If you’d asked me a couple of years ago, I would have guessed that either The Last Guardian would never be finished or else it would come out as somewhere between a disappointment and a disaster. And I would have been wrong: The Last Guardian is a Team Ico game through and through, not least in what it shows me that I’ve never seen in a game before.

It certainly looks like a Team Ico game: like Ico, with the buildings that you wander through; like Shadow of the Colossus, with a lovingly rendered large creature that you clamor over. (Only one this time!) I suppose, if I had to compare The Last Guardian to one of those two, it’s more like Ico: you platform your way through buildings, you have a companion, and it doesn’t have the formal austerity of Shadow of the Colossus. But it’s really not particularly like either of them, because of the aforementioned creature, Trico.


And I’ve never seen anything like Trico before. Or rather, I’ve never seen anything like Trico before in a game: part of the miracle of The Last Guardian is how much interacting with Trico feels like interacting with a dog. Trico has its own motivations, its own interests: it wanders around playing, exploring. But, balancing that, the game also quickly sets up a pack dynamic, with the two of you very much focused on each other: you have to provide food for Trico right at the beginning and care after its wounds, and Trico quickly decides that you are its person.

So, despite the aforementioned exploration, Trico gets nervous when you’re out of its sight for any period of time (and I felt bad when I was away from it!), and if you’re in danger, Trico immediately and unquestioningly flies into action to protect you. This sort of dual, asymmetric responsibility is something I’m very used to with dogs: as the human, it’s your job to make decisions and do certain kinds of providing, but both of you look after each other on an emotional level, and you know that caring for you and protecting you is one of your dog’s (or your Trico’s) foremost cares.


The Last Guardian isn’t just the best pet togetherness simulator that I’ve ever seen in a video game, though: through those interactions, it gives a new lens on and a new solution to some areas where video games have traditionally stumbled. One of those is the puzzle box nature of interacting with NPCs: games are full of NPCs where, if you press the correct buttons, they’ll give you something, in ways which actually lead in pretty creepy directions when translated into real-life terms. (Romance options in games are particularly prone to this.) I end up being more impressed sometimes by NPCs in games that don’t give you something no matter what buttons you press, but even that frequently feels more like an acknowledgement of the problem than an honest solution.

But Trico didn’t feel that way for me. You can ask it to do things (just to come over at the beginning, more complex things later); Trico will usually do what you want, but not always. Frequently it’s wandering around, looking at stuff, doing its own thing, acting like a creature with its own internal motivations. And, when you’re in danger, Trico responds immediately (modulo one psychological barrier the game presents), without being asked, because that’s what you do when somebody you care about is being hurt: you go help them. (Similarly, after the battle was over, I’d immediately cuddle with Trico, check for wounds, and cuddle with it some more: it’s not that the game is forcing me to do that, it’s just that that’s what you do.)

So: how did the game succeeded so well in avoiding the puzzle box trap? Partly, of course, because of the care that they put into Trico: your interaction is the main focus of the entire game, and when such a talented team focuses on something like that, good things will result. But I also think that replicating the pet dynamic turns out to be a surprisingly good target: pets have enough of an internal life to be able to behave like their own creatures instead of state machines responding to inputs, but they’re simpler than humans, so the seams don’t show nearly as much. Also, it helps that the game establishes a core assumption that both of you care about each other very much, so certain behavior doesn’t have to be justified.


The other game concern that The Last Guardian sheds light on is violence. In most games, your character is a psychopath and a mass murderer; game context justifies that behavior, but almost never seriously interrogates it. In The Last Guardian, though, the violence is largely delegated to Trico: you sometimes knock down enemies, but ultimately Trico is a much more capable combatant than you are. And the game does interrogate that violence: partly (as the game goes on) in a way that I have seen in some games, by revealing the external forces that have made Trico what it is, but, much more importantly and rarely, by showing Trico’s reaction.

When I said above that I always cuddle with Trico, I said that the game isn’t forcing me to do that: that’s true (I think, I never tested it!), but it isn’t the whole truth. Because Trico seems genuinely shaken up after each battle: its reaction doesn’t (just) seem like an adrenaline high, it seems like a genuine discomfort with what’s happened, and a discomfort not just with what has happened to it but with what it has done.

You even see this in the special action that Trico has in the beginning, where you can use its tail to shoot lightning. Even when you use this ability to destroy environmental obstacles instead of to attack enemies, Trico doesn’t feel comfortable with what just happens: it’s a lens on the violent-behavior-as-shaped-by-external-forces scenario that I’m not at all used to seeing. (Imagine an RPG where, every single time you used a spell, you were shaken up by what you saw revealed in yourself!)

But Trico seems more bothered by its fights with the magical armored warriors than by its use of lightning. And this is a very real reaction, that you can interpret in many ways: maybe battles traumatize Trico because of the dangers to Trico, maybe battles traumatize Trico because of the dangers to you, maybe battles traumatize Trico because of what Trico sees in itself. Whatever the case, Trico needs comfort after every battle.

And, initially, the battles are mercifully rare. In the latter half of the game, though, they become more frequent; they’re never normalized, either to Trico or yourself, but you can see steps in that direction. Which, in turn, is its own lesson on the horrors of violence: you can see an important part of both of your cores getting buried, it feels like a loss, it feels like a scar, it feels like you’ll probably need therapy later.


The game does more: in particular, it weaves in context about what led to the current situation, how you and Trico got here and where you both came from. And then there’s the ending, which is the one aspect of the game that I question: it feels gratuitously dark to me, and I also neither like nor agree with what the ending says about your and Trico’s relationship. But, the (relatively minor) blemish of the ending aside, the game is a masterpiece: each Team Ico game shows me things I’ve never seen before, things that in retrospect were important at a fundamental level, and I’m not convinced that The Last Guardian won’t end up being the game of theirs that matters the most.

Post Revisions:

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