A Tribute to "Shadow of the Colossus"
It wasn't Mario or Sonic or any of the classics that got me serious about gaming.
No, it was particularly two titles in the past decade for PlayStation 2 that made me realize that video games are as legit and weighty as any other medium of expression.
Sure, the percentage of games that hold up as "art" or have the ability to change someone, their outlook on things or how they question or view the world are few and far between, given that the market is flooded with FPS after FPS in the vein of Call of Duty and its legion of ripoffs.
But in particular, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, to this day, stand up to the test of time.
They are two examples that make me proud to be a gamer.
They are two of the many games that confirm my views on why the PS2 is my all-time favorite system. I mean hell, the console holds 5 of the 7 favorite games I can think of:
-Resident Evil 4 (originally released on GameCube)
-Final Fantasy X
-Shadow of the Colossus
As you can tell, I'm huge on Japanese games, and with good reason. With the exception of a few games and companies like BioWare and Valve, Western game companies often follow the mantra, "Shoot first, ask questions later."
In regards to the games listed above, all of which have come within only the last generation of consoles, I will of course, always hold SNES games like Tetris Attack and Super Mario World dear to my heart, or Sonic the Hedgehog 2 or Mortal Kombat II for the Genesis. But there's a difference between fun factor and nostalgia to the likes of games that impacted me long after I set down my controller.
In honor of the recent release of the Ico/Shadow of the Colossus HD re-release on PlayStation 3, I've decided to reexplore my love for Shadow of the Colossus in particular.
When I played SotC for the first time, I was immediately struck by its beauty. The far reaching landscapes, the desolate ruins, the sparse scenery. The light rays that shined through the temple.
It all built up to an otherworldly atmosphere that left me in awe and wonder.
It's funny because Fumito Ueda, creator of both Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, really knew how to work the system's limitations into his favor.
Coming out of the gate the earliest, the PS2 was by far the weakest in terms of power of the three consoles (fellow rivals, Xbox and GameCube) of last generation.
So Ueda couldn't afford to build a world dense in details that he probably wanted to employ to immerse the player in terms of realism.
Thus, he went the opposite route.
Let's make a sparse and desolate world. Not sparse in terms of laziness and inattention to detail.
No, it was quite the opposite.
Ueda and his team took to apply the use of space in their games, to strategically place vegetation, building structures, ruins, and a camera perspective that would not only keep the player immersed in the world, but to engender feelings of loneliness, even a sense of helplessness, to a protagonist that is no super hero by any means - but is nevertheless on a journey to save the woman he loves.
But the enemy and the tasks necessary for him to accomplish this aren't so clear cut - he is to slay giant, mythical beasts known as Colossi in order to fulfill the temple spirits' wishes, but at the same time, he doesn't know the purpose or reasons as to why these Colossi are to be killed. What is the end goal of all of this?
The protagonist is so desperate to find a way to save the woman that he has no other choice.
The game opens up with shots of him riding his horse through far off regions. The intro then ends with him traversing a bridge that stretches far into the distance, as if never-ending, but ultimately leading to the temple.
I've actually traversed this entire bridge in the game and you can bet, it's long as fuck. I can't remember exactly but it literally took me 10 or more minutes to ride across the damn thing on my horse.
But these design choices were made on purpose.
The entire game's design was made for certain purposes.
When I traversed these long stretches of scenery and the world, uninterrupted, I felt a greater sense of wonder and amazement; at the same time, I started questioning myself and the protagonist's journey. I was in doubt of myself. Would I be able to conquer the next Colossus? Would killing another one bring me that much closer to saving the woman? Where would the next task take me?
The fact that there are absolutely no lesser enemies or minions to deal with in between each Colossus battle only elevates the gravitas of each struggle's outcome.
Or the fact that there are no towns or dungeons to explore, absolutely no other characters to interact with.
To say that the game is just a series of 16 boss battles would do it a great disservice.
Every Colossus battle is unique in itself. Each holds its own personality, and some are completely harmless and docile. Which only comes back to reinforce the question of the morality of killing them.
They simply aren't the black-and-white painted enemies of other games or stories. They aren't belligerent, imbecilic creatures out to hinder or try to murder you out of orders from a greater evil entity. This isn't a simple rescue-the-princess tale like The Legend of Zelda or Super Mario.
The Colossi mainly fight to defend themselves and their territory. Your invasion and encroachment of this is what brings out their animalistic qualities. I could feel the weight of the very first arrow that I would fire to provoke them to battle.
My character, the very person I was playing, was the insinuator. I felt like a hunter of sorts, killing not out of necessity for my survival, but for the sake of my selfish goals and means.
After the defeat of each Colossus, a scene plays where it collapses to the ground, turning into a black, murky presence that gets absorbed into the surrounding environment. The scenes serve the dual purpose in my mind to both add guilt to the player in what they've done, and to instill a sense that the Colossi are part of the natural world around them. They're simply returning back to Mother Earth.
But they no longer hold the purity and essence that they once did alive. The black spirit that is leftover is very much like the events that transpired in Princess Mononoke and the death of the Forest Spirit. You are a destroyer of nature, a selfish human being disrupting the order and beauty of the world.
Before I move on further about the game's presentation and other elements, on the note of the actual gameplay of the Colossus battles, at their very core is the quintessential mechanic used in almost all games - find a way to defeat the enemy.
To avoid confusion and add a common gameplay goal and familiarity to the fights, the sum of your actions is to basically find the Colossus's weak points and stab it into oblivion. These weak points are often cleverly concealed and hidden somewhere on the Colossus's body, or are simply in plain sight but are difficult as fuck to get to, such as the head.
And in thinking about it, stabbing a Colossus's head multiple times just makes killing them even more brutal and everlasting.
The very animations in the game reinforce this. When stabbing the head for the final blow that will take down the Colossus, the camera zooms in on your character as he reels back with his sword. He then plunges it in with all of his might in a sickening, yet gratifying manner. It's interesting to feel equal amounts accomplishment in finally defeating a single enemy you've been working at for a good half hour, and also a sort of disgust at what you've done.
As a gamer, it's rare to ever feel any emotion or remorse to the hordes and hordes of enemies you hack to pieces.
In Shadow of the Colossus, you will feel and remember each battle and death.
What makes each battle memorable, is that traversing each Colossus to find their weak points are levels and puzzles in themselves. The Colossi are so large and awe-inspiring that you're initially taken aback and approach them with hesitation and a great "WHAT THE FUCK, HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO DEFEAT THAT 50-STORY MONSTROSITY WITH MY PUNY ASS ARROWS AND SWORD?"
With every pounding step of the Colossus, the ground shakes. If you stand close enough to one, your character actually stumbles and falls over. There's an attention to detail about the character animations in the game that is so sorely overlooked in other games.
You can feel the frailty of the protagonist. His jumps employ every bit of energy in his lanky arms and legs that he can muster, and he stumbles imperfectly upon landing. It looks pretty sad/puny to the likes of the robotic, horrendously unrealistic ups that send your character skyward in other games. Whenever he grips a ledge or holds onto his dear life on a Colossus, he swings and rocks violently back and forth; you feel a greater sense of danger when the animation gives the appearance that he could fall to his death at any second.
Throughout the course of the entire game, you never actually progress in a new skill set or gain any sort of new ability. You simply never feel a sense of confidence or overwhelming empowerment to safely say that you can easily overpower the next Colossus. You always feel vulnerable, as each can simply dispatch you in 1-3 hits.
All that you have in the face of your physical deficiencies are your wits, unlimited arrows, and trusty steed, Agro.
Slowly, with great observation and inquisition, you notice the movements and patterns of each Colossus. This once again, isn't a kill-first-ask-questions later game. Often the best strategy to figure them out is to simply stop. And stare. (Not the OneRepublic song.)
And when you do manage to man up and have the balls to tackle them, climbing onto their bodies and moving to the areas/spots you want present themselves to be more like fully-designed levels. The armor that they wear are in the shape of platforms and ledges, and the brilliance of the game lies in the fact that rather than being a simple, static platformer of sorts, these levels are more dynamic. They move just as the Colossus moves, which presents as a challenge/factor to consider. Toss in elements like some of them having the ability to fly, or shoot electricity, or go underwater, or smash you with a giant sword, and you've got the makings of some of the most memorable boss battles, or in my eyes, the most memorable collection/set, in the history of games.
All of these qualities combined are what makes the game so enduring in my mind. The sense of achievement as a gamer is heightened when it is derived from your patience in the face of seemingly impossible odds.
On a final note, I want to briefly mention the narrative structure of the game, and how effective I found it to be. The game only briefly dispatches a few cutscenes throughout its entirety, typically to showcase a new land or portion of the world that you've discovered. The story's mystery and open-ended nature as a result is maintained. To many, this might seem like a cop out and can annoy those looking to be spoon fed abundant details of the world and backstory. The story all seems a bit too light/lacking when all you know is that you have to kill these Colossi to save a woman. But the purposeful slow pace and lack of clarity puts you in a position where you never see an overlying picture of the events transpiring/transpired. In that regard, you never feel removed from the journey - you feel as lost and in doubt and ever so determined as the protagonist.
The tiny snippets of dialogue and cinematics after each Colossus's death are just enough to maintain this mystery but also propel you forward to the next battle. It's a crazy addictive and rewarding mechanic. You're constantly left to try to figure out what's going on, to imagine and build a history around the lands you spend so much time traversing.
This subjective participation to the story's unraveling makes it that much more involving.
The ending, which I won't spoil, is also spectacular - it's a twist of sorts that gives you chills; this whole time you're killing these beasts and there's that uncertainty, that feeling of dread and guilt as to why you're really killing them, that the purpose of the quest is tainted in some way.
It looms in your mind throughout the game's running 10-12 hour experience. And thus, it fully manifests and comes to light all at the end.
I have yet to even discuss the game's excellent, haunting, ethereal-like score by Koh Ohtani. Listen to either "Prologue - To The Ancient Land" or "Epilogue - Those Who Remain" and tell me that these songs did not have any impact on you as you were playing the game. I dare you.
Okay maybe they didn't have any effect on you, but I'd deduce that said person is just a cold-hearted frozen ice queen then.
The game is a lesson on less is more. Show don't tell. Give the player control of not just the game's mechanics, but control over how he/she views the world and the journey and the story that they are undertaking.
It may seem manipulative to set things up this way, but every good affecting piece, whether in cinema or literature, employs atmosphere, subtle details, and a myriad of devices to engender a desired response out of the audience.
And the response I got out of Shadow of the Colossus was a sense of wonder, inspiration, inquisition, contemplation, doubt, and ultimately, one of the greatest gaming experiences of my life.