The Last Guardian was released December 6th, 2016 developed by Team Ico, headed by game designer Fumito Ueda. It was published by Sony Interactive Entertainment and released exclusively for the PlayStation 4 console. It is the last installment of the “Ico” trilogy- the first two being Ico (2001) and Shadow of the Collosus (2005). The Last Guardian’s narrative is shaped as a flashback told by a man who recounts his experience meeting a giant bird/cat creature named Trico: it most similarly resembles a griffin (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Griffin) – not to be confused with Gryffindor from Harry Potter (their mascot is a lion, not a birdcat). In the beginning of the game, you wake up in a mysterious pit beside Trico covered in weird tattoos. You play as the boy (in third-person) and alongside your new friend, maneuver through a series of puzzles to navigate out of the pit (you generally climb up throughout the whole game). From beginning to end, including cut scenes, it took me roughly 13 hours to beat the game*. And holy shit did it fuck with my head. No, not in the way that the Swan’s Pond mutant behemoth fucked with my head in Fallout 4 (yea, I had to take a walk after that). But in a way akin to a kidnapping victim falling in love with its captor- Stockholm Syndrome style. In true mindfuck fashion, playing The Last Guardian was 100% a love/hate experience. I fell in love with the narrative and the characters within it. I forged a bond with both the boy I was playing as and with Trico. But way too often in the game, I rage flung the controller on my bed (I only play video games in bed) cursing Sony, Trico, the gods, and RNGesus to hell, vowing never to play the dumb fucking game again only to sheepishly pick it up moments later after regrouping- my sanity a little less in tact each time that happened. By the time I had finished the game and was watching the last 20 minutes of the cut scenes, I was crying and laughing at the same time. The hours of struggling through wonky control mechanics and shitty game direction paid off- and what a beautiful ending it was. As I sat there cackling uncontrollably with tears pouring down my face, my friend put his hand on my shoulder and asked, “What the fuck is wrong with you?” I paused to hiccup. I couldn’t really formulate an answer. I felt both happy and angry at the same time, proud that I had beat the game, yet unfulfilled- I wanted more. More what? Gameplay? Story? Perhaps I wanted a formal written apology from the developers for all the technical fuck-ups in the game. Fuck if I know. I put the game away and tried to shrug it off. But I was obsessed. I read reviews, watched Twitch streams, and tried to collect my thoughts. After mulling it over, I was able to more or less break down why I felt the way I did into 4 components. The Last Guardian threw me into a rabbit-hole of uncomfortable cognitive dissonance and here’s why. Read on, dorks:
1. The Controls
The controls were the most frustrating to deal with in the game. What part of the controls? The camera? Controlling your character? Getting Trico to do what you wanted him to do? Was there a lag? Yes. All of it. Sometimes all at the same time. It was a perfect storm of technical wonkiness that kept me teetering on the edge of insanity for 13 hours. The best way to describe the camera controls is clunky and awkward. Often times I wasn’t able to look all the way around (360 degrees) when I was standing in an open space. On the rare occasion I was afforded the option of controlling the camera freely I then ran into the problem of having Trico’s bigass birdcat body block my view, so all I really got to see was a screen full of feathers– beautiful cell-shaded ultra HD feathers, but fucking feathers nonetheless. This was super frustrating because the puzzles in the game wholly depended on me having to navigate my way out of the cave/pit. And that was damn near impossible to do because of the aforementioned camera issues.
There were also directional problems and command lags. There were a few parts in the game where I had to run through an obstacle which required me to make a series of strategically timed jumps and dodges in a certain direction in order to get to the next part of the game. These parts took me hours to beat either because I jumped in the completely wrong direction or the command registered a million years after I pressed the button.
Remember the intermittent rage quitting spells I mentioned in the intro? They were totally induced by the faulty controls that made my experience feel like I was trimming a hedge with nail clippers. The task was doable, but painstakingly and unnecessarily tedious. But at least it didn’t make me question my sanity- I knew that I was missing jumps and falling into bottomless crevices because the control physics were out of wack. I really began to crack about halfway through the game though when I learned that I can control Trico’s actions through a series of control inputs/commands. That’s where the real fun began…
2. Trico’s A.I.
In the first half of the game Trico more or less follows you as you lead him up towards the top of the maze. Sometimes you have to coax him to certain places with glowing barrels, which I presume are like food or birdcat treats. Then in the middle of the game, the puzzle becomes more complicated. In order to successfully navigate your way through the cave, you have to solicit the help of Trico– sometimes to stand in a certain spot so you can stand on his head and reach an elevated platform, other times to jump and carry you across areas that are separated by too much space for you to traverse across alone. There are also some stand-alone cases where he has to perform very specific actions such as dive under water and swim under a barrier to take you to where you need to be. In order to do this, there are “commands” that you use to tell Trico what to do. I put that command in quotations because the implication of a command, at least in a video game, means that you press the button and a certain action or result follows. Not at this god damn rodeo.
Picture this scenario: you’re in a cave and you’re pretty sure the only way to go is up because there is a beam of sunlight shining in from what looks like a crevice at the top of the cave. After struggling with looking around for 10 minutes, you finally catch sight of what looks like a ledge right under the crevice, but it is too far up for you to jump to it. Aha, you’ve figured out the puzzle, now all you have to do is input the right commands to get to the ledge- get Trico under the crevice, have him jump up on his hind legs, climb on Trico’s head and that will bring you close enough to hop on. You lead Trico to the crevice, press the right bumper along with the y button and command him to do just that. Trico ignores your command completely, looks away and turns around, swatting you in the face with his tail as an extra “fuck you” as he slinks away. You try again. Another variation of “I’m not going to do whatever the fuck you’re telling me to do” happens. This goes on for about 15 minutes until you are sure that you’re seeing things and that there is no ledge under the crevice. You spend the next 30 minutes struggling with the clunky camera controls, walking around trying to find another way out of the cave. At this point you’re weeping and cursing, shitting and vomiting, ready to sell your soul in order to gain some clarity on what the fuck to do next. In one last desperate attempt to get to the next level, you walk back under the crevice and input the commands. This time Trico happily plops onto his hind legs and waits for you to clamber onto the ledge.
WHY YOU DO DAT TEAM ICO?? YOU FUCKING SADISTS! To which I’m sure a smug representative of the design team would explain, We were trying to make the experience of interacting with a catbird as real as possible. What cat do you know would happily do everything you commanded the first time? The unresponsiveness of your companion was programmed purposely to emulate the true experience of working with a real animal who has a mind of its own! And yes, I get it- they wanted Trico to act real, which he did. I could definitely appreciate the way his ear twitched endearingly every time I petted him. He huffed, sniffed and shook his head impatiently whenever I paused in the game to stand still and look around. I mean, I truly felt his presence- he was my companion and he definitely had a mind of his own. But here’s the problem: the game called for a very specific set of accurately timed actions, but did not provide a clear way of executing them. Perhaps if Trico were a dogbird instead of a catbird, the devs would’ve been able to create a more player friendly game without compromising the integrity of Trico’s “realness”.
3. Lack of Game Direction
The main goal of the game is to successfully find your way out of this mysterious pit you’ve been left in alongside your new catbird friend Trico. The puzzles in the game, therefore, revolve around successfully navigating out of the pit– sometimes with hints like a beam of light cascading through the crack of a rock or just following a well-lit path that is in front of you. Sometimes there is no hint or indication and you’re left scratching your ass for thirty minutes running around looking for beams of light or ledges to jump on that simply aren’t there. That being said, the lack of navigation indicators stand-alone didn’t bother me that much. After some time, it just takes trial and error and some ass scratching to get through a level, however, the faulty control mechanics and Trico’s ornery A.I elevated the lack of game direction from a nuisance to a full-blown aneurysm inducing headache.
4. The narrative (SPOILER ALERT)
HERE is what you know– you were once part of a village and while sleeping one night a giant birdcat wearing a Hannibal Lector metal mask swoops and swallows you and flies away. He doesn’t get too far because he gets struck by lightning and crashes into a tomb and appears to fall to the ground(Mayday Mayday, this is catbird to flight control, I have lost all faculties of my wings… THIS IS NOT A DRILL). You see stone soldiers that look like the Chinese terra cotta statues carry the birdcat into what appears to be a large pit/cave/tomb type dwelling and that is where Trico coughs you up. He is no longer wearing the metal mask. You wake up covered in strange glowing tattoos and this is where the game begins. Most of the game you are trying to figure out how to climb up and out of the pit, but there are other obstacles as well. You occasionally run into the aforementioned terra cotta warriors and you have to lure them close enough to Trico for Trico to stomp on them and fuck their shit up. If you don’t, then the stone warriors kidnap you and the level starts over. There are also these mosaic eye fixtures that are sprinkled throughout the map that scare the shit out of Trico, so whenever you come across one of them, part of the puzzle involves you trying to push them off the map so that Trico can pass. At several points in the game you also come across what appears to be another catbird, but he/she/it seems to be very angry or evil (its eyes glow red instead of blue and its wearing a metal mask that looks like he just escaped from the catbird mental hospital- seriously, the only thing missing is a catbird straightjacket). At one point in the game, the mental escapee catbird pushes you and Trico off a ledge forcing you to start over from the bottom. Later in the game Trico rocks its world and its mask is knocked off. Once that happens, its eyes turn blue, Trico #2 seems to turn benign, rid of any type of evil possession. This leads me to believe the masks had something to do with the catbirds being violent. At the very end you get to the top of the map and you see a bunch of other Trico’s with Hannibal Lector masks on flying around and you see them spitting up people into this device and the device, in turn, spits out glowing barrels, which they gobble up. THE SAME ONES THAT YOU HAVE BEEN FEEDING TRICO THROUGHOUT THE WHOLE GAME. At that point I was like- hold the fucking phone– let me get this right, Trico kidnapped me and was planning on throwing me into an easy bake oven to turn me into a birdcat treat? It certainly seemed like it. Now there is a flock of other catbirds and they swoop in on you. Trico bravely steps in and tries to 1 v. a shit ton of them but he gets his tail ripped off and while he lies there you knock over a beacon that stands in the middle of the of the level. The birdcats start falling out of the sky and appear to fall to their deaths. Trico, who is injured, eats you, flies you back home, and spits you back out at your village. He then flies away. The narrator says something to the effect of I suspect my friend died after that. WAHHHHHHHH WAHHHHH WAHHHHHHHH NOOOOOOOOO Cut to credits. And then in true Ueda fashion there is an epilog after the credits: the narrator, this time a grown man, raises a mirror shield (a fixture that was central to the game) to the heavens. Cut to a picturesque, swooping mountain scene and then you see glowing eyes from within a black cave. TRICOOOOO!!! YES, HE’S ALIVE! Or is he?
After enduring hours of training a flying cat how to jump through fiery hoops, I feel like I’m owed some answers. DO YOU HEAR ME UEDA, I want some fucking answers!! Is anyone there?? Were those really Trico’s eyes? What about the terra cotta fuckers who tried to kill me throughout the game, who were they? What about the mosaic eye thingies- what were those? What about the other catbirds, where do they live? MOAR. FEED ME MOAR! DON’T LEAVE ME LIKE THIS! I ALREADY BROKE ONE CONTROLLER PLAYING YOUR DAMN GAME, YOU OWE ME A BETTER, MORE SATISFYING ENDING!
The game was touching and captivating. After I beat the game I found myself not wanting the experience to end, wishing I could unlock a secret level like you could in the old Mario 64 games. But the game design was a tragic flaw. It made me feel divided, conflicted and nauseated even at times. I was in love with Trico and the enigmatic world I had fallen into. But for every moving moment, something glitchy or problematic happened in accompaniment. It was truly devastating. Beautiful, but tragic.
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