There were quite a few shockers at E3 this year. We saw a competitive price point for the PS4 over the Xbox One, we saw Mega Man as a new fighter in the upcoming Super Smash Bros. game, and despite the thought that both were dead, Final Fantasy Versus XIII (now Final Fantasy XV) and Kingdom Hearts III were both revealed and confirmed to be in the works. But even as these surprises resonated in the gamer psyche, we were (once again) docked one extremely important announcement: The Last Guardian didn’t make a showing at E3 2013.
Though Sony President of Worldwide Studios Shuhei Yoshida confirmed that the game is in fact still in development (a contrast to SCEA President Jack Tretton’s claim that the game was “on hiatus”), Team ICO’s third project, despite being revealed in 2009, hasn’t made any further appearances at E3 or any other gaming events since then. The fact that the game’s lead designer Fumito Ueda had announced that he is no longer a full-time Sony employee bothered many, but Ueda still remains an active overseer on the project. A schizophrenic development cycle and the sky-high expectations have only made The Last Guardian’s future even more uncertain.
The Last Guardian remains one of the most anticipated video game projects in recent memory, but its excitement factor is second only to its elusiveness. Aside from a lone trailer and some promo art, nothing else about the game is revealed. The setting is very vaguely portrayed in the trailer (though its aesthetic does share similarities to that of past Team ICO games) and much of the game’s design can be extrapolated to using the guardian (dubbed in the description as “Trico”, hence the game’s codename Project Trico) as a companion to solve puzzles and explore the game world.
We’ve seen a number of announced games eventually go under throughout gaming history. Starcraft: Ghost, Donkey Kong Racing, Super Meat Boy on WiiWare; these have all met untimely demises after development, deadline or licensing issues, or simply because enthusiasm behind the project had reached an inescapable low. But even stranger are the cases from development hell (also known as vaporware) like Final Fantasy Versus XIII, Star Wars: Battlefront 3 and the extensively running joke of vaporware games, Half-Life 2: Episode 3. There have been cases of these development hell examples ultimately being released, even after being allegedly marked as dead, such as Duke Nukem Forever, but even bringing up that game in particular brews the unsettling concept of games being so trapped in a stagnant development cycle that even their release is underwhelming.
Hail to the king of vaporware failure stories.
Duke Nukem Forever was originally announced in 1997, following the success of the previous Duke Nukem game, Duke Nukem 3D. Originally touted as one of the most groundbreaking first-person shooters in history, the game was supposedly going flaunt the Quake II engine to its highest capacity. Fan reception to the game’s announcement was high, but the game’s development hit a snag due to licensing of tech for the game and a number of publishing complications with Take-Two. The eventual dissolving of development house 3D Realms’ working team for Duke Nukem Forever led to speculation that the game was officially dead, but the statement was never confirmed, leaving the game in limbo. Interest in the game spiked upon the announcement of Gearbox’s involvement in finalizing development. Ultimately, Gearbox finished Duke Nukem Forever and released it in 2011, nearly 15 years after its original announcement. However, the game was widely panned by critics and gamers alike, with a majority of complaints coming from its dated and schizophrenic gameplay focus that was made worse considering how long the game’s development cycle was. Now, this is a true horror story; I’m in no way suggesting that The Last Guardian will suffer the same terrifying fate as Duke Nukem Forever. However, the two games both have experienced a significant step into vaporware. Both have had confusing development protocols and both were never officially “canceled.” They share more features than you (or I) want to admit.
But The Last Guardian is something of an outlier in the long-running trend of development hell games. A game like The Last Guardian has a significant advantage over other games with similar vaporware complications like Daikatana, Aliens: Colonial Marines, and once again, Duke Nukem Forever. Even moving away from Western games in this field, looking at other games like Final Fantasy XV (a game many thought was dead barely months after its revealing) and Shenmue III, The Last Guardian still has a very large advantage that near-ensures its exceptional quality once it goes gold.
The fact is that The Last Guardian’s aesthetic and its focus on the artistic element of game design makes it much less susceptible to feeling “dated”, even after such a long time in development.
Think about it: the shooter genre remains an incredibly metamorphic game field. During Duke Nukem Forever’s development, gamers were exposed to the multiplayer finesse of Goldeneye 007, the expansive world and storyline of Halo: Combat Evolved, and the modernization of the shooter archetype in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. All three of these games made enormous strides in changing what gamers and critics expect from an FPS, but in an effort to stay relevant, 3D Realms and Gearbox attempted to take every trope from these games and mash them together into the putrid concoction that was Duke Nukem Forever.
The Last Guardian isn’t vulnerable to that kind of modern metamorphosis. Adventure games of its kind usually aren’t. Yes, we have seen many groundbreaking elements in adventure games like the 3D exploration of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, but that genre in particular isn’t one that makes significant changes, at least not in the way that they aren’t easy to adapt to. This proposed idea of using the guardian Trico to solve puzzles is enticing, changing the combat focus of previous Team ICO games into something that doesn’t feel as hostile. It remains a friendly and bond-forming vibe.
But more importantly is The Last Guardian’s aesthetic. With the argument of gaming as art reaching a fever pitch this generation with releases like Journey and Telltale’s The Walking Dead, the Team ICO projects remain the cornerstones of the “pro-art games” argument. Ico and Shadow of the Colossus remain ephemeral, atmospheric and meaningful projects, ones that resonated with gamers and devs alike and leaving a pristine shimmer on the medium entirely. Games like Duke Nukem Forever and Daikatana aren’t encapsulated with that argument. I haven’t met a single person who has the balls to say that Duke Nukem Forever is an example of a truly artistic video game (and I’m pretty sure I never will). High-quality and meaningful art isn’t bound by a deadline or a lengthy period of development inactivity. Good art is good art. Forever.
Trico remains a mysterious, but lovable character.
The Last Guardian’s story is still a mystery, but from what we’ve seen, we can already make some rather important judgments on the game’s artistic significance. Trico and the boy remain a friendship-supported duo. A giant monster earning companionship from a small child is something that instantly brings vibes from Hayao Miyazaki films like My Neighbor Totoro, stories that show unorthodox relationships from the naïve and innocent viewpoint of a child. Despite being a gryphon-esque creature who is apparently an enemy to the soldiers in the trailer media, the boy doesn’t see that. He sees a gentle and misunderstood friend who simply wants to be free. As stated, this isn’t anything new, but the mind of Fumito Ueda remains a catalyst in making this long-tried concept into something fresh, especially in an ethereal and mysterious world.
Even if the game features a number of gameplay deficiencies, the element of creativity and ingenious mastery of the game medium’s functionalities are things that will overcome those issues. Let’s look at the facts. ICO, in its entirety, was an escort mission. Shadow of the Colossus was only sixteen boss fights and nothing else. So why are these games with such clearly questionable game design choices still regarded as some of the best games of their generation? Because the artistic element was able to make these design choices not only appropriate, but essential to the game’s identity. As dated as these ideas may be, they are pertinent to the games themselves. With the aesthetic, these problems instantly become prime qualities.
Regardless of how long we’re waiting for this, it’ll still blow our minds.
What I’m trying to say is that the artistic element is something that gives a game a significant amount of staying power and that staying power is what prevents majority opinion from worrying too much about whether or not the wait will ultimately provide fruit. The Last Guardian’s lasting artistic value perseveres through the game’s bizarre development cycle; it’s something that doesn’t die with time. With the artistic qualities of the video game medium reaching all-time highs this generation, we’re sure to see some more brilliant ideas brew as the PS4 becomes Sony’s focal console. Even though we barely know anything about it at the moment, The Last Guardian is sure to follow in the same footsteps as Ico and Shadow of the Colossus before it.
Whether or not The Last Guardian will be released this generation (or the next, or the next) know this: it’ll be well worth the wait.
It began with a hand-me-down Sega Genesis from his cousin and since then, he's been fascinated with video games. He enjoys the blissful platforming of the 16-bit era and the rich adventures of the 64-bit era. Favorite games include Metroid Prime, Banjo-Tooie, and practically every 16-bit Sonic the Hedgehog title.
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