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Video games are creating smarter animals

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

Trico in The Last Guardian
| Sony Interactive Entertainment

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

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

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

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

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

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 - boy riding Trico
The Last Guardian
SIE Japan Studio/GenDesign/Sony Interactive Entertainment


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.

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.