Early in 2011, I travelled to Sony Japan Studio's offices in Tokyo and saw the the last live demo of The Last Guardian. Four and a half years later, sat in a hushed demo theatre somewhere above the brouhaha of E3, just as the show opens, I'm seeing the first demo of its revival as a PS4 game. I'm feeling a sense of déjŕ vu.
It opens the same way, with the boy coming upon the giant creature Trico snoozing in a shady chamber, shafts of sunlight picking out vivid coloured butterflies. 'I remember all this,' it says in my notes. The demo is described, once again, as a "vertical slice" of gameplay - almost 10 years into the game's development. Describing the game to us (and playing it for the demonstration), director Fumito Ueda again calls it a blend of his widely adored two previous games: "Ico, when the core of the experience was the cooperation between the two characters, and Shadow of the Colossus, where there's a dynamic interaction with giant creatures." And once again, this is plain to see.
In fact, after its familiar opening, this is quite a different scene, and we don't see the mysterious and implacable enemy the boy faced last time. He approaches the beast, which is part cat, part dog, part bird, but mostly cat. (I can still only think of it as a "catweagle", copyright Ellie Gibson, circa 2009.) He calls to it to wake it, walks to it to stroke its face, then clambers onto its back to pull out two wooden stakes embedded there. The animation is - still - utterly magnificent: the urgent, energetic ungainliness of the boy; the way the creature tilts its head and nuzzles, struggles to its feet, paws uncertainly at objects, roots around for food, then fixes its gaze on a high ledge, squats and then propels itself up to it. It's enrapturing.
The boy climbs its back to the ledge and finds some barrels there that it can throw for Trico to catch gamely in its mouth. He climbs down a ladder to find a switch by a gate, beyond which his companion is calling with a plaintive bark. "It's very important for you as a player to read the situation that you've been put in - you're meant to utilise the strengths and weaknesses of the two characters," Ueda says.
Through the gate, and we've arrived at the start of the sequence used in yesterday's Sony press conference, which makes up the rest of our demo. Trico and the boy pick their way across a narrow, crumbling bridge, the animal shirking from a strange, occult statue halfway across. Twice the boy falls, twice Trico catches him, first with its mouth, then with its tail. Ueda is at pains to point out that these artfully framed slow-mo moments, set over swelling music, are not cut-scenes - the player has to jump, catch and climb the tail.
The Last Guardian is utterly beautiful. Though it's also set among desolate ruins, it's less mournful than Ico or Shadow of the Colossus, and bathed in blazing sunlight rather than wreathed in a cool haze. Its move to PS4 hasn't radically advanced its looks - as stylised as they are, it hasn't had to. But Trico's feathery pelt now ruffles fully in the breeze and the game runs with smooth composure as it animates the huge animal and sends towers of brick crumbling into the void from its weight.
"The main experience that I would like players to walk away with is the relationship between the boy and Trico. As the story unfolds... there is a bonding between them," Ueda says. He keeps the mechanics of their relationship mysterious, but from observation it seems to be driven by a vocal cue to call the creature's attention (sometimes it calls yours). There's certainly an emotional tug to the way it follows the boy watchfully with its eyes.
Ueda says Trico's behaviour is governed by a mix of triggers and artificial intelligence, and will adjust over the course of the game as the pair's relationship deepens. The demo comes from around halfway through the game, at which point "there's already an established relationship between the boy and Trico, that's why he'll listen to you. Maybe further down the storyline, that relationship will be stronger, you can communicate better and Trico will react better to you." There are a couple of moments during the demo when the creature seems, quite naturalistically, to take a while to understand what the boy wants it to do.
If you saw the press conference, you'll know that it's an outstanding demo. You may also know that there is little in it that we didn't already know about The Last Guardian, and much about the game that still remains unknown. For now, Ueda is keeping it that way - keeping his pronouncements vague and promising more detail closer to its release (but if I were you, I wouldn't expect too much). On the date of that release - after years of silence - he is still cautious.
"I'd like to close by once again thanking you for your patience - continuously - we very much appreciate it. We are working very, very hard to get this done and we hope to release this in 2016." Asked why the delay has been so long, he says there are many reasons, but picks out the "business decision" to move it to PS4. This will certainly have been a major undertaking. But on its own, it doesn't explain why the game doesn't seem to have moved on meaningfully since 2011. It doesn't feel any closer now than it did then.
It's been a long, long road, and if anything is clear from this demo, it's that there's still a good stretch of it to go before we're playing The Last Guardian. At least we can hope that the rest of the road is in the sunlight, and that we will one day find out what kept it in the shade so long. The Last Guardian looks magnificent. But then, it always has.