Ten years in the making, The Last Guardian needs less than ten minutes to forge an emotional connection. Taking the role of a young boy, you awaken in a cave next to an enormous cat-dog-bird, Trico, who is chained down and in pain. Your first action is not to advance your own position for your own gain, but to ease Trico’s suffering.
The Last Guardian builds upon this foundation of almost unquestioning benevolence with each passing hour of gameplay, your journey and Trico’s going nowhere if you don’t take the time to understand this strange animal’s needs and moods. This is a game that allegorizes the benefits of utilitarianism and certain approaches to Buddhism: Only by putting the group’s needs first can each individual gain happiness and achieve personal goals.
As such, The Last Guardian makes you want to be a better person. Trico’s strength is great, but his intelligence is limited and his childlike, unpredictable emotional state plays an enormous role in what he/she wants to do and will. This is not a companion creature of the tame, passive kind that typically appears in videogames. This is a semi-wild beast with a mind of its own. Despite being friendly with you, Trico does not consider you its master.
Director Fumito Ueda has delivered companion characters in the past with the girl in ICO and the horse in Shadow of the Colossus, but neither of those have the presence, intelligence and life of Trico. You want to progress through the game and solve its puzzles and mysteries, yes, but more than that you want Trico to remain safe and, like a real-life relationship, you want it to like you.
It’s a bizarre thing to say, perhaps, that one of the primary reasons for playing The Last Guardian is to convince a digital recreation of a fictional beast to feel something positive towards you, but therein rests the genius of this game. By bringing this kind of emotional response to the puzzle/action genre, Ueda has shown just how limiting the very term “video game” is when applied to this kind of work.
This is less game and more interactive lesson in empathy and humanity, every puzzle solved and jump successfully made done in an effort to support and nurture your companion. Trico is the big and sometimes fiercer entity, but it’s you who feels like the guardian.
Eventually events progress to the point where you and Trico are so familiar with each other that being hoisted up by its giant jaws and flung onto its back feels like a moment of genuine fondness and, dare I say, a development of some sort of love between the two characters onscreen. What starts off as an odd-couple pairing evolves into a symbol of trust and a vivid roadmap for that difficult journey toward deep mutual understanding with another.
In the face of this connection, The Last Guardian’s ‘gamey’ elements—overcoming brainteasers, dodging danger and sticking leaps and swings—become the bits that fall into the background. These simple acts of interaction are merely the verbs used to develop those empathetic sentences that work to further the bond between the two.
There are not anywhere near enough games prepared to concentrate on using interactivity as a tool towards greater emotion. On the evidence provided here, the video game medium as a whole is a poorer place because of it.