Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Last Guardian, Video Games Last Best Hope

Fumito Ueda was the last best hope for video games, and now that he's gone it feels like all is lost. Well he's still on contract with Sony and slated to complete his latest project, but it's still an ominous sign of things to come. In hindsight (two minutes worth of reading) that seemed like a kind of unqualified statement to make, but you have to look at the facts. Shadow of the Colossus, his creation, brought about the end of the previous age of consoles, and it brought in developments and a scale in video game design never seen before. The game introduced the idea of "flow" into video game design where all elements successfully mesh together to create a fluid experience. Ueda did so much to elevate where the video game medium stood as an art form. And now that the Last Guardian has been put in a limbo what could have brought about the next age of gaming is now in peril.

I know that a video game is not solely the creation of one person, but the influence Ueda has had on video game design can't be argued with. Ueda was born in Japan in 1970. In 1993, he graduated from Osaka University of the Arts and in 1995, he began to pursue a career in video game design. His first big title was Ico, a game where you play as a young boy who tries to save a princess. He had worked in the games industry before on projects including Enemy Zero where he worked as an animator. But it's when he started working with Sony his career took off. Ico is a kind of pure experience, a boy-meets-girl where the innocence of their relationship is highlighted by a simple tale and a difference in their ages. It created an experience highlighted by the communication between the two characters. The act of holding hands, slight gestures, small sounds between them created a relationship rarely seen in games.

It was something revolutionary and I encourage you to read Count to Ten in Kill Screen Magazine if you can get your hands on a copy, or at least I think that's the article. Regardless other people have articulated their thoughts about Ico, but were here to talk about an entirely different game.

In 2005, Sony released Shadow of the Colossus. I've struggled with one giant gaping aspect of this game. A lot of people talk about it, few people actually play the entire game. I'm one of those people. I cite the game for its story, for the technology it used, for ushering in the end of a console generation, for changing everything in video games without having a true understanding about what makes it such an amazing experience. It's something ultimately subjective, but it's a game that has such an impact on the community at large. There's a moment right at the start of the game - I played that much - where you begin to realize this isn't going to be a Zelda-like experience. There's something about the princess lying frozen on the altar, the feathers flowing in through the open temple, the giant monolithic statues standing in the back ominously resembling the bosses to come, and Agro being one of the most life-like creations you've ever seen.

There's a moment when you step out into the music-less field trying to reign in Agro from throwing you off that something clicks about the experience. "There is nothing like Shadow of the Colossus." It's a statement surely you've heard, one that's been said over and over from 2005 to 2011. And it's a true statement. No game has come even close to resembling the kind of experience you find in Shadow of the Colossus.


I could tell you stories about fighting the first bosses of the game. How it felt to see their lifeless, innocent bodies fall to the ground in a heap. I could tell you about how the story builds Wander - the protagonist - as a character through his slow decline into becoming one of the colossi by desiring to save a condemned maiden. How, like a gamer, his lust for a happy ending eventually leads to his own reincarnation as a child. Yet there's one aspect of the game I want to discuss more than anything else.

It has to do with trust.

We're going to deviate from Shadow of the Colossus just a little here. If you've ever played a Zelda title you know that in most dungeons, in most boss areas you receive a specific item that helps you progress forward. There's an inherent lack of trust in this kind of game design. It's meant to stymie your progression in the game to ensure you get the full experience. You can in Zelda 64 play the entire game without picking up a heart piece or heart container. It'll leave you at a serious disadvantage, but if you chose to play the game like that it'll punish you for it. Fill up your bottles with fairies if that's your choice, you've insulted the game mechanics and you'll be punished for it. Don't expect an easy time. That aside aside, what each new item allows you beat the boss. Each new item allows you access the next area. It's a good form of game design as it keeps you in the experience ever moving forward, but it's not one that trusts you as a player.

In Shadow of the Colossus they give you a bow, your horse, a sword, and the ability to climb. They trust you enough to use the items given to you to beat each boss that comes your way. We have to qualify what trust really means in this context. When you were younger, did your parents ever let you stay at home by yourself? Being 20 years old means that only 4 years ago that could have been considered a kind of legal offence (psh, Canada) if they left me unattended for that amount of time, and they did. They trusted me to keep myself safe inside of a house full of dangers. They understood that I was mature enough, responsible enough, apt enough to consider all of my options before opening a can of soup with a chainsaw. It's almost, but not quite, the same thing with Shadow of the Colossus. What it gives the players is the agency to explore the game's mechanics without having your hand held. This also gives way to the natural flow of the experience.

When the second Colossi swoops down at you what is your first reaction? It's to jump and hold onto its wing. What a marvelous feeling. My brother and I yelped when we first accomplished this feat in the game. It felt like such a natural next step in mounting him. And it's more than just seeing his wing coming towards you and figuring out that you have to grab onto it. Before you fight the second colossi, you're introduced to the concept by the slow, sluggish first boss. Compared to the rest of the game, it is probably the easiest level to face. The game gives you a small tutorial on how to climb by making you scale the wall that leads to its domain. When you reach the boss and you see that there are structure all around its body, your brain automatically tells you that you have to climb to defeat it. There is a little hand holding by the game when it tells you to aim for the highlighted spot on its body, but on the whole you're left to your own devices to succeed or fail.

What's important is this: during the intervening period of fighting the first boss and travelling to the second, the player becomes so entwined with the experience that a natural evolution in the understanding of the game's mechanics occurs. You get better at the game. The player has gone from being an intermediately skilled player to flying on the wing of a giant colossi. This is the "flow" of the experience. It's one of the reasons why Shadow of the Colossus is such a successful game. The learning curve is basically non-existent. What you are given is a literal boss in a level that you have to defeat, and you do it through intuition, through skill, and through an understanding of the game's core mechanics.

It might be easy to say that this kind of progression comes naturally to all games. In general, perhaps that's right. If we look at something like Tetris the more we play the deeper our relationship to the tetrominoes becomes, and thus we learn how they all fit together until we're like this. Well maybe not like that, but you get the point. There's a natural progression of the skill to difficulty ratio that exists in Shadow of the Colossus. The game isn't above making things difficult for you, but you are expected to solve the puzzles given to you using one set of items. There are times when the bosses can be frustrating. For instance, it took about 30 minutes to figure out you had to shoot Turtle Colossi in the foot to get it to fall over. The game doesn't hold you hand by placing a weapon that you can use to defeat the boss. It makes you think. This isn't something that is seem in a lot of games today. Tutorial levels are the main instigators of hardcore gaming's ire, and there's a lot of anger about their overuse.

Trust in a video game - like in how you can trust Agro never to run away - comes from a natural understanding of the relationship between the player and the game. It comes from a design that does not cater to the player, but expects them to master its mechanics. This is something that makes Shadow of the Colossus unique. There are limitations imposed onto the player, but never conscious of this he or she will attempt to use their equipment and intuition to defeat each colossi.

There's something mystical about the game that no player can really put their finger on. The story in the game is a take on the classic Hero's Journey. It starts in media res knowing that Wander has already committed himself to the quest by taking the sword and the princess. His supernatural aid allows guides him to the colossi who stand as the perils he must face to save the girl. And when Wander becomes the massive, black colossi he becomes the master of the two words entering into a transcendental state where he's more than a being with a sword, a bow, and a horse, and becomes part of the game's structure itself. You become a colossi, and when you are eventually defeated you are reborn as a child. This final act of purification along with the return of the princess leaves Wander in a state of neither anticipating the future or fearing for his past sins. He's placed on a clean slate and given a chance to start anew.

This monomyth can be traced throughout video games. Mario, for instance, is a clear example of how the hero's journey can be found in the medium. He enters into the Mushroom Kingdom looking for Princess Peach because she'e been kidnapped by Bowser, an evil force beyond Mario's control. He uses special items like fire flowers, star men, and mushrooms to aid in his journey across countless worlds until he saves the princess and leaves with her. It's a classic story found in countless games, yet the story in Shadow of the Colossus sticks with us because of its brevity, because of its sparse nature. There was such an opportunity in Shadow of the Colossus to include a massive, complex story that it seems almost cruel to impose such a rigid narrative structure on the player. It almost feels like the monomyth is detrimental to the game.


Simple narrative design can be a good thing and it can be a bad thing. A game like Dark Souls, for example, begs so many questions with its sparse narrative. We don't have any real impetus to begin our quest other than a weird feeling that we're supposed to be doing something. There's nothing really to fight for. In Shadow of the Colossus, we are given a few minutes of expository video and we're shown the personal connection Wander has with the girl. If you've played Ico, the player is given an added awareness of the importance Ueda places on relationships in his games. As we progress through the story, as we kill the colossi one by one, Wander becomes more and more corrupted, yet we push him on to complete the game. In a way, we become the driving force looking for an ending to the story. In Dark Souls, we play the same role pushing our character forward death after death, but we're fighting only to his or her end. This is the downside of a simple narrative. Without the proper impetus, without that few minutes of personality in your character the player forgets to invest him or herself into them.

This is a criticism you could make about Shadow of the Colossus. What does the story really say other than being an interpretation of the hero myth? Wander's character represents the idea of the hero within video game narratives. He's brave enough to try to save the princess, but he's doing so in a way meant to bring about something unnatural. It's his desire to see her brought back to life that ultimately makes him sacrifice his own. He's punished being put back into the body of a child under the care of someone else. Here you could make a commentary about what the monomyth really entails. Joseph Campbell's interpretation tells the tale of the altruistic hero saving a girl from a horrible fate. Shadow of the Colossus, without the context of the monomyth, could portray Wander as a kind of vagrant stealing away the girl while trying to redeem himself. In this way you can't really know what his motivation as a character really is. Did he want to be corrupted to kill the pursuing priests? Was the relationship between him and Agro meant to evoke empathy from the player for a anti-hero?

Wander mercilessly cuts down the colossi without questioning the mystic voice that speaks to him. Without even attempting to save her by any other means, he sets himself up as a heroic/reckless hero. Some would argue that Shadow of the Colossus has a minimalist story. That it's meant to stay out of the way of the game's mechanics to help expose the inner beauty of the experience itself. While it's true that Ueda's game are kept deliberately simple, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus having fairly sparse narratives, this lack of complexity is detrimental to the overall experience. There's an argument that if an overly complex story had been added to the game it would have ruined the experience. Zelda 64 is the game that it is, being called perfect by some, because of the story. It's because of the hero's quest as presented by the game that is succeeded as a video game. Shadow of the Colossus was kept deliberately, maybe as a commentary on the hero myth, but it's never quite clear why.

Ueda's style as a game developer/storyteller is to keep his projects mired in vagaries. There's never a time when you can say, "This is what's happening because 100 years ago this happened, and here's an entire history that explains everything." That's simply not his style, nor would fans of the game want something like that. The ambiguities left in the game give it an esoteric feel like there's something deeper going on outside of the game world. It's as if Ueda has kept us in the dark to keep us guessing about Wander's story.

In the few paragraphs above it feels like I've attacked this kind of storytelling in video games. In some instances it can be an interesting choice to use this archetypal narrative design. For instance, No More Heroes' semi-protagonist Travis Touchdown follows the monomyth, but deviates continually from the path. A character like Mario never stops to use the washroom right in the middle of the quest. Travis does. There are other, more interesting aspects on how Travis comments on the nature of storytelling in games like how he addresses the player, has inner monologues, doubts his quest, and leaves us with an anti-climax.

Shadow of the Colossus with its aesthetic beauty and complex game design leaves out a message, a commentary from its story. It's something that a lot of people leave out of their analyses of the game. Video games should always attempt to say something even if it is something simple or a small commentary about the nature of story telling. The vagaries surrounding the world of Colossi are beautifully maintained in and of themselves, but they don't lend themselves well to complex storytelling. Storytelling, in general, is still something video games need to work on. The simplicity of Shadow of Colossus' story is what people really enjoy. It's a boy-meets-girl-meets-colossi-meets-best-game-of-the-decade, but it could benefit from development. Going against the archetypal grain, saying something about how the monomyth is overused in video game narratives, and saying something is an important way The Last Guardian could help save gaming.

And now we're at the focus of the article and in about 3,000 words, oh god. The Last Guardian or Hitokui no ĹŚwashi Trico as its known in Japan first appeared at TGS 2009 in this trailer. It left me feeling all jittery when I first watched anticipating the innovations to come. At E3 2009 this trailer, showing a more completed version of the game, appeared. The game, like the characters in the trailer, had gone through a significant evolution showing that development of The Last Guardian was still being developed. Take a look at this (third link sorry) interview conducted at TGS that year. This quote is what's important to the development of his latest project, "I think it’s possible to make it even more artistic. But because it’s a video game, those possibilities have been subdued somewhat — it’s a game." I shudder to bring the video games as art argument into this article, but here we go.

What is it exactly that makes Shadow of the Colossus a work of art? The environments. Expansive in their scale and deliberate in their design, the world created around Wander is inspired by traditional video game design and the real world's natural beauty. We enter into the Forbidden Land with a sense of awe about the size of the temple, the breadth of the land we have to travel over, and the minute details hidden away for us to find. The hub world design, as well, is a hallmark design of games and one that's seemlessly intergrated into Shadow of the Colossus. Agro. Literally the most realistic animal in all of video games, Wander's horse Agro is absolutely fluid in his design, in the way he moves, and how he acts as a agent within the game. Art, in some definitions, is about imitating life. Even the colossi, virtual strangers to the real world, have a system of movements that make them so lifelike that melancholy overwhelms you when their lifeless bodies slump to the ground. Inspiration. I've written more about Shadow of the Colossus, referenced it as a work of art, and as an example of good video game design more times than I can count. Articles upon articles have been written about the game describing how it changed the way modern game developers look at animation and design.

All these reasons, are they legitimate enough to say Shadow of the Colossus can be considered art? Ueda considers a work of art to be something that inspires a person, something that evokes thought. If we go by this definition of art then all video games could be considered works of art as each could elicit even the faintest hint of this feeling. Duke Nukem Forever is not art, but by the Ueda's account it could be categorized in the same way as his game. Even in the interview linked above, he's flattered that some writers even consider his game a work or art and inquires what parts about the game they consider to be artful. This in no way means Ueda considers his game anything but a work or art, but what's the difference when he says "Arty" and "Art"?

Video games, as a whole, have been kept under the foot of people scared of what a medium "designed for children" can express. It's this feeling that kept Six Days in Fallujah from being made. It's this feeling that put video games before the United States Congress during the summer, a battle we won, calling out the medium's "violent nature". It's this feeling that made a news channel I won't even bother naming make Mass Effect sound like a hardcore, pornographic video game. There is fear in public at large that if video games start to say something, if they start to have messages in them like installation art, like film, television, or theater that their children will be targeted. It's this feeling that keeps video game developers from taking risks. Name the last time a triple A budget video game has challenged your way of thinking about the world? I can name possibly one game in the past five years that has been released outside of the indie game scene that has made me think. It's simply the truth that the video game medium is not like film. We don't get commercial works that break the surface like Inception or Drive that really make us think. It's because there's a fear on part of the developer that the 13-year-old demographic they target won't get the experience and thus won't buy the console.

Yet it's more than just having a well-funded avant-garde of video game developer it's about changing the connection we share with our games. This is something that The Last Guardian could potentially help alleviate. Over the past decade video games have progressed to the point where the technical capacity of game development studios finally rival all other commercial art forms. Developments like mega textures (RAGE), real time lighting (Crysis), daring cinematography in games (Kane and Lynch: Dog Days), complex narrative structures (Deadly Premonition), and budgeting (L.A. Noire) mean that we have a base structure for creating the form of art within games. There's one last development that video games have to undergo before they can truly be considered a unique art form. They need to be able to create life.

Animation is still a major issue in traversing the uncanny valley in video games. For instance, creating characters with eyes that follow you instead of staying in one static position is a minute detail that most games get entirely wrong. Half-Life 2 was able to pull it off with characters like Alyx Vance looking at you, and not staring into your soul like the characters of Skyrim. Life is about instilling energy into the characters around you. If we look at Ueda's canon of games so far we see two major developments. In Ico, he introduced the concept of holding hands through a dynamic connection between the two characters. The further Ico gets away the faster the girl runs to catch up with him. This created an actual, physical relationship between the two character within the experience. It seems like a small development, but you have to look at how flexible the mechanic had to be to successfully emulate the feeling of holding hand with someone. In Shadow of the Colossus, he introduced not only a climbing mechanic, which is the most robust aspect of the game, he also introduced an animation system that help gave the colossi a sense of scale.

When you mount the first colossi, Wander can easily be thrown off or knocked off by the force it exerts. The player enters into his domain and quickly realizes that even though the colossi is a giant opponent it is extremely agile because of its scale. This is one aspect of the game design that only Shadow of the Colossus has ever achieved. For instance, God of War has big bosses that rival the colossi in scale, but there's something about them that fail to achieve the same size. It has to do with the protagonist's relationship to the boss. Wander is feeble, yet with the power of the sword he's able to attack the colossi's weak spots to eventually defeat them. Though you have this mystical aid, you never quite feel that you're in control of the situation. The first boss in the game, if you stay on long enough, will begin to shake its body violently to get you off. It's like when you have an ant crawling up your arm and your first instinct is to wipe it off. In God of War, angry guy runs up the arm of the boss, does a quick time event he has complete control over, and plunges a weapon into the brain of his opponent. Not for one moment is he out of control of the situation or fighting an enemy that is unpredictable.

Unpredictability. In a world of games built around rigid systems seeing a character who can surprise you with their actions is a rare thing to see. Shadow of the Colossus was an interesting example of a game that used scale as a means of creating this feeling of unpredictability. Players are too used to fighting linear battles, or fighting enemies with strict patterns. Wander's diminutive size automatically puts you at a disadvantage even when facing off against the smallest of the colossi, but the intuition in their design you gain by surmounting each boss gives you an unspoken advantage. You learn that even though you are smaller than them you can use their massive scale, their slow movements to your advantage. This part of the game's design is highlighted in the last part of the game when Wander transforms into a colossi. The little guys attacking you are the hardest enemies in the game, and you're lucky to hit even one of them with your giant fists. It gives you the sense of scale that each colossi projected from a first-person perspective. As well, it serves as a kind of emphatic device to show how frustrating the deaths of the colossi must have been. Size matters in games, and this was one of the ways Shadow of the Colossus was able to bring to life characters of massive proportions well.

In the trailer for The Last Guardian, we're introduced to two characters: the boy and the beast. Both characters show a level of dynamism on their own. The boy is able to pick up barrels to hit soldiers, he's able to jump and climb like Wander, he has a beautifully crafted system of animation, and he represents the same level of scale players were meant to feel in Shadow of the Colossus. He's a little kid in a adult's world, and a world that's probably full of monsters. Along with him is the beast. If you've ever owned a pet then you might know what it's like to lose them. Almost unavoidably, the beast shown protecting to the boy will die and your heartstrings will be pulled so hard they might snap. This feeling a lot of the community has echoed speaks to the expectations of the relationship that is going to be created in the game. In an interview, Ueda said that the game is anything but a pet simulator, which is a relief. There's nothing worse than having to constantly cater to a character in a video game. This also means that the connection created between you and the beast will be done through story, through building a relationship through trials seen through together. The bond between the two characters is shown when the boy (I honestly hate having to refer to him this way, but he doesn't have a name yet) fall off the cliff and the beast (same thing here I wish he or she had a name) picks him up. Already we see that there's a relationship created between the two and that they're dependent on one another to survive.

They are protecting each other because they have a meaningful connection as characters. We can gain all of this insight into who they are from three trailers. It's insane what can be packed into a short demo of the game and the speculation is can create. There are some important things we have to look at from them. The beast needs to be fed. He has to be sustained or his health needs to be maintained like any pet. The beast has to rest. What person, animal, or omnipotent, spaghetti-like being doesn't need to rest only a daily basis? It seems like a small way to instill life within the characters, but the need for sleep is something that is rarely expressed well in games. I can tell you personally that my character in Skyrim has been going for almost 150 hours without any rest. A person would die if they even came close to that kind of deprivation. They protect one another. There are moments within the trailer where the boy's running on his own through small dungeons protecting himself. This shows that there is going to be a system of scaling structures (Shadow of the Colossus) and going through dungeons alone. If we look at traditional video game design, I guess we can assume that at the end of every dungeon the boy will find something needed to unravel the game's story. As he exists, he'll be confronted by the area's boss and you'll get to be in control of the beast to fend it off. It's this which creates not only a sense of scale, but a sense of dependency for the characters. While the beast can fight other giant creatures it cannot feed itself, nor can it reach what, perhaps, it needs in every dungeon. There's a dynamic relationship between them.

Ok, now what does this all mean for creating life in games? It sounds like The Last Guardian is simply going to be a hybrid of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, and that's possible. We just don't have enough information about the game to make a clear predictions about what exactly it's going to do. What I can say it this, The Last Guardian is going to create a deeper relationship between the player and the emotion associated with relationships. Already having a deep sense of who the characters are helps make this point even clearer and Ueda's portfolio of games shows a growing sense of how game mechanics, character animation systems, and design factor into creating a true-to-life story for the player. It's all speculative, but this is where Ueda's last project with Sony could take us.

It was a little heartbreaking to hear the news that Fumito Ueda was leaving Sony. It was even a little more heartbreaking to see that he's staying on as per his contract to finish The Last Guardian. It means that this could possibly be his last game of this scale, this polish we'll see in a long, long time. The growth as a developer he has shown between games was phenomenal. Ico and Shadow of the Colossus are two of the most critically acclaimed video games because of the amount of detail that went into their minute aspects. Holding hands and holding on are two simple mechanics that made the games memorable as a whole, not only as standalone experiences from two different generations of game development. The Last Guardian will usher in the end of the current generation of consoles. Right now as it sits in limbo, a slight chill runs through everyone who cares about the medium being moved forward as an artistic form. What happens if the game never comes out? What happens if The Last Guardian never sees the light of day? These questions keep me awake at night.

Video games will still be there even if Ueda's last project is never released. He's done so much to help elevate video games from being simple diversions into deep experiences that explore the deepest connections we have as human beings. Maybe that's what video games should do as a medium. They should provide us with perspectives, with roles, with shoes to fill. There's so much they can do with through interactivity that if The Last Guardian can instill life into its character, players could feel a real sense of responsibility for his or her experience. The death of a character will not only evoke your emotions, but your memories, your thoughts, your guilt, and your identity as an active participant within the experience. That's something video games are able to accomplish that no other medium can. They give us a window not only to look through, but a window we can open or break depending on what kind of person we are.

1 comment:

  1. Great article, but I have one slight critique. In my opinion, SOTC does not lack themes. In fact, I would say, in comparison to other games in its genre, it has quite profound themes-

    Themes of sacrifice, of pointless pursuit, investment vs profit, true love, life and death, the corruption of good intentions, and the loss of innocence. Really, what makes these themes so profound, is that they are subliminal and not overtly obvious. In that sense, the player can really project their own feelings onto the game and the characters.

    Good art, it could be said, actually IS ambiguous, because it places the burden of understanding on the reader allowing them to draw their own conclusions. I mean, not to pidgeon hole art into a specific definition, but the most lasting images are those that spark conversation that happens between the lines.