Team Ico’s titles – Ico, Shadow of the Colossus and The Last Guardian – are often praised for their memorable and powerful narratives. All of which were initially seeded by a Tatsuno born artist who just wanted to craft fiction.
“I joined the games industry at 25 years-old, a bit later than most other creators,” recalls Creative Director Fumito Ueda. “I initially went into games because it was a good job to make a living, but I asked myself if that was fair. So I decided that if I was making games, I wanted to express something that couldn’t be done by other mediums.”
16 years later, it’s this mindset which has helped create games which have not only captured the imagination of gamers, but inspired creators across the industry. We spoke to a few of the most respected writer/designers in video games to get a deeper look into why.
They allow you to be alone, together
In the desire to venture into gameplay driven narratives which were unique to video games, one of Ueda-san’s prevalent devices is the ‘partner mechanic’. Sure, the mighty cat-bird-dog shaped Trico from The Last Guardian may be on our minds right now, but before that we had princess Yorda from Ico, and faithful steed Argo, from Shadow of The Colossus.
“Having an AI based partner and the interaction that comes with that is something you can’t really have in books or movies,” says Ueda-san. “And Trico is a culmination of what we thought we couldn’t achieve with Ico and Shadow of the Colossus.
“Ico is about building trust, and there’s a similar thing in Shadow of the Colossus with Argo, so with Trico you meet this strange creature where neither of you are used to each other. There’s this huge range of things that you go through to build that relationship, and that is the storytelling itself.”
This co-dependency with someone who you can’t control or fully communicate with is a valuable staple that creates dramatic tension, but also allows the player to fill their relationship with unspoken and uniquely personal meaning. Whether that’s through the big clashes of conflict… or just the smaller, quieter moments between them.
“In Ico, the relationship between the player character and the ethereal Yorda feels both so delicate and also so complex,” says Greg Kasavin, Writer and Designer for Supergiant Games (Bastion; Transistor). “[It’s effective] just from their moment-to-moment interactions as they help each other through environments or slump down on a bench when you save your progress.”
There’s a lightness of touch
There’s power in the unsaid – and Ueda-san’s background as an artist particularly shines in his desire to express narrative through visuals. It’s something storytellers are typically trained to do (‘show, don’t tell’) but it’s far harder to put into practice, especially in video games where it’s easy to mistake understanding how to play the game with understanding what the game is actually about.
“The minimalism of the writing is really admirable,” says Double Fine’s founder, Tim Schafer (Grim Fandango; Psychonauts; Broken Age). “There’s a lot of storytelling there which is about making the player ask questions, and there are environments which have a lot of history to them, and feel old.
“There’s so much mystery and feeling, and there’s a lot of space to fill with your own imagination and narrative ideas, which I really like. It inspires me in terms of what can be told without dialogue, and how rich you can make your environment when you’re focusing on the mood and emotions of it.”
“As a creator it humbled me,” reveals Santa Monica Studio’s Creative Director, Cory Barlog (the God of War series). “The whole experience stuck with me and continues to influence me to this day. Honestly, both Ico and Shadow of the Colossus opened my eyes as a writer and director, teaching me the power of simplicity. How there is a time for moments to just slow down and experience something.
“They showed me a new way to tell stories, to create true moments of character and to connect with people in order get to the heart of what you are really trying to say, with little to no dialogue.”
“What makes the narratives of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus so effective is that they almost never stoop to using words,” agrees Greg. “While not wordless games, I think they’re at their best when there is nothing to be said. The environments, character art and animation in those games are so vibrant and specific that they really tell the story all on their own, while leaving plenty of room for the player to put the pieces together in a personal way.
“That’s always stuck with me since I first played those games when they came out. They really let you take your time and soak in the scenery, making them feel both immersive and thoughtful at the same time.”
The art of fighting, without fighting
Although far from the norm in contemporary games, explosive action scenes against an army of faceless expendables in the run up to a powerful boss battle, is still an expectation. Which is why it’s powerful when that expectation is avoided or subverted, as seen in Ueda-san’s titles.
Ico has you actively avoid conflict where possible, something which took many by surprise at first play, especially when combined with its controls and partner based focus. “At the time I had been playing so many action-adventure games that I entered Ico with my brain kind of being the square hole to Ico’s triangular peg,” admits Cory.
“I was playing the game and ‘expecting’ an experience similar to what I have had before, projecting when I simply should have been open to the experience [it delivered].”
Similarly, Shadow of the Colossus’s nutshell description of “a game of bosses” is something that dovetails into the narrative in the most memorable of ways.
“I remember hearing rumours that Shadow, then codenamed ‘NICO’, was nothing more than a series of really well-made boss battles,” says Japan Studio Creative Director, Keiichiro Toyama (Siren; the Gravity Rush series). “And yet when it was released, it came together as an incredibly unique world that flew in the face of conventional wisdom. It was astonishing.
“When I killed a colossus, the thrill I experienced was unlike anything I had felt before. But that thrill was united with a horror at the atrocity I had committed, as if the weight of original sin had fallen upon me all at once.”
Every death in Shadow of the Colossus means something, which is a rare thing in a medium that often revels in excess. Here, violence is not just a typical means to a visceral end, but a dramatic narrative device designed to deliver more complex emotions than just the triumph of defeating an obstacle.
“The instant you first defeat one of the game’s majestic-looking monstrosities, you immediately begin to wonder what exactly it is that you’re doing, and whether the price you’re paying for what you’re trying to achieve is going to be worth it,” says Greg.
“These are games that reject traditional ideas around player fantasies, despite superficially playing into those genres.”
It’s arguable the minimalistic style of Ueda-san’s games help impart their powerful and enduring effect on their players, but it’s also the depth of what they can say that makes them so unforgettable. “The more you played them, the more you could tell they had a lot more going on beneath the surface,” explains Greg.
If you notice any signs or symbols in these games, more often than not they play directly into the themes or narrative of their story. And so even if you’re not overtly aware of it, there’s always a sense of loss, love, companionship, solitude and death, present… amongst many other things.
“I think the dichotomy between male and female is a key element of Ueda’s work,” explains Toyama-san. “That imagery is obvious in Ico, but in Shadow, I see the colossi as entities akin to earth goddesses. And these symbols of the harvest are killed to bring a single woman back to life. I feel that with such dramatic dichotomies, Shadow of the Colossus can be called a myth born in the modern age.”
Creating a lasting impression
It’s a combination of these elements blended with captivating gameplay which has left so many gamers and game creators alike eagerly awaiting The Last Guardian over its long development time (Cory humorously confesses: “I can’t wait to get my copy so I can ditch work – I swear, it won’t delay God of War – lock myself away with my PS4 and experience another one of Team Ico’s incredible worlds… aaaaand most likely feel creatively inadequate in comparison”).
It’s also the reason why, even after its launch, all eyes will be on whatever Ueda-san decides to create next, which may fall outside of the partner-based narrative. “If there’s some other method of expression that I think of in the future that can only be done by games, I’ll make a game based on that,” he says.
But for now, there’s no doubt that Ico, Shadow of the Colossus and The Last Guardian will remain a trio of titles which won’t be too far from players’ minds when it comes to genuinely affecting experiences.
“Ico is goddamn masterclass in world building storytelling and elegant character-driven direction,” says Cory. “The way that Team Ico marries the character development with the mechanics of the game is just mind-bendingly good.
“Team Ico is amazingly rare group of talent and Fumito Ueda is a brilliant storyteller and director. He tells stories that are so simple, pure and universal. Stories that tap into the nostalgia of our childhood when the possibility of wonder was around every corner, each day promised new adventures in fantastic make believe worlds filled with treasures to find and monsters to slay. He and his team created a world I want to return to. A world where anything is possible.”
“These were games that were about something,” recalls Greg. “They created memorable, emotional experiences that raised questions rather than preaching answers, leaving room for the player’s interpretation — which is vital, I think, for a medium defined by interactivity.
“Above all, they’re just beautifully crafted games that sweat the details. I want to make games that can make players feel how Ico and Shadow of the Colossus made me and many other players feel.”
“They’ve always really inspired me in their ability to create a world which feels unlike any other,” agrees Tim. “They feel real, and like a place that I’ll miss when I’m not there.”