‘The Last Guardian’ and the Fear of Heights

Photo credit: Sony Interactive Entertainment

Recently, I referred to videogames as “braille”, with their own “alphabet and glossolalia.” This to illustrate why people alien to the medium ought to put their insouciance to a field test, and also to communicate the notion of the videogame as more than micro reflex and mental exercise. An incredibly complicated, oft confused, but always escalating art form.

We’re long past films as a comparison, whether we’ve accepted it hardly a relevant footnote in lieu of there possibly not being any to make. We can emphasize, surely, with our prior temptations here, even if we acknowledge them misguided; though we must, I think, finally cease looking outward. Because games both belie and beget comparison—metaphor especially. None quite fit, so we set the star in the space of the circle and ignore the gaps. Or we break the star, and gain the circle by subtraction, but in doing so lose the characterizing points.

Though The Last Guardian has company in Final Fantasy XV, Beyond Good & Evil 2 and other abyssal development stories, the wait for Ueda’s third in particular has been like the wait in line for Space Mountain: it seems to go on forever, most of it is spent outside in heartless rays, all the while a steady drum of dreamlike thirst for every rumoured shade or breeze compels your winding shuffle forward. At some point you’re siphoned indoors, you can’t see the ride itself, but hear the faint clicks of the safety bars lower to some lucky, smiling fools’ waists, the sharp intake of breath before takeoff, a teaspoon of laughter and surprise, maybe regret. You’ve already waited so long; at this point you’ll just be happy to be seated, off your marshmallowed feet.

In The Last Guardian‘s scenario, there are no telling sounds, no guarantor of your riding this ride, and more importantly, to what end. You don’t just care to sit this time: you’re afraid it won’t take you high enough to drop through some necessary o-zone of yourself. You’re not afraid of heights, but of the ones you so want reached.

As it happens, director Fumito Ueda intends the game to instill a fear of verticality, the “psychological stress” of traversal over precarious ground which at times is no ground at all. The collective surprise felt at this year’s re-reveal and in-game demonstration was in part at how retained this design goal—in the sheer misty scale of the ruins which act as the game’s setting, the boarded architectures on stilts whose maximum weight is you, plus a friend.

This is all well and good. And it’s a goliath relief all its own to have the purported vision revealed as not just a vision constructed to seem like more. Or what’s known as a lie, if euphemism happens to be an allergen for you.

Yes, we can relax, let our shoulders fall, and know time hasn’t passed The Last Guardian by, even if it appears instead to have frozen it.

And I don’t know why I do this to myself, but I watch the new video and, as thrilled as it makes me, as much as I just want to wrap my arms around myself in private glee, I worry on this. I can’t help but be nonplussed at not only the lack of progress visually (the original 2009 reveal, though we now know it was a sped-up recording of the game, looked arguably better), but at both Sony and Ueda’s unconcern over it. No doubt the publisher wants badly to see returns at this juncture, but why pass up the chance to wow? Wow sells systems, and verisimilitude sells worlds, dots i’s and crosses t’s.

I’d like to phrase my smaller concerns here as silly, superfluous, but I don’t know that there’s relevance in proportion when voicing concerns. And for me it starts with the Trico creature itself. As soon as she emerged in a rumbling gait through the stone archway, I noticed she had pinched in mass, which at side profile makes her resemble rat more than dog/cat/griffin, or more than she used to. Okay, it is silly, but as aesthetics go, I find there’s something more majestic about her old design, more manifest of power.

Photo credit: Sony Interactive Entertainment

It’s possible Trico could grow over the course of the game, which would be interesting. I do get, and have since the start, the impression she and the boy are only in this together for a brief time, but this is only an impression, and perhaps witnessing the creature become more weathered and tried over the course of a longer period, as happened with Wander in Shadow of the Colossus, could serve to similarly embolden the emotional aims of the narrative, whatever those may be. (Ueda’s given vague versions, but I suspect and hope he’s kept some gently hostage.)

One visual remnant which has gone completely unchanged (to my eye) is the boy’s design, the quasi cell-shaded, comparatively exaggerated or cartoon-like appearance and movement. In hindsight, this dissonance was present in Shadow of the Colossus also, but Wander’s more elaborate outfit—the number of layers, the patterns, the muted grey/brown’s—probably did a lot of work to smooth him into his surroundings, and onto the colossi themselves. Wander was also much older than this boy, so he moved without the burden of awkwardness by manufacture.

In The Last Guardian, Trico looks and animates with much greater sophistication and realism than the colossi (though I’m still amazed at Shadow‘s execution even today), and the boy’s stark white robe creates a jarring, nagging discordance, almost as if a paper figure has been superimposed on the game world. Again, this is minor in light of the game’s ambitions, but again, have Ueda and his team—as in the case of the overall dated visual fidelity—accepted this as collateral at this point? A ‘would-be-nice-but’ and not a quirk to necessarily correct? It’d be a surprise to hear they were unaware of this critique, given it’s as old as the game’s been public. The team has worked so hard to sell the game’s world and Trico itself as believable, and has otherwise pushed so much for coherence, it’s perplexing and out of character, frankly, to miss these arguably small, but largely consequential betrayals of those efforts.

Photo credit: Sony Interactive Entertainment

One area we should all disabuse ourselves of worry over is the sound design. With every viewing of the E3 demonstration, even while I scrutinize the rest of the presentation to death, I am struck by the veracity of the sounds, the commitment to translations of gravity, weight, the collision of echo against wall. They, along with the swells in ambiance and the score, act both as burn and balm, heating or cooling the scene when necessary; the whine and lurch of the catwalks aid the sense of history. It’s so good it often steals my attention from what’s visually animate and provides an intimation of the game’s emotional tempo, be it serenity, menace, urgency, or relief. Ah, relief.

The Last Guardian‘s glossolalia can itself be heard. Sounds of “yobai”, “dewku”, “eyiff” as spoken by the boy, which we’ve since learned are commands for Trico. Eventually, when the game is playable to the public, we’ll know what words these noises approximate. For now, we twiddle, and dawdle, and fill the next year the same way we have the last six. For so long the braille of this game has felt formless, like an endless string of ellipses, to again recycle my own words from weeks past. Eventually it will take shape for more than just its creative.

My introduction was incomplete, I admit. Videogames are not only ‘oft confused’. They are often, the ambitious ones most of all, failures. Some partial, others total, but as I’ve expressed, the distinction not great. No other medium’s footing is as precarious, and for every ascension and new plateau, there are falls and falls more, the gradient unceasingly stubborn and slippery, the world outside neutral toward this progress.

I failed myself to say how individual games—not just as a collective—are their own form, with their own language, each endeavoring toward its own desired altitude. I don’t worry about The Last Guardian in an ultimate sense; Ueda has produced what I consider to be two masterpieces. I’m confident he and the team at genDesign would not release a game functionally uncooperative or perforated, which is why I’ve neglected to worry if Trico, in all her complexity, will break the experience in existence because of, and in orbit around, her.

But I fear disappointment. I fear it because it can draw oxygen from any atmosphere, and at every rise, because so many of my biggest disappointments in this medium have been delivered in good—even great—works. It’s not especially kind to hold creators to (near) impossible standards, but it is a kind of respect—the highest, if you’re asking me. The expectation these heights will be reached is not always unreasonable or delusion, self-fulfilling or otherwise, but the belief those responsible have it in them to leap as far, to climb as high. To have us, once we’ve begun, forget the line.

Photo credit: Sony Interactive Entertainment