Fumito Ueda: Design by Subtraction

It’s easy to forget how young the medium of games is. Most art forms have had decades, centuries, or millennia to evolve, but gaming is so young and has changed so rapidly that games barely a decade old are already considered a part of “gaming history.” What’s strangest to consider is that some of the major events in gaming that have defined it as an art form, and will continue to define the medium for years to come, occurred in our own childhoods. Two games in particular from the early 2000s, in the Playstation 2 era, jump out as being especially impactful, as well as tragically under-appreciated by many casual gamers. I’m referring to some of the earliest examples of gaming beginning to realise its potential as a legitimate art form; the works of Fumito Ueda, specifically Ico and Shadow of the Colossus.

These games, released in 2001 and 2005 respectively, were extremely unique. Gaming at the time was largely about fun and excitement, and while narratively driven games did exist, they did so mostly in the form of dialogue-heavy, intricately plotted RPGs. Yet Ueda’s works stood out, defying easy categorization or description. Alongside garnering intense critical acclaim, the games championed a design philosophy which was relatively unseen at the time; “design by subtraction.”

Shadow of the Colossus. 
What defined Ueda’s games, and this design philosophy, was an extreme dedication to minimalism; subtracting anything from the game that wasn’t necessary. When developing Ico, a game in which a cursed boy attempts to escort a princess through a castle, Ueda ended up mercilessly cutting absolutely everything that he didn’t feel was strictly necessary, or anything that didn’t strongly contribute to the feel and themes of the game. Dialogue, extraneous gameplay systems, areas, even elements of the head-up display were all stripped out, leaving a game that felt bare, yet focused. Although he loosened up a little bit for Shadow of the Colossus, the same design philosophy was used, and the game, which features 16 battles (essentially boss fights) with huge colossi, became one of the first “boss-rush” games, with tedious filler enemies cut out and the game paced around the intense highs of the colossus battles.
It’s hard to chart out exactly which influences led to certain games being made, but these games, with their minimalist gameplay, stories, and aesthetics alongside incredibly strong thematic elements, have been cited by numerous developers as major influences. Ico resonated so strongly with Hidetaka Miyazaki (the creative genius behind Dark Souls), that it led to him quitting his previous job and becoming a game developer, meaning that some of the most artistically rich games that have ever been made can be clearly traced back to Ueda. The form of his influence is clear when playing Souls; the lack of overt narrative, the stark environments, and the lack of mechanical clutter echo the minimalism of Ueda’s work, and just like Ico, Souls appears to have cut anything that doesn’t reinforce the feel and themes of its world.

So we can attribute Souls to the influence of Ueda, and as an extension, the entire blossoming genre, newly arisen following the success of Souls and being partly defined by minimalism. Yet design by subtraction extends to more than this single game. Although the triple-A gaming scene tends to feature games overloaded with overt narrative and gameplay systems, the indie game scene seemingly owes a lot to Ueda. What many indie games have borrowed from Ueda’s works are a focus on the “feel” over overt substance and clear narrative. Games, being an experiential medium, have many ways to engage, and one is by making a game that’s less about telling a story or providing a challenge than it is about leading a player through an experience, building up ‘feel’ through visuals, music, and gameplay. Many beautiful indie games have been produced using this philosophy; games like Journey, Limbo, and Hyper Light Drifter are just some examples of successful games that aim primarily to build “feel”. Like Ueda’s games, anything that doesn’t specifically contribute to the feel, themes, and experience is cut, and the result is that some of these games (Journey in particular) provide some of the most intense, satisfying, and unique gaming experiences imaginable. Indeed, the developers of some of these games directly cite Ueda as inspiration, as do countless other indie developers.

An entire book could be written about the design of Ueda’s games, and the myriad knock-on effects they’ve had, meaning that this is little more than a surface examination. But a surface examination is all we need to see how influential these games have been, popularising entire design philosophies and even a genre, it’s clear that a huge part of what gaming is today, and its success as an art form, can be attributed to Fumito Ueda.

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