Hypercritical


The Last Guardian

The Last Guardian

Fumito Ueda’s first game, Ico, was a beautiful, moody masterpiece. Its spare depiction of a boy attempting to escape from a vast castle with the help of a mysterious companion discarded the gameplay and interface conventions of its day, delivering an almost meditative sense of immersion. Ueda’s next game, Shadow of the Colossus, added the bare minimum of status indicators to the screen to support its complex boss battles that required the player to clamber up and onto a succession of giant creatures.

In terms of both gameplay and mood, Ueda’s latest game, The Last Guardian, is a straightforward combination of its predecessors. It features a boy attempting to escape from a mysterious castle with the help of a giant creature. Like Ico, it eschews a conventional HUD, save system, inventory management, power-ups, and nearly every other modern gaming convention. And as in Shadow of the Colossus, players will find themselves scrambling up the back of a large, often uncooperative, incredibly life-like beast (cheekily named Trico).

Ico was able to deliver on the promise of its design by reducing complexity in other areas. It’s set in a largely rectilinear castle that the player navigates on foot. It has a small number of enemies. Its environmental puzzles are mechanically and conceptually simple. Similarly, Shadow of the Colossus manages to pull off its extremely ambitious boss battles by removing nearly everything from the game except those creatures.

While The Last Guardian attempts to combine the strengths of its predecessors, it’s burdened by the combination of their features. The environment and the player’s movement through it is far more complex than in Ico. The puzzles play fast and loose with their own rules at a few critical points. The giant creature, no longer confined to a limited engagement in a boss arena, sometimes pushes the game mechanics past their limits.

Nothing kills immersion more than an acute awareness of the game engine itself. In The Last Guardian, the camera often gets stuck on walls or briefly shows the view from inside Trico. (Spoiler alert: like all your favorite 3D-rendered characters, he’s hollow.) Arguably, Shadow of the Colossus had an even more frustrating camera and control scheme, but that game was released eleven years ago on a far less powerful console. The Last Guardian has made tremendous strides since then, but it’s still not quite enough to avoid illusion-breaking lapses.

These shortcomings are compounded by an uncharacteristic lack of faith in its design. Traditional (read: oppressive) on-screen prompts describing the control scheme mar the opening of the game and are impossible to completely banish. A voice-over extends beyond its narrative role to provide a dynamic hint system that is often too quick to reveal solutions. Several brief cutscenes in quick succession at the start of the game undercut player agency. It's tempting to attribute these lapses to Ueda’s departure from the project several years before its release, but the reason is less important than the result.

Castle in the Sky

All of that said, it’s important to remember the context of these criticisms. Ico and Shadow of the Colossus are two of the greatest video games ever created. Both pushed the limits of the hardware they were released on, and both have influenced video game designers, filmmakers, and other creative professionals far out of proportion with their modest sales numbers. That The Last Guardian fails to resoundingly best its distinguished parents is only disappointing because of how close it comes.

Let’s start with the obvious. The Last Guardian is a gorgeous game. The world design is in line with Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, but the increased fidelity of the PlayStation 4 really makes it shine. (PlayStation 4 Pro running at 1080p is recommended for best frame rates.) Lighting effects that Ico could only dream of add a poignancy to already majestic vistas. At so many points, I wished this game had the photo mode from Uncharted 4.

Trico is an amazing achievement: a building-sized NPC that truly feels alive. Its animations rarely feel canned or repetitive. Its behavioral inscrutability is completely in keeping with its character. Learning to read Trico’s moods and signals is a core part of the game. The experience smoothly transitions from frustration to a deep, intuitive understanding by the end.

Anyone who has finished Ico and Shadow of the Colossus will have no trouble completing The Last Guardian. I found the environmental puzzles a bit more challenging than those in Ico, but I never had to go to the Internet to look up a solution. Anyone who got stuck in Ico will almost certainly be even more stymied by The Last Guardian, however. The hand-eye coordination required is substantially lower than in Shadow of the Colossus, but the camera management and overall control-scheme finesse is much more demanding than in Ico.

Also keep in mind that these are comparisons to the difficulty of two much older games. The Last Guardian has a significant skill-barrier to enjoyment when compared to contemporary console games, especially those with such an artistic bent. Inexperienced gamers looking for a better match for their skills should try Journey instead.

Longtime console gamers who have never played Ico or Shadow of the Colossus should definitely do so, preferably before playing The Last Guardian. High-definition remakes of both games are available for the PlayStation 3 on a single game disc for a combined price of $25. If your taste in games is anything like mine, it is absolutely worth buying or borrowing a PlayStation 3 console just to play these two games. (Plus Journey for just $15 more.) [Update: Both games are also available on the PS4 and Windows PC via the PlayStation Now cloud gaming service, though I have not tried playing them this way.]

If you loved Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, The Last Guardian is well worth playing, but it bears the scars of its nearly decade-long development. Like The Force Awakens, there’s almost no way The Last Guardian could have lived up to the expectations accumulated during the long wait for its release. In the end, its reach exceeds its grasp, if only slightly. But, oh, what a reach it was. Like its star creature, The Last Guardian occupies a lofty perch—defiantly idiosyncratic and occasionally inscrutable, but a towering achievement nonetheless.


Canonical Bagel Flavors

These are the canonical bagel flavors:

Also:


OS X Reviewed

Nearly 15 years ago, I wrote my first review of Mac OS X for a nascent “PC enthusiast’s" website called Ars Technica. Last fall, I wrote my last. Though Apple will presumably announce the next major version of OS X at WWDC this coming June, I won’t be reviewing it for Ars Technica or any other publication, including the website you’re reading now.

Those who listen to the ATP, the weekly podcast I host with Marco Arment and Casey Liss, know that I’ve been contemplating hanging up my OS X reviewer’s hat for some time now. Producing thousands of words (and hundreds of screenshots) about each major release of OS X was my first real claim to fame on the Internet. The prospect of stopping has made me reconsider my public identity and sense of self. Who am I if I’m not “that guy who writes those OS X reviews”? But when I finally decided, the relief I felt let me know I’d made the right choice.

There is no single, dramatic reason behind this. It’s an accumulation of small things—the time investment, the (admittedly, self-imposed) mental anguish, the pressure to meet my own expectations and those of my readers year after year—but it all boils down to a simple, pervasive feeling that this is the time to stop. I’ve done this. It is done.

When I started, I was at the forefront of long-form nerd-centric tech writing. Today, the world has moved on. I might have stopped with my OS X 10.9 review in 2013 if not for my love of round numbers and my expectation that OS X 10.10 would bring a complete interface overhaul that I really wanted to write about.

While OS X reviews were my public debut, the Hypercritical podcast brought me to a new audience starting in 2011. Hypercritical ran for 100 episodes, and in the years that followed I’ve recorded at least one podcast every week. (I’m currently a co-host of the weekly Accidental Tech Podcast and a regular guest on The Incomparable.) The one, long article I wrote about OS X for Ars Technica every year or two has long since been dwarfed by the volume of my audio output.

I still love OS X—and I still have many complaints about it. I will certainly talk about OS X 10.11 (whatever it’s called) at length on ATP, and I’ll read the many great reviews written by others when it’s released. But neither podcasting nor writing have ever been full-time jobs for me. I’ve always had to fit them into my life alongside my actual job and my family. Right now, I’m looking forward to my first summer in many years that won’t be dominated by stolen daytime minutes and long, sleepless nights in front of a screen with a noisy air conditioner blowing behind me. I’m content to have reviewed 10.0 through 10.10. Someone else can pick up the baton for the next 15 years.


Releases

Retrospectives

Pre-release


About My Yosemite Review

I reviewed OS X 10.10 Yosemite for Ars Technica. This is the eleventh major release of OS X, and I've reviewed them all. There are several ways to read my review.

Here are my thoughts on the various reading options. This is mostly a repeat of last year’s post about Mavericks, with some text carried over verbatim, but there is some new information.

The Web Version

The web version of my review is the canonical version. It has the best formatting, the biggest images, and includes mouse-over image toggle effects that can't be done in an ebook. It's also the most up-to-date. I believe that good writing for the web includes many links. A web browser is the best place to inspect and follow those links.

All the images in my review are Retina resolution. To see all the detail in the images, read the review on a screen with at least 1,920 “native” pixels of horizontal resolution. Most images are 1,280 pixels wide (presented to the browser with a width value of 640), but the “full-width” images are 1,920 pixels wide (presented to the browser with a width value of 960).

The free web version has ads, and it’s split up into multiple “pages” (which are usually much longer than a single printed page). This kind of pagination annoys some people. I actually like it for very long articles because it helps me keep my place across multiple reading sessions. I can remember I was on page 8 instead of remembering the exact point in a very long, scrolling web page.

That said, I also really like how an Ars Premier subscription eliminates all ads from the Ars Technica website and gives me the option to view any article on a single page. I use single-page view on very long articles when I’m searching for some text using my web browser’s “Find…” feature. I use it all the time on short articles.

Some people think Ars Technica forces me to break my article up into many tiny pages. That’s not the case. I choose how to paginate the article. I like to break it up on logical section boundaries, which means that the “pages” vary widely in length. I do try to keep any single “page” from being too short, however.

The eBooks

My review is available on Apple’s iBookstore as well as Amazon.com.

The Kindle and iBooks readers for OS X and iOS have their own strengths and weaknesses, but I think the iBooks version of my review has a slight edge over the Kindle version. Amazon adds a “delivery” charge of $0.15 per megabyte (varying a bit for different countries). This can really eat into the price of a $4.99 book. Like the web version, both ebook versions include Retina-resolution images, making them quite large. To control the size of the Kindle ebook, I used JPEG images throughout.

Unlike Amazon, Apple does not charge a per-megabyte fee in its ebook store. Since both ebooks are the same price, this means I make slightly more money from each iBookstore purchase than I do from each Kindle purchase. But there’s something in it for you, too. The iBookstore version of my review uses lossless PNG images throughout. (Kindle version: 5 MB; iBookstore version: 25 MB.) In practice, I doubt most people will be able to tell the difference between the JPEG and PNG images, but I know which one I’d choose.

I've tried to make both ebooks available for purchase in as many countries as possible, but there are some limits on this that are beyond my control. If the ebook is not available in your country, remember that you can get both versions of the ebook by subscribing to Ars Premier.

The Stats

My sincere thanks to everyone who reads the review, in any form, in whole or in part. You’re the reason I’ve been doing this for the past fifteen years.


Creativity, Inc.

Most of the nonfiction books I read these days fall into two broad categories: books about people I admire and books about the creation of things I admire. Good books about the latter often turn into the former by the end.

The book I just finished, Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar, had a head start on both counts. My love of Pixar is not surprising or uncommon. As for Ed Catmull, I’ve been aware of him and his contemporaries for decades (I had an Alvy Ray Smith quote in my .sig for a while in the 90s), but my nerd crush really stepped into high gear when I saw a video of Catmull’s talk at the Stanford Graduate School of Business in 2007.

It’s difficult for me to describe my reaction to that talk—and to his new book—without sounding absurdly self-aggrandizing, but I’m going to give it a shot. Saying what other people are thinking is a proven formula for mass-market appeal employed by everyone from talk radio hosts to stand-up comedians. But as someone whose thoughts and interests have always been outside the norm, I’ve rarely heard excerpts from my own inner dialog voiced on a broader stage.

Ed Catmull does that for me. If you’ve listened to my Hypercritical podcast or read the article that inspired it, you will find many familiar topics and themes in Creativity, Inc. Now, believe me, I harbor no illusions about this overlap. I am not the guy who hears Louis C.K. tell a joke and thinks he could be just as funny because he had a similar thought once. But shared values and the fulfillment of common aspirations are at the heart of all hero worship.

Ed Catmull’s dream was to create the first fully computer-animated feature film. As a child, I also dreamed of such a thing; Catmull and the rest of the people at Pixar actually made it happen. Similarly, as an adult, I’ve clung to the notion that critical thinking can be both useful and powerful. Creativity, Inc. explains just how powerful it can be when practiced by a handful of the most brilliant technical and creative people alive today.

Ay, there’s the rub. It’s so easy to hear the vaguest echo of your own thoughts expressed by someone fantastically smart and accomplished and view that as a cosmic endorsement of your approach to life. But that absolutely would not be in keeping with the message of the book—a message Catmull tries again and again to communicate to readers he knows will resist it.

Indeed, Catmull most often uses himself as an example of someone who has failed to see through to the heart of a problem. This is the true strength of the book. Unlike so many other tech-industry memoirs and business books, Creativity, Inc. is not an abstract exploration of a philosophy, nor is it a list of accomplishments interspersed with bold commandments. Instead, it is a deep, thoughtful investigation of a never-ending series of failures—and the reactions to those failures that eventually led to success.

Think of it: the man who invented texture mapping, made computer-animated films possible, and led his studio to release a string of amazing, Oscar-winning examples of the form decides to write a book…and then builds it around an examination of his own mistakes. Ed Catmull may not be your kind of hero, but he sure is mine.