Despite all the stories that surround The Last Guardian—a colossus of development hell, the sequel to one of gaming’s very best, a cultural entity as mysterious as its characters and story—the relationship between a young boy and a creature has always interested me the most. Fumito Ueda and Team ICO’s games have always had deep, intimate relationships at their core. This very human underpinning—the cooperation of ICO’s leads, Wander’s love for the girl in white—has elevated Team ICO’s games to a very special resonance in a way that mere ancient ruins, epic scope, and narrative ambiguity cannot.
For this reason, whether during the opening to Sony’s E3 2015 press conference or my behind-closed-doors demo, my eyes were glued to the screen every time the boy and the creature interacted. Trico, as the creature is called, is an imposing presence by size alone, but warmth, tenderness, and vulnerability come out in the way he timidly follows the boy out into the light of the world for what could be the first time in ages.
This was the highlight of my private demo—a short section of gameplay that takes place before what we saw in the press conference debut. With Ueda himself at the DualShock, we see the boy discover Trico for the first time. Lying on the floor, stabbed in several places by speared wood, Trico is defeated, exhausted, possibly nearing death with every breath. Stunning light shafts enter the room through high windows, illuminating the dust of millennia. The bright environment contrasts sharply with the somber scene of Trico, a majestic beast, brought to this state.
The boy clambers atop Trico, briefly using feathers as a handhold a la Shadow of the Colossus. With each spear he yanks out, Trico lets out a whimper. I start to realize that the relationship between boy and Trico is as much about the boy protecting Trico emotionally, easing his timid re-entry into the world, as it is about Trico protecting the boy with his physical strength and size.
After freeing Trico, the boy tosses a couple barrels his way for a heartwarming moment of fetch before exploring the room further. It’s a cell designed to imprison Trico, and we need to find a way out. As Ueda walks around the room and explores its finer details, the environmental ambiguity of Shadow of the Colossus comes to mind. Like its forebears, The Last Guardian won’t be a game that wears navigational cues and puzzle solutions on its sleeve. Combined with hesitant music, soft lighting, and richly detailed ruins, it’s like the game exists in a surreal haze, like a dreamy glimpse at a past life.A window opening high above looks like a way out, so the boy calls Trico over. As Trico steps on his hind legs and peers through the opening, the feathers on his back present a way to climb up. The boy scrambles up Trico and falls down on the other side of the opening, where a lever waits for opening the prison cell. Seeing sunlight, Trico and the boy race for the exit, bursting out into open air. Trico raises his head and crows with joy as sunlight bleaches the screen. I can feel how long he’s been trapped in these ruins, but why—and by whom—remains a mystery.
From here, the gameplay section seen in the press conference demo proceeds. The boy calls a nervous Trico over to a ledge, beckoning to a wooden platform beyond. Trico is afraid to jump, unsure of what will happen, wings gimped from what could be many years of imprisonment. But the boy is his protector; his warmth and enthusiastic calls are a comfort. Trico takes the leap with mighty grace, landing on an unsteady platform. Already growing affectionate and protective toward the boy, he turns around to grab the boy out of mid-air when the boy leaps to follow.
The only hint of what force built this ruined city, and perhaps entrapped Trico, is a painted windmill that triggers a brief, disturbing reaction in Trico. His eyes, a deep, cavernous black, turn blood red as he hisses and backs away with a strange vehemence. It’s as if Trico is frightened not of the windmill, but of the darker force that built it, or of something sinister that the windmill signifies. Without putting it out of commission, we can’t progress, so the boy jumps and trots over to the windmill’s base to wheel it off the platform, out of sight. Doing so causes a chain reaction that sees the platform crumble, and the boy’s only hope is to leap across a massive gap toward Trico.
As we know from the press conference demo, Trico misses the initial grab, but just when death seems imminent, his tail comes from below to give the boy something to grab onto. Except this time, the boy misses, bouncing off the tail instead of grabbing it and plummeting to his death. Seemingly, Ueda missed the timing on the tail grab; this wasn’t a scripted moment, and like Shadow of the Colossus, it seems emphasis is placed on grabbing and holding onto surfaces at the right time. The second attempt is a success, and the demo proceeds. Trico makes another big jump but comes up short, grasping desperately at a wooden ledge that’s ready to give way. This time, it’s the boy’s turn to save Trico’s life. He clambers up Trico to the ledge above and quickly moves a fallen support beam so that Trico can grab something more secure. As Trico gains his footing and soars upward to the opening, the boy jumps to grab hold of some feathers, lest he be left behind. Finally clear of this tiny, deadly section of the ruins, the two spare a moment, and Trico signs off the demo with an adorable head-scratch.
The intimacy and emotional core of Team ICO’s games have always balanced a visually spectacular scale. The Last Guardian is, in a word, epic. The weathered ruins convey time in its most vast, immemorial sense. All the surrounding towers and pillars dwarf the mighty Trico, to say nothing of the diminutive boy. Like its forebears, The Last Guardian bears a visual style that seems to intentionally eschew photorealistic textures for a slightly muddier look that invites visual interpretation. The boy, in particular, stands out from everything else, with cel-shaded art that almost glows. It’s a dream-like aesthetic that comes across as subtle art, holding meaning for those who care to reflect on it.
Reflecting on my demo, I believe The Last Guardian is a game about saving a life. As the boy brings Trico into the light of life, literally out of a prison and metaphorically out of his vulnerability and fear, so too does Trico save the boy with physical strength, size, and protection. This synergy between them, the way each creature compensates for the weaknesses of the other and boosts each other to new heights, embodies how we can save (or, at least, improve) a life every day. Whatever Ueda’s true vision for The Last Guardian, if so much can be felt in such a tiny glimpse of the final game, the wait will be very well worth it.