Video Games You Should Have Played By Now: Shadow of the Colossus
Hello, and welcome to another installment of Video Games You Should Have Played By Now, where we work to highlight some of the best video games ever made. As most of you probably know, E3 2016 recently wrapped up, and while there were a number of interesting announcements, one that caught a lot of attention was the release date for The Last Guardian by Team ICO. Objectively, this might seem like a relatively mundane thing for people to be excited about, until you realize that this game has been in development for almost a decade. That’s a long time for a consumer base to hold interest in something, especially when the developer has released no other new games at all in that span. How can a team of game designers get away with such a creative process? Well, the best way to answer that is probably to look to one of their previous games to understand what makes them so special. It is with this in mind that we’ll be looking at a title from the PS2, Shadow of the Colossus, a game where you wander around an abandoned countryside, murdering giants. Now, based on that discription, you might assume that this is a hardcore, high-octane action game, with grizzly wall-to-wall violence. Yet while there are a fair share of intense moments spread throughout, that’s not really the case here, because Shadow of the Colossus is not so easy to categorize. Instead, it’s one of the most unique experiences ever put into a video game, breaking down and exploring some of the tropes and archetypes that can be found across all games, and does so in a beautiful fashion.
As stated before, Shadow of the Colossus comes to us from one of the most celebrated developers in the industry, Team Ico. If that name sounds familiar, it’s likely because the studio has a rather enthusiastic following, with fans and critics giving practically universal praise every game they’ve ever released. How is that even possible, you may ask? Well, it might have a lot to do with the fact that, at the time of writing, they’ve released exactly two games. Besides Colossus, the only other title to come out of studio was their namesake, Ico. Both games share a number of motifs, most prominent among them being a very minimalist focus around a core concept. In Ico, this meant working around the escort mission and knight and damsel trope, while in Colossus, they focus their efforts on a lone hero slaying monsters. Or in video game terms, they based the game around a boss rush.
To this end, the game places you into the role of Wander, a young man who travels to an abandoned land to perform a forbidden ritual with a dark god, all to resurrect his dead beloved, Mono. The imprisoned demon agrees to help, but only if Wander will travel the wastelands and slay 16 monstrous beings known as the Colossi. And so our hero sets forth, magic sword in hand, to slay the beasts and save the girl, no matter the cost.
Sounds familiar, right? The lone hero facing impossible odds to save the love of their life is as old a story as you’ll get, prolific across all mediums and especially in several prominent video game franchises. The most obvious comparison is probably with The Legend Zelda, which also centers around a boy with a magic sword who explores an entrancing world to face daunting, titanic creatures. But while Shadow of the Colossus isn’t showing you a brand new type of story, it is picking it apart and getting to the bones of it like few others ever have. And if there are not a lot of moving parts to this tale, it makes up for it by being one of the most evocative games ever made, speaking to the player at an intrinsic, fundamental level in its central features: the boss fights, the exploration, and the story.
The first thing we’ll look at is the most iconic feature of Colossus: the Colossi. I mentioned earlier that they were monstrous, but that doesn’t really do justice to how daunting and overwhelming they can be. When you are standing before most of the game’s Colossi, you feel insignificant, the mere idea of fighting such a thing utterly absurd. And this goes beyond the sheer size of the thing; the Colossi have also been expertly designed to look, sound, and move about like they are ancient, ponderous things, both alien and fundamental. And the only method you have of fighting them is one of the crudest ways imaginable: you jump on their backs, pull yourself along their bodies, and desperately stab at them until they die. The battles make for a very atypical video game experience, as you don’t really gain a sense of feeling powerful or clever like you would in most games. Rather, you feel as though you triumph because of your tenacity, in every sense of the word. You win because you held on as tight as you could, wouldn’t let go, and refused to give up. Whereas most games focus on letting you live out a power fantasy or display your ingenuity, Colossus makes the main focus your dogged determination. That’s not to say you don’t feel like a badass when your stabbing a giant through the skull, or that there aren’t some moments where you have to use your wits to get to the beast’s weakpoint, but the game never let’s you forget that you are a boy fighting titans, and that you are truly out of your depth. In this way, it takes a core trope of adventure stories and makes you feel it with a weight that few works can carry.
This sense of being lost in events larger than you can fathom is also conveyed as you move between the battles and explore the overworld. Suiting a land containing behemoths, the Forbidden Lands feel vast in scope to the point of being intimidating. This sense is only heightened by the utter isolation of it all; other than some birds and a few lizards, the only creatures living in these lands are the Colossi themselves. There are no helpful clerics to tend to your wounds or shopkeeps waiting to sell you upgrades; the only companions you have are your loyal steed and the voice of the demon you’re helping to revive. But while there isn’t anyone to meet, there is plenty to see, as the landscape is absolutely breathtaking. From the shores, to the mountains, to the forests, to the deserts, these barren wastes are beautifully detailed and feel alive despite being lifeless. As you travel to your objectives, you come across a number of ruins, hinting at a once great civilization that has long-since fallen, leaving its buildings to be reclaimed by nature. This gives the scenery a sense of gravitas, hinting at something grand, made all the more tantalizing by how little we know about them. It’s difficult to describe, but the setting of this game can give the player the same sense of wonder a child might have coming across an old, abandoned castle. It might not be much to look at now, but who knows what stories these stones could tell, and what adventures were to be had? This again reinforces the feeling of being caught up in something grand and beyond your understanding as you sift through the husk of a decaying world.
Yet in spite of the daunting odds and the epic scope of it all, you persevere, pushing yourself forward inch by inch and challenge by challenge, all in the name of true love. Because that’s how these stories go, right? The hero is willing to face any challenge, no matter how impossible it might seem, if it means they can spend one more day with the one they love. In most stories, this would be viewed as something pure and commendable. Shadow of the Colossus, though, is not most stories, and distinguishes itself by exploring the dark consequences of embracing violence and meddling in such dire affairs. One way that this manifests itself is in the Colossi themselves once you realize that they aren’t really bothering anyone. This is not a case of fighting monsters who are ravaging cities or who are killing the Great Deku Tree; as intimidating as they are, the Colossi are just lumbering around an isolated wasteland, and seem to be posing absolutely no threat to the world. They only really attack you because you come into their lairs with a sword drawn, and some of them don’t even do that, instead shambling about the area, making no attempt to directly harm you. And yet you continue as instructed, killing more and more of them, losing yourself in the violence. This is reflected in your appearance, as you becomes far more sinister and demonic-looking as you kill more Colossi. When you finally slay the last foe, the demon you’ve unleashed takes over your body outright, transforming you into a 17th Colossus, the worst one of them all. By the end of the game, you’ve become part of the darkness, and lost your humanity and your only companion in the process, becoming a monster in spite of your pure intentions.
The game does, however, manage to end on a bittersweet note. Just after you unleash the demon, a small group of priests reseals it before it can escape the temple, but not before it keeps its promise and resurrects Mono. Furthermore, the last part of Wander’s humanity does survive, though he is reduced to an infant sprouting horns. Hell, even your horse manages to come back from its apparent death, though she’ll be lamed for the rest of her life. Still, the game doesn’t let you escape the fact that in the end, you were not the hero you thought you were. Without the interference of those priests, your actions might very well have doomed the world, and even if you did bring Mono back, you can never really be with her again, as their new relationship is one akin to a mother and son. As the credits roll, the game shows you the beginning of their new life together, full of hope and promise, but it also lingers on the corpses of all the Colossi. It does this not with a sense of triumph, but with a distinct melancholy, pushing all the death and destruction you’ve wrought back in your face. In the end, you were meddling in things that should have been left alone, swept away in events too big to be comprehended, and while there was some happiness to be found in the end, you can’t escape that when all is said and done, the game’s worst monster was you.
As powerful of an experience as Shadow of the Colossus can be, it still has its share of problems, as all games do. The most obvious of these is the controls; steering your horse can feel as cumbersome as steering a houseboat, and some of the climbing and jumping controls can feel very unintuitive. And once the awe of seeing a Colossus wears off, you start to realize that some of them have some serious issues. For some, beating them feels like you’re just guiding them around some set pieces and scripted events rather than battling them. Still others have to be beaten in ways that seem a little contrived and ham-fisted. And as mentioned before, some of them don’t actually fight you at all and are little more than a glorified obstacle course that you have to run over, which unavoidably takes a lot of tension out of the situation. One of the best illustrations of this is your battle against the final Colossus, Malus; although the creature is truly titanic and very imposing, once you get inside the range of his laser attacks, there is nothing at all he can do to harm you. The second phase of the fight is climbing to the top of his head, which can be very tedious, but even falling from the top of his body cannot kill you, so your victory is inevitable. The only times I personally died while fighting him were because I kept screwing up a cliff jump on the way to the base of his body, and I blame that on clunky controls.
Yet at the end of the day, any complaints I could levy against Colossus are petty when stacked up against one of the most brilliantly made games of all time. Hell, it’s a game of such quality that all the problems I just listed could easily be turned back around at me. Are the controls clunky? Yes, but perhaps that does a lot to humanize Wander, reinforcing the feeling that we’re just a mere man desperately trying to topple epic monsters. Can some of the Colossi lose their “wow” factor when you realize how little danger they are to you? Yes, but this serves a narrative purpose, making it more tragic when you realize how far you’ve fallen.
Shadow of the Colossus is a masterpiece, one of the greatest examples of gaming as an artform. It is able to take a seemingly straightforward premise, pull it apart, and put it back together again in ways that make you rethink it altogether. It’s a game where it’s so easy to lose yourself in it’s beautiful desolation, and I never imagined that a game where you topple a hit list of freaking giants could make me feel so small, frail, and human. It’s a great example of good intentions paving a road to hell, of something pure being warped into something frightful, and of the dire costs of throwing away everything in a single-minded pursuit. If you’ve never played it before, you owe it to yourself to try, and then you’ll understand why Team ICO’s games are so revered and highly anticipated. Track down a copy and see for yourself.