Released at the end of 2016, The Last Guardian made a momentary impact on the industry, mostly due to the sheer miracle of the game escaping over a decade in development hell, before seemingly fading from the general gaming consciousness. Fumito Ueda’s follow-up to the monumental 2005 game Shadow of the Colossus was a polarizing game, one with an undeniably moving story as well as strange, sometimes awkward controls. Yet for one very specific reason, this is a game that the industry must revisit, experiencing with fresh eyes the moving tale about a boy and his journey alongside a mythological beast.
If you’ve read, listened, or watched anything about video games before, chances are you’ve heard the word “immersion” thrown around. It’s used to talk about graphics, the visceral nature of gameplay, and the general feeling of existing within the game environment rather than in the real world. One of the most important aspects of becoming so engrossed within a virtual world is the player’s assumption of an alterbiography.
A term coined by Gordon Calleja in his essay “Experiential Narrative in Game Environments,” an alterbiography is the character’s persona that a player adopts as their own while interacting with the game. In The Last Guardian, players assume the alterbiography of a young boy. They are lost in a new environment, attempting to escape, and are trying to piece together what happened and what’s going on. In effect, they become this character because his perspective most closely mirrors their own. For the first playthrough. There’s actually a second alterbiography in The Last Guardian that the player can assume, that of the first-person narrator.
Throughout the game, a disembodied voice speaks to the player, providing hints and light story exposition. This first-person narrator is the same character as the boy the player controls, older and reflecting on his past adventure. This provides a second perspective through which players can choose to interpret The Last Guardian’s story. But there’s a catch. In order to assume this alterbiography, the player must have experienced the game once before. Only then can they reflect on the game’s events as memories just like the narrator. This shift doesn’t alter the plot or the game’s overarching meaning but brings a new emotional perspective to the experience.
Biography is in the First-Person
Multiple games feature heady plot twists that encourage players to replay the game to notice details that they previously didn’t pick up on. Bioshock, for example, feels like a different kind of experience once you start noticing a certain famous phrase. Yet these types of second playthroughs actually distance players further from the character’s alterbiography. It doesn’t matter when or how you play Bioshock, the character you inhabit will always be the same, always lack the same information regardless of whether you, the player, knows the twist. Even if you do, the only biography you’re capable of assuming will never be privy to the knowledge.
This isn’t the case with The Last Guardian. There are two distinct alterbiographies the player can assume in this game, one through which the player lives the story and one where the player recounts an idealized memory. I would argue that the latter form is how the game is meant to be experienced. The narrator hijacks the player’s thoughts as if the game is communicating to the player that you aren’t you, that you are supposed to be assuming the role of this disembodied character. By playing this game twice, you are moving closer to the alterbiography rather than becoming more distant from the character like in Bioshock.
The narrator’s voice comes from nowhere and the hinted actions are given in first-person, symbolizing what should be the player’s own thoughts. This is especially clear because the boy’s character is always seen from a third-person angle. The primary access to a first-person perspective that we have, the perspective that is closest to our natural thought pattern, is through the narrator, yet we are only able to access this perspective once we’ve begun a second playthrough of the game.
Memory is a tricky thing and it isn’t always linear. By playing The Last Guardian a second time, the player is able to experience the story with a broader perspective. They can interpret any given moment in relation to both previous interactions and future events according to what, when, and how they remember the game’s events. Any interaction can be contextualized and understood in relation to the story as a whole rather than as singular, isolated moments. The whole affair is more cathartic because variations of emotions are now available to players that previously were impossible. Things like the mystery or dread of the opening can be replaced by nostalgia and some semblance of dramatic irony.
Even the process of playing the game becomes more like a memory. On a first playthrough, the player must solve puzzles and find a navigable path through the environment. Like the boy, they are struggling to make forward progress. On playthrough two, however, the player holds the solutions in their memories. What plays out on a second run through the game events is an idealized version of the story, much like how memories become idealized versions of previous moments.
Our memories never play out like the actual events. There are parts we forget or choose not to recall, and the farther removed we are from them the more streamlined they become. They gain new weight from the process of mentally “reliving” an event, like a story becoming stuck in our minds. The same thing happens in The Last Guardian. The hours of running around looking for how to move forward are removed, or at least reduced, navigating environments is much smoother, and a working knowledge of the game’s mechanics allows the player to interact with the game world with confidence rather than hesitation or suspense. What you do doesn’t change, but the feelings you experience while acting in the game world do.
I revisited The Last Guardian recently, not knowing what to expect. It had been a year since I completed the game for the first time and I wasn’t sure it would hold up to scrutiny. On the contrary, playing through this game a second time has reaffirmed my love for it and increased my appreciation for its quiet, beautiful atmosphere and story. Most of all, however, I was surprised to discover the presence of a story that was completely new to me, one that isn’t a gimmick, but a very natural extension on the nature of storytelling. Whether this was intentional or not, The Last Guardian is a game that you have to play twice. Otherwise, you’re missing out on the real story.