PhD Candidate in Japan, researching Narrative in Games. Responds favorably to Thrash Metal, Karaoke, and Dungeons & Dragons.
Reflections on Shadow of the Colossus (PS2; Team ICO, 2005), Pt. 1
July 22, 2015
As many of you may already know, Shadow of the Colossus is a delicate and very unique video game. The Player Character is a boy/young man named Wander. He has travelled to a forbidden land via his trusty horse Argo, and he bears the body of a woman who is apparently dead. When he reaches the temple at the heart of the Forbidden Land, he makes a deal with the spirit Dormin. If Wander slays the 16 colossi of the Forbidden Land, Dormin may revive the dead young woman. With the contract now set, Wander and Argo set off in search of the colossi.
There are no other enemies in this game, simply the 16 colossi, so one could think of this game as a series of boss fights. Each of the Colossi constitute a puzzle of sorts, as Wander must figure out how to scale each Colossus in order to reach its weakpoint and stab it with a sacred sword. This is the only way to slay each Colossus.
With only 16 Colossi in the entire game, it seems like a rather light, short game, but this is offset by the majestic and vast scale of the Forbidden Land in which each Colossus is hidden. The Forbidden Land is perhaps one of the largest digital landscapes in the PS2-era, and there have been many a times where players have been utterly confounded by the inability to find a Colossus in such a wide and desolate place. Thankfully, the sword also functions as a magical light compass which points the way to the next colossus, but as it is only a line-of-sight pointer, it can become easy to run headlong into a mountainside or straight off a cliff if one is not mindful of the environment. Searching out each colossus also constitutes a kind of puzzle.
The gameplay of Shadow of the Colossus progresses in this fashion, oscillating between phases of searching out Colossi and defeating them. Despite how simple that sounds, Shadow of the Colossus uses this gameplay construction to provide a deceivingly full experience to the player in a very ironic way.
Throughout the Colossi Search/Kill oscillation phases, there is a bare-minimum of dialog or speaking. Wander can summon Argo to him by calling out to him. When lost, Dormin gives the player hints in the form of cryptic riddles. As if to further highlight the nigh-complete isolation of the Forbidden Land, travelling to many colossi often takes a relatively long time, during which all the player can do is simply take in the view. In this game, during the Colossus-searching phase, you are quite literally alone with only the thoughts and ponderings you brought with you into the game. The quietude of the game at these times actually serves as an impetus for introspection for the player, and I believe that it is these meditative spaces which allow the player the space to reflect upon their actions and role within the fictional world. Put simply, it allows the player the time and opportunity to ask themselves if what they are doing is right.
And this is, I believe, a very intentional function of this design, as what began as a generally noble quest vested in the traditional trappings of the save-the-princess trope soon begins to sour into something much more latently dark and sinister.
In truth, Wander has entered a land that has been forbidden and is, by virtue of his presence and actions, undoing something sacred. There are clues to this foreboding sense littered around the landscape of the Forbidden Land: ruins of an ancient and grand civilization, the complete absence of all animal life save for small lizards and a few large predatory birds, and the presence of the god-thing Dormin, among others. More telling, I find, are the questions that the player must have--Why is this land so strictly forbidden? Who or what is Dormin? Why do the Colossi exist? The latter concern is perhaps the most disturbing consideration when it comes to revealing the darkness that exists as a miasma around Wander’s quest.
Every Colossus battle is literally a wonder, each worthy of its own epic poem. They are all wonderful examples of how gameplay, graphics, and music work in concert to create an epic experience. You’ll always remember your first fight and victory over the very first of the Colossi. Victory is elating. However, even from the very start, victory over a colossus is always immediately accompanied by a dirge that is both relieving and melancholy in equal measure, and as the carcass of the slain colossus begins to lose color, ghostly tendrils spew out of the colossus, seek out Wander, and pierce and invade his chest. After this occurs, Wander summarily passes out and wakes once again in the central temple.
After the 3rd or 4th colossus, the “victory” song begins to sound more tragic than relieving. You may begin to notice that most of these colossi are completely passive, choosing in most cases to ignore Wander until Wander begins attacking the Colossus itself. There is no explanation as to what is happening with the ghostly tendrils, but you know that by the jarring violence of the way the tendrils pierce Wander’s chest and by the way he faints from the shock that it is no benign phenomenon. As you become more proficient at slaying Colossi and you absorb more and more tendrils, you may begin to notice that Wander’s face begins to look more and more diseased. It is at this point that a question may coalesce from the experience, announcing itself like a cold steel stab in the heart.
Am I doing the right thing?
This was the quandary that resonated within my mind whilst traveling the empty expanses on my way to commit yet another Colossus to the Earth. The lack of an answer to that base question amplified its resonance, and now the very echo of it disturbed my soul.
Am I doing the right thing?
I’m trying to save this woman whom I, as a player, know nothing about.
In order to do that, I am trying to (and becoming increasingly efficient at) murdering these gentle, passive beasts. I pass a majestic waterfall as I continue to follow the beam of light on my sacred sword.
Am I doing the right thing?
Wander himself, as a character, is completely mute on the subject. We do not know if he is also having this internal struggle. The only thing that is real is that YOU the player may be having that struggle. This is perhaps one of the most important aspects of this game. To be honest, I am a bit reluctant to even call it a “game” anymore because I feel like the word doesn’t do justice to the myriad experiences that is the Shadow of the Colossus.
Shadow of the Colossus is a thoughtful epic, the magic of which seems to be vividly real in the moments that the game is being played. At all other times, the magic of this game feels like a good, meaningful dream--the further away in time you get from the actual dream, the less of it you can articulate properly. However, also like a dream, the feeling remains even though the concrete details may escape you. As a researcher dealing with narrative in games, this game is a bit of a personal Holy Grail for me--I know the scope and difficulty of the quest, but feel proportionally honor-bound to see it through to a successful end.
There’s so much more to examine in Shadow of the Colossus, but this is where I’ll leave it for today.