The Last Guardian for the PlayStation 4 was a project that took nearly a decade to complete. Team Ico began development for the game back in 2007 with a planned release in 2011 for the PlayStation 3. But, as fans are well aware, the game went through a series of devastating setbacks that nearly saw it permanently shelved until it was finally released in December of 2016. Overall, the game received mixed reception. Some were simply grateful to have the game at all while others found their experience to be a little underwhelming. The game is fraught with outdated controls, inconsistent graphics, and a camera that refuses to behave. However, if there is one thing most gamers can agree on, it is that Trico itself is a marvel to behold.

Trico is The Last Guardian’s star. It is a giant amalgamation of a variety of different animals with such an advanced AI and convincing animations that it is easy to forget Trico isn’t a real animal or even alive for that matter. Sure, Trico doesn’t always listen to the player. Many have found that trying to get Trico to do what you want in a true test of patience. But that is an argument for another day. My main focus is on Trico’s anatomy and behavior.

What is Trico? That is a big question fans have. Trico itself appears to be an odd tangle of animals, both real and fictional . However, in order to truly understand Trico, we have to break Trico down into its component parts. Yet, simply saying Trico is part dog, part bird, part cat, and part acid trip isn’t good enough. So let’s give MatPat a run for his money and really delve deep into wildlife science and animal anatomy.

The Last Guardian

Starting at the very top of the head, Trico has a pair of glowing horn like structures. Trico’s turquoise “horns” at the beginning of the game are broken stubs that gradually grow as the game progresses. It is in this growth that we receive the first, real clue as to their nature. The horns grow from the top, developing little tips that slowly extend and widen to match the undamaged sections.

For those who aren’t aware, not everything we call “horns” actually fit that classification. A true horn possesses a bony core and keratin sheath. Keratin, for the record, is the same substance that your fingernails are made out of. Animals in the Bovidae family have true horns. This includes cattle, sheep, buffalo, etc. However, true horns grow from their base and often form visible rings or ridges. Animals like rhinos, deer, pronghorns, or giraffes only possess horn like structures. Rhinos “horns” for example, are actually thick bundles of fibers, almost like a perpetually bad hair day permanently fused to their face. However, we are most interested in the antlers produced by deer and their close relatives.

Animals in the Cervidae family have antlers (deer, moose, elk, etc). Antlers, unlike horns, are periodically shed and tend to be covered in a soft membrane known as velvet. As the antlers mature, the velvet is shed. But the unique thing about antlers is that they grow from the tip, just like Trico’s. Thus, Trico’s “horns” are actually a pair of tiny, glowing antlers. We only spend a couple of days with Trico in the game, but it isn’t unreasonable to assume that Trico would eventually shed its turquoise protrusions every now and again.

Horns and antlers serve two very specific purposes in the animal kingdom: battles and babies. The bigger your head protrusions, the better you can fight for mates and defend yourself from predators or rivals. Antlers also act as honest signals. Honest signals are physical attributes of an animal that reflect the animals strength and overall health. A strong, healthy deer will produce a bigger rack of antlers. In the case of peacocks, this would be how big and how bright their tail feathers are. Honest signals cannot be faked and are used in mate selection. Trico’s antlers don’t seem to serve either of these purposes.

What makes Trico’s antlers unique, aside from their color and the fact that they light up like a glow stick in a rave, is that they seem to be used for communication. There are several points during the game where a device will send out pulsating signals. Trico’s antlers begin to pulse in response and its behavior drastically changes as it responds to the orders it was given. Towards the end of the game, a larger device sends signals to Trico over a vast distance. This kind of communication is reminiscent of the electromagnetic signaling (aka electrocommunication) that some fish use to communicate with one another. Granted, that is in the water where the signals can travel much farther. But, we all know Trico is special, so we’ll let it slide.

Moving down from the top of Trico’s head, the next point of interest is the beak. Trico’s beak is most reminiscent of a tortoise beak. Specifically, that of a Horsfield’s tortoise. According to an interview The Last Guardian’s Director, Fumito Ueda, did with glixel.com, two of the animals that inspired Trico were a dog and a duck. Now, it is entirely possible that Trico’s odd mouth is simply the natural result of fusing together a dog muzzle and a duck bill. But that just isn’t fun. So for argument’s sake, I’m going with the tortoise theory.

The Last Guardian

Beaks are quite helpful to flying animals. They weigh less than teeth and can focus a lot of force into a small area. Although tortoises don’t fly. Tortoises don’t really chew their food either, and neither does Trico. Instead, tortoises use their beaks to tear their food into bite sized chunks that they can swallow in one go. Trico’s main food source are the barrels of glowing goo. When Trico goes to eat one, it positions the barrel towards the back of the mouth before crushing the barrel in a single chomp. The liquid spills into Trico’s closed jaws and it’s meal time for our feathered friend.

Going briefly back to that interview I mentioned before, Fumito Ueda officially stated that the inspiration for Trico’s design came from common household pets. Specifically the animals his family owned when he was a kid (a dog, a cat, a duck, and a monkey). In addition, the dev team studied the movements of a tiger, a horse, an eagle, and cats in a ton of youtube videos. Who said cat videos weren’t productive?

Trico’s main body is just the classic mammalian build: four legs, a working spine, and a long tail. Kind of boring really. Although, the one interesting not about Trico’s main body lies in its tail. Most mammals with tails use theirs both for counterbalance and as a method of physical communication. Cats will raise their tails in greeting and dogs will wag their tails when they are happy. Conversely, Trico barely moves its tail except to zap whatever the mirror’s reflection hits. Sadly, Trico’s tail only seems to serve as a counterbalance and to shoot bolts of barrier destroying lightning.

Things start to get more exciting when we move down to Trico’s feet. The choices the developers made with Trico’s feet are rather fascinating. Trico’s has a tridactyl foot structure. Tridactyl is really just a fancy way of saying it has three toes. Specifically, three forward facing toes. Tridactyly is not a very common foot structure. Many ancient reptiles and the ancestor to the horse were tridactyl. Rhinos, woodpeckers, and emus are examples of modern day tridactyl animals. Tridactyl feet, at least in birds, is perfectly adapted for climbing. Perching, not so much. Sorry Trico. Hopping along pillars just isn’t your strong suit.

The last structure that we can, realistically, talk about are Trico’s wings. While the lightning producing organ in the tail is exciting, I simply don’t have the room to talk about it and this article is already long enough as is. So Trico’s wings will have to do. Trico’s wings, while scrawny and broken at the start of the game, eventually grow into long and still scrawny flying machines. One wing is easily as long as Trico’s body. Both wings are comparatively thin and eventually taper to a point. These kind of wings are known as high speed wings. These wings have low drag and low energy demands. High speed wings are perfect for high speed flight (duh) and long migrations. They are not so great at lower speeds. Staying airborne, taking off, gliding, or descending require a series of small, rapid flaps. Peregrine falcons, swifts and ducks are examples of birds with high speed wings.

The developers of the Last Guardian take full advantage of Trico’s high speed wings. From the few cutscenes we get in the can, we know that Trico can and does travel vast distances. Additionally, whenever Trico goes to jump, it flaps its wings a few quick times before actually springing into action. There are a few instances where we get to see Trico in full flight and it is the same story; several quick wing beats to get into the air followed by the occasional flap to stay aloft.

The Last Guardian

Trico’s behavior is more than just skin deep. While its morphology gives us some insight into its behavior, we get a better understanding of how Trico communicates by simply playing the game.

Trico, like most animals, uses vocalizations as form of communication. Throughout the game, Trico will make a series of growls, grunts, grumbles, high and low pitched whines, calls, and cries. If you have a dog, you’ve heard a lot of these. If you have a cat, you’ve heard the rest. These vocalizations help us understand Trico’s overall mood and stress levels. When we first meet Trico it makes angry growls, grumbles, and grunts with the occasional high pitched whine from the pain it is in. Eventually, Trico becomes attached to the player and will call out and whine in distress when we stray to far away. Of course, much like a dog, when Trico wants to be loving and looks for attention it will grumble and give happy, high pitched whines. Or when Trico is hungry it will use long, low calls to beg for food.

Vocalizations aren’t the only form of communication. All animals utilize non-verbal communication. Dogs will pull their ears back when they are scared and humans will smile when they are happy. Most of Trico’s non-verbal communication occurs in the upper half of the face. This includes cheeks, eyes, and ears. Trico’s ears function in the same way dog ears do. Although, from their immense size I would argue that Trico can hear a lot better than most dogs. When it comes to communicating though, Trico’s ears go up when its interested in something or back and down when its nervous, scared, or stressed. Trico will also flap its wings when it feels threatened. Additionally, in an impressive attention to detail, Trico’s feathers puff out when it is angry or scared. This is a common reaction birds and mammals will have when frightened. They try to make themselves look bigger, and by extension scarier, when threatened.

Trico’s eyes are perhaps the most telling visual communication it has. One look at Trico’s eyes will tell the player everything they need to know. When Trico becomes angry or scared, its eyes will glow pink. The biggest difference between scared and angry is in how wide Trico will open its eyes. The wider the eye, the more afraid Trico is. Trico’s illuminated yellow eyes indicate that its hungry. When Trico is content or passive, its eyes will be dull. On very rare occasions, Trico’s eyes will flash a variety of different colors. This occurs when Trico interacts with the technology found in the next. Additionally, if you look closely, you can actually see Trcio’s irises expand and contract!

It is unsurprising that these are the visual and audio cues that the developers used for Trico. Many of these cues are familiar to the players because they seen them in their pets or even in each other. Humans use facial expression as a form of non-verbal communication.  Most of these cues are focused in the upper half of the face.  In the case of dogs, almost all of their facial, non-verbal communication occurs in the upper half of the face.

The level of detail that went into programming Trico is downright impressive. Everything from Trico’s anatomy to behavior is meticulously constructed to complete the illusion of a living breathing animal.

  • Dave ‘Fenrir’ Fitchett

    A very interesting examination of the integral character of a much too under-rated game.

    • Ariel Needleman

      Thank you! I’m glad you found it interesting. I do agree that the game is under-rated, but I’m not entirely surprised either.