What was the scariest moment in your favorite story? Truly. Not a scene that could be called “scary”, but where you still knew everything would be alright. No, what was a moment where you honestly believed the protagonist would take it hard?
I know that for me, it takes a character who I respect, admire, and trust to be put into a situation where they know they might not be coming back. It doesn’t need be that they face death, although the character’s realization of their mortality scores greatly for authenticity. Rather, their inability to return can be figurative. Take, for instance, this character undergoing a physical battle, only to succumb to the enslavement of their mind. Or, that this character’s personal friend is hunted and torn away by the same darkness that shakes the main character to the core. The story must make the danger real and it must make the danger imperative. It must be something that cannot be shaken off. And the situation must present a cost that means something to the characters, enough to make it matter to them and the audience.
There is a particular moment in DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon 2 where the chief-to-be, Hiccup, finally meets up with Drago, an intimidating warmonger who traps and controls dragons, and who makes them fight anyone who refuses to follow his lead. While Hiccup believes he can persuade Drago to treat dragons as animals capable of loyalty and companionship, Drago insists he demonstrate what he believes is a true show of command. Drago aims his metal staff toward the young man’s dragon, Toothless, and speaks,
“Witness true strength: the strength of will over others. In the face of it, you are nothing!”
Toothless, now mind controlled by Drago’s alpha dragon, begins to take aim at a fearful and powerless Hiccup. The young man could never comprehend a time where he was devoid of the things that made him effective, persuasive, and strong—until now.
For those who have played The Last Guardian, Dragon 2 strikes obvious connections. In Guardian, a young boy befriends a humongous, gryffon-like creature he names “Trico” after mysteriously waking up far from home and in the midst of a ruinous valley. To the boy, this beast becomes a loyal guardian. To the people of his village, however, it is nothing but a dangerous killer. Many times their friendship is tested.
The scene between Drago and Hiccup is what my mind flashes to whenever I reach one of the cage rooms. The boy and Trico have been trying to make their way higher and higher as, flying out of the valley is their only way to freedom. But each time they reach a place of safety away from the ghostly soldiers, they find their only way forward is to enter a room made up of a large cage. There are no doors to close shut, though, so it is not a matter of physical restraint. While the boy can walk through unharmed, Trico is unable to place a foot in without falling under the control of a mysterious, hidden enemy. Defenseless and now unable to give Trico commands, running is all the boy can do to avoid being swallowed.
Another, similar scene is found in Doctor Who, series 4, episode 10 “Midnight“, in which the Doctor encounters a situation like never before. Though he has faced some of the universe’s deadliest and most impressive foes (the Beast in the Pit to name one), it is not until this episode in which he meets his match, intellectually to say the least. Actor David Tennant gives his thoughts from a featured interview in “Doctor Who: A New Dimension“:
“Probably more than any other episode we’ve ever done, it’s about the psychology of people. So the threat becomes not just the creature, whatever the creature might be, but also the people’s fear of the unknown.
Within that little tin box of that Crusader 50 ship, I think the doctor is possibly more scared than he would be facing a legion of Daleks. Every character moves slightly from one position to another… And where that leaves the Doctor at the end [is] in a position we never see him in. He’s so exposed and so vulnerable. He has no power. He has lost the ability to change people and influence people. They’re not listening.
A lot of his power is bound up in his ability to communicate, and his vocabulary, and his speed of thought. So then if you rob him of that… it’s like cutting off Samson’s hair. There’s something… that strikes at the heart of him. And a creature that can rob him of his ability to communicate, robs him of everything that he is really. That’s why the episode is as unsettling as it is, I think. Particularly for the Doctor.”
In many ways, the cage rooms serve as a microcosm of the world from which the boy and Trico are trying to escape. Physically intimidating, emotionally draining, mentally arresting, they are an unavoidable symbol of what the Entity residing in the valley wishes to do. There is a reason why the ruins are empty. Why ghostly soldiers wait in dormancy. Why the land feels frozen in place in a perpetual day. No one is intended to be able to leave the valley, not at least, while under the Entity’s watch.
The score for Guardian reflects this mood very well. I will not listen to most film or game soundtracks because they are often trying to be bigger and more dramatic than they actually are. This is forced, hyped emotion. Takeshi Furukawa, the composer for The Last Guardian, explicitly avoided this, trying only to underscore the visuals Fumito Ueda had created for the story. Ironically, this achieved something which stands impressively in its own right. The scene of the cage rooms—all of the scenes really—actually behave as what the music is telling us. The music is honest because the story is honest.
This honesty is presenting a danger that is just as ferocious to the character as it is to the player. Though it can be argued that the player never becomes the boy—that they are merely participating in his story as a viewer—they get to step into his shoes in a very personal way.
Guardian thus shines as a grounded, authentic narrative. It presents someone who is quite human, one who stumbles as he walks and tumbles as he runs, who pushes things at odd angles, and who doesn’t always understand what his pet is trying to do, a character who behaves not at all like a perfected avatar. Similarly, the enemies that he and Trico face are not at all unrealistic or overpowered, these forces only seeming so formidable because of their comparison to the boy. It is also made clear that no one’s lives are ensured, the plot providing obstacles and events geared to outright kill.
The Entity is the darkness which seeks to tear away the boy’s only companion, the darkness which shakes him to his core and literally paralyzes him. There are no safeguards and, in short, the boy and Trico know that they probably won’t be coming back. The result? A story which players care about as much as the characters. An ending which stands as one of the most powerful in all of gaming and cinematic history. Witness true strength.
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