In single-player games, the hero is often accompanied by one or more companion characters. In some cases, the companion fulfills a story purpose, such as the robot Six that accompanies you in Heaven’s Vault, providing commentary on the world’s history and the main character’s background. In others, they can help you along you along your journey by fighting alongside you, like the companion you pick and spec out to best match your build in Diablo 3.
Over the years, companion characters have become much more nuanced and interesting in games, especially in terms of mechanics. In the Dragon Age games, you can pick companions to join your party, and make decisions that affect your combat strategy, their fate and their relationship with you and with other members of your party. From Star Wars: The Old Republic to The Last of Us, there are many well-developed companion characters whose stories develop over the course of the game, depending on your choices and actions. Games like Ico and Bioshock Infinite further use the companion to mechanically block the player from moving forward in certain situations, or to present interesting situations and puzzles.
But companions in video games tend to do as they’re told. After all, in a game, the player is the protagonist, and a non-player companion is a programmed entity used to help make the game more interesting.
That’s why the large beast who is the player companion in The Last Guardian is so unique. Trico, a giant, feathered cat-like creature, is a fascinating companion because he does not always do what you want him to. In this post, I want to discuss the design of the companion Trico in The Last Guardian and what makes it special.
Artificial Intelligence in Video Game Characters
First, we must talk a little about artificial intelligence. AI has been a staple in video games since the 1950s. From virtual chess opponents to enemies in combat, AI controls many of the path-finding and decision-making algorithms of non-player characters in video games.
AI is a broad and extensive field, and it’s far from perfect at mimicking the true intelligent behaviour of human beings. Ironically, this is where using video game AI for the beast Trico truly shines.
Playing The Last Guardian is pretty frustrating. Getting through the puzzles and platforming often depends on Trico, requiring the player to make him stand in a specific location or direct him to zap an obstacle with lightning. The problem is that Trico sometimes ignores commands, which is aggravating from a gameplay perspective.
As gamers, we expect ease. Games that are highly responsive are popular, fun and immersive because the actions we make in real life are transferred seamlessly into the game world. Consequently, game designers strive for intuitive controls and smooth transitions.
The opposite is true with Trico in The Last Guardian. Like an actual cat, Trico is difficult to manage and control. In other games you can issue commands to your companions which they blindly follow, but Trico tends to treat your commands more like suggestions. Sometimes he’s obliging, and other times he stubbornly refuses to move where you want him to go. This friction results in something quite remarkable for a video game, because it makes Trico feel like a separate entity out of the player’s jurisdiction or control. It makes Trico feel more real.
Building Affection for Non-Player Companions
This ends up doing something surprising for the cat-like creature: it builds the player’s affection for Trico. This feeling is difficult to garner for non-player characters in video games, even ones with AI. It’s hard to care for an entity you know is a programmed group of pixels, especially when the character is there to serve the player and can be commanded.
One of the reasons Trico’s design is so effective is that he’s a giant mythical creature. It’s a clever trick to mask the weaker points of artificial intelligence that can make characters seem stilted. This further removes the need for scripting lines that can become repetitive and decidedly fake, while maintaining the essence of a true living, breathing companion. The player is also more forgiving with Trico’s stubbornness and cases where the AI is frustrating because Trico is a cat-bird-dog rather than a human or humanoid.
Some of the best moments in The Last Guardian are when Trico saves the player, or when he walks to the right spot without being told. Making Trico more than a puzzle piece that I had to put into place or an inhibition to block me from going forward made it feel like we were solving the puzzles and making it through together. As we journeyed together, I grew used to having Trico by my side, a hulking, comforting presence that was more alive and real than Pikachu following me around in Pokémon Yellow Version for the Game Boy all those years ago.
Compared to other games where I’ve gotten annoyed that I’d have to wait when my non-player companion lagged behind, I found myself looking for Trico, wanting to make sure he was okay, genuinely caring about my feathery friend. That the game allowed me to clamber up on to Trico’s back and pet him affectionately in the same way I would my pets made me even more invested.
The Future of Video Game Companions
Without a doubt, Trico’s design, both aesthetically and mechanically, is The Last Guardian‘s biggest triumph. In particular, Trico is a shining example of using game design to evoke patience and compassion in gamers. I would like to see more companions like Trico in video games, ones that seem to have desires, fears, and thoughts of their own and are further away from being simply tools for the player. We can learn from this when developing experiences that explore relationships, especially as AI continues to advance.
Still, balancing Trico’s willfulness with the player’s need for ease to make it through the game must have been a challenge, and the game does that better in some places than others. But it’s this willingness to break the rules and make things more frustrating for players by including a sometimes unpredictable giant creature companion that makes The Last Guardian special, complex, and interesting.