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.


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).


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.


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.


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!):

I hate change. It never happens fast enough.

I’m often thinking about the future. Mostly about how society will change, and my usual corresponding feeling is that I wish that change didn’t take so long. And then I get mad at those that stand in the way of progress by holding onto the past.

Why are people so afraid of change? Nostalgia? Lack of introspection into what they really care about, what really matters, and the inevitability of change? Fear that a different world might be a worse place for them? The problem (particularly with the last one) is that the world is a pretty crappy place for a lot of people, and you’re stopping them from improving their lives.

My general philosophy around change is composed of two main concepts:

  1. Everything is transient
  2. Why put off the inevitable?

Let’s consider a few issues with the above points in mind:

  • Gay marriage. It’s going to happen eventually, and society will look back at those that fought against it (knowing that they could only delay it) as spiteful bigots. Think about how we consider those people who were against inter-racial marriage because it was “unnatural” and would produce “mongrel” children. Just accept that social mores are changing and get out of the way. You’re embarrassing yourself and others.
  • Physical media. Bookshops will go under. CD/DVD/BluRay stores will go under. Selling stuff on physical media has no long-term future outside of a niche market (like record sales). Don’t lament it, celebrate it. Moreover, get rid of your stuff. When was the last time you used a cookbook rather than just looking up a recipe online?
  • Paying for pollution. Without getting into the merits/shortcomings of any particular pollution pricing policy, it’s completely nuts that wanton pollution of the environment has been a short-cut to economic success for pretty much the entire industrial age. Why is it that we have landfills full of crap, islands of trash in the oceans, and so much carbon in the atmosphere? It’s because it costs next-to-nothing to throw things out, and even less to pollute the air. This is completely unsustainable. Given that it must change eventually, why fight the basic concept?

Aside from issues that are being held up, there’s a lot of impending cultural change that will affect various industry and social sectors. Realistically, those who have grown-up surrounded by Internet technology won’t see the value in a lot of things that those who haven’t (or didn’t embrace it when it came along) hold dear, and this will lead to gradual change in:

  • Ownership. Many older people lived through times of great inflation and would hold onto things “just in case”. Everything you owned was an investment in some way. Conversely, younger people would have seen most things constantly depreciate (particularly technology products that drop in relative performance and real value at an astonishing rate). Why hold onto things or purchase stuff because it’s cheap and you just might need it later on? Wait until the last minute. Only buy what you need right now. Better yet, subscribe or rent so that you always have the latest stuff (more often media than gear). Even better, it’s probably available to stream online.
  • Services. You can save a lot of money by doing things yourself right? Or so it seems. Given the dilemma and burden of ownership, isn’t it better to just get a gardener (rather than buy and maintain a lawnmower and other equipment)? Would someone with no emotional-formative-years connection to CDs really prefer to amass a collection at $20-30 a disc if they can pay $9 a month and stream music to their heart’s content. Services are more convenient and (as the market grows and pricing works itself out) will become an increasingly mainstream preference over product purchases. I wonder what this is going to mean for diy-stuff-you-won’t-ever-use businesses like Bunnings?
  • Drugs. There is a huge market for drugs. People want all sorts of drugs. They just don’t want the negative (personal health or social) side-effects. Alcohol has been the recreational drug of choice for many years, because it’s legal and culturally accepted. However, energy drinks are increasingly popular for people who want to party without being a jerk and ending up with a hangover. People want to be able to choose how they want to feel and what side-effects they are willing to tolerate. Interestingly, I think that wider drug use and legalistion will be driven by the older generation. As they approach old-age, they’re going to want the memory enhancers, libido boosters, energy drinks, and anti-depressants. Before you know it you’ll be buying synthetic mood-enhancers at your local Woolworths, because it’s serving their needs rather than the demands of the younger generation. With modern medical technology and industry regulation, these drugs will be safer and more predictable. Everybody wins.
  • Religion. Does anyone really think that we’re going to allow belief in the supernatural to guide public decision-making in 1000 years time? Really? Even if society hasn’t abandoned religion by then, it would likely be so religiously diverse that the importance of secular governance will be even more self-evident. So why hold up progress? Sanction everyone’s right to believe what they want, but also ensure that people don’t have others’ religious beliefs thrust upon them. Why the hell can’t we buy alcohol on “Good Friday”? Surely that’s an insane restriction with a limited lifespan. We’ll look back on that and think: how did that last so long? Oh that’s right, it was in the olden days.

Hmmm, that’s probably enough ranting for today. I’m trying to write once each week on either Friday or Saturday now, so expect more thoughts next week.