A boy and his CPU Part 1 – communication in ‘The Last Guardian’

By Neil Merrett

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A game cannot have a soul in the traditional sense of the word – if such a thing exists at all.

Yet in true videogame form, the entire basis of The Last Guardian is built around the principle of making you believe there may be something organic and sentient within the programming of Trico, a gigantic cat-like dragon creature that protects and, in turn, needs the protection of the player as they travel through a haunted world.

The struggles of a person and a pet may be a popular trope in film and literature, yet technical limitations have limited the concept’s use in games to more simple affairs. For instance, the concept of a pet is often limited to summoning a creature to fight alongside you or performing simple pre-programmed commands.

What is unique about the Last Guardian, is that it plays like a single player cooperative game with a animal companion, albeit a giant one with the potential to eat you.

Trico fights for the player against haunted suits of armour and aids you in overcoming a silent, menacing tower, while also serving as a moving platform, using its tail and huge body for the player to scale and ride upon.  This allows you to reach new points and open up pathways for the giant beast to traverse,

It is both an incredibly simple gaming concept, while at the same time being a legitimate piece of technical mastercraft.

Just as with playing a game where the player is reliant on a real world friend, your playthrough will see Trico getting petulant, bored, and even acting up at times while you try to seriously tackle the game’s challenges.

One of the abilities given to the player later on is the option to try and communicate with Trico via the universal language of jumping, clapping, pointing or stomping.

Whether the creature understands is often seemingly down to being creative with how the player acts out their will.

The game is the follow up to the populer and hauntingly beautiful Shadow of the Colossus – a title that is considered a unique and introspective masterpiece of videogaming was itself only recently relaunched with a graphical overhaul on the PS4.

The Last Guardian, which was subject to ten years of development and delays, was released to mix reviews, with critics finding the game both ambitious yet frustrating.

Mike Fahey, writing for Kotaku during the game’s release in late 2016, noted that alongside being a unique and beautiful meditation on the camaraderie and bonds that can form between humans and animals, the game was also a reminder that “living creatures can be real assholes.”

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Fahey wrote, “The Last Guardian’s challenge lies is getting Trico to do what you want him to. After describing the creature control ups and downs to a coworker who hadn’t played the game, he said it sounded horrible. But he didn’t know Trico like I know Trico.”
“Time and time again the magnificent beast saved my life, risking his own to remain by my side. The lengths Trico goes to demonstrate his dedication are inspiring. If he wants to spend a couple of minutes sniffing a tower, who am I to deny him?”

The experience of playing through the Last Guardian is a temperamental one, perhaps reflecting some design flaws in how the creature operates. But whether it was fully intended or not by game director Fumito Ueda and his development team, the temperamental nature of the creature’s responses gives the game its sense of soul.

For that is the character of Trico, a towering mass of feathers and fuzz, with eyes that are mostly dark and expressionless, yet seem to look right into the player at times. It is designed to be a creature that is equal parts owl, cat, ladder and even a living lightning conductor.

The player, just like Trico is arguably the result of design and programming choices and glitches sometimes out of control. We are the product of decisions and choices that sometimes go awry or cause us to act in ways not always entirely intended, especially if we buy into the theory of nurture over nature,

As with any form of characterisation, any media’s success is often down to whether you believe in it characters.  In this case, The Last Guardian wants you to believe that Trico is some unwieldy, magical creature that is to be feared, admired and perhaps even cared for.

Games often have a different challenge in creating a sense of character than is the case for books and films. This is in part due to the player often being given a ludicrous amount of control of it surroundings and choices over how a character can progress in that world. They player knows a character’s health status and the limits of their abilities and is directly responsible for the story that unfolds.

Part of the Last Guardian’s appeal that that there is something unknowable in Trico and how it thinks and behaves.

For instance, does finding the mysterious glowing orbs that Trico feeds on actually improve your bond with the creature and allow him to better understand and trust the player when he is asked to wait patiently, sit up, or take a leap of faith in the unknown?

Will firms stamps on Trico’s head and a failure to clap and congratulate movements you intended undermine your ongoing bond and communication with him?  Can the creature turn on the player, or lose faith in their instructions?

Later on, players may find themselves wondering how much pain the creature feels when impaled by spears in cases where it is forced to battle legions of haunted armoured men that wield sharp objects.

There are no meters or indicators other than blood-stained feathers and scarring that forms during gameplay to indicate performance on how well you and the creature are protecting each other. The strength of bond between boy and Trico becomes a form of psychosis in the end, open to endless interpretation as you find yourself trying to calm and soothe the beast after violent confrontations – not knowing what impact, if any, this has on the game.

Ultimately, the player just finds themselves hoping they are doing the best by the creature, and that is one of the most organic aspects of the game’s attempts to recreate a real world relationship between player and AI.

Sometimes a gamer may find themselves learning the ropes of a game, yet suddenly putting down the title for other distractions. By the time they may return to the game they may have completely forgotten the controls and abilities that were previously learnt. This will often require them to look up these controls and acquaint themselves with the game, something that is not really possible within the Last Guardian.

This is probably the best way to play the game. To throw yourself back into the title after some absence and find yourself completely confused by how you are supposed to control and guide the creature around.

By pressing a combination of buttons on the control pad, you are able to perform four or so commands. Alongside pointing, your character can clap, stomp a foot, emulate trying to push something, or simply call out Trico’s name.

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But these commands are never specifically given actual clear meanings and context on how they may make Trico behave. The creature does not immediately react as told earlier in the game, leaving the player and AI to try and forge some form of understanding of how to communicate

Each player may have a different view on how it uses these tasks to broadly try and guide Trico in its actions. In reality, you are trying to form a sedimentary language with a CPU, but for player’s that enjoy the game, it is a deeper form of communication at play.

Now almost two years old, The Last Guardian is a strange artefact within the PS4 game library. It is a unique demonstration of our changing nature of digital entertainment and videogames, built around trying to recreate one of the most simplest story tropes – a boy and his dog/dragon/walking ladder thing.  Yet it is not a solid megahit in the vain of Lost Souls or God of War, while also being much more critically divisive.

Yet likes its predecessor, Shadow of the Colossus, perhaps its true value will be seen in the years and generations to come of reflecting the direction of how games will evolve and the relationship with have to AI.

From Pong to Trico in around four decades.  Where might games be going from here?

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