I’ve recently finished Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. I hadn’t when they were initially released; you might be thinking, ‘this was a huge oversight!’ and indeed, you’d be right. So I finally made time for them and played through their HD versions, on PS3. And now I’d like to talk about one very specific aspect of SotC that I found particularly interesting.
First of all though, let me just say: man, this game aged poorly. I mean, I assume it did, since this is the first time I’ve played it; but considering the love it got and the nostalgia it continues to induce, the logical conclusion for me is that I’m missing some context. That it was such a technological feat for its time must be a big part of it, and I can’t possibly feel what one must have felt when witnessing those very big structural beings come to life back in 2005. (It’s interesting to ponder the importance of technology in the emotional impact that cultural items can have, but this is a discussion for another time.) Today, the colossi certainly retain their majesty, but their existence, their motion, never left me dumbfounded or incredulous. Running and jumping atop gigantic beasts has become kinda commonplace in games.
Now you must be thinking, ‘this guy is incredibly jaded’ and, well, no (maybe); the thing is, Shadow of the Colossus frustrated me in many ways, and I want to talk about them, but it’s hard to criticise something that you know is beautiful, that you respect, even though like I said I did find the experience miserable at times. And I also don’t want to sound like I’m negating the love that so many people have for it. I feel a bit like I’m thrusting a sword that I have no right to yield into the heart of a magnificent creature.
Obviously, there’s the way the game controls. I’ve fallen off colossi and cliffs countless times, I’ve jumped ridiculously around Agro enough that managing to mount her in less than three tries was borderline miraculous; I’ve run into walls, struggled with the camera, cursed the cross-hair’s erratic behaviour when using the bow at least once in every single session. And I’m the kind of person who’ll argue that these are superficial issues that ought to be ignored in the face of a game’s more fundamental ‘intent’, but the sum of these minor hurdles defined my experience. I loved the music, I loved the vistas, I absolutely loved the mise-en-scène in some of the encounters – when I managed to somehow ignore all of the things that apparently schemed against my enjoyment in such petty, prosaic ways. When I stopped playing, one could say (if you consider that manipulating a game is inherent to playing it).
Look, I loved Ico, and its controls are arguably worse. And, yeah, in the first few hours, I was worried about them too. But Ico gives you time; when you miss a jump, the sound of its tiny birds chirping reassures you, its soft colour palette and its gentle lighting let you know that everything’s alright. Yorda never judges, she trusts you completely; and her sole presence reminds you that the quest isn’t about platforming, it’s about saving her. The challenge is more in figuring out how to proceed, how to create a path, than in walking it; so the controls never feel like an essential aspect of the game. Another thing Ico does well is the way it reinvents itself constantly, without bragging too much about it; you have to alter the way you approach situations and experiment with the tools you’ve been given earlier on, until you discover new ways to use them and find a solution. It places you into a new room, winks but doesn’t say a thing, and you know the rules have shifted a tiny bit but you don’t know quite how yet; and the way you find out is by observing the scenery, taking it all in. It’s quietly, confidently clever.
Shadow of the Colossus is anything but quiet. There’s thunder and lasers, your horse is frightened, the colossus is frightened, you’re frightened, everything is despair, nothing is alright. And it all rests on your ability to execute jumps in the right direction and at the right time, to hold R1 while the giant tries to dislodge you from its shoulder. Well – I suppose this varies from one person to the next, but bar a couple exceptions, I’ve never found it particularly difficult to ‘solve’ a colossus; in most cases, the thing to do became apparent a couple minutes into the fight, and when there was a doubt the sword’s light lifted it – making tedious platforming the main obstacle. I can think of three instances where I really had to scratch my head to understand what I was meant to do, and in one of them I think it was mostly a case of the game communicating poorly the characteristics of the area. The logic felt very similar throughout the whole game, and while sometimes that same formula worked amazingly well (Phalanx comes to mind), by the end I couldn’t help but wonder whether it really needed sixteen colossi. Many of them could have been combined, I think, into longer, multi-layered trials.
And while so far I’ve only mentioned gamey stuff, my disappointments go beyond that. (If you haven’t played SotC and want to avoid spoilers, this is your stop.) When talking about it, people will never fail to mention that moment later in the game… At the risk of sounding like even more of a heartless bastard, Agro’s fall also left me relatively unfazed. I mean, it’s not that I hadn’t grown attached to her, even though I wasn’t exactly enamoured either; but the event comes without any kind of foreshadowing and doesn’t give the player any agency in its realisation. I found it completely arbitrary and didn’t understand how it contributed to the drama. The game barely acknowledges it! Not 30 seconds after your companion fell into the rift, you’re back to climbing stuff while strings deploy the most epic music.
Alright. Before I started listing ways in which I didn’t like the game, I said I would talk about one specific facet that I found interesting, and I am a man of my word. To say this aspect is merely ‘interesting’, though, would be making it a big disservice; I actually think it’s the one concept that the whole game rests on, and that it explains all of the design choices throughout. It’s the idea of infusing the dramatic structure, and nothing else – in true ‘design by subtraction’ fashion – into every single part of the game: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and denouement. You can see it in its most obvious form in each ‘segment’: Dormin first introduces the next colossus, then you have the long and increasingly suspenseful ride towards it, then you defeat it, you witness its slow fall and get teleported back to the Shrine via white cross-fade, then finally see the dark figures looking at Wander’s body and the idol blows up. Nothing else is present in the game’s main ‘gameplay loop’. This is why the land is so empty: so that the rising action stays unbroken.
You can also identify that structural pattern in increasingly micro sections, like recursions of the same theme: a single encounter is composed by an introductory cinematic, which is followed by Wander climbing onto the colossus, then you stab its weak points (which are often on the head – the peak), it falls down (again, there’s a very literal application of the terms ‘raising’ and ‘falling’), and there’s a final moment of silence before the dark tendrils pierce Wander’s torso. The act of stabbing itself follows the same arc, especially when dealing the last blow: the white sigil lights up when you approach it, then you raise your sword, press ⃝ when it’s at the highest point, which makes it go down in slow-motion, and then blood gushes out of the wound and the colossus cries out in pain. That single action is one of the two things I most liked about SotC: during that one second, you can’t help but feel pity for the beast you’re killing, but at the same time, because it’s structured this way, it is immensely cathartic. You may hesitate before pressing the button the second time, but not for long: the clever risk-reward mechanic builds tension and you know you have to do it. Through gameplay, Ueda introduces this ambivalence, and without a single word, you find the same duality that was explored recently by Spec Ops: The Line, Hotline Miami and Far Cry 3: why do you enjoy the act of killing? Shadow of the Colossus silently hints at the upcoming ‘meta-climax’: you’re becoming a demon.
And indeed, the dramatic structure is also present on a larger scale, but that’s not particularly uncommon. I just want to have a quick look at the ending, though, because it does one other thing that I found particularly powerful: while its climax is also an aggression, this time it places you on the receiving end. You become the colossus, and you’re being killed. And suddenly the cumbersome controls make sense, and all of the tools that you’ve learnt to use to attack become instruments in your survival; but because you know how they work, you understand that they won’t help you here. You grapple onto a ledge; you literally cling to life. It’s ironic how the more powerful you’ve become up until this point, the more pathetic this last effort is. The game’s main mechanic is given an entirely new meaning, refuting everything that came before. And when resolution comes, you see everything under a different light: as the foundations for rebirth. Characters must die in order to resuscitate, and life can’t reappear in a land that isn’t desolate. In the end, rain starts falling down, as a symbol for cleansing and fertility. And I’m left thinking about the relationship between the journey and the destination; I guess the game wasn’t all that bad.