Thursday, December 15, 2016

Dream Team: The Last Guardian

The Last Guardian, developed by genDESIGN and Sony's Japan Studio, was released on December 6th. 2016.

In 2006, I played a game called Shadow of the Colossus that changed how I understood game design. During my unforgettable first playthrough, in which I played a young man astride a horse who must travel across vast lands to conquer ancient stone giants, I discovered a new approach to the “rules” of what a game can and must do. Its enigmatic Japanese fantasy storytelling was deeply suggestive in its abstraction, telling me little and explaining even less, and its simplistic design structure – the hunt for and destruction of the titular Colossi encompasses the entirety of the game experience – became indelible in my mind as one of the first examples of true art in gaming, which forced me to confront the reality of what I was doing, posing sharp questions and providing no comforting answers. It was a watershed moment in my gaming life, and made the anticipation painful for director Fumito Ueda’s next game, which began development the next year. Announced as The Last Guardian, telling the story of the shared bond between a boy and a fictional mythological beast, it was set to release in 2011 – but was delayed multiple times due to hardware difficulties with the planned Playstation 3 platform, the departure of Ueda and other development team members, and other difficulties. Its reassignment to Sony Interactive Entertainment’s internal Japan Studio and the shift to a Playstation 4 release in 2012 was met with skepticism, and after several years with no word it was assumed that the title had been shelved. Then in 2015, to the surprise of all at E3, it was paraded out for an official 2016 release, and finally became available last week on the December 6th – a full decade after development first began.

The Last Guardian demonstrates the same narrative economy, oversaturated lighting, fictional languages, minimal dialogue, and general feeling of a profoundly authored adventure as Shadow of the Colossus, with emotional expression and symbolism as core to the moment-to-moment experience as the gameplay is. That’s crucial to point out, because the gameplay itself is often obtuse, maddening, and unresponsive, making The Last Guardian a game that – though ultimately satisfying and memorable – is marred by frequent frustration. Looking back after finishing it, I’m tempted to frame those frustrations as an organic part of the arduous journey I shared with the game’s iconic beast, Trico – but that’s perhaps a bit too generous. It’s enough to say that it feels like a brilliant game struggling to break free from an outdated technical era – no doubt a symptom of its troubled and oft-delayed development.

Guardian opens with the player character, an unnamed boy, waking from unconsciousness in a dank stone cavern and noticing to his fright that he’s sharing this space with a massive, gravely injured beast, which he recognizes from the fireside tales told in his village as a creature called a “Trico.” It resembles a giant birdlike cat – like a cuter, more feline gryphon – and it’s revealed to be chained to the floor, its feathery hide pierced by spears. The player is taught the gameplay controls as the boy attempts to escape and realizes his best chance is to help the beast, convincing it not to eat him, and working with it to their mutual advantage. This begins a saga of growth and friendship as Trico and you, as the boy, solve puzzles and navigate the game’s massive crumbling ruins in an attempt to reach the peak of a distant towering spire, discover Trico’s true nature, and see the boy returned safely home. Apart from occasional (and very terse) voice-over narration from an old man – indicating a flashback structure to the story, in which the game's events are part of a tale being recounted by the boy much later – this adventure is largely non-verbal, with no HUD and limited UI elements, leaving only the behaviour of Trico himself, and the environments you both find yourselves in, to communicate the emotional beats of this journey.

“How a game feels when you play it” is a nebulous thing to define, especially with different game engines offering different sets of tools for programmers and designers to work with to create the experience they want for the player. Many gamers refer to it simply as “gamefeel,” but a more didactic term among designers is “3C’s”: character, controls, and camera. These are the elemental ways that interaction happens in a game, helping the player understand – hopefully at a glance – whom they’re controlling, how to perform in-game actions, and how to view the environment. No matter what other bells and whistles it might have strung across its surface, if your game has good 3C’s, the player is likely to enjoy it and keep playing. I mention this because the chief issue with The Last Guardian is its poor 3C’s (in a sports context, you might say it has bad fundamentals). First are its dodgy controls, which feel disconnected from the environment, and unclear indications of how the boy can interact with it (you’re constantly asking: Can I climb that surface? Can I make that jump?) and which necessitate condescending, immersion-breaking hint popups that crowd the screen with advice on what button to press, persisting even right to the end of the game, after you’ve had plenty of time to master the obtuse system. Second, and perhaps most damningly, is its absolutely abhorrent camera, which feels sluggish when you need to quickly re-orient your view and practically rockets around when you want to focus on something carefully; it’s particularly exacerbated by the tight interior spaces you often share with Trico, in which the camera often has no idea where to be and will just disappear into a wall or cut to a sudden black screen until it can right itself again. These constant frustrations with the moment-to-moment gameplay are indicative of the outdated engine the game uses – clearly a carry-over from the PS2 era – and (along with severe framerate drops) make for an experience that, if it weren’t for the rest of the game, would be deal-breakingly bad.

Thank god, then, that Ueda’s team (called genDESIGN) and Japan Studio were able to execute in such a dazzling way everything else that makes The Last Guardian feel so special, despite its faults in gameplay. The game is gorgeous to behold, with environments that feel both foreboding and strangely peaceful, like the quiet ruins of a once-great civilization – exaggerated in size and scope to impossible scales, full of fantasy and awe. The game’s linear path leads you in and out of these ancient temples, to scale the sheer cliffs upon which they perch and the collapsing rooftops and spires that connect them in beautifully impractical ways. The sense of place is extreme; you begin to feel suffocated in the still air of an interior space and experience a profound relief at escaping into open space again, standing on a windswept crag and gazing out at the massive structures in the distance. The graphics, cinematics, music, and especially the character animations – which indulge in charming subtleties like Trico’s ears flattening against the roof as he ducks into a tight space or the boy’s hand reaching out to steady himself against a wall as you navigate – are a true delight, and were very helpful in keeping me engaged in the game even as its 3C’s pushed me away. Ueda subscribes to a philosophy of what he calls “design by subtraction,” where the priority is to remove any game elements that do not directly and constantly contribute to the core experience, and this makes The Last Guardian’s aesthetic touches resonate deeply.

The mostly truly enthralling thing about the game, though – the thing that is both the most unique and the most valuable part of the experience – is Trico himself. His realization is clearly where the lion’s share of design focus was directed, which results in his actually feeling like a living, breathing beast – a real triumph of animation, and both scripted and simulated AI behaviour. He is adorable, with big, treacly eyes and a sweet, gruffly voice, until you see him in a combat situation and you remember that he is a huge, powerful, and deadly creature. Trico looks and behaves like a real cat or dog, sometimes obeying your commands and sometimes ignoring you or becoming distracted. This could be a convenient cover-up for dodgy pathfinding and poor AI, which has difficulty interpreting player-issued commands, but no matter how irritating it might be to some people, it manifested for me as behaviour that reinforces Trico’s feeling of realness. If he instantly obeyed every command I gave, he wouldn’t feel real. I was never as frustrated with trying to get Trico to do what I wanted – a common complaint about the game – as I was simply trying to navigate and look around the game’s environments on a moment-to-moment basis. And crucially, the bond between Trico and the boy that the narrative works hard to establish is greatly supported by the actual gameplay: when Trico fights off enemies, he becomes agitated, and you must climb atop his back and pet him to calm him down again. He will get hungry and refuse to move, forcing you to seek out a snack for him nearby so you can both get moving again. Sometimes, the correct solution to a puzzle is simply to watch Trico and see what interests him in that place. I became so powerfully attached to this digital creature that I would often interrupt my own instinct to push forward just so I could pet Trico for doing a good job on that last puzzle, or watch him cavort and scamper around. He was more real to me than many other fictional human characters in games or film or literature.

And though you control the boy, it’s very much Trico’s story. His is the narrative arc with growth and change, in which you discover why he has the extraordinary abilities that have kept you both alive, and that grows into a relationship not of necessity but of friendship. The story is generally more coherent and compelling than other entries in genDESIGN’s resume, with clear emotional beats, exciting climactic cutscenes, and inspiration taken from other, more familiar sources, among which I detected notes of Pete’s Dragon and – more significantly – The Iron Giant, in the early hints that this benign beast has deadly dormant abilities. Where Shadow of the Colossus was brilliant in its cryptic ambiguity, The Last Guardian exceeds in its narrative clarity, and the inherent connection between the player and the true hero, Trico.

The prevailing conversation around the game has been whether or not it was worth the wait, and I find that premise not only tedious but misguided in the context of broader game design. Just because a project has had a troubled development period, enduring through several possible cancellations and delays, does not mean that that whole period was used as effective development time – quite the opposite, in fact. To me, it’s remarkable that The Last Guardian was released at all, and judging it on its own terms, it’s satisfying and deeply memorable, if tainted somewhat by frequent gameplay frustration. It’s a game that emphasizes patience, a rare commodity in contemporary game design, where – in the beautiful words of a colleague who expressed his feelings on the game on Facebook – your chief method of interaction, your most powerful ability, is to show affection. You aren’t an invincible superhero one-man army blasting your way to victory: you’re just one half of a vital partnership, struggling together through a grueling situation. For all its faults, The Last Guardian is an exercise in worthwhile risk: Ueda and Co. took a chance that gamers would be compelled by such a strange and unique experience, and I was rewarded with an experience I’ll never forget – a brand-new watershed moment.

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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