Trig­ger Happy

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

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