Mechanical telegraphing and The Last Guardian’s jumping puzzle design

Let’s take a trip back, way back, to the long-lost magical year of… 2015. A group of sweaty and exhausted game journalists, myself included, are crowded into their seats for a Sony press conference, the last press conference of a very, very, long day of E3 hype. What did we get to see as one of the first trailers to set the mood? The new reel for The Last Guardian.

Gameplay! We got to see gameplay! The little boy was running around a crumbling tower, making gigantic leaps of faith and being caught by his gryphon at the last second. He would clear paths for the gryphon as they jumped from spire to spire, each jump more death defying than the last, each punctuated by a Zack Snyder-esque slowdown effect. It looked fantastic, and it made all of us desperately want to get the game – exactly like a trailer should do.

Fast-forward to current day in the bleak cyberpunk apocalypse that is the end of 2016, and The Last Guardian has finally been released to the masses. Now, I get to play this much-loved trailer segment for myself and, to my disappointment, I hate it. Not because the segment didn’t play as advertised – no, my gameplay experience was exactly as the trailer promised a year ago. Rather, my disappointment stems from the fact that the trailer turned out to be a classic example of trailer bait. Nothing previous to this segment played anything like it, nor did anything past it. In fact, this one, isolated piece of gameplay serves as one of the best examples of the biggest faults people are finding in The Last Guardian – a lack of mechanical telegraphing.

The Difference Between Platformers and Puzzle Platformers

Let’s examine this moment in relation to the rest of the game. The Last Guardian is, at its essence, a puzzle game. Now, I hear a bunch of you angrily typing on your keyboards, “NUH-UH! It’s a platformer!”

So, to put your worries to rest, let’s examine the distinction between a platformer and a puzzle game whose puzzles primarily feature jumping (or puzzle platformer, to some of you). When you think of the quintessential example of a platformer, what do you think of? Mario? Sonic: The Hedgehog? Super Meat Boy (you masochist…)? All of these games have a few things in common.

First, the main mechanic in each of these games is jumping. Second, obstacles in these games stress your jump timing, control, and accuracy. Your mastery of jumping comes down to where and when you jump.

In puzzle platformers like The Last Guardian, the main mechanic is still jumping. But the game isn’t testing where or when you jump, but how you jump. There aren’t any bullets the boy has to jump over, and enemies don’t die when Trico bounces off of their heads.

In puzzle games, your goal is to put together the pieces of a puzzle and find the solution. This more accurately represents the gameplay of The Last Guardian. There is rarely clear and present danger. Instead, there is just an environment that the boy and Trico have to figure out some way to traverse. In this manner, jumping and the environment are just two pieces of a puzzle the game is asking you to solve.

Breaking All Its Rules

The 2015 trailer didn’t show off puzzle platformer gameplay. It showed off traditional platformer gameplay. As I said before, no segments of the game played anything like this up until this point, and none would play like it afterward. Why is that a problem? Because the game suddenly asks you to do something that, up until this point, it warned you away from doing.

Let’s examine this in more detail. Early on, you learn that Trico is an unpredictable animal. No matter how much you attempt to order him around, there is a chance that he just won’t listen to you. In fact, he knocks you unconscious twice within the first five minutes of the game.

With this in mind, you are eventually led to puzzle rooms looming high above a ground shrouded in mist. Like the curious gamer you are, you immediately run toward the edge of a platform and jump like you are everyone’s favorite Italian plumber. Unfortunately you are not Mario, and you find very quickly that making reckless jumps punishes you with a quick plummet to your death. This is how the game teaches its core mechanics to you. It punishes you for being hasty and rewards you for slowing down, considering your environment, and making precise decisions.

As the game continues, Trico becomes tamer and eventually does start to listen to you, but the jumps do not get any easier. Instead, they get more and more precise. At no time does Trico come to rescue you when you flub a jump nearby. No matter how tame he is, he just watches you die over and over again.

Then you get to the beginning of this trailer segment. Trico is confronted with a bunch of stained glass eyeballs… his mortal enemy. You’ve done this before – you just need to push them into the abyss to carry on. Then the platform you are on crumbles beneath you. You’ve seen this before, too. This usually means that whatever direction you were going to go isn’t the right direction, and you have to look around for a new one.

So you do. You back up and look for all manner of ledges, ropes, chains, like the game teaches you to – and you fail. This is a problem. You have done nothing but what the game has explicitly told you to do, and fail because of it. Only once you take that running Mario-style leap does the game reward you, a leap that you were specifically warned not to take countless times before. What’s worse is that if you are even a small bit off, you’ll plummet to your death just like with any other reckless jump.

You and Trico proceed onward and find yet another stained glass eyeball, which triggers yet another crumbling platform. The previous crumbling platform never crumbled the whole way. While it was dangerous, it still gave you plenty of time to line-up your jump, as you should in a puzzle platformer. This platform, however, continues crumbling until you die. OK, now the game wants you to jump quickly instead of jumping carefully. So you do the whole thing over and you die again! OK, the game wants you to move Trico into position first, and THEN jump at him. You do it again, and keep dying because Trico either doesn’t listen to you, or because you weren’t lined up exactly facing him to allow him to grab you in his mouth, until finally you get past this trailer-bait segment of gameplay.

You continue on to your next jumping puzzle and find yet another situation where you and Trico are separated by a gap just too long to jump across. “No problem,” you think to yourself. Trico knows how to catch me in mid-air now. So you take a running jump toward Trico like you were just taught to do and… die. No, the only time Trico will catch you is in this one pre-scripted set of gameplay. Now you have to unlearn everything you were just taught once again.

Giving You All the Pieces – A Study of Mario

Puzzles aren’t fun when you don’t have all the pieces. Just try putting together a jigsaw puzzle that is missing a corner or two. You’ll rage-quit in no time.

In a puzzle video game, the mechanics are the pieces. For every other puzzle in The Last Guardian, you know how far the boy jumps, you know what Trico is capable of, and you know what the environment around you looks like. By putting these pieces together, you can find the way forward.

But these pieces have to be given to you first, and we can call that "mechanical telegraphing." It’s the act of exposing you to mechanics in a controlled environment before asking you to meaningfully interact with them.

Super Mario Bros. is infamous for its use of mechanical telegraphing in World 1-1. Let’s say you don’t have an owner’s manual and you have no idea how video games are played. You have a controller in your hand with a d-pad and two buttons but have no idea what the buttons do.

So you press them. You find that the d-pad makes Mario run right or left, but Mario can’t go to the left because he hits the edge of the screen. So your goal must be to the right. There, a key game mechanic (go to the right) was telegraphed by a limitation (Mario can’t travel left.)

Traveling right presents you with your first goomba. Knowing nothing, you’ll run into it and die – but that’s fine, you have more lives. Next time, you know you have to do something to avoid it. Up, Down, and B supposedly do nothing, so eventually you press the A button and jump over it. Once again, a key mechanic is telegraphed simply through the situation you are put in. “To avoid death, jump.”

The blocks at the beginning are set up to cut a jump short, forcing you to bounce on a goomba’s head in order to teach you how to defeat enemies. Similarly, this same segment teaches you that power-ups are hidden in blocks, and the stage is set up so that you can’t avoid running into a super mushroom. I could go on and on about how each piece of World 1-1 is crafted specifically to show you what actions are rewarded and what actions are punished.

But now, imagine a scenario where world 4-3 comes around and you play through it like normal but, for some reason, you just can’t win. You use all the mechanics you were taught before, but you just can’t beat the level. Eventually, a friend tells you that the only way you can beat the level is by running head first into the first goomba you see.

Isn’t that crazy? Everything else the game has taught you is screaming “You die if you run into goombas!” into your ear, and now in this one stage, and only this one stage, you have to run head first into one in order to make progress? Wouldn’t that frustrate you? Wouldn’t that seem like a bad game design decision?

And that’s exactly what The Last Guardian does! It presents you with an action that should result in your death and expects you to do it anyway to proceed. That’s not a puzzle. There were no hints. There was no problem solving. Most players just stumble into the solution after a long period of trial and error frustration.

How to Fix It

The saddest part of this whole trailer-bait segment is that it could have been quite enjoyable with just a few small alterations. Here’s a proposed reworking of the scene:

Step 1) Before you reach this room, you are confronted with a jump over safe terrain that seems like it’s too long to make. Trico attempts to catch you in his mouth mid-jump and the game cuts in with narration telling the player that Trico has learned that he needs to protect the boy from falling. This is similar to how the narration introduces giving Trico direct commands about halfway through the game. It also teaches you that Trico needs to be lined up just right in order to have him successfully grab you.

Step 2) The first platform you are on crumbles entirely, not just part way. Then, no matter how far away you are from Trico, he reaches over and grabs you with his mouth. This teaches you two things: 1) Pushing down a stained-glass eye will crumble the platform beneath you and, 2) To avoid falling in this area you’ll need to make use of the previously taught mid-air grab mechanic.

Step 3) From this point on, Trico attempts to grab the boy in his mouth whenever he tries to make a jump that is too far.

Okay, so Step 3 might be a little much to ask for, but Steps 1 and 2 are pretty simple and teach the player that there is a new mechanic at play.

The Last Guardian’s faults seem to stem from prioritizing tone over mechanics. While the game is certainly a master of tone, each set-piece bringing the boy and Trico and thus the player and Trico closer together, most of this tone is set up at the expense of mechanical fidelity. The resulting frustration snaps the player out of his emotional bond with Trico, which is supposed to be the focal point of the game. With a few tweaks, The Last Guardian could have been designed in such a way that both mechanical and emotional interactions were tailored toward deepening the player’s bond with Trico, and that would have made the game much more enjoyable in the long term.