Design in Action is a weekly column by Retronauts host Jeremy Parish that explores games both new and classic, analyzing the way their various moving parts work together to make them great. This month, the subject is Fumito Ueda's long-awaited adventure The Last Guardian.
When I reviewed The Last Guardian, my greatest point of criticism toward the game had to do with the predictability of its design. It aspired to such great things, I complained, yet fundamentally its design came off as little more than that of a PlayStation 2-era adventure game.
Specifically, The Last Guardian spends most of its run time playing like a retreat of Ico, the groundbreaking freshman work of Guardian director Fumito Ueda. The constant need to cling to and clamber over the feathered, chimerical dragon-beast Trico integrates an element of Ueda's follow-up, Shadow of the Colossus, but on the balance Guardian really does feel like Ico 2 most of the time. You navigate ruined structures side-by-side with your computer-controlled companion, solve puzzles to unlock forward progress, and occasionally engage in conflict against mysterious unearthly beings under the control of a malign entity that lurks inside and exerts its control over the ancient ruins you seek to escape. And, at every step, you rely on that artificially intelligent companion to help you advance.
After writing last week's Design in Action column, however, it dawned on me that Guardian's predictability isn't a flaw. It's a fundamental principle that underscores the entire adventure. It's a feature that helps define the game.
Much of The Last Guardian's impact comes from the way in which it subverts players' expectations and reverses the role between player and AI. The game would lose much of its ability to create surprise if it took any other form. The portions of the adventure in which Trico takes the lead and reduces players to a passive observer aren't really anything truly new in gaming; had they been presented as non-interactive cutscenes or quick-time events, all The Last Guardian would really have going for it would be the emotional affinity that you develop for Trico. And even that would be weakened.
The "bond" you form with Trico depends heavily on how the game presents the creature and your interactions with it. Trico frequently takes initiative, and at times the player is literally powerless to do anything about it — but even in these situations, the game designers take care not to show their hand. Rather than leaning on the video game vocabulary of overlaying cinematic matte bars to indicate a computer-controlled predetermined sequence in these moments, the game simply uses the enormous discrepancy in size and strength between the main character and Trico to take control.
When Trico grabs the boy by the collar of his tunic and flings him into the air, you've essentially entered a cutscene... but it doesn't feel like it. Rather than sit and watch mutely, these sequences cause you lock down the button that causes the boy to grasp onto Trico for fear of falling off the dragon.
Note that it is possible to screw up and lose your grip during those moments in which the game strips the player of any sense of agency, so all it takes is one disastrous turn to enforce the realization that you need to cling tightly to the dragon when it takes control. This works far more effectively to keep the player involved in these dramatic moments than any quick-time event. The entire purpose of a QTE is to allow game designers to give passive, scripted sequences a sense of interactivity by forcing players to mimic a "Simon Says" routine, which in theory help keep them from feeling like they've been reduced to mute observers. But QTEs have an element of artifice about them, changing up the rules and sometimes even the interface design of a game for the sake of dramatic presentation. The Last Guardian achieves the same effect by simply expecting the player to cling for dear life as Trico goes bounding through the air, smashing into crumbling masonry, scrabbling desperately at slippery edges. You may only need to press and hold a single button during these moments, but you hold that button with the intensity of conviction. You're not reacting to arbitrary prompts; you're trying hard to stay alive.
The fact that the game allows you to continue acting even when Trico takes charge isn't entirely new. Watching the boy crawl around on the dragon's back as the creature makes dramatic leaps across chasms reminds me of the integrated cutscenes in the PlayStation Final Fantasy games, where you could cause Cloud Strife or Squall Leonheart to scurry around for a moment as the camera pulled back to give way to a cinematic showpiece. But it's important that the game does this, because it underscores the few moments in which you truly do lose control over the action. When Trico freaks out in the antenna rooms and "consumes" the boy, it comes as a shock precisely because the game doesn't otherwise leave you truly helpless. The deadly potential that Trico represents makes your bond with the creature a fragile one, and all the more precious for its unlikeliness.
And all of this explains why The Last Guardian's resemblance to Ico is neither accidental nor frivolous. It matters because the game's similarities to its predecessor help to establish the player's expectations. The Last Guardian's best moments come when it subverts or exceeds the familiar. Remember that in Ico, the game's emotional climax comes at the journey's end when the passive, helpless Princess Yorda reverses the characters' roles, breaking from her seeming stupor to rescue the player character from certain doom. The Last Guardian uses that same reversal early on, and spends the remainder of the journey subtly building on it.
As you solve standard video game navigational puzzles and perform rote chores, the unexpected nature of sudden and dramatic events gain profundity by shattering the routine of the game. Every event that interrupts the rote nature of the quest packs a punch that sticks with you. A mine collapses and seemingly crushes Trico as you pick your way toward a triumphant escape; another dragon beast appears to undermine your progress; the castle's mysterious forces block your way by hypnotizing the creature. By telling its tale in the vocabulary established in Ico, The Last Guardian turns its key moments into shocking, and memorable, exclamations.
Next week: Contemplating the mystery of the castle.