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.