I once saw someone dump a cat out of the window of a moving car.
The cat ran into the front lobby of a building where I was working on a landscaping job, at the time. When we met, he seemed friendly and was exceptionally regal; a year later, he came home with me after not getting along with the other cats on my boss’s farm. My brother suggested we name the cat Chewbacca, since he was loud, furry and brown.
Chewbacca had always seemed to be one part dog, two parts cat. You could rub his belly and play a drumbeat with his paws. If you picked him up, he’d hang onto you like a koala. Chewie continued to be this way with me throughout my twenties — from my final years in art school to my first jobs, through two layoffs and as friends came and went.
Years after adopting him, and no more than an hour into my playthrough ofThe Last Guardian, it became clear to me that Chewbacca would soon pass away.
The rest of this story contains spoilers for The Last Guardian
The first signs of trouble had appeared years ago, just before he was diagnosed with diabetes. Daily insulin shots and a strict diet got him back on track and, to the surprise of many, his diabetes eventually receded. He began to struggle again a couple of years later.
What was presumed to be the early stages of asthma turned out to be a small mass in the back of his lung. A follow-up X-ray revealed that it had grown significantly in a short span of time. Chewie had cancer.
I began The Last Guardian as an attempt to relax,and Chewie joined me on the couch, right on schedule.
Several years of marketing for The Last Guardian hinged on the budding friendship between a young boy and his animal-friend, Trico. In the first minutes of the game, you find Trico with life-threatening injuries, hungry and confused. You eventually feed Trico and remove the literal chain binding him, along with the spears lodged into his body, but you soon encounter stranger, more ingrained forms of agony. These include claustrophobic arenas that send Trico into a rage state, and recurring stained-glass designs that cause him to recoil. Why is Trico here, if the animal has such specific and negative reactions to its environment?
Practically speaking, such obstacles are also physical hurdles for the player. Narratively speaking, however, it becomes clear that the environment was modified specifically for Trico’s species, with the goal of diminishing his agency. The valley is referred to as “the Nest.” It’s dotted with crumbling towers, derelict bridges and sources of water that are all connected by tunnels — which often double as prison cells. Because of the steep mountain range fencing it in, the boy recalls that “the only way in or out was from the air.” This makes it impossible for even Trico to leave, with the animal’s wings still on the mend.
Once Trico is physically liberated, the environment takes on a psychological challenge. Trico needs our encouragement to complete what were previously simple tasks, such as jumping long distances and scaling precarious cliffs.
The Last Guardian doubles as an interactive metaphor for the discovery and rehabilitation of animals in situations of abuse or neglect. For being such a fantastical setting, it plays host to a cautionary tale that is grounded in reality. By offering us an extended glimpse into an abused animal’s perspective, The Last Guardian asks us to empathize: What does it mean to spend time in their environment? How are they a product of it, and how much can they change?
At home with Chewie, now struggling to remain comfortable, the thought cut deep. We all encounter animals in need throughout our lives, and may find ourselves making a difficult decision about whether or not to intervene.
The reality of abused animals
The Last Guardian compelled me to educate myself more on abused animals, both due to how I had found Chewie and the frequency with which I stumbled upon wild, sometimes hurt animals near my home in Ohio.
I spoke with Michelle Leighty, manager of wildlife resources at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. The facility recently renovated its outdoor wildlife center, a habitat designed for specific species that cannot be released back into the wild after fatal injuries.
“A big part of our mission is trying to get people to care about these animals,” said Leighty. In turn, she continued, access to these animals educates and connects us with species we may not realize are literally in our backyards:“We want people to recognize what we’re actually living with, alongside of and sharing a living space with.”
Domesticated animals have their own set of concerns, as I discovered. Sharon A. Harvey, president and CEO of the Cleveland Animal Protective League, told me that out of the approximately 7,100 animals the organization took in last year, more than 1,100 came in through their humane investigators.
One of the most common humane investigation calls they receive is for dogs that are “living outside — sometimes tethered, sometimes not — that don’t have adequate food, water and shelter,” Harvey said. These can range from“healthy, friendly animals to animals that have not had any socialization and have purely lived on a chain.”
“A big part of our mission is trying to get people to care about these animals”
Leighty drew upon her experience to stress the importance of acknowledging our blind spots — regardless of our best intentions — especially when it comes to wild animals. “People find baby rabbits under their deck, and they just take them and put them somewhere [else]. Well, the mom left them there, and she doesn’t want to attract predators to the area,”Leighty explained. “People will brag to me, and say, ‘Well, my friend’s got a pet fox.’ That’s not a good idea. It’s about educating people about the species, and what their actual behaviors are.”
The Last Guardian depicts this angle, too. Whenever the player forces Trico to shoot lightning from his tail in order to progress forward, it reintroduces Trico to his previous negative conditioning. Our instincts or even needs can be a conflict of interest for any creature we mean to help. What we ask from the animals around us sometimes isn’t what they want to give, and the player often operates from a place of ignorance in The Last Guardian until they figure out what’s going on and why.
Observing and learning Trico’s nuances becomes an essential part of The Last Guardian. The boy’s intermittent narration provides us with context, but Trico’s body language has the most immediate impact. In the game’s most memorable scene, the boy is presumed dead after a traumatic experience, and the player loses control of the game for several minutes. We watch Trico wandering helplessly, trying to find a way to resuscitate the boy.
It’s moments like these where The Last Guardian excels at connecting with the player, and it reminded me of the comfort Chewie would show me on a bad day, even if his day was much worse.
The Last Guardian takes this sentiment to its conclusion. In Trico’s most courageous attempt to protect the player, a violent fight breaks out between Trico and the rest of his pack. This terrifying encounter leaves Trico nearly mangled to death. Trico becomes the embodiment of the potential that his siblings cannot reach, creating a bittersweet reminder that taking an animal out of an abusive cycle can create an opportunity for compassion, understanding and growth. “It is so hard to see animals coming in who have suffered the worst that humanity has to offer them,”Harvey told me.
She also identified the positive end of that spectrum: how rewarding it is to put those creatures in homes “with people who are doing everything in their power to show these animals the best of what humanity has to offer.”
A story that hits home
The Last Guardian is one of the few games that felt like it was speaking to me personally. The final act we take with our pets is letting them go, or witnessing them let go of us, and this is reflected so heartbreakingly in The Last Guardian.
On paper, the game’s experience might sound like a game designer’s worst nightmare: one giant escort mission. The significant difference here is that we are the escorted party, not Trico. Similarly, our pets tend to escort us through life and our day-to-day struggles. Freeing them from their pain isn’t an easy decision, but it’s sometimes the right one.
Chewbacca’s quality of life became a crucial factor in my decision to euthanize him in his final days. It was the difference between letting him go peacefully, or waiting for him to suffocate in the middle of the night. I had already accepted what he was communicating to me, but The Last Guardian confirmed my feelings.
My partner and I began recounting our favorite memories with Chewie as the veterinarian administered the final injections. Somewhere between our laughs about Chewie’s appreciation for jazz music and reminiscing about a road trip he took with me to Pittsburgh, he left us peacefully and without pain. It was as if he had fallen asleep in my arms, just like he always did.
The Last Guardian holds back a secret until its middle act: Trico was trained to hunt children from surrounding villages and return them to the Nest. The player was his latest — albeit failed — attempt to do so. But by the time this is revealed, the player has likely already bonded with Trico by guiding him out of an incredible predicament as he protected you, an act that fostered a rare instance of empathy between two hostile forces. The boy and Trico could not seem more different, but their hearts are in the same place.
As with any pet, adopting Chewie had its own risks. I never anticipated he’d develop diabetes four years ago. I never anticipated how close we would become, and I couldn’t fathom the pain he must have suffered in his final days. But as with Trico, it was his body language that spoke volumes to me. Those thoughts and memories collided when I completed The Last Guardian.
I try not to perceive life in terms of clear segments, but Chewbacca’s passing undoubtedly closed a chapter of mine. It might sound silly, but it’s as if he finally knew I’d be OK, with my loving partner now at my side for the past four years.
Chewie’s role in a lonelier time of my life was ending, and his compassion did wonders for me. I find it important now to celebrate his life through activism, keener senses and instincts, and a more open heart to those in need. I met Chewie when he was being abused, and we helped each other grow. The player’s relationship with Trico through The Last Guardian follows a similar path, and proves just how much animals give back when we treat them with kindness.
Chewie spent the majority of his life being loved, not being hurt. At his death, he bore no ill will toward anyone. “That is one of the things that animals really teach us all, isn’t it?”Harvey told me. “That they have such an incredible capacity to forgive.”
Andrew Kuhar is an artist and designer from Cleveland, Ohio, with a background in traditional drawing and a BFA with an emphasis in game design. The rest of his time is spent writing, producing, and performing music with The Commonwealth, in addition to visiting the red foxes at local wildlife rehabilitation centers.
Special thanks to the Cleveland Animal Protective League and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History for their sharing their time, insights and the great work they do. Both Michelle Leighty and Sharon A. Harvey recommend contacting your local humane societies and rehabilitation centers if you discover animals in need.
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