The first week of January is traditional reserved for #hot #takes on the year ahead, looking at the biggest games on the way, trends to come, and generally making the most of the fact the new year is an easy hook for an article. Here at Outermode though, we’re better than that (read: too disorganized to plan anything of the sort). So instead, I’m looking back at The Year That Must Not Be Named one final time, to write properly about one of my games of the year: The Last Guardian.

For those who don’t know, The Last Guardian is a PS4-exclusive puzzle-platformer-adventure thing that sees you play as a young boy stranded in an abandoned castle, trying to escape. You’re not alone though. From the opening moments on, you’re accompanied by Trico, a giant, lumbering beast, a sort of 30-foot cat-bird hybrid, and for all of the game’s cinematic platforming and beautiful design work, it’s Trico that elevates The Last Guardian to one of last year’s finest.

Trico is one of gaming’s most realistic AI creatures yet, mostly because he is so believably wild. When you first discover him, wounded and starving, he is desperate and aggressive. Through time (and feeding him regular barrels of food) you can slowly break past that aggression, earning his trust, and eventually even affection. The same relationship slowly builds up in the other direction as well, in one of the game’s underappreciated master strokes – I’d be hard-pressed to think of a more powerful videogame moment last year than the first moment the game asks you to take a leap of faith, diving out into the open air in the desperate hope that Trico will understand – and care – enough to grab you mid-air. It was one of the first times a game has ever asked me to put my survival entirely in the hands of another creature, to make me vulnerable in front of it, a thrilling inversion of the AAA power fantasies we’re so used to.

The Last Guardian is one long escort mission from the mirror universe.”

Because that’s really The Last Guardian’s most powerful surprise. After years of games spent escorting weaker NPCs around, protecting them from attack and taking responsibility for their safety, The Last Guardian forces us into the position of weakness. Not only does the boy need Trico to make death-defying jumps or lift him up to heights he could never reach on his own, the boy (and thus the player) is also entirely reliant on Trico for protection, for safety. When the castle’s worryingly animate suits of armor attack, it’s Trico alone that has the means to effectively eliminate them, while the player is left at best in a support role – and often simply running for safety. We’re not the all-conquering hero, nor even the equal part of a partnership (at least not when it comes to combat). The entirety of The Last Guardian is one long escort mission from the mirror universe, where the NPC is stuck looking after the helpless player, protecting us, shielding us, scrambling after us when we’re under attack.

It’s remarkable how little control the game gives you during the early fights, though admittedly the player becomes more impactful later on as it slowly builds in new mechanics and enemy types. Though even as you gain more control over combat, you remain just as powerless with regard to one of the game’s most controversial elements: controlling Trico. You see, after a while the game gives you the ability to issue simple commands to Trico, directing him to go in a certain direction, climb up, attack certain enemies, and similar. But as anyone who’s ever owned a pet or met any animal ever will know, they have a frustrating tendency to do what they want, and not blindly follow instructions (pesky free will). Trico is much the same.

At times, he’ll bound ahead, leaving you dashing and scrambling to keep up. At other points he might head off in the wrong direction, or back where you came from, leaving you to gently turn him around. Sometimes he gets distracted by objects in the environment that you need to lead him away from. And sometimes, for no apparent reason at all, he just stands around, doing nothing, bluntly refusing to move or obey a single one of your instructions. I once spent ten minutes trying to persuade Trico to dive through a pool, before he finally, eventually did – without me on his back, making the whole thing pointless. To call it frustrating would really fail to convey the sheer range and depth of emotions I felt during these moments. At times it made me as angry as any game I’ve ever played (I’m looking at you, Stardew Valley). At others bored out my mind. But always, always, in awe. In awe of the realism of the AI. In awe of the boldness of the development team for leaving these moments in the game. In awe of the game itself for building these frustrations into the power of the experience.

For if The Last Guardian is about any one thing (and, like all art, it’s really about loads of things, but who doesn’t love a bit of reductionism to make a point?) it’s about ceding control. In a medium where we expect totally customized experiences, where we obsess over control mappings and latency, where Microsoft can charge $150 for an ‘Elite’ controller, there’s something terrifying about a game that demands you give all that up. It’s disconcerting to sit back and let another character take care of a fight, to wait for them to be good and ready to move on to the next section.

“The world isn’t within your control. Your life isn’t within your control.”

But that’s life. We don’t have nearly as much control as we’d like, or nearly as often. And sure, for some gaming might be an escape from that, to a world where satisfaction is simply a matter of mastery and control – the Dark Souls games in particular offer the tantalising idea that success is entirely within your control, that time and self-discipline will get you there if only you keep at it. But, in the nicest possible way, that’s total fucking bullshit. The world isn’t within your control. Your life isn’t within your control. Hell, you yourself aren’t within your control. You’re a confused mess of hormones, instincts, and paranoid delusions, and the best you can hope for is to drag yourself through life with the illusion of control intact.

Or you can accept your lack of control. Come to terms with it. Learn that your life is one big Trico, stopping and starting and going in the wrong direction, getting distracted by nice smells and jangly chains, before eventually, haltingly, getting back on track. And at least if you’ve played The Last Guardian, you’ll know how to deal with it without hurling your metaphorical controller at the TV screen of life.

About The Author

Executive Editor

Dom thinks too much, acts too little, and probably needs to get out more, to be honest. He writes about games, films, and life and stuff.

Related Posts