The Last Guardian, and the Problems Linearity Presents for the Empathy Machine

Nothing in life makes me happier than animal companionship. Give me a Bombay named Meemaw and a Corgi named Peepums and I’ll never need to talk to another one of you fur-less human gremlins for the rest of my life.

This is what draws me – and, I think, so many others – to The Last Guardian. Trico is my light and my love and my sun and my moon. Trico is my wonderful, perfect friend, but many don’t feel the same way. The empathetic goals of The Last Guardian run afoul of a particular undercurrent of complaint – ‘Trico doesn’t listen to what I tell it to do.’ We have reached the consensus that this is simply a matter of taste in AI – some folk are bothered by Trico’s obstinance, others see it as *the point.* But to chalk this disagreement up to AI dice rolls restricts our understanding of The Last Guardian’s failures to the surface level, when they are truly ingrained in the fabric of the game’s structure.

The real problem is Linearity.

Linear games are, fundamentally, about achieving a goal – be that “shoot all the mans,” or, in the case of TLG, journey from point A to point B. The realization of their thesis is necessitated by progress – by achieving goals. This is deeply problematic for TLG, as the structural conceits of linearity confound the game’s themes. The bonds of companionship – human or otherwise – are based in mutual coexistence. I don’t want my Bombay/Corgi pair because I need them to accomplish tasks for me – I want them because I want two furry friends that I can hang with and love, with all my heart. So what The Last Guardian presents as ‘coexistence’ is, more accurately, codependence. Our relationship with Trico is, at every turn, a proposition of value. I need you to progress, so we shall continue to stick together.

This problem is further complicated by The Last Guardian’s execution of genre. As a puzzler, TLG possesses a restrictively singular approach to solutions. For every problem, there exists only one right answer. We have to position Trico just so, that we may jump to a lever/barrel/what-have-you. Not only does this reinforce the codependent nature of the Trico/Player relationship, it also roots Trico’s quirks and personality in the realm of impediment. What is meant to charm actively prevents us from achieving our goals – from progressing. Worse, still, is that our “goal” is to see the fulfillment of this bond and further empathize with this beautiful creature. Ironically, in behaving in a manner meant to endear, Trico confounds the thesis of The Last Guardian.

It is only in such a rigidly linear world that the “obstinant Trico” complaint holds water. If the structural shackles are loosened even a smidgen – e.g. providing multiple solutions to puzzles, some hopefully even de-emphasizing the notion of codependence – Trico transforms from oafish obstacle to powerful sweetheart. But, perhaps even more troubling than confounding Trico’s charming unpredictability, linearity devalues The Last Guardian’s most pronounced expressions of bond by relegating them to setpiece.

Midway through the game, a moment comes where Trico powers through its fear of stained-glass eyes to rescue you. Many point to this moment as a cathartic expression of bond, but linearity robs this act of any genuine compassion. In this moment, Trico has no choice. In character pieces – à la The Last of Us – setpiece as expressions of bond function as intended. They exist to show the player (as viewer) of a shift in the relationship between two fictional persons distinct from themselves. But where The Last of Us is about the relationship between NPC and Avatar Character, The Last Guardian is about the relationship between NPC and Player – empathy piece, rather than character piece. The player cannot change the arc of Joel and Ellie’s relationship through play; we do not participate in their relationship. But our relationship with Trico can be influenced. Fun fact: you can make Trico more responsive by taking better care of it – feeding it more barrels, petting it, healing its wounds. As such, Trico’s behavior organically reflects the state of your relationship – until we reach a setpiece.

 

The player can treat Trico like a hot sack of trash, but it will come to the rescue time and time again; in this moment, our relationship does not belong to Us – it belongs to The Game. The problem is not that these moments exist within setpiece – sometimes, a little scripted action helps nudge our understanding of a game in the right direction. The problem is that these moments exist exclusively within setpiece. In the final arena battle of the game, Trico will once again cower in fear of the stained glass eyes until you eliminate them from combat – proof that its bravery was simply the byproduct of linear scripting.

In relegating every pronounced expression of bond within the realm of setpiece, The Last Guardian devalues itself as a work of empathy. What is forced and artificial cannot invoke the same reaction as what is genuine. The Last Guardian is, by no means, a total failure. Trico is my huge animal boyfriend, and I love it very much. There are nougats of true companionship for people like me to latch onto. But I can’t help but be bothered by a game whose structure so overtly undermines its thesis.

Tom Loughney is a man with a disappointing lack of Bombays and Corgis, and a content oeuvre that includes games writing, video game video analysis, and a storytelling podcast about major media. Follow him on twitter @loughnessmonstr

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