Fumito Ueda: A Simple Kind of Man

Fairy tales are complex stories told simply, using characters and themes that the audience will find immediately familiar. However, when taking a closer look at these superficially facile dramas their complexity begins to bloom. Cinderella is at one level the story of a kind, but forgotten daughter that is able to meet the man of her dreams. Looking further one sees issues of family acceptance, jealousy between mothers and daughters and idealized male figures. Few videogames and even fewer game developers have used this combination of simple presentation and story, to tell deeply moving narratives. In this regard Fumito Ueda stands astride the industry as a colossus.

Ueda directed Ico (2001), Shadow of the Colossus (2005), and the upcoming The Last Guardian. Both Ico and Shadow of the Colossus have proven to be critical successes and touchstones in the ongoing “videogames as art” discussion. The success of these games can be linked to their simplicity. Ueda has described his approach to directing videogames as “design by subtraction.” The boldness of this statement is easy to downplay. Every year the videogame audience is inundated with titles that offer “more immersive gameplay,” “increased levels of realism,” and “engaging storylines.” Generally this translates into press more buttons to accomplish the same goals and longer more overblown cutscenes to sit through. The upcoming Vanquish may have the most gratuitous example of this, with a smoke button that serves no gameplay function. Contrast this with Ueda’s paired down control schemes; Ico used six of the twelve buttons of the PS2 controller, while Shadow of the Colossus used only five. Thus, instead of increasing button inputs with subsequent games, Ueda actually decreased the amount of real estate used on the controller. Another distinctive feature of Ueda’s games is that there are no upgrades. Players don’t learn new techniques or gain new more powerful weapons as they progress. The set of actions you have in the first five minutes are the same suite of techniques that will guide you through the rest of the game experience. Thus, instead of the character changing throughout the game, the player is the one who is expected to expand and grow.

This “simple is better” approach also applies to the games’ environments. While most games lead a player by the nose through each level or area Ueda’s games have a more relaxed tempo encouraging exploration at your own pace. Indeed, in Shadow of the Colossus all the environments that you travel across and interact with are available from the outset of the game. Players do not even have to participate in the game’s storyline if they so choose; they simply can wander the world and marvel at its beauty.

The most striking example of simplicity in Ueda’s games is their narratives. Each can be summed up in a few sentences, but leave a lasting impression with those who play them. This is where the fairytale-like storytelling comes into play. Most modern games having long winded introductions that attempts to provide lasting motivations for the character that will carry them through the narrative arc, and fail more often than they succeed. Ico begins with the main character being exiled and brought to an island to be imprisoned in a castle. This is told principally with the game’s visuals and a minimum of dialogue. From there you eventually are released from your confined cell and your motivation becomes finding a way out of your desolate surroundings. On your way out you find another occupant of the castle, Yorda, a luminescent young girl who you lead and defend through the rest of your journey. This is not a globe trotting narrative where every decision holds the fate of the world in the balance. It’s a story of two people that must rely on each other to survive and find their way home. While other videogame epics use cutscenes to add layers to the narrative via subplots, double crosses and similar storytelling chicanery Ico’s plot stays noticeably uncluttered by such authorial manipulation. The bond between Ico and Yorda grows not through a constant barrage of sappy moments meant to melt your heart, but more organically with every chasm you guide Yorda across and shadow monster you protect her from. This underscores the trust Ueda has in his audience that they can recognize a lingering glance or the body language between the characters. He does not want to spell it out for you, but make you recognize such cues as you would in your daily life. The way the narrative is presented was further refined with Shadow of the Colossus, where you are given a simple task: destroy sixteen giants wondering the landscape to save your girlfriend. With each colossus killed black tendrils strike through you and knock you unconscious. The narrative tells you that you must kill these beasts, but the player is made to ask whether they should be killing these peaceful creatures. The conclusion of the story shows that the player has been tricked and by slaying the giants he has saved his love, but also unleashed a dark power. No other game I have ever played has given you task, punished you within the narrative for accomplishing it and then forced you to make a judgment about whether the task was justified.

In modern games simple is often used to describe dumbed down difficulty or uninspired game design. However, Fumito Ueda has shattered these perceptions, by offering gameplay and narratives that utilize simplicity not as a crutch but as a guiding principle that aids both the narrative and the player’s experience. As we await the coming of The Last Guardian we can only wonder what world this engineer of the simply fantastic has created for us to experience.

Written by Justin Spielmann

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