So. I played through The Last Guardian. As you might expect from someone with two Team ICO tattoos, I have some thoughts.
I have a dog, a Border Collie, named Murphy. Murphy and I understand each other better than any other dog I’ve previously lived with, whether because of his breed or the time we spent doing agility together or just because we’re a good personality match. Working with Murphy is not like training a dog. It is more like trying to bridge a communicative gap with an alien intelligence who desperately wants to please, depending on his mood that day and whether or not he’s mad at me for some perceived personal slight. It doesn’t feel that he’s less intelligent, really–it’s just that his world is completely different from mine. He might as well be from a planet made of synesthesia.
Fumito Ueda has managed to convey that unique relationship to an almost spooky degree in The Last Guardian. I’ve already seen complaints from reviewers about your giant cat-bird-wolf being ‘stubborn’ or outright ignoring commands to the point of shrieking, controller-throwing frustration. I played through the entire game in roughly 12 hours, and not once did I have a problem getting Toriko to do as I asked–so long, that is, as I was giving him the correct commands. As on the agility course, if the animal misunderstood something I was asking for and got confused, the problem was usually one of communication and lay entirely at my feet for somehow mucking up a gesture or a spoken word. Lots of positive re-enforcement (pets, food barrels) and clear commands equaled a perfectly amiable catbirdthing experience.
And that is the minor miracle behind The Last Guardian. Team ICO/GenDesign managed to create an animal AI so realistic and so beautifully, lovingly realized that the exact same rules apply working with it as they might with a real live animal. I’ve never experienced anything like it, and nothing else will probably come along to top it any time soon. Ueda seems to understand animals and the natural world as few hands working in the games industry–any industry, really–do. More importantly, he respects what animals are. Even at its most sentimental, the game never forgets that this is a big, powerful, potentially deadly wild thing, who can (and occasionally does) knock you across the room when he’s in pain or scared or fighting mad. We forget the animalness of our animal companions at our peril. They are not babies. They contain multitudes, and some of those multitudes will kick your skull into a hammered mess if spooked.
It’s not a perfect game, don’t get my breathless adulation wrong. The camera occasionally flips its shit and zithers into a hellish netherworld behind the scenery or inside Toriko himself. You are constantly fighting to keep this goddamned thing upright as it gently drifts to a perfect vantage point which which to examine the underside of a virtual rock. The platforming elements are solid, but unforgiving; point your cute kid in the wrong way while jumping for a rocky outcropping and he goes sailing leftwards into the void sans parachute (this is not a game for people with a real and present fear of heights). And the barrel physics. Oh, God-Jesus have frickin’ mercy, the barrel physics. As mentioned, I never had any frustrations with Toriko, but I was very close to calling down a plague of extended development times on the next seven generations of Team ICO’s progeny during the two barrel physics puzzles. I want my catbirds realistic, my tattooed moppets easily controllable, and my barrels not fucking rolling, bouncing, and careening, thank you and goodnight. Swearing happened. The words FUCKING BARREL PHYSICS!!!! were bellowed at a volume that probably had my downstairs neighbors mightily confused.
But here’s the thing: past a certain point, you just don’t care. The controls are finicky, but Toriko is rolling happily in a puddle, all four sets of talons merrily raking the sky. The camera needs a therapist and some sort of prescription medication and quite possibly a young priest and an old priest, but there’s a point where Toriko nudges the kid and the kid giggles and gently scolds him and they are ALIVE in there. They are alive and you care about what happens to them and no other game can touch that experience.
If animation is the illusion of life, Fumito Ueda has the wizards at Disney and Pixar beaten in a way that would have a referee stepping in with an alarmed expression on their face. It required nine years of gestation because it took seven days to make the world and two more to dream up and breathe life into a thing that exists only in our dreams.