The Back Story of Team ICO

First published in  CubedGamers (Printed Edition): October 2016

Later this year, Team ICO will finally release its long anticipated follow up to Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, seven years after the first trailer and nine years after the game first went into production. The recent unveiling of 15 minutes or so of gameplay confirms that the game combines the gameplay mechanics of the teams previous two games, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, whilst attempting to update the aesthetics for the latest generation of consoles. The plot revolves around the relationship between a boy and a bizarre Trico creature (Trico is a portmanteau of the Japanese words for bird and cat), the latest iteration of the player – virtual character relationship that Team Ico developed to such great effect.

Both of Team Ico’s previous two titles are classics of the PS2 era. Ico, a melancholy puzzle-platformer in which a young boy with horns bids to rescue a young girl from a booming, cavernous citadel characterised by large chambers and ambitiously outsized architecture was as haunting as it was charming, particularly as you led the girl by the hand. Shadow of the Colossus ramped up the ambition, as you guide the young warrior Wander and his horse Argo through a vast landscape, with the mission to defeat a number of huge elemental giants. Neither game made a huge profit, but their impact among game designers was equal to that of the games that had inspired their creator, Fumito Ueda.

Ueda has cited that the main inspirations for Ico were the classic Delphine releases Another World (released as Outer World in Japan) and Flashback, which used cinematic cutscenes to drive the plot forward, but lacked any consistent forms of communication to heighten the sense of otherworldliness.  Both Ico and Shadow of the Colossus share the sensibilities of those classic Amiga titles in their obliqueness, and their highly stylised graphics, and it appears that The Last Guardian will update the same aesthetic but with one twist. This time, voiceovers of the main character narrating the action are included, to create the feeling that the plot of the game happened long ago.

Doubts about the quality of the completed product have been raised multiple times during the long development time. Since Duke Nukem Forever ultimately was released and felt like a relic from another time, game critics have become wary of long development cycles. No firm reason has ever been given for why The Last Guardian has taken so long. Ueda himself left Sony in 2011, as did the games producer Yoshifusa Hayama. Ueda reportedly wanted more freedom in his relationship with Sony, and he remains under contract with them to finish the game.

Ueda has never given a clear explanation of what the exact problems have been, but in 2014 Sony’s Shuhei Yoshida explained that the main reason was the changeover of the code from PS3 to PS4, which required a lot of work, and that the higher specifications of the PS4 were needed to realise the vision of the game fully. He also added that at no time did they consider cancelling the project, because “they believed in the vision.” Certainly it is understandable that when you have to transfer programming code to a new system, that a lot of that code will have to be rewritten, and that with the extra processing power available to you, gamers will expect you to take advantage of it.

This is particularly true if you are Team ICO. While designers and critics as diverse as Hideo Kojima or Roger Ebert have rejected the idea that games can be viewed as an art form because they can’t be put on display in a museum, or are not comparable to the great works of literature, poetry, or music, or ultimately, just too popular, because of the fact they have to appeal to everyone, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, they have gained a reputation for delivering games that can be considered artistic endeavours. Certainly, they have succeeded in creating games that don’t appeal to everyone. Both games deliver a cerebral experience which is light on exposition and heavy on beauty, desolation, and a sense of absence.

As of writing, The Last Guardian has been delayed by three to four months to iron out the last few bugs. A number of sources have criticised Sony for delaying the game once more, but after so long a time, one can understand why Sony might want to hold it back until they were 100% confident that the can deliver a game that will live up to Team ICO’s reputation. With Ueda’s contract ending upon its completion, and himself having stated that he wants to create a first person shooter as his next project, it is likely at this stage that Team ICO’s legacy will be three charming and unique gaming experiences.

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