"Video games can be viewed as entertainment but that definition is really dependent on you," says iconic game designer Fumito Ueda, via translator and Skype, from Tokyo. "Is it just a source of entertainment or is there more to it?"
"For me, it's important that there is more to it. There is something else that I want to express — and that I can only express through the medium of games," he says.
Ueda's latest minimalist masterpiece, "The Last Guardian," is a lush game set in a lonely world about a boy, a monster and their — or rather, your — emotional bond.
A screenshot of Fumito Ueda's "The Last Guardian" (Photo: Sony)
It is also a game that most believed would never be made. It's been in the works for about nine years — a length of time that led all but the most faithful to dub it "vaporware," the snarky name for games announced with great fanfare while in development but never released.
Now that "The Last Guardian" is finally out in the world, it continues Ueda's streak of making games that are emotional, meaningful and, yes, more than entertainment.
"For me, it's important that there is more to it than entertainment. There is something else that I want to express — and that I can only express through the medium of games."
I was a Nintendo kid in the 1980s — with the thumb callouses to prove it — but drifted away from gaming until 2001 when I bought a PS2 and Ueda's debut, "Ico," one of the greatest pieces of digital art ever created. The premise was that you play a boy born with horns whose fellow villagers fear him, so they abandon him in a fallen fortress filled with dangerous shadows. You discover a princess, Yorda, similarly trapped. But instead of rescuing her you must work together to escape the maze-like ruins.
The girl is a computer-controlled AI "partner character" and the primary gameplay mechanism is that you and Yorda spend much of the experience holding hands. Thanks to this inspired touch — and the stylized animation that proved powerful despite the PS2's now-primitive 15-year-old technology — players developed an emotional attachment.
"The most important thing for me is that you feel the realness in the game," Ueda says when asked about his now-signature art direction. "It doesn't have to come from photorealism but that you feel you are there, you are in the world, these things exist and you can feel the existence of it while you're playing and even when you come out of the game."
"Ico" was not a commercial hit but it won awards and became a cult classic. It was an artistic achievement from an era before most people considered that games could be art and one that people continue to talk about today.
"When it came out there were a lot of criticism of the game," Ueda says. "Where is the ordinary? There were no 'ordinaries' in the game. That's what made it 'Ico,' and that's what made it interesting and intriguing. Same with 'Shadow of the Colossus.'"
"The most important thing for me is that you feel the realness... of it while you're playing and even when you come out of the game."
That was the second game by Ueda and his staff — now dubbed Team Ico — which came out in 2005 and, again, upended gaming tropes. Rather than the kidnapped princess, this time he took on "boss battles," those fights against big bad guys that occur at the end of, say, "Super Mario" levels.
Except Ueda's game only contained these giants, and they were so big as to be levels unto themselves as you climbed their vast bodies in search of a weak spot. But after defeating each one, you began feeling bad about killing these majestic creatures and, unlike other games, started wondering why you were doing it in the first place.
The award-winning game's only other character was your horse Agro, a computer-controlled AI that moved and behaved like a real animal as it carried you into the wilderness in search of colossi.
"When we started to hear player feedback about their journey with the game we found out their emotional connection to Agro was very strong. It was something they weren't expecting and it was a surprise for us, too."
Ueda decided they would value these emotional connections players had developed with the AI partner characters and centre their next game around it because it was something fostered by the unique interactive nature of the medium. Though Ueda says he stuck to his original vision, it took a lot longer than expected to pull it off.
"When you think about a single expression, you can write a sentence or dialogue and that would be very simple to do," he says, explaining the game's lengthy production process. "But to try and express that without words, with only character movement and animation, behaviour and reaction, you're basically adding up your costs. It becomes a very expensive task to communicate the interaction."
They were already working away when their next game was officially announced in 2007 with the release of concept art. The next year saw early screenshots. In 2009, footage of the game, then dubbed Project Trico, was shown and Trico would become the monster's moniker. Sony later announced it would arrive in 2011, which came and went. Then after four years of official silence, a trailer in 2015 announced the game would come out the following year. Ueda's new-yet-familiar game finally hit a deadline, and with a few weeks to spare.
"I want it to leave a deep mark in people's minds and hearts."
In the game, you once again awake in an abandoned architectural wonder with no idea where you are or how to leave. You discover and rescue the trapped beast Trico, a combination of a bird, cat and dog that is both the size of a building and the most realistic behaving digital creature ever coded. Despite the massive animal's fantastical appearance, it's an unparalleled achievement in realism.
Then the two of you set about finding your way out together using your different sizes and skillsets to help each other escape. Despite being unable to communicate, you become more and more emotionally attached as you proceed to crack the castle's environmental puzzles and defeat its mythological dangers.
A screenshot of Fumito Ueda's "The Last Guardian" (Photo: Sony)
Like its predecessors, "Guardian" is a challenging puzzle-platformer with beautiful graphics and minimalist gameplay (and, yes, some old-timey camera issues). It is also once again imbued with melancholy, an attribute rarely used in gaming and one that is perhaps the greatest source of Ueda's storytelling power.
"I have a tendency to like things of that nature, whether it's a game or film or everything," Ueda says. "Making games is not an easy task. We spent years of our lives working on it. This is a part of us. This is a part of our journey. It would be a bit sad if you played through the game and it was so digestible that it just leaves you as time goes by.
"That's not the type of game or creation that I am aiming for. I want it to leave a deep mark in people's minds and hearts. In order for us to do that it needs to really have an impact and stay with you for years after.
"That's where that comes from. We want it to leave a mark."