The wait is over. One of my earliest and most exciting experiences as a games journalist was going downstairs to a darkened room in our office where a couple of Sony reps, barely able to contain their own enthusiasm, played us a short video - it began focusing on a grate, before tantalisingly brief glances of the world to come. They didn’t even need to tell us what the game was, or who the developers were, or explain anything that had been shown. This, we knew, was something special.
None of us realised it would take this long and, after such a hiatus, many believe that The Last Guardian must surely buckle under the weight of so many years’ expectation. Began on PS3 and promoted at the time by Sony, it hit unknown development hitches along the way and - for a time - seemed to have disappeared entirely. Were this an ordinary game, it surely would have. Last year Shuhei Yoshida was asked whether Sony would like to work on another game with Fumito Ueda, and his answer cut to the heart of the matter: “Everyone would.”
Before I played TLG I spent a minute or two just holding the disc. I knew it was coming, of course, but couldn’t quite believe that the game was in my hands, that it was finally real. I told the family I was going downstairs to a darkened room, and may be some time. Everyone would.
I watched pages of books move by and fade into one another, filled with anatomically-weird drawings of mythical creatures, overlaid with the key developers’ names. A unicorn, a griffin, countless others that seemed familiar but I couldn’t place, dim memories from childhood fantasy books. And all of a sudden the slideshow ended on Trico: in videogame terms, the most legendary mythical beast of all.
The game’s opening features the young boy that the player controls waking up next to Trico - chained, badly-injured, and aggressive towards us. It is explicitly characterised as a man-eating beast and, as I danced around his perimeter wondering how to turn on the charm, it lunged forwards - the strangled yawp sending me tumbling backwards. I tried to stroke it, and was roundly rebuffed. I stood there for long minutes, facing its strangely-lurid gaze, and gazed back.
This short sequence eventually becomes a bonding exercise, and I won’t go through every element of it, but what’s so striking is that it’s not initially a comfortable one. Trico probably has good reason to fear humans, and is so big that his simply swatting at the child can send you cartwheeling away to slam painfully into the walls. Spend too long near his face, and his mouth opens in a half-threat. Try to clamber and he’ll shake you away.
Even when you work out how to try and help the beast, it’s not like a well-trained dog that comes running - and has its own endearing clumsiness. One mechanic involves feeding Trico with flourescent-tinged barrels that litter the environments - barrels that instantly attract the creature, but which it often knocks away with its own claws or snout while trying to eat them. In these early stages it doesn’t even really trust you, eyeing the food suspiciously and waiting until you’ve retreated to a greater distance before chowing down. I’ve tossed barrels down from heights without thinking and clonked Trico on the head, making it quizzically growl in my direction and tilt its head with a questioning look. And every time I see one of these food barrels now, even if it’s out of the way, I have to go and get it - Trico doesn’t need to eat constantly, but it just feels like the right way to behave.
The opening areas are filled with gorgeous little tricks that emphasise Trico’s bulk in comparison with the boy - an especially great one involving tempting him to dive into the water. Later as I’ve tiptoed across narrow ledges I’ve seen the beast make leaps across outcrops that make my heart stop for an instant. I had a dog when I was a boy and I always remember losing him on the beach - and his reappearing at the top of a steep cliff-face. Unthinkingly I called to him, and he took one look and jumped - scrabbling, sliding, and out-of-control all the way down. I thought he was dead but, at the bottom, he shook himself off and wandered over delighted.
Trico has this animalistic nature. You’re trying to understand and in a literal fashion learn to manipulate it, but the beast’s mind and the calculations therein remain unknowable. For all that clumsiness with the barrels it has moments of extraordinary grace, but always combined with the immense bulk and in danger of pushing this ruined landscape’s elements just that inch too far. When it makes one of these leaps you hold your breath and, when it somehow scrabbles to a stop on safer ground, finally exhale.
A great bit of trivia about Homer is that s/he had probably never seen a lion before, because the representations of lions in the Iliad are all about heroism, courage, and fierce battles. This bears little resemblance to the behaviour of real lions, which often prefer to scavenge the kills of others, but fits with our assumptions of how a beast that looks this way should behave. With Trico, the vulnerability it exudes is what lifts it beyond the merely mythical. I’m not saying it behaves like a real animal but that, in isolated moments and sometimes for longer stretches, you’re fooled.
I don’t know how far I have to go in The Last Guardian. I suspect a long way, because I’ve spent so much of my early time simply toying with the beast itself, and enjoying the novelty of it being - in some way - finally real. There is an element of the childish mind in how Ueda’s worlds work, the innocence of young protagonists, the sharp contrasts between dark and light, and simply how we saw the world differently. Taking my first steps in TLG made me think, more than anything, of when Shigeru Miyamoto described what Nintendo tried to capture in Zelda.
“The spirit, the state of mind of a kid when he enters a cave alone must be realised in the game. Going in, he must feel the cold air around him. He must discover a branch off to one side and decide whether to explore it or not. Sometimes he loses his way. If you go to the cave now, as an adult, it might be silly, trivial, a small cave. But as a child, in spite of being banned to go, you could not resist the temptation.
It was not a small moment then.”