Interview with Fumito Ueda
ICO came out of nowhere at this year's E3 to astonish the few who stopped long enough to play the demo, and has since received much attention for its groundbreaking, almost lyrical take on the adventure genre. Built around the relationship between a young boy with precious little strength and a captured princess with the power to unlock barriers, neither of whom can speak to the other, the game's dignified and quiet atmosphere has charmed virtually everyone who's had the chance to play it. We spoke to Fumito Ueda, the game's director, designer, and art director, about the creation of ICO.
Many thanks to Tsubasa Inaba at SCEI for translation services.
GIA: How many people are working on the project? Who are the key members such as producer, art director, composer, and so on?
Ueda: The team consists of about 20 members. (At peak we had 23, now we have 18.) The producer is Mr. Kenji Kaido, and the Director & Game Designer & Art Director is Mr. Fumito Ueda.
GIA: We've heard that the internal team is a fairly new one at Sony. What other projects have you worked on?
Ueda: This was actually the first project for the team. In a good sense, the team has an amateur touch, which was something we tried not to forget in the development stages. This is probably why ICO isn't just another "game".
GIA: Can you tell us a little bit of the development history of the game? It started out as a PSX title, how has the concept and scope changed over the project?
Ueda: The overall game concept has not changed much since it's original game designing
stages. We think that it is quite rare these days that this happens. The shift of
platforms from PSX to PS2 was due to release timing.
GIA: When ICO debuted up at E3 2000, it was obviously very early and hardly resembles the game it is today. Why was the decision made to show the game at such an early stage?
Ueda: You might be surprised to hear that the main game design has not changed much from E3 2000, although we must admit that the A.I. for Yorda was incomplete, thus gameplay was centered around the boy. Maybe that's why people felt there was a difference. The reason we debuted early was to aim for publicity, and for more people to have awareness of the title.
GIA: One of the most impressive things about ICO is its fairy-tale atmosphere, from the ominously silent shadow monsters to the radiant princess to the evil queen. What prompted the decision to go with a more dreamlike world rather than a straight medieval-style setting?
Ueda: The reason for this is very clear. We wanted to give the title a wide-range audience for
people from adults to children to be able to enjoy the game.
GIA: The silent, shadow creatures strike a chord with many gamers who find them
immediately more repulsive than more traditional opponents. Why are they
made of smoke?
Ueda: Due to the behavior (or character) of the enemy, we thought that if it were human-like,
or even resembled other living creatures, it would visually be "too much." This also applies to the reason for there being shadows or smoke. They can arouse from anywhere, and disappear easily. This gives the enemy characters a more realistic touch, when you think of their behavior. Another reason was to simply make it easier for players to differentiate on screen which is the boy, Yorda, and the enemy.
GIA: The environments of ICO have an incredibly organic feel to them, as though they were constructed as a real castle rather than a series of obstacles. How did you go about designing the environments?
Ueda: We really wanted to utilize & maximize what players would see on-screen. The aim was for players to feel structures seen throughout the game, that had been there before they started playing, instead of an environment full of opportunism often seen in other games.
GIA: Part of ICO's strong sense of place comes from its unique camera system, which is very different from most third person action games. All the camera angles seem scripted to offer not only the best view of the action, but also the most "artistic" view of the surroundings. Was this a conscious effort from the start or the project, and how much work has been put into the camera scripting?
Ueda: We have chosen this camera system so that players do not lose their sense of direction. There are imaginary lines in areas where cameras switch, which acted as guidelines for us, when finalizing details. We would like to emphasize that the feel for each character's existence comes not only from the camera, but also from a combination of their motion and their SE. It's really difficult to say how much time we spent on the camera scripting, as we made adjustments to it from day one, all the way up to the end.
GIA: Every aspect of ICO seems more austere and spare than other games, from lack of any status indicators on the screen to the simple forms of communication employed by Ico and Yorda. Why go with such a minimalist style?
Ueda: We feel that today's games are often too complicated. ICO is a game where players need to be creative, and they need to think. Players can pick up the game and play without a manual, and there is a minimum of things they need to remember. We hope players will enjoy the process of thinking when they experience the battle scenes or the puzzle scenes.
GIA: What influenced the decision to forego a traditional score in favor of more ambient, natural sounds?
Ueda: The use of background music has been kept at a minimum in this game. We only use music in areas we really feel it will be effective. This helps in bringing out the great essences of the world of ICO.
GIA: How did you create the imaginary languages that Yorda and Ico use? Are they based on any real-world languages?
Ueda: There is no particular language that we have based the imaginary languages. One might say the boy's language is similar to Chinese, and the girl's language sounds like French.
GIA: How was the fluid, smooth character animation accomplished?
Ueda: All animation is done by hand by our animation staff. This was to achieve a dynamism which cannot be achieved by using motion capture methods.
GIA: The playable demo emphasized Yorda's fragility in subtle ways, such as her sudden starts and controller feedback if you pull on her hand too hard. What are some other small touches like this you're proud of?
Ueda: An example of this would be when Yorda discovers they are under attack, since she does not have the power to fight by herself, she will run for cover and try to hide behind the boy.
The ethereally graceful Yorda
GIA: In what ways is Yorda "impaired?" Our first thoughts were that she was blind, but she appears able to navigate stairways and see to the top of the windmill. What's holding her back from escaping on her own?
Ueda: Let's save this one for the players to figure out. We really hope you will enjoy playing the game to find out what happens.
GIA: Part of the appeal of the game is that it's so easy to learn to play. Was a decision intentionally made to make ICO accessible to less action-oriented gamers?
Ueda: Yes, of course. Game players in Japan, especially, are very strict on their verdicts regarding game playability, or accessibility, and dislike those which aren't. Thus, we kept things as simple as possible.
GIA: ICO is a difficult title to market. As the developers, how would you position and market it in order to reach the widest audience?
Ueda: First, amongst many games that are brutal, ICO stands out as a true "Heroic Fantasy Story". Second, as pure computer entertainment.
GIA: Although ICO seems to be keeping a low profile in Japan, the American press reaction has been phenomenal. Are you surprised at the reaction? Was the game designed with an international audience in mind?
Ueda: Yes, we are surprised and pleased by the feedback we are receiving from the US market/media, and of course, we are very happy. The feedback we have received to date has been tremendous.
GIA: Very little of the game has been revealed so far. Are there more characters coming besides Ico, Yorda, and the Queen? Or will the game maintain the solitary feel seen in the early versions?
Ueda: ICO is basically all about the two characters who have been left deserted in a great big castle.
GIA: What's in the future for the ICO team? Have you decided on what sort of game you'll be working on next?
Ueda: Currently, we really don't know. However, I can tell you that we will again aim to create
a game which has a new game system to it, and of course we will concentrate on quality in areas such as motion or visual graphics.
GIA: Thank you very much, and good luck with the game.