It’s 2016, the topsy-turvy year that saw a rodeo clown ascend to the highest office in the land, so it makes perfect sense that the rawest, most profound expression of empathy and compassion we’ve seen in a very long time should come to us in the form of a new video game.
It’s called The Last Guardian, and it begins with a small boy waking up in a damp cave. He’s not quite sure how he got there, or why his skin is suddenly covered with strange tattoos. His reveries, however, are cut short when he notices a Trico—half-bird and half-cat, a gargantuan predator the size of a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon—lying beside him on the floor. The boy jumps back in horror, but the beast grunts in pain: It’s only then that the boy—and with him, the player—notices that the Trico is chained to the ground and that his side is pierced with spears. For a few long minutes, the game’s sole objective is to help the Trico heal: Remove the spears, find some food and offer it to the wounded creature, and, finally, undo its chains. Once the Trico is healthy and unfettered, the game begins in earnest.
What happens next is an achievement rarely matched in video games, or, for that matter, in any other conduit of popular culture. Boy and beast go on a journey together—I won’t say much more, so as not to spoil the pleasures of the plot—but their adventure isn’t the usual action-packed fare of electronic gaming. That’s because the Trico can’t be controlled, both figuratively and literally speaking. The boy, commanded by the player, may run and jump and shout, but the animal has a mind of its own.
And if that mind is propelled by artificial intelligence, the emotion it shows is all too real. If you’ve ever observed a cat, you’ll understand the Trico right away. It’s finicky. Sometimes, for no apparent reason, it rolls on its back and stretches its hind legs. Often, when called, it refuses to follow. Just as often, it grows distracted by something it sees. It looks at a butterfly with wonder, and at the boy with what increasingly feels like love.
Which—and this is the truly astonishing bit—makes for extremely erratic game play. There you are, the player, trying to follow through with a particular challenge. You know precisely how to proceed. You press the right buttons, and the boy does all the right things. But the Trico? He’s off somewhere, his mind, as T.S. Eliot so aptly put it, engaged in a rapt contemplation. When that happens, you’ve nothing to do but wait.
Waiting, to a generation reared on the frantic depression of buttons, is the hardest thing. We gamers are accustomed to rapid fire, to baddies coming at us with a fury, to thrills chasing thrills so fast we feel kinetic and hot. Yet this thing with feathers is asking us to do nothing, nothing but lay down the controller and watch the Trico fret. In the meantime, you’re invited to do what all of us who realize we’re not in complete control so frequently do: We’re invited to meditate, to pay attention, to watch the Trico until some sign is given that he’s ready to engage.
Even for someone like me, who closes his eyes and recites his mantra for long mindful stretches twice daily, succumbing to such intent inaction wasn’t easy. I craved action, resolution, conflagration. I cursed the dumb beast for its insipidness, and for refusing to surrender to my will. But when the rage subsided and calm set it, when I was ready to accept the Trico for what he was, I found that it, too, was ready to accept me. The more I gave the creature the freedom it needed to adjust to its circumstances, the more readily it appeared to trust my judgment and follow me. And the more attuned I was to its predilections, the more effortlessly we seemed to communicate. The wait grew shorter, and the Trico, formerly a mule-headed pet, was now a partner.
The rest is commentary. The game tells a great story, features a few truly terrific fight scenes, and is visually stunning, but none of that matters. What remains after all that is solid melts into air is the friendship between two beings that started out as mutually inscrutable and worked hard to feel their way into the other’s heart. In America, in 2016, there’s nothing we more desperately need.
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Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.