Myles Berrin ’18 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Shadow of the Colossus is a 2005 Sony Exclusive title developed by the visionary Team ICO, who’d previously only worked on one other game, appropriately titled ICO. Shadow of the Colossus, which turned 10 years old on October 18th, 2015, is perhaps one of the first mainstream examples of video games as an art form. Long before Indie developers were finding new ways to tell stories through the interactive medium, Team ICO were focused on creating objective-based games that were just as heavily grounded in gameplay as they were in emotion and player reactivity. Currently, the team is working on their third game in the ICO mythos, the Playstation 4 title The Last Guardian, which is taking its sweet time hitting store shelves — after originally being showed off in 2009 for the Playstation 3. So, while we wait for their next epic storytelling adventure, it’s appropriate to look back on just what made Shadow of the Colossus into the legend it is today.
Shadow of the Colossus is a pretty hard game to describe. It’s something of an adventure game, but with an environment that is empty, lifeless and cold. It’s something of an action game, but with very few action moments, save for 16 colossal bosses standing in the way of your end goal. It’s sort of a storytelling experience, though the game is relatively lacking in cut scenes and dialogue, save for the beginning, interludes between bosses — which act more as exposition — and the heart-wrenching finale. So… what is Shadow of the Colossus?
To put it simply, Shadow of the Colossus is a game about games. It tells the story of a person who wishes to achieve a goal, and to do so, must overcome 16 grand obstacles that stand in their way. The hero, Wander, hopes to bring a woman, Mono, back to life; and to do so he must defeat the 16 Colossi that wander the Forbidden Land. His only tools are his Magic Sword, a bow and arrow, his trusty steed Agro, and Dormin, the mysterious voice who gives him this quest, which may or may not have plans of its own for Wander. In this way, Wander represents us, the player. While Wander may have characterization of his own — being implied to be headstrong and a bit of an outcast — he is ultimately a blank slate who represents the player through a mutual goal: overcoming the Colossi. Mono is our motivation, which, despite having no personal stake3, the player is compelled to save. And Dormin, one could argue, is the developer, or perhaps even simply the game itself, who leads the player in the direction they must go to succeed by giving them agency and control, but is ultimately in control of everything.
But the key to the game’s meaning and story are in the 16 Colossi Wander must defeat to advance. Each Colossus is equally strange in appearance, totally foreign in design, and totally unique in combat. Some are carefree and passive, like the first, fifth, seventh, and thirteenth Colossus. Others are aggressive and violent, like the third, tenth, fifteenth, and Final Colossus. Yet each one shares one common trait: they almost never strike first. At the start of each battle, the player often must provoke the beast, either by entering its home or firing arrows at it. The Colossi ask us, as players, to challenge the notion of acting toward goals for the sake of play. The Colossi are seen peacefully existing in lands, untouched by human hands, and we, the player, are the only thing stopping them from an eternity of peace. By disposing of them, we are acting toward the goal of saving Mono, and yet we have no good reason to trust Dormin, or expect our methods to work. We just know that, as long as there is an objective, we need to complete it, regardless of how cruel, unusual or nonsensical it really is when you take a step back and look at the whole picture.
Oh, and don’t expect the game to let you forget that your actions aren’t entirely wholesome. Wander, and by extension, the player, are asked to suffer for their deeds. At the end of each fight with the Colossus, we are treated to a scene of the majestic beasts toppling over in a heap, crying in anguish as they breathe their last. The player’s reward for their actions is some of the most somber and depressing “victory music” ever put in a video game, and a cut scene of some sort of Shadow Magic entering our protagonist’s body, as though they are stabbing right through him. Wander grunts in pain as he falls to the floor, and all goes dark, save a strange light and Mono calling out to the player. Through all of the mixed emotions and potential pain the protagonist, and the player, may feel for their actions, the game reminds them that they’re doing this all for a reason.
That is perhaps what makes Shadow of the Colossus one of the more effective meta-narratives in video games. It is cruel in its themes and execution, but it doesn’t mercilessly assault the player for their actions, allowing the game to still feel fun and empowering. The music while actually fighting the Colossi is blaring and triumphant, and the feeling of actually climbing on and stabbing the beasts is enough to get any gamer’s blood pumping. The game’s overworld is lifeless and empty, allowing players to make their own stories and be left to their thoughts as they traverse the land, heading toward their next destination. And even within the narrative, the game leaves enough room for interpretation that perhaps the player’s actions aren’t so evil and cruel, like making Wander into something of a sympathetic figure through his interactions with other characters at the end of the game.
Shadow of the Colossus balances making the player feel as cruel as they should for their actions, with feeling empowered and entertained. Perhaps this is best illustrated in the games final boss, the 16th Colossus, Malus. We can’t talk about this final sequence without spoiling the Shadow of the Colossus, but hopefully here on the 10th anniversary you can forgive us for exploring a truly pivotal moment in the iconic game. If you haven’t played the game, however, and want to avoid spoilers; stop now!
There are spoilers ahead!
To get to Malus, Wander is forced to make the ultimate sacrifice, losing his trusty steed Agro to a collapsing stone bridge. Then, the player is forced to press onward, climbing a tall and exhausting cliff side to reach a stone golem trapped within an iron maiden; Malus. To get to him, you must navigate a series of tunnels while he shoots you with magic blasts that can kill you in a matter of hits. The whole time, rain and winds buffet Wander, and his movements are more sluggish and turgid then usual. He is exhausted, and weak. When you finally make it to the creature, you begin to climb him as usual, but each slight movement the creature makes causes you to shake and stumble. You feel so weak, and so powerless as he effortlessly knocks you to the floor with each movement.
But when you finally get up to his back, the tables turn. You stab at him, forcing him to move his hand down to you. You leap onto it, and begin to climb up onto his neck. Finally, you make it to the top, and you prepare to strike. He shakes furiously, desperately, as you cling to him through the wind and rain. But when you finally get a chance to strike, you strike with no mercy, almost digging your blade deeper into him than any other Colossus before him.
This battle perfectly encapsulates everything Shadow of the Colossus is. A game where you are asked to question your actions, by being run through a gauntlet of emotional turmoil, all the while still having the absolute time of your life. It’s a game that only asks you to think about your actions, rather than forcing you to, and it asks this of you by creating a fun, memorable game where you are absolutely willing to slay the 16 giants. After all, you’re infinitely more likely to reflect on your choices when you feel like you made them, and not like you were forced to. So, why play Shadow of the Colossus? With its minimalistic story, nihilistic themes and downright cruel attitude toward the nature of player-driven agency?
Because Shadow of the Colossus stands tall where many other games of its ilk fail, by creating an experience so varied and deep that any kind of player gets at least something out of the game. Shadow of the Colossus is emotional. Shadow of the Colossus is powerful. But above all, Shadow of the Colossus is fun.