Artificial intelligence in games has made vast improvements over the last few console cycles, but these gains tend to manifest themselves in relatively routine ways. Most advancements in game AI revolve around designing more creative things for the player character to defeat: enemies that are smarter and faster-reacting, that identify and utilize their environments, and that can generally devise a bigger and more free-flowing challenge for a player.
It's all very adversarial. While improvements in AI have mostly focused on the against-the-player side of games, there have been great strides in how AI characters cooperate and integrate with a player, but these have for the most part been quality-of-life improvements to make sure that NPC partners mostly fade into the background and don't muck things up. If an AI partner is too stupid, it creates frustration by handing players an additional variable to worry about in the heat of gameplay. On the other hand, if the ally AI is too smart, a game can get boring quick. Nobody likes taking a back seat while a game plays itself.
After several years spent stirring in development hell, the recently released "The Last Guardian" is a game built around integrating a player with an AI companion, rather than just introducing a computer-controlled buddy for a level at a time. In "The Last Guardian's" case, said companion is a 40-some-foot-tall gryphon-like creature with a bumbling predisposition that at times mimics a curious puppy and at others an ornery cat.
The player takes control of a young boy who awakens in a cavern next to the creature, named Trico, and a minimalist story sprawls out as the two explore a ruinous castle. A puzzle game at heart, most of the core gameplay involves navigating surroundings while using Trico to overcome obstacles, either by having the creature serve as a platform to lift you up or holding onto its back as it leaps across chasms, among other things.
To get on with this exploration, however, involves a lot of goading. Much like the puppy it sorta-kinda resembles, Trico is easily distracted, often preferring to play in a puddle or root around in cracks and corners while the player attempts to get its attention. This definitely breeds some frustration and floundering about, especially in the beginning of the game when Trico is still relatively untrusting of the boy. But it also helps cement Trico as its own separate and adaptable entity, a creature that learns and develops through interaction with the player.
Trico's behavior becomes more easily influenced as the game wears on, but it still exists with its own motivations. Even during moments when you're not interacting with the beast, the game's AI creates an emotional life for Trico as it scopes out its environment and finds things that interest it beyond whatever the player's current objective might be. It's all very cool to witness — if a bit tedious to control.
Coming from the studio of Fumito Ueda — the gamemaker behind titles "Ico" and "Shadow of the Colossus," both PlayStation 2 titles that advanced the games-as-art argument when they were released more than a decade ago — "The Last Guardian" follows along in a similar vein. Trico is a leap forward not only for game AI, but also for the emotional connection that the medium can develop.
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