Thursday, February 02, 2017

Against Empathy

My grandfather died last week.  A couple days before that my aunt had a heart scare.  And on Friday morning my wife and I went to the sentencing of the man who sexually assaulted her.  None of these things made me cry.  Instead, I cry when I see characters do things that show great compassion for others in shows and books.  What is wrong with me?  Well, lots of things.  But I found this book to be very comforting when asking myself about my feelings concerning the way I react to the pain of those I love.  

Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion by Paul Bloom
is a fascinating book.  I feel the need to apologize for the clickbait title, but the substance of the book actually mostly warrants it.   

The fundamental move Bloom is making is the disentanglement of empathy into two distinct concepts, and to remove both of those from the concept of compassion.  So, empathy can be cognitive.  That’s just the ability to ascertain another’s feelings.  And another form is affective or emotional empathy, which is the experience of feeling some version of what you think another is feeling.  It seems that those on the sociopathy spectrum can be quite adept at cognitive empathy.  They need to be in order to mirror and manipulate people.  And so the common assumption is that what a sociopath (and other selfish and bad people) lack is emotional empathy.  Bloom points to research that shows that’s not necessarily the case.  Instead, he argues that what evil people lack is compassion.  And he claims that compassion does not require emotional empathy.  In fact, he argues that emotional empathy leads to bad ends as often -or more- then it leads to good ends.

This is tricky, and he spends the first couple chapters hashing this out because common parlance and colloquial usage often assumes that empathy is at the root of all morality.  So if you argue against empathy you must be arguing FOR selfishness, cruelty and all the other stuff that it is assumed empathy saves us from.  But that’s not the case.  Bloom wants people to be kind, loving and compassionate, and that leads him to explore the role that empathy plays in the application of our moral instincts.  

I’m not going to try to defend his thesis here.  If the premise sounds interesting or outrageous to you, that’s what reading the book is for.  But here’s some stuff he says that stood out to me:

“Empathy is limited... in that it focuses on specific individuals.  Its spotlight nature renders it innumerate and myopic: It doesn’t resonate properly to the effects of our actions on groups of people, and it is insensitive to statistical data and estimated costs and benefits.”

“We are not capable of feeling a million times worse about the suffering of a million than about the suffering of one”  ← This is why it’s susceptable to moral illusions such as this one:

“Compassion is feeling for and not feeling with the other.” italics mine
And here’s a fascinating experience from a 9/11 responder:

“I have always felt that I am very empathetic, and that that has been both a blessing and a curse in my work.  I have struggled with burn-out for years… I have felt that I was being less than helpful to my patients if I shutdown my empathetic response to their pain.  This really got me into trouble when I was part of a disaster medical relief team sent to the World Trade Center site.  We were there at the beginning of November, so there were no living victims of the attacks to care for, only the crews that were digging up bodies… I not only opened myself up to trying to be there and feel the pain with the workers there, but I also tried to really take in my surroundings and feel the horror and the loss around me.  I felt it was somehow immoral not to.  One day I was way too successful at being empathetic in that way, and it was more than I could take.  My mind just couldn’t handle it.  It was like trying to drink from a firehouse, and I was drowning.”

End the end, I think the message of the book was that people with large amounts of emotional empathy are not bad, or that empathy leads to bad actions.  Only that it CAN, if not moderated by rational compassion.  It’s a powerful emotional tool, much like anger, that can be harnessed for good, but just as easily diverted to evil.

The practical application for me is an appreciation for the disposition that I have.  I WANT to help people.  Help society.  Fight for justice.  Learn to love more.  I want to live a life where I am a blessing to everyone I can be.  But I just don’t get sad when someone next to me is sad.  Instead, I want to take action, to figure out why the sadness occurs and create an action plan for minimizing it in the future. (which can be problematic for people on THIS end of the spectrum: )

One example of being action-oriented in action is my marriage.  My wife is in chronic pain.  Migraines every day, fibromyalgia, ankylosing spondylitis, and certainly at least one other major degenerative disease that we have yet to figure out.  The past decade has been one of increasing pain, and decreasing mobility, energy and options.  If I empathetically experienced her pain I would be an absolute wreck of a human.  And worse, I would not be able to DO the actions she requires to have the best life she can, given her circumstances.  Instead of feeling her pain I simply do what I can to mitigate or minimize her pain.  I do daily physical therapy for her.  I try to do any chores that require heavy physical movement.  I make no demands of her physical body.  She needed a husband who was wired like me.  Someone who does not have emotional empathy, but has compassion for her.  Someone who can be cheerful and happy when she’s feeling down.  Someone who feels RIGHT and GOOD about sacrificing certain things for her because it’s the right thing to do, and not get resentful about it.  I think if I felt more emotional empathy I could not be that husband.   

So my biggest takeaway from this book is a greater appreciation for the varied dispositions we all have that bring different and valuable insights into our lives if we are willing to listen patiently.  

What the hell?!  Why was this so short?  Did I suddenly get better at writing?!

Friday, January 06, 2017

My YouTube Channel Just Hit 5,000 Subs!

Several years ago I thought I might try doing some art tutorials on YouTube.  I made an opportunity for myself to get an audience by doing a cross promotional project with work.  I was leading a project on Guild Wars 2, and we were brainstorming with the PR team about stuff we could send to the press to get attention for the release.  Part of the game involved fighting giant monstrous worms, and the idea of gummy worms came up.  Then I thought how cool it would be to MAKE our own custom gummy worms based on the creatures from the game.  Everyone agreed that would be cool, and then I had the idea to record it all and make a tutorial that we could promote the release with in addition to the actual gummy worms we were sending out.  I hoped they would put the video on the official Guild Wars 2 page or something, but for whatever reason it worked out that they just had me put it on my own YouTube channel and they promoted it.  So it was a pretty lucky break for me, getting the marketing team of a AAA game studio to promote my channel.  I don’t think I could have built up my platform like I have without that initial kickstart.  

In the years since, I’ve done a couple more cross promotional videos.  One with a band, and another with ArenaNet AND a 3D printing company called Shapeways.  I’ve tried doing stuff related to other IP as well; a Fallout 4 Pipboy repaint and a The Last Guardian statue mod.  But mostly I’ve done sculpting and painting tutorials that are focused on teaching with my own stuff.

At some point a couple months ago YouTube’s algorithm decided to start putting my videos in the ‘Related’ column that appears next to videos you are watching.  Meaning that anyone who searches for “Sculpting tutorial” can find my videos, or if they are watching someone else’s sculpting vids, they might see mine next to the one they're watching a click on it next.  What that did was shoot my subscriptions up from one or two a week to almost 10 a day.  

The tutorials I’ve been producing are pretty different than most of what I’ve seen on YouTube.  Most of the sculpting tutorials are fast-paced overviews that just show clips of the work with either text, or the artist’s voice over it explaining the process, but never in a very detailed way.  My videos are MUCH longer and every excruciating detail is shown and explained.  I’ve had two separate people now compare me to Bob Ross now.  Sadly, the analytics show that people only watch my videos for an average of 7-10 minutes.  That explains why all the other artists keep their videos so short.  There’s just no point in spending the amount of time and energy making longer stuff if so few people will watch it.  But… for me there IS!  I LIKE teaching.  I like providing something of value to people that doesn’t exist out there.  Well, it does, but it’s not free like mine.  Which brings up another issue.

I almost feel guilty for making art tutorials.  Because I’m not a really fantastic artist.  [Sidebar: This is NOT an attempt to fish for compliments or positive reinforcement.  I’m actually totally emotionally FINE with being simply an OK artist.  I do not base my self worth on how talented I am.  I know that I’m a GREAT artist compared to non-artists, so it’s easy for a non-artist to look at my art and think I’m amazing.  But I work with many many artists, and I can clearly see where I land on the spectrum of skill, and it’s not super high.]  Being a merely OK artist means that the quality of my teaching is going to be less than that of a master.  So in a way, I’m muddying the waters when it comes to disseminating great art education.  I know there are far more qualified individuals who should do what I’m doing.  But that’s the thing.  Those better artists are either not interested in teaching, or they do it for price.  And so I guess my discomfort stems from the fact that I’m producing lower quality education, and so people who don’t want to, or can’t afford to pay money for quality art education are getting my inferior product.  I guess that can be good or bad depending on how you look at it.  One way to look at it is the way Bob Ross did.  Seeing how people are making that connection anyway, I might as well lean into it.  Bob Ross was not a great artist either.  He knew a bunch of fun techniques that appear magical to non-artists, and so watching him work is kind of like watching a really happy, positive magic act.  He obviously took great joy from demonstrating these tricks and giving positive vibes to his fans.  

And that’s the thing that pushes me to keep doing this.  I’m seeing positive vibes from viewers in the comments of my tutorials.

Josh, absolutely loving the detail and depth you go into describing and explaining everything-- with the tips and tricks and all that... which is missing from all other videos. Absolutely fantastic video and series.. my favorite by far.

Kelly Porter4 months ago
Thank you for taking the time to film this! I am taking a 3D art class in college and this was EXACTLY what I needed to know.
I'm a noob about it but maaan you're unbelievable, nice, clear and really detailed !

thank you! I learned so much from you!

Hi Josh,  I just watched video #1.  I've been looking for exactly this.  So grateful that you are sharing your skills.
I've subscribed and will follow along with everything!  ❤
great idea for a series. was looking for something like that for quite some time now
man this is a good video , seriously thank u so much it helps a lot
This was really enjoyable to watch for some reason even though I'm not an artist! Great video looking forward to the next ones
thank you for making these videos. really inspiring and informational for a starting sculptor entrepreneur like me. keep up the amazing work you do :)
Josh, thanks for all your great sculpey videos. I've watched them all and they have transformed my sculpey work. You're my hero!
Thank you for sharing so many tips and techniques!
So impressive Josh. You are an inspiring artist. Thank you for another lesson.

leeeah2 hours agoHighlighted comment

This is by far the best tutorial I found on this subject! Thanks!!
Josh, sorry to hear about your technical difficulties. If possible, I'd like to donate a couple hundred bucks to your cause. Your video series has helped me more than any other I've found! I really appreciate all the time and commitment you've put into these videos and would love to help you out. Let me know the best way to contribute and I'll float a couple hundred your way brother.👍🏻
And so these kinds of comments (That’s just a tiny sample) lead me to believe that just because the average view time is less than 10 minutes, there are still plenty of people who DO appreciate the long format and detailed work I put in.  

Even though my long term plan is to shift the content on my channel to more disscusion around world building for my Tales From Talifar work, I’m pretty sure I’m going to keep making these tutorials every now and then because there are clearly plenty of people who’s lives are enriched by that work.  And that’s a great feeling.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

30 Days of Sculpting

I took the month of december off to try to finish the sculpture of a Colossus I’ve been working on (and off and on and off…) for over 4 years now.  We get a week off anyway, so it only took 3 weeks of PTO to get that 30 days.  I wanted to record the results for future reference.  This post isn’t really meant for others to read, so don’t expect to be entertained.  

Ok, now that all the losers left, you and I can have a BLAST reminiscing.  

Oh, for the record, this sculpture is a monster from a game called Shadow of the Colossus.  Look it up if you don’t know it.

First, let’s look at the big picture.  How close did I come to my goal?  That’s easy.  I don’t know.  I’ve never done anything this big and complex and detailed before.  At the beginning of December I had done that thing where you sort of imagine all the steps left on a project, and your brain does that thing where it only thinks about the cool parts and represses the repetitive grinding parts. That’s how the Planning Fallacy works.

For this project, I have the problem that I had done MOST of the complex armor bits years ago.  It was not fresh in my mind how long and grueling the process of making them was.  And I didn’t think about just how how large the pieces I hadn’t done were.  See, I did all the pieces that could work for both the left and right side.  The outer thighs, feet, shoulder pads, etc.  Because I could mold and cast those parts so I wouldn’t have to sculpt the same thing twice.  But the front thighs slope inward in such a way that I couldn’t do that.  And I knew it was such a hairy task I think I repressed it.  Well, those bits ended up taking almost half my 30 days!  


Speaking of 30 days, how many of the hours in that 30 days ended up actually going towards this sculpting?  Well, since I’m recording the whole thing for a video, I’ve been keeping track.  I have a count up timer I use whenever I’m working.  It was at 30 days and 3 hours when I started.  Now it’s at 36 days and 6 hours.  So 147 hours.  If I’m doing my math right.  And that’s never a guarantee.  A typical workweek is 40 hours, so four of those would be 160 hours.  So I did a bit less than 8 hours a day.  No.  That’s not right because I worked weekends as well.  The only day I did no work on it was Christmas Eve.  But I FEEL like I worked MUCH harder than I do at my desk job.  Sculpting this thing is incredibly physical.  First of all, it’s in my unheated garage.  I’ve got two little space heaters that barely keep my fingers and toes from being numb.  Any more heat that that and a fuse blows.  
Secondly, 100% of the time my hands/arms/shoulders/back/neck are CLAMPED like a vice around whatever it is I’m sculpting/carving/sanding.  I think I’m holding my breath about 80% of the time too.  
And finally the sculpture is big and HEAVY and awkward.  I had enough forethought to build it in pieces so it’s modular, but it’s still a brute.  So any time I have to move it around I’m forced to lift with my back at awkward angles.  

Speaking of my back… this was a really big problem the first couple weeks.  I was in complete agony.  I was going to both a PT and massage therapy and even that barely made a dent.  I did all my stretches and rolling on the rolly thingy, ice and heat, etc. etc. and still agony.  I was downing Ibuprofen like an addict.  But… apparently it really was just a matter of wearing my back muscles out from all that sustained clamping.  Think of it like doing a plank but with your back and neck for hours straight.  I think that’s what was doing it.  Now, at the end of the 30th day, I’m a bit sore, but overall the past week has been quite mild pain-wise, and I’ve been doing fewer stretches and no pills.

Since I’ve never taken this much time off, I thought it would be interesting to see what kind of schedule my body/brain likes where there are no time requirements.  It turned out to be pretty wonky, but I like to be up for about 20 hours and sleep for 12.  Now, if you do your math right, you’ll notice that doesn’t add up to 24. I think it’s closer to 28, or maybe 87.  I don’t know.  I’m not getting the calculator out again!  Anyway that meant that there were days I was getting up at 6am, and going to bed at 2am, and days I was going to bed at 9am and waking up at 9pm.  Fortunately I have the coolest wife in the world who never complained once about this madness.  I did squash and stretch my natural tendencies a bit here and there so that there was almost always SOME time we’d have together every day.  

Burnout was something I was concerned about.  Since it’s so cold and painful to work, I thought there might be days where I’d just play games all day instead.  But it turns out the pressure to fully take advantage of my PTO pushed me just the right amount.  There was a day or two, around the middle, where I was fully aware that I wasn’t going to be able to finish the sculpture, and I was hitting a logistical/creative roadblock where I started to feel hopeless and unmotivated.  But I guess being 41 and having done much harder things in life prepared me to just power through it, and in no time I figured out the roadblock and got my second wind.  Speaking of figuring things out.  Here’s what I overcame: A final painting technique, attaching and interlinking the armor pieces, and the final technique for the skin.  Now the only other unknown that I unknow of is the fur.  But I don’t find that problem to be nearly as hairy as the others.  

One thing I did during the beginning of the staycation was to completely finish the base.  This doesn’t make a lot of sense because I still have to do a lot of work on the colossus while it’s standing on the base.  (There are two giant iron rods sticking out of it that slot into the feet to hold it up.)  So once it’s all painted and pretty now I have to be careful and protect it from blades, hammers, spray paint, glue, etc. However, the insight I gained from bringing one part of the sculpture to completion was great and exhilarating.  Look how good it looks!  


Those weird cracks are emulating what happens in the game when the colossus stomps around and breaks the ground.  Here’s the unfinished feet so you can see what I mean.



Being able to do a lot of experimentation with how to add super subtle color, aging and specularity variation was great for coming up with my final plan for doing the colossus’ stone armor.

Anyway, here’s where the colossus is at as of the first of the year of our Lord 2017.

I’ve got him entered in the Norwescon Art Show on Easter weekend, so he HAS to be done by then.  THIS time, I’m actually legitimately confident he will be!  

Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Last Guardian is a Masterpiece

Here’s a game made by my favorite designer, Fumito Ueda, 11 years in the making.  He made (It’s stupid to say any ONE person “made” a game since there’s usually a giant team and most of them are indispensable in making it happen, but that’s the parlance.) some of my favorite and very seminal, influential games: ICO and Shadow of the Colossus.  These games were groundbreaking for several reasons.  One reason was something called “design by subtraction”, nicely articulated here.

In the early 2000’s console games were getting more and more complex, demanding and using all the buttons on the controller, competing with each other to be the game with the most features and mechanics.  Ueda, an art student with no game design history came onto the scene and wanted to do something different.  Instead of breadth, he went for depth.  He decided on a core mechanic that was both unique, and quietly subversive.  I’d go so far as to call it revolutionary.  In a market full of gruff men shooting at monsters, or wacky/cool anthropomorphic mascot characters spinning and jumping on monster heads, Ueda gave us a game about holding hands.  ICO is still structured like most games.  You play a protagonist in a conflict.  You traverse an environment to resolve it.  But within the bounds of this sandbox, Fumito’s toys were very different than the other kid’s toys.  There are monsters, yes.  You can’t kill them.  You are almost powerless against the smoky (that is REALLY not how smoky should be spelled!) apparitions.  When they come, they come for a mysterious girl you’ve freed from a cage in the massive labyrinthine castle the game is set in.  They try to pull her into a pool of shadow they emerge from.  You get a stick.  But you have something far more powerful.  A hand to hold.  

The verbs (game mechanics) that games gave you back before the indie revolution of the mid-late 2000’s were mind-numbingly small.  Jump, shoot, punch, flip, reload, block, shoot-some-more.  Imagine the shock to the system caused by a new verb entering that lexicon called… hold-hand.  Suddenly your paradigm of aggressive-forward-momentum-towards-destroying-enemies is inverted.  Now you’re tenderly moving back to grab the hand of a friend.  This was the beginning of a revolution.  The headspace you occupy while playing ICO is usually relational, not confrontational and violent.  As you lead and protect the mysterious, passive girl you can’t help but form a bond with her.  You save the game by falling asleep on a couch with her.  You get nervous the further a traversal puzzle forces you to walk away from her.  Your success in the game was tied to her survival, not an arbitrary health bar or number of enemies killed.

Then, in 2005 Ueda followed up that masterpiece with another called Shadow of the Colossus.  Bigger and more ambitious, but still building on the inverted paradigm that ICO offered.  In this case, the contrast with the rest of the industry that stands out the most is the narrative delivery.  It’s minimalistic in a time of bloviated cutscenes.  It’s vague and subtle in a time of over-emphasised-technobabble and hit-you-over-the-head-dumb-Hollywood-wannabe scripts.  And it took the hero paradigm almost every game dealt with and made you question the assumptions that the game medium had always leaned on as a crutch.  (Mainly, the implicit assumption that the player/character must be ‘the good guy’)  All of this, and again, a jaw dropping new core mechanic.  Climbing.  Climbing had been in games before.  Never climbing on building-sized, moving, living creatures.  This was both an aesthetic and technical marvel at that time.  It’s only even been attempted in games a handful of times in the 11 years since then.  It’s REALLY hard to do, from every angle.  Technical, design and art all have to be absolutely brilliant to pull it off.  Team ICO was absolutely brilliant.  

With that background established, I want to talk about some of what The Last Guardian means, both to me, and to the medium of games as a whole.  I’m going to start with the common criticisms that I’ve seen.  There are three main complaints.

First, the controls, camera and physics are really squirrely.  It’s just really hard to control the boy, too easy to fall in many places, and impossible to fall in others.  Many puzzles rely on the physics working right, and since they usually don’t, there’s a lot of trial and error and luck involved with progression.

Second, the AI of your animal companion, Trico, is frustrating.  Many puzzles rely on Trico following your… suggestions.  And, like a real animal, it seems to usually just be confused by what you’re asking it to do.

Third, and I think most interesting and full of implications for the artform of games, is the idea that the first two issues would not be issues if the game had come out a handful of years after Shadow of the Colossus like it was meant to.  (Around 2007 - 2009) It didn’t.  It went through development hell for at least 11 years.  Here’s a brief history, but it doesn’t mention the fact that Ueda said in an interview that work had actually started on it before SOTC had even finished, which means it really started in 2005.

This criticism about the ever-changing standards of modern artforms has always eaten at my soul.  It really bothers me that people can’t create a truly timeless film or video game.  And to a more limited extent, even a novel.  Whereas we can appreciate paintings, pottery and sculpture from thousands of years ago.  (Not to mention physical games like chess or dice and cards)  I want to know why this is.  Why is a film like Citizen Kane a ‘classic’ and a ‘masterpiece’, yet it’s unwatchable to most modern viewers?  There’s a lot of specific answers to this.  Modern sensibilities, pacing, acting styles, etc.  But WHY do those sensibilities change?  Old arcade games are very similar.  Classics like Pacman and Donkey Kong can’t hold my attention for more than a couple minutes.  I … HATE this.  I hate that the art we developers pour into our work is so ephemeral.  It’s like writing for a newspaper or something.  Pointless.  

I mean, it’s not.  But it FEELS pointless to ME.  Probably has something to do with a primal subconscious desire to escape mortality.  If I’m going to pour my heart and soul into art, I want the biggest possible impact, which means the biggest possible audience, which means as many people from the future as possible.  This sounds like a personal problem.  There’s certainly no solution that I can imagine.  You can’t stop the changes in cultural tastes and expectations.  It just takes the wind out of my sails a bit.  I mean, I am still driven to create art because that gives me joy.  It is only diminished by the fact that its impact is ephemeral.  And I suppose I ought to just come to grips with the fact that everything all humans do is ephemeral… and get over it.

And THAT’S my review of The Last Guardian!  Hope you liked it!  

Juuuuust kidding.  

Let me tell you what is brilliant about The Last Guardian, and I why think it deserves to be considered a masterpiece despite the truth of the criticisms.  First, let me get one thing out of the way.  I didn’t have much fun playing this game.  For the uninitiated, the idea of playing a game that isn’t fun sounds bewildering.  Saying a game that I didn’t have fun with a masterpiece of a game is doubly so.  That’s because you think games are toys.  Some games are toys, and I love them.  Some games are not.  Just like a film can be not-fun, yet still a masterpiece, so it is with games.  However, I don’t think this game was INTENDED to be not-fun.  It’s just that the primary mechanics revolve around things I don’t particularly enjoy.  Progression is almost completely environmental-puzzle-based.  I’m bad at environmental puzzles.  I don’t enjoy them.  Though I LOVE making them.  Weird, right?  Anyway, the fact that this game is mostly a series of puzzles that rely on sketchy controls, physics, and unclear AI makes the moment-to-moment experience pretty bad for me.  There were many times where the solution seemed clear, but the randomness of the physics objects you have to interact with, vagary in what is and is not climbable, or Trico not cooperating, made me seek out other solutions for what felt like interminable amounts of time before finally coming back to my first impulse and finding that stuff just happens to work right this time.  I can almost guarantee you that this convoluted soup of problems is what took the game so long to make. (Along with Trico, which I’ll get to later.)

If all of those systems worked together flawlessly, the moment-to-moment game would have probably been… fine for me.  Probably still not really FUN, but fine.  This is exactly like what ICO did.  It was also mostly environmental traversal puzzles.  But they weren’t as dependant on wonky, semi-broken systems.  

So WHY do I love this game so much?  Two reasons.  First, it’s for what it attempts.  Second for the a long list of subtleties that demonstrate how execution focused around a central idea can create a new and powerful experience.  

So what does this game attempt?  Well, it takes the companionship-forming mechanics from ICO, and the exhilarating experience of climbing on a gigantic beast from Shadow of the Colossus, and puts them in an even more epic environment.  It keeps the minimalist narrative form of the previous games, leaning heavily on environmental storytelling and a handful of voice overs.  All of this is FOR something.  And that something is the experience of bonding with an animal companion.  

A brief aside.  I am a creature accursed by God with allergies.  Not just fur and hair, but animal saliva as well.  Doubly accursed because I LOVE animals. And animals love me.  They always find a way to run up to me and lick any exposed skin, giving me an itchy rash for a couple hours.  I want a little dog so bad.  I had a couple dogs as a kid. My favorite was a French Bulldog named Bilbo.  I miss him.  But I don’t miss itching all the time.

SO, Ueda wants to make a game about forming a bond with an animal.  There are animal games out there.  Tamagotchi, Seaman, Creatures, Petz, Foo Pets, etc.  They all revolve around a simulation of a cute (with the exception of Seaman) creature(s) that you virtually feed, pet, train etc.  There’s usually no goal.  Maybe a competition you can win by training them well or something.  But any emotional investment comes from a gameplay loop of earning things to give to the pet that makes them play an animation.  I don’t mean to be flippant about this.  Any time you break down a gameplay loop it seems facile and pointless.  It’s true of sports too.  Anyway, the thing that sets The Last Guardian a league apart from these kinds of pet sims is that the relational loop takes place in the context of an adventure.  In real life, if you put two dudes together in a waiting room for a couple days, they may learn each other's names and maybe their jobs.  Put them in the trenches of a war and they’ll be bonded for life.  I think this is the phenomenon that the game is leveraging.  It’s not giving you a toy, like every other pet in a game I’ve experienced.  There are games that give you animal companions that do similar things.  Dogmeat from some Fallout games.  That dog in Fable 2 and 3.  Various pets in MMOs.  What these games are attempting is to find those heartstrings by way of trial by fire.  But what set’s TLG apart from those other games is that Ueda trims the fat and FOCUSES on the animal companionship like a laser, organizing all the other elements of the game around this goal.  And, if you can get past the physics, camera and control issues, it succeeds brilliantly.  But why?  How?  That’s the second part I want to get into.  The execution of the concept.

Here’s a list of the great ideas that all worked towards a brilliant execution of Ueda’s goal of giving players the experience of bonding with a giant fantasy animal.

  1. The environment you traverse is an ancient dilapidated city in the bowl of a massive extinct volcano.  As a player you wake up next to this mysterious animal in a mysterious location for a mysterious reason.  The desire to find the answers to this mystery are not separate from Trico; they are enmeshed.  This is good decision number one.  This ensure that Trico is never ancillary to the player’s desires.  Great game narrative design always aligns the real-life player's desires with the plot and core mechanics.
  2. Relationship arc.  In a sparse narrative like this, there’s not many tools for character development, especially with almost no dialog.  Instead, the game focuses on a relational arc.  It starts you out as antagonists.  Trico is chained up and doesn’t trust or like you.  Trico is bigger than two elephants put together and fast as a cat.  He has terrifying glowing eyes.  Strange sounding growls.  Clawed hawk-like feet.  Heavy armor.  Setting the relationship this low at the beginning means all progress is anchored well.
  3. Progress and puzzles are driven through relational growth.  This game’s experience probably couldn’t happen in an open world game like Fallout or Fable.  Because the design-by-subtraction decision was made to focus on the relationship, they have the resources to explore the full range of relational dynamics.  And they created a linear environment to force that growth.  Unlike Fallout, where you are limited to telling your dog to dig, attack or come, TLG revels in exploring every combination of relationship dynamics. This is why, even though I don’t love environmental traversal puzzles, I love this game.  Many of the puzzles require you to learn something new about your companion, trust your companion, protect your companion, need your companion to trust you, to protect you, etc.  I felt fear OF Trico.  I felt fear FOR Trico.  I felt gratitude for Trico.  I felt protective of Trico.  I felt sad, proud, angry, embarrassed (Poor thing get’s it’s head stuck in a small hole trying to follow you!)  I felt frustrated, vindicated, confused, silly, I laughed out loud several times.  I cried real tears.  All of this happening in an artform where the VAST majority of games are content to make me feel: “I’m a badass!”... and that’s… it.
  4. Related to the last point, but worthy of its own point; The fact that the puzzles involve psychological healing of Trico is truly a stroke of genius.  They set up that Trico has been controlled and abused through the use of these stained glass eye insignias.  That provides an excellent chance for the diminutive boy to ‘clear the way’, giving more variety to the puzzles and simultaneously growing the relationship.  Trico simply can’t make itself physically move past those icons.  And so when the time comes that the boy ends up in mortal peril on the other side of one, and Trico summons the courage to overcome that, it truly feels like an earned milestone, and a real stand-up-and-cheer moment.
  5. The size dynamic.  Why didn’t Ueda give us a game where our animal companion is the size of a normal dog or cat?  That would be more relatable, right?  I think there are a lot of reasons.  One is that Trico’s size facilitates large and visually awesome environmental traversal.  For all I know, that could have been the ONLY reason.  However, the decision to make Trico huge gives us something really special.  The fact that Trico is huge, AND that we need to climb on and around its body means that we forced into a close, intimate physicality with Trico.  This cuts back on the ‘giving commands’ dynamic that most game pets fall into where they merely become a mechanism.  It’s harder to feel like Trico is merely a tool for progression when you are physically holding onto its body so much.
  6. Care and feeding.  All pet sims and many games that feature pets have various ways to feed and groom them.  But again, the size dynamic makes this something special.  Feeding, often means getting close to a mouth that can easily consume you.  Grooming Trico requires climbing on and through a forest of feathers.  And the grooming isn’t merely an aesthetic thing for its own sake.  Throughout your adventures Trico is attacked, with spears, teeth, swords, and psychologically.  It’s up to you to pluck the spears from Trico’s hide, to smooth out the ruffled feathers and clean off the blood after such encounters.  And even more touching, you need to comfort your companion, because Trico get’s really upset after a fight.  Here, the voice acting really shines.  The actor doing the boy’s voice is REALLY good.  Even though the words are in a mysterious language, the intent and tone is clear, endearing, cute as hell, and perfect.
  7. It’s been said that voiceover is the laziest problem solving device in film.  I’m someone agnostic on that point, and quite skeptical about applying it to games.  TLG uses it, in my opinion, to great effect.  The main reason I praise this feature is for what it allows them NOT to do.  It allows them to avoid both cutscenes, and/or user interface solutions which would lay bare the mechanical aspects of the relationship dynamics.  For instance, there’s a moment where the voice over comes on (it is presented as a grown up version of the boy speaking his memories) and says something along the lines of “At that point our bond had deepened enough that Trico trusted me enough to follow some of my directions.”  Then a button prompt pops up telling you how you can give commands.  This could have been done with a ‘trust meter’ that you see fill up as you groom and feed Trico or something like that.  VO is a far superior choice.  It also facilitates dummies like me getting through the game by delivering hints if the player is stuck in one place for too long.  
  8. Aesthetics and tech.  The environments are gorgeous.  The lighting in particular is a signature of Team Ico, (now genDESIGN) and creates many moments of breathtaking sublimity.  It’s got the best ivy I’ve ever seen in a game.  The level design is good.  Not as good as ICO, in that I didn’t have many of those moments where I realize ‘I’ve been to that place way down there!” or “I saw this place way in the distance at the beginning of the game and I’m there now!”  But still beautiful and containing enough surprises to keep you interested.  All of that is great, and a big part of why I’m a game artist and designer. But there’s not much here that hasn’t been done before and better. So that’s not what set’s this game apart.  No, what makes TLG special is Trico.  I don’t think I can overemphasize how breathtaking Trico is as an artifact of human ingenuity and artistry.  Quadrupeds are hard to do in games.  Rigging the animation system and the physics of dynamically planting the feet is hard.  Getting them to look right while traversing uneven terrain is really hard.  Getting them to TURN realistically on uneven terrain is super-really hard.  Getting them to turn realistically on uneven terrain in enclosed spaces… Impossible.  Never been done before.  Now, take THAT, and make that creature adorable, terrifying, loving, fun, soulful… This is an unparalleled achievement that sets a bar that I don’t think will be raised for many many years.  On top of that, give an artificial creatures eyes so real you feel like you’re looking at a real animal.  Give it feathers that blow in the wind, all individually.  Feathers that bunch up against each other as the limbs and neck move.  Feathers that get mussed up from a frakus.  Now give that creature a massive suite of animation and AI systems that totally sell an inner soul.  It’s head and eyes tracking any sudden movement, watches birds and lizards, fixates on food, follows the boy.  Expressions along the whole range from mildly concerned to worried to fear to terror.  Vocal mannerisms that reference many animal sounds we’ve heard before, but are not a direct recording of any particular animal, and yet communicate so well.  Pacing of movement that is dynamically built based on the environment and various stimulus.  Pauses, dashing, frollicking…  If everyone knew how hard all of these things are to pull off, I don’t think ANYONE would be complaining about how long it took them to make this game.

Ultimately, the reason I’m classifying this game as a masterpiece despite it’s flaws come down to the fact that it did what ICO and Shadow of the Colossus did in their times.  It set a new bar for what video games can do.  The fact that a game creator can head three games in a row that do this is… unprecedented.  You might be able to say that about Miyamoto or Sid Meier or Will Wright.  But I think there’s a lot more noise-to-signal ratio in their portfolio.  I’m saddened that so many reviewers are focused on the obvious flaws with the controls and AI, and apparently unable to see just what an achievement this masterpiece is.  I think in time the brilliance will be recognized, but I’m worried it won’t be soon enough to commercially reward that brilliance.  And that’s the biggest crime for the medium of games.  When we don’t reward our true visionaries, we’ll continue to stagnate, and spin our wheels making more games that make us feel like a badass... and nothing more.

Also, because it’s related, here’s a tutorial I made for upgrading the base of the collector’s edition statue.