This one was inevitable, wasn't it? Here’s where everyone who plucked eyebrow hairs each time the game was championed with copious ellipses can move on to tearing hair out of their heads, and where those who tirelessly campaigned for the game as True Art can pump their fists and add however many digits to their internet-arguments-won counter. And where the people who don’t fall into those categories can say, “I don’t fall into those categories.” Well, whatever. Shadow of the Colossus came out and did what it did. I’m not going to classify it as “feel-good” or “snappy” or (oh god) “crunchy.” Going in initially, I had, like anyone, preconceptions. There are sixteen colossi, who are the heart of the game’s challenge. Thus: “Dude, this’ll be pretty brisk.” Shadow of the Colossus can be over quickly. You can finish it through whatever breaks you have in a day. It can also be long. Contrary to my expectations, I had a hell of a time pressing onward, and was hassled by friends, who came in to gawk at the game’s colossi, to get on with it when I hadn’t advanced in a week. “I’ll get to it,” I waved – not because Shadow of the Colossus is a shambling mess, but because it is emotionally draining. Playing it can feel like standing out under the night sky and being hit by that icy awareness of inevitability. That’s when we go back in and turn up the music and television, right?
This is a game about killing giants. These so-called colossi inhabit a sun-blasted, harsh land. Some people call the colossi bosses, though that’s kind of incorrect; that would imply that there are small-time enemies, and there are none in Shadow of the Colossus’ world – just birds, tortoises, fish, and salamanders. You can kill most of the animals, if you’re so inclined. If you attack the salamanders with glowing tails, you can build up the endurance of your grip meter. The colossi themselves aren’t really enemies, despite whatever aggressiveness they exhibit. They’re more like neutral extensions of the land. You could call them the reincarnation of the sleepy nature spirits in Japanese legends. Director Fumito Ueda calls them “inverted Zelda dungeons,” in the sense that they are both dungeons and dungeon masters combined into externalized, event-sized stages. Each has a different way of being approached, and each has a different set of weak spots.
Ueda is a rare type of guy in the industry. His games are oddly fragile things, their inner workings distilled to a minimal, humming framework. Ueda says that Shadow of the Colossus, as a whole, is his “riff on Zelda.” Allegedly, when he and his team were planning the game, they faced a choice between a riff on Zelda and a riff on Dragon Quest. So they went with the former. It’s then interesting, and logical, that this game resembles the first Zelda so much, which remains, shall we say, the lightest entry in the series. Shadow of the Colossus gives you a sword and bow with a quiver, and that’s that. You never learn any new sword techniques, never get spells to cast, never are given a grappling hook. As a game, as a machine, as a formula, it’s startlingly simple. What you see is what you get. And though Shadow of the Colossus is an extension of Ueda’s established aesthetic, there’s a resemblance between its world and Zelda’s: the same barrenness, the same wind-worn cliffs, a similar dreamy ambiance.
What would a riff on Dragon Quest have been like? It might’ve not appeared much differently than Shadow of the Colossus, really. Both Dragon Quest and Zelda give you a boy with a sword, villages and castles, deserts, oceans, and fields. Both have dungeons with bosses. Perhaps Ueda would’ve taken the title “Dragon Quest” literally, and made it be about one man going after one dragon, a tweak of the medieval tale. Perhaps: in a boat, on a body of water, are a young man and a girl. The young man is wearing emblematic clothing. A copper helmet shows his face, and a sword is by his side. The girl is thin, cleanly robed. Beads encircle her temple. She puts a hand on the back of the young man, who is rowing. He nods, and the scene goes dark. A sequence of candle-lit murals follows, going faster as its repeats its theme several times. A boy being born to a graying king and queen. The boy growing into a young adult, being paired with a girl whom he is to marry, taking up a sword as his parents look on. The girl and him crossing a sea and a wilderness, holding hands, fighting off wild animals, staring up the side of a mountain on top of which a large shadow resides, and – yes. Then, the two returning to the kingdom bearing the single, large claw of an animal. Both are wed, both age, both have a child as king and queen. Etcetera. The montage ends and returns to the present, where the boat nudges the edge of a beach. The young man and girl get out. He stops and leans down, scooping up a handful of sand. The girl looks at him, and then glares ahead. The camera lifts itself up to show undulating hills, thick forests, sharp geologic formations, a sky exploding in a brilliant haze. It might’ve been a tale of tradition. Seeking out a dragon and protecting a girl, proving one’s worth as heir to the throne. Let your head play out the final, monolithic battle. Could the boy end up losing the girl?
Anyway: the colossi are this game’s stars, and why wouldn’t they be? They’re what made everyone sit up and pay attention. They can instill a humility similar to (I can only imagine) what you’d feel swimming alongside a blue whale. Not all of the colossi are enormous, but most are. Dealing with the rarer, smaller ones can be like placing yourself in the shoes of a cowboy in a rodeo. Tackling the true giants is a series of relativistic revelations. When you come upon them, they are immediately overwhelming. Then you climb a calve – a thigh – their back – their shoulders – and then you are on top of their head, hanging onto a tuft of hair or protrusion. The ground is way down there, and birds are circling around nearby. How far you’ve come, how huge the animal you’re on is, hits you with a chill. And it’s time to do your job: jab your sword into whatever weak points are available, shown as glowing emblems. Blood sprays out like a fountain of pent up oil, and the colossus groans and tries to shake you off. In these moments, the game comes across as disturbingly violent. Let’s make the distinction that this is not the “Kill Bill” of its format. It is, in general, passive, introspective and intimate. By way of this, whatever jolts of conflict Shadow of the Colossus has are magnified. When the blood sprays out, it’s almost obscene, and each stab holds a twist. There’s the sense of accomplishment, of reward. We’ve mounted the thing, and it was a hell of a struggle. At the same time, there’s a guilty regret in killing such a relic.
Shadow of the Colossus is also a game about a boy, Wander, and a horse, Agro. In the beginning, there’s a figure wrapped in cloth, held close to the boy’s chest as, on his horse, he enters a body of rock – down a staircase, down a spiraling path, into an airy chamber. The boy gets off and lays the figure on a pedestal, removing the cloth to show a black-haired girl. As far as we can tell, she’s dead. A voice speaks from above, then, identifying itself as Dormin, wondering why the boy is there. Dialogue follows and, in the end, a deal of sorts is made: if the boy will seek out and kill the sixteen colossi roaming the land, the girl might be revived. Nothing is promised for sure, anyway, and from the start there’s an air of uncertainty. There are shadowy figures that rise from the stone floor and spook the horse. Dormin’s voice is the voice of a foreign, unloving deity who requires sacrifice. The land itself has been deemed forbidden. The boy isn’t very good at wielding his sword; maybe he’s stolen it.
Inside this temple, Wander is told by Dormin that he can use his sword to focus the sunlight on each colossi’s location. And, upon return to the temple after killing a colossus, small clues are given to where the next colossus resides. Both of these feel unnecessary. For how much the game subtracts to its benefit, it could lose some extra pounds. Coming upon a colossus without the knowledge of its to-be presence, without the spotlight deal, would be all the more dramatic. The hints are less abrasive, though having vague tips warbled from above if we’ve not mounted a colossus in time (?) is just asking to be picked on. Really – leave me alone, please. At least, it’d be nice to have the choice of switching the hints off. To go further, the game’s presentation is iconic enough to be free of translated text in the cutscenes.
Since I’ve touched on the topic: there’s a rumor going around that Fumito Ueda developed Shadow of the Colossus while playing tons of Burnout 3, and that he just might have once screamed that it would be the BEST GAME EVER if they ditched all the fucking menus. Yes, I’m addressing Shadow of the Colossus’ HUD. Mostly the sword/bow/hand icon in the lower right corner of the screen, but also the grip indicator and health bar. The latter are unneeded; the former could only be the doing of someone with an evil heart. The weapon icon is the pointlessness of the “You got a keyyy~” message in The Legend of Zelda. I switch to the bow and Wander takes the bow out, and that’s all there should be. That hand icon feels like a bad joke, and it sure is ugly. Almost as superfluous are the grip meter and health bar. Instead of having a circle that decreases in size, the audio-visual clues that already exist could’ve sufficed. And what if the red bar were replaced by Wander nursing his body if he were standing still or crouching? His movements might be slower. He might gasp in haggard breaths. Whatever first-time oddness these decisions might bring would be outweighed in heaps down the line. If it’s to something’s benefit, let’s go for indicators, rather than intruders. Let’s be a little more…clean.
In any case, so it goes. The colossi are out there, and you’re in the temple. You can walk or ride your horse. The game, like many, exists by pattern, though Shadow of the Colossus is pretty literal. Search, kill, return; search, kill, return; et cetera. And every time a colossus is felled, dark tendrils snake out of its body. There’s a pause before all of them shoot into Wander’s body with an ugly crunch. Wander gasps, falls on the ground, and awakens in the Temple after it all goes back. There is this “agenda” to the progression, sure. Still, the game’s ever-present, timeless-tale moodiness justifies that pattern well enough. Think: those sleepy bedtime stories you were told as a kid, repeating an idea that evolved as it kept happening. And, really, the colossi serve as all the diversity the repetition needs.
As the game progresses, so does the discomfort. A vague sickness begins to infiltrate Wander’s body. One of my friends pointed it out midway: “Your guy’s skin is getting darker.” “What’re you talking about?” I asked. He got up and pointed at the screen. “It’s smoky. Look.” I realized he was right and sort of shuddered. The Most Unsettling of Things happens: we start to doubt ourselves and our purpose for moving forward. Strange exhibitions of conscience emerge. You’re free to kill the animals, as always – and, hey, how about increasing your grip’s strength? – yet there’s the realization that with each colossus you kill, a fragment of the world’s identity is lost. You’re exterminating a race and emptying the land. As this sank in, I had the thought of preservation. So I began to wander.
Here is where Shadow of the Colossus gets pretty damn smart. Though its world is believable and self-contained, there’s nothing to really do within it besides jump on rocks, climb trees, and swim in water. It’s not a Video Game World, exactly – it’s Shadow of the Colossus’ world, and it serves to exist. In this regard, it’s more of an accomplishment than the bustling locales of Grand Theft Auto. While those games have the sincerest intention of being fully realized universes, they end up throwing so much stuff out of their bags that we begin to wonder why we can do this but not that. The more a game allows, the more restrictions we see, and Shadow of the Colossus’ setting performs all it needs to by consistently keeping us within its limits, and giving greater weight to our decision. It doesn’t matter that there’s no Treasure, no Optional Bosses, no Side Quests. That’s the point. It’s not going to provide in that sense; its uneventful grandeur is the only alternative to the action. The colossi subconsciously begin calling out for our return. They are both our reason for reprieve and, shall we say, the game’s (innocent) meat. There’s also the boy, whose goal we can latch onto. We don’t need to have real-life experience to associate; we’re already opposed to loved ones dying. In theory, the player could just stop, like they could in any other game, and leave their status in limbo, forever delaying what must be done. But this is, at best, a fruitless attempt at self-retribution. You realize this. You choose to return to killing.
And the game never really needs to “prove” any of its emotional strata to you. It’s enough that the colossi and their world are haunting, worthy of being respected for their magnitude and heart. It’s enough that there are crumbling bodies of architecture here and there. Coming upon them, there’s the notion of an unrepeatable past. They stir up the sort of dismay and curiosity we have when we see the ruins of Persepolis. It’s enough that how Wander jumps, how he climbs, how he aims with the bow, how he rides the horse, is all simply mortal.
If Secret of Evermore is brought up, there’s the inevitable “ugh this game would be good if only it had two players” sentiment. Far be it from me to say that these people don’t “get it,” but they can go play Secret of Mana if they’re looking for the co-op juice. Secret of Evermore has a dog and a boy. It’s the one constant relationship throughout. From this, a one-on-one, wordless dialogue grows between the two. Man and his best friend, separated now and again by events, but eventually reunited with charming satisfaction. Absence makes the heart grow fonder – the lack of an actual friend by your side – your in-game buddy being a dog – it’s so clear, isn’t it? In the way that Shadow of the Colossus’ quietness sharpens its violence (the presence of something is heightened by the otherwise lack of it), your reliance on your horse, Agro, is nurtured by its exclusivity. Part of the reason why Ueda didn’t include active secondary characters is probably because the player’s link to their animal wouldn’t be as strong. It got to the point where, late in the game, Something Terrible happened to Agro, and I wanted to stop right then and there. Mind, this would be pointless if Agro were a shrill tag-along. Instead, he’s just a good-looking, devoted horse. He’ll come if you call his name, or if you begin moving away from him. He’ll guide you safely along cliffs and hills if you stop controlling.
For all this, the game wrestles with communication now and then. Most of the colossi work by way of glinting suggestions and having you follow a strong gut feeling. As the second one walks, glowing spots are visible under its hooves: there’s the “I wonder if…”, the shooting of an arrow at a spot, and then the “A-ha” as the colossus falls over. And yet, some of the colossi are so vague and oddly inaccessible that it feels like you might need to “break” the game’s establishments in order to advance. This is never the case, but the notion is hard to shake when it wells up. The fifteenth colossus took me more than an hour. I’m not saying that the same colossus will take everyone as long. I am saying that it’s inevitable that everyone will have a number of colossus fights click into place, and then extensively mull over just how on earth to approach the next. These few colossi don’t really operate, so much as they have the player fumble around until an accident unearths a shard of the process.
Either way, maybe that fifteenth colossus instilled enough bitterness to lend me a bit more, er, violent confidence for the sixteenth, which is just as out to kill you as you are it. Bucking the trend of colossi who are defending their territory, it becomes the exception as a figure whose reason for being is to oppose you(*). The sixteenth colossus can’t move, it doesn’t inhabit, and it doesn’t really alive. It’s vaguely industrial, more of a machine. The opening to the fight with it recalls trench warfare: hiding behind walls as the colossus fires long-range attacks, ducking into pits, going through tunnels as the world above shakes, and re-emerging closer than before. It’s the spilling forth of the gross uneasiness that’s been building up. The sky is dark with clouds, there is lightning and rain, you are at the edge of the world, and Wander’s skin is thick with the tendrils of each dead giant. Shadow of the Colossus doesn’t end with another bittersweet struggle of proportions. Maybe Ueda wanted to suggest something – maybe, that Wander’s influence has somehow birthed this malicious building. Things are changing, being corrupted. In the end, it’s the game and its violence that has won, and we’ve chosen to let it win by maintaining it. Coupled with what it tries, and the precious few – emphasis on precious – things it does, Shadow of the Colossus is close to an air-thin miracle. That I’ve had no real need to play it again is, contrary to reviewers’ compartmentalized, qualifying elements that include the oh-so-nebulous Replay Value, not a problem. It’s content in being what it is, and when it’s done, it’s gone through what it’s needed to. And, really, let’s try to avoid perverting its ideals. It is not the thing that has magically crossed the finish line marked ART (I still can’t figure out why that’s even an issue). It is not there to validate anyone’s agenda. At its strongest and sharpest, Shadow of the Colossus is exhausting, audacious, an inhalation of melancholic freshness that escapes in a curling chill. It might be worth noting that Fumito Ueda’s favorite game is Out of This World. The parallels between it and Shadow of the Colossus share aren’t hard to see – the unity and control in the worlds and mechanics, the confidence they have in Standing for Something, how they are, in spite of being one-time experiences, very cathartic one-time experiences. If Out of This World became “Out of This World: The Videogame” with Blizzard’s Blackthorne, then Shadow of the Colossus is, in a way, the progressive inverse of Shigeru Miyamoto’s The Legend of Zelda video game. Absolutely, it is, and always will be, a game, though there’s much to be admired about how it doesn’t take a concept and explode it, but funnels it, condenses it, turns it into a self-sufficient skeleton that resonates, nonetheless. It’s something that carves a hollow in the gut and places a weight on the shoulders. And right next to this unease is a crystallized thrill. It’ll be interesting to see what Mr. Ueda, and the future, come up with next.