I finished The Last Guardian late at night a few days ago. I wrote a review the next morning, then promptly filed the game away so I could focus on other matters — standard game journalist procedure, really.
Well, that was the intent, anyway. In practice, my severance from The Last Guardian hasn't been quite so cut-and-dried. I haven't touched the game since Sunday night, but like I said, it resonates in a way that reminds me of Half-Life: Playing it may not be pure enjoyment thanks to its awkward controls and fussy, hands-off artificial intelligence that frequently complicates its environmental puzzles, but thinking back on it — that's a different story. I don't remember the frustration of trying to coax a monster into diving underwater at a precise location to solve a puzzle whose solution I grasped half an hour prior, or the inanity of trying to catapult an object into the ceiling when the physics engine seemed determine to prevent it from happening.
Instead, what I remember is Trico, the mysterious chimaera that serves as the player's constant companion throughout the adventure. I saw the protagonist's story, and Trico's, through to the very end... but for a couple of days after watching the game's epilogue, I experienced a bizarre sensation: I genuinely missed that creature. I spent three days roaming through crumbling ruins with Trico by my side, and once that quest had come to an end, I suffered from a sense of severed attachment similar to what you might experience after playing the role of dogsitter with a relative's good-natured pooch.
I'm not surprised in the least to have had such a profound sense of connection to a virtual animal, however. Even as I played the game, I caught myself being far more gentle and affectionate to Trico than makes any logical sense. Whenever the beast seemed frustrated or whined with unhappiness, I'd break from whatever in-game action I happened to be performing at the time to press the boy against the creature's feathers and pet him for reassurance. I felt a pang of guilt whenever I'd toss a barrel of food at Trico's face with too little room for the dragon-bird to respond in time, causing his lunch to smack his nose and elicit a yelp of unhappiness. And, of course, in the game's climactic hours, in which Trico increasingly needed to put itself in harm's way to protect me — I mean, protect the boy — I would rush with shaky urgency to find a way to help out.
As a game, The Last Guardian is honestly no great shakes. As I said in my review, it contains more or less bog-standard adventure game design that we've seen hundreds of times since Tomb Raider expanded the concepts of Prince of Persia and Out of This World into something that could work in 3D spaces. Fumito Ueda and his team have done very little to innovate the basic workings of 3D environmental puzzles: The boy climbs, drops, grapples, shimmies, and leaps exactly as you'd expect. His skill set essentially consists of everything that eponymous protagonist Ico could do in Ueda's debut adventure, 15 years ago.
What The Last Guardian offers over and above its peers is, well, Trico. Any adventure game can send you scrambling across ledges and inching along footholds above vertiginous drops. The Last Guardian does these things as well, but then it asks you to sit back while Trico bounds across vast spaces that the diminutive playable child could never hope to leap on his own. Trico is not presented as a vehicle, though, and this is not simply the Tomb Raider rendition of Titanfall. Trico is a companion, somewhere between a pet and a friend, dependent on the player in many respects but also willing (by the end of the game) to put its own life on the line for the player's avatar.
For a while, my overwhelming feeling while playing The Last Guardian was that its nature as a video game in many respects felt like a disservice to the story Ueda wanted to tell. Nothing about the game couldn't have been done in a movie, and a movie would have spared players the irritation of clumsy puzzle design and inconsistent A.I. Over the past decade or more, virtual and non-verbal sidekick characters have been something of a constant in animated films, from Monsters Inc.'s adorable toddler Boo to Toothless from How to Train Your Dragon. The tradition goes back a lot further than that, of course, but the advent of 3D computer-generated animated brought a substantive change to the medium — there's a world of difference between a wordless hand-drawn character and one rendered in CG. Hand-drawn animation tends to be far more expressive and dynamic than CG, but CG feels more grounded in reality. And for Trico to work, the character needed to feel real.
And it does. Sure, the illusion isn't perfect; Trico has a lot of canned animations that become conspicuous when they play out in sequence (there's way too much of the creature leaping a bit too far then scrabbling for purchase in precisely the same manner). And there are the usual clipping errors and other minor graphical flaws on display when you get up close and personal to the creature. In the game's best moments, however, the artifice melts away and all you see is Trico, your friend and companion, peering at you with a look of curiosity, or support, or eagerness.
I don't know exactly why The Last Guardian took seven years and a console cycle to go from announcement to release, but if I were to hazard a guess, I'd say it has little to do with the puzzle design or the environmental architecture of the game. Those are all very nice (especially the latter), but they're hardly anything that's never before been seen in games. Trico, on the other hand — now that's an accomplishment. It's not simply the way Trico moves and acts, but the way in which its movements and nonverbal attitude toward the player subtly evolve over the course of the game. And, of course, the fact that Trico's A.I. programming has been designed to take over from time to time and lead the way.
It's here that The Last Guardian probably delivers its greatest impact as a game. The partnership between the boy and the beast would have made for a lovely big-screen tale, but it could never have had nearly so profound a meaning as it does in a game. It's one thing to watch as a relationship unfolds; it's something else to be an active participant.
The game's greatest breakthrough moments come toward the end of the adventure's first third, as Trico finally begins to trust the strange little person that keeps feeding it and healing its injuries. Until that point, Trico simply follows along behind you, watching cautiously and following your lead — not with reluctance, precisely, but more as a matter of not having much other option. But then you reach a point at which you can no longer advance on foot as the boy, and Trico leaps (literally) the fore, bounding across an enormous gap unbidden. But even that doesn't compare to the moment at which Trico grabs the boy by his tunic, flings him into the air and onto its back, and starts off across a series of impossible gaps.
This scene works and becomes truly striking precisely because Trico takes control. The player, in that instant, loses all sense of agency and becomes simply a spectator to the events. The fact that you're rendered suddenly passive after several hours of being the game's prime mover speaks to a momentous shift in the nature of the game. It wouldn't work on film, because a viewer wouldn't be left with the striking sensation that matters were no longer in their hands. It wouldn't even work as an in-game cut scene, because gamers have been trained to relinquish control during cut scenes. Trico's leap into action takes place in real-time, pushing players to the side without fully sidelining them. It's a subtle distinction, but it matters for the same reason that Metal Gear Solid's real-time cut scenes felt like a vision of video gaming's future despite the lack of animated character faces: It's an exploration, and a subversion, of the interactive nature of games.
And Trico matters because it moves with all the fluidity and subtlety of a great Pixar character, but it does so in real time. It moves with the player, responds to the player, and in the final third of the adventure, works in tandem with the player toward the same common goal. Trico's design — its animations and audio cues — would represent world-class work in any medium. But the beast changes the game precisely because it belongs in a game; its actions and reactions aren't wholly scripted but instead seamlessly flow between predetermined movements and dynamic, on-the-spot responses. The illusion breaks sometimes, yes, and the game's reliance on the virtual whims of an A.I.-driven creature can be burdensome. But on the whole, Trico sets a new standard for the design and thinking behind companion characters. Just as countless developers imitated the relationship between Ico and Yorda after Ico arrived back in 2001, you can expect to see no end of A.I. companions that aim for the subtlety and sophistication of Trico.