Without bravado or guns, and possessing occasional gentleness, The Last Guardian appeals to tastes beyond those held by the typical videogame audience. At the outset, it seems a powerful fascination. Put off by games’ pomposity? A fan of Spielberg, Miyazaki or Disney? Then try this. It is something different. But if The Last Guardian aesthetically, tonally, is ingratiating to the more extensively cultured, that sadly doesn’t matter, because without an understanding of videogames’ history, and patience for a class of satire so detailed it only makes sense if you’re submerged in gaming culture already, the game is unbearable.
Our perspective in The Last Guardian is skewed and unwieldy to the point that, as well as devolving plain movements like running and climbing into slapstick, it undercuts the game’s supposedly closely directed, dramatic scenes – when Trico finally musters the courage to take a huge running jump from one tower to another, the magnitude of the moment is undercut by an angle that, despite our pulling on the PlayStation 4 controller’s right analogue stick, remains centered on a middle close-up of the creature’s left hip. Rather than cohesion, The Last Guardian’s controls are a catalyst for illegibility and ludicrousness. It’s healthy to play a game wherein our character’s movements are unpredictable and shambolic. When almost every videogame protagonist seems implacable and unfailing, the boy in The Last Guardian, who as a result of the game’s recalcitrant controls stumbles, struggles and falls appears comparatively human; Trico, by virtue of its disobedience, seems to have a mind, and thus identity, beyond the reliable functions of a sidekick. But none of this is important if you don’t already play videogames. Hand The Last Guardian to a person suspicious or ignorant of games and it will not provoke questions about human nature. Instead he will ask, with perfectly good reason “why can’t I see what I’m doing, why can’t I move and how am I supposed to take this seriously when the character keeps falling on his face?”
A level of knowledge, a concomitant responsibility to director and artwork, should be expected from an audience. But The Last Guardian, a refreshing and spirited deviation from videogame standards, ought to be more welcoming to outsiders. Moreover, its observations on the glorious unpredictability of human experience, though poetic, in the sense they are explored through subjective, formal means, are not enough developed to warrant learning its idiosyncratic language – we may admire The Last Guardian and agree to co-operate with its stubborn camera and inebriate avatar, but beyond a repeatedly stated point about the inconstant nature of consciousness, which is made and can be clearly understood inside the opening sixty minutes of its ten-plus hour run time, the game offers little in return. Each spectacle – Trico catching the boy in its mouth, the narrow escape from a crumbling building – is repeated several times. The story concludes on a foreseeable, mawkish note. Many of their creative achievements bear caveats, or are only celebrated by peers, fans and other well-wishers, all of whom seem to be actively trying to cultivate as narrow understanding of artwork as possible, but games, on occasion, earn their concession: the experience of Cosmo D’s Off-Peak is worth learning how to physically control a videogame.
The same may not be said for The Last Guardian. Dismissing the game for being discouraging, unsympathetic and apathetic toward its audience is not the same as failing to understand its subtleties. Mechanics that alienate players charitable toward videogames, let alone those yet to be persuaded, are too high a price to pay for the observation – already made by generations of other artists – that within human behaviour there exists complexity.