Shoot first, ask questions later
Finishing The Last Guardian would be folly, says Steven Poole
It might mean more to many of us if The Last Guardian remained the eternal Crystal Palace of videogames
One hundred years from now, thanks to advances in human rejuvenation science, the artist Fumito Ueda will still be alive, and will shock audiences at the 2115 E3 trade show by appearing in public for the first time in 73 years, sporting an enormous beard. The massive reveal will be that he’s still developing The Last Guardian, having had to port the code to dozens of new platforms in succession without ever quite finishing it because none could fulfil his vision. Until now. At last, totally immersive direct-brain-stimulation technology will allow players to smell the powerfully musty odours of the giant feathers on their helpful cat-bird animal, and The Last Guardian will definitely be out some time in the following year, or perhaps decade.
For all of our sakes, I hope this is what actually happens. And I say this as someone who believes that Ueda’s most recent finished work, Shadow Of The Colossus, is one of the greatest videogames ever made. When I spoke about it at a conference in Vienna way back around the time The Last Guardian was announced, I also played a clip of the then-current demo – so astonishing it was back then! – by way of shaming basically everything else that was going on in the medium. I’ve been wanting to play The Last
Guardian ever since. And yet I also hope it will never be released.
Not, mind you, because there was anything wrong with the new demo at this year’s E3. It looked as beautiful and moving as ever before, and still years ahead, in terms of affective aesthetics, of anything else. Some archly unimpressed commenters, of course, immediately laid into it, complaining that the human-animal interactions were obviously scripted. It is rather odd how ‘scripted’ has come to be a term of abuse in videogame commentary. We don’t complain that interminable scenes of FMV dialogue are scripted, but heaven help a game that decides a particular action beat should happen in a particular way for dramatic effect. In using ‘scripted’ negatively in this way, we imply that we want always to be in control and able to affect the action in any way we please. Yet we cannot affect all the manifold rules, assumptions, and mise-en-scène that frame the game’s action and constitute its underlying laws of nature. Taken together, those elements are a much more constrictive overarching ‘script’ in themselves.
The script of The Last Guardian, in this wider sense, is evidently a thing of beauty. But maybe it is too good for this world. If the game is ever released, there are bound to be slight defects – fiddly positioning, camera issues – of the kind we forgive in lesser videogames, but that it would be hard to forgive in this one, precisely because it promises to be so ethereally perfect.
The Last Guardian, then, will arguably do the game industry as a whole immeasurably more service if it remains in the quasi-Platonic realm of endless development, and so can remain forever unblemished in our heads, a model that merely completed games must always humbly acknowledge. It ought to continue playing the role, for players and developers alike, of an unrealistic aspiration, much like the Crystal Palace in Dostoyevsky’s novel Notes From Underground.
In that novel, the Crystal Palace represents a social utopia. “The palace of crystal may be an idle dream,” the narrator says. “It may be that it is inconsistent with the laws of nature and that I have invented it only through my own stupidity, through the old-fashioned irrational habits of my generation. But what does it matter to me that it is inconsistent? That makes no difference since it exists in my desires, or rather exists as long as my desires exist.” Any attempt to actually build the Crystal Palace, however, would betray its ideals and become an ugly, all-too-solid thing at which Dostoyevsky’s anti-hero would probably feel compelled to stick out his tongue. Its purpose is to remain forever conceptual.
I cannot pretend to know whether such considerations have sometimes occurred to Fumito Ueda himself as he has wrestled for the better part of a decade with his glorious vision. And for the sake of human sympathy, we must also hope that he does complete his work, and that it earns the success that he deserves. Even so, it might mean even more to many of us if The Last Guardian remained the eternal Crystal Palace of videogames, gesturing in the most haunting way at an unrealisable vision, sustaining nothing less than all our desires.