The Last Guardian was one of the most hotly anticipated games of the year. It made the ten best list assembled by Gamasutra staff, and we continue to be impressed with the game's ability to foster an emotional connection between player and creature.
Many regard it as a masterpiece, and a worthy successor to Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, the previous games made by Fumito Ueda and the team at GenDesign. Others say that the game is a buggy, frustrating borderline-unplayable mess. Some argue that both reactions are true.
We reached out to several developers to get their takes on the design of The Last Guardian. Thanks so much to everyone who participated. (Some responses were trimmed for length, or to minimize overlap.)
Trico is not AI-- he/she is just a living creature. It's really nonsense if you call Trico an AI.
Firstly, I'm really impressed by the technical achievement of having such a large (difficult) AI character (difficult!!) who moves and acts believably in tight spaces.
But much more than that, I was struck by how instantly I connected with Trico! His design is brilliant - it would have been easy to give him large expressive eyes to connect with, but keeping them dark keeps him just a little bit strange and alien. So much of his expressiveness comes from his mouth, which is something I wouldn't have expected.
I think the game does a wonderful job of constantly reinforcing your connection with him (petting him is even used as a mechanic!) and simply interacting with him is rewarding and fun (I *always* toss the food barrels). I think this is a game that lives and excels in the details in a way I haven't seen before.
"Ueda’s works remind us how hidebound the most popular genres of games can get"
I’ve heard people complaining about the controls in The Last Guardian, and it’s true at least that the camera can be ornery. But for me, the control of the boy is Ueda’s design at its best. Like in Ico, the way he moves embodies you in a sense of who he is: young, gawky, brave. These games have a human physicality about them that is rare in a genre full of auto-animating parkour robots and iceskating tanks, and as a result they don’t feel like other games.
The Last Guardian is also one of the most visually arresting games ever made. Like Shadow of the Colossus, it’s spending a huge amount of its GPU budget in places where other games don’t, and as a result it doesn’t look like other games.
The reason I like getting to play Ueda’s games once in a while is that they remind us how hidebound the most popular genres of games can get… and how much of the creative depths of those genres go unplumbed. They have a certain roughness, like the classics of the genre Another World and Prince of Persia, but that is just a side-effect of their boldness.
The use of music is sparse in this game, but I love how it's implemented. Whereas titles like Dark Souls embrace the feeling of dread by restricting the use of music to boss fights, director Ueda and composer Furukawa weave the cheerful score through little moments, like coming out of a cave to abundant sunshine, or traversing from narrow to spacious areas. In a game as confined as The Last Guardian, it feels elevating and hopeful to have this rapport with the player.
There's a lot of deserved criticism about the camera and how it works against the player. What disappointed me, however, was seeing command prompts littering the screen, instructing the player near every object. This creates dissonance when progressing to areas that require thoughtful observation to solve puzzles, or the handling of something that requires more thought than a command prompt would instruct. Sometimes the prompt can even work against you, suggesting something that you shouldn't do, something you wouldn't even have thought of if the prompt hadn't brought it up. This can rob you of the chance to solve puzzles entirely on your own. It's doubly surprising when you realize Ico – Ueda’s first game – is free of this handholding.
"We get to see what the heart of a PS2 game would look like in a PS4 game: an unflinching focus on the core experience -- the bond between a person and a creature -- with an almost complete disregard for everything around it."
The Last Guardian is a PlayStation 2 game with a PlayStation 4 main character. I say that not as a negative, but to offer a context.
The PlayStation 2 existed in a time in which AAA games reigned the world, in which AAA budgets hadn’t become unbearable yet, and in which strange creative risks could be taken. The games back then had a specific type of soul, a specific type of irreverent, creative soul, that is hard to replicate in the cut-throat focus-tested world of 2016. That’s not to say AAA in 2016 is worse than it was in 2008, just to say that it is different. The Last Guardian, by all means, is a 2008 game in 2016. Games have become smoother, easier to control, better signposted, more focused - there’s a decade of extra design knowledge and experience behind a AAA game today.
So within this 2008 game, with all its flaws and problems, we find Trico - the giant creature that is at the heart of the game - and it is remarkably PlayStation 4. The level of emotion, the level of technical prowess, the level of intelligence that the creature exhibits is unbelievable. The creature is endearing and terrifying, playful and destructive, a weapon and a danger. Every interaction between Trico and the player character feels genuine and alive, and it is the heart of the game.
The Last Guardian by all means should not exist, but thanks to the determination and financial support of Sony, we get to see what the heart of a PlayStation 2 game would look like in a PlayStation 4 game. It looks like an unflinching focus on the core experience of the game - the bond between a person and a creature - with an almost complete disregard for everything around it.
Whether that’s something you’d want to play, I can’t tell you.
I can't imagine I'll have this kind of relationship with any other game. That image of the rusty chain and the hole has been burned in my mind for nearly a decade. Right before release, when I heard people were getting mad that Trico wouldn't do what they wanted right away, I got really stoked. I love that. That's the major gameplay mechanic right there. That's the fun part!
I think a lot of developers build games that deliver immediate gratification, and many players expect that, but for me, there's nothing like the excitement that comes from the unknown, of patiently waiting for a big payoff. Knowing about the game for almost ten years before playing it certainly added to the suspense. Then, amazingly, I felt like Fumito Ueda delivered everything I was hoping for. After Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, both awesome experiences, that is huge. I think of him as some kind of demigod. He can take all the time he wants to make a game. The only bummer is, I ripped through the thing in two days because I couldn't put it down.
What really grabs me about TLG is how lifelike Trico feels most of the time. I found myself praising him, and petting him, knowing full well it has no impact on gameplay. (At least not that I'm aware of--obviously, petting him under certain circumstances is required and has a gameplay purpose.)
Through most of the game, I wasn't really convinced that it was grabbing me quite like Ico or SOTC had done, but when the ending rolled around I was in tears.
I think it fails at two things, and neither of these things are really a huge problem to me. The first is the camera. A lot of the game takes place in tight areas, and when you have a giant baby griffon stuffed in a tiny space, you get some shitty camera stuff. A lot of the time its just that Trico takes up so much screen space! Also, for whatever reason, the camera doesn't start moving until after you've held the direction on the stick for half a second or so. Really strange.
The other thing it fails at is making Trico put himself in the right position. Often you will want Trico to jump somewhere, or do a certain action, but he will be just slightly off center of the actionable area, and nothing will happen. You can easily reposition Trico but it'd be nice if... he was just a bit smarter and would reposition himself when necessary.
"I wish I had discovered Fumito Ueda's work earlier in life"
My current ambitions revolve around body language and intimacy with the space.With an arc like this, I wish I had discovered Fumito Ueda's work earlier in life. Each game developed under his leadership has fixated on the physical language of person and space with an intensity you don't see often in game development. Many games are looking to surprise or "immerse" us with their representations of physicality. Ico, Shadow and The Last Guardian look past those concerns and focus on giving us a feeling. I suspect that Ueda's background in film is key to that clarity.
Beyond the intricate and technically impressive clambering we've seen in each of these works, there is a recurring theme of tactility representing relationships. We pull Yorda along in Ico, depend on loyal Agro in Shadow and rely on Trico's size and strength in Guardian. In each of these stories, a relationship is a central element, and that relationship is depicted interactively through touch. It's extremely difficult to build the technology for that — I've studied the topic extensively and built prototypes of my own — but it was necessary for telling each of these stories.
I am deeply inspired by this dedication to feel. The technique and technology of the game aren't what you come for; it's the experience. Trico vindicates my fascination with building virtual actors and will be an invaluable touchstone when I return to that effort.
As a footnote, my biggest dissatisfaction with Trico is probably in its sound design. While the sounds used to give the creature life are very emotive and tastefully arranged, the developers ultimately relied on many layers of foley audio. Occasionally you'll hear simultaneous sounds that send contradictory signals about Trico's breathing patterns. As an audio programmer, I wish they would have explored dynamic synthesis techniques in order to achieve a more cohesive soundscape for the creature's body, analog to their efforts in dynamic animation.
It's sort of like Duke Nukem Forever. By the time that game came out, it had tree rings. You can see the stages of development it went through as you play. Announced in the 90s, released in the 2010s, when so much had changed for videogames. So many advances in gameplay, UI, controllers, systems, software. Without a modern start-from-scratch, the game was destined to be a FPS time chimera.
The Last Guardian suffered a similar fate, with the game providing button reminders, even hours into play. The Trico command confusion wasn’t an intentional mechanic: players wandering halls looking for ways to summon Trico, when really, the creature simply didn’t accompany when it should have. The Last Guardian would’ve been fantastic if it had been released years ago. Rather than join the upset players that I had talked to and YouTubed, I felt this game was best watched.
As a game creator, it reminded me of the minidocumentary The Game that Time Forgot and how pertinent it is to create and release games within scoped time frames. Sticking to visions for past technology doesn't work; the game's tree rings will show.
The world that The Last Guardian presents is such a beautiful one, at once both lonely and majestic; there are some amazing vistas that I'll remember forever. I was impressed that it somehow presented the entire game from beginning to end as one seamless world. Unfortunately, I found the controls and the camera frustrating the whole way through, and that prevented me from emotionally connecting with Trico or enjoying the game's puzzles. It was a miss for me, but somehow I still look forward to what Ueda works on next, because I know it will be something no one has seen before.
I was most struck by the designers’ incredible ability to consistently find new opportunities for Trico to surprise me. Despite being carefully designed and choreographed, there were countless moments Trico would react in ways that felt deeply personal. In talking with friends about the game, I’ve noticed we all refer to the creature as “My Trico”, illustrating just how essential animation and AI are to making characters feel organic.
At the end of the day, despite all its shortcomings, I’ve never played anything quite like The Last Guardian. It’s not often you see such a wonderfully unique and ambitious project given the time and resources needed to fully realize its vision.
Team ICO always creates beautiful experiences defined by the smallest details and interactions, everything else seems to be made just to reinforce those feelings. The Last Guardian isn't a puzzle game, it's a game about a relationship that happens to have puzzles. It would have been pretty easy for them to make an obedient companion, but they chose to do the opposite and create moments that might be frustrating for many players just to enhance the core of their vision. A bold choice that shouldn't be seen as a mistake. I'd love to see more games try this in the future.
My main thought is that The Last Guardian is amongst the most powerful games I have ever played. I played it with my flat mate and we were completely silent for the final 2 hours of the game and about another half hour afterwards. What it achieves with the believability of the two characters and the empathy it inspires towards them goes beyond any game I have played before. I also particularly enjoyed how strongly it fits in with the style of the team’s previous games while surprising me with how eventful it is and how much it escalates.
Sadly, frustrations with the controls did become something I was conscious of for a lot of the experience. They weren’t enough to ruin my experience, but it does sadden me that they will likely limit it’s audience, especially considering it feels like such a treat to be given a game so unique and focussed with such high production values.
"There were times in the game where I wanted to stay in the moment with Trico and not move forward, because I was afraid of what might come. "
I finished The Last Guardian only a day ago, and I am sad it’s over. Again, Fumito Ueda and his team created something that I consider to be timeless and that I will treasure. Again, I felt the intensity and nervousness, an uneasy feeling in my stomach, like I felt with Shadow of the Colossus. And again, there’s this mystical, silent world that is awe inspiring and puzzles you. This time however, I felt a bigger emotional connection.
The relationship between Trico and the boy is pure, beautiful, but also fragile, since you know you are still dealing with a majestic powerful being. The unconditional love Trico gives you is captivating. And it reinforces your trust. There were times in the game where I wanted to stay in the moment with Trico and not move forward, because I was afraid of what might come. A darkness that would hurt Trico, my friend and my constant in this scary place. The high buildings and pillars are equally fragile, every footstep or jump felt important. I felt it in my stomach when I walked over all the narrow paths.
The game is not without its faults. When developers are daring, but especially so convicted, other elements can feel unpolished. The camera and controls were occasionally clunky, which could make you feel unsure of what to do or feel out of control. Some gameplay elements and transition scenes weren’t always smooth or clear.
However, these things didn’t ruin the experience for me. It made me respect the developers even more for their accomplishments. It made me humble and patient, and it gave me something valuable because this game is an amazing feat, the subtleties in the animations are remarkable and the art style is subdued and fits perfectly. The game tells more with less - so much can be said with expression and symbolism. There’s a total lack of interface, except for controller hints (which I wished I could turn off!). The music is subtle, simple, and it never overrules the game. There are cut scenes that make your heart race. The emotion on the boy’s face are believable and Trico has all the characteristics, responses and movements of your favorite pets mixed into a cute mythological beast climbing a cat tower.
This game haunted me, it’s not an easy game to play, even with all its light and endearing moments. There were a lot of intense frantic scenes, that gave me a sense of urgency, but also stressed me out. For me this is a game that I must put down at times, just to cool down and recover.
It came at a time where I struggle with the absence of my own pet. It resonated with me, as it will with many others who have devoted their lives and hearts to their animal friends.
Immediately after the intro credits sequence, even before the game itself begins, a kind of loading screen appears. We see a tunnel of light, as floating rune-like symbols morph into existence. They multiply. This, it turns out, is a kind of simplistic mini-game -- press any button and one of the runes will be eliminated. The scene re-appears throughout the game, and its primary function is indeed that of a loading screen. This first occurrence, however, is different; the screen doesn't fade, no matter how long you wait. Multiple buttons have to be pressed and some of the symbols eliminated first. In fact, a somewhat obnoxious button prompt appears if you don't understand that your input is required.
This seems like oddly unintuitive and puzzling design for a simplistic mechanic that serves no immediate purpose. But everyone who's played The Last Guardian knows that this "mini-game", which in truth amounts to little more than wildly pressing buttons, eventually translates to the escaping mechanic. This mechanic isn't introduced until quite a bit later in the game, triggered whenever the boy is captured by a guard. The same floating runes suddenly appear. It becomes clear that these represent a kind of dark magic, taking hold of and paralyzing the boy. Quickly pressing controller buttons will get rid of the runes and help the struggling boy escape a guard's grasp. The mechanic itself is nothing spectacular or unique, but the way its emotional impact and intuitive understanding has deliberately been divorced from the abstract mechanical aspect *is*.
In a seemingly innocuous bit of Pavlovian conditioning a connection between floating abstract symbols and "button mashing" is first established. As a result, the later emotional and mechanical response to being captured is instinctive and powerful. It requires no additional tutorial or button prompt (something that sadly can't be said for many of the game's other mechanics). Once the floating runes appear, the almost involuntary and immediate response is to press any or all of the buttons, as fast as you can. On a conscious level it barely registers.
This initial separation of mechanic and actual gameplay context underlines the emotional and intuitive impact of player input in a way that games rarely do (Brothers - A Tale of Two Sons immediately comes to mind). And it does so in a manner that is antithetical to what one might consider "good design" (i.e. a gradual, relatively safe introduction to a mechanic in its direct gameplay context).
The Last Guardian's design frequently relies on the player's emotional bond to convey and teach crucial mechanics that other games do through a safer, more academic approach. Another example of this occurs in a moment in which the player is asked to take a literal leap of faith as part of a critical scenario. The game expects the player to trust that Trico will catch him in mid-air. But there is no precedent for this, no prior communication between the beast and the boy and no visual indicator of any kind that this will happen. The game relies on the trust and emotional bond established through gameplay, and the reward -- Trico does of course catch the boy -- feels earned, in a way it might not have if the mechanic had been introduced more gradually.
And briefly, I'll single out one thing I didn't like:
Every single button prompt diminishes a player's perceived agency. They're not always avoidable, but they should be used as sparingly as possible. The Last Guardian, however, is full of them. It "reminds" the player of its button mapping up until the very last moments of the game, sporadically, frequently, whenever a specific action is possible or required.
But a button prompt doesn't solve the problem some designers think it does. It doesn't teach the player anything. By the end of the game, players will often still not have remembered the button assignments -- when they are constantly being reminded of them, they don't have to remember them. Designers are creating the problem they're attempting to solve.
Instead, all a tutorial button prompt can hope to do is establish a transference of responsibility. "Now that you know how this works, failure is on you!" And this is a *good* thing. Whether or not a player memorizes a tutorial prompt is as irrelevant as it is unreliable. Let the player stumble instead. Players remember only when they're allowed to fail, when they can test and experiment. So let them. Experience creates lasting memories, indoctrination does not.