Long time no see, Destructoid! The past few months have been taken up with surgery and recovery; I donated part of my liver to an uncle of mine because his own was failing, and have in the meantime been relaxing at home until such a time that I'm able to work again without hurting myself. I'm doing great (as is my uncle), but having hit the part of recovery where I'm generally clawing at the walls, I've been feeling the need to write a little. Even though I've been trying to work through a number of newer titles on my backlog, one of the crucial purchases I made after getting home was The Ico & Shadow of the Colossus Collection. I've written about both games before, but I've been thinking a lot about Colossus in particular recently, and those were some thoughts that I figured would be nice to get down. I apologize in advance if you're tired of reading or hearing about this game.
In a game ripe with incredible and poignant moments, it can be hard to pick out one that stands apart as a "favorite," but I realized with this release of Shadow of the Colossus that I had already had one for quite a while without fully realizing it. I have a bit of a ritual every time I boot it up and turn it off: before and after playing my save file, I'll wait at the title screen until the game's attract/demo mode kicks in.
Players that do this will be treated to a scene of the last place the player saved, with Wander visibly sleeping if you've saved at one of the numerous Shrines that dot the landscape. The camera, which is entirely within the player's capability to control, focuses instead on Agro, who starts at a standstill near Wander, but will soon break into a full gallop, running free and riderless throughout the surrounding landscape with the song "The Farthest Land" playing in the background. Soon after the song finishes, the game will restart at the opening cinema. All told, Agro's romp lasts around three and a half minutes. This is my favorite three and a half minutes of the game, and I think I know why.
I've read a lot of commentaries and reviews for Colossus, and there's no shortage of people who dislike the moral implications of the game's story arch. The most prolific and common of the arguments against the story are that there is no choice in the matter, that there is so little to do in the Forbidden Lands in the way of distractions that there is no way to truly delay Dormin's -- and, therefore, Wander's -- dark task. In this regard, they're absolutely correct. Sure, you can gather fruit, or collect lizard tails, but these aren't diversions or side-quests that influence story. From a narrative standpoint, there is only the systematic execution of 16 giants.
Wander makes a deal with the devil. He sells his soul, knowingly entering into an agreement that can only ruin him. Before he even arrives at the Shrine of Worship, before even entering into the vast expanse that is, by name, verboten, he has exiled himself by stealing a very particular sword. The sword instantly piques Dormin's interest when they recognize it; it is the key to their freedom, and Wander has volunteered to be Dormin's hand. The choice is already made before you load the game. Wander has cast his lot. Your task, as a player, is to follow him down into the darkest depths of his journey until the very end. Wander accepts that what awaits him is a fate worse than death.
Wander will not stop. After each trial, he will rise again, take his instructions, and be off on his way, off to do his next deed. You do not get to change his mind. You do not get to reason with his character, or talk him away from the ledge that will lead him to Hell. You do not get to influence his development, or even develop with him. You can only feel increasingly fearful, increasingly depressed, increasingly loathsome, as Wander -- by your hand, obviously -- slays one majestic creature after another, decaying and dying bit by bit as he does so.
Indeed, Colossus' is a story defined by its harrowing violence. While all of them are incredibly dangerous, some of the colossi will simply ignore Wander peacefully until he attacks them. Wander is the aggressor, the violent predator, but in the greater scheme of things he is invariably killing himself as well, either by throwing himself into battle with the colossi or by besting them. It might almost seem better that the giants kill Wander instead of the other way around, because as it stands the order of things is so destructive: Wander is relentlessly causing himself great harm, and he is doing it by causing great harm to the world and life around him. He kills the colossi, which slowly kills him.
The larger ramifications are that Wander is freeing a deity that was locked away and forgotten by the very civilization that worshipped it, and if looked at from the canonical perspective of Ico, Wander sets into motion the suffering of countless people over the course of hundreds of generations. That's a difficult character to identify with. If there is any character that you will be able to identify within the limited cast of characters, it is more likely to be Agro.
Wander cannot do this without Agro. The Forbidden Lands are a desolate sprawl, diverse in their beauty, but unified in their forsaken loneliness. There are fish, birds, turtles, and lizards, sure, but they are poor companions; the only solidarity Wander will find is in the bond between a boy and his horse. To traverse this territory by foot would be a chore at the very least, but to succeed in battle against all 16 colossi would be impossible. Agro will carry Wander to each of his encounters. Like you, she will be instrumental in Wander's quest. And when the dust settles, and Wander is returned to the Shrine, she will make the journey back, alone, to be there when he arises, ready to escort him to his next appointed foe.
From beginning to end, Wander is driven, and from beginning to end, Agro is there for him. As Wander punishes himself with every waking step through the Forbidden Lands, Agro is there to help ease him along a journey from which she cannot deter him. Wander has forced this burden upon her, and while any player could tell you that she is not without a will and attitude of her own, she accepts that burden with grace and loyalty. So long as the terrain will allow it, she is there. As Wander persists on without rest, so does Agro. As Wander risks his life, so too does she.
And so we come to the seemingly inconsequential demo screen, with Wander seated with his back against a shrine with a knee pulled up to rest his head on as he sleeps, and Agro acting as a regular horse doing regular horsey things. Having been through the whole of the journey more than just a few times, the idyllic scene has become much more than that to me. If you exclude trauma-induced unconsciousness, this is, in fact, the only time we ever see Wander rest. It is the only time that he is not singularly focused on his miserable task. If there is any point where Wander is even close to being at peace, this is it.
And as he sleeps, there goes Agro, the lost world she travails seeming more alive than ever as the wind rustles her mane and her hooves thump against rock and sand and turf. Like Wander, this is the closest we see her to normal, momentarily unfettered and free, reveling in escapism but not escape. These lands are vast, and any measure of its expanses could suit her perfectly; Agro could leave if she wanted to.
But she doesn't.
In those three and a half minutes before and after I accompany the pair through their torture, I see things in the way they could be, in the way they should be, but in the way that they never will be. Wander has his moment to himself, his time to rest, his opportunity to slow the train that can only take him to one terrible place. And Agro has her moment to frolic, to ease Wander's figurative and literal burden from her back and simply run, at a full gallop, through what is otherwise a prison for the two of them. It is as tragically beautiful as it is wonderfully sad; she is there when he nods off, and no matter how far Agro runs, no matter how short a time Wander sleeps, she will always, inevitably, be there when he wakes up.