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The Last Guardian – as seen in 2011

June 30, 2015

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I found this write-up of a visit to see The Last Guardian I did for Edge Magazine in 2011 while digging through some emails. Given how similar the game looked when it resurfaced at E3 this year, I thought I’d post this for fun. Some of it’s not too bad! I’m sorry about the rest.

There’s a moment in the 15-minute gameplay demonstration of The Last Guardian in which the boy – a colour-coded echo of the horned protagonist of Ico – cups his hands and calls out to his giant feathered companion. And, for no obvious reason, it’s absolutely heartbreaking. Partly it’s the animal’s indifference (this is early in the game and their emotional bond is still forming) and partly the bracing resolve shown by the boy himself, cajoling the beast into action alone among haunted stone ruins, too much responsibility heaped on slender, accepting shoulders.

This is the magic of Team Ico, the Sony Japan studio we’re here to visit in Tokyo. The studio is also responsible for PlayStation 2 titles Ico and Shadow Of The Colossus, a back catalogue of unusually sophisticated, artistic games, which share with The Last Guardian minimalist visual design, a pale palette of light and shadow, and a pervading atmosphere of thick, creeping quiet.

Thanks to Team Ico’s small numbers and lengthy production cycles this is its first PlayStation 3 title (Sony Worldwide Studios head Shuhei Yoshida calls them his “Olympic Team” as they produce every four years – this time it’s been five). Having made the most beautiful games on PS2, there is much interest in what the team’s latest will coax out of PS3. As soon as the demonstration begins it’s obvious it will be something special.

20081231203718The boy is creeping up on the sleeping creature – called Trico, both as a nod to Ico and a portmanteau of the Japanese words for bird (tori) and cat (neko) – on the ground-floor of a ruined greystone castle. Sun breaks through the broken floors and absent roof, creating a glowing patch of bright green grass at the centre of the room’s dark shadows. The whites are over-saturated, the blacks impenetrably murky, the effect like bleary eyes opening against bright daylight. Into the murkiness float luminous butterflies and sparkling specks of dust or pollen, giving a tangible, textured quality to the air.

The boy tries to wake Trico, whose head stands a little taller than he does. He tugs on the beast’s folded dog ears, but has to shout before the animal slowly stretches, yawns and rolls to its feet. It looks simultaneously realistic and unrealistic – uncannily natural in motion, but at the same time a physically impossible amalgam of parts. Trico is both alien and familiar, a feline body covered in feathers, with webbed feet and a canine head rounding out into a beak-like snout.

20090102203021He’s also huge, a factor that’s crucial to his relationship with the boy. At the controls for the demonstration is Team Ico’s chief creative director, Fumito Ueda. It’s easy to marry this quietly intense 41-year-old with the games he’s masterminded – he is focused and softly-spoken, but also authoritative. He explains that the dynamic in The Last Guardian is an expansion on those found in his earlier titles. Because of their differing size and abilities, Trico and the boy must find different paths through certain areas like Ico and Yorda, and their growing relationship mirrors Wander’s attachment to his horse Agro in Shadow Of The Colossus.

For now, though, Trico looks decidedly disinterested. The challenge in this opening area is to aid the boy’s ascent past balconies, suspended chains and walkways, to a switch mechanism on one of the higher levels. To do that, he needs Trico’s help. Ueda explains how certain items in the world act as bait for the creature as the boy waddles into a corner and picks up a steaming vat of purple liquid, his bow-legged heave recalling Ico’s strained steps while carrying barrels and bombs. There are gasps of delight from assembled journalists when the boy turns back toward Trico, whose massive head is now poking eagerly through an arched doorway, clawed paw reaching around the side, trying to get close to the boy and whatever he’s holding. And next the logical implementation, very much in the style of Ico’s satisfyingly rational problem-solving – the boy climbs a set of stairs and throws the bait over to a balcony on the other side of the room. Trico turns and rears up, putting his front legs onto the balcony, hunting for his treat. Suddenly, he’s a feathered ladder, and the boy is on his way.

20081231211734As Ueda notes, all of his games have featured a strong relationship with a non-player character. But this one is different. Where Ico and Wander were protectors and aggressors, The Last Guardian’s boy is too small to fight. The room the boy now comes to demonstrates this. It features a guard in thick, intricately pattered body armour which covers the face. The boy adopts a stealthy approach, crouching behind a low wall as the camera leans in so he fills the left side of the screen. The gameplay here looks simple – the guard patrols, the boy looks for a pattern and evades. If he’s spotted – which in this instance he is, and it doesn’t look like Ueda means to have been – he runs. The boy is faster than the guards, his white one-shouldered tunic flapping and his body leaning forward as he flashes through the dimly lit room, searching for small openings or climbable chains to help lose his lumbering pursuer.

cut_B11_01To dispose of guards more permanently the boy relies on Trico’s strength and size, introducing a powerlessness which makes just watching the game emotionally taxing. It’s a reversal that forces player engagement with Trico, to see him as more than a tool or a mechanism. You need him to like you. Ueda says that as the relationship develops Trico’s expressions and mannerisms change, something which gives new significance to the handful of The Last Guardian trailers teased out over the last two years. At last year’s Tokyo Game Show crowds saw Trico bowing his head as the boy patted his nose, and earlier, at E3 2009, the two were wrapped up together in a warm, sleeping heap.

As he plays, Ueda stresses that he wants this relationship to be natural and direct, for players to respond to the needs and understand the mood of Trico through facial expressions and behaviour alone. Recent games have featured heart-tugging human/animal interactions, such as keeping adopted stray Dogmeat alive in Fallout 3, and enjoying the unconditional love of your canine companion in Fable II (did anyone choose not to resurrect him at the end?). But these are one-sided exchanges and, crucially, superfluous to the main thrust of the story and gameplay. Even in Red Dead Redemption, in which horses not only become loyally bound to hero John Marston, but he relies upon them in the game’s wide open spaces, the animals are replaceable, interchangeable objects. The Last Guardian is attempting something more.

It’s probably no coincidence that Red Dead is one of a handful of games found in a stack beside a television in a corner of Team Ico’s unusually barren single-floor studio. Ueda has confirmed that his team are in full production now ahead of the game’s end of year release, after a long period of planning and design. But that team still only numbers around 35 (less than half that of most big console games), and the office is remarkably unremarkable. There are no desk-sprawls of toys and posters, no splashes of promos and posters on cubicle walls. The calm of Ueda seems to have filtered into his surroundings and staff. Scanned from the doorway this could be any open-plan, strip-lit office. Instead it is where they’re making one of the most eagerly anticipated games in the world.

Back in the demo room downstairs, the boy is nearing his goal. He tiptoes across a thin plank laid over a large drop, and clambers up a clanking chain. The animations are vivid but fluttering, the game’s dreamy lighting effect making his motion look almost like a hand-cranked silent film. The cloth wrapping his body flaps gently until he runs, when it moves like a kite caught in the wind. He finally makes it to the large round switch at the top of the room and presses it. Second later Trico bounds to the same level, his bulk collapsing wooden beams and partial floors in a dusty cacophony, taking just seconds to complete what took the boy several minutes. It strikes home the miscommunication which will underpin The Last Guardian – if only the boy could speak to him, make him understand – and which will make it  such a unique adventure.

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