Why The Last Guardian Proves Japanese Devs Are Still Behind
Remember when The Last Guardian was first announced back in 2009? Or was it 2008? I lost track of the years, honestly. And I’m not about to complain about the development cycle; I’m well aware of the pitfalls and roadblocks of game design, and I know this particular saga was jam-packed with disappointment and drama. The point is, this isn’t a, “gee, the game took THIS long to make and we’re still seeing technical issues?!” editorial.
Rather, this is a macroscopic view of the industry taken from about a thousand feet up. It’s examining all the games, Western and Japanese, with a very wide lens and performing a simple compare-and-contrast. See, when I was a kid, Japan was basically the only country that made videogames. I still remember working at Electronics Boutique way back in the day and hearing about some of the first Western-made titles in the works. …yeah, that was a running joke in the store for some time.
Of course, times change. And while I still retain a certain affinity for a little Japanese flair (which cannot be replicated by any other region or development team, as it’s distinctly and entirely Japanese at its core), I know one irrefutable fact: The Japanese have fallen behind the Western dev teams and haven’t managed to catch up. At least, not yet. I’m hardly alone in this assessment, as Japanese legends like Hideo Kojima and Keiji Inafune have called out their countrymen for their lagging, and called for more effort and resources.
And we have seen Japanese games take big strides in recent years. However, for whatever reason, they just can’t seem to close the gap entirely. In The Last Guardian, for instance, there’s much debate over the mechanics: Some claim the movement is very similar to previous titles like ICO and Shadow of the Colossus and therefore acceptable. The heroes in those games were indeed a little awkward and clumsy, and this was on purpose, so it’d be unfair to simply call the control loose or unreliable. That being said, the two aforementioned terms DO seem to be applicable in Guardian.
On top of which, the camera really is a mess. I understand the difficulty in having a (mostly) free-roaming camera in a game where the two persistent characters on screen are so massively different in terms of size. Obviously, this generates a major technical hurdle. Thing is…I get the feeling a team like Naughty Dog would’ve cleared that hurdle. And I think another talented Western team might’ve found a way to make the movement charmingly awkward (ala ICO) and yet, less loose and more reliable. In general, I have to say that the core mechanics of most big-budget Western games are simply better than their Japanese counterparts.
In a way, it pains me to say it, because Japanese devs have had quite a long time to close this gap. But it never seems to happen. Outrageously talented Western studios continue to churn out beautifully produced and rock-solid games (from a technical and mechanical standpoint), while Japanese studios continue to produce less impressive titles. Again, I’m speaking purely from a technical perspective; I’m not talking about any artistry or one of the many subjective elements in videogames. This really isn’t subjective; mechanics like basic control are almost entirely objective, in fact. And we know what is good and what isn’t.
Frankly, Guardian sort of plays the way I’d expect an early PS3 game to play. The design is fantastic and it looks incredible but it’s all sitting in a disappointingly old technical framework, you know? At some point, I think we just have to acknowledge that this lagging on the part of Japanese devs is still very much in existence, and one wonders if it’ll ever disappear…