Myths stay with us. In the West, the dragon has symbolized just about any sin that can be thought of. It’s instinctually greedy and unthinkingly violent. In stories, its very existence encourages would-be heroes to exercise both wrath and pride in attempts to kill it. The unicorn, rarely seen and extremely wary, serves the opposite role. It’s so bashful—so apart from the human world—that it’s associated with purity, eventually playing an important role in myths related to true love, virginity and even the death of Christ.
If a dragon or unicorn really existed, they would probably, like every other animal, be more concerned with food and survival than any metaphor attached to them. They might like to doze in patches of sunlight, scratch itches with their hind legs or, like most living creatures, form social bonds. It’s not glamorous, making the extraordinary ordinary, but doing so might actually instill more power to our myths. By bringing them back down to earth, their symbolism becomes relevant once again—less god, more human.
The Last Guardian starts with an image not too far removed from the kind of medieval tapestries that cemented the symbology of our myths. A boy, dark green tattoos patterning his skin from ankles to neck, awakens in a wide, dimly lit chamber. Dark water puddles the ground; a few bright blue butterflies dance in and out of tufts of grass; ancient stone staircases and archways nearly blend into rocky cave walls. In the middle of the chamber, a beam of sunlight shines down on a well and an enormous chain running from its depths to the collar of a huge, snuffling shape, ten times the size of the boy.
The creature looks like a cross between a bird, a dog and a cat—a short snout and pointed ears matched with a cat’s slender frame and long tail, the whole thing covered in grey feathers. It’s wounded. Spears jut from its feathered body and the two broken nubs of bone above its eyes are all that’s left of what must’ve been horns.
This animal is called Trico, which the player knows only because The Last Guardian’s credits are placed over a line-drawn bestiary. The camera pans over sketches of dogs, giraffes, then a unicorn, a dragon and, finally, the “trico.” From the start, the game positions the beast as a myth come to life. So, taking on the role of the boy, the player approaches it warily, expecting something incredible to happen at any moment. In the hours that follow, Trico, while always big and strange and impressive, reveals itself to be more familiar than supernatural. The boy pulls the spears from Trico, frees it from its chains and, together, the two set out on a journey to escape the ruins of the ancient city they awoke in.
Because there’s plenty of danger to overcome, Trico and the boy quickly form a relationship that begins as a practical exchange of talents—the boy is small and can throw switches and pull levers while Trico is big and can jump great distances or swat at the living suits of armor that sometimes chase them—and ends up as a cross-species friendship.
It isn’t long before Trico completely endears itself to both the boy and player. Crawling along its back, holding down a button to pat the creature, or watching the twitch of its head as it spots one of the barrels it loves eating, Trico comes across less as a legendary creature than a really big dog or cat. It whines when the player explores an area where it can’t follow, nudges the boy with a concerned muzzle when he’s injured and listens to simple instructions before acting them out after a realistic delay.
The Last Guardian is essentially a puzzle game, which means that the line between helpful tool and living friend is constantly being crossed. While hurrying to enact a multi-part solution to one of the many environmental problems that require coordination between boy and animal, Trico might hesitate or need a few reminders before following an instruction to jump, shove an object or walk in a certain direction. These moments of frustration feel intentional, the game constantly reminding its player that she’s spending time with a living creature with a brain of its own rather than an item to apply to certain situations.
Trico is extraordinarily believable and, though digital, approximates the charm of a beloved pet. Rather than make its puzzle solving artificially straightforward, the player has to account for the unpredictability of working alongside a real animal—one that is eager, in one moment, to obediently follow instructions while, in another, ignore the boy by sniffing the air or walking off to another room entirely.
In most situations, Trico’s fickle nature perfectly serves The Last Guardian’s narrative purpose. In others, a “free-thinking” companion in the game comes across as a design challenge that hasn’t been entirely solved. Most of the puzzles are logical, but a handful are needlessly obtuse, requiring the player to spot an out-of-the-way ledge or, worse, figure out if she needs to manipulate Trico’s behavior in an unexpected way in order to move forward. As tough as these areas might be, others are made even more difficult through bizarre technical issues.
In one case, a bridge stretched over a chasm, ending in a locked iron door that seemed impassable. After scouring every inch of the room and trying a bunch of different approaches, the solution ended up being climbing down a wall from a different angle. Then, and only then, Trico “activated” and came into the room to trigger a short cinematic that bypassed what looked like the set-up for a puzzle. At another point, the boy could only leave a flooded cave by grabbing onto Trico’s tail from where it was trapped above him. It was only after an hour of diving to the bottom of the water, pushing at every available surface and trying every combination of Trico’s commands from every angle of the space, that the tail randomly unfurled into the room from above, apparently at random, presenting an obvious solution to what seemed like a particularly difficult puzzle.
The artificiality of technical problems in moments like these is different from the unpredictability and mild frustrations of Trico’s other behaviors. In these moments, The Last Guardian forcibly reminds the player that it’s the product of programming. The haphazard, organic structure of its setting and characters becomes the result not of beautifully detailed artificial intelligence but of simple scripting bugs—mundane, boring game glitches of the kind that remind players that the living world of the game is actually just a computerized simulation.
In light of how much it accomplishes outside of these moments, though, The Last Guardian’s desire to model unpredictability is warranted. In a story about the relationship between human and animal, it’s important that Trico isn’t portrayed as a robotic, perfectly behaved companion. To do so would suggest something completely contrary to the game’s message. It would say that the natural world is for us to command and control with total power—to treat as an unthinking resource rather than our home. The mythology the game creates is drawn from our own. Trico might seem as unreal as a dragon or a unicorn, but its behavior is modeled after the animals we’re most familiar with. We bring cats and dogs into our homes and form lifelong bonds with them not because they’re toys or tools but because they’re creatures, with their own needs and personalities, we appreciate. They remind us that we’re not so different from any other animal. Pets act in ways most of us can relate to, and it’s not a mistake that Trico is meant to be a reminder.
The Last Guardian is a game that cares deeply for nature. It wants us to look at something as extraordinary as a mythological creature and see it not as a symbol but as an animal. It does this to destroy the layers of abstraction we put up between ourselves and nature. Regardless of a few messy puzzles, the way The Last Guardian communicates this message is worth paying attention to.
The Last Guardian was developed by genDESIGN and SIE Japan Studio and published by Sony Interactive Entertainment. It is available for PlayStation 4.
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto whose work has appeared at Kill Screen and Playboy. He is the co-editor of SHOOTER (a compilation of critical essays on the shooter genre), edits Bullet Points Monthly, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast and tweets @reidmccarter.