MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD – Just a few situational images.
Now, this game is… emotional, to say the least. It is also frustrating, beautiful, masterful, brilliant, stupid, confusing, and flawed. The Last Guardian is a tiring way to experience a magnificent story.
It’s a little difficult to pin down what The Last Guardian exactly is. It’s a video game – yes I get that – but it is also more, and it’s also less. Therefore, I’m going to break this down into two parts. Firstly, how The Last Guardian enables itself to be more than a video game, and, secondly, why it’s a severely lacking video game – and this is as much for you, as the reader, as it is for me because this game has just dragged me on an emotional trip of ecstasy and frustration, and I’d like to get this out and share it with anyone who’s interested. Hopefully, it resonates with some.
The Last Guardian follows the experience that is the relationship between an unnamed boy and a griffin – Trico. They work together to solve puzzles, defeat mindless and haunting foes, and traverse crumbling towers to escape the prison they’ve both been abandoned in. It’s so much more than this, but let’s just start here anyway.
As you wake, forgotten and lost, in a cave, it becomes immediately apparent that you – as the boy – will need the help of this hurt and shackled ‘beast’, as the boy deems him, to escape. I don’t have any footage of this, so you’ll just have to imagine. As you do so, yourself and Trico come to rely on one another, to trust each other, in dire and exploratory situations. A relationship between the unlikeliest of friends begins to develop. And this relationship is The Last Guardian. It is what narratively and emotionally drives the game forward. The player comes to admire the friendship they continually develop for the 12 or so hours they’re invested. There were times throughout the game where I was or could have been genuinely upset. Their story is tragic and beautiful, and the game’s director/designer – Fumito Ueda – takes great care in allowing the player to be a part of this experience.
At one stage of the game, the two emerge out onto a cliff. This cliff sits in a pocket of sunlight and is covered with wind-blown trees, wild grass, and ruined buildings. Here, in this small but vibrant area outside of our prison, I thought, ‘I could just sit here for a time and be. With my friend Trico to my side, we could just remain. Run around, explore, and have not a worry. But this area was only a taste of what they were longing for. They wanted more; they wanted to be free; so they continued on their way.
Strengthening the game’s feel for serenity in hopelessness is its art direction. This may be a little irrelevant, but look at this these leaves, they remind me of small paper origami figures. They’re amazingly captivating to look at. The world is desolate and peaceful, dangerous yet comforting, and it achieves this through a minimalist style. Similar to that of Shadow of the Colossus and Ico, the game hosts a minimal amount of characters, dialogue, and events. Instead, the aforementioned driving relationship is built through the interactivity between the boy and Trico; the way they learn each other’s tendencies and/or requests. The only way to aptly describe this is by labeling The Last Guardian as a kind of ride-a-long.
At times, the player must position the boy on top of Trico, motioning him to grip the griffin’s feathers and to not let go. Trico can then proceed to jump from platform to platform while the boy and the player simply hang on. You have no control over Trico, he will continue on for as long as he needs to, you are only playing the game to experience their journey and observe. It may sound frustrating or directly contradictory to what a video game can be, but it isn’t; it’s perfectly fitting for The Last Guardian and is one of the game’s strongest points.
Although the game succeeds at delivering a narrative experience – one in which I can only compare to Shadow of the Colossus – the mechanics that categorise The Last Guardian as a video game are where it fails to maintain the analysed degree of excellence.
It becomes a little more forgiving towards the end, but the game doesn’t tell the player what they can and cannot do. There are no set boundaries for exploration. For the most part, there are no set directions as to what ledge the boy can or is supposed to climb. I frequently felt frustrated when I was looking to progress, but couldn’t find the right way forward – I could see feasible paths forward based on the boy’s or Trico’s reach, but they weren’t the path intended for the player.
However, as I’m writing this, I can see the game from two perspectives. The one I’ve just explained, and the one that says that this is intentional. That this notion of unguided exploration fits in with the helplessness our two protagonists must feel in a suffocating environment. Having said this, I still feel the game doesn’t fully involve the player in whichever experience is intended. If Ueda intended to throw the player into the game with no hand-holds whatsoever, then, in my opinion, he definitely achieved this – maybe a little too much. Therefore, because the game doesn’t present clear player boundaries, you are left to fumble and linger in places you shouldn’t. And this is especially relevant to the game’s earlier sections as the player is still learning the game’s feel.
I have a third and somewhat gray area that doesn’t quite fit into what I liked but is an aspect that I feel needed to be present. That is, Trico. He can be frustrating. As the boy, and as I mentioned before, the player can learn to suggest actions – places to jump, directions to go – for Trico to follow. However, these actions are not always understood, and even when they are, they aren’t followed post haste or in a timely fashion. Trico can take his time in jumping to that ledge or that jutting tower. And this can be taxing on one’s patience for a video game – or patience in general for that matter. However, in my opinion, I think Trico’s reluctance to quickly follow orders aligns with the fact that he is a wild animal. Trico isn’t a tame griffin that the one can order around for player convenience. Trico is his own griffin, even if a little passive.
To be honest, I was ecstatic that I was finally going to experience The Last Guardian – another of Fumito Ueda’s creative experiences. Shadow of the Colossus is a game I term to be one of the greatest, and although I’ll have to digest The Last Guardian for a time more, the game truly showed qualities worthy of the wait. Even though the game possesses certain mechanics that can take away from its strengths in storytelling, these effects aren’t long-lasting. From completing the game, the relationship between the boy and Trico is what I’m left with. As I writing, the negative points surrounding gameplay don’t matter, they are points forgotten in a tale of friendship, perseverance, and hardship. Fumito Ueda is a master of his craft.