I have never played a video game that so impeccably conveys the organic and messy movement of life like The Last Guardian. Between the occasional absent-mindedness of Trico, the gentle giant and mythical beast, and clumsy movements of the protagonist, simply known as the boy, I found myself often frustrated at my inability, as the gamer, to make everything happen immediately. Then, at sudden epiphanic moments, I come to realize that The Last Guardian, despite the frustration, is brilliantly conveying the natural trajectory of life: organic, unpredictable and at its own pace.
You play as an unnamed young boy who is kidnapped from his village and thrown into a cavern with a giant beast. There is no speech in this journey save the reflective background monologue of the protagonist and ominous screeches of Trico, the mythical beast who appears as a hyena with wings. You quickly discover as you try to escape this cavern that there are evil forces trying to keep you at bay, and some kind of alliance with Trico is the only way to escape this labyrinth. And yet, what is brilliant about The Last Guardian is that this objective, to return home, is only the shore of a deeper ocean and adventure: to weave a bond with a mythic beast that can — and does occasionally — consume the protagonist.
As mentioned above, The Last Guardian excels at conveying the way animals pay attention, but at their own pace. As my bond with Trico grew and I tried to ask him to climb or fly, I often found myself frustrated at his inability to immediately follow my commands, only looking absent-mindedly in the horizon or the surrounding environment. I was similarly taken with how clumsily the boy’s movements can be, especially while trying to escape from enemies in the form of statues that come to life and try to take him away. It was only when I realized that young boys are supposed to be clumsy in their movements and animals are always entranced by new environments that I acknowledged the brilliant, albeit jarring, world of The Last Guardian.
In my recently released book, A Taste of Imagination: Video Games & Sufi Spirituality, I dedicate an entire chapter to the motif of ‘unveiling’ in video games. With an homage to Shakespeare, who masterfully broke the 4th — and 5th wall — in playwriting, I discuss the craftsmanship of video game designers, specifically Ken Levine and his masterpiece Bioshock, to likewise lift the invisible curtains dividing the virtual world of the game from the physical world of the gamer. In the case of Bioshock, Ken Levine’s brilliantly scripted line: “Would you kindly!” which the antagonist Atlas Fontaine uses to command the protagonist — and vicariously the gamer — to follow his prerogatives brings the player into the world of Rapture, whereby we also become, if only for a moment, spliced citizens of an underwater dystopia.
Here also, in The Last Guardian, we find that Japan Studio has successfully conveyed the emotion of a mythical world of a video game through the control scheme. But this is not simply an attempt to complicate the controls, rather to loosen them. The gamer has no visible path to mash a specific button combination in order to, with certitude, make Trico or the boy do something. Rather, this is a vicariously impeccable representation of an essential principle of nature and life in general: things proceed at their own pace. We only have the power to do our part, the rest falls outside our control.
We set things in motion, with our intentions and motivations, but we may not see the end result that we hope for immediately, or even in our lifetime. Ultimately, however, that is the point of life, to humble us and make us accept our weakness, while simultaneously encouraging us to never give up. This act of ‘unveiling’ is more pronounced in The Last Guardian since as gamers who take this medium of art seriously, we might be frustrated by the control scheme implemented by the designers, but then bewildered by our own frustration that a video game has set out to do exactly what we hope all art works in this genre do: represent life realistically to some degree.
We find out, somewhere in the middle of the game, that this mythical journey which the boy has been taken on involuntarily, is a necessary ritual, a coming-to-be moment for all the children in the village who must come face to face with their worst fears. But we slowly learn that, again, the challenge of the boy is not merely to return home, himself transformed, but also to do the unthinkable and mold a vicious beast into a gentle giant. In this regard, Trico appears as a mirror for the boy, who in the strength and frightening form of the former, learns to find his own ability to conquer indomitable odds. Likewise, the boy also appears as a reflection for Trico, who in the weakness and innocence of the former finds a solemn heart underneath his colossal form.
What The Last Guardian also shows in this intimate friendship between Trico and the boy is the power of love that often has an inverse correlation with physical size: it is not the physically biggest or strongest of people or things that command our hearts, but rather the smallest, weakest, and gentlest that conquer our beings. Think of infants and small pets, how they are able to command adults to speak and behave like them or to clean and wash them, actions we would find humiliating to perform for the sake of people our own age and size.
This is the power of love that is shared between Trico and the young boy. The former allowed the boy to find the beast within, while the latter helped the beast find the infant’s heart within.