The Last Guardian, released on PS4 in 2016, Sony Interactive Entertainment; Monster Hunter World, released on PS4 in 2018, Capcom
Both use the latest generation of consoles and computers to try and create lifelike animals that can swat, stamp, maim and even save a player in a seemingly sentient mass of digital fur and scales. These creatures push current hardware to their limits.
That is probably where the similarities end.
Played alongside each other, both games perfectly represent the contradictory nature of humanity’s relationship with nature and other creatures.
On one side, we seek companionship and even safety from the natural world. Yet on the other hand, we have a predatory side. One where we seek to assert ourselves over nature for sustenance, clothing and sometimes just the thrill of a hunt – in some cases to disastrous results.
As a piece of AI, Trico, the gigantic cat-like creature that serves as the central focus of The Last Guardian, is part weapon and part climbing frame, being used to reach new parts of a level. It is also designed to act out like a digital creature that needs nurturing and protection. It is like having a second player with you, albeit a digital one.
As the player strives to seek out edible barrels of a mysterious substance to feed Trico, some of which are hidden down secret routes, the game’s programming makes it seem as if a real bond can form between player and AI.
Over time, this bond manifests itself in a improved understanding of the player’s actions, where Trico will learn to respond to a player’s wordless actions, sometimes knowing that a stamp on the floor will mean to stand on the other end of a plank of wood and catapult a player upwards. Other times, it can still take minutes to get the same creature to stand in a single spot.
— Neil Merrett (@Neil_Merrett) May 28, 2018
This bond is not just a gameplay mechanic, but also an emotional one. A development that sees the player not just protected, but also striving to look after this unstoppable force of nature from harm and suffering. Who exactly the titular ‘Last Guardian’ is, much like many other parts of the game, is open to interpretation.
By comparison, the creatures of Monster Hunter also have personality. These character traits however are usually manifested in a range of deadly attacks and behaviours.
These creatures, unlike Trico, are somehow dehumanised to brutish, sometimes deadly monsters that single out and attack players in moments of weakness, or feed on the game’s other creatures for sustenance, just as the player can do. We’re all animals after all.
Part of the charm of hunting a dual horned, burrowing dragon such as the Diablos is surviving an encounter with a group of other players. The player is often out-powered, requiring luck and strategic variations on hitting things over the head to succeed.
Success is not always capturing or killing an animal before removing a set number of body parts to build your strength and to survive the next hunt.
The aim can be to target specific areas of an alpha predator to brake off valuable horns and body parts to fashion new hats, armour or ludicrous weapons and guns to make a future hunt a little less intense.
The Diablos, much like the other elemental themed creatures of Monster Hunter World are in some ways, equally magnificent as Trico. But all the game’s menagerie of creatures are clearly identified as monsters, even when it is the player seeking to disrupt their tranquil existence with stealth attacks and traps for personal gain.
A diablos or a T-Rex-like Anjanath can be brutal terrifying creatures, but this is often a defense against a seemingly endless array of online hunters stepping into their doman with weapons loaded.
Most are not targeted for being inherently evil, as humanity understands the term. Some, the game suggests, may negatively impact the specific environments of a level, yet they are all part of a natural environment.
Monster is always a subjective term.
Trico at the start of The Last Guardian is a confused, angry and injured individual, needing compassion and kindness from the player, even when angrily lashing out should you get too close without winning its favour with food.
Monster Hunter lacks this option, although the player can at times be saved by an erupting turf war between two giant creatures that stumble onto the battlefield. This can create a rare opportunity to profit, or more likely lead to a mad scramble of fury and violence that the player needs to escape.
Free of basic ideas of morality, The Last Guardian is a game about being forced onto nature’s mercy and finding unlikely companionship from a being that will never fully be able to understand the player.
Monster Hunter World instead finds the player having to scavenge crops, bones, food and weapons from the environment and its myriad giant creatures in a struggle for survival against nature itself. Conflict often stems from a very different form of need concerning the player and a majestic creature.
The difference between a monstrous and magnificent creature is a fine one it seems. Much like the concepts of order and chaos in nature.