“To be completely honest, the realization of it actually being done, it hasn’t really sunk in for me yet,” says Fumito Ueda.
As the creative director of The Last Guardian, Ueda has worked for nearly 10 years on the same project. He doesn’t appear haggard or stressed. No, he looks youthful and vibrant, a mischievous smile projecting the image of someone not merely younger, but enlivened. This is a man nearly (though not just yet) unburdened of the expectations of millions of fans.
Development on The Last Guardian began in 2007, and its public announcement came in 2009. The much-anticipated follow-up to acclaimed PS2 hits Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, The Last Guardian was originally scheduled to launch on the PS3 in 2011, but became mired by one day after another — including a shift in platform to the PS4. The Last Guardian won’t actually be available until this December.
In 2014, Ueda left Sony’s Japan Studio to form a new company, called GenDesign, along with other veteran members of the team. Despite the change, though, he continued to work on the game as its creative director. Through it all — the delays, platform shifts, and new studios — Ueda’s vision never faltered. The Last Guardian is still a game about a young boy and a giant mythological creature who join forces to survive a beautiful, mystical, and treacherous environment. That was the idea Ueda came up with nine years ago — and it’s still the core of the game that releases next month.
“It has been carried out pretty much how I envisioned it from day one,” he says.
Central to The Last Guardian’s premise is Trico, a giant cat-bird hybrid. Trico and the unnamed boy share a symbiotic relationship, depending on each other to solve problems they otherwise couldn’t on their own. The genesis of the character stemmed from lessons learned from Ueda’s previous work.
The first, somewhat ironically, was in the interest of speeding up the game development process. Ueda hoped to create a character that would be less technically demanding than those from his previous games. “Both Ico and Shadow of the Colossus took longer than I originally imagined or had planned for, and so I reflected on that and said that I really want to put out games at a more constant pace,” he says. His original goal for Trico was that it wouldn’t be “very high maintenance from a technical standpoint,” though as the character evolved, so did the technical demands.
Trico was also inspired in large part by the characters found in Ueda’s previous games. In 2005’s Shadow of the Colossus, players take on the role of a man named Wander, who must travel around an empty, desolate world in search of towering colossi, who then must be killed in order to save a young girl. In order to get traverse the large kingdom, Wander rode a horse named Agro. Ueda says he originally saw Agro as a utilitarian addition to the game — more of a form of transportation than an actual character. But players saw something different. “The overwhelming response was that people were really connecting to the character,” says Ueda, “which was somewhat of a surprise.”
Trico also has a lot in common with a character from Ueda’s first game, 2001’s Ico. Like The Last Guardian, Ico paired players with an AI companion who would join them on an adventure through a quiet, dreamlike world. In Ico, it was a ghostly young girl named Yorda. Ico played out like a 3D platform game — you could run, jump, and climb to reach new areas — but the twist was that Yorda couldn’t do any of these actions on her own. You had to safely guide her, lifting her up to reach a high ledge, or creating a bridge so she could cross a perilous gap. Whereas most games use cutscenes to showcase the relationships between characters, Ico did it primarily through interactions with Yorda.
With Trico, Ueda wanted to build a similar kind of relationship, but create an even deeper connection. “With Yorda, at the end you’re still not quite sure what she’s thinking,” he says. “There’s still a lot of wonder around that. With Trico, what I wanted to do was to kind of have a wider range in terms of relationship growth. What I mean by that is that when the main character meets Trico for the first time, you’re strangers. You don’t know anything. But as the game progresses, and your relationship grows, towards the end you have a stronger bonding relationship between the main character and Trico. The growth from beginning to end with Trico is a lot greater.”
Ueda and his team used a number of techniques to make you feel that deeper connection. There’s the art and animation; Trico looks adorable, and will act in ways that make it seem more like a puppy than a giant mythological creature. Trico’s gaze follows the boy when he’s nearby, and when he gets an itch, he scratches just like an excited dog. But the world itself is also designed so that it forces you to work together, thus forging your bond over time. “There are parts in the game — especially from a level design perspective — that we built out that will encourage you to do so,” says Ueda. “And I think those are key moments where you as the player get emotionally involved with Trico.”
Much about the game still remains mysterious — an impressive feat considering how long The Last Guardian has been in the works. That’s been a conscious decision, as the story of the world and the characters in it are something that Ueda wants players to discover over time. It’s a theme common in all his games, where the narratives are mostly left open to interpretation. “I think that when you try too hard to explain everything, it doesn’t work well,” Ueda explains.
Ueda says there isn’t a specific idea he wants to get across with the relationship at the center of The Last Guardian. There’s no particular message he wants to convey. “We are leaving it up to the player,” he says. Instead of an overarching message, he’s hoping to create a specific feeling within everyone who plays the game. “The one thing that I hope everyone who plays this game feels is that at the end, you feel that Trico is actually really there,” Ueda explains. “That the existence of Trico is something you can feel and see or imagine in your head. Just the existence of this character is something that I want everyone to take away from the game.”
Barring any last-minute delays, The Last Guardian will finally be available on the PS4 on December 6th. It’s been a long time coming. Creating The Last Guardian has been long and difficult, but it’s also served as a learning experience, and the game will undoubtedly go on to influence whatever it is that Ueda and GenDesign create next. Given that we don’t know what his next project is, Ueda is coy on what those influences might turn out to be. But there’s at least one aspect of The Last Guardian that he hopes he can fix with his next project.
“If I were to say one thing,” he says with a grin, “I would really like to put out something in a shorter time frame.”