Final Fantasy XV and The Last Guardian are almost here (hopefully)
Within a month, two of gaming’s greatest mysteries will take the veil off for good. Final Fantasy XV and The Last Guardian, two games with famously tortured creations will be released (at least, we hope), and we will finally get to play these two titles. The wait for these hotly anticipated releases was similar; the stories behind those waits share a lot of common threads, but the reactions of the development team to issues that cropped up over the past decade were very different. From the similarities and differences alike we can glean some key insights into the philosophy driving both The Last Guardian and Final Fantasy XV forward, as well as an interesting microcosm of the gaming sphere today.
In 2005, Shadow of the Colossus had just released to much critical acclaim. The game’s director, Fumito Ueda, who had also created Ico, wanted to create a game based around the emotional attachment formed between Shadow of the Colossus players and Agro, the main character’s horse. Ironically, he stated in an interview with IGN that he also wanted to “create something good in a short period of time“, which clearly did not go as planned. The game has struck many people as a smorgasbord of elements from both Shadow of the Colossus and Ico, and Ueda has made it clear that this was his intent from the outset. Pieces and parts from Team Ico’s beloved backlog of two games have been used to create The Last Guardian. The environmental design creates levels that would be right at home in Ico, though it is clear that the work put into making the act of jumping satisfying during Shadow of the Colossus has been duly noted and utilized. These elements, however, are just tools to better represent the heart of the game: the relationship between the boy and Trico.
In interviews, Ueda’s love for Trico shows through. Though we cannot be totally sure of how much time is spent on each element of the game, it’s a safe bet that most of Ueda’s team at GenDesign’s time has been used make Trico as communicative and lifelike as possible. In the same interview with IGN, Ueda said that “We want the players to understand for themselves by looking at Trico’s expression,” in regards to the emotions of the creature. This seems to be where some of the issues in getting the game out expediently have cropped up.
There have never been any illusions as to the nature of The Last Guardian’s roadblocks; they are technical all the way through. The game began development shortly after the launch of the PS3, but the process was going lethargically enough that, come 2012, the fateful decision was made that the PS3 market would be too small upon the game’s launch and that the best option was to shift the title onto Sony’s upcoming PS4. According to Shuhei Yoshida, president of Sony’s worldwide studio, The Last Guardian’s tech team had to rebuild “anew the fundamentals of the game engine” which, if you hadn’t heard, takes time. Developers from across the world, such as the PS4’s lead architect Mark Cerny, were dispatched to look at the way the game was built and improve how it ran. While the technical kinks were being worked out, little of the actual creative processes could go on. In other words, the content of the game could not be worked on extensively until the build of The Last Guardian was solid on the new hardware.
The game was central to a shifting landscape again when director Fumito Ueda left Japan Studio with some of his hand-picked designers to form the external studio GenDesign. Ultimately, this had less implications for The Last Guardian than one might expect, as the small team at GenDesign handled the more artistic elements of the game, such as character design and animation, while the much bigger crew at Japan Studio was left to implement all of GenDesign’s ideas and figure out how it was going to work once players got a disc in their console. Such was the setting for The Last Guardian’s re-reveal in 2015, the setting of its release date as October 25, and its subsequent delay to December 6.
In 2006, Final Fantasy Versus XIII was announced at E3 as a spin off of Final Fantasy XIII which, it is worth noting, would not release for another three years. Though its hard to judge what the exact vision for the game was all the way back in 2006, we do know a few things in terms of large concepts. The director at the time, Tetsuya Nomura of Kingdom Hearts fame, was looking to take full advantage of Final Fantasy Versus XIII’s spin off status. He said in an interview with Edge gaming that “I don’t simply want to go in an opposite direction to XIII“, but went on to elaborate that “FF XIII belongs to the mainstream tradition; I want to propose another view of how FF could be”. When asked about the different style of combat that he had used in his past games and whether these ideas would be expanded upon in Final Fantasy Versus XIII, he said that “our intention with Versus XIII is to create a much more action-oriented game with intuitive controls“, citing recent 3rd-person shooters as an inspiration in how they created tension and excitement.
After these initial insightful interviews, Final Fantasy Versus XIII became something of a black hole. There was no information on tentative release dates or progress of the game for years, and much of what was going on with the game itself in that time is purely speculation on the part of the fan base. In 2008, the rumor mill was sent spinning when, according to hearsay, progress on Final Fantasy Versus XIII had devolved to a sluggish crawl, or was perhaps halted entirely, so the team could help finish its corresponding mainline entry, Final Fantasy XIII. Square Enix quickly released a statement that this was false, and that “the truth of the situation is that, when free, some members of the Versus team have been helping with members of the XIII team“. The previous rumors were attributed to a mistranslation. I wouldn’t be shocked if there was more than a kernel of truth to this but, regardless, it was interesting foreshadowing for events yet to transpire.
Development chugged along for a few years, but very little came from it. In an 2015 interview at Gamescom, Hajime Tabata said that “Final Fantasy Versus XIII never really took shape“. In 2011, the game was supposedly still in pre-production, with Nomura working on finishing up the character designs and story of the game. The upcoming release of Sony’s PlayStation 4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One were the straw that broke Versus XIII’s back, and major changes were underway. The game was moved to those consoles and rebranded as Final Fantasy XV the next year. In the same 2015 interview, Tabata said that “Overall, when we changed over from Versus XIII to XV, we look at all the elements that were intended to be in Versus XIII and the plan for that game, and how these would fit into the new plan as FFXV“. With the relatively low amount of information doled out in regards to Versus XIII, there’s a lot of guesswork regarding what those elements are, though we know parts of the story itself were changed. The biggest element that we know was altered to fit into the framework of Final Fantasy XV was the character of Stella, who was featured opposite Noctis in early Versus XIII trailers. After the rebranding, Stella no longer fit into the vision, but was reworked into the character of Luna seen in most of the recent Final Fantasy XV trailers. Tabata also altered the structure of the team, doing away with a traditional Japanese work-place hierarchy and putting everyone on equal footing. From this, Final Fantasy XV finally got some solid, consistent work. In the four years since restructuring, the game has gone from a tepid pre-production to being launch-ready, though it is hard to judge with so little information precisely how much of Final Fantasy XV is fleshed out bones from Versus XIII.
The Last Guardian and Final Fantasy XV have both gone through development hell and back because of just how hard it for vision to translate into a playable product. Both games have been mired in technical issues, a lot of which were brought about by the switch to the PS4, but the response of the people in charge of these games certainly have differences. In Final Fantasy XV we see the game itself go through a number of changes to fit the new environment and deliver a product that, though inspired by the plans laid out in 2006, is very definitely its own game. In interviews, Tabata has left little room for the imagination in that respect. In The Last Guardian we see a team of people working for a decade to create the original vision as perfectly as possible; in an interview with Kotaku, The Last Guardian’s progenitor says that he “always [makes] a point of reminding myself periodically ‘when I first started this, what was I aiming for?”. Tabata and Ueda are both two men who have been working extremely hard to make the game that they see in their heads a reality and, though these strategies are different in philosophy, they are both getting at the same ends.
Looking at the creation of Final Fantasy XV and The Last Guardian, one sees a similar arc. The game is announced, excitement runs wild. When it goes off the grid, fanbases get trepidatious. After a series of delays, Rumors of cancellation and abandonment abound. The game is reannounced to frenzied excitement at an E3, but is delayed yet again to tie up some loose ends. One of my favorite things about these stories is how they diverge in interesting ways, but this basic arc, and the reaction of those awaiting these games’ respective release dates, are not one of those disparities. It seems that the vitriol caused by each delay is inversely proportional to the excitement at its re-announcement and, after ten years, its hard not to wonder if they’ll release the darn game already. In this comment section of a Kotaku article about the Final Fantasy XV’s change in leadership, it is very clear that some fans have reached there breaking point, with one commenter even calling for the series to be “put out to pasture”. When each of these games went media blackout for periods of years, fans were left to speculate in comment sections across the internet over what was going to happen. At varying points in time there were a number of rumors as to the whereabouts of Final Fantasy XV and The Last Guardian, which ran the gamut from a production halt brought about by other games stalling in development at the company to unadulterated cancellation.
This extended guesswork was not lacking from the actual content of the game either as, particularly in the case of Final Fantasy XV, rabid theorists were having a field day with speculating the story roles of characters found in trailers. In general, I find the relationship between fans and developers to be the biggest takeaway from both The Last Guardian and Final Fantasy XV. Fan’s feedback and expectations have always been a part of games prior to release, but it is exacerbated when that game is in development for ten years. The former part of this relationship was nailed down by Tabata who, when asked in the previously cited Gamescom interview about fans’ worries over the past ten years, responded with the following: “When you release information about a game very early, as it was the case with Versus XIII which is a game that never really took shape, how the information is viewed by the world is very different to what we think. At the moment it goes out into the world, it stops being our thing and becomes something for the fans.”
For all the technical issues and internal changes to both structure and personnel, the story of Final Fantasy XV and The Last Guardian both come down to this connection between the people who make games and those who love them. The Final Fantasy and Team Ico fanbases are among the most devoted in gaming, and as such its only natural that emotions will run as high as expectations when it comes to their upcoming installments. The tangible, verifiable narrative for each game was outlined above and is certainly interesting to dig into, but when I think about the decade-long wait for Final Fantasy XV and The Last Guardian, the emotional narrative is certainly the most memorable part. The cheers when The Last Guardian opened Sony’s E3 in 2015 or when Final Fantasy XV finally had a release date, the jeers when those titles were yet again delayed. There are still so many mysteries surrounding these games but, in two weeks, we’ll all at least know if the wait was worthwhile. Here’s hoping.