Forsaken Worlds and Quiet Magnificence: The Story of Team Ico and Fumito Ueda

Forsaken Worlds and Quiet Magnificence: The Story of Team Ico and Fumito Ueda - Article

by Taneli Palola , posted on 21 August 2017 / 5,993 Views

The video game industry can sometimes feel like a world bereft of innovation and creativity. The sales charts are often dominated by sequels, remakes, and re-releases of games less than five years old, and the promise of a yet another Call of Duty, Assassin's Creed or Battlefield is no longer a cause for excitement for a lot of people. The fact is that most developers and publishers would rather go for the safe bet than gamble with an untested property, and to be perfectly honest, I can't blame them. This is an industry where one big flop can often mean the end for all but the biggest players in the field, putting a lot of people out of a job.

Fortunately, even at the worst of times there have always been video game creators who want to make something different and unique, to push the boundaries of what can be achieved with this medium. These days the vast majority of these games and people come from the indie side of the industry, where developers are free to experiment with new things without fear of losing millions if the game fails to sell. However, perhaps more than any other developer, Team Ico always walked its own path, careless of the trends and genres ruling the market. From its unusual beginning as a Sony in-house developer to creating games unlike any other developer in the industry, this is the story of Team Ico.


Origins of Team Ico

Ico and Yorda 

Team Ico as an idea dates back to 1997 when Sony hired Fumito Ueda as a first-party developer and assigned him to lead a team in developing games for Sony's PlayStation. In many ways, everything that Team Ico is, and was, centers on Ueda and his game design philosophy and ideal. He was the mind behind each of the team's games, and essentially created the style that would go on to define Team Ico.

Ueda was actually relatively inexperienced when it came to video game development, having only been involved in the development of two games prior to joining Sony - a director's cut of an interactive horror adventure game made using FMVs called D, and its sequel Enemy Zero. Ueda had worked as an animator on both projects, so joining Sony and becoming the director and lead designer of a studio built around him was a massive step up.

 Fumito Ueda

Initially Ueda worked by himself to create a short piece of animation that would serve as a proof of concept for an idea he had in his head for a game about the concept of “boy meets girl”. After a few months of work he presented this short to a board of Sony executives, including Shuhei Yoshida, who were impressed by Ueda's work, and greenlit the development of the game in question. This game was, of course, Ico.


Ico: Design by Subtraction


Ico is today considered one of the most revered cult classics of the PS2 era, and for a good reason. It was an odd game to be made at a time when most developers were still concerned about who can make the title with the best graphics and action to stand out from the rest of the carbon copy shooters (it can be argued that many of them still are). Ico had a very different nature to it. It was a quiet, almost reserved experience. This made it stand out in the cluttered video game market, and in many ways it was exactly that uniqueness that was both its greatest strength and biggest weakness.

The actual development if Ico began in 1998 for the original PlayStation. Ueda was joined by Kenji Kaido on the project who at the time was most famous for having worked on Ape Escape as a designer. While Ueda was the director and lead designer on Ico, Kaido became the game's producer, a position he would hold for several years while at Team Ico. Curiously, Ueda also brought in several people from outside the video game industry to help with the game's development. Together they all went on to form the foundation of Team Ico.


The team realized fairly quickly that the original PlayStation would not be able to handle the kind of game they were building, so they had to choose between either changing the original idea or moving to another platform entirely. As we now know, development was soon moved to Sony's next home console, the PS2. This move allowed the team to take advantage of the more powerful hardware and make use of techniques such as bloom lighting (Ico being among the first video games ever to use it), which would become quite common during the 7th console generation.

Ico was designed with the idea of creating something entirely different from anything else on the video game market and especially the genre it was a part of. In addition, Ueda wanted the game to have an aesthetic style that would remain artistic throughout, taking place in a setting that would feel realistic despite being entirely imaginary. Above all this was Ueda's central design philosophy and it was termed design by subtraction.

Essentially, design by subtraction means that anything that does not serve the game's core concept or interferes with the game's worldbuilding and story is removed. Early on in its development Ico featured numerous different enemy types, several different locations in addition to the castle found in the final game, and various other story and gameplay elements that were ultimately dropped as a result of Ueda's design philosophy.


These removed aspects included the game's interface, story elements that didn't directly concern the developing relationship between the two main characters or their goal of escaping the castle, and replacing the various different enemies with the shadowy creatures found in the finished title. All of this was done to ensure the game's focus remained on its core element: the two central characters and the bond that develops between them. Even the music was largely replaced by sounds of nature. This is what made Ico have that quietly beautiful quality that very few other games at the time possessed.

To put it simply, Ico is a game about a boy and a girl named Ico and Yorda, and their journey together through a strange castle, solving puzzles and fighting shadow monsters on their way, and not much else when you get down to it. Every element of the game somehow connects to its main characters, from the way they hold hands as they move around in the castle, to the puzzles that are often split into two parts: first solving it with Ico, and then figuring out a way to get Yorda through that same puzzle as well. To proceed through many of the doors Ico needs Yorda, just as she is needed to save progress at benches found in the castle. Every aspect of Ico is directly related to the relationship of the two main characters.


However, as Ueda himself also later stated, he may have gone just a bit too far with this approach. As such, Ico has its share of shortcomings. Some of the game's elements ended up becoming a bit too simple and repetitive. Notably, the combat in Ico is a somewhat dull affair, where you just swing a wooden stick around wildly for most of the game, hoping to hit the enemies and getting Yorda to safety. Controlling the main character also often feels imprecise and slippery. With the team's later games Ueda would show a little more restraint in applying his design philosophy, and for the most part they were better for it.

Ico was a critical success upon its 2001 release and is today considered by many people within the industry as one of the most influential games of all time. Developers like Hideo Kojima, Hidetaka Miyazaki (Souls series), Phil Fish (Fez), and Jordan Mecher have all cited Ico as having been hugely influential in many of their most well known games. Unfortunately, as well received as it was, Ico was also a commercial disappointment.

Various different reasons for the game's failure have been provided, including its rather unusual name, the undeniably awful American boxart, and its poorly handled marketing that mostly used out-of-context screenshots to try and sell the title. As a result, the game sold under 0.5 million copies in the west, and roughly half of that in Japan. Still, Ico's influence on the video game industry is undeniable, and the lessons learned from its creation would go on to produce not only countless great games from other developers around the world, but also a game by Team Ico that I consider among the best ever made.


Shadow of the Colossus: Reaching the Peak

 Wander and a colossus

Following the release of Ico the team quickly went on to work on their next project, tentatively titled Nico (Next Ico) at the time. The game that would eventually be given the name Shadow of the Colossus began development in 2002. While Ico began with less than ten people working on the project, SotC had 32 people working on it from the very beginning, although the process by which Ueda chose new members of the team was as strict as ever. According to him, of the roughly 500 artists who applied to work on the project only one or two were good enough in his eyes.

Just as Ico had been Ueda's attempt at telling the classic “boy meets girl” story in a new way, Shadow of the Colossus was to be a game that would make people look at boss battles in an entirely new light. Once again, Ueda had envisioned a single central concept around which everything else was built to support. In this case, that core was the 16 colossi serving as the game's bosses and only proper enemies.

 The second colossus

Because the colossi were to be the main focus of the entire game a huge amount of time and effort went into making them as believable and unique as possible, from their visual design to their animation and gameplay. Each one needed to be different from the others as they would serve as the game's main challenge. If the colossi had been underwhelming in any regard the foundation of the entire game would have fallen off. Fortunately, that wasn't the case, and to this day they remain an exceptional achievement in game design, especially when one considers the limitations of the PS2.

One of the most impressive aspects of Shadow of the Colossus is the realistic physics of the colossi, their movement, and how they affect the main character, Wander, as well as the surroundings in general. Some of the tiny details Team Ico managed to put into the game are amazingly impressive. Things like trees slightly shaking as the larger colossi walk around or how Wander reacts to the movement of the colossi when he's climbing on them are often easily overlooked, but make the game feel better to play.

 Phalanx battle

The colossi themselves are in many ways more like puzzles than actual battles, which makes each of them have a very unique feel, as their designs create a set of very different situations for the player to overcome. The variety of the colossi is one of the most notable aspects that makes Shadow of the Colossus stand out so well. Each new encounter provides an entirely new type of challenge, whether it's getting a colossus to hit a specific point in the battle arena or trying to find a way on to the back of a massive flying colossus.

Shadow of the Colossus also carries with it another theme that was central to Ico, that of companionship. In SotC this manifests itself in the form of Wander's horse, Agro. Ueda wanted to make Agro a realistic representation of an actual horse, which meant that on occasion Agro will actually ignore the player's commands, as a real horse will not always do precisely as it's told. This is a concept Ueda would later revisit in his next game as well.

Lighting plays a similarly large part here as it did in Ico, creating the desired tone and atmosphere for the world that the player inhabits. In general, light functions as one of the game's most important visual elements, which includes its use as the player's guide towards the next main objective as a beam of light emanating from Wander's sword.

One of the aspects that was somewhat changed from Ico was the game's use of music. Although it is still used sparingly throughout, the soundtrack composed by Kow Otani has a much larger presence than the music in Ico. Music still only plays during pivotal moments, such as the battles against the colossi, but the way it is used adds a definite sense of weight and epicness to these scenes. The soundtrack in general is in my opinion one of the all time greatest found in any video game.


All these different aspects of Shadow of the Colossus come together in creating a sense of solitude. The world is a vast, unusual area largely devoid of life, except for the protagonist and the colossi. This, coupled with the game's expert use of sound, music and light creates a sense of loneliness not unlike that of Ico, but to an even greater degree.

Similar to Ico, the story of Shadow of the Colossus is an intentionally cryptic tale, where the player learns very little of the history of the characters or the world, outside of a few vague mentions heard at various points in the game. Wander makes the journey to the Forbidden Land in order to find a way to revive a young maiden by the name of Mono, who has apparently been sacrificed out of fear of for her supposed cursed destiny. Wander's only companion on his quest is his horse, Agro.


Once Wander makes his way to the temple at the centre of the land, he encounters a mysterious entity known as Dormin, who is said to have the power to revive the dead. Dormin agrees to help Wander if he manages to destroy the sixteen colossi inhabiting the land, while warning that doing so will come at a heavy price for Wander.

Shadow of the Colossus was first released on October 18, 2005 on the PlayStation 2. It was an instant critical success, and in contrast to Ico also performed very well commercially. The PS2 version alone has sold well over 1 million copies, and the later HD remake on the PS3 together with Ico went on to sell equally well. To this day it remains Team Ico's most successful title.

Shadow of the Colossus can be seen as the logical next step for Team Ico, where the elements introduced in the team's first game were polished and improved to create something truly exceptional. It's routinely listed among the greatest games ever made, and personally I would have to agree with that. While many have certainly tried to emulate its atmosphere and style in the years since its release, SotC remains a wholly unique title, even among Team Ico's rather unusual output. Perhaps even more so than Ico, this is the Team Ico game that remains the most influential on the video game industry in general.


The Last Guardian: The End of Team Ico

 The Last Guardian

After Shadow of the Colossus Team Ico found itself in an unfamiliar situation. Ico had made Ueda's team a cult name, but now they were suddenly exposed to a much larger audience that was eagerly waiting to see what they would do next. As a result, Fumito Ueda wasted no time in beginning to form the initial ideas for his next game. Unfortunately, the development of this new game would be rife with issues and obstacles that saw Team Ico go from one of the most respected developers in the industry to a team that was seemingly unable to push a project to completion.

Actual development on the game began in 2007 under the rather appropriate working title Project Trico, with the intention of releasing it on Sony's at the time new home console, the PlayStation 3. While the game's initial development was progressing relatively smoothly, it didn't take long for the process to slow down significantly due to Team Ico's small size compared to most development studios working on such large projects. Still, by 2009 Ueda felt confident enough with the game that it was showcased at that year's E3, marking the official debut of The Last Guardian.


Following this showing the game disappeared from public view for quite some time, resurfacing once at the 2011 Game Developers Conference, reassuring fans that development was still seemingly proceeding as planned. However, behind the scenes issues surrounding the project had been building for some time by this point. Ueda's vision for the game was proving to be a difficult one to achieve on the PS3, and even the trailer shown at E3 had been sped up for the presentation, as it had been running at a much slower framerate on the hardware. To alleviate these issues Sony had even brought in help from their Santa Monica Studios to find ways to improve the game's performance.

Regardless, in early 2011 The Last Guardian received the first of its many delays, having previously been announced for a holiday 2011 release, but in April of that year the release date was pushed back indefinitely. To make matters worse, in late 2011 rumours began circulating that Fumito Ueda was going to be leaving Sony in the near future, which turned out to be the truth, although he still remained on the project as a contractor. All of this led to several years of silence from Sony, putting the game's fate into question.

Ueda's departure from Sony also meant the end for Team Ico. Without Ueda the studio had essentially lost its creative soul and disbanded as a result. However, many of the people who had worked with Ueda went on to join him at his new studio, genDESIGN, which subsequently handled the rest of the The Last Guardian's development.

Due to these constant delays and problems with the project, Sony ultimately decided in 2012 that continuing to develop the game for the PS3 was a lost cause, and moved the project to their next console instead. This was done so Ueda's vision of the game could be properly achieved, although adapting the highly specialized code to the new hardware was a massively time consuming project by itself, and even the PS4's lead architect Mark Cerny had to help get the project running again.

Trico and the boy

Fortunately, despite all of these setbacks and problems, Ueda's original vision for The Last Guardian had remained remarkably intact all this time. From the very beginning he intended to create a game where the central concept was the relationship between a human and a fantastical creature, and the finished product reflected this very well.

With Trico, the creature in The Last Guardian, Ueda wanted to create a virtual animal that behaved in as realistic manner as possible, taking inspiration from a number of different animals to come up with both Trico's appearance and behaviour. The creature's design was also intentionally left somewhat unbalanced, as Ueda didn't want to make Trico cute. This is what led to it looking like an amalgam of several different animals which have no direct relation to one another.

Similar to Team Ico's previous two games, The Last Guardian once again employs Fumito Ueda's design by subtraction approach to making games. To that end, every element that didn't directly enhance the central core of the game was removed. This would include the title's level design, which was built in a way that would require the player to constantly make use of both the boy's and Trico's abilities, as well as specific buttons with which the player could interact with the creature.


The animations of both the boy and Trico were achieved through key frame animation, which allowed the team to add details that would have been very difficult with motion capture, especially with the creature. This also helped in creating the various interactions between the two, such as how the boy reacts to Trico's movements, or how the boy reaches his hand towards walls when near them.

Trico was also created with the idea of making it feel as realistic as possible, and come off as a real animal. This meant that it would not always follow the player's commands immediately, as Ueda noted that animals are not going to do so every single time they are told to do something. He had done something similar with Agro in SotC, but not quite to this extent. The end result divided opinion, as some praised it for how realistic and believable it was, while others said it detracted from the actual gameplay by making things needlessly complicated, frustrating, and slow.


In addition, The Last Guardian continued several other elements that had become staples of Team Ico's games. Among these were the minimal use of music, mainly employed during important moments, and how the two main characters have no shared language and must use gestures and other visual cues to communicate with each other. However, there were also quite a few new elements introduced that had not been a part of the team's previous two games. One of these was the inclusion of a voiceover of the boy as an adult, retelling the story to children of his village.

The game begins when a young boy wakes up in a strange cave with a massive, wounded beast lying unconscious by his side. He has no recollection of how he ended up there and quickly comes to realize that the only way to make his way out is to somehow work together with the creature in front of him. At first the two are wary of each other, and working together is slow and difficult, but over the course of the game the two begin to trust each other as they work to overcome various obstacles. 

The gameplay in The Last Guardian is another great example of Ueda's design by subtraction, as each aspect of it complements the developing relationship between the boy and the creature. Trico is the only one who can fight and destroy the mysterious stone soldiers inhabiting the city, but Trico also refuses to move past certain obstacles, such as a number of massive glass eyes found throughout the city, as they seem to frighten him. As a result the boy must get rid of them before the two can move forward. They must constantly work together to make progress, which in turn develops their relationship as they slowly learn to trust and depend on one another. 

After having been in development for nearly eight years, The Last Guardian was finally formally reintroduced at E3 2015. It was announced for a 2016 release on the PS4, and although there was one final delay in late 2016 that pushed the release a bit further back, the game finally came out on December 6 after nearly a full decade of development.

The Last Guardian was very well received all things considered. After such a long time it would have been nearly impossible for the game to live up to all the hype, but overall I think it is a very good title that has a few notable shortcomings in certain areas. The story and environment, as well as the relationship between the boy and Trico are a genuine highlight, and the music is once again excellent.


However, the gameplay can at times become very frustrating, for very similar reasons to Ico. The controls aren't very precise when controlling the boy, and while I do like how Trico doesn't always follow orders as it makes the creature much more lifelike, there are times when trying to get Trico to do a certain thing can take ages simply because it actually won't register what you want it to do. This is especially frustrating when you know exactly what you need to do, but can't because the game refuses to understand your commands to Trico.

For example, I found myself stuck at a certain point in the game for around 15 minutes because I couldn't get Trico to go to a specific point that I thought was the way forward, which made me think I was not doing the right thing, but in actual fact it was just the game not doing what it should have until I had tried over 20 times.

Regardless, The Last Guardian is a worthy swan song for Team Ico, even if it ultimately proved to be the team's final work. While it certainly has its problems, and doesn't quite reach the heights of Team Ico's best game, the good parts of it far outweigh the bad.


The Legacy of Team Ico

 Team Ico's legacy

Team Ico may have been a relatively small studio whose entire output over its 14 year existence consisted of only three full games, yet it can be argued as being among the most important and influential video game studios in the modern era of video games. Ico and Shadow of the Colossus consistently come up when video game creators talk about the titles that influenced their careers, and are often cited as examples of video games as art.

Team Ico's games have never been massive-selling blockbuster hits, but they were never really intended to be. Fumito Ueda always wanted to do and create something different with the games he made, taking a concept and turning it into a unique setup that had never been done before. He hired people who had no prior experience making games and designed them with an approach that is almost diametrically opposed to the modern video game design philosophy of filling games with all manner of pointless busywork and countless, meaningless gimmicks that are used once and discarded afterwards.

Even today, with the rise of independent studios and digital distribution seeing the release of new unique games on a weekly basis, there has still not really been anything quite like the games Team Ico made. Naturally, a myriad of developers have attempted to emulate the style and feel of Ico or Shadow of the Colossus, but very few have managed to do so successfully. Yet all such attempts stand as a testament to the legacy left by the work of Fumito Ueda and Team Ico. There will likely never be another developer quite like Team Ico, but its influence will be felt for a very long time to come.


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Xeon (on 21 August 2017)

Sotc is simply one of the best. Definitely picking up the remaster next year. Great read!

Shikamo (on 21 August 2017)

TLG is one of the most underrated games of the generation, a gorgeous game.

pokoko (on 21 August 2017)

I bought and played ICO when it first released. I can't even begin to explain the impact the game had on me then. I can still remember the experience more vividly than perhaps any other game I've played. It was a revelation and its release is one of the more important moments in the evolution of video-games.

Veknoid_Outcast (on 21 August 2017)

Ueda is one of the few auteurs in the industry. He definitely left a long-lasting and meaningful stamp on the games industry, and on me. I'm excited to see what he does next :)

Machina (on 21 August 2017)

<3 SotC

Darashiva (on 21 August 2017)

Yeah, still to this day one of my favourite games ever.

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siebensus4 (on 22 August 2017)

Give all 3 games a try. Just play them. Either you hate them or you love them. All Ueda games are a unprecedented stunning video game experience in their own way. So easy to underrate but impossible to forget.