"Strictly speaking I can't say I'm creating art."
Of all the things we expected to hear from Fumito Ueda - director, game designer and lead artist on both ICO and Shadow of the Colossus - that wasn't one of them. Of all the PlayStation 2 games we've played, ICO is one of the few that seems qualified for association with the term.
Mind you, we shouldn't be surprised that Ueda-san is intelligent enough to identify the distinction between a commercial product and works of art. As the man largely responsible for ICO, he's owed credit for fashioning one of the most hauntingly emotional and involving adventures of recent years. After Sony understocked the game in Europe to a depressing degree, it became an eBay collector's item trading hands for obscene amounts of money. ICO's legend is such that his follow-up project, Shadow of the Colossus, was a critical darling as soon as someone leaked the game's codename, NICO. That only intensified when concrete details started to emerge - of a game where a lonely hero tries to revive a sleeping girl by scaling and conquering gigantic monsters.
Now, after three and a half years in development, it's on the verge of release; due out next month in the US and Japan, and next spring in Europe. With time short, we took the chance to catch up with Ueda-san following the Tokyo Game Show and, during a group session and a short one-on-one interview later on, were given the chance to ask him about the game's development.
Eurogamer: Why did you decide to make a new title instead of a follow-up to ICO?
Fumito Ueda: ICO took over four years to develop, which is a long time for a single title given that it was a puzzle game that took place in a fairly narrow environment, and that was a long time to put into a title like that, so this time we really wanted to focus on creating a larger world; a world maybe not quite as peaceful as the one in the previous title, with more excitement and a kind of broader new environment.
Eurogamer: Is the game set in the same universe as ICO? Is there continuity?
Fumito Ueda: Our intention at the outset was to create a completely different world, a completely different environment to the previous title, but as designers we all have our preferences and our styles, and inevitably some things started to become similar to what we've done before. What we really strived for with ICO was to create an environment that was as close to a reality of some kind as possible. To the extent that we continue to strive for very realistic images, you'll see similarities between the two games.
Eurogamer: Were you able to build on the technology used in ICO?
Fumito Ueda: That's what we were hoping for when we started on this; that we could build on the visual styles and so forth that we had developed over four years for the previous title. In the end however we ended up rebuilding a lot of that and this title took three and a half years to create so it was almost from the ground up again.
Eurogamer: Will there be anything different about the European version?
Fumito Ueda: The main reason for the five- or six-month difference will be adding compatibility for different languages; it'll be completely localised. Also we want to make it as compatible as possible with PAL systems so it's going to have progressive scan as well and that's going to take a little bit of time. There are no official plans to add anything to the European version. In our minds the game is pretty much fixed as it is. But if there's time and we think of something, who knows.
Eurogamer: How about a two-player mode?
Fumito Ueda: [Laughs] Actually we wanted to, but there just wasn't time.
Eurogamer: Does your character learn new abilities as you go through the game?
Fumito Ueda: The basic skills that are given to each character at the outset stay pretty much the same throughout the game. The level of those skills will change a little bit but you won't acquire new skills or actions.
Eurogamer: ICO had various replay incentives for people who completed the game - a two-player mode and so forth. Will you be offering similar incentives in Shadow?
Fumito Ueda: If anything there will be more in this title than in the previous one.
Eurogamer: Did you feel under pressure to produce a game similar to ICO given the amount of attention that game received?
Fumito Ueda: Yeah, there was a lot of pressure. It might have been possible for us to respond to that pressure a lot quicker by coming out with a simple sequel to the previous title but we wanted to do something that would surprise people a little bit more and that would take things in a different direction and kind of change your expectations in a different way.
Eurogamer: Could you give us a bit more detail on the overall story? What is it really about?
Fumito Ueda: We haven't defined ourselves any relationship between the young man and the young girl except she is very important to him for some reason; for some reason her soul was lost; and he wants to try and get it back for her and bring her back to life essentially. The only way to do that is to capture the sword that has the power to bring her back to life. As for the role of the colossi that come out in the story, we want to save their role and their meaning in the story for the player to find out, because it does come out in the course of the game what their purpose is.
Eurogamer: The sword in the game seems to act like a hint system - you hold it up to the light and it shows you where to go. Do you have any other systems in the game that show players what they need to do next?
Fumito Ueda: The only thing I can think of specifically off the top of my head is that when you have the sword in your hand and you're climbing up one of the colossi, the sword will respond to the colossi's weak points and that will give you an idea what the weak points are. And also the sword itself has meaning within the storyline.
Eurogamer: When people think of good game graphics, they often focus on high resolutions and smooth contours, but ICO and Shadow work differently. What would you say were the technical reasons for this approach?
Fumito Ueda: Half of it is intentional - to create this particular look. The other half is to some extent a function of the hardware platform, the fact we're trying to create a much broader and deeper world than we created in ICO. To do that, you have to either compromise a little on the graphics in order to have a much broader picture to present, or create a very narrow world where the detail is very high. With the PlayStation 2 platform, it's got to be one or the other.
Eurogamer: ICO was praised a lot for its themes - the sense of abandonment and isolation, particularly the companionship between Ico and Yorda. What sort of themes would you say you've focused on in Shadow of the Colossus?
Fumito Ueda: There are lots of games where the battle action is kind of central to the story, but most of them involve fighting opponents that are approximately the same size as you or smaller, generally, and looking at all of these different games the impression we got was that it would be much more heroic and much more exciting to have the main character battle creatures that are much, much bigger than him and to defeat them, and so we wanted to focus on that contrast between the normal, so-called human type hero fighting these giant creatures. So that was a big aspect.
As far as the relationship between the playable characters and the non-playable characters - there's still that focus on those relationships, not as strong as before. We have NPCs like the horse which is an active character in the story and so forth. The focus is not quite as much on the relationships as it was before, although the way we look at the relationships is the same.
Eurogamer: A lot of people held ICO up as a work of art. Do you see the game as art?
Fumito Ueda: Of course it always makes us happy to hear that kind of comment. I was originally an art student and was in the art field, I just happen to be working in the game field at the moment, but for me to have my work called art is a huge compliment. The difference being that in this field I'm not trying to create a work of art, I'm trying to create a product and I keep that in mind. This is a process of creating a product that has to be sold; it has to be popular from that point of view as well. So strictly speaking I can't say I'm creating art.
Eurogamer: Most games seem to have difficulty coming up with even two or three interesting "boss" enemies, whereas you seem to have come up with a game consisting of nothing but. Did you find it difficult to keep coming up with interesting ideas?
Fumito Ueda: You're right - it was a lot of work to come up with the 16 colossi that come out in the game, but in fact I had more that I wanted to include.
We'll be able to see the colossi that Ueda-san and his team were able to include when Shadow of the Colossus arrives in Europe next spring. Or rather, when we import it in just under a month's time. We were hardly going to wait, were we? Join us then - and be sure to check out the Shadow of the Colossus trailer we nabbed at TGS.