Before I get to The Last Guardian, a digression…
When I was 23, I backpacked around India alone for two months on a shoestring budget. I stayed in Spartan hotels for roving businessmen or huge bunk houses with 24 beds to a room, usually at a price around $5 per night. I walked ten to twelve hours most days in 90-100 degree heat and 95%+ humidity. I took a few short plane flights to get between major cities at first, but eventually I settled for train rides where I would stuff myself in-between migrant workers in 5th class, two of which lasted 17 hours.
On a daily basis, I was miserable. The physical exertion, heat, humidity, and beating sun took its toll. I had trouble maintaining weight and was chronically sunburned despite liberal use of sunscreen. Then there were the locals constantly trying to beg and scam me, especially the taxi drivers who turned every cab rental into a prolonged battle of wits over how much of my dignity I would sacrifice to save 20 rupees (please don’t look up how much that is in real money). More than anything, I was exhausted. The walking and heat and constant travel and paranoia of scammers with no comfortable respites along the way made the two months feel like an eternity. There were good moments too of course. I saw incredible temples and palaces, I met wonderful people, and I witnessed first-hand incalculably amazing parts of the world that I never thought I’d see with my own eyes.
But I still could not have been happier when I returned to America. The horrors of India were still fresh in my mind and the comfort of my couch at home seemed more valuable than all of the temples and mosques erected by the Mughal Dynasty over a thousand-year period (or whatever).
And yet, after maybe a week, that sentiment started to shift, or even invert. The walking and heat and sun and dirty bunk beds and scammers started fading from my mind while the temples and palaces and curios became more prominent. It wasn’t that I was literally forgetting the hardships (though I’ve certainly forgotten a lot of the little things over time), but rather they were no longer visceral. The weather was torturous while I was there, but I can’t feel the 100 degrees or 100% humidity (or both simultaneously) while I write this sentence in my air-conditioned bedroom. I know Indian taxi drivers are the scum of the earth, but even though I am not a rich man, I can’t say I care too much about the times they charged me an extra $1.50 for a cab ride.
Meanwhile, the temples and mosques and all that great stuff seemed even greater in retrospect. Especially near the end of the trip, I’m sure I was too exhausted and mentally fatigued by seeing the same architecture over-and-over again to even care who built what building when and why. Yet the memories of the beautiful curvature of some ancient stature, the festive buzz of Calcutta on Holi Day, and the spectacular beaches of Chennai, glow in my mind. Today, I consider going to India one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life. I will die with one less regret.
Anyway, that’s sort of what playing The Last Guardian has been like.
Ok, The Last Guardian isn’t as bad as Indian scammers. It’s actually not bad at all. It’s just… meh.
Or to be more precise, playing The Last Guardian is meh. The game’s environmental design, music, setting, art style, animation, and many other features are wonderful, even amazing at times. But all that good stuff surrounds a set of core mechanics which are just plain boring.
Here’s how it works: you walk into a new room or open platform area with no immediately obvious exit. Then, using some combination of climbing, jumping, lever pulling, and/or ordering around your cat-bird (its name is Trico, and I don’t know if it’s male or female), you figure out how to leave the room or area. Then you walk for thirty seconds until you find yourself in a new room or area and do the same thing over again.
Serious question: does anybody actually enjoy this process? Because to me it feels like I’m trying to watch a movie, but somebody keeps pausing it every two minutes to force me to solve a math problem before he’ll resume the movie. It starts off boring, but it gets worse and worse as the game goes on. Every time I walked into yet another stupid room with no obvious exit, I felt an instinctual sense of annoyance and resentment towards the game. I just wanted to see the next interaction between Trico and the little boy, or hear the next swelling orchestral score, or even just get to the next scenic view. I did not give a shit about pulling a lever to open a gate to give me access to a new ledge so I could jump on to another platform to reach some other thingy to do who gives a shit. By the end of The Last Guardian, I seriously considered whether I could recommend the game at all, or if players would be better off just watching someone quickly run through the game on Youtube.
I spent a while trying to figure out where I had seen this sort of gameplay before. It kind of reminds me of the really boring “move the wooden plank” sections in The Last of Us (plus the “nature overtaking humanity” theme is shared in the world design), but those were brief breathers in between intense scenes. Portal is a better design comparison, but that game is built entirely around the complex mechanics based on the titular portal gun. The Last Guardian has no equivalent tool or set of innovative mechanics. And no, Trico doesn’t count. The beast may be a wonder of graphics, animation, and perhaps even empathy, but his inclusion does not bring anything close to mechanical depth to The Last Guardian.
Finally, I realized that the games The Last Guardian mostly closely resembles are LIMBO and INSIDE, both of which are made by Playdead. Not only do these games have the same exact “walk into a place with no obvious exit and use shallow, mostly light-acrobat mechanics to leave” formula, but like The Last Guardian, the two games rely pretty much exclusively on non-core mechanics to produce the actual value of the game. I can’t imagine anyone plays The Last Guardian, LIMBO, or INSIDE for the actual gameplay. Rather, players tolerate the gameplay for the sake of the graphics, art style, music, and most of all, the atmosphere. These games merely use gameplay as a vehicle for delivering the real goods.
The primary problem with this type of gameplay is a lack of sense of progression. Rarely in The Last Guardian did I feel like I was actually moving closer to any sort of tangible goal. I knew my general objective was to escape the crater-like valley the boy and Trico found themselves in, but I didn’t see why going in any one particular direction helped me achieve this goal more than going in any other direction. I went where I went because the game’s design and architecture only let me go one way. If I were actually in the boy’s shoes, this would be a horrible and nonsensical decision every time. But instead, I, as the player, simply had to accept that an endless string of puzzle rooms would eventually get me out of the valley because that’s the nature of video games.
Compare this set-up to Shadow of the Colossus. Colossus also starts out with a simple goal and little direction: use the magic sword to kill 16 colossi to revive the girl. That’s it. But I, as both the player and the protagonist-character know how to achieve this goal. And we both feel a sense of progression as we do so. We kill one colossus and we know we are 1/16th of the way to our goal. Thus the game’s minimalist story (which like The Last Guardian loads 10% of the plot into the intro and 85% into the conclusion) feels natural as consciously directed player-action fills the void. But in The Last Guardian the player gets no control, no direction, and worst of all, no sense that anything whatsoever is being accomplished. Thus the meager story parcels end up mostly feeling random and arbitrary as they drift in isolation through an empty game.
At least LIMBO and INSIDE are two-hour indie games. They’re small and experimental. I can deal with the aimless, boring gameplay for two hours. The Last Guardian is 11+ hours long. And it’s not a small indie game. It has Sony money behind it (or at least it did, but then then Team Ico left them). It took nine years to get to market, and reports indicate that its delays weren’t due to artistic issues, but technical problems (almost certainly due to the difficulty of rendering Trico). So a whole lot of people spent a whole lot of time making a substantially lengthed game in which you spend 80% of your time being bored.
Also, while I’m nitpicking, what’s up with the movement speed in this game? In his review, Jim Sterling argues that The Last Guardian is basically a PS2 game transported two console generations ahead. I think the single best piece of supporting evidence for this thesis is that The Last Guardian ignores the practically universal third person movement mechanics of the modern era. In basically all third person action games, you tilt the analog fully to run, and then the softer the tilt, the slower you walk in some sort of linear fashion. But in The Last Guardian, your only two options are flailing armed sprints and painfully slow sneak-walking, neither of which ever fit the serene atmosphere the game so desperately tries to build. This may seem petty, but it was a massive immersion breaker for me for the first couple of hours.
When I was about ¾ of the way through The Last Guardian, I was prepared to write off the game. The ending lifted my evaluation a bit since like Fumito Ueda’s other works, it’s ending is characteristically grand, passionate, and does a remarkably good job of wrapping up a minimalist story in a short but satisfying manner. But even still, my evaluation of the game on the whole remained negative.
Then something weird happened. My view of The Last Guardian slowly started to shift for seemingly no reason at all.
I read a few reviews and mulled the game over in my mind for a few days, but there was no significant change in the way I saw the primary gameplay, let alone some sort of “AHA!” moment which recontextualized the whole package for me.
It took me a while to realize that what was happening with The Last Guardian in my mind was the same exact thing that happened with India. The visceral bad was fading while the atmospheric good was… entrenching, for lack of a better word. I know I was annoyed and bored by the game’s endless puzzles, and there were even a few instances where I had to stop playing after 40ish minutes because I couldn’t stand anymore of it. But that annoyance was temporary. My gut reactions only existed then, and are now no better remembered than a mediocre sandwich I ate a week ago.
And besides, it’s difficult to stay fixated on the bad in The Last Guardian when there’s so much good.
The Last Guardian is beautiful. Like, almost all of it. Fumito Ueda is one of the rare, undisputed visionaries in the video game industry, which puts him in the company of Shigeru Miyamoto, Hideo Kojima, and Suda 51. He doesn’t just design or direct games, he makes worlds. Or maybe “universes” is a better term. Every pebble, every speck of dust, every one of Trico’s feathers, and yes, every fucking annoying room, was meticulously handcrafted by a man (and presumably his team) who is dedicated to bringing a vision of reality conjured wholly in his own mind to life in a magnificent display.
Look at any screenshot of The Last Guardian and you’ll get just the slightest taste of what I mean. Look at the mixture of colors and tones and the glimmering light shining between blades of grass. Look at the strange architecture of this world; someone had to sit down and actually build a massive compound filled with skyscraper-sized stone towers and chambers, which while not exactly familiar looking, don’t appear artificial or game-y in the least, but rather merely unusual in a manner that draws the player’s attention and begs questions which will coyly never be answered (like who the hell built this place?). Notice how the boy’s face has a look of wonder every time he glances at Trico, even though you can only see it while the player is in control and has no reason to zoom in on the boy’s face.
Trico is a technical and design marvel. It may very well be the most impressive portrayal of a living entity in any video game ever. We are talking Pixar animation-levels of attention to detail when it comes to the life-like movements (undoubtedly modeled on real animals) and subtle interactions with the environment. Trico’s feathers get wet, ruffled, matted, and fall out. His eyes change color, shape, and convey more emotion through mere glances than 99% of video game stories can accomplish in a standard 6-8 hour campaign.
But even if you look at screenshots of The Last Guardian’s world and Trico, you still can’t really understand Fumito Ueda’s craft. I’ve talked before about how more video games need to learn to incorporate basic cinematography techniques into their cutscenes instead of just blandly plopping the camera in front of whoever’s talking like a first-year film student. But Ueda seems to have leap-frogged that advice and incorporated cinematography techniques into gameplay.
A lot of reviewers lamented how annoying The Last Guardian’s camera system is, and I can’t really blame them. This was probably the first game I’ve played in the last 1.5 console generations where camera placement was actually a threat (though I seem to not have had as much of a problem with it as most people, likely due to my ample experience with the same system in Shadow of the Colossus, ditto for the weird movement mechanics). But what none of the reviewers seemed to realize is that Ueda created this bizarre camera system for a good reason.
The camera almost never stops moving. It’s floaty and slow (I recommend cranking the manual camera movement speed up to maximum, ASAP). It does this weird thing where it sometimes lets you run really far away from it while other times it zooms to within a few inches of your body. If you stand still and just let the camera run freely, it often readjusts to a low or high angle to purposefully give a wide shot of your setting. It’s almost like The Last Guardian’s camera system operates like a camera man filming a movie.
This is why The Last Guardian has so many breathtaking moments, even outside of its set pieces and cutscenes. Fumito Ueda understands how to frame and compose shots. He understands where the viewer should be looking. And when you’re playing The Last Guardian, it can feel like Ueda is sitting right next to you steering the camera to make sure you’re looking at the most beautiful possible thing you could be looking at during any given moment.
This. Is. Amazing.
The closest equivalent to this I can think of in the video game industry is the god-awful forced camera grabs, quick time events, and mini-unskippable-pseudo cutscenes that plague nearly all modern, big budget AAA games. While Fumito’s execution clearly isn’t perfect (he needs to figure out a way for it to not interfere with the gameplay), it is still a great advancement in the craft of video game design which I sincerely hope will be picked up and continued by more developers.
While I’m gushing over the game, I may as well point out that the music is… just listen to it.
Also, I absolutely love the attention to detail paid to the boy’s movement. While the protagonist still displays super human climbing abilities by realistic standards, by video game standards he may as well be a cripple. After all, the protagonist is a 12ish year old kid, not Ezio Auditore, the Persian Prince, Faith, or Nathan Drake. So when he runs, he’s a little bit spastic. When he jumps, he’s a lot spastic. When he rolls, and you try to immediately begin running afterwards, he stumbles. Every time. Which makes sense because he’s a kid and not a gymnast, and if I did a diving forward roll onto a stone floor and immediately tried to stand up and run, I would probably stumble too.
And then there’s the injury mechanic. How come so few games incorporate short term injuries which effect movement and abilities? I don’t mean in a JRPG-stat way (“you fell ten feet, you sustain -10 AGL and -2 STR”), I mean in a naturalistic sense. In Shadow of the Colossus, the player character could be knocked unconscious for 30 seconds if he takes a big hit. In The Last Guardian, the boy doesn’t get hit too much, but he does fall a lot. So if he falls from a certain height, he hurts his leg and has to slowly limp around for a while. How long the limp lasts depends on how far he fell. It’s a minor touch, but it feels so much more genuine and immersive to add a somewhat more realistic character-response to the type of stuff the protagonist actually does with his body.
All of this good stuff in The Last Guardian has not only stayed in my mind, it’s grown in force. The combination of the visuals, sound, subtle mechanical touches, and the direction most of all creates an unforgettable atmosphere which I just want to sink in. I want to visit this unnamed world which holds Umeda’s creations. I want to climb the mossy ruins, pet Trico, and ideally kill a colossus, but I would also settle for just sitting against a protruding column for a few hours to watch the sun rise in the sky.
And thus, like travelling through India alone for two months, I didn’t really enjoy The Last Guardian that much while I was playing it, but I am still very glad I did so.
But as much I’ve come to accept and even love many parts of The Last Guardian, I still have some more abstract reservations about the game beyond it’s boring core level design.
If Jim Sterling’s thesis that The Last Guardian is basically a PS2 game on the PS4 is correct, then… that really sucks. Not because The Last Guardian is a failure of a game, but because I really wish Fumito Ueda could have spent a big chunk of those nine development years doing something else. Yes, The Last Guardian has a lot of greatness in it, but… it’s also kind of a step back for Ueda.
With the exception of the technical marvel that is Trico, there is almost nothing in The Last Guardian that Ueda didn’t do in Shadow of the Colossus (which is one of my favorite games of all time). Colossus has the same visuals, almost the same realistic movement, the same minimalist story that gets wrapped up in an excellent finale, and even the same auto-cinematic camera. Yes, The Last Guardian does most of that stuff better, but not nine years-worth better, and more importantly, The Last Guardian does core gameplay way, way, way, way worse.
I don’t know, maybe Shadow of the Colossus was some sort of once-in-a-lifetime, lighting-in-a-bottle game which is just too unique to ever be replicated, let alone surpassed. Maybe it was too original for its own good. I mean, how could the colossus combat/puzzle gameplay even be applied to any other setting without feeling like a lame rip off. I’m certainly not asking or expecting Ueda to make anything that plays like Colossus again, but… I really wish he didn’t just remake Ico.
Or rather, I really wish Ueda didn’t spend nine years remaking Ico. If The Last Guardian came out in 2011 as originally planned, it could be seen as a sort of refinement of Ueda’s style. In an interview with Eurogamer, Ueda even said, “they [Ico and Shadow of the Colossus] took a long time to make as well, so we thought let’s make the next one quicker than we made Ico and Shadow. That was our aim…” Thus The Last Guardian seemed intended to be a safe return to where Ueda started so he could perfect his craft without having to deal with the risky and experimental gameplay systems of a Shadow of the Colossus. A 2011 The Last Guardian may have still felt a little underwhelming, but that’s ok because Ueda would probably start working on the next iteration of his visionary approach right afterwards.
But instead, The Last Guardian spent nine years in production so it ended up being the only game we got from Ueda in an 11 year period. All the way back in 2009 (in a G4 interview!), Ueda even said that after he finished The Last Guardian he wanted to make a first-person shooter. What on earth would an FPS designed by Ueda look like!? Will we ever find out?
I hate to end this analysis on such a negative note, but I can’t help but feel just a little bit sad about The Last Guardian. It’s a game with so much beauty which could have been a small stepping stone for its visionary creator to move on to something greater, like another game of the quality of Shadow of the Colossus, or beyond (if that’s even possible). What we got instead is by no means bad, I just wish we hadn’t missed out on whatever theoretical game Fumito Ueda would have made by now in some parallel universe where Trico could be rendered on an early PS3 and The Last Guardian was a 2011 release.