Robin Vilain
videogame designer
author of commotions
créateur de jeu
Blog
Blog
Blog

Striking down the colossus

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.

Work
Work

Hi! My name’s Robin. I’m super passionate about videogames.

I think they can be meaningful on many levels – from the authors' ideas to the players' interpretations, from the intimate harmony of mechanics echoing each other to the booming contribution to greater social or cultural contexts.

I love games that are deep, inspiring, yet still engaging enough for the players to seek out and even analyse these meanings. When the overarching purpose shines through, you know you’re playing something unique and beautiful.

This is what I aspire to create: experiences that make players stop and think. Below is some of my past work, in which I've tried to put this into practice.

Logo JMC

At JMC Academy, I taught game design and development, mentoring students as they worked on their final project: pre-production, planning and management, production, promotion. This also involved teaching them how to approach design critically and meaningfully, rather than conventionally or arbitrarily. I also supervised prototyping and programming classes focused on getting a better understanding of Unity and C#.

Teaching was an opportunity for me to articulate and expand on my design aesthetics, and to introduce students to kinds of games and interactive works that they’d not heard of before. Seeing their horizons broaden was truly rewarding and led them to experiment with new ideas, while still maintaining a sense of ownership and uniqueness. This was a group of people with different outlooks on games and different goals, who taught me as much as I taught them. I encouraged them to cherish their own perspectives, to cultivate their own individuality, and to imbue their projects with it.

Logo Leda

During the same period as when I teaching at JMC, I also worked with Productive Procrastination on Leda, a web+mobile platform for teaching ethical leadership practices and empathy, with a focus on inducing long-term positive behaviour change. While I was initially brought on board as a game designer, my role quickly evolved to include development, art direction and management.

This project was a massive undertaking backed by a university and several major companies. It was crucial to balance the needs of those investors with our mission. I strove to design games that were accessible to anyone (including people usually put off by them), and that included Leda’s principles as intrinsic play elements. This approach then extended to the scripts and storyboards of animated shorts, the motion design of interview videos, and more broadly the UI and UX of the whole platform; all led by the push for consistency and pedagogy across all of the content.

In 2015 and early 2016, I worked on a variety of playful live events: murder parties, pop-up escape games, historical investigative mysteries… I also designed and/or consulted on small-scale videogames and board games. During this time, I focused on how to better introduce play concepts to different audiences, and analysed reactions on more experimental projects. As part of my push to broaden my skill set, I designed and developed several websites (including this one).

This exploration of new fields and desire to step out of my comfort zone led me to move to Melbourne in April, where I was welcomed by the local game dev scene. I continued progress on personal projects and started working at Mind Games, a board game store, which provided yet another opportunity to get a better understanding of the kinds of audiences interested in games – from experts to newcomers.

Logo Innovation

Innovation: Age of Crafting is a mobile game that was recently released on Windows Phone, and will soon be out on Android and iOS. Tiles representing scientific and cultural landmarks of humanity’s evolution through the ages are arranged on a grid; the player must slide them to combine them, discovering more advanced technologies.

I worked on the game as a freelancer; when I arrived on the project, only the basic concept had been determined. I fleshed it out and expanded it, then designed the game’s rule variants and all of 125+ levels they’re used in, aiming for a constantly renewed experience and a welcoming learning curve.

Logo The Crew

In 2013, I worked as a mission designer on The Crew, at Ivory Tower. I collaborated with the environment artists to find beautiful locations within the game world, then defined mission rules that were adequate for the player’s level. I tried to subvert the existing mechanics, to suggest emergent narratives; I took advantage of the game’s features, such as off-road driving, but was careful not to be confined to them either.

I also worked on the exposition of the game’s structure, which had never been seen before. The tutorials and informative screens had to effectively teach the player how to navigate the many systems, without being an obstacle to free-form play. Predicting the player’s progression and timing the delivery of explanations accordingly was crucial.

Logo Rainbow Six

My post-grad internship was at Ubisoft’s Editorial, which oversees the development of the company’s games and ensures a high level of quality, providing advice and feedback to the dev teams – I was assigned to Rainbow Six. I studied the portrayal of crowd panic and tactical squad interventions in films and games, and derived key points and guidelines. I also played each build and offered suggestions on how to make the experience more cohesive and intense.

While I focused primarily on Rainbow Six, I also intervened on other projects, among which Far Cry 3 and Splinter Cell: Blacklist. I helped balance the multiplayer modes of both games; on FC3, I also played the whole game several times to give feedback from an external point of view, and specifically whether the introductory sections properly explained every aspect of the game.

Logo Flux

FluX is my final school project; it’s a 2-player digital board game, played on Microsoft’s PixelSense touch table. Each player owns a base that releases ink; by placing wooden pawns on the screen, they create currents and obstacles. The aim is to lead the ink towards neutral bases scattered on the board to convert them into new ink sources, and then to capture the opponent’s main base.

My contribution was quite broad: I elaborated of the main concept, designed board layouts, programmed a vector field and fluid mechanics to handle ink propagation, and implemented the pawn identification system – using PixelSense’s virtual reality API within Unity 3D. This project started out as an art installation motivated by a question: how to make human-human interactions through a digital medium feel natural, transparent and even physical?