The importance of 'The Last Guardian'—as I'd explain it to my dad
As far as I know, you’ve never played videogames once in your life. I must be wrong. You were a young man when videogames started appearing, in bars and bowling alleys and whatever public spaces were used for before video arcades came and went.
You must have accidentally played one of the early arcade games. Pong, maybe, or Space Invaders, or surely Pac-Man. You have friends who pride themselves on being technologically forward; surely one of your buddies purchased an Atari just for the heck of it. My childhood memories of you relaxing are memories of you watching sports, so maybe there was some moment in your late 20s or early 30s when someone described videogames to you as “video sports,” or “robo sports,” or “Sports Like On Television But You Control The Players.”
Barring some insanely well-kept secret life, though, you’ve never played a videogame in my lifetime. Ironic, because my lifetime is the lifetime of videogames as a popular thing. I was born in 1985, the same year that Super Mario Brothers brought the Nintendo to North America. (I’m pretty sure you still think all videogames are Nintendo, which is literally wrong but figuratively a fair aesthetic argument.) I have wanted to play videogames for as long as I can remember. You guys bought me a Game Boy when I turned 6. To you, it must have seemed like a toy. Did you think that, by the time I grew up, everyone would carry a very thin, very expensive Game Boy in their pocket?
So you probably don’t care about videogames. And you probably don’t care that my favorite videogame ever is Shadow of the Colossus. What goes through your mind, when you hear those words: “Shadow of the Colossus”? That’s not what things were titled when you were a kid. Or anyhow, it’s not what great things were titled when you were a kid. Shadow of the Colossus sounds different from The Great Gatsby and Lawrence of Arabia and Death of a Salesman and whatever other cultural shorthand for “Greatest Thing Ever” you and I can both understand.
Does it help, though, if I say that I think Shadow of the Colossus is the videogame version of all of those things? If I explain that—like Lawrence of Arabia—it’s an epic adventure story about a man driven to heroism that winds up looking a bit like madness? And if I further explain that—like The Great Gatsby—it’s the story of a man who will do anything for love, even if it means his own oblivion? And it’s not really anything like Death of a Salesman, but maybe if you and I knew or cared about ballet, I could explain how Shadow of the Colossus is like watching the Bolshoi Theatre perform Swan Lake—a beautiful dance of light and music and forms moving. Maybe it makes more sense if I describe Shadow of the Colossus in vaguely athletic terms: It’s like hunting, but every time you find the animal, you need to learn how to play a new sport.
I’m burying the lede only because I can’t imagine anything I’m about to say will make sense to you. Shadow of the Colossus is a game where you play a man on a mission. You have arrived in a mysterious and empty land, riding a noble horse, carrying the apparently dead body of the woman you love. You go to a bleak and grand temple—remember the Temple of Dendur in the Met? Imagine it’s the size of a skyscraper.
Inside that temple, a spirit speaks to you. Maybe a demon. It says that, if you want to bring your beloved back to life, you have to wander around this land, find sixteen monsters, and kill them.
You ride away from the temple; you track down the first monster, because your sword shines sunlight in the direction you’re supposed to go, because videogames. The first monster looks like the Minotaur, like from Theseus. It is gigantic. Usually, in videogames, you kill monsters by shooting them, or by throwing magic at them. You have to climb on this guy. It’s like you’re stabbing a mountain through the heart. And when you kill the monster, sad music plays, and a cloud of ethereal black fog appears over the monster’s body, and one tendril of fog attacks you, and there’s a sound like a back breaking, and you fall unconscious.
You wake up back in the Temple, ready to go again. There are 15 more monsters, each of them weirder-looking than the last. There’s one that looks like a giant turtle, one that resembles a giant bird, one that patrols a deep cave, one that floats over a desert like an Earthworm for clouds.
Does this sound weird to you? Can I explain how unusual this was in 2005? Games right then had stories, supporting characters, vibrant worlds filled with things to interact with. Shadow of the Colossus came out about a year after Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, a videogame which let you drive around relatively real-looking versions of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Las Vegas. And I’m not going to get into how Grand Theft Auto isn’t just a game about shooting people and taking their money, because you’re a fundamentally very moral person, so if I tried to explain how Grand Theft Auto is only like 35 percent a game about shooting people and taking their money, you would rightfully wonder what I do with myself 35 percent of the time.
Shadow of the Colossus is empty. At a time when most videogames tried to present the imitation of a vibrant world, it is a desolate landscape, like visiting the ruins of a civilization so ruined that nobody bothered building a museum in their honor. And I mean “empty” in every way. Because most videogames go out of their way to establish you, the player, as the “good guy.”
And weirdly—given that I’m guessing you think most videogames are just Ms. Pac-Man chasing ghosts and Super Mario eating mushrooms to fight frogs—most videogames actually have too much story. Imagine if one of the books you’ve read by Ernest Hemingway was ten times longer, and every character talked too much about themselves, and occasionally someone fired a rocket launcher and the main character had a self-aware sidekick who said things like “Looks like the fun stuff is about to start” in that weird tone of sneering sarcasm that makes everyone sound like a skateboarder.
Compared to that, Shadow of the Colossus is an actual Ernest Hemingway novel. You reach a point in the game where you start to wonder why you are doing what you are doing. But you keep doing it, because it’s fun. You wonder if that’s what it feels like to be a bad guy.
The game is a fantasy, and I know that you don’t care much about the fantasy genre. It must be so weird to you, to live in a world where half the pop cuture looks like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or Superman comic books or Star Trek. But for a kid my age, fantasy is practically the defining genre. (Maybe even moreso for people younger than me; a kid born 10 years after me was raised on Harry Potter and then Twilight and then The Hunger Games, carrying them from youthful exuberance through sexual awakening into anti-authoritarian cynicism, which is what ages 10-20 were like for me.) So you have to understand that, for a kid my age, Shadow of the Colossus felt like the better version of every fantasy story I’d ever heard—at once smaller-scale and more epic, with a mysterious world that never really gets explained.
So: That’s Shadow of the Colossus. It was made by a guy named Fumito Ueda. A few years earlier, he made the videogame Ico, which was set in a roughly equivalent worldscape. If Shadow of the Colossus is Lawrence of Arabia, maybe Ico is Bridge on the River Kwai. Except imagine both movies were made by Walt Disney, and they had no dialogue. Am I making these games sound terrible? Can you trust me that they’re really good?
Shadow of the Colossus was critically beloved and it sold decently well. Not great good. Not as good as anything called Call of Duty. But I’m sure you’re familiar with the idea that the very best things usually don’t make the most money. It’s not like people have to be adventurous. I just turned 30 and I don’t want to ever try caring about new music anymore. I can understand how you’ve gone an entire epoch of world history without playing videogames.
For the people who did play Shadow of the Colossus, it felt like a vision of the future. I imagine it’s sort of like what people your age felt when the Beatles got weird: When “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” gave way to “A Day in the Life.” I realize suddenly that I have no idea if you like “A Day in the Life,” or if you even noticed when the Beatles got weird; most of my early music memories with you are of listening to Jimmy Buffett. To put this more simply: Everyone who played Shadow of the Colossus was excited for another game that would feel just like Shadow of the Colossus.
And Fumito Ueda was definitely working on a follow-up. We knew that semi-officially way back in 2007, and then there was actual video footage of the game in 2009. The game’s title would be The Last Guardian, and it appeared to star a young boy and his animal pal: a very large bird-dog-cat with a prehensile tail. And then, nothing happened.
This isn’t uncommon in videogames. Because you have a healthy relationship to pop culture, I’m pretty sure that you usually learn about the existence of a movie when you see it during the trailers before another movie. Imagine that you watched the trailer for that movie two years before that movie’s release date; now imagine that the movie’s release date got pushed back another two years; now imagine that, during those four years of waiting, you check news updates every day on the movie’s progress, and once every six months you hear that they fired the movie’s director, and all your friends keep telling you that the movie is definitely not coming out or definitely is coming out next year and it will definitely be great and it will definitely suck. That is what it’s like to be a videogame fan.
And The Last Guardian got pushed back further. And while The Last Guardian got pushed back, videogames… changed. I don’t think anyone has quite captured the totality of that change, because the changes have been so frequent and so all-encompassing. When Shadow of the Colossus came out, games were seen as a very trendy emerging art form and a very lucrative corner of the entertainment world. That was before everyone started playing tiny videogames on their iPhones—Game Boys, see?—and before people started talking about “the casual gamer.”
Like, have you heard of Angry Birds? Can you understand that Angry Birds is hugely popular, and that its popularity represented a weirdly personal refutation of everything that made Shadow of the Colossus great? I’m trying to think of a comparison that makes sense. The mind runs to gourmet food vs. fast food, but that feels judge-y—and after all, I played a lot of Angry Birds. The only comparison I can think of is probably one you won’t get: Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, saying that the old movie stars were always big, but the pictures got small.
So The Last Guardian started to grow a mystique. In its absence, we could imprint a whole assortment of impossible traits. The Last Guardian started to feel like a missing link, or maybe the last vestige of what videogames used to be. Dylan’s basement tapes. The missing scenes from The Magnificent Ambersons. Or like speaking in our family’s terminology, imagine there were five Jimmy Buffett songs just as good as “Margaritaville,” but nobody could find the recordings, but everyone was pretty sure they would find them soon.
And it’s important to mention that, while The Last Guardian wasn’t getting released, some of the changes in the videogame world were great! A decade after Shadow of the Colossus, there’s a really vibrant and energetic culture of independent videogames, which cost less and don’t last as long and sometimes look like art projects but usually look like the games I grew up with (which, after all, were also cheaper and shorter than the Big Games of Today). A lot of these games actually feel a little bit like Shadow of the Colossus. (I actually think you’d really dig Journey, because you really enjoy walking to places, and Journey is just walking to places with scarves.) There were great videogames that came out in the last 10 years that felt nothing like Shadow of the Colossus.
And you might wonder if all the excitement for The Last Guardian was a weird kind of nostalgia. Most videogames become franchises, which means they inevitably cough up disappointing sequels—and even if the sequels aren’t disappointing, you hit the point when you’re playing your eighth or ninth Legend of Zelda game when you suddenly realize that none of the games will ever feel quite as fun as they felt when you were a kid. Maybe because everything seemed brand-new back then. (Maybe because everything actually was better when you were a kid, no matter what your kids might counter-argue.) But because there was no follow-up to Shadow of the Colossus, it could remain pristine in our memory. And The Last Guardian became an even-more pristine counterpart: the better version, not to be ruined by anything as vulgar as actually existing.
But apparently The Last Guardian will exist now. Sony announced yesterday that it will come out in 2016. This is incredibly exciting news and also terrifying news. Exciting, because this is a new game from the creator of two of the greatest games ever. Terrifying, because The Last Guardian has been a hopeful abstraction for a very long time, and now it is going to become an actual concrete thing—possibly a concrete thing that was conceived a long time ago, in an industry that prides itself on always being five minutes ahead of now.
Maybe The Last Guardian will be some missing link between the old videogame reality and the new one. Maybe it will be the best game of 2008. Maybe it will look old and stitched-together and embarrassing. (When we have 10 hours, remind me to explain Duke Nukem Forever.) It will probably look like something out of time. I doubt you’ll ever play it. But at least now you know: It’s something.