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February 27, 2017

RE: The Last Guardian

It goes without saying, but I feel like The Last Guardian is a litmus test for what kind of gamer you are.

If you’re reading this, then you know the story behind it.  The game was announced about a decade ago, and drew plenty of eyes across the medium.  The crew behind Ico and Shadow of the Colossus -- two central pillars for the “games are art” argument -- are getting together to release a brand new installment?  Sign me up, we said in droves.  And we waited, and waited, and waited.  But The Last Guardian pole vaulted right over the PS3, and landed on the PS4 in 2016 -- well into the console’s lifespan.  Was it worth the wait?

I can’t imagine how many reviews featured the “was it worth the wait” line as a lead-up.  For me, though?  It was always a given that The Last Guardian would be something special -- like I had no reason to worry because of the minds and pedigree behind it.  “GOTY 2016 incoming,” I thought on occasion.  I thought that it would be the latest pillar in the art debate, without question.  I thought that I could rest easy, because Team Ico and the rest of the funky fresh crew had it in the bag.  Imagine my surprise, then, when some reviews gave it a decent(ish) score instead of an avalanche of TENOUTTATENs -- not enough to change the conversation, but Metacritic can be telling at times.  And imagine my greater surprise when it got a permanent price drop, which seems to signal all sorts of unfortunate implications.

So I pretty much went from “YEAAAAAAAAAAAAH!” to “WELP.”



You know what really got to me, though (and by extension is more of an impetus for writing this post AND playing The Last Guardian than the game itself)?  It was my brother’s reaction to the game.  He went in with no shortage of excitement, as he always does whenever a new game is out.  Then a few nights after he’d had some time with it -- behind closed doors, as if to keep his process a mystery -- I asked him what he thought of it.  Here’s a general list of reactions, in no particular order, every time I pressed him on the subject:

Last Guardian sucks.”

Ugh.”

“I’ll finish it, but I won’t enjoy it.”

“You’re better off not playing it.”

“This is the most frustrating game I’ve ever played.”

And I’m just like…really?  Really?  That’s the game that asks too much of you?  The guy who bought Resident Evil 6, Assassin’s Creed Unity, and The Bureau: XCOM Declassified on sight-unseen whims -- the guy who bought RE6 again just to try and prove that it’s a “great game, great experience” -- can’t handle The Last Guardian?  That meant there were two possibilities: either TLG was a severe mess that couldn’t begin to justify the hype and pedigree, or he had (and still has) shit taste.  Given some of the tacky characters and customizations he’s made in games past, I’m leaning toward the latter.  But no matter what, I had to try the game for myself to be sure.  To see with my own eyes if it was art or an abomination.  And what did I find?  What do I think of TLG?  What does it reveal about me, my big bro, and gamers in general?

Let me say this to start: I don’t think TLG is the greatest game ever.  But I do think that it’s one of the most interesting games released in a good while.


For the record: when I first tried out the game, it wasn’t exactly under optimal conditions.  See, my brother’s disappointment with the game was so vast that he wiped every last shred of its existence from the PS4.  (I haven’t asked if he finished the game, and I’m kind of afraid of his answer.)  So I had to reinstall it after clearing up some memory -- but since we were expecting company, I decided to forgo a big patch so that I could get to it quickly.  Imagine my surprise when said company never showed up.  On the plus side, though?  I got to spend a good three hours with the game in one shot.  On the minus side, I dealt with an uneven version of said game.

I’m inclined to believe that, patch or no, TLG is rough.  The camera isn’t exactly the most cooperative or helpful, which is kind of a problem when you need to manage the space around you as well as keep track of a creature the size of a double decker bus.  Moving the player character -- a nameless kid, as far as I know -- doesn’t feel as smooth or precise as I would’ve preferred, though that’s to be expected when you’re playing as a boy who’s likely had to endure some head trauma before the game’s start.  I’m still on a standard PS4 instead of the Pro variant, but I still can’t say that the frame rate (and everything tied to it) is particularly even or speedy.  While I’m not docking proverbial points for failing to be 60fps or have rain-slick visuals like a Platinum game, TLG isn’t the most technically-impressive game out there.  On the surface, at least.  But I’ll get back to that.


The main, make-or-break aspect of the game is Trico, the towering bird-dog that teams up with the kid for their adventure.  If the Ico brigade didn’t want to start riots in the streets, then they had to make Trico the best character they possibly could.  No mistakes, no foul-ups; since TLG is effectively a not-so-secret escort mission whose puzzles and exploration is entirely dependent on an AI partner, they had to get it right or say goodbye to a core gameplay mechanic.

From what I can gather, they didn’t fully succeed.  I’ve seen reports and reviews of the bird-dog failing to do what he’s asked; getting confused by simple tasks; ignoring, if not refusing commands; turning tricky platforming segments -- and even basic ones -- into exercises in frustration.  It’s almost enough to make me wonder if the devs infused some ancient, unholy magic into each disc, so that no two Tricos act exactly the same.  If they did, then that’s commendable (if worrisome by virtue of their command of the dark arts).  But that doesn’t necessarily make it a good idea.  And even if they didn’t do that, then it means there’s a lack of consistency and functionality that gamers are accustomed to.

I say as much, because in my eyes, playing TLG isn’t too far-removed from having a dog as a couch co-op partner.


Granted I’ve heard the argument that Trico acts more like a cat than anything, but since I’ve had limited exposure to those, I’m okay with saying that he’s very doglike.  Honestly, it felt like the devs had somehow scraped up all the data on my dogs and crammed them into the game.  He’ll spend a good 15-30 seconds in place, staring and trying to figure out what to do (even though it’s plainly obvious what he’ll do).  He’ll flip out as noisily as possible over what seems like a minor thing to us mere humans.  He’ll go ape over the mere possibility of getting a treat.  He’ll act like he doesn’t care you exist at one point, but cling so desperately to you in another that you’d think you’re his oxygen tank. 

In my experience, dogs are weird, inconsistent, noisy, annoying, and dumb.  If the devs managed to capture even a fraction of that, then they deserve infinity awards.  True, that doesn’t make for the most ideal or pleasant gaming experience for everyone; those that want abject control of their pets (i.e. their gigantic virtual one) are in for a shock when Trico doesn’t react within 1/60th of a second after your button press.  Is that true to life?  Yeah, probably, unless you’ve managed to properly train your pet of choice.  I wouldn’t know what that’s like, seeing as how I still have to worry about my dogs trying to eat poop whenever they go outside.


But being “true to life” and being “convenient for a video game” are two separate things.  As gamers, there’s a level of functionality and responsiveness that we expect from the titles we play.  Even if there are a ton of particulars that people can debate about -- visuals, sound, difficulty, story -- one of the most basic measures of a game’s quality is how well it performs.  Does it do what it’s supposed to when it’s supposed to?  If so, then it’s time to move on to the next point of discussion and analysis.  If not, then it’s time to bust out the red pen and start marking up the proverbial test.

So from a technical and fundamental standpoint, there are parts of TLG that just don’t work, or at least don’t work consistently.  That’s a real issue, and any gamer -- reviewer or otherwise -- that takes issue with it is 100% justified in doing so.  Some of these problems didn’t even have to be there, really.  I get that making Trico have a will of his own is important and true to life, but gamers aren’t going to enjoy TLG as passive observers who can marvel over how much moxie he’s got.  They’re going to be active, with a focus on using what tools they have to make it to the end credits.  How are they supposed to give top marks to a game that, by both technical shortcomings and design overreach, saddles them with enough caveats to crush a dump truck?

So yes, I get it.  I get why this game isn’t covered in gold stars.  I get why it didn’t sell as well as expected, and why it got a price drop.  I get why my brother hates the game.  But damn it, it only took me three hours -- and not even that -- to be captivated by this game in a way I never thought possible.


Fundamentally, the story has a simple setup.  You play as a kid who wakes up in a mysterious place -- a dungeon, at first glance.  He’s got tons of weird markings all over his body.  More pressingly, he’s trapped in a strange place that’s far from home alongside a bird-dog that could pass for the baby brother of one of Pacific Rim’s monsters.  The two of them have to work together to escape and find their freedom -- and as is the standard, they become closer to one another along the way.  I just hope that Penny Arcade’s prophecy doesn’t come to pass.

Given that Trico doesn’t have a commanding knowledge of human language, TLG isn’t what I’d call bristling with dialogue.  For the most part, the story is MIA; once you have your context and mission (such as they are), you’re off to explore this mysterious new land.  And while I’m a staunch defender of and campaigner for good video game storytelling, I’m A-OK with TLG’s approach.  Who am I?  What is Trico?  Where are we?  Why are we here?  Where are we going?  Why can Trico shoot lightning out of his tail whenever a shiny trinket tells him to?  All valid questions, but TLG doesn’t even give the kid a name at the outset.  There’s keeping your cards close to your chest, and there’s duct taping them to your nips.

But there’s a benefit to that approach.  While TLG doesn’t take time to spell out every bit of its story (at least in the early parts), it gives the gameplay a chance to shine.  Or, to be more precise: instead of having all of the answers force-fed to you via cutscenes, audio logs, or codex entries, you’re invited to try and piece together everything on your own, at your own pace.  The circumstances work with the aesthetics -- the visuals, the designs, the architecture and more -- to get the brain going.  It’s storytelling without saying a single word.  True, it’s all too easy for the game to prove you wrong later, but the fact that there’s more than enough material to let players start crafting theories based solely on what they’ve seen is a reward in itself.


It’s to the point where I’d argue that the point of TLG isn’t just to beat the game and watch those end credits roll.  And even though the game is something along the lines of a puzzle platformer, it’s not entirely about solving this puzzle or reaching that platform.  No, I’d say that the real beauty of it is its ability to build player investment -- to have him or her get lost in a world beyond reality.  Obviously, the relationship between the kid and Trico pushes toward that end goal; you can’t spell “character” without “care”, after all.  But there’s more to it than that.  There are mysteries and secrets that need to be uncovered, and the only one with a chance is the one holding that PS4 pad.  That’s you, mate…assuming you don’t pass the pad off to a dog with a working knowledge of gaming hardware.

Investment is the name of the game here, and on multiple levels.  Speaking personally, I played for so long without interruption -- I don’t think I even left my chair until it was time to feed my IRL dogs -- because I wanted to figure out what made that bird-dog tick.  What were his habits?  His thought processes?  His likes and dislikes?  His responses to stimuli?  His capacity for learning?  His tolerance for shenanigans, like that time I screwed up a jump and made a landing that would’ve rammed a normal child’s shin bones through his shoulders?

Sorry for making you see such a grisly image.  Here’s a picture of Christina Hendricks to compensate.


Trico really is the star of the show here.  Even if he can’t say a single word (or can he?), he still manages to be a character worth watching and admiring.  Being able to learn about him, let alone see him in action, feels like a real privilege that I lucked into.  When I first met him in that dungeon pit and he lashed out, I legitimately made the kid run to the opposite end of the room just to make sure I had enough distance between us.  Within the hour, I was laughing at him for being a huge coward since he wouldn’t jump into a pool of water -- only to go “Ah, jeez!  Shit!” when his eventual dive made waves large enough to bowl me over.  I stayed rooted in place for almost a full minute when it seemed like there was another Trico out there.  I was shocked by Trico’s sudden psychedelic trip once I found the lightning mirror, but it quickly turned into concern -- and that concern only grew when the big guy positively freaked out while exploring the nest interior. 

Based on those anecdotes, I think it’s safe to say that ol’ bird-dog has lightning-blasted a nook for himself into my heart.  And yes, I won’t even try to deny that part of the appeal of TLG is forming a bond with the mini-colossus, because it works like gangbusters.  But part of that appeal comes from more than just gamers being (likely) pet owners, and thus going “This animal reminds me of MY animal!  I am deeply in love now!”  It’s about getting to know Trico and learning that he’s more than just an AI, and more than just a mass of polygons.  Because there’s so much to learn, there are so many opportunities to put a part of your soul into the game.  And something tells me that that’s exactly what the devs wanted.


All things considered, TLG isn’t the most labor-intensive or execution-heavy game out there.  It does make use of pretty much all of the PS4 pad’s buttons, you’re not expected to belt out massive combos or react to danger with split-second timing.  It’s a mellow, meditative game, which works to its advantage.  You’re not just learning about your unexpected partner; you’re learning about the world as you explore, so you can solve the mysteries before some big, bombastic reveal can slap you upside the head.  Really, though, it’s not as if playing detective is required to enjoy TLG.  I find it rewarding, and I’m surprised at how naturally it happens, but anyone who wants to “last guard and chill” has every opportunity to.

The aesthetic is exactly what you’d expect from the guys behind Ico and Shadow of the Colossus: natural, expansive areas where the sands of time have worn away all but the most meager traces of life.  Well-treaded ground, sure, but that’s ground that deserves treading; the airs of mystery and melancholy let the player indulge in the atmosphere.  It’s precisely the right set of circumstances to make players wonder just what happened in this place, or why it even exists…buuuuuuuuuuuuuut it’s till more than possible to enjoy it as-is without any ulterior motives or excess effort.  It’s a strange new world, and you’ve got every right to take in the sights.


Is TLG going to go down as one of the greatest games the medium has to offer?  I don’t know.  Probably not, if it’s reached this state.  But then again, it doesn’t have to; it’s still an incredible game that has intrigue in spades.  As rough as it is around the edges -- and well into that chewy core, if we’re being honest -- it’s hard to deny that those special touches help make it into something worthwhile. 

TLG at large actually reminds me of something my Japanese teacher often said.  After a certain point, she expected the class to write test answers out with all of the fixings -- all of the hiragana, katakana, and kanji we’d learned up to that point.  That tended to leave us pressed for time (or me at least, because I’m actually part turtle), and there was still the issue of us needing to make good sentences -- not just translations, but actual statements. 

Since she was an easygoing teacher, she gave us an out.  If we tried to get by with easy-to-make sentences and answers, then she’d let them slide (as long as they were within reason), but dock more points if we got them wrong.  If, however, we tried to make harder and more complex sentences, then we’d still lose points for screwing up, but not nearly as many.  As a result, it was entirely possible to have red markings across a handful of sentences across a handful of pages, but still walk away with a score no lower than a 93.  To paraphrase her words: “You’ll earn more points if you try something hard than if you do something easy.”  To quote her words more directly: “Brad Pitt desu!”  Even teachers are allowed to have their celebrity crushes.


But whatever the case, that’s TLG in general.  Even if it has some glaring issues, I’m absolutely glad that it exists.  As important as it is to have a functional game, we’ve long since reached a point where being functional isn’t enough anymore.  Games have to do more.  Be more.  In a world where outcries of homogeneity have justifiably run rampant, and where the major publishers have blithely run entire genres into the ground, we need games that are willing to break the mold even if they end up cracking a bit in the process.

I hope that the devs managed to make enough off of this game to relax a little, and to have enough support and confidence for their next big project.  Or, in more immediate terms, I hope that the responses to TLG have helped them justify the decade-long wait.  We need more games like this, so that we gamers can be tested on more than reflexes or accuracy.  But failing that?  I’ve learned something important: I would much rather have games that try and stumble than those that succeed from the depths of their respective ruts.

So yeah, thanks Trico.  You showed me what kind of gamer I really am.

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