The Last Guardian


The premise of The Last Guardian is that you are a boy who has mysteriously woken up in a hole in the ground next to a chained creature that looks like a Chihuahua with feathers. Either the species of animal is called Trico or the boy decides to call this particular puppy-bird Trico, but Trico is not doing okay. After the boy and Trico work together to escape the underground area where they’ve been imprisoned (or discarded?), they emerge onto a cliff overlooking a giant floating castle, which turns out to be totally empty. Since Trico really wants to go to the castle, and since the boy has nothing better to do, into the castle they go.

The game is very pretty, but it suffers from terrible controls, a terrible camera, Trico’s terrible AI, and several terrible glitches.

I rage-quit the game twice within the first hour.

During the opening sequence, the boy needs to feed Trico three barrels of food. When I started the game, one of the barrels was not there. Even though the initial area isn’t that large, I spent twenty minutes looking for the last barrel until finally going to the internet for answers. Apparently it’s a glitch that one of the barrels will randomly not generate. That was my first rage quit.

A bit later on in the game, when the boy first enters the floating castle, Trico is too large to fit through the doorway. The boy is supposed to run through an upper hallway to emerge back outside at the front of the building, where he is supposed to call for Trico. Trico will eventually make his way outside; and, if the boy stands for long enough on a high balcony, Trico will hop on up and follow him back inside. Although this sounds simple, my description doesn’t convey the sheer gigantic scale of the architecture. There is absolutely nothing to indicate to the player that Trico can “hop on up” to a ledge easily as tall as the Washington Monument, or that it can hear the boy calling from several football fields away and through multiple stone walls when its attention is focused elsewhere. That the poor game design forced me to get up, turn on my laptop, and use a walkthrough for such a seemingly easy puzzle was infuriating. This was my second rage quit.

After the semester ended, I did my best to play this game for half an hour every evening, which is about as much of it as I can take in one sitting. I kept telling myself that it’s supposed to be good, and that maybe my patience would pay off.

Unfortunately, The Last Guardian is hard in the way that NES games were hard in that it teaches the player a set of rules and then refuses to play by them. Basically, the controls don’t work properly. To give a concrete example of what I mean, there is a point in the game when the following sequence must be undertaken:

(1) The boy climbs onto a pile of rubble.
(2) The boy jumps from the rubble to a free-standing bell tower.
(3) Trico will jump on top of the tower’s cupola.
(4) The boy jumps and grabs Trico’s hanging tail.
(5) The boy climbs up Trico’s tail onto the creature’s head.
(6) Trico will look toward a ledge.
(7) The boy jumps from Trico’s head onto the ledge.
(8) The boy runs along the ledge to a broken bridge over a pit.
(9) The player jumps over the small gap in the bridge to the other side.

This seems like fairly run-of-the mill video game spatial navigation, except for two things.

First, Trico does what it wants. There are no special trigger points on the map or actions that the boy can take that will ensure that Trico positions itself appropriately, so the player frequently has to wait. If Trico doesn’t jump onto the bell tower when the boy calls out to it, the player has no way of knowing that the game expects the boy to use Trico to get to the higher vantage point. Once the boy is on top of Trico’s head, there’s also no way of knowing that the boy can jump to one specific ledge while Trico is looking in that specific direction. I suppose some gamers are born with an instinct for these things, but I’ve had to rely heavily on a walkthrough.

Second, even if the player knows exactly what the game requires, the boy can’t run or jump with any degree of accuracy. The joystick will move the boy, but the arbitrarily shifting camera and its uncomfortable “artistic” angles mean that it’s difficult to translate the directional commands of the joystick into the desired direction of movement onscreen. Moreover, the boy runs when he wants and walks when he wants, and the player can’t control his speed. The triangle button will make the boy jump; but, because the player can’t control his direction or momentum, there’s a lot of trial and error involved – every leap is a leap of faith. This renders the game’s platforming maneuvers extremely difficult to pull off. Even something as seemingly simple as hopping over a small gap in a straight bridge will frequently result in multiple time-consuming failures.

I think my problem may simply be that I’m so used to playing Zelda games, in which the controls are engineered to facilitate adventure exploration. I’m not accustomed to having the mechanics of a game actively work against me, and there’s not really a learning curve for mastering controls that aren’t consistent.

The worst thing is that The Last Guardian contains a number of dramatic set pieces in which the camera and controls work perfectly, which leads me to believe the developers could have actually made a good game if they had more… resources? staff? time? From what I understand, they had all of these things in spades, but I’m given to understand that big budget game development is a complicated process. I think that, because of the beauty of its environment and the originality of its concept, it may ultimately prove more interesting for me to read about the game’s development than to actually play it.

I’ve recently been reading a bit of academic work concerning the artistry and emotional impact of video games, and something that I haven’t seen acknowledged with anywhere near the frequency with which I encounter it is the frustration of not being able to understand how a game wants you to be able to interact with it. It’s important for a game to achieve a good balance between challenge and reward, of course, but I also find it somewhat upsetting that many players may not have the time or patience to be able to experience everything that a gorgeous and unique but still critically flawed game like The Last Guardian has to offer.

( Header image by Cerulikat on Tumblr )

2 thoughts on “The Last Guardian

  1. Watching the Grumps play it, I see a lot of the control issues you describe, though they’ve been fortunate enough not to hit any of those glitches. And Arin seems to just hit the “call Trico” button every couple seconds at random, which appears to have been pretty effective for him so far.
    Although if there’s ever a point in the game where calling for Trico is bad – and that seems to be within this team’s design ethos – that would be a rage-quit moment for me, for the same kinds of reasons you’ve described here.
    I think this game, and your critique of it, draws light to one of the big friction points between game design and storytelling. If you allow lots of player choice, telling a cohesive story has an exponential explosion of price. If you include tons of thematic elements, they can overwhelm game balance, or in this case they can make the controls themselves unreliable.
    As a designer I’m with you: I’d have erred in favor of cleaner movement controls, even if it made the kid feel a little less human, or a little less vulnerable or child-like. But I feel like this is one of those results of a tug-of-war of needs, and they prioritized the moment-to-moment snapshot beauty of the game and selling the player on the life, the alive-ness, of these two beings, over basically everything else. I can certainly respect those, as design goals.
    Of course, an unwillingness to budge from those same design goals might ruin the game, which is kind of…not good.


    1. I think this game, and your critique of it, draws light to one of the big friction points between game design and storytelling.

      This is called “ludonarrative dissonance,” and there’s quite a great deal of discussion regarding it in academic circles. As you might imagine, these discussions tend to revolve around the use of violence: Can a game that forces its player to kill enemies really communicate pacifistic messages?

      I’ve read reviews of The Last Guardian that defend its shoddy controls and and unresponsive AI as being a realistic representation of how children move and of the inability of humans to effectively communicate with nonhuman animals, but such assessments strike me as indulgent. It is in no way “realistic” that the boy isn’t injured when he falls thirty feet onto a stone surface, just as it is in no way “realistic” that the boy isn’t hurt when Trico gets upset about something and stomps all over him. In order for a game to feel fair, the rules need to be consistent, and there need to be concessions to the player as someone who is actively interacting with the text.

      In my opinion, Studio Playdead’s two games Limbo and Inside feature much more successful representations of the limitations of a child player-character. They can’t move very fast or jump very far, but when you press “right” on the direction pad they move to the right (or “advance” across the screen in whatever direction is forward).

      The worst thing is that The Last Guardian contains a number of dramatic set pieces in which the camera and controls work perfectly, which leads me to believe the developers could have actually made a good game if they had more… resources? staff? time? From what I understand, they had all of these things in spades, but I will admit that I’m not really sure what the story behind this game’s development may have been.

      Regardless, I gave up on the actual game and am now watching the Game Grumps playthrough, which is infinitely more enjoyable.


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