Who doesn’t love a nice stroll down memory lane? TGR does, so we’re bringing you our Super Retroid feature, where our staff members wax nostalgic as they discuss some of the games that have most affected them throughout their gaming careers. From discovery to comradery to emotional impact, each of these games have been uniquely significant and hold a special place in our hearts.
Shadow of the Colossus was a life-changing game for me. This isn’t hyperbole. This is fact. I probably wouldn’t be a games writer if it weren’t for Shadow of the Colossus (or at least it would have taken me much longer to go that route).
You see, it was the first videogame that I ever took seriously as a work of art. I’d been gaming for years prior to playing SotC, but only as a hobby. A guilty pleasure, if you will. I considered myself a writer, and games seemed a bit beneath me. If lucky, they’d have some aesthetic appeal or clever dialogue, but nothing I couldn’t get reading a good book or seeing a great movie. In essence, games were something I’d do, not something I’d think about meaningfully. But SotC changed all that for me. It was the first game that I played that told a compelling story that could only work as a game. Here’s a short excerpt from my blog as to why that is:
"SotC is at once a short story and a massive epic. Its actual plot is very small and vague, but it feels epic because of the scope of the game. You could write a SotC book or make a SotC movie, but it would be extremely boring as there’d be no talking, no other characters, nor any plot developments to speak of for most of the middle 90% of the story. In order to make it at all interesting, you’d have to cut out most of the middle (by scaling it down to only a few colossi perhaps). But if you did that, it would no longer feel like an epic and the ending would lose much of its resonance. Thus, the only way to truly experience this simple, yet epic tale is to play it."
The secret of SotC is in its minimalist design. Everything in it compliments everything else wonderfully. I love games like Zelda where you’ll spend countless hours fighting monsters, collecting items, chatting with NPCs, etc., but while all of that stuff may be fun to do, it offers nothing to the narrative. These elements always feel artificial and tacked-on as a flimsy excuse for a game. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, Fumito Ueda set out to prove that none of those things are necessary.
For example, in most games you talk to people (or you’re silent, but you "pretend" talk to them anyway. And they talk back to you), but this always comes off as feeling false, as there’s always a prescribed set of outcomes. Sooner or later they’ll run out of things to say, so you’ll end up hearing the same line or two repeated over and over as they tell you to go on your merry way. Thus, by trying to be more immersive, this ends up feeling all the more artificial. SotC sidesteps this issue entirely by not having anyone around for you to talk to.
Better yet, is that the wee bit of dialogue that is in the game is spoken in a made up language. A well acted made up language at that. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve played a game with an interesting story, only for it to be almost completely undone by terrible voice acting. By disconnecting the language to anything we can call our own, the game takes on a far more otherworldly vibe than something like Oblivion or Mass Effect where everyone speaks English (or whichever language version of the game you have).
And that’s the gobsmackingly brilliant thing about the game; nothing is ever explicitly spelled out for you. Who you are, who the girl is, what kind of civilization you come from, who this disembodied voice guiding you is, why the land is so barren, how the colossi came about, whether this is a prequel to Ico or not… We get hints as to the answers, but it’s all open to interpretation. For example, I’m still not sure if the colossi are sentient or machines. Both perhaps? It’s these sorts of thoughts that keep me up at night.
But enough pretentious hodgepodge about innovations. It is a game after all and a game is meant to be played. Shadow of the Colossus was a fun game to play, but perhaps not for the reasons I was expecting. Billed as being sort of an action game, I was expecting it to require a greater degree of manual dexterity, but much to my surprise (and eternal delight), those elements are mostly rather elementary. The real challenge comes from the puzzles. Each colossus is a puzzle, and a deceptively simple one at that. You wouldn’t think there’d be much room for puzzles in a game where you only have two weapons for the entirety of the journey and environments are largely non-interactive. But lo and behold, Ueda and company have found a way. No two set pieces play alike and while there’s usually but one simple action you must do to gain access to a colossi’s body, figuring out what that is can really take awhile. And I’m grateful for that. As a puzzle fan, I was pleasantly surprised that SotC not only had more (and better) action than Ico, but tougher puzzles as well.
Of course, the problem with puzzles in a game is that once you know the solution, carrying it out can be easy and redundant (even on hard mode). As such, Shadow of the Colossus will never be quite as much fun as it was the first time through, but it becomes a different kind of fun. It’s fun because you know what’s coming, and you gain a fuller appreciation for the project as a whole. In essence, it’s a game you’ll come back to again and again. Not just to beat your top score (though there is a time attack mode if you feel so inclined), but because you’ll want to relive this tale again and again. There’s not many games I could say that about.
I have to admit that I can be a rather superficial person and so even with all the structural innovations, deep narrative, and disarming puzzles, I can’t say SotC would have left such a lasting impression on me if it weren’t for the truly extraordinary aesthetics. At first glance it may not look that different from Zelda, or World of Warcraft, or any other fantasy title, but the devil is in the details. The landscapes are mostly empty, with only a few scattered ruins and unique landmarks to spice things up. But it’s the little things that make it memorable. Take the sky for example. There’s no day/night cycle, but the oversaturated sunlight effects make it convincing that you’d be riding from a bright, sunlit desert, to a an overcast spring, to a stormy mountain top in the span of a relatively short distance. The exaggerated lighting works wonders as it makes everywhere look like it stretches on into oblivion. Rarely has a game made me feel so small, and that’s not even taking the titular colossi into consideration.
Though the colossi design is universally fantastic as well. Finally a game where you fight giant creatures that don’t seem as if they were made for the sole purpose of killing you. The colossi look and act like real creatures. Sometimes they’ll attack you on sight, but most of them will regard you with bemused curiosity or just not bother you altogether, lest you attack them. The flying colossi in particular are extraordinarily unique as videogame bosses go, as they don’t actually attack you… at all. Calling them a boss fight isn’t even correct, as they’re merely majestic creatures who you are aggressively hunting. You’ll feel awful for slaying them. They’re not all sympathetic though. It’s interesting to note that the two smallest colossi are among the most aggressive (probably to make up for their size). The final colossus doesn’t move, which seems disappointing at first, but it makes sense thematically as it’s sort of the contemplative guardian colossi. It doesn’t seem to know happiness or despair. It just knows how to carry on its role, like that knight at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It wouldn’t be far off to say that the colossi have more personality than most talking NPCs in games.
Really though, Shadow of the Colossus is a story about love. Or obsession. I’m not really sure. But it’s about one man against the world in his unstoppable determination to resurrect the one he loves. He (and by extension the player) are told right off the bat that there will be consequences for your actions. But he doesn’t care. In most games, all the hero is risking is his own life. But let’s face it, a hero’s life in a videogame means little as you can resurrect them simply by hitting the continue button. The fact that his quest is "dangerous" is hardly an obstacle. The idea that he may be doing some kind of harm is. This is a character with one thing and one thing only on his mind. The rest of the world can burn, for all he cares.
Which is not to say that he’s a bad guy. In fact, there are arguably no bad guys in the game. The ending is ambiguous. Whether Wander is a hero or villain (or both?) is beside the point. His love for the girl is pure. So pure that it causes him to make some questionable ethical choices. Few games are so idealistic about love, yet still consciously aware of its potential repercussions. It’s idealistic, but not naive.
You could argue that the game is misogynistic; yet another in a long line of games adhering to the adolescent male fantasy of a man attempting to rescue a woman. But I would argue that it’s much deeper than that. The girl doesn’t need rescuing. She’s dead. Not in trouble. There’s a difference. Without getting theological, I think it’s safe to say that she’s either content with where she is, or too dead to care. The point is, she doesn’t need Wander. Wander needs her. He cannot bear the idea of a world without her. This is a story about a man needing a woman, not the other way around.
Shadow of the Colossus is really in a league of its own. In the three years since its release, I’ve only played a handful of games that could even come close to attaining its level of depth. Word from Sony is that Fumito Ueda will be unveiling his latest game sometime by the end of the year. Excited though I may be, it goes without saying that he’s going to have a lot (thank me for not saying "colossal expectations") to live up to. I’d tell him to take his time. Shadow of the Colossus has not strayed far from my thoughts over the past three years and I don’t see that changing any time soon.