You can call Fumito Ueda's video games many things, but "elegant" is not really one of them.
Be it the gangly, rubber-limbed movements of Ico's young hero to the maddening control scheme of Shadow of the Colossus, Ueda's games possess a raw, awkward quality that stands at odds with modern big-budget game design thinking. Where other developers (either by choice or by publisher demand) go to almost comical lengths to sand the edges off their works and minimize the likelihood that even a single player will have a slightly negative experience or feel a moment's frustration while playing, Ueda's games offer neither focus-tested refinement nor apologies. They are what they are, and at some point everybody finds themselves gnashing their teeth in annoyance as they play an Ueda game.
But this, I feel, is by design. Ueda's latest creation, as with his two previous works, has been bankrolled by Sony as a prestige piece. That's Sony, the company that has given us the incredibly popular and incredibly anodyne Uncharted series, the utterly by-the-books The Order: 1886, and countless other games that slot comfortably into the expectations and standards of modern big-budget games. As a publisher — not to mention the most popular gaming brand of the moment — Sony knows how to please people. That The Last Guardian has been allowed to ship with so many infuriating moments of sheer inelegance suggests that Sony also knows when to step back and let a creative visionary do things his own way, polarizing as the results will be.
Those results, as it stands, are in many ways a game like nothing else in the medium... except, of course, Ueda's previous works. From its very first showing, more than seven years ago, The Last Guardian has always appeared to be a cross between Ueda's first two games. The journey to escape a mysterious, sepia-tinted castle reads as pure Ico, while the nature of the player's companion this time around — a massive, griffin-like creature nicknamed Trico — has less about it of Ico's Princess Yorda and more of Shadow of the Colossus's horse Agro reworked to a scale more on par with the titular colossi. In fact, The Last Guardian's journey has even more in common with Ico than has been evident from preview showings: Much of the quest involves evading mysterious footsoldiers who attempt to snatch the young hero and drag him back to portals at the behest of some unknown force. And then, of course, there's the moment that Trico saves your life.
Ico quietly revolutionized the design and philosophy of video games by giving the hero a companion controlled by artificial intelligence (Yorda); a companion who, despite her mute nature and simple programming, elicited a sense of attachment and empathy from players. At the climax of the game, Yorda, who until that point had helplessly followed along with the player's journey as something of a dead weight needing to be coaxed and cajoled, suddenly turned the tables by reaching out to save Ico from certain death. It was such a simple, scripted event, but it inverted the rules of the game and forever cemented the notion of Yorda not as AI drone but as a friend and protector. A decade-plus of constant digital friends in video games followed.
The easiest way to explain The Last Guardian would be to say that it is a game built around the premise of taking that one powerful moment from Ico and expanding it into a 15-hour-long journey. But it's no shock this time; last year at E3, Sony showed off (to millions of people) a scene in which Trico reaches out through the air in an attempt to snag the hero from plunging into a deadly chasm. When that fails, the creature whips its almost prehensile tail around to give the boy purchase. This, as it turns out, was no spoiler; where Yorda's moment of self-initiated aid served as the endpoint to Ico's emotional journey, here the mutual bond and cooperation between boy and beast forms early and unfolds throughout the adventure. The E3 demo didn't spoil anything of importance, because the point of The Last Guardian is not that Trico saves the boy from death — that happens repeatedly, just as the boy protects, soothes, and feeds the creature — but rather watching the relationship unfold and seeing the lengths to which it ultimately can be taken. Ico's climax was a thesis statement; The Last Guardian is the dissertation.
At the very heart of The Last Guardian you'll find the concept of trust. Trust by a boy that this fearsome chimaera, which could swallow him whole and fires beams of energy from its tail, will protect rather than devour him. Trust by an otherworldly monstrosity that this tiny morsel will steer it right and help it recover from the injuries of its abuses. On a metatextual level, it's about trust by a large corporation that this decidedly idiosyncratic game can succeed and justify its delays and challenges. And perhaps most of all, it's about trust by players that a game that often relies on inscrutable, unreliable AI can justify the resulting moments of infuriating inelegance.
The beast Trico truly is a remarkable creation, unlike anything else that has come before it. Much talk has been devoted to the attention to detail that Ueda's team has invested into the appearance, behavior, and movements of the creature, and rightly so. Trico moves with a convincing, catlike grace, looks like a cross between an eagle and a dog, and utters an enormous variety of sounds ranging from lupine howls to guttural Chewbacca-like growls. Its eyes shift colors to denote its current state of mind, while its body language provides essential clues for players as to its next actions. There's never been a virtual creature like Trico, and the most impressive thing about this technical marvel is that you don't think of it as a technical marvel; you think of it as Trico, your incredible, mysterious, abused, hungry, loyal, protective, intelligent companion. Not quite a pet, not quite a person, but an unknowable creature that loves its tiny human friend and, in the end, will go to any length to express that loyalty.
None of this makes Trico truly unprecedented in video games, though. Where The Last Guardian takes its greatest risks, where it pushes boundaries, is in the role Trico plays here. The beast is as much the agent of progression as the boy, creating a game dynamic quite unlike any I've ever experienced before. Throughout the game, the player can do nothing but sit back and wait for the game to play out a series of actions in order to progress. There are a few moments of, "Wait, did that just happen?" throughout The Last Guardian, and at the risk of spoiling the surprise, I will say the moment of that game that most caught me off-guard was not when I had to rely on Trico to survive scripted, set piece dangers, but rather when the creature stepped to the vanguard of our journey through the ruins and took the initiative to forge ahead on a path the diminutive boy could never have traveled on his own.
Like Ico and Yorda, Trico and the boy lack a common language, but eventually you learn to communicate with Trico in a fashion and can give the creature guidance. The thing is, you can't do anything but gesture and speak words the beast doesn't comprehend. Much of the game hinges on Trico's interpretation of your movements and hints. In literature, you have the concept of the unreliable narrator; here you have the unreliable companion. Trico really does behave like a dog: Loyal, protective, eager to please... but also willful and sometimes stubborn. You can belt out commands and suggestions to coax Trico to step up and take the lead in the journey to the next area, but what your companion chooses to do with your instructions varies from scene to scene, seemingly at the creature's whim. Sometimes you simply need to feed Trico to restore its energy reserves, but sometimes all you can do is wait for the game's AI routine to decide to perform as requested.
This creates a sometimes hair-pulling game dynamic in which you can clearly see the way to progress but have to spend long minutes cajoling a recalcitrant AI companion into actually allowing you to make that progress. Again, this is a profoundly brave creative choice that flies in the face of friction-free modern game design, because it runs the risk of repulsing players… and, as often can be the case with courageous, cutting-edge game mechanics, it does indeed fall short of its ideals at times. Trying to nudge Trico into taking proper actions will almost certainly make you want to run your game disc through the shredder when progress grinds to a halt through no fault of your own.
A big part of the difficulty with The Last Guardian's willful companion comes from the environmental design. Sometimes, the issue is that Trico only seems to recognize your intent if you can coax it to the proper location. But sometimes, the problem stems from the naturalistic setting of the game; Ueda and his team eschew visual clues like glowing handholds (a la Uncharted and Assassin's Creed), preferring to let you sort out on your own what in the environment can be interacted with by the child and what Trico has to handle for you. I lost count of the number of hours I lost from immediately sussing my next objective, failing to goad Trico into performing it for me, assuming I was on the wrong track, and wasting time backtracking or hunting for other avenues or solutions. At moments like that, I honestly hated The Last Guardian.
Fortunately, those moments tend to fade in light of all the good the game does. Weirdly, I found that stepping back from my frustrations and taking a break from the game always helped: Coming back a few hours later with my temper settled after reaching a scene in which a particularly stubborn Trico (or particularly unhelpful physics puzzle) ground the game's progress to a halt, I would inevitably solve the problem right away. At times like these, it felt like Trico needed a break from the frustration as much as I did… which, of course, is nonsense; the creature is driven by AI routines, not emotions. But so convincing is the design of The Last Guardian's companion that attributing such motives to Trico would even occur to me.
But while The Last Guardian offers (as I've said) a video game experience like no other, I often found myself thinking that being a video game undermines the experience in many ways. Of course, the interactive nature of the game lends it its impact in many respects. The bond between boy and beast feels all the more meaningful when Trico suddenly interacts not with the child but with you in new and unexpected ways. The game camera has been programmed to center on Trico whenever possible, meaning that for most of your journey you see its soulful face peering at the boy… but at times, you sense that it's gazing not at your onscreen avatar but rather you. It makes the connection you feel to the creature all the more profound.
At the same time, this connection grows within a disappointingly mundane journey through video game standards. You'll be throwing switches, taking impossible falls, scrambling along ledges and paths that offer only one way forward while conveniently taking you to where you need to go next. In terms of general design, there's nothing here you haven't seen in dozens of Tomb Raider sequels and clones over the past 20 years. The Last Guardian plays it remarkably safe in terms of actual game design; its impact comes from the relationship that drives you through those predictable spaces. But the familiarity of The Last Guardian's physical puzzles and objectives work against everything its boy-and-beast bond brings to the table. Worse, knowing intellectually how to work your way through these rote challenges but being unable to convince the companion AI to performing its duties will almost certainly break your immersion as you struggle to figure out how to make the game play itself.
Despite these frustrations, though, the good greatly outweighs the bad. The Last Guardian seems, in many respects, like an important next step for game technology and character design. Again, it's a game about trust: The creator's trust that players will tolerate certain inconveniences for an emotional payoff, and the player's trust that this inelegant interface and interaction will indeed lead someplace worthwhile. Thankfully, it does. It's a rough, sometimes clumsy game despite all its years of development... but when it works, it succeeds in ways that, yes, no game ever has before.
The Nitty Gritty
- Interface: The definition of inelegance: A clumsy control scheme and a recalcitrant companion make for a wildly maddening adventure.
- Lasting appeal: A run through the game should only take 12-15 hours to complete, but it's hard to resist jumping immediately into New Game + (and hunting for hidden goods) after those credits roll.
- Sound: Sparing music appears only where it counts (you hear a lot more of it in the climactic latter quarter of the game), allowing Trico to communicate mood and intent through its bestial sounds.
- Visuals: Just beautiful. Ueda's trademark monochrome slowly breaks apart into a sun-dappled world of color as you roam. And Trico itself is just unbelievable.
Playing The Last Guardian reminds me a lot of playing Half-Life games: The actual moment-to-moment of working my way through the game involves an enormous amount of frustration and annoyance... but when I look back at it, all I see are the happy memories of the experience. That's due in large part to the incredible design of Trico, and also to the spectacular emotive ending. Make no mistake, though, you will want to tear your hair out throughout your journey with Trico... but patient players will find the payoff justifies the suffering.
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