A Video Game Decided My Career Path: How a Run-in with a Winged, Cat-like AI Inspired Me and My Life Choices

Growing up, I spent countless hours watching my parents destroy monsters and save the world. While it may not have been your parents who first exposed you to the incredible pixel world of gaming, video games have influenced this generation in crazy ways. Gaming can bring about a sense of comradery, accomplishment, satisfaction, and so much more. A Forbes article titled “The Impact Of Gaming: A Benefit To Society" states the following: 

“In an online poll, gamers were asked what they believed to be the main benefit of gaming. Over 40% said that gaming improves emotional well-being. That’s a serious benefit if you consider that one in five people in America experience mental health issues each year. This is a large contrast to the common view that playing video games leads to violence and other antisocial behavior. Which, according to Qutee, is a view that 93% of gamers think is incorrect.”  

While gaming can be twisted into something that is harmful, the impact of responsible gaming on youth culture can be positive, healing, and even life-changing. 

 

Videogames have influenced my life in a multitude of wonderful ways. They’ve taught me to be fearless in my pursuits, protect the ones I love, and to value how fragile life truly is. Video games have changed my life, and I know I’m not the only one. In fact, it is because of one very specific game that I am pursuing artificial intelligence in the first place. When I watched a full playthrough of Team Ico’s The Last Guardian, released in December 2016, I decided then and there that I wanted to pursue artificial intelligence in college. I realized what I wanted to do with my life the very moment I met Trico, the game’s incredible half-bird half-mammal AI. 

The Last Guardian is an action-adventure game created by Team Ico. The game was released in December 2016 after over 8 years of active development. Following the success of their cult-hit second game Shadow of the Colossus, Team Ico wanted to make sure they followed the vision of the game Fumito Ueda had set out for them. After switching studios, mid-development changing their platform from the PlayStation 3 to the PlayStation 4, and multiple showcases, The Last Guardian was officially showcased at Sony’s E3 2015. The development cycle took much longer than expected, but the wait was well worth it. The Last Guardian received favorable reception and was named on several Game of the Year lists. Reviewers praised the game’s environment and story, while the realistic animal behavior of the deuteragonist Trico was praised by some and scorned by others. 

Trico’s concept is an amalgam of several creatures, designed to be realistic as opposed to outright adorable. Trico’s ability to summon lightning adds to their wild and magical feel, while the cat-like twitching of Trico’s ears as it’s mesh collider brushes against tall surfaces evokes the familiar feeling of a house cat. Trico was programmed with key frame animations as opposed to industry standard motion capture techniques, which allows for subtleties that are hard to see in live animal subjects. Team Ico also used the full physics engine Havok to build Trico. According to Ueda, the effect of wind was modeled separately for each of Trico's feathers. 

The game hinges completely on the relationship between the unnamed boy player character and Trico.  The two work together to traverse the area the boy has awoken in by solving puzzles. Protecting each other from guards who threaten to separate them, Trico’s agility and stature help the boy reach areas he can’t get to alone. The boy initially has little control over Trico, but as the game progresses, he learns to command Trico to leap onto ledges or head in a certain direction, as well as shoot lightning and other actions. The boy can soothe Trico by petting its feathers, feed Trico when hungry, and pull spears out of Trico after battling enemies.  

Player’s frustrations with Trico come from the way Team Ico designed its AI. Trico is meant to behave like a fickle pet who doesn’t always listen. Trico is a wild creature, and that shows when it refuses to listen to the boy’s commands. The player character and Trico learn to work together and over time develop a special bond, but that’s only true if the player puts in the effort to train Trico properly. “More than anything, Trico’s behaviour is gloriously random. Sometimes it listens to its kid companion, and will merrily carry him over precarious bridges, parapets and crumbling towers. Other times, it flat out ignores the boy, instead choosing to take a gigantic nap, go for a little wander or throw a hissy fit in the hopes of being fed, “wrote David Meikleham for Gamesradar. Most games are created so the player follows the path of least resistance. This isn’t the case for Trico and The Last Guardian, so it is understandable that people are critical of Trico’s unwillingness to behave 100% of the time. 

For me, the very first encounter with Trico in the game was enchanting. Being able to work with an AI that seemed to have a mind of its own blew my mind. Trico is an amazingly designed AI, and I personally love the choice Team Ico made to have Trico show some independence. I feel like it gives Trico a certain realism that is missing from other video game AIs. The amount of time, dedication, and love put into making Trico was not lost on me, and that passion is what sparked inside of me the desire to create something similar. However Trico was made, high school aged me wanted to make something equally as magnificent and impactful.  

Trico is the kind of character you never forget meeting. I’ve played and watched hundreds upon hundreds of hours of games, and Trico is one of few characters I vividly remember interacting with and loving. When I learned that Trico was an intricately designed AI, I decided then that I would pursue the field of artificial intelligence and build my own Trico. I want to be able to create something that impacts others in an equally positive way to the way playing with Trico impacted me. 

Ever since finishing The Last Guardian, I have a sense of purpose and a benchmark to check myself against. When I feel down about the indeterminacy of the future, I think about my desire to create something that will impact people and change them for the better, like Trico did for me. While The Last Guardian is not my favorite game of all time (it’s pretty close though), it will always have a very special Trico-shaped place in my heart. 

 -Savanna Thompson, Sophomore Student at Johns Hopkins University