Animals in video games are usually nothing but robots in skins and furs. They’re utterly predictable and mechanical, even those that are modelled realistically or animated with care: rabbits hop away in straight lines, bears attack on sight and until they drop dead. If we observe them from a distance, they stand still or move around randomly, or, if we’re very lucky, they may engage in some basic hunter-prey behaviour. They’re closer to simulations of wind-up toys than of actual flesh-and-blood animals.
And why should it be otherwise? Most of the time, they’re just extras in the background of a large stage into which they disappear. Sometimes, like the wolves or bears of the new Tomb Raider, they’re challenges to overcome, to be forgotten after a few minutes. Often, you may hunt them for their resources, to craft shit like bags into which to put more shit, because that’s what video game heroes do. In some rare instances, animals can be pets and companions, like Roach from The Witcher 3, or Dogmeat from Fallout 4. But still, the springs and wires show clearly.
The 17th century philosopher René Descartes argued that unlike humans, animals were soulless automata, as incapable of thought or even feeling pain as, for example, a clock. In his influential view that was used as a justification for unscrupulous vivisection, they were machines created by God, preprogramed, so to speak, to execute a limited, deterministic set of behaviours in response to certain stimuli. In a sense, then, most video game animals are quintessentially “Cartesian”. Don’t feel bad if you hurt or kill them. Even compared to other virtual beings, they’re merely robots.
Much has been written about The Last Guardian, and many have complained about how old-fashioned its design approach feels. They may be right or wrong, but to me, it mostly seems beside the point. The centrepiece of the game is doubtless Trico, and Trico is a paradigm shift, a true watershed moment and artistic achievement by any definition. In many ways, it’s an evolution from the experiments of Ueda’s earlier games, but when looking at the game landscape as a whole, it’s hard to see it as anything other than a revolution.
Much of what makes Trico so special was already, in some rudimentary form, present in Shadow of the Colossus. Much craft and care went into making Wander’s horse Agro appear like a real animal. He’s more than just a convenient means of transportation, but comes to life through lifelike movement and displays of an individual, separate will. Famously, Agro can be stubborn, and won’t always react perfectly or immediately to the player’s inputs. More than a simple tool, Agro demands respect as a living being. The same is true for the Colossi themselves; whether peaceful giants or vicious beasts, they dominate the screen through their physical presence and emanate a sense of overwhelming dignity that Wander’s blade and arrows are unable to harm.
Still: Agro is subservient to the player regardless of any emotional attachment, and the Colossi are “enemies” despite the tragedy implied in their deaths. Trico combines many facets of those creatures: he’s a stubborn companion like Agro, and an intimidating force of nature like the Colossi. Like Agro, he can be “ridden”, and like the Colossi, he can be climbed through still-impressive technological witchcraft. But Trico is more than the sum of these parts, and he ultimately transcends the already impressive creatures of Shadow of the Colossus.
The most important difference is the fact that Trico is never subservient. Yes, you can call him and show him where to go, and most of the time he’ll comply (sooner or later). But you are never his master. Trico is physically dominant, a powerful beast towering over the player’s little boy, and you are dependent on (and in some disturbing scenes, even vulnerable to) that strength. If you come across a wide abyss or enemies, you’ll have no choice but to swallow your pride and scamper into the shadows of your enormous protector. Lesser games would allow the player to switch between the characters in situations like that, but in The Last Guardian, you are forced to subject yourself to the will of a fickle AI creature. It’s a humbling but beautiful experience that most games would be too terrified to attempt.
Of course, Trico must also rely on the player; without the small and nimble boy, who’d bring him food from narrow places or remove the spears from his flesh? Who’d smash those glass eyes, or simply pet him when he’s anxious? Trico and the boy (and by extension, you the player) are deeply interdependent in ways that Wander and Agro were not, and this tightly intertwined relationship is communicated through the continuous ebb and flow of mutual help and relief.
This means that Trico invites close and constant observation. Whenever you’re separated from him, you’ll feel anxious, and whenever you’re close, you’ll study his movements to gain some insight into his current state of mind. If he lies down and yaws, bring him some food. If he’s fretful, pet him. If he’s afraid of jumping into the water, jump in before him so he can see it’s safe. These interactions never feel like deterministic puzzles, but rather like organic communications with a blood-and-flesh creature.
And, amazingly, paying close attention to the most minute details doesn’t beak the illusion of a living, feeling creature, but only reinforces it.
Trico is a marvel of both technology and art, coming to life at the intersection between design, animation, physics simulation and artificial intelligence. The impression of his bodily presence and weight within his world is awe-inspiring and almost tactile, and the way he moves through it stunningly expressive and emotionally resonant. His gestures and noises reveal fear, anger, affection, insecurity, pain, and more. Ironically, the moment that stays with me the most is no dramatic scene or set piece of the boy saving Trico or vice versa, but a tiny detail: Trico entertaining himself by playing with a chain hanging from the ceiling while I’m trying to figure out where to go next. It’s a simple thing that blew me away completely, that illustrated not just the feeling, sentient nature of Trico, but a self-expressive, playful, joyful side that, at least to people who live with animals, seems so authentic and familiar, so real.
And like a real animal, Trico can feel inscrutable; he doesn’t come with an instruction manual. Does it matter, for example, which parts of his body you pet? I always went for his neck when Trico was angry or wounded, even though as far as I know, petting his back would calm him down just as efficiently. It seemed like the best spot: it’s where I pet my dog too when she’s anxious. There’s also a rumour (unverified, as far as I know) that treating Trico with negligence will make him more stubborn and less likely to comply to your commands. Even though I hope it’s true, the most interesting thing about this rumour is that it exists in the first place. The fact that players wonder about this is a testament to how convincing Trico’s illusion really is. He passes the video game animal’s equivalent of the Turing test.
Trico playing with the chain
Trico is, as far as I’m concerned, by far the most successful attempt to challenge the implicit, mostly inadvertent Cartesian notion of most games that animals are mere soulless machines to be used or ignored by sentient, superior humans. The Last Guardian is an important moment in video game history, and I hope that its achievements, unlike those of Shadow of the Colossus, won’t be ignored by future games.