Skip to main content

One of PlayStation’s most important studios makes games about loneliness

Team Ico’s small output has had a huge impact

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Share this story

You’ve been on horseback for quite some time. Hawks circle above these humanless plains, steeped in an overwhelming sense of despondency. As you inch your way toward the mountain’s peak, drawing ever nearer to the blistering sun high above, something begins to happen. The summit is in sight, has been reached, has been conquered. And there it is: sublimity. Before you is the colossus, roaming round and round below, perfectly blissful and decidedly uninterested in you. 

It’s tragic. This docile wonder exists in a world of its own, self-contained and ambivalent toward anything outside the small ecosystem it has fostered. You, however, parasitic human that you are, must slay it. It’s an intrusion on quiet, innocuous solemnity, and it will haunt your thoughts pervasively and perpetually thereafter. The stone leviathan felled, you leave this modest haven behind deprived of the awe it once knew, once inherently held. Lonelier than ever, the introspection kicks in: what have you just killed, and for what reason — at what cost?

Shadow of the Colossus is perhaps Team Ico’s most universally beloved game and is often regarded as director Fumito Ueda’s magnum opus. Released in 2005, it shares a long history with the PS2, and has since become recognized as one of the most significant games ever to fall under Sony’s umbrella. It’s one of just three games Team Ico has released over the last 18 years — so what makes it such a revered studio in PlayStation history?

The Last Guardian
The Last Guardian.

It’s easy to compare games based on differences instead of similarities. At first glance, 2001’s Ico seems totally different to Shadow in both premise and scale, but the two were mined from the same vein of minimalism and melancholy. Ueda famously conceived and created Ico in tandem with self-described principles of subtraction, seeking to remove clutter that interfered with the team’s vision for the narrative and story. It was a game stripped back to raw ideas, beautifully designed and meticulously implemented. 

The results were incredible. Ico pairs you, an ostracized boy locked away in a tower, with Yorda, a princess due to be sacrificed in exchange for her mother’s eternal youth. Together you attempt to escape the fortress you’re imprisoned in, and although your bond grows as you progress through the game, the sublime layer of sadness is never fully removed. The story is propelled almost entirely without dialogue, and the colors used throughout naturally invite you to become absorbed by the wistfulness the game is founded upon. Although the two children find solace in one another, they grew up alone, deprived, unseen — and now, even as they try to run away, these feelings lurk in the shadows behind them, always in hot pursuit, refusing to soften their grip.

Its simplicity is what makes it special

Like Shadow after it, Ico asks you to give free rein to emotion. However, it does so without overt exposition, or mechanical complexity, or any other structure championed in most successful games. Its simplicity is what makes it special, and its nonchalant skew away from dialogic sequences allows it to evoke this emotion in other, more primally sensory ways. In many respects, Ico set the stage Shadow performed on — and perform Shadow did, earning itself an ovation still standing 14 years later. 

Both Ico and Shadow became staples of the PS2 era, and have since been assimilated into Sony’s oeuvre of iconic games. Each game received the remaster treatment, with Shadow in particular being the subject of a mass overhaul for Bluepoint’s ambitious remake — Shadow was even labeled as a greatest hit for the PS2. However, Team Ico wanted a last hurrah before the generation’s ephemeral run was up. One more game to complete the trifecta of melancholic masterpieces on the bestselling console of all time: The Last Guardian.

Shadow of the Colossus
Shadow of the Colossus.

It didn’t happen. In fact, The Last Guardian remained in purgatory so long that the entire PS3 era passed it by. When it finally launched in 2016, 11 years had elapsed since Shadow first garnered the studio global attention. In an interview with The Verge from 2016, Ueda largely attributed this to the difficulties in bestial cat / bird / dog Trico’s technical design. Although he originally sought to create a character that wasn’t “very high maintenance from a technical standpoint,” the character’s evolution grew in direct proportion to his technical demands. 

To make matters worse, the reception to The Last Guardian was, at least initially, lukewarm at best. Critics damned the game’s clunkiness, mostly citing mechanical issues related to Trico, even despite his makeup being the primary reason for the game’s many delays. And yet The Last Guardian is perhaps the greatest achievement in emotional evocation that video games have ever known. 

‘The Last Guardian’ remained in purgatory so long that the entire PS3 era passed it by

Consider the scene that opened this piece: you climb the mountain, witness a wonder, and slaughter it dead. Now take that scene, strip away its worldliness, condemn it to fractured chambers lying deep beneath any semblance of civilization, and assign it a ruler so devoid of humanity that the existence of this world within our own begins to revel in its own lack of sense, absence of purpose. The Last Guardian isn’t sad or lonely because you, a young boy stolen away from his village in the dead of night, are imprisoned here. The Last Guardian is steeped in sadness and solitude because you form a strange bond with the most unlikely of mythological curios deep within this dark recess, and that bond is strained, wrenched into arrest, torn apart, sewn together again, and ultimately smashed into smithereens so fine they dissipate into thin air, still existing but never to be seen again. 

Trico is the symbol of what a Team Ico game fundamentally is: a hopeless search for connection in a world devoid of meaning. That’s what imbues these games with the magic they’ve become known for. At all times you’re utterly absorbed by the links you form with the world around you, with the single soul you share your journey with — Yorda in Ico, your trusty horse Agro in Shadow, and Trico in Guardian — while simultaneously being swallowed whole by somber pondering on the nothingness in front of you. To put it more accurately: the wonder in front of you that is relegated to nothingness because it is unrealized by humanity, doomed to exist in perpetual beauty without acknowledgement. If something is sublime, but unseen, is it truly sublime? In aesthetic, yes, objectively so — in essence, however, not even a little bit. 

Eighteen years have transpired since Team Ico joined Sony’s roster. In that time, the studio has become a titan in the industry, but not a conventional one. A fine thread has been woven throughout its three games, spiritually linking them to one another without ever acknowledging interconnectivity. Perhaps it’s better to say that the only acknowledgement of sameness is strictly thematic: hopelessness, isolation, defeat — hope, connection, triumph. 


Interestingly, these powerful juxtapositions have gone on to influence a variety of artistically ambitious indie titles since. Journey boasts a minimalistic art style not unlike that of a Team Ico game, whereas Fez designer Phil Fish once told Gamasutra: “From Ico, I wanted to replicate that feel of a nostalgic, lonely isolation ... it’s really about walking around and smelling the flowers.”

These wordless worlds remain vivid in the mind’s eye of those who vicariously inhabit them. Impossible to forget, their watercolor grace both belies and accentuates the poignancy at their core. It’s beautiful, but there are charged emotions held deep within the hues.

The only constant is loneliness

Consider Trico’s eyes. When hijacked by the Master’s control rooms, they burn an effulgent pink, so overbearingly bright that they become mesmerizing. While this seems to convey a sense of rage unleashed, there’s much more to these commandeered pupils. The glow is delicately designed, meticulously colored. At their phosphorescent core, they are pale — they are pathetic. This is rage forcefully imposed on Trico, not rage truly felt. Behind those frenzied eyes lie fear, guilt, and powerlessness. 

Now consider them when they’re emerald green: at their core, they are natural, trusting, and utterly sublime. But the fact remains that both shades exist, and shades between them, too. That’s one of the most extraordinary things these games have brought to PlayStation: for every shade of green, or pink, or atomic tangerine, there are ephemeral, ever-changing tints beneath them. The only constant is loneliness — and yet, at the same time, there is comfort and connection. And as these opposite states flirt with one another, they wrench your curiosity and heartstrings, drawing you nearer to these worlds and fixing a knot that keeps you bound to them forever — to their melancholy, their beauty, their yet-to-be paralleled sublimity.

As we approach the end of this console generation, it’s impossible to consider Team Ico as anything other than one of the most intrinsically important and artistically singular studios Sony has ever been fortunate enough to work with. And although Fumito Ueda left Sony midway through developing The Last Guardian (he stayed on as a contract employee to finish the project), it’s likely that his new studio, GenDesign, will carry the torch Team Ico left behind.

In fact, it has already been announced that GenDesign is working on a new game — if Ueda’s past work is anything to go by, this fourth contribution to PlayStation history is sure to fall in thematic line with the three monumental games for which he’s known.