Shadow of the Colossus: It's a Poem

Shadow of the Colossus: It's a Poem  screenshot
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My life is flashing before me, and I wonder if I will get down from here alive. “Here” being the back of this behemoth of all ancient beasts, this blue whale monster of the air. Like an elephant senses a fly it has become aware of my presence, and it is writhing to shake me lose: I am an inconvenience, a tickle, an insect that it would rather be free of. And so I cling to my life by the hairs of its back, and pray for the strength to hold on. The world spins around me, and I wonder at my power, and my weakness: the fact that I have in my hands the means to end this creature for all time—though it does not know—and the fact that, if it does not stop spinning, my body will be crushed against a desert rock within the space of three seconds. I wonder what has become of Agro. Dear friend; she will miss me.

Such moments as these are not uncommon while playing Shadow of the Colossus, a game released in 2005 by the same people who made Ico. And what I mean when I say this is not that such moments in their factuality are not uncommon—not that you often die, or often fight large creatures—but that such moments of epic poetry are not uncommon. Shadow of the Colossus, more than any game I’ve ever played, brought me close to Tolkien and Beowulf and Sagas of Icelanders: the game is a setting, a feeling, a long waterfall of tumbling verse.

Introduction

Shadow is an action-adventure game not really like any other. The creators decided to do away with little things like people to talk to, towns to mull through, and bad guys to fight. Instead, Fumito Ueda, the game’s director, decided to focus on two things: landscape, and bosses—and less concretely: feeling, and mood. So that’s really all there is to the game: you have to find and fight sixteen bosses on a large, diverse landscape. A bold move from Ueda, and ultimately, perhaps, a stroke of genius.

Story

The thing about Shadow’s story is that it is a blessing and a curse. The curse part is that it is mostly useless to the game (oddly enough, this is also the blessing part—but we’ll get to that in a moment). First off, the localization is the single worst effort I have ever witnessed for any game: the English reads like a drunken toddler trying to write the Bible: “if thee shouldest findeth” is an oft-used phrase.

Apart from the translation issues, the story itself, served in cut scenes (cold, with fries), is little more than a hollow shell around the game. In the game’s opening sequence you venture into a large, uninhabited peninsula called “The Forbidden Land”: you ride a horse, and you are carrying a maiden. You bring the maiden to a temple, and in order that she be revived you make a deal with a deity to kill sixteen behemoths that roam the land. From there until the final cut scene, not much else is given you.

Unlike in Ico, where you quickly form a strong bond to Yorda because of the interaction that you have with her, there is no reason for you to feel particularly attached to your lady friend in Shadow. “You love her enough to fight monsters for her.” Okay then. As it turns out, you do develop strong emotional ties to a character in Shadow, but that character is the one you ride: your horse, Agro.

But Shadow’s weak story is not a bad thing. The reason is that the story is artificial to the game’s defining characteristic: interactivity. Because it is served entirely in cut scenes, and you have no ability to change it, the story could just as well be given to us in a book, or film. Don’t get me wrong: stories are key to the human experience, and a good story, even if externally imposed, is often a very good thing for a game to have (see my recent reviews of Ico or Anchorhead). The issue is that linear stories are not unique to video games, and in and of themselves do nothing to advance or emphasize the special abilities of the medium.

Shadow’s weak story ends up emphasizing the interactive elements that make the game up, and thus ultimately frames the game’s greatness as a game, as an interactive experience. The story which emerges from Shadow of the Colossus is finally defined not by non-interactive external impositions, like cut scenes, but by the game’s interactive world, and the player’s own imagination. In this way, the story that the player interacts with in Shadow is one that mostly they create.

Aesthetic

The aesthetic experience that Team Ico created with Ico is at the top of my list of top aesthetic experiences in video games. In Shadow of the Colossus they may very well have surpassed it. Where in Ico they created an unmatched, minimalistic vision of escaping an old, dark castle, in Shadow of the Colossus they create a vision of being set apart on your horse, riding through an alternately gorgeous and desolate landscape, a lonely hero in search of beautiful things to destroy.

The cover art for the game, which shows Wander and Agro standing before the first colossus, lost like specs in the foreground before its massive size and strength, really captures the feel that the game’s designers are trying to invoke, even down to the stark lighting. One imagines the unspoken thoughts of the giant creature, as it looks down on the tiny pair: “who are you, to stand here before me? I who am as ageless and strong as the earth itself; I who am the earth? “

Bosses have been around for a long time. But not bosses like this, which defy the use of the word to describe them. When I think “boss,” I think of a large and dangerous enemy, but not something awe-inspiring. When I think “boss,” I think of something you defeat to show your skill at button smashing, and to move a story along. By contrast, In Shadow, Team Ico has created creatures so large, so ancient, so powerful, so beautiful… that defeating them makes a story in its own right. To play Shadow of the Colossus is to play Beowulf, writing the poem as you go along.

How is this poetic feel achieved? First, through setting: a vast, unvisited landscape of forests and plains and canyons and cliffs and deserts and geysers and rocks, stunning in their beauty and their loneliness: no people anywhere, only occasional ancient remains of tumbling stone. Such a landscape could serve easily as a backdrop, but because of the length and closeness of your interaction in Shadow of the Colossus, the landscape becomes a character in its own right. Over the course of the game you will spend hours riding across the land on your horse, with nothing to disturb you but the occasional swoop of a hawk, or jump of a deer, or shot from a geyser—Agro’s constant hoof beats your only gauge of time. Because of the beauty and austerity of the environment, I never found these times boring: if you will let yourself be immersed completely you will find that, like in Ico, Shadow’s mood and setting are too hypnotic for the mandatory exploration to be tiresome.

Secondly, the poetic draw of Shadow of the Colossus is created by the interaction you have with the colossi themselves. The colossi are the game, as Ueda intended, and Team Ico spared no expense in rendering them. Some walk the earth, some fly; some launch themselves through the water. All are huge and painted with history: scars and wounds; armor-like parapets of metal and stone; long, tangled mats of hair; deep, penetrating eyes; movement sometimes so slow that you have to wonder just how long they’ve been walking around.

The biggest emotional impact of playing Shadow, for me, was witnessing the death of these ancient things: as the game went into slow motion, and the camera zoomed out to catch the creature in its entirety falling into the earth, I always felt the pang of having just killed off something sacred and unique— something beautiful that the world would never see again. To keep going I told myself that this was necessary for my sleeping, dying love (who I pictured as my wife)—and truth be told, I just couldn’t stop: the game was too hypnotic. Like in David Cronenberg’s movie, eXistenZ, I had become a character with his own will, in a story already written, and it was no use to resist my part—as damning as that part may be.

But before the emotional impact of killing the colossi, there is the art and skill of bringing them down, which is not unlike a dance. When I think back to this game ten years from now I will recall three things: riding the lonely earth with Agro, the heart-stabbing death of the colossi… and the feel of hanging by my fingernails, high up in the air, to some hair on the back or shoulder or fin of one of these creatures as it writhed and jerked and stomped to throw me off. It is here, perhaps, that the technical achievement of this game most shines: the motion blur, the ability to scale living things, the realistic drawing of hairs, the physics engine that adapts in real time to the rearrangement of surfaces and the orientation of gravity. The final effect is exhilarating, to say the least, and at its best it is, like riding Agro across the land, epic poetry in motion.

Shadow of the Colossus won’t keep you engrossed every step of the way, but come to think of it, neither will epic poetry—and I love epic poetry. In Shadow’s case at least, the problem is occasionally the game itself: bits of frustratingly poor design that I address further down the page. But for the other 90% of the game, one wonders if the times one isn’t fully engrossed are more a product of one’s own lack of imagination, one’s inability to immerse oneself, than of something lacking in the game. I think of Lewis and Surprised by Joy: for when do we ever experience a sense of real longing or hope or anguish or joy that lasts more than a moment? More relevant than the fact that these feelings are fleeting while playing Shadow, perhaps, is the fact that when they are invoked they are just as strong and just as real as when I’ve ever felt them.

How many games have made you look for flaws in yourself over against the game you’re playing?

Mechanics

Like in Ico, Shadow’s mechanics are not groundbreaking, but they are utilized in a new way. In the tradition of action adventure gaming, play relies on a combination of dexterity, exploration, and puzzle solving. But the puzzles here have been moved onto the bosses themselves, and everything else stripped away. Each colossi has a series of weak spots that will bring them down, and getting to these spots usually requires a good deal of strategy, as well as quick thinking once you’ve put your plan in motion.

Because the element of dexterity is directly tied into all of this (as the object you must fight and scale is also the object you must “figure out”) there is a subtle integrity to the overall experience that is lacking in other games. Everything comes together at one focal point, which is what makes the game feel so epic: you must find the puzzle, think about solving it, and then actually scale it to try out your plan. Because of this the puzzles feel less like puzzles, and more like mountains to climb, or battles to win—and finding them (the exploration), is a natural precursor.

The problem here is the necessary reliance on dexterity. On the one hand we must have it, because it represents the essential element of difficulty in bringing a behemoth down: skill with the controller takes the place of the skills you do not have with sword, and bow, and climbing things. The colossi are not only (and not even foremost) puzzles: they are holistic challenges that will take trained skill as well as cunning thought.

But the skill required is such that the game sits right on the border of hardcore gamerdom. My wife, whose ability with a controller is just enough to see her through Super Mario Galaxies (almost), or My Sims Kingdom, is unable to experience the joy of playing Shadow of the Colossus, because her thumbs will not keep up. The challenge is needed, but ideally a game like this would incorporate an advanced feedback system that would allow that challenge to adapt to the person playing it.

Frustrations

By now you know, for the most part, what the experience of playing this game was like for me. There were, though, as you might expect, times when things didn’t flow together perfectly, when “epic” wasn’t the first four-letter word that came to mind. For the most part these times were limited, and did not, by any means, define the experience, but they were still there. For example, there were occasional places where the joy of riding across the world turned into frustration with not knowing which way to turn after I’d gone in circles three times in search of a particular colossus.

Or there was the inevitable frustration that the dexterity requirements sometimes invoked; I was fortunate in that my skill was pretty well matched to the tasks at hand, but the first colossus (which is extremely easy to beat once you’ve played through the game) was still a difficult learning curve. I know one friend who is an experienced gamer, who spent an hour trying to overcome this first challenge—not surprisingly, he never finished the game. A learning curve that steep is almost inexcusable.

And finally, there were a couple of colossi that were just annoying enough that instead of feeling my usual sadness when they died, I was downright happy. Two of the worst were the game’s two “fast” colossi (necessarily smaller due to limitations in the rendering engine). If I made a false step these little guys would knock me down, wait for me to get up, and knock me down again… and again. It wasn’t just that a false step led to inevitable death that aggravated me here: it was the inability to even speed up the process: it took several hits before I was finally dead and able to try again.

Conclusion

Shadow of the colossus is without a doubt one of the most atmospheric and memorable games I have ever played. It is the first game that strongly evoked for me the feeling of epic poetry. Its story is mediocre, but if you will let it go, this only forces the game to lean more heavily on its interactive nature, which I think is a good thing. Though it tries to be cinematic in the vein of similar action-adventures, Shadow comes away being something more, feeling somehow more malleable, more personal: more like, “my poem.” There are moments of frustration, and the game relies far too heavily on a good amount of dexterity from its players, but these flaws seem minimal if you have the required skill with a controller, and you take the time to get past the first colossus and into the game.

As with Ico, one of best things about Shadow, in this day and age of too-long games filled with too little substance, is that it is content to stop where it does: the game consists of sixteen colossi, and you can play it through in ten to fifteen hours— just the right amount of time. Every now and then I think back on my days of colossus slaying and I wish they were not over: I wish I could climb onto my horse and go again in search of mythic beasts that weren’t yet found; that I could again rip off my mask and show myself to the world as I am beneath my skin: a killer of beautiful things.

If only all games would leave me so haunted by their worlds.

Further Reading

  • Action Button counts Shadow of the Colossus a key part of their manifesto. Read the typically thoughtful review to see why. I didn’t read this review until after I wrote my own, so you should find it different enough to be interesting.
  • Also, a review by Tim Rogers at Insert Credit. Again, I read this after I wrote my own.
  • For a different view, read an essay by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh arguing that Shadow’s gameplay is fundamentally flawed.
  • The Making of Shadow of the Colossus (PDF). At a seeming 108 pages (it’s actually only 19—the other pages just hold images) and filled with technical details, this article is somewhat daunting at first glance; it is, however, a fascinating read for anyone with more than a passing interest in the game.
  • Finally, for the truly brave there is Jeremy Douglass’ Ph.D. dissertation, where Shadow features prominently.
Know of any relevant "further reading" links not listed here? Please let me know.
Jordan Magnuson' avatar

Jordan Magnuson is the founder and editor in chief of NecessaryGames.com. He recently traveled around the world on a shoestring budget with the goal of making small games about the experience. You can find out more at GameTrekking.com.

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