If you had the opportunity to combine any two animals, what would they be (and make)? If it were me, I’d combine my staffy (his name is Cash) with a great white shark. But hey, that’s just me. If you were master game creator Fumito Ueda you’d probably cross a bird with a cat and call it a Trico, then get some little kid to try and get it to follow him.
That’s the most basic premise of The Last Guardian, the latest effort from the revered creator and his studio, Japan Studio. At the core of this game is a sense of wonder and ‘what if’? What if I could combine these two animals - what would it create? And if I could, how awesome would it be to be a young, innocent boy playing with it, teaching it, feeding it, leading it... what if.
The Last Guardian has been in development for a long time, and it’s one of the first points raised in our session with Ueda. He explains that for this game, the concept came, and then the R&D followed, whereas in the past, it’s always been about crafting the experience, characters and personality of the game first, with gameplay and mechanics following in second.
He assures us this is a good thing, and that with all of the pieces of puzzle now on the table and ready to construct they’re in full production, with an end goal of retail at “Holiday 2011”.
You’d be forgiven for forgetting this gem of a game though. After an incredible showing at an E3 and TGS more than a year ago, it pretty much dropped off the radar. It was also initially revealed as “Project Trico”, which meant it could have ultimately been a tech-demo for Japan Studios’ work on the PS3, or maybe even just a tease. Thankfully it’s none of that and very much a real product, as we learnt when it was renamed “The Last Guardian” and something of a spiritual successor to Ico and Shadow of the Colossus.
Today we saw a new gameplay trailer, that was actually quite short, but it’s easy enough to gleam some solid information out of the game. For one, it carries with it Ueda’s seemingly favourite them of companionship and emotional co-op. The idea here is that AI become AE (Artificial Intelligence to Artificial Emotion), though out of context that sounds negative, it’s quite the opposite.
The Last Guardian will require our two companions, a young boy and a giant cat-like creature with a beak, feathers and chicken legs mixed in with the feline, to work together cooperatively - even if one of them doesn’t always cooperate. If anyone owns a cat, they likely know that they often require a lot of attention to be coaxed into anything. They’re lazy, snubby and fickle creatures (well, most of them), and that’s seemingly portrayed throughout The Last Guardian.
Snippets of gameplay we caught saw the young boy demanding attention from the Trico, who was more interested in sleeping or scratching itself. Other snippets though, showed it following him through Aztec-like ruins (ala Ico) which were both enclosed and often vertical. Moreover, due in part to his size, you could see a massive amount of environmental destructibility leaving me to believe the game-world will change dynamically based on the equally dynamic actions of the Trico. When I asked Ueda-san this, he pretty much confirmed that was the case and that they had to stop talking about it, lest they give major gameplay ideas and directions away.
But fundamentally, it seems that - for whatever reason - you’re leading the Trico through a series of multi-tiered levels, but will also have to work to gain its trust, and eventual loyalty. These will all be gameplay mechanics - that much is sure, but how they’re fully integrated is currently up for pure interpretation (seriously, Ueda said we should go back and look at the video and most of it will become clear).
Obviously the other major element with this game is its core platform of choice, that being the PS3 and all its raw power, and this is another element Ueda spoke often of. The machine is giving him the room and grunt needed to fully realise his fantastical worlds. There weren’t too many examples offered, but he said having so much power to play with has allowed his team to really humanise the characters, and that for him, being able to inject so much into elements like the young boy leaning against a wall just because he’s close to it, or both characters relaying pure emotion and narrative through their eyes alone, was one of the most rewarding aspects of design so far.
Questions were bandied about, such as 3D, seeing as it was revealed the Team Ico Collection would be 3D-ready out of the box when it’s released next winter, but the team said they weren’t sure, which at the very least, isn’t a no.
There was also the case of a “sad ending” being put out there given then nature of the ending of his first two games. The fact that he even broached the subject means there’s something up, but he asked that we make our own decisions about what direction we think he’ll be taking it in, so it - like so much more of the game - is really anyone’s guess.
So the crux of the event was to let us know the game was definitely still coming, that it’s actually in a full-blown production stage, and that all we really need to do is dissect the gameplay video to really try and get a grasp on what it’s all about. Which, to save you some time, is about relationships, trust and perseverance, but as gameplay mechanics and tools, which immediately make this a winner in our book. The game looks absolutely stunning, and the art-direction and pacing seem perfect - but if you’ve played a Ueda game before, you’re going to know all that, the next step is to just get in there and experience his vision for yourself.