Shadow of the Colossus (revisited)

I spent last Sunday and today playing what I consider to be the best game that I have ever played: Shadow of the Colossus.

Shadow of the Colossus was originally released on Playstation 2 in 2005 (and I first wrote about it here after its Australian release in early 2006). For those who missed it the first time (or who want to re-live the experience in HD or 3D stereo), it has recently been remastered and released as part of the “Ico and Shadow of the Colossus HD Collection” on Playstation 3.

I feel that much of what I wrote about the game five years ago holds true today. Despite being aware of the game mechanics and content this time around, I still found the game to be “confrontingly visceral”. Possibly even more so than the first time I experienced it, and I’ve recently been contemplating why.

Shadow of the Colossus immediately stands apart from other video games (perhaps with the exception of ICO) due to its minimalist aesthetics and design. Fumito Ueda (Director of the game) describes his approach to game development as “design by subtraction”. Unlike most commercial games (that seek to pile on additional “features” and content), Shadow of the Colossus is based around a few core elements and themes, with supporting visuals, sounds, and mechanics.

Overview

The protagonist is a young man (Wander) who seeks to restore the life of a young woman (Mono). At the beginning of the game he enters a sacred temple and places Mono on an alter. He calls upon the spirits of the temple to return her soul and revive her. A disembodied voice responds that it may be possible, but will come at great cost. The voice further explains that he must use the ancient sword in his possession to kill sixteen ancient creatures (the colossi) in the forbidden lands.

From this point onwards, the game follows a general pattern:

  1. Wander leaves the temple upon his horse (Agro). He holds his up sword, which shines light in the direction of the next colossus.
  2. He rides to the colossus and kills it (usually by climbing upon it and stabbing it repeatedly in unique weak points).
  3. After each colossus dies, ephemeral black tendrils leave it and seek out Wander, piercing his body and causing him to pass out.
  4. Wander awakens in the temple surrounded by black humanoid figures (one for each colossi killed). A temple statue representing the killed colossus explodes into rubble.
  5. The voice in the temple tells him about the next colossus and this pattern continues until they have all been destroyed.

Clearly the above description doesn’t nearly explain the intricacies of the presentation and game play, but it forms the foundation for game progression and character development (in both Wander and the player).

Wander

Throughout the game, there is a constant feeling that Wander is an intruder. The temple and forbidden lands are mostly void of life (except for the occasional bird, fish, lizard, or colossus) and Wander’s presence feels out of place and rather uninvited. Whenever Wander encounters a colossus, there is a feeling that he is disrupting (and ultimately ending) its placid life in order to meet his own unnatural objective of returning Mono to life. Moreover, he is ending an ancient life that has been undisturbed for a long time. This further communicates a sense of inappropriate intrusion, interference, and selfishness.

Only a stolen ancient sword provides Wander with power over the spirits of the temple and the ability to destroy the colossi. This implies that his intentions and actions are against both the natural and cultural order. Although the player may empathize with his loss (in Mono’s death), they are likely to question his stubborn mindset and the moral ambiguity of his actions. At times it is emotionally difficult to assist Wander in his killing of the colossi, but the player is afforded a level of observational detachment that allows them to progress in the game.

As the game continues, the effect (on Wander) of killing the colossi becomes increasingly apparent. He appears sickly, his skin covered in lesions and discolorations. He also appears to be becoming less human and more monstrous. It feels as though the first (small) colossi could inflict a lot of damage by simply stomping near him, but in later battles Wander sustains little damage from great falls and attacks. Possibly indicating that the black tendrils are changing him internally as well as externally.

The Colossi

The colossi are presented as ancient creatures that live alone (in their own areas) and with a strong connection to their respective environments. They have adapted to suit their environments and lumber throughout them unhindered by any other life or obstacles (until Wander arrives to kill them). Interestingly, many of the colossi live in ancient ruins in various levels of disrepair. This implies some ancient historical interaction between the colossi and a human society, but the reason for the departure of humans from the forbidden lands is never explained.

Visually, the colossi are obviously large creatures (although the size of each varies significantly). They tend to resemble humans or other animals (such as birds, turtles, or dogs) and have patches of hair (which Wander uses to climb upon them) and large round eyes (with an ominous blur or orange glow, depending on their mental state). Another common element is a collection of decrepit architectural stone structures around the colossus’ frame and face. These imply some sort of artificial construct which mark attempts to contain or control the colossi (and may be causing ongoing discomfort or pain).

The final defining characteristic of each colossi is that they have various symbols on their bodies that glow when near the ancient sword. These indicate weak points that Wander seeks out and repeatedly stabs in order to fell the colossi. With each stab of the sword, thin black liquid spurts out of the colossus as it violently responds to the pain. The presence of these clearly artificial symbols indicates that these creatures have already been violated, marked, and weakened.

Conclusion

I’ve deliberately tried to avoid describing the game mechanics in detail. Most game reviews tend to focus on explaining and evaluating gameplay, and there are plenty of reviews of Shadow of the Colossus online. Rather, I’d like to conclude with how the game feels and what it communicates. In my mind, these represent its greatest achievements.

Shadow of the Colossus reminds me of bull fighting. It’s barbaric and uncomfortable to some, and visceral entertainment to others. It’s a conflict between man and nature, with a predetermined conclusion that nature will succumb despite its apparent raw power. The player strategises against the colossi, allowing Wander to overcome their defenses and slowly slaughter them in an uncomfortable and drawn-out display. As a result of killing of colossi, Wander becomes less human and the player is left to wonder if he will survive or if Mono will recognize him when she is revived.

Shadow of the Colossu is a powerful and ground-breaking game unlike any other. I cannot recommend it highly enough, and I look forward eagerly to Fumito Ueda’s next work.

Addendum

My recent playing and discussion of Shadow of the Colossus came about as the result of an experimental Game Appreciation Society series of events (play session and discussion meeting). So thanks go to Ben, Rich, and David for their input.

During the second event, Ben brought this fantastic Shadow of the Colossus themed cake which he made with his sister (it’s fantastic!):

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