The Last Guardian is a story about a boy and his giant monster friend, Trico. Using space, the game communicates a growing bond. How close are the two characters? When are they allowed to enter personal space? We examine how this relationship is crated in this video.
Figuring out exactly how The Last Guardian forms a connection between the player and it's giant bird-dog Trico can be a tricky proposition. In many ways, the game isn't using unique or revolutionary design philosophies to communicate the growing connection between the boy and his monster friend. Intermingling levels of vulnerability shift from one party to the other, allowing them to aid their partner. This builds up gratitude in the player and establishes important rules that can be broken for dramatic effect.
Instead of breaking down the mechanical factors at the core of the relationship, I think we would be much better served understanding how much of it is based upon the space between the two characters. As scenarios change, the space between parties shrinks and grows in order to stress which character is on top in the power dynamics of the relationship.
To explain this, we need to start at the beginning. The Boy and Trico are caught inside a cave. The Boy cannot exit this cave themselves but they also cannot approach Trico. Physical intimacy and contact is an important facet of game director Fumito Ueda's titles. In Ico, the relationship between Yorda and Ico is predicated almost entirely upon their continued physical contact. This is repeated in Shadow of the Colossus, where players build a strong relationship with their horse Agro through constant contact. The game also uses the physical contact between Wander and the colossi to stress the beast's majesty. For Ueda, space communicates everything. The inability to enter into Trico's personal space provides a contrast for what will follow.
To gain Trico's trust, we first need to move far away from him to gather barrels that we use to feed him. It's a bit of risk and reward. The more we expose ourselves to potential dangers for Trico's benefit by venturing away, the stronger the relationship becomes. This will be a recurring theme in our interactions with Trico. To communicate the budding trust, we are able to make our first physical contact but we are always knocked away. The bond hasn't yet been formed. Crucially, when the bond is broken we also temporarily lose control of our character.
The true start of the relationship with Trico comes when we are allowed to freely climb on him. Any time we grab hold to him, we relinquish some of our control. He moves freely and we can only climb. Additionally, breaking the initial spatial relationship establishes trust. That trust becomes important as the pair explores. The Boy can go into small spaces that Trico can't and Trico can traverse large gaps that the Boy can't leap. Giving the two character unique relationships with their space creates a strong interdependency. The world cannot be navigated by one party alone. For instance, the Boy can open gates that Trico can't break through and Trico can be made to blow up debris with his super cool lightning tail. These obstacles are defined entirely by the space they create and how they force the two characters to keep in contact.
A good example of using space to strong effect comes early on. Trico is afraid of water and needs to be convinced to enter a pool. To achieve this, the Boy needs to venture away from Trico and recover more food barrels to encourage him. It's repeat of the spatial rules initial established. The more the Boy is willing to press forward for Trico's benefit, the more trust the two build. This trust is communicated when Trico leaps into the water.
Following this, the single best early game use of space to communicate the growing bond between the Boy and Trico comes when we first encounter the guardian statues. Let's traces the path here.
First, we have to break away from Trico in order to lower a gate. We are able to gain access to an outer wall by climbing him. This establishes an initial physical exchange that we then break when climbing outside. Returning inside, we are blocked from Trico by the gate, which visually expresses the anxiety of separation. The gate can be removed to reunite them and player can feed Trico a barrel, either as a gesture of continued trust building or celebration. Moving forward, Trico is stopped by the device down below. Leaping down leaves us completely unable to proceed. We can't climb up to Trico but we need him in order to move forward The only interaction available is to call him down.
Much like the water, asking Trico to enter a space where they are uncomfortable is a large gesture of faith. Unlike that moment, we don't even need to encourage them down with barrels. The relationship, though still early, has developed to the point where that sort of coaxing isn't needed. Trico maintains close proximity in spite of potential misgivings.
However, entrance into this space tosses Trico into a frenzy. The trust relationship is broken again as Trico attacks the Boy. Space is entered without consent and player control is removed briefly. We then have a formal repetition of the start of the game where Trico is stationary and the Boy needs to venture away. Here, we encountered the stone guardians. The Boy can't fight against them and can't flee from them. They have to return to Trico who, in spite of the recent violation of the spatial relationship, restores that trust by destroying the guardians. After this, the relationship is resumed and close contact repeats when the Boy has to pet Trico to calm him down. Once relaxed, the pair can proceed.
It's just one of many crucibles that we can analyse but the important thing is that the bond between the two characters is continually expressed through their spatial relationship. The Last Guardian employs many tricks to express themes of trust but close examinations of moments like this makes two things clear.
The first is that trust is largely expressed through physical proximity. Distance communicates anxiety, closeness conveys confidence and trust.
The second? Petting bird-dogs is hella cool.