Digging into the early professional lives of now-prominent games industry figures can throw up some unexpected results. Dragon Quest creator Yuji Horii, for instance, cut his teeth with a tennis game. Gears of War design director Cliff Bleszinski announced himself to the games industry at age 17, back when he was the sort of guy Marcus Fenix would bully in high school, with a fantasy text adventure. And Rob Pardo, before leading design on Warcraft III, World of Warcraft and Starcraft II at Blizzard, was credited as a Tester on the Night Trap-esque FMV game Voyeur for the Philips CD-i.
For Massimo Guarini, that unlikely first credit came as a team member on the Game Boy Color port of Rayman in 2000. In the ten years that followed, he added to that experience with game design roles on two Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six games, Naruto: Rise of a Ninja and a smattering of other, largely-forgotten, titles. But it wasn't until the Italian designer moved to Japan to work with Grasshopper Manufacture on third-person shooter Shadows of the Damned that he really made his name.
Except, well, he kind of didn't. Guarini had a huge hand in Shadows of the Damned, as director and lead game designer, but this was overshadowed by the more tantalising — not to mention marketable – production team-up of Suda51 and Shinji Mikami. Fans wanted to see Mikami's tight third-person action design meet Suda's vivid and darkly esoteric imagination, and an unknown Italian director was superfluous to that PR hook.
But as it turned out, it wasn't a hook that worked particularly well anyway. Shadows of the Damned sold so poorly that even Suda51 – not a man particularly accustomed to mainstream commercial success – is said to have been unhappy with its performance. “I share [Suda's] disappointment, and was particularly surprised to see players not even knowing about the existence of the game,” Massimo Guarini tells Kotaku UK. “That was a huge missed opportunity, considering the stellar cast of creators involved.”
The blame for that can partly be laid at the door of EA, the game's publisher. But even among those Shadows of the Damned managed to reach, reactions were mixed. Environments designed around utilising pockets of light and darkness against photophobic demons were the only major twist to what was, at its core, an over-the-shoulder shooter in the classic Mikami style. Suda51 is said to have wanted to push things further. “The game was nothing like Suda had planned, which is rather sad,” Mikami commented in 2012 . “Mind you, if we'd made it as he originally planned, it probably would have sold even less, but it would have been very unique.” I think it's only fair to say that, upon experiencing Shadows of the Damned's vivid depiction of hell as a grimy city and trading endearingly schoolboyish dick jokes with sentient gun Johnson, few would charge Guarini's directorial debut with lacking originality. But it does rather make one wonder exactly what had been lost along the way.
For his part, Guarini says that “both Suda-san and Mikami-san were quite happy with how Shadows of the Damned turned out as a game,” and fondly recalls working with them. “Grasshopper Manufacture, and more generally speaking working in Japan, was an incredibly intense experience and I don’t regret any single second of it.” Now back in his native Italy as Founder and CEO of indie studio Ovosonico, Guarini reckons that his round trip via Tokyo has given him a new perspective. “I learned values that are more often than not underrated in western culture,” he reflects. “I've learned respect and trust in a unique and profound way. I've learned dedication, sacrifice and discipline in the hardest possible way. I don’t think I could have done what I’ve done with Ovosonico without these eye-opening life lessons.”
Guarini set up Ovosonico in 2012, heading up a far smaller team than at Grasshopper. This obviously led to its own challenges, and a glance at the credits for the studio's 2014 debut Murasaki Baby reveals that he not only directed the project, but also led game design, art direction and character design. No longer struggling to be heard, it was here that Guarini truly found his voice. Like Shadows of the Damned, Murasaki Baby takes place in a world that feels genuinely wonky and odd, immediately putting the player on the back foot but also, crucially, offering levity and an essentially human message rather than simply hitting generically 'surreal' notes.
It's also a game that uses the player's inherent position of power to create a sense of oppressive responsibility, made particularly potent by the use of the Vita's touchscreen to drag the titular Baby about by the hand and swat away those who would do her harm. It remains a jewel in the Vita's catalogue, and the fact that it could not be easily ported to another system speaks to the quality of its design. But was a platform exclusive the wisest choice for Ovosonico's first release?
“When we started working on Murasaki Baby, the PS Vita was about to be released,” Guarini recalls. “And, as it happens with any new platform, I remember there was a quite enthusiastic expectation in terms of potential reach. It turned out that wasn’t the case.”
And so Guarini has found himself with the dubious honour of having directed two games that could be fairly described as 'hidden gems', the kind of titles that turns up on listicles of great games you never played. Furthermore, while receiving high praise from those who really loved the games, neither Shadows of the Damned nor Murasaki Baby achieved anything approaching widespread critical acclaim. “Whenever you do something slightly different or unorthodox, and that’s true for any media form, there’s a high chance critics are going to be divided,” says Guarini. “I am simply not personally interested anymore in the narrow selection of genres and subjects offered by the mainstream market. I feel there’s so much more we can explore and say, and it’s our responsibility and duty as creators to expand our audience and tackle all sorts of different subjects.”
Ovosonico's next game, the 505 Games-published Last Day of June, will hope to find a larger audience when it launches on PC and PlayStation 4 on August 31st. It's another different kind of experience from Guarini, its narrative concerning a bereaved husband attempting to influence the past in order to save his late wife, but from certain angles it also feels like a natural next step after Murasaki Baby. Protagonist Carl's quest to be reunited with his wife looks like a more nuanced evolution of Baby's search for her mother, the narrative once again relayed wordlessly, and the eyeless figures of Last Day of June embody Guarini's fascination with characters that are noticeably human-like but have certain key features twisted.
“I don’t feel any sort of empathy for perfectly shaped characters, perfect body features,” explains Guarini. “They look like androids, shallow dolls to me, not even human. When I feel there’s something wrong with someone or something, that’s when my interest in him/her/it raises the most. I want to know more. I feel somehow closer to them.”
Of all the lessons he learned in Japan, one particularly stands out: “There’s a Japanese proverb that says 'Ishi no ue nimo san-nen',” says Guarini. “It literally means, 'Even the coldest rock will get warm if sat on for three years'. It refers to the idea that perseverance prevails.” He remembers the development of Shadows of the Damned, when he “clicked right away” with Suda51 but took a full six months to win the trust of Mikami. Last Day of June may be a big success or not but, in the fact of its existence and imminent release, it shows that proverb still ringing true for Massimo Guarini.