March’s ’09 Round Table Entry – Fumito Ueda

About the Author: This month’s topic turns the literary focus from the medium, to the author. If you submitted a post to either the January or February topics, feel free to write about the process you underwent in converting literary themes into gameplay. Did you struggle with anything in particular? Are you satisfied that your game design(s) communicated what you intended? Have subsequent comments or idea made you wish you could go back and start he process over? And how much does your design say about you and your own interpretation of the themes of the source material?

Alternately feel free to turn your focus to another game designer, or to game designers in general. In literature we frequently “hear” the author’s voice in their work. Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, Tom Robbins-these are excellent examples of authors whose voices are quite recognizable. Through reading their works, we feel we come to feel we know them, to understand their philosophies. There are a handful of games where the “author” can clearly be heard through the work. How closely tied is this to the thematic content of the games and how exactly did they communicate these themes to their audience? And should they have, or should video game designer try to remain out of their work, allowing the player to establish their own themes through gameplay?

Having very little to say on my own thought process for once I decided to go with the second option. Having decided that I would have done it on Hideo Kojima, but before I could get my act together on this Brian Rubinow at the Select Button beat me to it and frankly did a better job than I probably could have. Instead I will focus on another important Japanese auteur, Fumito Ueda. If you don’t recognize the name, shame on you, but at least you should recognize his work: Ico and Shadow of the Colossus.

Ueda’s work is marked its beautiful and yet sad environments. The ground you walk on is itself a character in the game. The desolation and slightly bleached colors add character to the environments like few other games. Once the stage is set, Ueda then crafts a story of subtlety that has to be almost entirely played extrapolated. There are few elements to the games themselves and the complexity comes out of theme and emotion rather than plot trickery or large casts of characters. In fact, both games could be described and defended as epic despite their few elements and less than expansive reach.

There are similar elements to both games. The player plays as a boy youth. There is an immortal, mystical being at the heart of the tale, a quest to rescue a young maiden that the action centers around, environmental puzzles, and an empty world that either seems to be dying or crumbling. The player also has a companion throughout the game, but is not always there to lend aid, Yorda in Ico and Argo in Shadow of the Colossus. 

His games are not only marked by what elements make up his games, but by what is absent. Language is not a big thing in his games. There are few lines of dialogue that mostly serve to set the premise. A bigger note is that every spoken word is from a fictional language unlike either English or Japanese. Our understanding coming through subtitles. Like in any translation there is always the feeling that something got lost between the two languages and this feeling is universal given the language’s made up nature. Instead the game conveys most of its themes and meaning through the characters. Ico holding Yorda’s hand to progress through the castle, or letting her wander around as she enjoys her new found freedom. Argo will putter around looking to the ground for something to eat, but will always come back to you. The relationships are built through these moments. The characters are derived from these moments.

It is a very detail oriented work, with a combination of muted colors, sounds and light adding breath to the world. Ueda creates a word and then brings life to the dying landscape like few others can.

Several themes run through his work. Nature vs. civilization can be seen everywhere as once proud structures fall into decay. Struggle is another grand theme that Ueda puts in all his work. Where other games of obstacles, none can hold a candle to what Ueda puts his characters through, as the characters visibly struggle and exert effort like their lives depended on it. He puts a lot of emphasis on human struggle as the opposition is immortal with powers beyond what we can conceive as we fight against them. In the end, hope is what drives Ueda and his games. He creates emotion, but in the end there is that quality that can allow for a better tomorrow. After all is said and done there is a single remaining feeling of hope that lingers through the player’s body.

Fumito Ueda is a man who speaks few words and yet says a lot. His work aims right to the human condition and with its alien world is still speaks to us like we were right at home. Ueda strives not to create games, but experiences and one is just the means for the other.

[bort]

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