Although their output is not vast, Team Ico are video game developers who have carved a unique niche for themselves within the gaming world by combining minimalistic yet captivating narratives with environmental puzzles typically forged out of ancient stone architecture. The release of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus demonstrated the artistic potential of video games and proved that the medium could offer intensely emotional experiences.
With two masterpieces to their name, everyone was excited to see what the developers would come out with when they announced The Last Guardian. However, when the game was released following a drawn-out production period, it faced a polarized audience. While some considered The Last Guardian to be a gem, others found it to be a frustrating experience due to the deuteragonist, Trico.
What is it about this mysterious creature that frustrated so many gamers while winning the hearts of so many others? In this article, I hope to unravel some of Trico’s secrets.
The Technology Behind Trico
A lot of thought went behind the beast’s design. As the director of The Last Guardian, Fumito Ueda has explained, Trico was designed to look natural. However, he was careful not to stray too far into realism and to leave some aspects of the creature to feel strange to you, the player. Hence, by “treading closely the line between things looking natural and things looking unnatural”, Trico manages to capture audiences by appearing to be a natural animal that could exist in reality while still maintaining enough strangeness to imbue it with mystique.
The game engine used to design The Last Guardian benefited plentifully from Team Ico’s previous work. For example, the AI processing was built upon work done in the production of Ico, and the “collision schemes” were also borrowed from Shadow of the Colossus.
What makes Trico so amazing is the fact that it was not created using motion capture, but rather, as Ueda explains, through “careful manual animation, and a sophisticated form of artificial intelligence”. This allows the creature to detect objects in its path when putting its large foot down. However, although its AI is sophisticated, Ueda was careful to “strike that good balance between Trico doing his own thing and also listening to the boy”.
If you spend enough time around Trico, it becomes harder to ignore how detailed the beast is. After battles, its feathers are ruffled, and after it takes a dive in some water, its feathers are cleaned of all blood. This is, in part, made possible by the fact that every feather is processed individually. Because of this, each feather independently reacts to how the wind blows.
The developers of The Last Guardian also paid careful attention to Trico’s various animations. You will notice, as you bond with the beast, that it responds quite naturally to the environment. Sometimes it will sniff random corners of the room or scratch its back lazily before letting out a long yawn. The creature will also respond to your touch, and a rub in the right place will elicit a little ear twitch of satisfaction from it. This is made possible through the mesh-based collision detection system used by the game, which helps to determine when Trico is coming into contact with the boy or aspects of the environment.
Although the game was conceived of in 2007, was first announced in 2009, and was slated for a 2011 release, it only saw the light of day in 2016. This was due to a variety of reasons, one of those being the fact that ambitions for the game surpassed what the PlayStation 3 was capable of. Hence, mid-production, the developers switched to making the game for the then-upcoming PlayStation 4. Furthermore, Ueda and other members of Team Ico left the studio mid-production to form a new studio called GenDesign. Consequently, the game’s production was moved to GenDesign.
Upon release, the game received plenty of praise. Time magazine gave the game a perfect score, calling it a “masterpiece”, a comment repeated by The Washington Post.
However, there was one recurring criticism – the controls. Repeatedly, reviewers complained about The Last Guardian‘s unresponsive controls and how frustratingly difficult it can be to get Trico to cooperate. In Polygon’s review, they complain that the core of many issues in the game lies with “how The Last Guardian handles controls”. The main character is a young boy and, consequently, behaves like a young boy.
Because of this, he “stumbles when he runs; he has trouble holding onto Trico’s feathers with both hands”, and this can be frustrating at times, especially in intense situations. Trico can be equally as troublesome, if not more. The Polygon review once again found fault with how the beast responds to the player, writing that if it “isn’t refusing to move until you bring it food, it’s casually ignoring your shouts from across the level”.
None of this is false, of course. There are certainly times where the hardest part of The Last Guardian is getting Trico to listen to you. The beast is definitely not the most cooperative partner you could have. It can feel at times that you are taking one step back for every two steps forward, thanks to the creature’s tendency to ignore your commands when it feels like it. However, all these aspects that critics consider a flaw, I would class as the greatest and most unique features of the game.
What Was The Misunderstanding?
Trico was never meant to be the typical animal partner you find in video games. Usually, your virtual animal companion unfailingly follows your commands in an almost robotic fashion. In fact, for most games, giving your animal partner the option to disobey would be a game-breaking mechanic.
Trico, quite uniquely, does not automatically obey you. The beast needs love, care, and maintenance. This includes feeding it blue barrels, pulling out spears from its body, and calming it after stressful battles. Other times, when your feathered friend seems to be particularly rebellious, all it needs is a little head rub before getting right back to puzzle solving.
Ultimately, what Trico requires is patience, understanding, and a willingness to deal with a bit of frustration for the sake of a friend. If you are willing to offer genuine care, the rewards are plentiful, and the beast will prove quite useful to you as you learn to communicate with it.
The bond between the beast and the boy is special, and it is one that could have only been carved through the interactivity of video games. The Last Guardian makes full use of its medium, allowing you to feel the same frustrations the boy feels while at the same forcing you to repeatedly rely on the beast to cultivate a multidimensional relationship between you and Trico. By the end of the game, you hope, as I did, to come to see Trico as a flawed beast with a heart of gold.
According to Ueda, Trico is a combination of many animals he saw during his childhood. He grew up in a home that had lots of animals. Hence, the beast has traits borrowed from animals such as birds, dogs, and cats. However, although Ueda was inspired by familiar animals, there are many strange aspects to the beast that might not be immediately obvious.
The mysteries begin with the creature’s name. Trico is a play on the Japanese word “toriko”, which means captive. This is quite a fitting name because our feathered friend is imprisoned in chains during our first encounter. Furthermore, the word “tori” means bird while the word “ko” means child, which perfectly captures the central theme of the game – the relationship between the bird-like beast and the young boy.
Trico also has some pretty awesome eyes. They have a curious gaze and glow different colors. The color of the beast’s eyes is not random, however. They give you a hint at how your companion is feeling. When its eyes are pink, it signals anger. Dark green eyes signify friendliness and calmness. When they are white, it signals interest or excitement. The eyes turn yellow when the beast sees a blue barrel.
The commands available to you are not immediately obvious either. However, once you figure them out, it makes interacting with your companion far easier. The simplest control is tapping R1 to call Trico. R1 plus any of the directional buttons will (usually) focus the beast’s attention in the given direction. A little less obvious are the commands that you can give using the symbol buttons. R1 + X will allow you to scold Trico, while R1 + circle allows you to praise the beast. Combining R1 and square allows you to command the creature to swipe or attack, and R1 plus triangle is the combination for the jump command.
When giving instructions, it is important to ensure that Trico can see you. In most cases, treating the beast like a real creature with emotions will yield the best results.
Because of Trico, The Last Guardian is the type of game that should not be sped through. That, perhaps, makes it a particularly bad game for reviewers who often have to play through many games rather quickly. If you are looking to cram in as much progress as possible into a short space of time, this is a game that will frustrate and annoy you to no end.
Trico is an enigmatic creature. Engagement with the beast should be a slow and sincere process. However, if you are willing to immerse yourself in the game’s world and take your time, you will be rewarded with a satisfying experience and an unforgettable story.