Years of wishy-washy comments on The Last Guardian came to a close last week when Sony finally confirmed the game’s active development, now destined for PlayStation 4. We even got a moment during the E3 2015 press conference to acknowledge youthful designer Fumito Ueda in the audience, and to confirm that he, too, is still in active development.
The game’s near-mythical status congealed with two other games that, had they been leaked before, would have been written off as dreamy fan fiction. Having The Last Guardian return in the same show as a Final Fantasy 7 remake (from the eventual creators of Final Fantasy 15!) and Shenmue 3 (now a smashing Kickstarter success) arguably hurt perception of Ueda’s game, which could still be classified as an elegantly made facade. It’s hard to believe that one game could sleep through an entire console generation, isn’t it?
Later, Fumito Ueda sits quietly in the room while The Last Guardian is demonstrated to press. His fictitious beast within fictitious beast is now on intimate display, and I expect it to behave just as it did in the press conference video - perfectly staged to an unbelievable degree. But then it doesn’t.
The young boy calls for his companion. His voice bounces off sun-bleached stone, dissipating into the airy hush of a fortress long bereft of its builders. The beast is perched atop a bridge, listening to this puny, shouting human. Its four bird-like legs lead up into a cloak of feathers, hunched beneath an ink-tipped beak. The boy’s second call gets a tilt of the head and a look of confusion … or maybe it’s apathy. You never can tell with cats … never mind dog-cat bird-things. It still doesn’t budge.
Trico is an eerie reminder, not replication, of a household animal. According to the designers of The Last Guardian, it’s meant to be a composite of cat, dog, bird and maybe even cow, all adding up to something “fictitious and believable.” When it fails to respond, just sitting there with a quizzical expression, it doesn’t register in your brain as a bug. It’s a pet being obstinate. The Last Guardian’s star creature gets away with sitting there motionless, just days after Uncharted and its human star, Nathan Drake, drew nervousness and laughter for standing still on stage too long. Except that really was a bug.
In a section not seen during Sony’s conference, the boy climbs onto Trico as it wakes from what may as well be a years-long nap. It flinches and whines as the child grabs hold of a spear sticking out of its back - the thorn in this cat’s paw – and slides it out, painfully. Everyone in the room cringes, jolted by reflexive empathy for a poor animal, even one that’s been deliberately programmed and animated to draw that reaction. The feeling is later balanced by the ridiculous cuteness of the boy tossing barrels of food at his friend. Sometimes he catches them, sometimes they clip the edge of his agape mouth and bounce away. Sometimes Trico is just not bothered by it. Could be a bug, of course, but somehow the adorable fumbles and bouts of apathy just make Trico seem more and more believable, just as intended.
The Last Guardian is, in its own way, a moving composite of Ueda’s prior games and our own aspirations for what we want him to accomplish. We read into it what we want Ueda and his secretive development team at genDESIGN to achieve. We’re already invested in the emotional reprise of Shadow of the Colossus and want to see it pay off in a big way. When you hear people dreading the death of the boy and/or his beast whenever The Last Guardian comes up, it’s not because it’s such a telegraphed manipulation - it’s because we want a huge, polished game to lure us in and crush us.
It’s an odd desire, but the lineup of games at a show like E3 makes you covet raw feelings. These games differ in that their emotional trajectories are assured, and the player’s position is usually at the center of the universe. There are stories of triumph, progression and winning the world in games that come out like clockwork. And here’s The Last Guardian, an uncertain game in which you are just one major inhabitant of the story, just one part of an unpredictable team. If anything can coax us into that fragile trust, if anything can fool us with a deft blend of artificial intelligence and animation, if anything can prove that big games are still capable of hitting emotional beats that don’t explode immediately afterward, it’s The Last Guardian.
Trico eventually does respond to the boy’s calls, by the way, but that is its intended behavior. The little mistakes and hesitations are signals of difference, of there being a fallible, real program underneath it all. Even if the E3 demo is smartly constructed to fool, or even if The Last Guardian is ultimately canceled before it reaches us in 2016, I’m convinced that the game we saw at E3 2015 was as real as it has ever been. Whether it grows up beyond this point is unclear, but I hope we can preserve our shared hope that it does, in fact, become a believable, fictitious beast.