By Sam Greer
After nine years in development, and seven since its announcement, The Last Guardian will finally be released this week. Many of us feel that, however it turns out, the anticipation is one thing - but it only exists because the game’s lineage is something very special indeed.
Way back in 2006 I had an Xbox 360 and was engrossed in all the shiny HD games it had to offer, spending months at the cutting edge of console visuals and online multiplayer. Then one game blew everything it had out of the water. A friend had a Playstation 2 and insisted I borrow his console, just for as long as it took to play a new game I'd barely heard of: Shadow of the Colossus. Passed around between friends, wrapped in promises, it was just that kind of game.
From start to finish, I was simply ecstatic SotC existed. I was convinced this was the start of something, a seismic shift in the kind of games we'd play in the years to follow. It wasn't.
The game is highly-regarded of course. Every time SotC is mentioned, it's usually in the context of best games ever made or something that elevates videogames as a medium - when ‘gamers’ were fulminating against the late Roger Ebert’s claim that games were not art, this was one of the most-used examples. Yet for all the praise heaped on SotC, despite its firm standing as a critical favourite, you will struggle to find a significant trace of it in any game from the decade that followed.
SotC was a follow-up to Ico, the development team's first project and the title that led to the group becoming known as Team Ico. Originally developed for Playstation but eventually released on PS2 (TLG’s delays and platform changes are nothing new), Ico was a humble but striking puzzle-adventure game, about a young boy guiding a girl through a vast fortress haunted by sinister shadows. The hand-holding relationship between the two lead characters was central, putting the player with an AI you absolutely had to work with and care for, and in this struck a chord with the small audience it found. Ico was even more niche than SotC, which outperformed it greatly in sales, but strangely enough it has become the more influential of the two. That might be as much because Ico perceived or preceded that a general trend with games - forming a relationship with an NPC - was also a key goal for other contemporary designers. Prominent studios like Peter Molyneux and Lionhead were working on games like Black & White and Fable, but closer to the current day we can see Ico’s DNA in smaller titles like Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons or Papa & Yo.
By comparison Shadow is the bigger and more obviously exciting of the two, with the Colossi battles based around action and explicit drama. It is itself influenced by adventures like Zelda but has its own formula. You control Wander, a young man who travels to the Forbidden Lands with a stolen sword to slay sixteen colossi, in the hope of resurrecting a girl named Mono. The relationship between the pair is never explained, nor is the history of the Forbidden Lands or the Colossi. A boy on a quest is hardly an original premise but, as with everything, it's all about the execution.
After a short opening cutscene the game gives you control, with instructions to hunt down your first colossus, and you emerge from the central temple out onto the surrounding plains - with Wander’s only companion his horse. I'd never been so lost in a virtual world, and what struck me then and remains startling now is how empty it is. SotC’s art direction paints this world in stark contrasts of light and shadow, littered with long stretches of bare and level ground.
It makes you clutch at the details. A single tree twisted by the wind on a coastal cliff. A shrine with a little pond, alone in a huge stretch of grassy plains. Every return is contemplative, imagining the history and culture that once must have existed here. Cut off from the world save for a single, impossibly slender bridge, it is a desolate vision.
Even at the time building such a massive world to host only a modest scattering of encounters seemed daring. In a medium now over-saturated with immense open-worlds, it's still singular. No game now would create a world like this without stuffing it full of optional activities, icons and busywork. What matters here is the atmosphere and, in this sense, SotC has more in common with the ‘walking simulators’ popular in recent years than its action/adventure successors.
SotC utilises this expanse to pace itself. Not just for tension's sake, with long journeys building the anticipation before the next encounter, but to give room to the player's imagination. In these treks between Colossi your mind naturally roams and the game lets you think, with no demands on your time or attention other than to keep travelling. This meditative quality is a rarity in videogames and, of course, another of the game’s extreme contrasts when set against the intense encounters with Colossi.
These encounters are SotC’s core, and the variety across the Colossi’s designs speaks to an unusual level of craft. It’s hard not to be wowed by the animation, detail and principles that went into creating these titans: Team Ico took something so fantastical and rendered it with real grit, building the Colossi out of rock and fur, with hints of flesh beneath. They are tangible in a way most videogame foes are not.
Any player of SotC remembers their first encounter. Wind whips the mist through a dark valley. There are tremors, then louder tremors, and from behind a set of trees that tower over Wander, a shadow emerges that threatens to burst the screen’s boundaries. Birds fly around its towering height. Humanoid in gait, the creature is indifferent to the awestruck player and walks on, its tremendous footsteps booming across this quiet landscape. I lock the camera onto the creature, and whistle. It pauses then slowly turns, with a startlingly lifelike motion, its head twisting round towards the puny ant trying to attract attention.
More than just spectacle, the Colossi are humongous, organic puzzles. To slay them you have to climb them, by gripping their fur and clambering towards weak points on their body. You have limited stamina to do so, and running out means losing your grip and falling back to earth. Wander is often too small for the Colossi to effectively attack, so they resort to twists and turns trying to shake him off - hanging onto the underside of a gigantic flying serpent as it races through the air, far above a desert, is a thrill like no other. These movements aren't just obstacles but opportunities. Thanks to the innovative physics-based platforming it's possible to use the force of their movements and weight as a means of shortcut. The fifth Colossi, a huge bird, can be beaten quicker with the risky strategy of leaping between the weakpoints at the tip of its wings as they flap.
This style of platforming is unique. Most 3D platforming seems driven towards either recreating 2D retro efforts or creating strict linear paths in 3D space, with our protagonists magnetically grappling to the appropriate surfaces. There’s no room for player error or creativity in Uncharted or the new Tomb Raiders, games devoid of the kind of organic challenge at SotC’s core - but then they're free of the frustrations too, offering easygoing experiences that are gratifying and perfect for anyone seeking chilled-out entertainment after a hard day's work. SotC isn't a punishing game, but it's not afraid of letting the player fail either. It’s hard not to feel that, for every player wowed by the game’s beauties, another found this a barrier to enjoyment. Publishers will always seek the most broadly-appealing solution to any design problems, so perhaps it's a miracle SotC ever existed at all.
Even knowing how to start climbing them in the first place requires you study the Colossi, recognise their behaviours and take advantage of them. An early horse-like Colossus has to be chased into an underground complex of burrows. As it kneels down to peer through the entrance where it last saw you, one way to beat it quickly is to emerge from another entrance, running to leap onto its tail from behind. There are no artificial keys and locked doors here, no squares and square-shaped holes. SotC constructs challenges out of creatures and their habitats, providing you with a subtler kind of puzzling that doesn't just reward observation but encourages you to consider the Colossi as living entities.
It's that kind of interaction that becomes SotC’s major theme. Those journeys between Colossi are made in the company of your trusty steed, Agro. The deft animation extends here too, with Agro adjusting her stance on slopes whilst Wander shuffles himself about in the saddle, a realism never recreated in other games with rideable horses, where they’re often basically four-legged motorbikes. Pressing X has Wander spur Agro on but she's not a machine and won't respond to prompts on cue. She'll steer herself at times, yanking back against the reins, pulling back from drops or ravines and slowing down on precarious paths. For beginners this control scheme might feel frustrating, but it is something profound: over time you come to respect Agro’s ‘personality,’ and understand how best to coax and co-operate with her. This kind of relationship-building was the essence of Ico but its application here is far more subterranean and, in this, naturalistic.
It's one of many parts of SotC that puts artistry over function. Team Ico wants you to think about all of your interactions, and their impact on this virtual world and its other living beings. It's a priority most games don't share, because what sets SotC so far apart and has minimised its influence may well be very simple. It doesn't make us feel good.
Ico might have contained moments of emotional strain, but they were simply moment-to-moment beats in an ultimately-successful rescue mission. Plenty of games have downer moments, but SotC offers no comforts or head-patting to frame your actions. We are compelled to tackle these incredible creatures because the fights themselves are exciting and daring but, when done, the triumph is a melancholy one. We found something awe-inspiring in this world, and destroyed it.
It's a remarkably straightforward game in terms of plot, which somehow makes things even more devastating. You slay the sixteen Colossi but are corrupted by the evil entity they contained. At the final moment this entity’s escape is thwarted by those from whom Wander stole his legendary sword, and Wander himself is killed as collateral damage like all the Colossi he cut down. The girl for which Wander gave everything is resurrected, however, though seemingly trapped forever in the Forbidden Lands, the bridge that connects it to the outside world demolished as your killers flee.
Ambiguity creeps in at the edges, from things the game doesn't tell us. Whether Wander's quests and sacrifice were worth it is entirely up to the player. The nature of the Colossi and the deity connected to them, be it good or evil, is never defined. The Forbidden Lands feel genuinely remote but this isolation offers no comfort. It's a foreboding world, as eerie as it is beautiful.
Games don't aspire to make players feel uncomfortable. They might wish to frighten us, maybe make us fret over the fate of a beloved character, but scarce few are willing to challenge us directly. SotC reminds you at every turn how small you are. In the way the camera pulls away as you ride across the world, framing Wander and Agro against the expansive landscape. In those moments where you lose sight of Wander, hidden somewhere in the shaggy back of an enormous giant. Or when you swim across the surface of a vast, dark lake, light failing to penetrate its depths, knowing that there’s something alive down there.
No wonder that, for The Last Guardian, expectations couldn’t be higher. For those who aren't familiar with TLG’s legacy, and the principles that make SotC special, it may well be an alienating experience. Already there have been some familiar complaints about TLG. An NPC companion that doesn't respond to your every immediate instruction. A hero who's a little clumsy, platforming that's a bit unforgiving. I don't know if it'll be a good game but I do know, and SotC shows, it is sometimes hard to distinguish between a genuine failing and a deviation from our expectations of smooth functionality above all else.
Even if TLG moves forward inches rather than miles from SotC, it'll still be cutting edge - simply because most AAA developers have neither the inclination nor opportunity to craft something so ornery as Wander’s journey. When developers do mention SotC, it usually means “our game has large bosses.” Until now SotC has had no true successors, and remains untarnished by time. In a technology-driven medium, it’s the kind of achievement that deserves more attention.