'Last Guardian' Director Fumito Ueda On Creating Trico, Classic Anime, and His Doubts About VR

'Last Guardian' Director Fumito Ueda On Creating Trico, Classic Anime, and His Doubts About VR

Fumito Ueda spent the last 10 years working on 'The Last Guardian.' Sony Interactive Entertainment/Glixel

The elusive designer is hesitant to name his characters and is happy to leave things to the player's imagination

The elusive designer is hesitant to name his characters and is happy to leave things to the player's imagination

Though Fumito Ueda was the driving force behind a trio of undeniable classics – Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, and The Last Guardian – he's far from a "rockstar" developer. You won't find him sporting sunglasses during interviews, or making bold proclamations about the game industry. He's a grounded, humble individual who cares about the stories he tells and strives to create games that he'd enjoy playing himself. As a result, the three games he's helmed are unified by their striking design, their heartfelt storylines, and perhaps most of all, their memorable characters.

Ueda's games are instantly recognizable for their starkness, their unique architecture, their small casts, and their haunting final acts. With the release of The Last Guardian finally behind him, Glixel caught up with the elusive, soft-spoken Ueda to talk to him about the project he spent the last 10 years on, its incredibly lifelike star, Trico, and the games that have made his career.

The Japanese edition of The Last Guardian comes with a booklet called Fumito Ueda Materials. There's a feature in the book titled 30 Things That Made Fumito Ueda and among these is Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaä. What is it about Nausicaä that impacted your work?
I think this was also in this book, but the film Galaxy Express 999 is also an influence, and was released around the same time as Nausicaä. I've also been inspired by Akira – I was inspired by the visual design, character design and artistic direction and technique. For Galaxy Express and Nausicaä, it wasn't so much the art but the story's ambience and mood and the feeling of anticipation that I had as a young boy before the release of these movies. I imagine that there were Ico and Shadow fans out there that were waiting anxiously for the release of The Last Guardian in the same way I once did for these movies, and that was a motivation for me to finish the game.

Is there something in The Last Guardian that you could point to being directly inspired by these movies?
I think it would have to be the ending. There's not a lot of gameplay and it's mostly preset cut scenes. We really made sure to perfect every inch of the visual element of this game, and I'm very happy and proud with the result.

The booklet also shows a set of plastic toys: a tiger, horse, and an eagle. Are these the animals that you combined to create Trico? I had heard somewhere that during the development of the game, you would bring in videos you'd recorded of your cat, and asked the team to study the footage.
These figures were mostly used as visual reference for storyboarding and as a model when writing instructions for the team. I had them on my desk so that I could reference them at any given moment. For animal movements, I referenced YouTube a lot, but most of my inspiration comes from various pets we used to have at my home growing up, until I left at around the age of 20. My family had a cat and dog, and even a duck and a small monkey. By designing Trico not around fantasy characters that you'd see in video games or movies, but by animals we commonly see, I suspected that it would give the creature both an unpredictable quality and a sense of familiarity.

Can you speak to the process that went into Trico's creation?
As you can suspect, Trico's movement is an area that we put a lot of effort into. We didn't use motion capture, and instead used procedural animation, which is where we used key-frame animation drawn by animators and used programming to combine the movements. However, I have a wealth of ideas when it comes to animal movements, and we also have knowledgeable staff on the team. Overall, I would say that it was moderately difficult to create Trico.

When you were working on The Last Guardian on PlayStation 3, were there any differences in Trico based on what the console could manage?
Actually, there were no limitations. In fact, the PlayStation 3 version of Trico might have had more movements and animation than the PS4 version.

Trico's voice sounds like a cross between a lion and Chewbacca. What was your direction when creating the voice?
Similar in our approach to designing Trico's world, we didn't want Trico to sound like any existing animal, but at the same time to sound like an animal that would actually exist, if you can see the distinction. My instructions were to include the sounds of marine animals, like whales or dolphins, and the sounds of massive reciprocating engines.

Is there a subtle reason behind the way Trico's horns grow back throughout the game? Is this based purely on how many blue barrels you've fed the creature, or is it affected by something else?
I think you can enjoy the game more if I don't go into detail but both the horns and wings heal as you advance through the game.

Trico's eyes have an emphatic style that resemble a dog's runny eyes. Was it to make Trico look sadder, and elicit more emotion from the player?
Expressing the mysterious quality of the eyes was one of the goals of this project. Due to hardware and software limitations, we were limited in the design of the eyes of the colossuses of Shadow, but I intended to make more realistic eyes from when we started developing on the PlayStation 3. I was inspired by [photographer and filmmaker] Gregory Colbert's exhibition in Japan in 2007.

You're talking about Colbert's Ashes and Snow exhibition. What was it about it that was inspiring to you?
I believe the development for Guardian had already started at that point, so I didn't gain any inspiration from the exhibition in terms of the game planning, but I was inspired by how mystical and expressive the animals' expressions were, even in the still-life photos. There's so much that can be interpreted through their eyes even without movement. That exhibition made me think that it was possible to express Trico's feeling through the eyes and this was something I focused on bringing into the game.

Does Trico have an obedience level that increases throughout the game? The creature is sometimes finicky and unresponsive, but seems to take direction better over time, especially in subsequent playthroughs.
Trico has a barometer for "trust" and "hunger." However, it is not affected by the game's advancement. I didn't want to include it into the advancement of the game because then it would make it a "cultivation" game where the object of the game would be to nurture Trico.

Throughout the game, whenever Trico is wounded, the creature's feathers become bloodied. They stay that way until Trico rolls around in water or dives in a lake. Is this to enhance the player's empathy for Trico?
The player can also wipe away the blood by petting Trico. This was incorporated as a way for the player to build a stronger bond with Trico through the boy.

The use of stained-glass eyes as a way to deter Trico from advancing in certain areas of the game is pretty ingenious. It succeeds at presenting a barrier without relying on obvious gaming tropes. Was this designed early on in development, or did it come after trial and error?
No, it was an idea I had from the beginning. I wanted to try to rid the game of "gaming" mechanisms as much as possible. Japanese rice paddies hang a similar-looking object to keep crows away. That was the inspiration for this idea.

From Ico to The Last Guardian, your games unravel like mysteries, and they all have a twist at the end. Is this something you deliberately set out to do each time?
I don't initially set out to design the games to have twist endings. It's more of a feeling that I need to reward to the player for playing through the game by adding a revelation to the story at the end. It's not that I intend to have a twist ending that will clear up all the mysteries of the game. I'd rather make a game that was rewarding in itself that encouraged the player to keep playing until the end without having to provide a reward. That is the ideal.

Was The Last Guardian a reaction to the game design of Shadow? The Last Guardian feels more like an adventure game as opposed to Shadow Of The Colossus, which is basically a boss rush versus 16 different colossi.
I made Ico in the hopes of creating a game that I personally wanted to play. As a result, it was critically acclaimed, but it didn't sell so well. Consequently, for Shadow Of The Colossus, I attempted to make something that would be more popular. I thought that everyone would be attracted to the thought of fighting these huge opponents by climbing and attacking their Achilles' heel, so to speak. When we first started development of The Last Guardian, it was intended for the PlayStation 3, which had yet to begin selling well. It was a small market. So, naturally, we couldn't expect to sell a lot of copies when the install base was so small. I thought if we couldn't hope to sell a lot of copies anyway, let's go back to making a game like Ico that might only appeal to a smaller group, but leave a lasting impression. That was at the start of development. As it would happen, we ended up releasing the game on PlayStation 4, which is selling a lot more than the PlayStation 3, so consequently, we've been able to release the game to a much broader audience.

Is there anything still happening with the Shadow Of The Colossus film?
Yes, there was some discussion about making it into a movie. It comes and goes. Nothing is confirmed right now.

Since you seem to be drawn to and inspired by new technology, what about VR? Shadow Of The Colossus would be pretty amazing on PSVR.
If I were to release Shadow Of The Colossus for PSVR, I would feel a responsibility to create something that goes beyond the expectations of the fan base. It wouldn't be enough to just make a game where you're standing at the feet of a colossus. My biggest concern for a Shadow VR game is that it would be a first-person perspective and the biggest problem with VR, I've heard, seems to be that the motion makes people feel sick. So I don't know if it would really be a good match. I don't have the confidence that we'd be able to overcome that problem. Another problem with VR is that the market is not too big yet. On one side, as a creative medium, I'm interested in creating something for VR, but I also have the responsibility to make sure that it makes business sense for us to take on the project. So, in that sense, I haven't found the right balance or realistic solution to make it happen.

You've said in the past that all three of your games tie together somehow. The characters from each game all wear similar tunics. Do Ico, Wander, and the boy all exist in the same world?
There's a lot of time and distance between the stories, but I make them hoping that they are from the same world.

Is there a thematic link between Ico's horns and Trico's horns?
This is something I hope to leave up to the player's imagination.

The controls are almost a perfect hybrid of the previous two games, and the platform action is a lot more forgiving. Did you go out of your way to avoid reinventing the wheel?
Yes, this is something we did intentionally. The reason is that I want anybody to be able to play the game. I wanted to make a game where there's tension but where there's no game over. I still haven't come up with a solution to circumnavigate the need of a game over state.

When you first began development on Ico, and then Shadow, you didn't know that The Last Guardian would take so long to create, or that you would eventually leave Sony officially to form your own studio, GenDesign. You also didn't necessarily plan for this to be a trilogy, so to speak. If this is the end of the unintentional trilogy, how does it feel after all these years?
Our team's initial goal was to release the game no later than 2013, so we really wanted to release the game a lot sooner. Of course, I would like my next project to be a lot shorter and to release a game at a more consistent pace. The Last Guardian was such a "difficult delivery," so right now I feel that the next project would really require quite a bit of determination.

A lot of people seem to be teary-eyed by the end of the game. I think this must have a lot to do with the music by composer Takeshi Furukawa.
It's very comforting to hear that the music is so well-received. For Ico and Shadow Of The Colossus, we used unusual instruments and the music was very unique. For example, we used tribal instruments and made it sound very foreign, very unorthodox, which was the intention. But for The Last Guardian we went with more orthodox instruments and made it sound more like something out of a movie with this game. One concern was whether the fans would like this approach, so it's comforting to hear they like the music.

Is there any specific feedback to The Last Guardian that you have taken to heart, whether from reviews, feedback on Twitter, or elsewhere?
We were concerned that the ending was too brutal and some people have commented that it was too shocking, but as far as I know, the overall response has been good and people seem to have liked the game, so I'm relieved.

I personally have the impression that naming a character which doesn't exist is childish and a little embarrassing.

Now that you've formed GenDesign, you could pretty much work with anyone you want, or work independently. What are your thoughts on this?
My impressions of the independent gaming scene is that a while back they were getting a lot of attention and there weren't many as many indie games available, so each game was getting a lot of coverage and support. But now the indie scene is flooded, which is a good thing, but it's also very competitive and difficult to try to stand out in that market. It might even be more difficult than working on a triple-A title. In terms of whether it's necessary to have the support of major publishers, I don't necessarily think so. I don't necessarily need a triple-A budget, but I probably need a little more than an indie budget.

On another topic: Green poop orbs – there's even a trophy for catching Trico in the act. I found these, picked them up, and didn't even realize what they were at first. That's the first time I've worked with game poop since the Tamagotchi days. Is there any use for these?
Yeah, unfortunately there's nothing you can do with those. I didn't think they would appear so easily. Trico has similarities to a cat, and cats don't like to poop in front of people. So, Trico doesn't poop on camera and it's a very rare occurrence. But, it seems that quite a few people are finding them in the game. That was unexpected.

In Ico, you learn all the game mechanics at the beginning and you basically play through the entire game with this specific set of skills. In The Last Guardian there are certain mechanics that are introduced in specific, isolated instances, which are never used again. Was this planned from the beginning?
Yeah. I think one of the entertaining qualities of video games is that you can learn new mechanics throughout the game. I had never done that in a game before so I wanted to incorporate it in this game and I think it worked out well.

Was there any thought on your part to extend the game's playing time? Because Ico was short, some fans were concerned that Guardian wouldn't be very long.
I didn't intentionally make the game longer to fill time, or "water-it-down" as I refer to it. But The Last Guardian is only a single-player game, and a standard game today has multiplayer or online play. There's a lot of value expected for the price that you pay. So I did think that the game would have to have a minimum amount of playtime and content.

Do you know [popular concentrated Japanese drink mix] Calpis? I often use this comparison. You don't want to add too much or too little water to the drink. You want to find the right balance. I don't want people to take this the wrong way, but I feel that some games have too much water... I wanted to make a game that preserved enough sweetness to feel like there's a good balance between the story and gameplay in The Last Guardian. The game had to be long enough, but also satisfying to the player. I felt the final version met that requirement.

Is there a reason why the boy is nameless? Often games make the main character mute, so the players can imprint their own persona onto the character. But the boy speaks in The Last Guardian. Is there's another reason?
The boy does have a name, but we just don't use the name in the subtitles. At the end, when the boy returns to the village, the villagers call his name but there's no caption in the ending so it's not apparent in the game what his name is. One reason is that I want the player to become the boy, so by omitting the name, the player is more likely to relate to the boy. Another personal reason is that it's a little embarrassing and makes me feel self-conscious. These are characters that don't really exist. Ico, Wander and the villagers, etc. The act of giving these characters a name makes me feel self-conscious.

The title of the game 'Ico' was derived from the word 'icon' in reference to the boy's idealistic impressions of Yorda. That was the inspiration behind the game title. 

So, I've always avoided giving characters names. Ico didn't originally have a name – we just referred to him as "boy." But, when we announced the game title in the US, people mistook the title of the game as the name of the main character, so we went with it. So, I don't really have an attachment to naming my characters and in [The Last Guardian] this preference pulled through until the end.

Do you feel it's maybe too self-important to name something?
Maybe it's a Japanese thing. For example, little kids will name their toys when playing with them. These are imaginary objects that don't really exist but children name them and play pretend. That's the impression we get in Japan. It's child's play. I think in Europe and the US, there's more respect toward creativity and imagination. I personally have the impression that naming a character which doesn't exist is childish and a little embarrassing.

Did you have another title for Ico?
The title of the game Ico was derived from the word "icon" in reference to the boy's idealistic impressions of Yorda. That was the inspiration behind the game title. And, there are also a lot of symbols that appear in the game so I felt it was fitting in that way, as well.

In hindsight, are you comfortable with the boy being called Ico?
Yes, I am happy that the name stuck.

Tell us something about Yorda, Ico's companion, that we don't already know.
Hmm, that's a tough one. She wears a white dress, which is supposed to represent the purity associated with a wedding dress. But it's also inspired from the white, transparent form that cicadas take when they come out of their shell.

Your games feature themes of sacrifice. Is there a specific reason for this theme in your storytelling?
This isn't something I do consciously, but it could be because it is a convenient theme to use to encourage the player to build a relationship with a non-player character.

They feature markings as well, in relation to the main characters. Are you trying to exhibit some sort of tribalism, or is it symbolic of something else?
This is also not something I've done intentionally, but these markings are kind of like a metaphor of something that can not be easily removed, like destiny.

You've created these unique in-game languages in all your games. Do all three share the same one? Are the markings also part of the written language you've developed for the games – is there a code we could use to decipher them if we had it?

[The markings in] Ico shouldn't have been too difficult to decipher, but I think it would be impossible to decipher the language in Shadow Of The Colossus and The Last Guardian. Each language was made by my team and myself using a conversion tool. The three use a similar conversion tool, but they are not identical. I designed the boy's tattoos and the spells that the enemy releases in The Last Guardian.

This is the second game where you have a child as your primary character. Is this to drive motivation and fear for the character's safety?
That's part of the reason, but the biggest reason is to make the character's capabilities convincing to the player. The concept for The Last Guardian was that the boy would not have the ability to attack so to make that convincing, we had make the boy younger than Ico.

You've also become a father in the past decade. Has this changed your perspective of your characters or given you more insights as to how kids think and behave, and possibly enriched "the boy" in ways that Ico never behaved?
Honestly, I can't say there really was for The Last Guardian. Maybe in the future, perhaps, but the motivation for making the game to begin with was simply to make a game that I'd want to play myself.