[This is an essay I wrote a while ago for my college work. It wasn't for a formal assignment, but instead just a practice piece that we were allowed to pick any topic for. So I decided to gush about SotC. I've been sitting on it for ages, thinking about posting it as a blog, and this month's "Bloggers Wanted" seemed like the perfect opportunity. Massive spoilers ahead.]
Shadow of the Colossus is an action adventure game originally released on the PS2 in 2006, and re-released for the PS3 in 2011. It was created by Team Ico, who are a first-party Sony game development studio.
Shadow of the Colossus is an action adventure game in which the player's primary task is to defeat a series of gigantic creatures called Colossi. This is done by climbing on their bodies and attacking their glowing weak points with a sword. The game features a grip metre, which slowly runs out the longer you hold on to a Colossus and perform various actions, and is also used as a gauge to show how much strength the player character is putting in to certain actions, such as a sword stab. When the grip metre runs out, the player character loses grip and can no longer hang on to the Colossi or whatever surface they may be holding on to.
The game uses unconventional controls for these systems. In order to hold on to something, the player must hold down the R1 shoulder button. This creates a tactile connection between the player and the game, because the player is required to mimic the player character’s actions to perform them. The player is also forced to make a risk/reward choice with how strong they choose their attack to be, because stronger attacks both take longer to perform, and take away more of the grip metre than weaker attacks. This makes the player have to choose between the apparently safer approach of conserving grip with weaker attacks, or risk losing grip by using stronger attacks. This creates a sense of tension to fights, and gives every action a feeling of consequence.
The game also has an open world structure, which comes in to gameplay before the actual confrontations with the Colossi. Players have to track down the creatures in a large open world, and navigate areas which are not simple to get through, such as twisting canyon floors or cliff faces.
The game world is also incredibly empty, but very deliberately so. The only interactive things in the environment are the player character's horse; the very few examples of small, harmless wildlife; the occasional fruit tree; and the Colossi themselves. This is a large factor in one of the most major the themes of the game: isolation. A topic which will be discussed in more depth later.
Much like the gameplay, the story of the game is very minimalist, with only few elements to it, but in a way that benefits the game. The story begins with a montage of the player character, a young man named Wander, journeying across the land on horseback, carrying the dead body of a girl of a similar age to himself, called Mono. He eventually makes his way to the Forbidden Land, and enters a large shrine where he places the girl's body on an alter. An ethereal, disembodied voice echoes through the tall halls of the shrine, and Wander engages this unseen presence in conversation. This voice reveals that it is Dormin, the mysterious being that Wander has been seeking, as he believes that it has the power to bring the girl back to life. Dormin confirms that it can achieve this, but Wander must pay a heavy price in return, to which he agrees. Dormin then tasks Wander with defeating each Colossi, which are described as beings made of light.
We are never told exactly who or what Dormin is, who Wander or Mono are, why Mono is dead, or why the land the game takes place in is “forbidden”. Little is known about the Colossi either at this point in the game.
As the game progresses, a masked character named Lord Emon is seen to be approaching the Forbidden Land on horseback with several similarly masked characters who appear to be soldiers of some sort. This man appears to have much knowledge about Dormin and the Forbidden Land, and at the end of the story, when he finally arrives, he attempts to foil Wander and Dormin's plan. Again, we are told little of who Lord Emon is and what his motivations are, but he does allege that Wander stole the sacred sword that he uses throughout the game to defeat the Colossi.
It is at this late point in the game, the finale, when the narrative culminate in to a series of events foreshadowed throughout the game. As Wander has been battling the Colossi, with each one he defeats, he has become more pale and sickly-looking, until at the end of the game his skin has lost all colour, his hair has turned black, his eyes look lifeless, and small horns can be seen growing out of his head. At first this seems like the price that Dormin said Wander would have to pay, but it is only the beginning of what Dormin actually spoke of. It is revealed that Lord Emon arrived too late, and that Dormin's plan has come in to fruition. Dormin then possesses Wander, turning him in to a giant, shadowy creature with large horns sprouting out of its head. Although it appears that Emon has failed, he quickly uses the sacred sword to cast a spell that banishes the physical form of Dormin, and then he and the soldiers flee the shrine.
Then when it seems that everything is over, and the shrine empty of all the chaos that filled it only a few moments ago, we see Mono wake up, and stand up from the alter. She hears a baby crying, and moves towards a pool of water where Dormin met its demise. She sees a newborn human lying in the pool, with small horns sprouting out of its head. The credits then roll as we see Mono carry the child up to the top of the shrine in to a secret, idyllic garden and caring for it.
Aesthetic and Theming
Shadow of the Colossus is often praised as a notable example of what games can achieve as an artistic medium, because of how all its elements work together to create an extremely strong tone, and themes of isolation, uncertainty and powerlessness.
For example, the game world itself is incredibly barren. As was mentioned earlier, there is little actually in the world, but it has a strikingly stark beauty to it. Colours are washed out, and the landscape is full of majestic, wide open spaces, and tall structures that make the player feel minuscule and alone in a vast, eerie, and long-forgotten land.
The Colossi mirror this feeling as well. Most of them are titanic, making Wander look insignificant next to them. Their visual design also makes them look like they are as old as time, as if they are a part of the landscape they inhabit. They usually appear to be made out of stone, cut with patterns similar to the architecture seen on the few crumbling buildings scattered throughout the land. They also have some areas covered in fur, which seem more like grass or moss, adding more to the feeling that they have existed for aeons.
The gameplay controls also emphasise this feeling of being overwhelmed by forces far beyond comprehension. The aforementioned grip metre adds a real sense of desperation to the fights, especially when you are close to losing grip while a Colossus is shaking violently to throw you off. The control scheme and animations add in to this too. Controls are relatively complex, with you needing to hold down a button to grasp on to things, and requiring you to charge up jumps and stabs. But it is not so complex as to be overly so. It manages to give you an intimate connection to the feeling of battling against such impossible odds, without making it feel clunky or unfair on the player. It also helps the player identify with Wander as a character. It makes you understand that even though he is not a skilled warrior, he feels unrelentingly driven in his cause.
The music of the game is another large contributing factor to the strength of the tone. Most of the experience of playing has no soundtrack at all, emphasising the sense of isolation and uncertainty, by prominently not giving you any kind of context to what you should be feeling as you journey across the Forbidden Land. But this absence of music also makes it all the more impactful when it does accompany the events of the game. For example it creates an extremely atmospheric feeling in the intro cutscene, setting the tone of the game to follow. It has a mysterious and almost otherworldly sound to it, using an echoing choir and unusual, exotic instruments. It also has a mournful, and almost tentative and delicate tone to it in some places. On the other hand, the music which accompanies the battles against the Colossi are large and dramatic, with an intensity of desperation, but also sweeping overtones emphasising the majesty of these enormous and timeless creatures.
The way the Colossi themselves act, and how the battles against them play out also contribute a lot towards the themes of uncertainty in the game. Although the battles are intense, feeling much like a “David and Goliath” struggle, set to stirring music, they are also very sad in a way. As you approach each Colossus, they always appear very peaceful. They almost never attack you until you provoke them, and when they do, it could be assumed that it is because you are invading their territory. Some of these creatures don't even fight back at all. And when you do defeat them, the music takes an unexpected turn in tone.
Normally the player would expect a triumphant fanfare at their victory, but in this game, it instead plays very mournful song, as a short cutscene shows the once majestic beast in its death throes. But then in the last few bars, the tone lightens. But still not to what you would expect. It evokes a sense of relief, as you defeat what seemed like an insurmountable foe, and take one step closer towards bringing Mono back to life, but at the same time leaving you questioning whether what you did was the right thing.
And although the Colossi are described as beings of light, in these last few bars something odd happens to the just fallen corpses of the creatures. Their bodies become enveloped in an inky blackness, and then tendrils of the darkness shoot out from the corpse, which inevitably strike towards Wander, making him fall momentarily unconscious. It makes it appear that perhaps these Colossi were harbouring some kind of evil power after all, and that darkness is now harboured within Wander, causing his physical changed through the game.
All of these elements come together to perfectly compliment each other in a way that only games can do. It's not just the exceptionally strong visual design and soundtrack, but also the environment of the game, and the interactions you have within it, that work as one to create a phenomenally powerful experience, which immerses the player in itself. It envelops you in a world which makes you feel small and insignificant, and lost figuratively and emotionally. It's disarming in its beauty and its genius, and was rightfully praised as a watershed moment in the maturation of the medium.