The Story of Fumito Ueda
This long and wonderful interview with ICO and Shadow of the Colossus creator Fumito Ueda first appeared in vol. 25 of the excellent CONTINUE magazine in 2005, and was later compiled in a book of interviews. It covers Ueda’s entire career up to that point: his childhood years, art school, working at WARP, and finally settling in at Sony as a full-fledged game creator. The discussion is full of Ueda’s thoughts and insights about game design, gaming, and the themes of his own two masterpiece “art” games.
—Ueda, you’ve made some of the deepest, most impressive games with ICO and Shadow of the Colossus, but your pre-Playstation history as a creator is also very interesting. In today’s conversation, I’d like to take our time and go over it all. I understand you’re originally from the Kansai region?
Ueda: Yes, from Hyogo Prefecture. I grew up in Tatsuno City, which was really quite a rural place. It’s a couple cities over from Himeji, actually pretty close to Okayama Prefecture.
—So would you say your cultural sphere of influence has been mainly Kansai, then?
Ueda: I would. I also went to college in Osaka, and lived there for two years after graduating. After that I moved to Tokyo.
—Let’s talk about those formative years: what kind of child were you?
Ueda: Hmm… I don’t think I really stood out in any special way. I liked to draw, and I’d spend my time in class drawing manga and comics.
—What kind of things did you draw?
Ueda: Portraits and caricatures of my friends. I’d make up stories to go along with them. I used to love going to my friends’ houses after class and showing them my drawings. My drawings always made people laugh, and I remember trying desperately to hold in that laughter during class. (laughs)
—Man, I’d love to see those now. (laughs) Do you still have any of them?
Ueda: None at all. I’d usually give them away to the person whom I was drawing. In elementary school, I won a prize for some of my drawings. I won prizes in other competitions after that, too, but I don’t even have the prize certificates anymore. (laughs) My parents weren’t the type to save that kind of stuff.
—Were there any particular comics you read back then that left an impression on you?
Ueda: No manga, but there was some anime. The made-for-TV movie “One Million Year Trip: Bandar Book” by Osamu Tezuka, which was broadcast during Nihon Terebi’s “24 hour TV” summer specials—I remember that one clearly even today.
—Ah yes, those 24 hour TV specials… so you watched it when it was first broadcast, then?
Ueda: Yes. And I think that one was never re-broadcast, but I have a vivid memory of watching it then. Also, while I do remember playing video games, I loved catching fish way more.
—You mean fishing?
Ueda: I did fish with a pole too, but I actually mean with nets. I’d make the nets myself, trying to figure out how to catch as many fish as possible in them.
—When I picture a kid from your generation, I usually think of them being obsessed with video games, Gundam models, stuff like that… were you into any of those?
Ueda: Maybe games, if you mean it that way. I played the Famicom all the time—the Disk System, especially. One game I loved, that I remember even now, was Smash Ping Pong. Konami’s sports games have always been so great, you know? Also, I mentioned the Famicom, but I loved the Sega Mark III (aka the Master System in the US) equally. Probably my original love of art and drawing attracted me to the Mark III, and the greater number of colors it could simultaneously display. (laughs) And so naturally when the Megadrive came out, I joined that camp. It’s really been a long while since I bought a Nintendo system, all the way back to the Super Famicom.
—I see. Did you play Dragon Quest at all?
Ueda: I did, when it came out. I think I was in my latter years of elementary school.
—What was it about Dragon Quest that caught your interest?
Ueda: Hmm, the beautiful artwork and graphics, probably. It was so richly colorful.
—It seems that you had an affinity for the visual arts from a young age. Did you ever have a premonition, that you’d end up doing that kind of work?
Ueda: I think so. I did industrial arts and design in high school, and from that point I knew that I really wanted to do something involving art or design.
—Did you pursue the arts in college as well?
Ueda: I did. I was enrolled in the arts department at Osaka University of Arts. You had to select a major in your third year, and I chose abstract art. I wasn’t a very serious student though.
—How do you mean?
Ueda: Heh, well, the whole reason I selected abstract art is because representational, realistic art took more time. (laughs) But with abstract art, you can always just slap something together two days before the deadline and it’ll be ok, right? (laughs)
—You’re right, it doesn’t sound like you were very serious!
Ueda: As I got closer to graduation, though, I started to feel, “ok, this has gone far enough.” Aside from the fact that I wanted to do some kind of creative work eventually, I started to worry that if I squandered my time like this, I might never be able to create what I wanted to create. So I started exploring different things then, and it was the start of my really applying myself seriously.
—Before that you had been more casual about it?
Ueda: Yeah, I’d spend my time tooling around with my motorcycle, or playing airsoft.
—It sounds like you had an extended childhood.
Ueda: Yeah, it was like that. But it wasn’t all that way. Throughout college I worked at a video rental store, and I watched a lot of films then. I was friends with a film major, and we used to often get together to make movies. I may have been careless about my major, you see, but I took other things in my life very seriously. (laughs)
—You get an A in extra-curricular activities. (laughs)
Ueda: There’s one such thing we did that I still remember today. At my school, they put out a call for people wanting to attend a seminar in Miyazaki in Kyushu, for a lecture series or something down there. As I said, I wasn’t a serious student, so of course I wasn’t going to go (laughs), but some of my fellow art school buddies got together and started talking: “hey, maybe we can do something funny with this…” We decided that we would drive down to Miyazaki ourselves, independently.
—Without being enrolled in the seminar?
Ueda: Yeah. The enrolled students were going to take the ferry, and going by car would be faster. We brought some different clothes (disguises!), and of course we knew the schedule of the seminar, where everything would be, where they were staying… our plan was to get there before them. We took a number of items with us that only people from our school would recognize: school cafeteria menus, stuff like that—and when we got to their lodgings, we set all those items up in front of the place and took a bunch of pictures. Then, without ever meeting them, we immediately turned around and drove back. (laughs)
Then we developed those photos, and turned them into a kind of art-project collage, with commentary explaining the meaning behind each picture, and we showed that to the people when they came back from the seminar. They seemed kind of annoyed. (laughs) It was one of my funniest moments in college. Definitely the kind of prank you would only get in art school.
—Hah, that’s awful.
Ueda: Well, I was a pretty awful student. During college I used to go out on long motorcycle drives for 36 hours at a time. (laughs) Honestly, I miss doing all that.
—Did you start getting into computers during college, too?
Ueda: Strictly speaking, it was after I graduated. Right after graduating, I sold off my motorcycle and use those funds to buy an Amiga. That was technically my beginning with computers.
—Why did you do it?
Ueda: I started to realize I couldn’t make a living from drawing and the fine arts. And although I would work on drawing in class, outside of the classroom, I wasn’t very committed: I would buy video games or rent movies and watch them at home. I started noticing the contradiction in myself. Even when I had free time, and could go to a museum and enjoy the art there, I never did. I realized it made more sense for me to be creating the things I actually enjoyed doing in my time.
—Was that feeling of wanting to draw and be an artist gone?
Ueda: I don’t know… a huge part of it was just realizing I couldn’t make a living off art. I’ve never done a private exhibition, but of course I did group exhibitions like most college art students… I used to fantasize that some old man with a cane (who was secretly an art dealer, of course) would walk through the gallery, see my art, and be like, “Oh, look at this!” (laughs) But in reality there’s almost no chance of that. And holding your own private exhibition costs somewhere between 200 and 300,000 yen [[roughly 2-3000 USD]]. In the end it just didn’t add up.
Becoming an Amiga Maniac
—Did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to do with a computer?
Ueda: No, not particularly. I ended up getting into CG, which led me to work in the game industry, but at the time I was into trying out everything, whatever I could.
—Why did you choose the Amiga, then?
Ueda: At the time, the Amiga was in the spotlight thanks to its use in creating TV shows like Ugo Ugo Ruga. I actually was torn between the Amiga and the Mac. (laughs)
—A fateful choice!
Ueda: Yeah. I think my choice had a big impact on where I ended up. But I loved animation. I used to make little animated flipbooks. I didn’t really know much about the distinction between full animation and limited animation. But I thought it was cool how, in animation, it wasn’t about having a single, beautiful still image—in fact, when you look at a single animated frame, it might not even be drawn that well, but when it’s put together and animated smoothly, it looks cool. So I chose the Amiga because I wanted to do animation like that. There was also this popular Amiga tech demo called “MegaDemo” I had seen, which I thought was awesome.
—Were you completely self-taught with the Amiga?
Ueda: Mostly, yeah. There was nothing like the internet back then.
—When you consider that, it seems like a really difficult environment to learn the Amiga in. Were you still living in Osaka then?
Ueda: I was. After graduating I supported myself with a part-time job for awhile. Luckily, right at that time there was company in Osaka who was using an Amiga to make CG.
I joined them as a part-time employee, but when I got there, although they had a brand new “CG Department”, they actually didn’t have any real work waiting for me to do. The President had bought an Amiga just because he liked the hardware, but he didn’t have anyone who knew how to use it. (laughs) Anyway, I started using that Amiga to make things for Kansai Television.
—Like the flying logo they used?
Ueda: Yeah. In my spare time, I’d use the Amiga to secretly work on my own projects on the side. Those were the things I sent to WARP, actually, and it’s what caught their eye and got me hired. Until that point, I didn’t have any confidence in my own work. I remember seeing Jurassic Park, which had just come out, and thinking, “Wow, I wonder if I could make some CG that compares with that?” But of course my little computer was nowhere near as powerful as what they had used, and no matter how much I tried, I couldn’t make anything even approaching that level of quality. Looking back on it now, what I did make was actually pretty good, all things considered. (laughs) But yeah, I didn’t have any confidence, and I never showed anyone my work.
—So was WARP the first people you ever sent your own work to?
Ueda: They were. They got back to me right away, saying they wanted to meet me. I went in for the interview and got hired on the spot.
—Wow, sounds pretty ideal!
Ueda: Yeah. I think I was lucky.
—Do you remember what you sent to WARP?
Ueda: I do. It was a CG movie of a car driving through the rain. (laughs) That’s all it was, but there were some polished little touches: the rain looked good, and there were puddles, and the wheels left a wake in the water as you drove. I don’t think they had seen anyone do anything like that yet.
—Did you have any influences then, for what you were doing?
Ueda: Hmm, let me think… my life back then pretty much revolved around the Amiga, to be honest. (laughs) I spent a lot of time poring through magazines for Amiga info.
I like doing that kind of research, and there was very little info available for the Amiga in the first place. If I found a book, any book, that had even the slightest information, I would buy it.
The Ugo Ugo Ruga show wasn’t broadcast in Kansai, but a friend of a friend lived in Tokyo and taped it for me. Watching that was a thrill, “I can’t believe they made this on an Amiga!!”
—So basically, you were a full-on Amiga Otaku.
Ueda: Games like Flashback and Out of this World had just come out, too, and I played them then. I still consider them masterpieces.
On the other hand, I was also continuing to work as a modern artist. Sony had this annual contest back then, called “Art Artist Audition”…
—Oh right, that’s the contest that art collective Maywa Denki appeared in a number of times.
Ueda: Yeah, I exhibited my work there, and elsewhere. That was right around 1993, I believe.
—Seems like a pretty obvious thing for an art student to do. Were your friends also submitting?
Ueda: Yeah, they did. People from that art school milieu, they’re all highly individualistic… they think very differently from the rest of society. Even I didn’t really realize how different they are. Most of their favorite artists are totally unknown, and their own artistic expression is, how to put it, very unique.
But for me, ultimately, even though I liked drawing, I never went to museums—I spent my time enjoying video games or movies. And as I mentioned, I used to love drawing comics, but if you were to ask me what I liked about it, it was the act of sharing what I’d done with my friends and seeing their reactions. Art wasn’t something that I enjoyed silently and alone; it was the sharing that was fun. That’s the kind of artist I am, I think.
—Did you ever consider actually pursuing manga as a career, then?
Ueda: I thought about doing that for a long time, actually.
—Do you still harbor those ambitions now?
Ueda: Hmm, I don’t know. It is really appealing to me, the idea of completing something like a manga entirely on my own. But right now I’m occupied with games. I get the feeling that making games just fits me.
Hard Days at WARP
—I’d like to talk more about your time at WARP now. I think some of our younger readers might not know who WARP was, though?
Ueda: You could be right. (laughs)
—At the time, WARP was making a big splash in the industry with games like D no Shokutaku [[titled “D” in the US]] and Enemy Zero. Was that one of the reasons why you applied to them? Or was it more that you thought this was the kind of company that would hire an artist like yourself?
Ueda: Actually, I think it was simply that they were new, and they seemed to be doing exciting things. I think I saw their job ad in an issue of Famitsu magazine, if I recall. D no Shokutaku had just come out for the 3D0.
—And what was it like at WARP, when you actually started working there?
Ueda: Well, I’m not at liberty to go into all the details, but it was an extremely fun company to work for. (laughs) I was only there for a year and a half, but when I joined, there were only 15-16 staff. Everyone was extremely dedicated though, and super capable.
—It sounds like some guild of master craftsmen.
Ueda: Yeah, it really was. But that isn’t to say that it was a lazy or relaxed working environment. Quite the contrary: everyone worked extremely hard. I’d often have to do 3 scenes in a day, and I think my own working pace really increased thanks to my time at WARP. Ever since then, no matter how hard my work gets, I can always say “this isn’t as bad as WARP.” (laughs)
—That’s a funny thing to be thankful for. (laughs)
Ueda: Yeah, but it really was a lot of fun working there. It didn’t really feel like work to me, especially since at my previous part-time job, I’d had to hide my sidework, the stuff that I really enjoyed doing. It was frustrating, wanting to work on my own things, but having to make stuff like that flying logo. So yeah, I was just happy now to be creating things that I’d actually want to show to others.
—Was the director’s cut of D no Shokutaku the first thing you worked on at WARP?
Ueda: Yeah. I only did one scene for it though. The Enemy Zero project was also starting up at the same time. Officially my job on Enemy Zero was “animator”, but almost all of my time got spent working on character motion rendering. It’s pretty much all I did.
—That sounds like a lot of gruntwork.
Ueda: Well, I also got to do a little directing for the movies on Enemy Zero. They handed us scripts (just text) that said what should happen in the different scenes, like “Laura does ___ here”. Then it was up to we animators to plot it out and create the structure of what actually happens visually.
—How many people worked on that?
Ueda: There were about three animators, myself included.
—Was it decided in advance, who would do which parts/work?
Ueda: It was, but if someone said “hey, I want to do this part!” then that was generally ok too.
—It sounds kind of ambiguous. (laughs)
Ueda: I guess it was. (laughs) You know, there was a saying at WARP you used to hear a lot then, “Don’t sleep in your chair.” When you’re sleeping in your chair, no work can be done—but you also aren’t getting a good rest either. So they’d tell us to lie down if we wanted to sleep. I think those were wise words. (laughs) I’ve come to really understand their meaning now.
—Would you recognize your scenes from the Enemy Zero movies, if you saw them now?
Ueda: Yeah, I remember them. Having “half” of a director’s control with these scenes though, when I see those movies, it makes me think “Ah, if I was in charge, I would have done it this way” or “if only I could have changed the script here, it would have been a much better scene.” The experience made me realize I really wanted to make my own game.
—Is that why you quit WARP?
Ueda: Yeah. I arranged an introduction with SCE (Sony Computer Entertainment), and after one meeting they asked me to come work for them right away. But I had saved up a good amount of money by then, and I wanted to do something to really challenge myself—I wanted to create and direct my own movie scene. So I told Sony, “There’s something I want to do on my own. Would you mind waiting three months?” To my surprise, they invited me to come now, and said that they would let me create the movie I wanted to while I worked for them.
—Ah, so this must be the “prototype” demo movie for ICO. Were you already thinking about making it into a game, or was it just a movie in your mind then?
Ueda: No, I had given some thought about making it into a game, but of course I knew you needed programmers for that. I knew it took a lot more to make a game than just a nice movie.
The Impact of PaRappa
—I see. After you quit WARP, and you were deciding your next move, why did you choose SCE?
Ueda: Well, it was probably all down to PaRappa the Rapper. That and I.Q.: Intelligent Qube. They were a big inspiration to me. PaRappa, especially, was huge. The first time I saw it was at the Tokyo Game Show, I believe. It looked so much higher quality than the 3D rendering movies I was making. It was 3D, but the way they used the paper cutouts… I remember I went back to the game show a second time, just to see it again.
—What was so inspiring to you about it?
Ueda: I think it was the influence of Rodney Alan Greenblat, the artist. That was the first thing that jumped out at me, that you had this modern artist doing graphics for a video game. I also loved the game’s style, of course. It seemed to draw a line between itself and what had previously been called “video games.” It really felt like something new, and I think that was what impressed me the most.
—There’s definitely something “Amiga”-ish about PaRappa too, don’t you think?
Ueda: Definitely. (laughs) Later I met PaRappa’s creator, Masaya Matsuura, at an awards show overseas. Strangely, we didn’t talk about PaRappa at all though. (laughs) Heh, I wonder why?
—What was it like at SCE? I believe you joined right around the time the release date for Final Fantasy VII was announced.
Ueda: Yeah, it had been announced, but the release was still a ways off. The guys working next to me are the same developers who are now part of Polyphony Digital. They were in the middle of Gran Turismo then. I remember they were on their 4th game, when I was still working on my second. (laughs)
—Getting back to ICO, after you finished that 3-month pilot film, did they immediately greenlight the game development?
Ueda: They did. In hindsight, I think that pilot movie was really well done. At the time, SCE had a bunch of Silicon Graphics workstations, all lined up in a row at their offices, but I was able to use a normal computer and produce something on par, quality-wise. In only three and a half months too… I think it was impressive.
—Did people respond well when you presented it?
Ueda: That I don’t know, but I was allowed to make a game shortly thereafter.
—It’s a well-known story how ICO was made in the image of that pilot movie with hardly any changes, but did you have any planning documents, a script, anything like that?
Ueda: Yeah, we did have a master planning document. It said how I wanted to do something novel, to make “a brand new kind of game, something unlike existing games.” Easier said than done, right? That’s how it seems to me when I look back on it now.
For some reason, I was really keen to make a game that featured AI. At the time, there were a number of games with AI characters, like Wonder Project J and Hello Pac-man. But I wanted to make an AI that responded more directly to the player, not something mediated by the screen, like the “point-and-click” style interfaces of those adventure games. I thought one way to do that would be to put the player in the game directly, and make them work together with the AI character.
—This is a point that both ICO and Shadow of the Colossus share in common, but it’s interesting how the original idea comes from a more fundamental consideration about gameplay.
Ueda: Yeah, that’s true.
—Of course, the art plays a key role in ICO—there’s a big visual emphasis there. I’m sure a lot of is filtered through your experience in art school, and as an artist…
Ueda: As a game designer, my sensibilities are very old-school. But the kind of game I wanted to express myself in was something like Flashback or Out of this World. Unfortunately, if I made a game just like Flashback, I was sure that Japanese players wouldn’t like it. However, I thought Japanese players would get into it if I presented it with the same degree of stylishness that PaRappa and I.Q. had. And with the power of the Playstation, I could make something really amazing.
—I see. That does make sense.
Ueda: That’s why I tried to put so much style into ICO. (laughs) People have sometimes said the game is just “Yorda Moe“, but what I wanted to do was something very stylish, and very playable. As for the beautiful graphics and such, I guess you could just call that an unconscious habit on my part. (laughs) What I mean is, I wasn’t trying especially hard to be super “artistic”—it was just natural for me to make it that way, a result of all I’d studied and cultivated in myself up to that point. The same could be said for the CG motion rendering.
—Yet the visual style of ICO is so unique, it’s amazing that you say it just came out naturally.
Ueda: The thing is, that isn’t what I was trying to present with ICO. The truth is that when I first came to SCE, I wanted to make a game very much like I.Q. or PaRappa the Rapper. But because my experience lied more in the CG/movie side of things, I didn’t think they would let me do a game like that right off the bat. Instead, I tried to capitalize on the graphics/visual experience that I did have. That’s one of the reasons I made the pilot movie, also.
—So, when you actually began developing ICO, how big was the team?
Ueda: It was small at first. Maybe 5 people. Eventually we got up to 15, and ultimately had about 20 people working on it. The team next to us, however, was developing Legend of Dragoon at the same time… I think they had over 100 people on that. (laughs)
—Did the people around you at SCE comment on what you were making?
Ueda: Yeah, there were a lot of comments. ICO is a game with no tutorial, no gauges… in many senses, it’s a game defined by what is not there. So people would say things like, “why don’t you add an icon above the girl’s head, so the player can know how she’s feeling?”, or they’d question the merit of the hand-holding system.
—”Shouldn’t there be more enemies…?” I bet you heard that one too! I imagine that even within your own development team, like with the programmers, it must have been difficult to convince them sometimes.
Ueda: That still happens today, but yeah, it’s the biggest problem.
—When you’ve already got such a clear, pre-established idea for how the visuals will be, I bet it’s easy for the programmers to start wondering, “Ok, but what kind of game is this going to be?”
Ueda: During the PSX development phase, yeah, it was exactly like that. I had the big picture already in my head, so I would tell them it would all work out, but when the project began they really had no idea how it was all supposed to fit together. This also made bugs hard to find, nor were they at liberty to change or add to the design documents themselves.
Ultimately we shifted development of ICO to the PS2, and after that the programming became a bit more systematic, and thankfully things got a lot easier.
—That PS1 version of ICO never ended up getting released, but how far along was it?
Ueda: It actually wasn’t very complete. (laughs)
—Ah, I see. (laughs)
Ueda: There was a presentation deadline coming up, but only the visuals were really ready to be shown, and we didn’t finish half of what we’d set out to do. (laughs) There were some problems that just couldn’t be solved with the Playstation hardware. The girl’s reactions weren’t added in yet either, and that aspect, after all, was more important to me than the visuals.
—Right. It wasn’t about the imagery, as you said.
Ueda: Then again, with ICO I was always saying “it’s not done yet, it’s not done yet!” all the way up to the end. I’m sure that if I showed other people that PS1 version now, they’d think it was pretty far along. (laughs)
—What would you say your original concept was for ICO?
Ueda: In the very beginning, of course, my ideas were related to the art and visuals, but overall I would have to say it was the desire to do distinguish myself and do something different. I wanted to create something no one had ever created. Whatever genre or type of game I made, I knew I wanted to do something unique.
—I can see how your other ideas, like not having a life gauge, fit into that.
Ueda: Right. I also had this feeling—how to put it—that the gameplay needed to be simple if it was going to reach out to non-gamers. I don’t personally like very complicated games myself, either.
—Really? You, who loves Flashback?
Ueda: If there’s too many “stats” and numbers, I lose interest right away. (laughs)
—And yet, at that time, the game market was going crazy for stuff like Final Fantasy VII and Dragon Quest VII.
Ueda: Yeah, that’s true. But I wasn’t really paying much attention. I’m not very interested in trends in the game industry. I tend to look up from time to time and go, “oh, here we are now.” The bigger feeling in me then—well, actually still now—was wondering why people stopped playing video games.
—How do you mean?
Ueda: I mean, it’s as if everyone “graduates” from video games eventually. When I looked around me, at people of my generation, I noticed they were all moving on. Yet, no one “graduates” from movies, nor do they stop listening to music as they get older. For some reason though, they stop playing video games. Why was that, I wondered? I sensed a danger in it, that it boded poorly for the future.
—And that concern is expressed in ICO, a game which anyone who sees it can quickly grasp.
Ueda: Yeah. There’s also the fact that I had never made a video game before, I didn’t come from that background, so I didn’t think I could compete on “traditional” gaming terms. The frame-level precision that a game like Virtua Fighter demands is truly impressive, but making something like that was impossible for me. Maybe if I’d worked really really hard I could have made something equivalent, but at the end of the day if I was only going to recreate the wheel, I figured it was better to spend my efforts elsewhere.
—I see what you mean about really having a clear vision to do something “alternative” from the get-go.
Ueda: In a game of win or lose, I had to figure out how I could win, I guess. Although in the end, ICO didn’t sell all that well.
—How did you feel when it was decided that ICO would move development to the PS2?
Ueda: It was complicated. We had spent so much time developing it on the PS1… and a lot of launch titles for systems end up being not very good, since they don’t know how to use the hardware fully yet… I didn’t want to release a game like that. I think, overall, at the time I would have preferred to see it released on the PS1.
However, releasing it on the PS2 turned out to be the right choice, by far. The original version of ICO had so many problems, anyway—and lots of hardware-based limitations. On the one hand, it felt like “damn, to throw away two years of work and start all over…!” But on the other hand, it was like, “hey, now we actually have a shot at completing this thing.” (laughs)
—Was the porting a difficult process?
Ueda: At the time I didn’t think it was going to be very difficult. The stage graphics and the character rendering we had done were originally created in very high quality, you see—we had downgraded them for the PSX, so I thought the PS2 would be able to handle the originals no problem. But as it turned out, we had to redo everything anyway.
—That does sound tough.
Ueda: There was also a programmer who joined the project at that point, who had worked on the Playstation 2 graphics hardware. He understood the technical side of the PS2, and he had a background in graphics, so that was a huge help.
—What was it liked when you finally released ICO? I remember how everyone around me was talking about it.
Ueda: Oh yeah? Unfortunately, it wasn’t like that for me. It kind of felt like we had released it secretly… there was no sense of excitement or anticipation. That all came later, after the release, when I got news that we had been nominated for an award overseas, and we started doing interviews.
—Really, there was nothing? Nothing at all?
Ueda: Well, the good reviews and the praise trickled in, but slowly. But when we did start getting press, or people would tell me things like, “This was a really moving experience” or “That was a great game”, my response was kind of blank.
When you’ve spent so long making something, you can easily lose your objectivity. Any praise was far outweighed by the criticism in my mind, “Oh, I should have done more of this” or “How can we be releasing it in this state…?” I even started to doubt some of the basic decisions: maybe there should have been a life gauge? maybe we should have had more than one enemy? and so on. Moreover, there was no one on the team to reassure me “you made the right calls Ueda.” (laughs)
The Cruelty of Shadow of the Colossus
—I’d like to turn now to Shadow of the Colossus, which began development under the title of “NICO.” Did you start it right after finishing ICO?
Ueda: Right after we finished ICO, I actually had nothing on my plate. I had a number of old ideas kicking around in my head—ideas that couldn’t be realized under previous circumstances. I picked one of them pretty quickly and got started on it…
—It’s interesting how you also started this development by making a promotional video.
Ueda: Yeah. It was made by me, a designer from ICO, and a team of about 10 animators.
—Was “massiveness” a development concept at this point, too?
Ueda: Ultimately, that sense of scale turned out to be a big hook for Shadow of the Colossus, but at this point, I wasn’t really consciously going for that. Huge bosses are kind of a given in games, right? I mean, there’s nothing especially new there. More than that, it was… well, I’m not sure I should say this, but… the theme I had in mind was cruelty. (laughs)
Ueda: The concept of holding the girl’s hand in ICO had, at its core, an element of eroticism to it, I thought. But that eroticism is highly sublimated, and never made explicit. Likewise in Shadow of the Colossus, the deeper theme that lies beneath the many layers of the game is cruelty.
—Ah, I understand. The cruelty of killing the Colossi, the violence of it.
Ueda: Yeah, after I made ICO, I was often asked what I thought of Grand Theft Auto III in overseas interviews.
—I see. GTA and ICO must have seemed like polar opposites.
Ueda: Yeah, although I had bought a copy of GTAIII for myself, and liked it. (laughs) And I’ve played them since the first Grant Theft Auto, which was made by the creator of Lemmings, actually. So it was interesting to me to see people view ICO like that.
I’ve never thought that “cruelty” is something forbidden in video games. Video games seem to require cruelty as a means of expression, and that being the case, I wanted to try and present my own take on cruelty. That was really the seed idea of Shadow of the Colossus.
Also, with ICO some people commented that that while the atmosphere was great, as a game it left something to be desired. (laughs) So partly Shadow of the Colossus was a response to that, of trying to make a more “proper” game. It ultimately ended up coming out a lot like ICO anyway, but in the beginning I wanted to draw a clear line.
Creating the puzzles in ICO also gave me a really hard time. The puzzles and the dialogue… in the process of creating the dialogue, I realized I wasn’t very good at it. That’s why I pledged that my next game would have no dialogue—a story, but no dialogue.
—You know, that just reminded me of something, but in Shadow of the Colossus, the player is able to move the camera even during the realtime movies. For instance, in the scene after you defeat the Colossus, and you hear that voice from above, you can subtly influence the movement of the camera…
Ueda: That comes from an idea I’ve had since ICO: in the future video games must get away from having scenes where the player has absolutely no control, or is doing nothing. On the one hand, such movie scenes can be necessary to tell the story. But I still think developers should find a way to do that which allows the player to be in control, so they don’t feel their time is being wasted meaninglessly.
—Right. Anywhere the player can interpose himself directly, he should be allowed to do so to the fullest extent possible. I think that, somehow, in that sense you’re the best possible successor to simpler games like Dragon Quest. You take the player’s intention very seriously.
Ueda: I like Dragon Quest. But the biggest thing for me is that I want to see video games standing on par with other mediums of entertainment—not be subsumed by them. That is to say, I want games to do things that only video games can do.
—Regarding the story of SotC, as you defeat the Colossi, about halfway through it starts to feel like, “maybe Wander is the bad guy here…?” I understand the overall story, but it seems that you left everything that comprises that story up the player’s imagination. Something happened in these characters’ past, but you don’t know what it is.
—That method of storytelling (and hopefully this doesn’t sound bad) is very reminiscent of Western games.
Ueda: No, you’re right there—I love Western games. (laughs) Personally, I’ve never felt very motivated by the stories of video games. I rarely have that “I want to see what happens next!” feeling from the story itself. Perhaps I simply just don’t have much interest in the stories of video games, but I also often wonder, “are other players really even paying attention…?”
For both SotC and ICO, I took a different path: in the very beginning, I presented players with a single goal. From that, the player can imagine the ending to some extent, but they don’t know for sure what’s really going to happen. In SotC, for example, the player can probably guess that Mono is going to be revived somehow.
I don’t think movie-style narratives, where “the truth” is gradually revealed to you as you reach the end, are really right for video games. I prefer giving the player some information right at the beginning, “this is how things might be”, but then letting them play and discover everything else for themselves. At least, that’s how I, in my relative inexperience as a game creator, saw it.
—Your style of directing is no doubt influenced by those feelings.
Ueda: Yes, but in another, sense I think I had no choice but to make my games this way. Take SotC, for example: I could have had Wander and Mono talk through everything for the player’s benefit in the beginning, but that would have taken, what, 30 minutes? (laughs)
—Perhaps by saying less, you actually do more to expand the player’s imagination.
Ueda: It’s a little difficult for me to explain, but games like Flashback, Out of this World, and even Grand Theft Auto III… I’m not very good at English, so I don’t really understand what’s going on in those worlds very well. That’s been the case with most games I’ve personally imported. And yet, it’s precisely my not knowing that makes the experience exciting. There’s a movie called The Iron Giant, and for that too, I found the English version more moving than the Japanese. I didn’t understand what they were saying, but what I imagined in my own head was all the more moving to me.
Games for Non-Gamers
—Ueda, are games a means to an end for you, or are they a goal in and of themselves? That is, are they merely a means for you to convey the visuals you want to share? Or do you have a clear vision, “I want people to play a game like this!” ?
Ueda: I think it’s both. Of course, when you first start making a game, there’s scenes and visuals you really want players to see. But separately, there’s also a feeling like “I really want players to experience a game like this”, and that is huge.
In any game development, you see, there’s going to be problems: hardware limitations, not knowing how to present an idea, etc. If you’re too focused on a single goal or idea, it can be very difficult to build a game around it. But once you have more than one motivating idea, that’s when the game starts to really come together.
—That sounds like the fun part though—linking all those ideas together with the unique world you’ve created.
Ueda: Well, personally I’m not all that interested in complex backstories of games. When creators release those humongous story and setting compendiums for their games, I rarely read them. (laughs) If I find the world extremely interesting, and I get really sucked into the game, I might start to get interested, but there’s so few games like that for me.
—I see. Well, time is running out, but there’s one thing I just had to ask about. When I played both ICO and SotC, it occurred to me that you must really romanticize women.
Ueda: Yeah, I probably do.
—I thought so. (laughs)
Ueda: But I think what that romanticizing comes down to is that, ultimately, I think women are the stronger sex. Both my games feature the trope of the “frail woman.” And although in reality women are the physically weaker sex, in these games, they are ultimately stronger. In both ICO and SotC, in the end the player is protected by the woman. So I think the root of that romanticizing, as you call it, lies there.
—I also wondered if your first love was perhaps an older woman…
Ueda: No, it wasn’t. (laughs) I did have an older brother though, so there may be something in that. Growing up it wasn’t easy for me to approach or get involved with a girl.
—Did you add these elements unconsciously then? The hand-holding and such.
Ueda: For ICO, it was deliberately added, for motivation. Most of the people who play video games are male, so I thought they’d be motivated to rescue and help a cute girl. (laughs) I think men try to act tough all the time, but they’re actually very weak, and it’s women who are, in the final analysis, the stronger ones. I experienced that when developing games too—the female staff members work harder than the men. (laughs)
—I understand that you’re currently working on the European version of Shadow of the Colossus, but do you have an idea of what your next game will be yet?
Ueda: There’s something I want to do, but I’m still not sure if it would be ok, or if the idea is enough. Nowadays, when making a game, if you don’t have a big hook, it’s difficult to bring your project to the market as a finished commercial product. In pursuit of interesting new ideas, things can get a little complicated, but there’s also the fact that I want a lot of people to play this game… right now I’m still working through all that.
—It sounds like your philosophy hasn’t changed: making games for people who don’t play games!
Ueda: Yeah, that hasn’t. Those are exactly the people who I want to play.
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