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.
Perhaps the strangest thing about The Last Guardian: Once the game ends, you're not entirely sure what the whole thing was all about.
Fumito Ueda's latest adventure spans a fair bit more time and space than its direct predecessor, Ico, but it does no more to explicate its underlying mysteries for players than the older game did. In fact, despite the omnipresent narration that runs throughout Guardian, Ueda arguably does less to elucidate the nature of the world in which the game has been set than he did in Ico. The running narration does very little to explain the nature of the ancient ruins that serve as the adventure's setting; it's really meant more as an oblique form of serving up gameplay tips than to shed any real light on the story.
By the end of the game, you know nothing in particular about the nature of the ruins or the bizarre entity that seemingly controls it. Even Trico, your magnificent dragon-like companion, remains an enigma. All you can really know as the player is what your young on-screen avatar witnesses for himself; while you're free to infer or deduce conclusions from observation, very little is stated directly.
At least in Ico you could reasonably conclude that the powerful sorceress who worked to thwart Ico and Yorda's journey was likely Yorda's mother, driven to recapture her daughter rather than cause direct harm. Meanwhile, most players deduced the shadowy creatures who served the queen had once been young captive boys, and that the queen's ultimate design for Ico was to turn him into a similar wraith. Much of this became clear in Ico's second playthrough, wherein (outside of the original U.S. release of the game) Yorda's indecipherable speech gained natural-language subtitles, literally rending subtext into text. The Last Guardian, however, offers no such nicety, leaving players to sort through the enigma of the tower valley on their own.
The closest the narrative comes to making anything truly explicit arrives in Guardian's climax, wherein the player is forced to deal with an enigmatic power that lurks at the pinnacle of the valley's tallest tower. Like Ico's wraiths, the master of the valley appears to be a creature of shadow, but unlike the queen's servants in the older game it can't be harmed through physical means. You can only force it to withdraw into itself by casting light from the mysterious mirror shield at it, ultimately using the shield to help destroy the shadow being once and for all.
The shield's role in the final conflict offers intriguing clues to the truth of the underlying story while simultaneously creating the through lines that help connect the narrative to the play mechanics. Clever fans have gathered visual references throughout the game to plot the duo's trek through the ruins, ultimately determining that much of the journey consists of an ascent up the central tower. The central tower, of course, serves as the home of the valley's master, as well as the enigmatic device into which Trico and his kin are meant to deposit captive children in exchange for food (which itself raises many unanswered questions about the nature of energy canisters that feed the dragons, the fate and purpose of the "chosen one" children deposited there, and the fact that the receptacle seemingly mimics a parent dragon feeding its young). But there's more to it than that: The cave where Trico is shackled after its failed outing to capture the boy, along with the cairn in which the protagonist discovers the mirror shield, are located in the tower's base. This suggests a relationship between the shield, its original possessor, and the master of the valley... but what, precisely?
Equally mysterious is the seeming connection between the master, the undead "armor" beings that attempt to capture the boy throughout the game, and the mystic runes they use to bind the hero. The shadowy master appears to be the nexus of all things throughout the game: If you cast the mirror's light at the shadow for too long (or if you make contact with the spiny protuberances it generates), it counterattacks with the same runes the armors emit. Likewise, the master's chamber is lined with dozens of doors that appear to be identical to the ones that the armor beings attempt to carry you back to, suggesting that when you're captured and dragged to a game over, it's because you've been fed directly into the master's chamber to suffer whatever nefarious purpose it is that the shadowy sphere holds for its young victims.
While the bond between Trico and the boy serve as Guardian's emotional core, the mysterious force that rules the valley exists as the engine that drives the game. Calling it an "engine" is barely even a metaphor so much as a literal statement: The master seems practically enslaved to a complex, spinning mechanism that either drives the valley or draws power from it. (You can make a case either way: Like an overclocked computer processor, the master requires a complex cooling system, and the rooms immediately adjacent to its inner sanctum are coated with ice... though the master's lair itself, while also clearly frigid, contains pools of what appears to be meltwater in its lower portions.) The master's defeat also brings about the collapse of the tower and the death of its enslaved dragons — a fate spared only Trico, whose slave apparatus (and connection to the master) is severed by the foundational incident that brings the boy to the valley and causes Trico to become persona non grata among the tower's forces.
What's never explained is the mysterious power the mirror has over the master and over its draconic slaves. Why does the mirror cause the master to shrink and recoil? Why does it cause Trico (and only Trico) to emit targeted beams of destructive energy? Why don't the enslaved creatures respond to the mirror? What relationship do the stained-glass eyes that cow and corral Trico have to the mirror and the master?
The game explains nothing in explicit terms, leaving you to puzzle through these and other mysteries yourself. Did the mirror once belong to some sort of warlord who commanded an army of dragons, deposed by the shadowy creature that dominates the tower? Or is the master the same as the mirror's owner, corrupted by power in a quest for immortality? What kind of symbiosis does the master have with the dragons and the children those creatures venture out to abduct in the night? Intriguing questions all — but ultimately, not the point of the game.
No, all that ultimately matters about The Last Guardian is the relationship between Trico and the boy. All these other factors shape that connection and steer the game mechanics, to be sure, but they really serve as narrative scenery: Background details that exist to allow the core story to come more sharply to the fore. They also tie closely into the way the game plays, turning core mechanics — the mirror, Trico's lightning, the final boss, and more — into enigmatic story elements. I have no doubt that Ueda and his team put together a detailed story bible, as with many games... but unlike many other games, there's no indication that Guardian's creators felt pressured to spill those details, to force players to read up on supplementary material in order to be able to enjoy the game... and to keep them thinking about it long after the adventure has ended. It's a rare trick, and The Last Guardian pulls it off better than any other mainstream release in recent memory.
Next week: We jump off Shinra's train and infiltrate Final Fantasy VII.