The power of Team Ico’s sparingly told yarns (contains spoilers)
There isn’t a single audio diary in earshot, nor any logs to read through. Cutscenes, meanwhile, say only as much as they need to, never outstaying their welcome. Director Fumito Ueda and his team at GenDesign, formerly the core of Team Ico, have always tackled storytelling in a restrained way, but while The Last Guardian’s narrated journey and broader geographical reach contribute to this feeling like the most extensively explained – and directly told – Ueda story to date, it also represents the pinnacle of the team’s singular approach.
Much of that is down to the unprecedented expression possible through the extraordinary Trico. Communicating with AI characters has hitherto been a reductive process. Press a button to trigger dialogue; stand nearby when you’re ready for them to unlock the door they’ve patiently waited beside while you faff about elsewhere. Even Elizabeth, who we described as “the most human-seeming AI companion since Alyx Vance” in our review of BioShock Infinite, is ready to capitulate to the player’s whims when needed. She may be animated with flair, but outside of cutscenes, the illusion of freewill is precariously thin.
Trico is different. The creature appears to be driven by its own desires and intentions at all times, and when it does work with you, you feel the decision was entirely its own. Even when, a little way into the game, you gain the ability to issue direct orders, Trico rarely responds immediately, and may even need a degree of coaxing to get it to do what you need to progress.
It’s in these situations that being able to read Trico’s facial expressions and body language becomes so important. The creature might look towards the ledge you’re trying to encourage it to reach up to, then back to you before tilting its head slightly in confusion. Or it might simply be in an unhelpful mood. It’s like trying to explain a simple concept to a toddler that has neither the context of life experience nor the vocabulary needed to parse your instructions. And it comes with both the same feelings of frustration – when what you understand implicitly isn’t understood by someone else – and the sense of satisfaction when you find a way in which the pair of you can communicate effectively.
Things are further obfuscated by the fact that what you’re asking of Trico is often a bespoke, one-time action. In one section, for example, you must encourage it to dive down into deep water to get through a submerged tunnel. In another, a rickety cart must be used as a catapult, with Trico the counterweight. The gradual increase in your understanding of the creature’s motivations and whims communicates a developing relationship quite unlike any other that has played out in a videogame in the past.
Environmentally, too, The Last Guardian is a masterclass in unforced narrative construction. Like the castles, structures and surroundings of Ico and Shadow Of The Colossus before it, The Nest is an evocative location, contrasting brightly lit areas of shimmering grass and trees with dank, lifeless interiors whose majesty has long since crumbled. The purpose of the vast network of towers and chambers is never fully explained (though a chilling, wonderfully odd revelation hints at its relationship with the wider world). Nor is the reason for Trico’s distress at seeing the ominous eye symbols ever made clear. You’re left contemplating what could’ve happened to instil this fear, what that eye symbol represents, and how much history must have passed before your arrival. But, as with every other aspect of the game, Trico’s reaction to these glass barriers is neither guaranteed nor binary. Just as Shadow Of The Colossus included heartstopping references to Ico – the Queen’s Sword, for example, and the hidden beach – The Last Guardian also references the wider world of the three games. It’s there in the bleached stone of The Nest’s architecture and pea-green foliage, and the way the game’s enemies attempt to drag you back to some sorcery-conjured portal if caught. But sharp-eyed players will also spot SOTC’s vitality-giving lizards scurrying about the place (here they serve no gameplay function), and one particularly exciting moment sees you encounter the same distinctive, dangling cylindrical cages in which Ico finds Yorda imprisoned. SOTC gave up its secrets slowly, so there’s likely more to discover here.
No series – bar Dark Souls, perhaps – so effectively instils a desire to better understand the world beyond its playable area’s boundaries, whether that’s pining for the opportunity to explore the mainland in Ico, trekking to the distant silhouetted structures on Shadow Of The Colossus’s horizon, or scaling the encompassing cliff wall that encloses The Nest. Ueda consistently finds the delicate balance between saying too much and offering too little. Each is told from a perspective of youthful naivety that contrasts with the mournful realities of adult life in a universe of superstition-driven cruelty and powerful, though physically limited, magic.
In its central relationship, The Last Guardian is Ueda’s most emotionally unguarded game yet. The bond you develop with Trico is lasting and gets its hooks into you to such an extent that it’s almost upsetting to find it absent upon starting a second playthrough. And while each element of the game is delicately constructed from the least material possible, the resulting whole is one of the most affecting videogame stories ever told.
As with every other aspect of the game, Trico’s reaction to these glass barriers is neither guaranteed nor binary