By Neil Merrett
Shadow of the Colossus, first released on Playstation 2 in 2005, developed by Team Ico
I, I can remember
Standing, standing by the wall
And the guns shot above our heads
And we kissed, as though nothing could fall
And the shame, the shame was on the other side
Oh, we can beat them, forever and ever
Heroes– David Bowie and Tony Visconti
In these frenzied days of consuming copious amounts of online information, news or memes; what you read, not to mention who you are reading, arguably defines us more than it ever has.
As individuals, groups, fans, and a society, we are cursed with a seemingly endless number of opinions, views and perspectives that can make the world feel as though it is whatever we personally need it to be.
Regardless of whether we are consuming news, an account of some long-gone historical event or the latest album from a long-revered artist, the internet has afforded us an infinitesimal number of viewpoints to try and understand the relative value or meaning of the things we love and hate.
Videogames, and our relationship to them, are no different in this regard.
More than a decade after the release of Shadow of the Colossus, there is a wealth of critical writing detailing arguments and counterarguments for the cultural and critical significance of the title and its overall impact on the games industry over the last 15 years.
So regarded is the game, that it is impossible for most gamers to start the title without bringing some form of baggage or expectations to it. This isn’t bad for a game based around slaying nothing but over a dozen lumbering behemoths that seem forged of ancient earth, moss and the elements.
These behemoths range from humanoid stone giants to bestial slabs of granite that patrol the seas and skies, unaware or even unconcerned with the empty fantasy world and its handful of inhabitants below them. Yet each must be slain, if the hero is to seemingly restore his departed love and gain his heroic redemption of a true hero.
“This world is my expense”
Coming to the game in 2020, players may also be aware of the alternative view of Shadow of the Colussus, one where a young man seeks to get his heart’s desire at the expense of 16 sentient beings that are the beating heart and soul of an entire world.
Julie Muncy, writing for Wired back in 2018 on the launch of a remastered version of Shadow of the Colossus, notes how the perspective of time and distance is important to evaluate such a game.
She wrote, “Shadow of the Colossus is a simple story about a boy and his horse. It’s a messy story, about hubris, and mortality, and the desperate greed of love that can cause us to do things we know full well will end in disaster.”
“It is also, incontrovertibly, one of the most important videogames in the recent history of the medium.”
A game that was always oddly beautiful, with its foggy, melancholic visuals that created a verdant and deserted fantasy world, has been made even more so with the various remasters and re-releases on subsequent consoles since its original release on the PS2.
Yet decades of playthroughs from various writers and gamers have led many to see a different kind of parable in the quest to hunt down the beautifully realised colossus.
Muncy adds, “[The] quest is a fool’s errand, tilting at the fundamental forces of the world, but it’s also beautiful one, set against a wide open expanse of empty plains and swamps and desert. The forbidden lands of Shadow of the Colossus are built to hold the colossi, nothing more, and invading it is cruel—but it’s a sympathetic kind of cruelty. After all, what wouldn’t you sacrifice for someone you love most?”
Much like its spiritual successor, The Last Guardian, frustration with its imperfect controls can be seen as either a central appeal of the game, or a game killing fault for those who have struggled to enjoy the experience.
The best way to undertake the arduous climb up the colossus – to find a path across their matted flesh of moss and stone and move towards your goal without losing footing or your life – is largely unexplained by the game itself. It is for the player to discover the individual quirks of climbing and resting to reclaim the vital extra quantum of stamina to stay on the beast a second more, to get near to some concealed weakness of the creature and stab and mutilate the being until its very ability to withstand the player is gone.
It is both unique an experience, while also fashioned in the classic tropes of 2D and 3D platformers such as Prince of Persia and Tomb Raider. Only instead of some desperate lunge over a spike pit, the player is charged instead with launching off a giant’s shoulder to try and grab on to their flailing arm in the distant hope that might get you closer to your goal.
“Witches can be right, Giants can be good”
Each of these creatures are beautiful, not just in their basic aesthetic design, but the very programming and coding that defines their cumbersome nature, their movements and attempts to shake you off, spit you out or fend off a harmful sword-wielding infection.
Yet the entertainment value of slaying the beast, for many commentators, comes with the need to ask a more important question of why a player is doing this in the first place.
Writer Izzy Maffetone was forced to confront this question when asked by her mother what the point of slaying each colossus was.
“I had attacked the Colossi because I told it needed to be done to accomplish as both a character (revive my dead lover) and a player (beat the game). The logic ingrained in me through years of gaming has taught me to trust my objective.
“Because of my assumptions about protagonists and objectives I had to assume that my course was the right one. But was I wrong? Were the Colossi really innocent victims? Was I the menace, killing innocents for a self-serving purpose?”
The need of gamers to rediscover, and remake the game, most recently on the PS4 in 2018 with a revamped control scheme and graphics is seen by some critics as an example of the timeliness of the story, of trying to get everything you ever wanted, and the painful process of learning of the costs of doing so.
Jeff Grub, in a piece for VentureBeat, argues the remake of Shadow of the Colossus, is a melancholic experience for a variety of reasons.
He says, “So what is it like going back to this masterpiece? It is still a technical marvel even if Bluepoint did blunt the style of the original director, Fumito Ueda. But more than anything, it’s tragic to go back because now we know better. We now know we shouldn’t kill the colossi, and we now know that no one ever made games this way again.”
Grubb argues that Sony, with all its financial and technical clout as perhaps the foremost provider of games consoles for this generation, would be unable and unmoved to make a title with the understated looks and appeal of Shadow of the Colossus in the current gaming world.
He adds, “Colossus is quiet, contemplative, and empty, and all of those elements fit together to support one another. You go from one fight to another in a land devoid of not only life but also side quests, hunting, and crafting.”
“Even with Sony holding the torch for single-player narrative experiences, Horizon: Zero Dawn, God of War, and Naughty Dog’s games all avoid emulating Shadow of the Colossus in almost every way.”
Like the digital stone that seems to make up the structures of the Shadow of the Colossus’ title creatures, the game is a strange timeless totem of a unique vision for games design. While its coding and overall appeal may go largely unchanged, its meaning and importance will likely remain fluid and open to humanity’s endless interpretation.
But the game’s message, at least to gamers that continue to discover the title over the years and decades, is that with any action we take and dream we chase, it is never a bad thing to stop and ask ourselves why?
Not everyone will agree with these interpretations of the game. Some may equally play the title as a rollicking fantasy adventure and a unique experience to simply slay some giants. That, for better or worse, is their god given right as a consumer
The internet gives us a myriad number of views of the world and people around us. This means, we can take comfort in being told a certain kind of tenuous truth, but when it comes to empathy for others around us and further afield, it never hurts to get a little broader perspective of how others may be directly or indirectly affected by someone chasing their dreams, being a hero and just trying to get by.