Have you ever seen a dog about to jump into a pool for the very first time? It’s one of life’s great pleasures. The dog’s excited and afraid. It paws at the water hesitantly, preparing to leap in, then backs away at the last minute, because who know knows what the hell is going on in there. Then it’ll come back because the water’s so enticing. This will go on until the dog finally finds the courage to take the leap and discover that the pool is pure ecstasy. I’ve never been as excited about anything in my life as much as a dog can get excited about a pool.
The Last Guardian, which after a decade in development is one of the most hotly anticipated games ever, expertly recreates that marvelous sight, only instead of a dog it’s a giant bird-dog-dragon hybrid creature named Trico.
Like game director Famito Ueda’s other two masterpieces, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, The Last Guardian drops you into its world without much context. You take control of an adorable, tattooed kid who wakes up in a mysterious chamber alongside this beast. Trico is afraid, but it also needs help with a spear that’s lodged in its side. The only way out of the chamber and the greater temple outside is for this unlikely pair to work together.
The boy can get his little hands on items like the spear, crawl through small passages, and manipulate switches. Trico, for his part, can tear down obstacles, stomp on enemies, and leap across great chasms while the boy holds on to its feathers for dear life. You control the boy as you would any other game character, but getting Trico to do something isn’t exactly a science. You kind of have to ask repeatedly and hope it catches your drift. Sometimes, much as with a real dog, it just doesn’t care.
There are few on-screen prompts to explain how the controls work, but The Last Guardian, both in its fiction and puzzles, is something the two have to figure out together. It’s a barren world of mossy ruins and crumbling bridges—something ancient and magical—and it would probably be terrifying if I wasn’t doing it with my giant feathered friend.
I say “friend” for lack of a more accurate word. We say that dog is man’s best friend, but if you’ve ever had a dog you know that “friendship” doesn’t quite cut it as a way to define that relationship.
I never had a dog until last year, when I adopted a mutt we named Gordo. A few months later, I got why dog people are crazy, and promptly became a crazy dog person myself. Having a dog is not just like having a friend: It’s a unique relationship, in the same way that sibling, parental, and romantic relationships are in their own categories. It also feels essential. Dogs and humans evolved alongside each other for thousands of years for mutually beneficial reasons. Humans got companionship, anxiety relief, and loyal bodyguards, while dogs got shelter, food, and head scratches.
My own little Trico named Gordo. Image: Emanuel Maiberg/Motherboard
Other than trying to convince you to adopt a dog, I am saying all of this in order to illustrate that the bond you develop with a dog is deep, complex, and meaningful in a way that’s hard to put into words, which makes The Last Guardian that much more impressive. It manages to convey the main beats of that ancient relationship in a way that’s unique to video games.
It would have been easy for The Last Guardian to render some horrifically fluffy puppy creature, then put it through the ringer for emotional affect. Yet Trico is not cute in any predictable way; instead, the beast tugs at emotional strings with masterfully realized body language and subtle movements of its ears, which fold back when it’s afraid, turn in the direction of noise, and perk up when it’s alert.
Small, believable moments—like getting Trico to jump into a lake, shake off the water, and scratch behind his ear—help sell the big moments, like holding on to Trico by the scruff as he runs and jumps off a crumbling bridge miles up in the air. In most games, big set pieces work because they look neat or because the player gets to do something they haven’t done before. In The Last Guardian, the set pieces work because I actually cared about what would happen to these characters.
It accomplishes this feat with some of the best animation I’ve seen in a video game. In other areas, The Last Guardian can’t compete technically. It began as a PlayStation 3 project in 2007, and that’s exactly what it looks like, down to the muddy textures, low framerates, and camera collision issues. A game in 2016 has to be exceptional to overcome these drawbacks, and that’s what The Last Guardian is.
I’ve struggled to give a damn about video games for the last couple of months, especially because so many of them are exclusively about violence and exerting power. Trying to wrangle into Trico following me, in the same way that I sometimes have to beg Gordo to not lick his butt so much, is not exactly a power fantasy, but a much welcomed change of pace. Rather than making me feel powerful, The Last Guardian is more concerned with making me care about something other than myself.
This more tender, vulnerable mood is at the center of Ueda’s previous games, and it wasn’t until I started playing The Last Guardian that I realized it’s one that’s been sorely missing in video games for the last decade.
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