/ Leigh Alexander / 12 am Mon, Mar 9 2015
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  • A game you can only dream of playing

    A game you can only dream of playing

    More perfect for being unfinished, The Last Guardian is a a yearning soul-whisper for its sentimental fans, the lost game of a microgeneration.

    Part of the pleasure of being into games is the part about lore and secrets. When we were children we swapped playground rumors about cheat codes, told legends of the bonus stages and endings we were only pretending to have seen. It didn't really matter if the stories were true: The sense of shared hope, expectation, imagination, was all.

    "The Last Guardian" is a lost PlayStation game that's been winging its way through the corridors of myth since it was first announced in 2009, during an E3 conference -- that traditional shrine to must-buy promises in games. Purportedly in development since 2007, the game excited fans because it was to be the latest great sorrow-scape led by Fumito Ueda and his Team ICO.

    The world of home video gaming owes a great debt to that team's previous PlayStation 2 games, ICO and Shadow of the Colossus -- sparse, artful and evocative, they teased at a deeper emotional resonance for commercial games. They taught us players can get attached to an AI if you have their avatars hold hands; they virtually canonized the now-classic final act role reversal within the medium.

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    Expectations are high for Ueda's third project, which promised some of the same kinds of imagery, emotional language. The trailer stars a boy and his stormcloud-colored... gryphon (?), navigating ruins together in what we must presume are charming, perhaps divine trust exercises. Like Shadow of the Colossus' unforgettable horse, the flying creature is probably going to meet tragedy, audiences assume sagely, in a parable about faith and loss.

    Yet over the past six years or so -- a "severe delay" even by the flexible and often complicated standards of commercial game development -- The Last Guardian has languished. Rumors of cancellations, news of some team members departing for other projects (Ueda himself left Sony in 2011), and other delays became common, until all that remained was the annual promise that The Last Guardian is "still in development."

    The latest trickle of news has the games press feverishly studying the nuances of how the US Patent and Trade Office works, as Sony has apparently let its The Last Guardian trademark lapse. But all is still fine, supposedly: Sony will tell us, it promises, if the game is ever canceled.

    The-Last-Guardian The game is nothing but soul-whisper and stardust these days, the stuff of legend, and yet it can still trend on Twitter amid the latest round of trademark banter. There really are fans out there -- and lots of them -- who've been carrying a torch since 2009. Even though by now an entire hardware generation has passed, and many, many games about feelings have swelled in to fill the void. "Maybe I Don't Need The Last Guardian Anymore," Evan Narcisse earnestly reflected at Kotaku last year.

    How great is the audience for an old memory, a half-remembered feeling? What is the commercial market opportunity of a promise? What would it be like if The Last Guardian really were here?

    If you are one of the few and the proud who still longs for the sorrowful atmosphere and textured details -- the leggy protagonists, the sighing dystopian towns -- of the late, great Japanese RPG heyday, put Else Heart.Break() on your radar. The upcoming indie game from Niklas Akerblad, Erik Svedang and team was nominated for an Excellence in Visual Art award at this year's Independent Game Festival.

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