The Last Guardian is arguably a victim, not just of its lengthy development hell, but also of its own predecessors’ success. Ico and Shadow of the Colossus were both revolutionary games whose ideas have since trickled into the mainstream, turning their creator Fumito Ueda into a critical darling of the industry.. In drawing from the same toolkit as those games The Last Guardian inevitably is unable to replicate the same feeling of newness that those games had; and in that regard it is also the least important of the three.
In spite of that, it might actually be the best.
But in this case a statement like that is even more subjective and tendentious than usual, for the manner in which The Last Guardian does break with and innovate upon its forbears is also the one which is guaranteed to be divisive: its willingness to wrench a sizable chunk of agency away from the player in order to give it to a large, fluffy AI. Many modern video games have, of course, limited player freedom and been heavily scripted, usually under the pretense of making the game more “cinematic”. The Last Guardian instead opts to just frequently put you into situations where you are powerless to do anything but just hope things unfold for the best. And that will either turn the experience into one of hair-tearing frustration, or one which becomes uniquely emotional in its inversion of a lot of typical video game mechanics.
Since my recent post at Beneath the Tangles summarized the premise of The Last Guardian, I’d might as well quote myself here:
The game, true to Ueda’s style, is a rather oblique fantasy scenario where very little is explained to the player. You play as a boy who awakens to find himself trapped in some decaying ruins alongside a rather large animal called Trico. Trico looks like an assemblage of feline and avian features, but mostly behaves like a large dog. Although initially fearful of each other, the boy and Trico quickly realize that they need each other to escape their mysterious prison, and eventually come to see each other as affectionate companions on their journey. Much of the game is little more than a series of simple logistical puzzles in getting both the boy and Trico from point A to point B.
I went on to remark about how the boy felt purposefully clumsy to control, and how Trico, like a semi-trained dog, doesn’t always respond properly (if at all) to your own prompts. The closest thing the boy has to an attack is to just slam himself into something – it’ll momentarily stun the eerie animated armors that prowl about, but otherwise doesn’t do much. Trico has the brawn, you have the brains.
This turns the game into both an iteration of and an inversion of Ico, which saw you escort a helpless blind princess through platforming puzzles while you fend off enemies. Although you still have a guiding role here, you are instead the helpless one who must frequently place your life in the
hands paws of your companion.
The success of this boils down to whether you find Trico to be a convincing “performance”, and it certainly was for me. Shadow of the Colossus managed to make a completely non-anthropomorphized horse one of the most sympathetic NPCs of all time. The Last Guardian builds upon that knack for artificial animal companionship on a larger scale. In particular, with Trico the developers managed to hit just the right note between “big cuddly dog” and “fearsome beast”. The experience is a bit like if a Lion or Polar Bear wanted to be your friend; cute, but you can’t forget that it could easily rip you apart.
Which leads me to another thought. In spite of the game’s artsy pretensions, the whole thing reminded me a lot of a classic Steven Spielberg film. It’s an unabashedly sentimental story filled with daring set pieces, and it attempts to recreate a childlike gee-whiz sense of adventure and awe. It’s a bit like a Jurassic Park with the tearjerker elements of E.T. injected into it. So while I can understand why some people have found it a bit trite, it nevertheless managed to pluck at my heartstrings – and then go for the jugular.
The minimalist plot (which, in Ico and Shadow, was used more for a solemn, dramatic effect) here only dovetails with this: by boiling the story down to its basics the game is able to hit its emotional notes in a more elemental fashion than a complex script would have been able to do. And in that regard, although The Last Guardian isn’t really children’s entertainment, it better understands how a child’s point of view works than most stuff of that kind does.
The Last Guardian is also a beautifully animated game. If successful character animation is the sort that convincingly creates the illusion that a bunch of lines on paper (or pixels on the screen) is a living, breathing thing, then the boy is a complete success. This is the most convincing portrayal of a child that I’ve seen in a video game. This is partly because the game has him move realistically at the expense of the player’s own controls, which is perhaps a questionable sacrifice to make, but as an animation buff it’s one I’m ok with. I instantly took to the kid and just liked watching how he would react to his environment. In contrast to almost every modern AAA game (and even modern Disney) there were never any moments where I felt the uncanny valley rear its ugly head.
The water also deserves mention: as silly as it sounds, this is the best depiction of water I’ve ever seen in a game. The swimming sections felt tangibly wet and cool, and I didn’t need some expensive VR helmet to get that.
In spite of my enthusiasms, the game isn’t without its sore points. Although it can be quite beautiful to look at, the game’s framerate can be quite janky. And, continuing a trend from Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, the camera is revealed to be the true antagonist of the game; sections of the game can feel more like you’re just wrestling with the camera more than anything else. The collision detection also doesn’t always behave properly, with the boy at times plummeting to his death as a result.
Finally, the game’s own mechanics clash a bit with each other. The Last Guardian typically takes a hands-off approach, allowing you to figure out the correct path without immersion-breaking signposts. But combined with Trico’s AI this can lead to some frustrating experiences. Trico may not do what you want him to, and you can be unsure as to whether this is because A) You’re doing the wrong thing, or B) You’re doing the right thing and Trico’s just being recalcitrant.
At the same time, I can’t think of a way you could resolve this problem without compromising on either aspect of the game, so it’s a matter of whether what the game wants to do is agreeable enough to get you to put up with these frustrations.
The Last Guardian ultimately feels like an exercise in formally pushing the the concepts that emerged from Ico and Shadow of the Colossus to their limits. Any more and you’d probably no longer have anything that could be described as a video game. I don’t think there’s much more Ueda can really do with the ideas he’s been working on these past seventeen years or so, and part of me hopes that he’ll move on to something entirely different next. As is stands, it’s a pretty great (if long delayed) end to this trilogy of sorts.