A deserving masterpiece is at once subversive and straightforward, a fable about not always trusting fables.
Shadow of the Colossus is, at least in part, the story of a man’s hubris flying in the face of natural order. I take this to heart while writing this, because talking about any other “important” videogame before it feels like going against the grain just for the sake of it. How can you discuss this medium without first tackling the game that explicitly asks what’s so damn appealing about killing things in an expensive-looking simulator? And yet, I fear that by writing about Shadow of the Colossus too early, I’ll have nowhere to go but down.
For a game laced with both heady and popular influences (let’s get Moby-Dick, Miyazaki, the loneliest bits of Zelda, and the Troy McClure classic David Versus Super-Goliath out of the way), Shadow of the Colossus never feels like mere pop-culture amalgamation or a round of post-modern spot-the-references. It’s almost suspiciously pure, so stripped-down in storytelling and aesthetic that it feels more likely to have sprung from Greek myth or Bible stories than the powerful processors of a mid-aughts Sony Entertainment. Amazingly, the game maintains the familiarly repetitive, objective-based structure of most action-adventure titles, but not once alters course or complicates it with new elements; hell, even Ico had you improve your weapon a few times. If there’s one Fumito Ueda lesson I’m glad to see rippling through the industry, it’s that words like “complication,” “backstory,” and “length” are not at all synonymous with “depth” or “feeling.”
For all three of you who are unfamiliar: There is an ancient temple in a secret valley. You are a young boy named Wander (this name is perhaps the one thing in the game I don‘t buy); your lover has died, and you have heard rumors about this place. There is a mysterious power there, one that will let you cheat death for a certain price. How many beasts (the voice refers to them as your “foes”) would you slay to revive this woman? If the answer is “sixteen,” maybe you can strike a deal.
From the start, there are signs that things are not right. The voice compelling you forward is not exactly speaking in dulcet tones, and while some of the monsters are more aggressive than others, they are all more or less minding their own business. (Not that there’s much other business for them to mind. The valley is otherwise deserted, except for some lizards you can also brutalize to improve your strength.) Also, whenever you defeat a colossus, a snakelike remnant enters your body and corrupts your appearance. And yet, there is no turning back. There is no morality system, no Little Sisters to save lurking under the colossi’s furry limbs. This is where Shadow of the Colossus must be a brilliant and enjoyable gameplay experience, because even if we recognize its theme as the futility of triumphing over death and nature, it might not be worth the icky feeling of plunging a sword through an innocent Old God’s skull. As Wander is driven ever forward to revive his lady love, we continue for our own reasons. The rousing music. The breathtaking sense of place. The intricate puzzle each colossus poses. The fact that there is nothing in gaming more viscerally taxing and innately rewarding than a good boss fight.
If you are coming to Colossus from the tight controls of, say, Zelda, you might be thrown that Wander is just as physically maladroit as he is morally. He flails and fumbles, and he can never quite master his unwieldy horse. It can be frustrating, but it also leads to moments of sublime peril. Watching Wander’s legs flop around like a rag doll as he clings desperately to a furry forehead is one of many reasons why the colossi fights stay gripping to the last. The controls’ precise inexactness speaks to the overall level of detail that elevates the title, from Wander’s call to his horse increasing in panic as a colossus draws near to previously fired arrows staying lodged in a beast’s hide until its last breath. These are subtleties exclusive to videogames and yet ones rarely executed with this depth of feeling.
For all that is wonderful about exploring the massive valley and battling the individual colossi, the game’s nastiest trick and the true key to its emotional resonance does not come until its closing moments. As you strike your sword into the final monster one last time, you are fully prepared to sit back and watch the inevitable cutscene of Wander at last getting his comeuppance. And, as expected, the ancient demon takes over our hero’s body to battle an approaching warrior tribe, just as the cinematic wrests responsibility from your hands. But as soon as you are ready to simply watch this all unfold, the game places you back in control of first the demonized Wander, then a literal shadow of his former self, unstoppably compelled toward his final demise. If this was a normal cutscene, it would be moving, but it would not be a perfect encapsulation of what this game is about. Player agency may be a construction, but it’s a construction we choose to engage with. Shadow of the Colossus asks us why we choose to play games, and what we can do to make that choice mean more.