For me the experience of playing a video game should be akin to reading a book. I like it to be quiet, isolated, just me and the screen, which is perhaps why increasingly I feel left behind. Online play, social network integration and the Share button are current favourites of developers – look at Destiny, The Division, Super Mario Maker or plenty of other games on show at E3, and you can see how collective experience is replacing solitude.
Today, even the most authored single player games have trophies, broadcast to everybody on your console friend list. It's as though playing in a vacuum, that sense of experiencing something that is entirely between you and the game, is steadily diminishing. This is why I enjoy the work of Fumito Ueda so much.
Ico and Shadow of the Colossus are not just lonely games in the sense they were made before online play and sharing became standard – they are games about loneliness. In Ico, you explore a deserted castle accompanied only by a ghostly, mute figure called Yorda. In Shadow of the Colossus, you traverse a vast but silent landscape encountering the eponymous colossi, which seem more like automatons than living beings. Ueda gets to a profound sense of loneliness in each, more palpable than if they featured just the player, totally by themselves.
In Ico there is other life in the form of Yorda and the castle's shadowy enemies. In Colossus you have your horse Agro for company, the sixteen colossi, a smattering of lizards and birds, and the lifeless figure of your departed love, Mono. They are all inaccessible and unknowable quantities however.
You never see the castle from Ico as it once was, full of life, and you never see the Shadow of the Colossus landscape brought back to life. It's loneliness and desolation through comparison. In Ueda's games you can see that there was once a party, but you were not and never will be invited.
That's evoked not just through aesthetics, but mechanics. In Ico, your character speaks a different language to Yorda, meaning that in order to beckon her over to you, the player must press a shout button over and over again. Same goes for your horse, Agro, in Shadow of the Colossus. He responds to your voice, but he's still an animal and will often ignore you or run off in another direction. As with loneliness in real life, where for various reasons it can be hard to speak and reach out to people, communication is difficult in Ueda's games.
You have companions and in Shadow of the Colossus feel particularly close to Agro because he's the only truly living thing with which you have contact. That friendship is never tangible or complete however. There's another language barrier, and just as you can see that Ueda's game worlds were once alive, even with a bespoke "talk" button on your controller you can never quite engineer a true connection.
Based on its latest in-game footage, The Last Guardian looks set to continue these themes: loneliness, isolation, impossibility of friendship. You have at your side the eponymous Guardian, but it is a giant, strange, hybrid creature. Not exactly horse, not exactly bird, not exactly mouse, its identity is fluid. You can't quite lock down visually what it is, and so it becomes impossible to truly understand or know.
There is a moment near the beginning of the latest trailer where the player has to cross a huge chasm, and needs the Guardian to jump across first so as to help you across. The player has to call out three, maybe four times, and before leaping the gap, the Guardian gives this kind of puzzled look, like a cat that's just heard its own name. Subtle details, but they heavily imply disconnect and discord. The Last Guardian seems like another typical Ueda game world, populated only to the extent that it makes the player feel isolated and excluded.
These are such rare emotions in games, especially in the mainstream. It is usually all excitement, action, a sense of being alive, but Fumito Ueda's work appeals not just to the way I personally like to imbibe video games, but also to a longing I have for more diverse and humanistic stories in them.
Loneliness, isolation and loss – these are feelings we all experience - and Ueda's games explore them in a way that's both subtle and hard-hitting. His games are never minor or fragile. They have swords, blood and big, booming music, but they nevertheless plumb quiet and often hard to express human emotion. I think Ueda's one of the most exciting game directors working today, and alone, in my room on a quiet day, I look forward to playing his latest work.