The Last Guardian: a lesson in trust

I have a huge fondness for both ICO and The Shadow of the Colossus, so a Christmas present of The Last Guardian was very gratefully received. It’s this game that has helped me stick to my New Year’s resolution to play more video games during the first week of January after buying a new house and moving to a different town left little time for gaming last year.

If you haven’t already played the title and intend to do so, you may wish to stop reading now and come back later. This article is as spoiler-free as possible but final paragraph contains details about the end of the game.

Most people will be aware that one of the stars of the title is Trico, a giant griffin-like creature whose name can be taken to mean ‘prisoner’, ‘baby bird’ or a portmanteau of ‘bird’ and ‘cat’ in Japanese. He behaves much like a domesticated animal and this has been a source of frustration for some players: while reviews have been generally favourable, some critics feel that ‘a realistic interpretation of a house pet makes for terrible gameplay’.

Creator Fumita Uedo was asked about Trico’s ‘disobedient behaviour’ in an interview with Eurogamer last year and confirmed that the design was intentional. He said:

It’s something that’s deliberate in the game. There is a worry that it might stress out some people out there. But this game isn’t continual action, it’s not fast-paced. Whether people stress out about that is down to personal preference.

For me, this is what made The Last Guardian as thoughtful and touching as I found it to be. Yes, it can be extremely annoying when you need Trico’s help to reach a ledge and all he wants to do is clean his feathers or play with a nearby chain. But at the same time, it creates one of the most believable bonds between a human and animal within a video game.

Link, Zelda, cats

My other-half and I decided to get a cat when we moved into our new home late last year and after visiting the local Cats Protection branch, we ended adopting not one but a pair. Their history isn’t clear but some ‘challenges’ we’ve faced over the past two months have given us reason to believe they’ve had a bit of a rough time. Link and Zelda (as we’ve chosen to name them) are slowly becoming more trusting of us although we’ve got some way to go yet.

Perhaps that experience has something to do with why The Last Guardian resonated with me. Your character is a young boy who awakes to find himself trapped in a strange cave with Trico, who it’s obvious has been mistreated and is badly hurt. Your initial attempts at helping get you slammed across the wall and knocked unconscious; but slowly the creature starts to become used to your presence, even accepting some food and letting you pull bloody spears from his body.

Over time the protagonists learn more about themselves and each other, even finding a way to communicate. That doesn’t mean that Trico will do exactly as he’s told however: he might choose to ignore your commands in favour of watching nearby birds take flight or giving you an affectionate nuzzle. But if the player was able to simply order the creature around like a tool, The Last Guardian wouldn’t be nearly as effective.

The relationship between the two characters strengthens over the course of the title and is built on trust. When Trico can’t move because he’s scared of the stained-glass eyes dotted around the environment, it paints a picture of the traumatic conditioning he’s been subjected to and it’s up to you to smash the artefacts to pieces. When you’re trapped on the other side of a canyon, Trico mewls at you to give you the confidence to make the jump and catches you before you plummet.

But it’s not only the creature who cares for the boy and fights for his life. It’s clear to see how much he means to the people from his home village too when they risk their safety as he’s taken at the beginning of the game, and do so again when he’s returned by the animal who abducted him. It makes the player feel even more for Trico as he has no place in the world: not only is he feared by humans, he’s assaulted and left by his own kind too.

As I made it to the end and watched The Last Guardian’s final cutscene last weekend, I couldn’t help but brush away a tear and give Link and Zelda a tickle behind the ears. I’m going to miss Trico.

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