Ten years. Ten everlovin' years.
That's how long it's been since we've seen our last Fumito Ueda game. 2005 marked the release of Shadow of the Colossus, a triumph in storytelling and gameplay that did an excellent job of closing the curtain on the PS2's legacy—even if publishers continued to release games for the console up to eight years later.
Since then, Ueda's follow-up, The Last Guardian, slowly transitioned from PlayStation 3 system-seller to vaporware, only to materialize on stage last night at Sony's E3 conference (along with Udea himself, who politely waved to the crowd from his seat in the audience). Along with the Final Fantasy VII remake and the return of Shenmue, it's hard to believe these formerly impossible things are actually happening. Unleash the Ron Paul animated .gifs!
Last night on Twitter, PC Gamer's Tyler Wilde remarked that The Last Guardian's confirmed existence made him reflect on his time as a member of the gaming press. While I don't believe I've ever covered the game in any meaningful way—outside of continually asking, "Where the hell is this thing?"—I had the exact same feeling. While I'd been writing plenty before then, 2007 was the first year where I truly became a game-focused freelancer, and in those simpler times of the late aughts, The Last Guardian seemed on its way. In the passing years, its spectre has haunted me, especially at the last handful of E3s, where its absence seemingly spoke volumes.
There's no telling what would have happened if The Last Guardian released as intended, but if any console generation needed Fumito Ueda, it was the last one—in fact, that was the subject of something I wrote for USgamer last year, following a replay of his two PS2 games. We're only beginning to see some of these trends unravel, but, in its earliest years, the demands of the HD generation inspired many developers to play it extremely safe with game design. So, we had an onslaught of overused ideas engineered to appeal to the widest swath of people imaginable: QTEs and extreme linearity (I believe we called this kind of experience "story tubes" on a recently recorded Retronauts), along with a general fear that losing the player for a second meant that you could lose them forever. Thankfully, the rise of indies and lessons learned from Dark Souls (yes, I had to make that reference) have done much to teach developers to put a little more trust in players, even if we're more distractible now than ever before.
While it's unknown just how many forms The Last Guardian took throughout its long development, the final product definitely looks like a mix of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, with the environmental puzzles of the former, and the monster interactions of the latter—though, thankfully, you won't be stabbing your big, cuddly friend in his weak spot. Really, though, it looks more like an Ico 2, with your partner this time around being more than an occasional switch-sitter. And the brief puzzle on display at Sony's conference showed me Ueda's philosophy hasn't changed one bit since his last game: Guardian ditches the minor (but necessary) UI elements of Shadow, forcing the player to rely on the environments themselves (and the communicative body language of the protagonist's mega-pup) for the visual information needed to solve puzzles. Watching that puzzle play out again, it's astounding to witness how natural everything feels, despite being contrived for the sake of puzzle design—that's the Ueda difference, I guess.
Pardon me for continually beating this drum, but man—ten years! It's hard to explain in words just how much Ueda's work changed the way I thought about games, so his absence over the past decade feels like an absolute injustice. At age 19, Ico was the first game I formally reviewed, and from then on, I began to analyze games on levels well below the surface, giving me the extremely specific set of skills I use to earn a paycheck today. And in our modern times, we're seeing Ueda's influence on contemporary game developers. Just as Eric Chahi's Another World brought inspiration to Udea, Kojima, and other greats, games like Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons definitely wouldn't have happened without the existence of Ico. And this is just one of the more explicit cases—I'm sure Ueda's work showed countless others that video games can go far beyond the expected.
As I explained in my pre-E3 piece, this year, I want to be surprised. After Sunday's surprise launch of Mother on the Wii U Virtual Console, I wrote, "thanks to EarthBound Beginnings, that 'stranger things have happened' bar is now set pretty high." Even though my words eventually made a fool of me, I couldn't be happier. The theme of this year's E3 unexpectedly turned out to be "anything goes," and I can't wait to see where the event takes me next.