Fumito Ueda and the Long Road to The Last Guardian

By Andy Humphreys

This week finally sees the release of The Last Guardian, the long-gestating next game from celebrated video game auteur Fumito Ueda. It’s the culmination of almost a decade of development and bears all the hallmarks of Ueda’s trademark style, a style that has garnered a great many admirers during his career.

Even though The Last Guardian has itself seen almost a decade of work, its story begins with its lead developer’s first steps into video games development a few years earlier. Fumito Ueda made the transition from aspiring artist to games designer in the late 1990s, eventually joining Sony in 1997. Having previously only worked as a contributor to other projects, this was the first time he had been given a team of his own. He began right away on the game that would shape his thematic direction for years to come: Ico.

The story of a young outcast imprisoned in a castle, and the daughter of a queen he encounters there and vows to protect, Ico was Ueda’s exploration of the classic ‘boy-meets-girl’ story. He wanted the game to focus in on this simple idea, with the design following a minimalist approach that would accentuate the importance of the central relationships involved. This minimalism stretches to the dialogue -- Ico, the boy, and Yorda, the girl he meets, communicate rarely, and always in a fictional language. Ueda’s emphasis on exploring relationships as a core dynamic of game design would develop into a recurring theme within his work.

Ico wasn’t just ambitious in its concept. Ueda’s uncompromising pursuit of his original vision led to his team (named ‘Team Ico’) pushing the boundaries of what was possible on home consoles at the time. Fringe graphical techniques such as bloom lighting were used to construct Ico’s world and tell its remarkably poignant story. Team Ico’s penchant for outpacing contemporary technology led to the game’s transition from the original Playstation console to the PlayStation 2 mid-way through development in what would be the start of a long tradition of Sony indulging Ueda’s uncompromising personality.

Though the game was a commercial flop, especially in North America, it was a critical darling, making many influential game-of-the-year lists, and ultimately confirming its status as a cult classic. The way it eschewed gaming conventions and defied genre pigeonholing gained it attention, and set the tone for future Ueda releases. Its strong aesthetic also led to it being promoted as an example of games-as-art, and it is still held in high regard today for what it achieved.

After Ico, Ueda wasted no time moving his team onto a new project, which was initially assumed to be a direct sequel to their original release. As development progressed though, it was clear that the Ueda intended the links between the two games to be purely thematic.

In Shadow Of The Colossus, the protagonist, Wander, battles the titular giants to restore a loved one, Mono, back to life. As with Ico, the story and characters’ motivations were left intentionally vague and symbolic. From the outset, Ueda had a very particular style of game in mind to explore the relationships he saw as paramount to the story. Rather than battling multiple smaller enemies, all the while building up to larger ‘boss’ fights in a pattern familiar to gamers, Ueda was adamant he wanted the only enemies in the game to be the Colossi. Not only did this create a system of gameplay unique to his game, but it would also allow Team Ico to focus all their attention on the Colossi themselves.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Team Ico again pushed current technologies to their absolute limits, with cutting edge effects such as motion blur and partial high dynamic range rendering used to achieve the very specific aesthetic Ueda was becoming known for.

The game was released on Playstation 2 in 2005 to a wildly positive critical reception, and improved on the modest sales of the previous title, Ico, thanks in part to a weightier marketing push from Sony this time around. Ueda’s thoughts immediately turned to starting a new project, and it was a surprising aspect of Shadow Of The Colossus that had sparked an idea.

Although gamers certainly empathized with the game’s central plot, Wander’s quest to revive Mono, a significant proportion had felt a definite connection with Wander’s horse, Agro. This empathic relationship was no doubt as a result of the care and attention that Team Ico had devoted to rendering him in-game, born out of Ueda’s fascination with how players interact with AI companions.

Rather than a simply a function of the story, as was the case in Ico with Yorda, and in Colossus with Agro, Ueda this time sought to make the relationship between a central character and a non-speaking, AI-controlled animal the central tenet of the game. He wanted to produce an emotional reaction from his audience by having the player live this relationship in-game.

And so, The Last Guardian’s premise was born.

Ueda envisaged a boy who befriends an unusual, feathered dog-like creature, Trico, with the pair helping each other by solving puzzles and surmounting challenges, their relationship developing over time.

Work began on the game, codenamed Project Trico, in 2007, with it being released on the current Playstation 3 console. Ueda, mindful of the protracted development times of his previous games, voiced a preference that his latest project be finished in a relatively short space of time, and in 2009 the team did at least have a completed chunk to show at E3. Ueda’s optimistic sentiment would, nevertheless, go on to prove painfully ironic.

Years passed, but despite company president Shuhei Yoshida’s private concerns that the game’s development was not continuing at a fast enough pace, Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide remained faithful that Ueda’s vision would be fulfilled.

But Team Ico was struggling. They were a small studio even amongst Sony’s own in-house developers, and the ambition of the project was starting to take its toll. Another familiar problem had also begun to rear its head. It was becoming increasingly clear that Ueda’s vision for the game was not possible with the hardware available. The Playstation 3 was simply not powerful enough, a fact illustrated by a later admission from Yoshida that the game showcased in 2009’s demo has been doctored, its frame rate increased to counteract a chugging performance on Playstation 3.

An uncertain few years followed, during which Sony stepped in to try to fix their perceived issues with the game. Other development teams from within the company were sent to work with Team Ico to try to improve the game’s performance, but their work saw no significant improvement by 2012 when Sony was preparing the PlayStation 4 for launch. In a decision which Ueda has stated had little to do with him or his team, Sony moved to retool the game for optimization for their imminent console

Fumito on the right

Fumito on the right

It was about this time that Ueda left Sony. He would later convey that he disagreed with the idea that The Last Guardian could never have been a Playstation 3 game, saying that the game was close to running on that console’s hardware. He did not, however, outrightly state that disagreements surrounding Sony’s decision to take the game away from his studio were the reason for his departure. He cited instead a feeling of crisis at Sony’s decision to delay the game as one that prevailed through the team.

Former members of Team Ico scattered around the world of games development, some joining new projects, others starting their own ventures. Ueda, along with a few of his former staff, founded a new developer, genDESIGN.

But Ueda’s association with The Last Guardian would not end there. Ever the man driven by his singular vision, Ueda found he just could not leave the game in hand other than his own. He opted to work alongside Sony’s Japan Studio, the team the company had put in charge of the game’s development, to finish the game and maintain his artistic direction. The arrangement had genDESIGN working on creative content, while Japan Studio handled the coding. Ueda, of course, retained creative oversight on the entire project.

Ueda has stated that the release version of The Last Guardian is indeed faithful to his initial concept for the game. In the end, through his own determination, and despite the protracted nature of its development, Fumito Ueda has once again managed to release a game that holds true to his initial vision with few compromises. This auteur’s dedication to his art is incredibly rare in an industry where games created under the banner of a large publisher are steered by corporate decisions and developed by massive teams.

Now, with the newfound autonomy that comes from stepping away from Sony, it will be interesting to see how this remarkable man applies his considerable creative talents in the future.

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