. Such unadorned, unaffected emotions and relationships… it's wonderful I think.

Kaido: With ICO, the boy fights to the end with nothing more than a simple wooden pole. That earnestness and warmth is also "cool" I think. To be sure, I do think there is a kind of "coolness" with characters who talk a lot, and it can add a distinct flavor. But there is also a coolness that comes from not talking. That stoic, silent "cool" is expressed in games like ICO and SotC.

—One thing that surprised me about those colossus, is that when they hit Wander, he doesn't take as much damage as one would expect.

Kaido: Yeah. You'll lose a lot of health, but you don't die in one hit, and if you rest a bit your health will return. Overall it's a game that's easy to play and hard to die in, I think. The reason we aimed for that balance is because the pressure from facing the colossus is already great enough! They have an imposing menace to them that has never been seen in a video game before, so I think just fighting them places a huge psychological pressure on the player.

Ueda: We felt that pressure was enough, so there was no need to make the colossus any stronger—just strong enough so the player doesn't make light of them. We placed a premium on that sense of immediacy when we designed the fights. As for the game itself, I think we balanced the difficulty such that anyone who puts in the time can complete it, so I want players to take their time and really give themselves over to the immediacy and tension of the colossus fights.

—Yeah, and there's multiple ways to approach the colossus fights too. I was watching my friend play and was surprised at some of the tactics I saw him use.

Ueda: During development, we imagined one or two strategies for each colossus, but players seem to have found many strategies that we didn't envision. There's not one strict, "right" way to approach them, so I hope players try out a lot of different things.

Kaido: I think that's one of the appeals of SotC, the fact that it can be enjoyed in so many different ways. It's completely valid to just employ one winning strategy and claim relatively easy victories over the colossi; however, you can also take your time and try to trigger all their different attack patterns, and search every last nook of their massive bodies…

Ueda: Or you can grab their fur and "take them for a walk", enjoying the scenery from atop their head. That's another way to play. I think it would be amazing to have an AI-controlled colossus that lets you play around with it.

It took over 10 years, but Ueda finally realized his dream of a "colossus you can play with" in The Last Guardian.

—It's also super fun to play it like a Time Attack, and try to beat them in the fastest time.

Ueda: Among our staff, the record for defeating the first boss is just under a minute.

Kaido: It's also exciting to just sit back and watch someone else play. We often heard people say that about ICO too, that they enjoyed watching others play it, and I think SotC will be the same. Talking with your friends about how to approach the next colossi, passing the controller around, trying different controls… I think it could be a great party game.

—It reminds me of the old days when everyone was playing the same game. Friends would get together and exchange all their tips and info, just like in the Famicom era.

Ueda: Yeah, that's the vibe. In that sense, there's aspects of SotC that represent a return to the roots of gaming. Like if you were to cook up a new old-style game today, this is what it would look like. For that reason I think players who haven't played any games in awhile will also really appreciate it.

Kaido: Compared to ICO, there's more re-playability in SotC, so please play through it multiple times and try different things. Other than that, I hope everyone will get to experience the immediacy and presence of these colossi battles followed by the sweet satisfaction of victory.

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