Videogame Literary Classics 101: Shadow of the Colossus

This article was written as part of community collaboration that is the brainchild of of Angie over at Backlog Crusader, The idea is that the gaming blog community each submit a treatise that focuses on a chosen game, that we the writer of our respective blogs, believe would stand up as a Classic that students should/could study in a videogame equivalent of a student studying English Literature or attending Film School. For my submission I have chosen the Team ICO/Sony Computer Entertainment of Japan game Shadow of the Colossus, the second game from director Fumito Ueda was originally released in 2005 on Sony’s PlayStation 2 but has also been re-released on PlayStation 3 alongside ICO in a HD collection and also on PlayStation 4 via a HD Remaster by Bluepoint Games.


 

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Shadow of the Colossus is the story of Wander, a boy who is in love with a girl called Mono. As the game begins he is entering the Forbidden Lands on the back of his horse Agro, his love is lying prone across the horse, presumed dead. After working his way towards and across a huge bridge, he enters a building and descends down its spiralled entrance, entering a large room at its base he places Mono’s body upon an altar and pleads to the Gods to return life to her. His pleas are answered by a disembodied voice, Dormin, who instructs him to hunt and defeat the 16 Colossi that inhabit these lands, and only once he has achieved this task and paid the price, will life be returned to the girl he loves. With those instructions, Wander climbs back onto Agro and heads off in search of the first Colossus.

Immediately Wander, whom the player controls throughout Shadow of the Colossus, becomes the “hero” in what on the surface is a game that relies heavily on the “Damsel in Distress” trope. The task at hand feels like alot of videogames out there, hero has to save the girl, however, as we soon begin to learn, Shadow of the Colossus’ hero has to sacrifice alot in order for his wishes to be fulfilled.

So, as Wander leaves the alter, climbs aboard Agro and trots along, the player is greeted by an open, but rather barren world. There’s no mini-map, although there is a map in the options, it does very little to actually help the player until they discover landmarks for themselves, and the only way to learn where to go is to make Wander lift his sword to the sun and listen to the high pitched humming noise, moving the pointer that appears on screen and waiting for a change in pitch and for the controller to vibrate and give the player a vague idea of the direction they need to go in. There’s no hand holding here, its literally the player and the environment that Ueda and his team have provided. You’re left with no idea of how far to travel nor of the obstacles that lay in your path.

We’ve not even gotten to the first Colossi yet and its apparent that Ueda is playing with the idea of what an open world game could be. By this point in the PlayStation 2’s lifespan (which, I should add, is nearing its end, in fact the XBox 360 would be released a month later) and have seen three large inhabited environments in the form of Rockstars Grand Theft Auto games. We just have the player character, one building and off in the far distance is a cliff wall, that once reached, Wander has to disembark from Agro and climb to find the first Colossi.


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The biggest criticism that gets aimed at Shadow of the Colossus is that its “just a series of boss fights” with little in between, and whilst its difficult to disagree with this simplification of the events the player is put through, its also ignoring that its the entire point. Each Colossi is, in effect, its own level, that tasks the player with using a different skill each time. The core concept is still to climb the Colossi and find its weak spot in order to take it down, but its the journey the player goes on from their first encounter with each of these enormous beasts to discovering just how they can mount them in the first place. The first Colossi doesn’t attack Wander, and there are a few that don’t attack until Wander does so first, as an introduction to the concept of the game this creature is essentially a level from a platform game, as you jump and grapple your way from leg to leg, up his back to the glowing point on his head. He’ll try to shake you off, at which point you’ll be desperately monitoring that grip meter, but thats pretty much the entirety of the battle. Other Colossi require you to launch Wander from Agro’s back, coax the beast into diving at you from the skies, use your bow and arrow to rupture sacks of gas on its body and so on. Overall, each one is a wonderful piece of design, both aesthetically and as an almost believable creature in themselves, and the player is encouraged to mourn their deaths rather than celebrate as you would do so in any other game. There’s no Final Fantasy style victory fanfare, the music as the creatures fall is somber, then black tentacle like things spread from them and are absorbed by Wander’s body, visibly corrupting him as his kill count gets closer to target set him by Dormin.

As you get further and further into Shadow of the Colossus the player begins to question the motive and actions of Dormin and Wander, as the latter becomes more visibly corrupted, each Colossul battle becomes all the more challenging, not just from a gameplay perspective but from a moral one too. Wander’s grief is what drives him in, his need to revive Mono conquers all and his sacrifice becomes more than just the beasts he is slaying.  At one point Agro sacrifices himself in order to help Wander reach the sixteenth and final colossus in what is an incredibly moving moment within the game. Ueda, through the games visuals, story and music, tries to build a feeling of grief for the creatures as the human character lays waste to all before him for his selfish goal, manipulated by an unknown force who has been quarantined inside of the Colossi. They need Wander in order to be freed from the seal that has been placed upon them. Wander is ultimately overcome by this corruption and Dormin takes over his body to fight off men who have arrived to try and prevent the ritual being completed but is again sealed away, leaving only a baby boy behind in Wanders wake, Mono is revived, Agro didn’t pay the ultimate sacrifice after all, and the pair take the horned baby to the Secret Garden atop the monument that housed the altar Mono had been layed upon.


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Because of Ueda’s minimal approach to the games design and story telling, Shadow of the Colossus is one of those games thats absolutely always dragged into the “are videogames art? debate, which I suppose this article is another attempt at opening that debate. As far as videogames go, its definitely a standout piece of work. But does it work as a piece of Literary Art? Let’s take this definition from the School of Arts Singapore website

Literary Arts is the integrative discipline of ideation, literary appreciation and multi-modal creative writing.

My interpretation of the above is that Literary Art is using creative writing, of a variety of disciplines to portray a central idea. That the artist, or in this case director, has a core message to portray to the person experiencing their work that the construct of that work is then built around.

So, what is Shadow of the Colossus’ theme? For me, there are a variety at work here, from the breakdown of the events of the game above, we already know that Wander is driven by his love for Mono and grief at her dying. If it weren’t for those very human and often very selfish emotions, Dormin wouldn’t be able to manipulate Wander to commit the atrocities that Dormin being freed (albeit for a short period of time) and Wander to be corrupted. It also feels like there is a message there about Mans effect on nature, we are driven by our base desires and anything that stands in our way is chewed up and spat out. It’s very cliche, but for a medium that is still arguably in its infancy and for a game that is very nearly 15 years old, its a concept thats handled maturely by its creator. There’s no heavy handed dialogue, in fact there’s very little dialogue to speak of, instead Ueda and his team use the multimedia nature of videogames to tell their story and portray their ideas and encourage the player to actually feel, at the very least, some sympathy for the elegant towering creatures that they are tasked with destroying.

That the game doesn’t bog the player down with videogame trappings such as waypoints and side quests, and even keeps the on-screen information available to player very minimal enables the player to become genuinely enveloped within this world, instead key pieces of music are used very carefully. The lack of ambient music at times, leaves the player with the natural (so to speak) noises of that environment.

Personally, I’m inclined not to compare videogames to other pieces of art or literature, purely because they should stand on their own as a medium, and I think Shadow of the Colossus is an excellent example of what can be achieved by a videogame as whilst there are cut-scenes, they’re almost kept to a minimum, whilst there is a story Ueda doesn’t try to tell too much of it

“For me, it’s not important to tell the details of the story,” he answered. “In Japan, there is a poet expression called a haiku [where] you don’t explain some things in detail and let the receivers understand or use their imagination with what is presented.

“That lets the receivers make their own story from their imagination, and I think this is also a good style of expression for video games – at this moment. In the future, someone may discover there’s another way to do narrative and tell stories through gaming, but at this moment I think this is a great way to tell stories.” – Fumito Ueda

This strikes me as being the words of an artist who is truly comfortable with his chosen medium, and whilst its easy to argue that Shadow of the Colossus barren lands and lack of distractions are ultimately a symptom of the limitations of the PlayStation 2 hardware (which even struggles with what is in the game at times), its also hard to see how the experience could be improved by including anything more. The appearances of the Colossi remain with the player because of how they fit within the world. We join in with a hobby where every release has to give you more than the last game you bought, Ueda circumvented this, through necessity as much as anything else, by giving you enough. Further releases that have appeared since its original PlayStation 2 outing have seen the inclusion of Trophies and a special sword, all of which encourage the player to explore the landscape more, which I feel kind of misses the point a little. By this I mean that Shadow of the Colossus did away with those trappings, yes there were the lizards and apples that you could collect which improved Wanders health and stamina but they were a totally optional extra that weren’t tracked until the player had already completed the game, its an unnecessary distraction that offers the player very little fanfare. The goal isnt to collect a whole load of stuff, the goal is to reflect on what Shadow of the Colossus is trying to discuss and that is, in my opinion, why nearly twenty years later gamers should be giving Ueda’s masterpiece a proper go.

 


 

 

 

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3 thoughts to “Videogame Literary Classics 101: Shadow of the Colossus”

  1. What a classic! I’m surprised you are the first to choose it for the collab. The gaming medium fits Ueda’s writing like a glove for sure. I wonder how many times Shadow of the Colossus will be remastered or even remade in the coming years. SotC has probably the strongest environmental storytelling of any game to date and I loved how it left interpretation up the to player with the minimalist style that you mentioned. Lovely game!

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