A Bond of Separation: A Last Guardian Retrospective - ArticleIssa Maki , posted on 08 January 2021 / 2,249 Views
Love can take many forms, even hate - it's complicated. From the classic love story of my childhood, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, to the quasi-romantic feelings I had for that teriyaki sub as a confused young man, I can only imagine the depths of the dimensions, realms, and realities the concept can traverse. But regardless of the unfamiliar territories we're only just beginning to explore, what ultimately might be the most pure, innocent expression of love can be summed up in three words: man's best friend. Anyone who has ever formed this bond with an animal will do so all over again in The Last Guardian, and those that haven't will discover the joys of saying hello for the first time; as long as they're brave enough to say goodbye.
Similar to Fumito Ueda's previous work (which is also about love), TLG takes a minimalist approach to its storytelling; it's more of a garnish than its reason for being. After discovering an artifact from his youth, a village elder recants his ordeal. Upon awakening in the derelict ruins of an area known as 'the Nest', a boy is horrified to discover that chained up next to him is Trico: ferocious man-eating terror of the sky. Legends tell the tale of this cat/bird/dog-like creature, but a few removed spears, shackles, and a concussion or seven later, the two form an unlikely connection to escape their confines as best they can.
Though the premise is as simple as it sounds, its execution quickly becomes complicated. The boy and Trico must guide one another through the task at hand, a unison of teamwork and patience that makes basic movement feel like an accomplishment. Successfully manipulating Trico to stand on its hind legs or properly square up for a jump is always a cause for celebration. However, the game's highlights and low points weigh heavily on Trico's massive shoulders, and the burden it bears becomes all too clear. For the most part everything works, but it's going to take the understanding of a good pet owner to accept TLG's flaws, because many of them are by design.
There's no denying that Trico is charming. Dog owners will be hard-pressed not to recognize a head tilted in idle curiosity, while the cat crowd will see the subdued bemusement inside its 'mind', as it bats at barrels or hanging chains. The illusion that Trico is sentient or an entity or some sort is performed masterfully. It has likes, dislikes, and always seems to know when it's time to eat. Analogous to my cat's fear of vacuum cleaners, Trico has an intense aversion to stained-glass eyes. Witnessing it overcome this weakness is one of the highlights of the game. Once you see Trico lazily rolling in a puddle of water or just being happy to get a chance to stretch its legs, it gets harder to believe this animal is imaginary.
It's not all joyous romps in overgrown gardens. Statue-like knights, along with various artifacts, send Trico into a murderous rage, ripping apart its enemies with reckless abandon and no regard for friend or foe. Properly stimulated, its tail can act as a weapon, shooting arcs of lightning to wherever it's directed by the boy's mirror. This ability is lost for much of the adventure, coming into play heavily during the final assault on The White Tower. There may not be as much combat as people might prefer, but part of the reductionist nature of TLG is accepting that the gameplay isn't wholly indicative of what exactly 'it' is.
This naturally brings us to touch upon the “video games as art” conversation, where the mechanics themselves take a backseat to presentation, creating more of an 'experience' to be had - even at the cost of entertainment. To injure a game for its own sake might sound strange, but more importantly brings up the issue of excusing such design when it makes the game worse, regardless of whether or not it's intentional.
To say that TLG can be a chore to play is an understatement. At its best, the game is magical; at its worst, an almost insurmountable nightmare. Much of this has to do with Trico's 'autonomy' and the puzzle-solving nature of the gameplay. TLG will bend over backwards reminding players how to pull a lever, but attempting to deign the slightest hint about what to do and where to go will almost always end in failure. Further confounding this is that once players figure out what they need to do, getting Trico to comply simultaneously makes and breaks the game. This is where the word 'experience' comes into play, because if one doesn't look at it from this perspective, all they might see are the negative qualities.
Trico is the key to success, but must fit inside the lock perfectly to get it to turn, which quickly devolves from frustrating to Herculean. Moving into position to do something as simple as attempt a jump can take minutes. Should the player make a mistake, they essentially have to wait for the game to reset itself, and due to Trico's independent nature this can take even longer than it reasonably should. The intention here is to simulate a pet not necessarily always doing what its owner commands. It's also another instance of creating an experience at the cost of the game. Completing your goals in TLG is rewarding, but spending upwards of ten minutes (if not longer) traversing from Point A to Point B simply isn't fun.
We shouldn't overlook legitimately bad design, regardless if it's for art's sake. Nobody buys or plays a game to spend time dangling from a tree branch, where they can do nothing but mash buttons as they wait for the game to continue its script. I'd wager most readers who have beaten TLG remember being trapped in a cage they can't get out of, until Trico comes to help. The first time experiencing this was miserable enough; the third time was complete agony. In the end, you have to accept the dog as a whole, regardless of what he did underneath the ping-pong table while you were at school.
There's a somewhat esoteric piece of information I feel the need to share: TLG can run at 60FPS on PlayStation 5. There are serious caveats that come along with this (explaining why it isn't widely known), as there are several instances where the game will freeze, becoming completely unplayable. There are workarounds, however, should the truly devout wish to experience (the majority of) TLG at its most beautiful.
To do this requires a standard PS5 and a physical, unpatched copy of the game. The gist of it is that you play up to the first 'freeze point' (roughly an hour and a half), and from there you have two options. One is to update the game, get past the trouble section, then remove the patch (effectively reinstalling the game). The other is that since TLG uses the same save file regardless of software revision, players can upload their progress to the cloud, download it onto a PS4 with the latest patch, play past the spot, upload the new file and revert back to PS5. There are more than a few of these freeze points distributed throughout the game, so it might seem a little irrational (or possibly insane) to repeatedly do this - and it is. The things we do for love.
The first time I beat The Last Guardian, there were tears streaming down my face. I remember thinking this was my new favorite game, or that I was never going to play it again. I was slightly more composed this time around, but still equally confused. On the one hand, it's hard to praise a game that's so poorly optimized, has very little gameplay to begin with, and at its worst feels unplayable.
On the other, I refuse to condemn something that's truly incomparable. The Last Guardian is unique in every sense of the word. How can something simply be 'just a game', when it's by far the closest anything has come to owning a pet? Falling in love and saying goodbye to a cherished animal is one of the most precious experiences life has to offer, and the last thing anyone who has made that commitment would say is that it's a game.
To those separated from the ones they love: remember to be thankful. Your bond is sealed in time and can never be broken. To those who have yet to open themselves up in this way: "be among the chosen".