2016's Tardiest: 'The Last Guardian' and 'Final Fantasy XV'

On one hand, Trico probably didn't eat Noctis' homework. On the other hand, he does eat barrels, so anything is possible.

Dec 26 2016, 4:00pm

Above: Illustration by Gavin Spence.

Welcome to the Waypoint High School Class of 2016 Yearbook. We're giving out senior superlatives to our favorite games, digging into the year's biggest stories via extracurriculars, and following our favorite characters through their adventures together in fanfic. See you in 2017! 

There's one, at least, in every class: The one who's always late for registration, whatever the weather, whenever the date. For me, at secondary school, it was a guy called Paul. "Sorry I'm late, the bus was late" was a refrain repeated to the point where it moved beyond childish parody into an essential stitch in the fabric of time itself; to not hear it of a morning was to feel an imbalance in the universe.

Paul went on to be head boy at that school, and later a lawyer. He's done okay for himself, despite forever showing up after the bell had rung. And in 2016's gaming landscape, two titles stand out as being both overdue and emerging perhaps better than anyone could have realistically anticipated. Their tardiness hasn't cost them, much.

Final Fantasy XV is a game with a long history. Development began in 2006, kind of. Back then, what would ultimately become the fifteenth standalone Final Fantasy was going by the title of Final Fantasy Versus XIII, directed by Tetsuya Nomura, who'd worked on the series since 1991's fourth entry proper. (He's currently in charge of the remake of VII). His vision was darker than what had come before: this was to be a Final Fantasy a step aside of its siblings, its announcement trailer of May 2006 featuring a more relatable world of fast cars and practical architecture, through which a dark-haired protagonist carved a path with an array of magical weapons.

'Final Fantasy XV' screenshot courtesy of Square Enix

The Noctis of then doesn't look so far removed from the one we fill the boots of in Final Fantasy XV, but he's one of few core personnel who've remained on the project since day one. Nomura was joined by Hajime Tabata to co-direct proceedings once the game's name changed in 2012, bringing with him several staffers from Final Fantasy Type-0, his previous directorial gig. Then, in 2014, Tabata took over in a solo capacity, Nomura moving to Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue and that Square series' incoming third numbered title proper.

Final Fantasy XV is a game of three distinct identities: what it was, how it emerged, and what it will become.

The game we play in 2016 isn't the one that began taking shape in 2006: The staff's been shuffled, the story's evolved, and the engine that supported the game was upgraded when development shifted from the outgoing PlayStation 3 to the PS4 and Xbox One. Development also moved outside of Square: sections of Final Fantasy XV were outsourced to studios including to Kuala Lumpur's Streamline and Taipei's XPEC

Nothing unusual, there: Big games have their workloads split between different teams in different locations all the time. But decentralizing the game from Square no doubt played a part in the end product's somewhat bipolar structure, how it moves from open-world exploration to more linear progression.

It's not so much of a surprise that, despite his hope of fitting everything he wanted onto the disc, Tabata is now in the position of needing to change parts of the game via a forthcoming update, including added story beats and the overhauling of an entire chapter. Nevertheless, it has reviewed well, and I've already put tens of hours into it, with more to come.

'Final Fantasy XV' screenshot courtesy of Square Enix

Final Fantasy XV is a game of three distinct identities, then: what it was, how it emerged, and what it will become. The other game that's kept us waiting, however, has always felt like the work of an individual, albeit one surrounded by a talented and patient team: The Last Guardian.

In late 2005, Shadow of the Colossus came out to unanimous acclaim. The second title to be directed by Fumito Ueda at Sony's Team Ico division, following 2001's Ico, it was a game of both great silences and stunning gravitas. I don't feel that I need to dive into what it's about, given its nosebleed seat in the video gaming firmament, but the dynamic between the player character and his closest companion-cum-essential transport, a horse called Agro, stuck with Ueda. He wanted to take that relationship, between a boy and a beast, and build his next game around it. And that he did.

Whatever the contributions of participating parties, throughout The Last Guardian's gestation, it has always been true to Ueda's original concepts.

The Last Guardian's earliest planning predates the commercial release of the PlayStation 3, making Ueda's third directorial project one that spans three console generations. Development proper began in 2007, and unlike Final Fantasy XV, the team behind The Last Guardian remained relatively intact from beginning to end, although the studio name on the credits changed from Team Ico to genDesign—Ueda left Sony in 2011, later founding his own studio in 2014, carrying The Last Guardian and many of its key staff, including Team Ico lead programmer (now genDesign president) Jinji Horagai, with him. At release, The Last Guardian is a co-development between genDesign and Sony's own Japan Studio.

'The Last Guardian' screenshot courtesy of Sony

Much like Final Fantasy XV, The Last Guardian was originally targeting a PS3 release. When the decision was made to hold its release until the PS4 was available, the newer console's lead architect, Mark Cerny, personally assisted with translating the code between platforms. The work of Japan Studio cannot be overlooked, too, when assessing the game that we can now play in 2016—it's their technical expertise that makes these characters, which seem so very alive, properly interact with each other and the world around them.

But whatever the contributions of participating parties, throughout The Last Guardian's protracted gestation, it has always been true to Ueda's original concepts, to what he saw it becoming. It absolutely has that compelling connection between human and creature, with players falling in love with its bat-cat-bird beast, Trico (don't call it a dog, okay?), for all of its uncommonly animalistic AI.

Related, on Waypoint: Check out some of today's senior superlatives, including Class Clown and Biggest Heart, right here!

The Last Guardian feels like the spiritual successor to SotC that it was conceived as, for better and worse: it carries with it some curiously archaic quirks, but honestly, a little camera twitchiness is nothing that even the half-invested player won't effortlessly overcome due to an atmosphere that's right up there with Ueda's previous game.

What's also key to the success of The Last Guardian is that it, and the director at its core, understand that it's a video game first and foremost. The affecting behavior of Trico wouldn't translate to an audience in the same way if your actions were not directly influencing and reacting to it. When I spoke to Ueda just ahead of the game's launch, he told me why that is so important to how he thinks about game design.

'The Last Guardian' screenshot courtesy of Sony

"What can only be done in a video game? The games that I make, they have these situations with two characters—and that's my response to that question. When you have one character that's created by a program, that acts on its own will, you simply can't do that in a film."

In comparison, the road-movie-like nature of the first half of Final Fantasy XV, with its band of four friends out for adventure, is something plenty of movies have realized, from Stand By Me, effectively referenced in-game courtesy of Florence Welch's cover of the Ben E. King song of the same name, to Doug Liman's Go. Granted, when watching a movie you can't, as the viewer, make a leading character break away from their central quest for a side-mission collecting frogs; but in terms of straight story, there's little in Final Fantasy XV that cannot be conveyed through more passive entertainment.

In The Last Guardian, the companionship between the magnificent, mythical Trico and his diminutive human friend is the story, directed as much by the player's actions as Ueda's ambitions. It knows it's a video game, and respects the unique possibilities presented by the medium. It might have been late arriving, but The Last Guardian has shown that all the uncertainty surrounding it, from studio silence regarding its development to the final delay which moved its release from October to December, has been worth navigating. Today, one of its industry's most notorious vaporware candidates is rightly celebrated as being amongst 2016's most captivating experiences.