The Design of Companionship

I feel that to be a hero, you need some kind of partner. And you need a really special partner in this game because without [a] horse you cannot fight any of the giants, or travel to new areas. If the main character were by [himself], it would be really sad, but the horse is there with [him], and as they work together, a strong relationship develops between them, as the horse is very reliable.

Kenji Kaido

Track 36 Memories, by Kō Ōtani

While ICO and The Last Guardian most prominently feature Ueda’s portrayal of friendship, Shadow of the Colossus also centers on his wordless, one-on-one dynamic. In Shadow, a young man named Wander journeys to the Forbidden Lands in the hope of resurrecting the love of his life, Mono. There he meets an entity known as Dormin who presents him with a straightforward task; slay the sixteen giants that roam the Lands and the life of the maiden will be restored. There are no other humans beside Wander and, no other enemies must be overcome to open the way to a Colossus. All in all, Wander is very, very much alone. Except there’s Agro.

Though Mono is Wander’s biggest motivation, it is his black horse who fills the role of companion. The bond between boy and horse is portrayed so genuinely that Ueda’s subsequent title The Last Guardian was inspired by this dynamic. TeamICO did not expect such a strong fan-response toward Agro. Fumito Ueda even stated that he never intended it to be. But they took it as an opportunity to expand upon, leading to the eventual creation of Trico, one of the most impressive AI creatures to-date.

So what’s so special about Wander’s horse? She doesn’t beg for attention. She gives it. Similarly, when most animals–and people for that matter–would refuse to approach the foes the wanderer faces, Agro carries him in to the end. Through both footage and gameplay, Agro behaves as her own person. Subtly. Just enough to show she can think and understand the world around her. But not a caricature. Think “understated.”

Shadow‘s prologue and opening sequences offer some of the best examples of Agro’s personality. When Wander is riding through a mountain pass, he and Agro approach a daunting gap. Agro hesitates, nickering in unease but, he urges her forward. On the other side she takes a brief moment to look back and shudder. Later as they enter the great Temple, Agro periodically balks at the prospect of going further as, she can sense something is very wrong, a feeling Wander cannot feel himself or simply chooses to ignore. Already there is a distinct contrast between their behaviors.

Another occasion is during Shadow‘s intermittent cut-scenes. After Wander slays the fourth Colossus and wakes up returned within the Shrine of Worship, Agro walks up to the altar where Mono lies, attempting to nuzzle the maiden. Mono does not wake up to pet Agro, but Wander approaches as well and gives her the hand on the face she needed. She then spooks when Dormin’s booming voice reveals the next riddle; Wander instead turns around with no fear, firm in his resolve to continue his quest.

This dissonance between the attitudes of Agro and Wander is something which carefully paints Wander’s actions as disconcerting, even though there is nothing outright telling the player that they are inherently wrong. It adds a unique dynamic which brings about a sense of realism and believability. Agro won’t always turn the way Wander wants her to and, sometimes she will whinny in protest if Wander does something life-threatening such as, pointing a drawn arrow at her or, climbing a great height only to slip and fall (these I personally tried). Little things such as her eager waiting for Wander to mount and, her quirky dislike of steps give her a lot of character. Bluepoint Games even added a small difference in the prologue to reflect this. Where Agro would simply walk up the ramp and into the entrance of the Lands, the remake shows her double taking at a mere 5 steps.

Spoilers Below.

The story of their friendship reaches its apex when Wander is riding off to find the last Colossus. Just as in the prologue, Wander and Agro jump a gap, but this time they are about to land on an unstable bridge. As it begins to fall out from underneath them, Agro senses she cannot make it to the other side, so she throws Wander to safety, falling into the abyss herself. Despite her unease toward Wander’s commands, she honored his authority to the end.

Guardian‘s boy-and-his-horse, er, catbird story follows similar arcs. There is little to no verbal communication between the two, the boy has intentions to go home while Trico has other ideas, Trico has a strong dislike for talismans while the boy remains undaunted and, Trico proves his loyalty, even when near-death.

Their developing bond is the key theme across the game. But the big difference between this and the relationships in Ico and Shadow of the Colossus is that there’s a more dynamic range between the boy and Trico. From that first moment in the game, the boy is uncertain if Trico will be a friend or foe, and you immediately start trying to work out how to bridge that communication gap.

But rather than the more straightforward relationships seen in Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, you’ll see both dramatic peaks and troughs in their relationship…

Fumito Ueda

I think it is fair to say that friendship is something Ueda cherishes very deeply. Maybe these stories are his way of searching for the best companion? We’ll have to wait and see what his fourth game brings us.

Here are two videos, one by Jacob Geller and the other by Cinematic Overture, that fully explore the wordless dynamic I have briefly described above. May I present “The Most Beautiful Moment of the Generation” and “Ico Analysis: The Design of Companionship.”

One runs the risk of weeping a little, if one lets himself be tamed.

— Jacob Geller

“Ico Analysis: The Design of Companionship”, by Cinematic Overture.


Here is how to credit the images above…

Unless credited otherwise, all PlayStation4 screenshots of “Shadow of the Colossus” and “The Last Guardian” (including header images) are my work.

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