From the first few notes of the song Overture Lore, we are asked to feel. It’s subtle. The song is quiet and slow, with singularly pressed piano keys and lulling voices. And, unconsciously, we are pulled into the nameless world of the Last Guardian, which is a story of a Boy, and a beast. Images flash by to accompany the opening credits, images of fantastic creatures that don’t exist in our world. Marvelous things drawn in black ink with ancestral names. And then, the last title card is show to us before we are pushed into the world of the Last Guardian: it is an image of a strange creature, a beast called Trico.
We see the ground, and something in the ground. A disc, perhaps? It is brown, and rough, but there is a mystery to it. A green glow. A shadow falls over that green glow, and the story begins. We awake as the Boy. He does not have a name, or at least, his name is not known to us as the player. Immediately there is a sense of otherness, of the foreign, and it is invoked the same way in Fumito Ueda’s previous masterpieces—Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. The Boy stands, and we as the player are given control. With utter reverence, Trico is revealed to us. The beast is armored, and wounded—there are spears sticking out of its feathered hide—and it seems uncertain and afraid, perhaps angry. We are given no vocal cues on hand, and aside from the past-tense narration from the (what we are to assume) older version of the Boy, there is little to guide us. The room is small and cramped, mostly stone and archaic, runic architecture, with nothing to do but to climb. And so we do. We climb, and we find a switch, and a barrel.
Part of The Last Guardian’s infectious charm is the budding relationship between Trico and the Boy. In fact, one could argue that this is the game, the subtle and strong interactions between the pair, and the moments when they begin to trust one another. The Boy grabs a barrel—overlarge for him, and glowing, and fluttering with butterflies—and we give it to Trico. The animal is uncertain. It’s hurt. And so the game’s nuanced tutorial directs us to pull the spears from the beast’s hide. This is one of many gameplay mechanics that will become as unconscious as the relationship itself, an automatic give and take between Trico and the Boy. Trico saves the Boy from danger, the Boy helps and heals Trico. And with the spears pulled out, and the Boy safely far away, the anxious and grand animal can consume the barrel…which is as mysterious as the beast itself.
As the Boy is given no name, Trico is given no gender. Fumito Ueda is famous for his storytelling mysteries, and equally famous for the subtle symbolism that permeates his creations. Why is the boy now covered in strange markings? Why is the beast covered in broken, damaged armor? Why do Trico’s wings appear shorn? And, most importantly, what is Trico? Trico stands gargantuan over the Boy, but exhibits the same youth the Boy himself has. Trico stands on what appear to be birdlike legs, and the beast is covered in feathers. Trico exhibits the mannerisms of a puppy, but has a kitten-like face. Its back sports wings, and it has the tail of a rat. And that tail?
That tail. The strange, buried object from the opening scene is immediately revealed to us as a shiny, reflective shield—and when that shield is pointed at something, a static violet burst of electricity sparks from Trico’s nearly-sentient tail, destroying any target marked by the light of the strange shield. With the controls understood, and the Boy guiding Trico— “Toriko (portmanteau of ‘bird’ and ‘cat’ in Japanese)” —with his voice, we are on our way out of the ruins and confined spaces and into the open, awe-inspiring vistas of the mysterious ‘Nest.’ Is it the place of Trico’s birth? Is it a haven, or a prison? The only truths we are allowed are the ones we can understand with our own eyes: It is a place of endless beauty, a garden of lush green trees and broken stone pillars and endless flapping butterflies and flying white doves and crawling black lizards. A place that simultaneously evokes the glory of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, combining the factors of both games together into a puzzling, adventurous, wondrous kingdom.
The Boy and Trico exist at one another’s beck and call. The Boy can shout for Trico, and Trico will plainly make known its demands for the Boy. Puzzles are solved by using the combined teamwork of both beast and boy; The Boy can climb up on Trico back to reach higher ledges, and Trico and jump across massive chasms to reach new areas. If Trico is distracted by a harmful roadblock or painful smell, the Boy can remove these things for him. And if either partner is attacked by the strange, terrifying statues with their glowing green eyes and robotic mannerisms, the Boy can tackle them—but it is Trico who shines. The beast is angered by anything that tries to hurt it, and with jumps and swipes and honks and roars it will eliminate all dangers from the Boy’s path. Quickly the relationship blossoms. But things also become vastly more complex.
Within the first few hours of the game every control, facet, and design is revealed. The player is subtly given all the knowledge required to play, and the rest is nuance and exploration and understanding. We learn by doing. The Boy can pet the bloodstains out of Trico’s feathery hide. Trico will make quiet cues for the boy if he is bothered by a particular puzzle. If there is something of interest high up or far away, Trico will look in that direction and let loose one of its honking, barking cries. And all the while, endlessly ascending the Nest, the great Tower is in view. The Tower that bothers Trico every time it sees it, the Tower that feels so ominous, and eventual, and ending.
The mechanics of the relationship in the Last Guardian truly are profound. Simple actions such as petting or jumping or yelling lead to infinite combinations, and Trico has its own ideas for how to make it through the labyrinthine designs of the Nest. As the player, many of us will enter the Last Guardian with the belief that it is a video game, a piece of simple enjoyment that contains machinations that ought to obey our every whim. And yet this mentality is a complete betrayal of Trico’s behaviors and the budding relationship between it and the Boy. Yes, Trico is an animal contained within a video game, but its intelligence is complex and thoughtful. We, as the player, have our own ideas of how to solve puzzles and move on. Our eye is distracted by beauty and complexity and action; Trico’s is as well. Allowing Trico the same respect that we are allowed as the player buds a much richer and more rewarding experience of the Last Guardian. Trico isn’t simply a tool to make it through the game and see the credits roll, it is a creature on its own, and it deserves patience and thought. Despite a dozen hours with the game, I don’t think I ever became used to Trico’s incredible size, the intelligence in its dark (and often-glowing) eyes, or its ability to think for itself, and go where it wanted to go.
One thing (of many) that the Last Guardian does so well is seamlessly blend the story with the action. There are no cutscenes during the gameplay segments of the Last Guardian…or are there? One action blends so seamlessly into the next, that many of the game’s most shocking and unbelievable moments will fall onto the ‘scripted’ plane, and yet the player will not even realize it because there is no load time, no cut to black, no control taken away. The Boy and Trico move through the harrowing, crumbling necropolis of the Nest, and oftentimes we as the player are left wondering…how much control did we have? Are we playing the game, or is the game letting us play it? And this unending complexity comes in even stronger during the final moments of the game, when ascending the Nest is a life or death situation, when moment after moment induces shock, terror, and rage, when the final climb for the end is so desired, so wanted, that we believe the strength between the Boy and Trico is nigh-unbreakable. And it is.
Fumito Ueda and his team did many things right with the Last Guardian. They did many things wrong. And this imperfectness, this very obvious care and the cracks within it are exactly what has made Ico and Shadow of the Colossus cult hits, some of the only games in video game history that have gained the inarguable status of ‘high art.’ The Last Guardian is no different. With each of its frustrations comes joy, comes glory, comes shock and awe. The relationship between the Boy and Trico is not only believable—it’s real. Where Ico and Shadow of the Colossus left storytelling completely to subtlety, the Last Guardian becomes somewhat of a traditionalist. The story is given to us (and it is beautiful, and painful), but the true story is forged by the players and how they choose to exist with Trico. Solving a puzzle and rushing over a crumbling wooden bridge, fearing the chasms below, is as much the Last Guardian as standing on a ledge, looking out into the beauty of the Nest and marveling at the size and complexity of Trico. Petting Trico until it falls asleep is as much the Last Guardian as watching the brutal, gut-wrenching final act.
The Last Guardian is not a lengthy game, nor should it be. There are no levels, there are no stats, there are no equippable items. There is almost no speech, there are almost no cutscenes, and the world is small. And yet, despite all the many things that Fumito Ueda’s lack compared to other big budget titles, his team’s games are simply better. This is storytelling. This is real, true, raw emotion. The Last Guardian will get inside you and become a part of you and will irrevocably alter the way you see the world, relationships, pets, and video games. Does the Boy belong to Trico? Does Trico belong to the Boy? And after the final credits fall and the final scene is watched, will the world feel the same to you at all? What is accomplished in the Last Guardian’s few hours is something that simply has to be experienced, and despite my praise, I have revealed almost none of the parts of the game that truly stand out as extraordinary. I have seen many people say that we don’t deserve video games like the Last Guardian, and we don’t. No one does. Simply play it, enjoy it, experience it for yourself, and be thankful that there truly is goodness in this world—tucked away in a video game, pined after for years, beheld in the eyes of a truly majestic creature called Trico.