長篇探討:遊戲中的動物形象拋開單一附屬定位具備獨立AI

在遊戲中,我們與動物之間的關係有了改變,這也在一定程度上影響了現實中我們對待動物的方式。

原作者:Jess Joho 譯者:Willow Wu

《最後的守護者(The Last Guardian)》於去年12月發行,很多玩家都在抱怨大鷲Trico太難控制了。不僅如此,從設計、AI、到遊戲中的各種小問題,玩家有說不完的牢騷,Trico太固執了。

但是這些負面評價中有一些確實是無法反駁的(比如說不順手的操作方式或者是視角問題),這是由於遊戲設定Trico有它自己的個性。這就會涉及到宏觀層面上的問題:在現實生活中我們是如何對待伴侶動物的,對它們有什麼期待,開發者是如何把現實中的這種文化態度轉化到遊戲中。

很多人都記錯了遊戲設計師上田文人說的話,以爲他說的是Trico這個角色是故意設計得這麼“固執”,其實他說的是Trico作爲一個獨立的遊戲角色,它所具有的獨立性和個體意願。不管這個遊戲還有多少瑕疵,遊戲中AI伴侶所被賦予的獨立性,再結合過去幾年中出現的類似角色,這似乎預示着我們迎來了一個新的時代:設計師們改變了遊戲中動物角色的定位,由原來道具屬性轉化爲遊戲角色。

SpaceBeagles(from polygon.com)

SpaceBeagles(from polygon.com)

愛犬

幾年前,我收養了一隻鬥牛犬串串,它以前的主人不僅沒有照顧好它,而且還虐待它。這就是我第一次開始研究訓犬過程中的“非精確藝術(inexact art)”。我的狗狗以前經常會在公衆場合爆發出恐慌或者是興奮的情緒,讓我難以控制,目睹這個場景的人們總是跟我說有一些品種的狗確實是比其他品種的更“頑固”。於是,我聽從了大多數人的建議,報名參加了一段坎坷的旅程。

隨着我跟狗一起訓練的次數增加,我也越來越瞭解它。另外我閱讀的資料也逐漸增多,都是關於培養我與狗之間的關係。久而久之,我感覺人們口中“頑固的狗”的概念實在荒謬。似乎它不應該是聰明的,不應該擁有意願自由、獨立意識以及情緒,這些都會被認爲是“頑固”的表現,它要因此受懲罰。

在現實中,人們經常朝着那些困惑、憤怒、有時甚至是害怕的動物們喊指令,但這一般不會被認爲是交流失敗的原因。他們想當然地認爲他們的狗就是非常頑固,不願意聽人的命令。

有些狗的個性可能就是比較固執,就跟人一樣。但更有可能的是他們並沒有得到恰到的教導,或者是訓練它的人還沒取得它的信任和尊重,讓它願意聽話。在這種情況下,我會稱讚這些“頑固的”狗。再回看Trico,我們太過於習慣這些虛擬動物角色會盲目地執行指令,就像一輛車。不管我們有沒有付出努力,就是要讓它們聽從指令。

在以往的遊戲中,狗或者是其他種類的伴侶動物大多數都是被當作物品或者是工具獎勵給玩家,它們就是無腦地服從各種指令,從交互功能上來說,它們跟武器、增強道具、或者是某種裝備並沒有區別。

你回憶一下《神鬼寓言2》和《神鬼寓言3》的狗,那位四條腿的朋友就像是個空有皮囊的尋寶工具,聽話而盡職。或者你看《塞爾達傳說: 時之笛》中的那匹名爲Epona的馬,它的作用就是加速而已。這些都不是遊戲角色,連NPC都算不上。它們只是遊戲的一個機制。

確實,除了它們在遊戲機制方面的功能,這些動物也充當了玩家所渴求的伴侶角色。在這種伴侶關係中所培養出來的愛,肯定是遠遠超過了那種對特殊技能或者加速功能的喜愛。但是在很多遊戲中,人與動物之間的關係設定實在是太單一了。

雖然這種單一的設定還是能引起玩家的強烈反響,但是遊戲中對於自主性的呈現僅僅是從關係中的其中一方展現出來。很多遊戲機制和情感設定還可以進一步挖掘,但是就是由於這種膚淺的不成文慣例導致了創作者沒有繼續研究。

但是在過去幾年,從獨立開發者到大型公司開發者似乎都注意到了這塊未經發掘的寶藏,改變原有刻板的動物-玩家同盟關係,加入更多變量,這對他們來說也是一個挑戰。打破以往以人爲中心的遊戲模式,讓動物角色不再是無意識的道具,這些新遊戲不僅是從玩法上突出動物本身的自主性,甚至還在一定程度上挑戰了現實世界中我們對於動物的看法——也就是希望它們可以無條件地服從一切指令,或者是人們需要它們幹什麼它們就得服從(比如Cesar Millan訓狗方法,讓狗認識到人的地位比它高,讓它們變得順從,但是我勸你們最好別看他的節目)。

除了大型開發團隊已經發行的《最後的守護者》、《塞爾達傳說:曠野之息》,接下來還有兩個獨立遊戲《模擬巴哥犬》、《居無定所(Home Free)》,意味着未來的遊戲行業將會出現“乖狗狗的崛起”。

前兩個遊戲展示了逼迫玩家去跟具有自主意識的虛擬AI生物合作會有什麼結果,後面的兩個遊戲則是徹底拋棄了以人類爲遊戲主角的設定,讓玩家成爲狗,感受一下人們以往過度簡化的動物內心世界是怎樣的。

在《模擬巴哥犬》中,玩家必須學會聞其它狗狗的屁股、在寵物公園中玩來了解狗狗之間的文化,這樣意在(通過可愛的八哥犬和聞屁股的禮儀)突出動物們平時的社交、情感生活並不像人們想象的那麼簡單。另外,在《居無定所》中,玩家將會扮演一隻走丟的狗(爲什麼長得那麼像我家的那隻),需要在一個人類建立的世界中生存下來。話說連那些欺負落單狗的惡霸都長得跟我家的狗好像。重要的是,這兩個遊戲都把動物設定爲一個真的角色來展現它們的自主性,而不是當成附加技能,遊戲呈現了狗狗脫離人類之後它們自己的複雜世界。

雖然比不上《最後的守護者》的遊戲規模,但是你仍然能看出《塞爾達傳說: 時之笛》和《塞爾達傳說:曠野之息》這兩部系列作品在馬的設定上有巨大差異。跟其他同期遊戲類似,1998年的Epona的本質是一種被動技能,就像是某個角色穿上魔法袍得到魔力這種感覺。玩家控制Epona是跟控制Link的完全一樣,他們都能夠立即聽從命令。

玩家不需要再去按另外的按鈕或者是再學一個控制Epona的教程。她就像是Link的代理服務器(proxy),意思就是遊戲系統基本上是把Epona定義成一個外形爲馬的附加道具,能讓Link跑得更快,就像是穿上哥隆外套(Goron Tunic)可以抵禦高溫。無論玩家在哪裏,只要吹個哨子Epona就會應聲而來,每次都是如此,這也是爲什麼這匹小馬這麼討玩家喜歡。但是Epona這種無法解釋的隨叫隨到狀態也強調了她的本質其實是遊戲工具,只有在玩家需要她的時候才讓她出現。

而《塞爾達傳說:曠野之息》的馬完全是另一種狀態(《塞爾達傳說:黃昏公主》也多少有些改變)。最大的改變就是遊戲中的馬都有了個性,通過不同的脾氣和技能表現出來。另外,遊戲中還增加了馴馬和綁定系統,把馬匹的個性作爲系統要素,如果馬兒聽話的話,玩家必須向它們表示出積極的肯定,拍拍它們,給與激勵。(給非專業訓犬師的建議:利用獎勵的方式進行正面強化對任何訓練團體來說都是有益的。無論是哪種訓練方法,只要它依靠的手段是懲罰、疼痛、或者利用像“阿爾法(alpha)”“狗羣領袖(pack leader)”這樣的支配性的語言,那麼這種訓練方法就是不科學的、過時的,有可能會對你、你的狗狗,還有你們之間的關係造成傷害。)

玩家必須付出努力、維持他們之間的綁定關係來改變馬的行爲表現。至於控制方面,《塞爾達傳說:曠野之息》中控制騎馬和控制Link沒有絲毫的相似之處。玩家必須點擊A鍵兩次,拍拍馬,哄它鎮靜下來,讓它聽話。

遊戲參考了《旺達與巨像(Shadow of the Colossus)》中那隻“頑固的”馬Argo,操縱手柄只能給Link發令權,但是馬要不要服從他的命令就是另一回事了。如果人與馬之間的聯結足夠強,馬甚至還會自己探路,繼續前進,玩家就不需要操控手柄了。

還有重要的是,這些馬兒也不是玩家隨叫隨到的。只有當它們處於能聽見哨聲的範圍內,而且要明確路途安全它們纔會過來。如果玩家把馬丟棄在某個地方,它們會呆在那兒,如果下雨了它們自己會找避雨處。爲了確保馬的安全,玩家必須把它們安置在馬廄裏。當玩家爲了騰出空間給其它的馬而不得不放棄一匹馬,馬廄管理人會向玩家保證照顧好這些馬,而不是想以往的遊戲那樣把馬扔到什麼看不見的地方去,無聲無息地死掉。

人與動物

當然,這些機制上的變化與任天堂在設計理念的文化轉變,甚至是進化並沒有多大關係。很大程度上要歸功於從1998年到如今的科技發展,才使得現在的世界能夠容納更龐大、更復雜的交互體系。就跟《塞爾達傳說:曠野之息》中其他的部分一樣,開發者們增加了很多內容,讓系統變得更加多變、靈活,這些增加的內容也體現了開發者們計劃的優先次序,很明顯他們認爲強化動物與人之間的關係是非常關鍵的,因此他們投入了大量的資源。

即使是跟《塞爾達傳說:曠野之息》的前一作相比,這種轉變也是非常顯著的,馬的感知能力、個體性格、和自主意識都比不知名的《塞爾達傳說:天空之劍》好太多。遊戲在真實度、吸引力上有所提升,我也越來越重視我的坐騎們,因爲它們並不是一味無條件地服從我的指令。

我親愛的小惡魔Jaguar,它跑得非常快,即使即使他發脾氣也不會改變我對它的喜愛。還有粉色鼻子、穿着花衣服的Piggy(是的,我的馬兒們都是用其他動物命名的),我總是要把它留在附近,儘管從實用的角度來說,直接換一匹馬替代它會更好。然而,科技的進步也並沒有改變《刺客信條》《巫師3》《輻射4》《使命召喚:幽靈》《合金裝備5》《俠盜獵車手5》這些遊戲中原有的伴侶動物狀態,它們本質上還是工具,用來尋找財寶或者是探索可以走的路,亦或是被當作遠程攻擊武器、加速工具,不像個活生生的動物。

異獸

我似乎已經聽到反駁的聲音了:玩家們指着遊戲,氣惱地說怎麼就是沒辦法讓Trico聽話跳過那座該死的橋。確實,你可以針對Team Ico的遊戲提出合理的疑問,比如的遊戲的完成效果、物理bug、尚待完善的畫面或者你想了解他們要在一個AI巨獸的背上打造平臺遊戲,這是怎樣的巨大挑戰。

《最後的守護者》是一個壯麗但是混亂的遊戲大作,從前有一隻膽怯的異獸,它有鳥類的翅膀,犬類的頭,貓科的身軀與動作,猴子的長尾巴。它的翅膀沙沙作響,無所事事地抓蝴蝶,這樣一隻大鷲你敢說到遊戲玩完了你還對它沒有感情?!我很難想象有人能夠完全不被男孩和Trico之間的聯結感動,“冷血地”玩到最後。但是我得承認,如果你只想玩那些能夠讓你掌控全局的遊戲,或者是堅信遊戲是不該讓人有這種挫折感,那麼這個遊戲可能就不適合你。

撇開那些小問題不說,《最後的守護者》是近年來我玩過的最令人感動的遊戲之一。就算是很長一段時間沒有再玩這個遊戲,我還是有這種感觸,因爲這它的設定就是隨着遊戲進程的推進會逐漸削弱玩家的掌控能力,取而代之的是引入動物角色的意志自由,分割權力,取得雙邊信任,促成雙邊合作。

不得不說整個遊戲的關卡設計完美地保持了小男孩和Trico之間的平衡狀態,利用他們各自的短板和能力進行合作:小男孩要逃跑,只有Trico才能幫他越過斷壁殘垣;Trico害怕那個眼睛圖案的彩色玻璃,只有小男孩可以幫助它擺脫,給它自由。一次又一次地,從難以駕馭的地理環境到被那些被剝奪意識的傀儡的不斷攻擊,面對一個被困在神祕遺蹟與奇幻世界中的小男孩,手無縛雞之力,在大自然面前就如塵埃一般渺小,玩家必須克服這些艱難險阻。

意義和目的

但是,最終玩家和Trico都會克服彼此之間的語言障礙,以及生活、文化甚至是性格差異,找到生命的意義和目的,成爲一個共同體,互相合作、互相照應,在這個盡一切所能摧毀他們的殘酷世界中生存下來。

衝破重重困難,兩個不同種類的生物成爲了彼此的伴侶,是伴侶但是不會犧牲對方的意願自由。雖然沒有明說,但上田文人的確承認了Trico的AI設定其實是有“信任值”與“飢餓度”。具體怎樣纔會影響這項數值,上田並不想透露過多的信息。但他特意說明了信任值並不取決於玩家的遊戲進度,暗示了跟玩家的行爲有關。

雖然我們永遠都無法得知明確的答案(或許你可以從Trico的角和翅膀的生長狀況得知),很多玩家的推測Trico對你的態度——比如她願不願意聽的你話,和你對待它的方式,你能不能跟它成功地交流有關。確實,遊戲中並沒有表明最好的交流方式是哪種。或許是需要時間和耐心。作爲一個玩家,你可選擇用R1+X的指令斥責Trico,讓她坐下來,或者用另一種方法,按下R1+O進行正面強化,給予表揚,哄她站起來。所以,當Trico因爲無法做到或者是對你的指令感到恐懼而哀鳴,你可以選擇責罵它或是安撫它。

經過了一系列創傷性事件,比如對戰或者是遇見眼睛圖案的彩色玻璃,你可以選擇花些時間安撫這隻瑟瑟發抖的異獸,或者(像我一樣)你可以衝到它那邊去,爬到它的脖子那邊(遊戲鼓勵玩家尋找Trico最喜歡被撫摸的地方,這就是了)安慰它,一直等到它冷靜下來,不再顫抖。你還可以花些時間檢查它的身體,拔出長矛,甚至你還可以通過安撫傷口,清理毛上的血漬幫它恢復得更快。

至於大部分玩家提到的經常因爲搞不明白怎麼才能去下一個區域而犯難(順便說下,其實這也是故意設計的,開發者們意在打破以往的遊戲設定,拋棄使用非常明顯的畫面提示向玩家指明前進的道路),你可以選擇繼續堅持靠自己的能力尋找出路,煩躁地四處碰壁,或者你可以先暫停一下,向你的伴侶求助,學習一下它的表達方式,從它的身體語言中找到線索,因爲它也在尋找出路(而且通常情況下都能找到)。很多熱門的遊戲視頻解說者(比如Dunkey)都發了視頻,稱這是Trico“固執”、故意不聽話的“有力證據”,視頻中展示了這個玩家看不懂或者是沒有注意到Trico的身體語言,也有可能是這位玩家缺乏耐心,又或者是他遇到了上文所說的物理bug,這就跟跟AI完全沒關係了,這也是大部分人遇到的情況。

再次強調下,這些關於玩家行爲選擇的討論純屬推測,因爲上田並沒有說清楚的什麼行爲會影響Trico的“信任值”。但也許這就是他的意圖吧。推動玩家去跟一隻有自主意識的巨獸發展一段公平的關係,在這過程中難免會有挫折,但是上田文人就是想要把這種受挫感植入遊戲中。玩家必須關照Trico,對它保持耐心,對自己的行爲多加考慮,這就是《最後的守護者》最核心的部分(這就跟平臺無關了)。

在我打第一遍流程的時候我並不知道Trico有“信任值”,但是我會出於本能地在它哀嚎的時候盡力安撫它,它如果聽話的話我也會一直表揚它。我真是被它給迷住了,當它舉起爪子的時候我就在一旁看着它,就感覺它跟我家的小狗狗一樣可愛。我們的合作很順利,沒有感覺到所謂的“個性頑固”。

Trico的種族一直以來都遭受着人們的誤解,大家都認爲它們是一種非常殘暴的異獸,雖然它的破壞力的確不小,但並沒有傳說中的那麼誇張。Trico經歷了虐待、迫害以及恐懼,我必須要幫助它渡過難關。遊戲初期,我爲了跟上這隻巨獸的步伐費了很大的力氣,這就讓我不禁地回想起我家那隻鬥牛犬的訓練經歷。

在遊戲的最後一個場景,玩家要面對的是終極boss:白塔(The Master of the Valley),塔中所藏的神祕能量是個非常殘酷的設備,能夠控制大鷲的意識,讓它盲目聽從指令,變成一隻攻擊性極強的猛獸。不知道爲什麼,這次的遊戲經歷讓我更加堅信鬥牛犬並不是因爲它們個性“固執”受傷害,而是因爲它們情感豐富、比較聰明,遇到了不會教導、還會虐待它們的壞主人。我知道如果你的小夥伴對某些特定的東西會有無厘頭的恐懼感(我現實中的Trico對有線充電器、軟管、有時候甚至是水碗,怕的要死),那確實會需要多一些時間、耐心、和訓練。但是比起最終的獎勵,你所經歷的麻煩、挫折也就不算什麼了。

爲了達到更好的玩家-動物關係,遊戲中還有些bug需要解決,這是毫無疑問的。未來,遊戲中的環境設定也必定會是一個更加細膩的世界,促成人與動物之間更加真摯、密切的聯結關係。

有了這兩個遊戲做出嘗試,用他們自己的方式將遊戲中人與動物的關係提升到另一個層次,我很期待今年還有更多優秀作品加入到這個潮流中。

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Our relationships to animals in games have evolved, and they just might change the way we treat them in the real world

When The Last Guardian was released last December, many players voiced their frustrations over the inexactness of commanding the creature Trico. They blamed it on everything from bad design and AI, to glitches, to a stubbornness baked into the programming.

While some valid critiques can be found among critics’ frustrations (like unintuitive controls or camera angle issues), this response to Trico’s individualism points to larger issues regarding our treatment and expectations of companion animals, both in the real world and in how developers have translated our cultural attitudes into video games.

Because while many misremember creator Fumito Ueda saying he designed Trico to be intentionally “stubborn,” his actual language has revolved around Trico’s “independence” and “will” as an individual character in his own right. Whatever other flaws the game may have, the independence of this AI companion and a few others over the past year have signaled a new era in how designers approach animals in games, transforming them from useful objects into characters.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Nintendo

PUPPY LOVE

A couple years ago, when I adopted a pitbull mix who had a history of abuse and neglect, I dove head first into the inexact art of dog training. As I was continually reminded by the people who saw me struggling to contain my puppy’s panic and excitement in public, certain dog breeds are supposedly more “stubborn” than others. And, according to many, I’d signed up for a frustrating journey.

Yet, the more I learned about and worked with my dog, the more literature I read on fostering our relationship, the more ridiculous the concept of a “stubborn dog” became. It seemed that any sign of intelligence, free will, independence, or emotion was considered “stubbornness” that should be punished out of him.

In reality, the people barking orders at their bewildered, frustrated, or sometimes even frightened animals are usually not considering how they themselves might be failing to properly communicate. Instead, they are all too ready to assume their dog is being vindictively stubborn and unwilling to listen.

Some dogs can act stubbornly, just like people can. But it’s a lot more likely that they haven’t been taught well, or that the person hasn’t earned enough of their trust and respect to warrant being listened to. And for that, I commend those “stubborn” dogs. Which brings us back to Trico, and how we too often expect our virtual animals to blindly follow commands, like a car, regardless of whether we’ve earned their compliance or not.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time Nintendo

Historically in games, dogs and other companion animals have largely been treated like objects or tools given to the player as a reward, their mindless obedience established through interactions that are functionally no different to interactions with a weapon, power up, or piece of armor.

Think back to the dogs of Fable II and III, who acted as dutiful treasure finding mechanics packaged as four-legged friends. Or remember Epona in Ocarina of Time, who essentially serves as a sprint button for Link in horse form. These are not characters, or even NPCs. They are mechanics.

Granted, outside of their purely mechanical functions, these animals also provided players with much-needed companionship. And, yes, the feelings of love fostered through these relationships far outlive any love players might harbor for a special ability or sprint button. But fundamentally, these approaches paint strict one-way streets when it comes to animal-human relationships.

Although these one-way streets can still elicit powerful responses in players, the dynamic assumes autonomy from only half the relationship. So much mechanical and emotional depth is lost due to the shallowness of these unexamined conventions.

But in the past year or so, it appears everyone from indie to big-budget developers are now cashing in on the untapped potential, with games that challenge us to engage with more dynamic animal-player alliances. Breaking free from the object-oriented, human-centric approach, these new titles not only emphasize the animal’s autonomy through gameplay, but in some regards even challenge our real-world expectation of mindless obedience from our animals — or the practice of achieving said obedience through any means necessary (see the alpha mentality of trainers like Cesar Millan for example or, better yet, don’t).

Riley in Call of Duty: Ghosts Activision

BUTT SNIFFIN PUGS

Aside from big-budget examples already released like The Last Guardian and Breath of the Wild, two upcoming indie games entitled Butt Sniffin Pugs and Home Free solidify the trend that will henceforth be known as “The Rise of the Good Boy.”

While the first two demonstrate how much games can gain from forcing human players to cooperate with autonomous virtual AI creatures, the latter do away with the human protagonist altogether by putting players in the mind of good boys themselves, allowing us to explore the often oversimplified psychology of dogs.

In Butt Sniffin Pugs, players must master the nuances of puppy culture by learning the ins and outs of butt-sniffing and playing well at the dog park, emphasizing the depth of the social and emotional lives of these animals (with adorable pugs, and butt rituals). Meanwhile, Home Free puts players in the paws of a dog (who looks suspiciously like my own) who loses his owner, and must survive alone in a world built for humans that is even hostile towards unaccompanied dogs that look like mine. Importantly, both titles showcase the autonomy of the animal as a real character rather than new add-on ability, demonstrating how dogs have their own complex inner worlds that exist outside their relationship to humans.

While on a smaller scale than The Last Guardian, this shift towards good boys can also be seen in the vast differences between Ocarina of Time and Breath of the Wild’s horse mechanics. Like most of its contemporaries, in the 1998 Zelda Epona is the mechanical equivalent of a passive ability, like those gained from adorning a magical tunic. The control scheme for maneuvering Epona is exactly the same as controlling Link himself, with no delays in between command and compliance.

Fable 2 Lionhead

Players don’t need to push any buttons or learn a new set of controls to use Epona’s abilities. She acts as nothing more than a Link proxy, meaning the game’s system basically categorizes her as a horse suit that enables Link to move faster, exactly like wearing a Goron Tunic to withstand hot temperatures. Epona even earns the player’s affection by dutifully arriving without fail every single time the whistle button is pressed, no matter where the player is in the world. But Epona’s instantaneous and inexplicable appearances also emphasize her status as a tool, as she pops into existence only if and when the player decides she has a purpose for existing in the world.

But Breath of the Wild (and to a much lesser extent, Twilight Princess) is a horse of a different color. Most obviously, the game gives every horse a unique personality through a combination of temperament and skills. Moreover, it adds an entire training and bonding system that takes those personality traits into account, requiring the player to give the horses positive-reinforcement in the form of a rewarding pat whenever they choose to listen. (Pro tip for amateur dog trainers: positive-reinforcement training that uses a reward-based system is central to any training regiment worth its salt. Anything that relies heavily on pain, punishment, or domination language like “alpha” and “pack leader” is unscientific, outdated and likely harmful to you, your dog, and your relationship.)

The player must in fact earn the right to alter the horse’s appearance by maintaining an 100 percent bond. In terms of controls, riding horses in Breath of the Wild couldn’t feel more distinct from controlling Link. Players must tap the horse’s sides with A twice to coax it from a trot into a cantor.

Taking cues from the notoriously “stubborn” Argo in Shadow of the Colossus, moving the joystick only gives Link control over the reigns, a command the horse can then choose to either obey or disobey. If the two have a strong enough bond, the horse will even continue along the set path on its own, without the player needing to touch the joystick at all.

Importantly, these horses don’t just blink into existence wherever and whenever the player decides it should exist. They only come when they’re within earshot of the whistle, and when the path is clear and safe enough. If the player abandons her horse in the middle of an area, they’ll stay there and seek shelter on their own if it rains. To ensure the horse’s safety, though, players must actually house them in a stable. When the player gives up a horse to make more room for others, the stable master assures her they will take good care of them, rather than the usual assumption that it’ll just go to wherever unwanted pixels go to die.

Butt Sniffin Pugs SpaceBeagles

HUMANS AND ANIMALS

Of course, these mechanical changes cannot necessarily be traced back to a cultural shift or even an evolution in Nintendo’s design philosophy. A lot of it comes down to the improvements to technology between 1998 and 2017, now allowing for worlds with bigger and more complex systems of interaction. But, like all the other more dynamic systems in Breath of the Wild, these added dimensions illustrate the designers’ priorities, as they evidently deemed it worthy of investing a good amount of resources into beefing up the animal-human relationship.

It’s a noticeable shift from even the most recent Zelda before it, with the tactility, individuality personality, and autonomy of the horses far outshining the nameless Loftwings of Skyward Sword. Aside from the added realism and engagement of Breath of the Wild’s approach, I found myself growing attached to my band of steeds because they didn’t just mindlessly obey me.

I love my little speed noire demon named Jaguar, even when he’s throwing temper tantrums, as much as I love my pink-nosed, flower-laden first stead named Piggy (yes, all my horses are named after other animals) whom I sentimentally keep around despite it making more practical sense to just replace him with a better horse. And certainly, better technology didn’t lead to added autonomy for the animal companions in Assassin’s Creed, Witcher 3, Fallout 4, Call of Duty: Ghosts, Metal Gear Solid 5, or GTA 5, all of which relied on the same tired tool-oriented conventions of an obedient treasure/path-finder, long-range weapon or sprint button disguised as an animal.

The Last Guardian SIE Japan Studio/GenDesign/Sony Interactive Entertainment

CHICKEN-DOG-CAT-MONKEY

But I can already hear the dissenters pointing back to the maddening frustration of getting Trico to care enough to jump across a damn bridge. Admittedly, you can raise fair questions about Team Ico’s implementation, physics bugs or the still very imperfect art and enormous challenge of carrying a puzzle platformer on the literal back of a massive AI giant.

The Last Guardian is a great big beautiful mess, and at the center of its messiness sits a timidly curious chicken-dog-cat-monkey rustling his feathers and idly pawing at passing butterflies — a chicken-dog-cat-monkey whom I dare you to say in all honesty you did not develop serious feelings for by the end of the game. It’s hard to imagine a player making it through The Last Guardian without being affected by the bond established between the boy and Trico. But I concede that, if you are a player who only goes to games to feel empowered, or who believes experiences of frustration are never an appropriate sensorial exploration in video games, then The Rise of the Good Boy may not be for you.

Despite its flaws, The Last Guardian remains one of the most moving experiences I’ve had with a game in recent years. It stuck with me long after I stopped playing precisely because it is designed to disempower the player as she progresses, replacing individual autonomy with the shared empowerment of successful collaboration and mutual trust.

Throughout the game, the level design strikes the perfect equilibrium between the boy and Trico’s respective disabilities: only Trico can navigate the massive landscape in order to bring the boy closer to his goal of escaping, but only the boy can liberate Trico to move freely by getting rid of the stained-glass eyes and puzzles. Again and again, from the enormity of the unmanageable terrain to the unstoppable hostility of the other mind-controlled chimeras, the player must reckon with a sublime powerlessness and sensation of insignificance in the face of nature, as a mere child trapped in a world built for colossal legends.
MEANING AND PURPOSE

But, ultimately, both the player and Trico find meaning and purpose in overcoming the barriers of language, biology, civilization and even instinct together, to become one single entity working in tandem to survive a world that does everything in its substantial power to tear them apart.

Against all odds, they achieve cross-species companionship, in a true partnership that doesn’t undermine either of their autonomies. Though not explicitly revealed, creator Fumito Ueda confirmed that Trico’s AI even incorporates a “trust” and “hunger” meter. Not wanting to give too many explicit details on what effects the meter, Ueda deliberately distinguished that the trust meter is not determined by the player’s progression in the game, instead implying that that the player’s actions have more to do with it.

While never stated (but perhaps measurable through the fluctuating growth of Trico’s horns and wings), many Redditors theorize that Trico’s attitude toward you — like her willingness to listen — is affected by how you treat her and whether or not you manage to successfully communicate. Granted, the best form of communication is not always made obvious by the game. It may take time, and patience. As a player, you have the choice to either rely heavily on the R1 + X command to scold Trico into sitting, or on the other hand give positive reinforcement by pressing R1 + O to praise and coax her to stand. So, when Trico whines in frustration after being either unable or too afraid to execute a command you requested, you can either scold or comfort him.

After traumatic events like combat or encounters with the stain-glass eye, you can either take your sweet time before walking over to comfort the panicking chimera, or (like me) you can rush to his side, scramble up to his neck (which the game encourages you to discover is his favorite petting spot) and soothe him until long after he’s stopped quivering. You can also take the time to search his whole body to remove every spear, and even help him heal faster by petting the wounds and removing the blood stain from his fur.

Jaguar Jess Joho

As for the commonly cited frustration of getting stuck or being unsure how to progress to the next area (which, by the way, is a deliberate break from the convention of traditional game design that uses very clear visual markers to light the path forward for players), you can either keep scrambling around the room angrily on your own, or you can pause, turn to your companion, and learn to read the subtle cues of his body language as he too searches for (and often successfully finds) your way out. Many of the popular videos posted by streamers like Dunkey, used as definitive “evidence” of Trico’s “stubbornness” and not listening on purpose, reveal a player who is not picking up on or paying attention to what Trico is clearly communicating with her body language, or lacks the patience to, or, at most, is experiencing an aforementioned physics bug unrelated to AI.

Again, the observations about the behavioral choices the game presents to the player is speculation, because Ueda left the details of what does or doesn’t affect Trico’s “trust” purposefully vague. But maybe that’s the point. Forcing the player to foster an equal partnership with a giant autonomous animal, and embedding the inherent frustrations of a cross-species relationship into the game, insisting on the players care, patience, attention to Trico, makes us reckon with our own reaction to the real puzzle at the heart of The Last Guardian (which has nothing to do with platforming.)

Despite not knowing about the existence of Trico’s “trust” meter in my first playthrough, I found myself instinctively petting him whenever he cried out, relying heavily on the praise button when he listened. I was so enamored by him, our collaborative effort, that I waited around just to watch and as she lifted up her paw like my real pup never stops doing. Things worked out pretty well between me and my Trico, with very few to no instances of “stubbornness.”

I couldn’t help but think back to the real-life training experiences with my pitbull as I at first struggled to find my footing with the in-game beast who could not only deal enormous damage, but whose species also suffered from an overstated and misunderstood history of violence, and who I had to help overcome a lifetime of mistreatment, fear and persecution.

In the final scenes of The Last Guardian, the player faces the ultimate villain of the game: The Master of the Valley, the inhuman source of the domineering mind-control devices that force the chimeras into aggression and blind obedience. Somehow, the encounter only reconfirmed my conviction that my dog’s breed does not suffer from widespread “stubbornness,” but rather inordinate trauma, bad and abusive owners, and an abundance of empathy and intelligence. I knew that working with an animal with irrational fears of certain objects (my IRL Trico thinks cord chargers, hoses and at times even water bowls are the death of him) can indeed require more time, patience, and training. But the rewards of the journey far outweigh the inconvenience or occasional frustration.

Without a doubt, there are still kinks to be worked out in the shift toward more dynamic player-animal relationships. But at the center of The Rise of the Good Boy is the promise of video games with more nuanced worlds that foster strikingly revealing and engaging bonds.

After two titles that wagged their tails in their own unique ways, I can only hope that we’ll ride into the rest of the rest of the year with two paws up.(source:polygon