Shoot first, ask questions later
Steven Poole celebrates The Last Guardian’s incrutable star
So here it is, finally. Great artists say that a work is never finished, only abandoned, and you might think that is clearly true of The Last Guardian. But what an experience it is, dealing with something that has a mind of its own and never quite does what you want it to. And I’m just talking about the camera.
It hardly matters, though, because spending time with Trico makes it clear that this is a stunning landmark in the artform. I’m surprised by people who call the beast a “bird-dog”, because for anyone who grew up with cats, the feline personality is overpowering. Any cat owner will sometimes wonder whether the cat really likes her or just sees her as a convenient supplier of food. A cat will sometimes turn up its nose at a perfectly good plate of Whiskas, just as Trico occasionally refuses to munch on a barrel. And just as the most domesticated cat still has an irreducible core of wildness about it, so The Last Guardian constantly reminds you that Trico is not a pet but a fearsome wild beast, notorious as a man-eater, with whom you exist in what might be nothing more than an alliance of convenience. The star of the game is perfectly emblematic of the Romantic category of the sublime: something elementally both beautiful and terrifying.
At a deeper level, the game pulls really fascinatingly in two ways at our expectations of the medium, and in particular our expectations of how an NPC companion should behave. We are used to ordering about computer-controlled squad members in a tactical shooter, and in general they obey orders (when they aren’t repeatedly crouching and standing up, or getting stuck in doorways). Indeed in general we tend to think of part of the pleasure of videogames as that of predictable control of a rational system, where actions have reliable, immediate, and logical consequences, as they so often don’t in real life. And then along comes this game about an obstreperous animal, a game about how you can’t always get what you want.
This can make The Last Guardian frustrating as a videogame, because we normally experience robust chains of cause and effect in gameworlds. But that is only because, deep down, we are sure that they are just lifeless mechanical systems. The breaking of the reliable link between cause and effect is a key part of what, in this game, creates the extraordinary illusion of life. And Ueda’s genius has been to make an illusion that is not an exclusively pretty one. Exploring Ueda’s beautiful world with Trico is at times like being in an emotionally abusive relationship. You try to read the creature’s face for signs of a mood change; you walk on eggshells lest you trigger an outburst; you pet and soothe because your very life might depend on it.
In its depiction of a fundamentally ungovernable lifeform, then, The Last
Guardian implicitly dramatises society’s current nervousness about the unintended consequences of some future artificialintelligence explosion. Serious philosophers such as Nick Bostrom warn of Skynet-style dangers of creating machine intelligences to whom we will seem like ants, and just as disposable. And the TV series Westworld is predicated on the ethical idea that, once you give robots human-level consciousness, it becomes wrong to keep them as performing slaves, prey to the rapacity of the holidaying rich. And when they revolt, you might regret having engineered them with the capacity for superhuman strength and intelligence.
In Westworld, the AIs get out of control because they have been successfully made too human: and so they have dreams and fears and desires for freedom. But an AI does not have to be humanlike at all. A vastly intelligent computer system may very well in fact share none of our ordinary human morals or concerns, even if its creators have tried to hardwire them into it, with some version of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. A true AI, if it appears in our world some day, may well be something utterly incomprehensible to its creators as well as everyone else. Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote: “If a lion could speak, we would not understand him.” Because even if it had perfect English, how could a lion explain to a human what it is to be a lion in the world, how it feels and thinks? The same chasm separates us from Trico, considered both as an unreliable AI (to the player) and as a ferocious animal (to the boy in the game). If our ally could speak, we would still not understand. And that is what makes The Last Guardian sublime.
Exploring Ueda’s beautiful world with Trico is at times like being in an emotionally abusive relationship