The Last Guardian
Developed by: JAPAN Studio
Published by: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Available on: PlayStation 4
Few video game designers are as artistically renowned as Fumito Ueda. Ueda’s first two games “Ico” (2001) and “Shadow of the Colossus” (2005) were, for years, the go-to examples connoisseurs used to argue that games could be more than soul-sapping entertainment. If you associate games with shooters or cartoony platformers, Ueda’s work — with its penchant for quietude and the evocation of non-verbal emotions – would be an epiphany. As Simon Parkin reported for The New Yorker, Hidetaka Miyazaki, the famed creator of “Dark Souls,” left a job at Oracle to join the Japanese studio From Software after playing “Ico,” a game whose broad open spaces and desolate atmosphere influenced the direction of the “Souls” series.
Ueda’s latest creation, “The Last Guardian” was originally scheduled for release in 2011 on PlayStation 3. In the intervening years, the game morphed into an industry byword for development hell (the state in which a much labored over creative project shows little sign of nearing completion). We should all thank the corporate suits at Sony for not abandoning hope. The end result is a masterpiece.
“The Last Guardian” tells the story of a boy who awakens in an underground chamber close to a mythical-looking beast that looks like a dog spliced with a bird. The game’s opening shots, which hover close to the earth, reminded me of filmmaker Chris Marker’s observation that Eastern auteurs from Tarkovsky to Ozu train the camera low to the ground to emphasize characters’ connections to the Earth whereas Hollywood directors often frame their heroes against the sky to denote their larger than life attributes. Certainly, there is an earthiness to “The Last Guardian” that gives it its charm and frustration.
At the center of the game is the boy’s relationship to the beast he calls Trico. Though initially alarmed at the sight of the man-eating creature, the boy overcomes his (reasonable) fear and helps the beast who lies wounded and chained to the ground. The two form a gradual bond as they thread their way through an arduous labyrinth. Assuming in the role of the boy, players must rely on Trico to solve puzzles but this is much less straightforward than it sounds since the beast often seems to have a will of its own.
The most daring aspect of the game’s design is that Trico doesn’t respond with alacrity to all of the player’s commands. Sometimes the creature hesitates before acting, as when it focuses its gaze elsewhere before jumping in a different direction. This builds a tension in the player who wonders not only if the beast will obey his command, but if his strategy is the correct one for the situation. It also furthers the illusion that Trico is not a subservient entity.
Visually, the game places a deep and obvious trust in simple elements like wood, water, stone, fire, metal, grass, etc. Although the color palette rarely strays beyond what is suggested by such things for much of the story, practically every environment invites screenshots on account of how expressively these elements are rearranged. Both the boy and Trico are beautifully animated — seeing Trico ruffle its feathers in the warmth of the sun is but one of the many low-key moments that gives the “The Last Guardian” a poetic aura. Trico’s actions echo the grandeur of the exquisitely decayed landscape. Seeing it struggle over crumbling masonry or bounding up spires is affecting because it’s impossible to ignore the care that Trico places in its movements.
“The Last Guardian” is all about a collection of small and large gestures that expand, enrich, and end a relationship. Although I experienced some camera-angle issues during my playthrough — it was easily lost in Trico’s plumage — I’d like nothing more than to experience the game again. I’m left wondering, as I often do after encountering a great work of art, how it all came together.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
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