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Shadow of the Colossus (spoilers)

Posted by Nick Dinicola on November 8, 2008

On its surface, the plot of Shadow of the Colossus isn’t anything special. It’s about a man named Wander who has lost his lover, Mono, and takes her body to a forbidden land where he makes a deal with a spirit: Kill 16 colossi and she’ll be brought to life. Looking deeper though, one may find some interesting ideas and even a possible commentary on religion. If you’re curious, check out this story analysis on GameFAQs, because I’m not going to talk about the plot. The story and plot are just the framework for what one of the most unique and incredible gaming experiences ever. Shadow of the Colossus uses the typical Hero’s Quest tale to relate themes of love, loss, and loneliness, and does so though gameplay alone.

This game, like parts of Call of Duty 4, is a lesson in contrasts: The whole experience is divided between fighting epic battles, and traversing empty landscapes. But unlike Cod4, this contrast is not just there to make the action or the calm more noticeable, but rather to highlight the themes of love, loss, and loneliness. We are very much aware of the fact that we’re alone in this forbidden land. There are other living things of course–some birds, lizards, our horse Agro, 16 colossi–but no other people. The game constantly reminds us of this as it makes us search out each colossus; we travel pretty much everywhere only to find it empty. For all its emptiness however, the world is quite beautiful. It’s hard not to want to stop at the edge of a cliff and stare across the vistas, marveling at just how big the world is. But in doing so we remind ourselves of just how small we are. The sound effects also play a role here as there is no music while traveling, the only sound is the wind and Agro’s galloping. This silence only emphasizes the emptiness. All this is important because it makes us feel the same emotions as our hero. He’s just lost someone he loved dearly, and probably feels very alone in the world. Through its level design, Shadow of the Colossus evokes emotions from us consistent with Wander’s emotions, drawing us further into the experience.

The emptiness also helps create a bond between us and Agro, a bond important to the theme of loss. We rely solely on Agro to get around, if not for him it would take forever to get to some of the colossi. We also rely heavily on him during some of the fights: When fighting Dirge (10th colossus) we have to shoot arrows at it’s eyes while Agro gallops to stay ahead of the colossus; with Phalanx (13th) we have ride Ago alongside the colossus until we’re close enough to leap onto it; and Agro is great at running circles around Quadratus (2nd) and Basaran (9th). Agro is perhaps the only other living thing in this world that we can consider a friend, and he is absolutely necessary if we want to get ahead. But our attachment doesn’t just come from his usefulness; the control scheme also helps solidify this bond. Joseph Leray talks about this in an article on Destructoid.

Agro, on the other hand, has much subtler controls. Once you get him pointed in the right direction, just tap X a couple of times and let him do the rest. Agro makes turns, navigates obstacles, and generally keeps himself out of trouble, allowing Wander to enjoy the scenery and shoot arrows at birds, lizards, and the giant colossi that are trying to kill him. However, if you try to “steer” him, he just spazzes out.

In order to effectively “steer” Agro, we have to be willing to give up some control and just let the horse run on its own. It’s easy to get nervous when you’re galloping full speed towards a wall or cliff and want to steer away from it. This makes crossing some of the thin land bridges difficult, at least until one realizes Agro is actually pretty smart. If we let him run at the wall or cliff, he’ll turn away. When we start to trust him like this, it creates a very strong sense of camaraderie. Therefore, when Agro falls at the end of the game we have a real sense of loss: He was our only companion in the lonely world, and we had come to trust him with our safety. But it’s more than an emotional loss, it’s a practical loss as well. Without Agro we simply can’t traverse this world. Losing Ago isn’t just the loss of a character; we have lost something of actual importance to us in the game, which makes the emotional impact that much greater. Our sense of loss is similar, though in no way comparable, to Wander’s.

The game would also have us consider the ethical implications of our actions. These colossi are truly magnificent beasts and yet we’re hunting them down for rather selfish reasons. They’re all docile until we get near, invading their territory, at which point they react like any animal and defend their territory. They are not unnaturally violent. The two flying colossi are good examples of this fact. Avion (the 5th colossus we fight over a lake) wont attack us at all until we shoot it with an arrow. We have to instigate the fight. Phalanx (13th, the flying serpent) doesn’t even attack us at all. We must shoot it as it flies to get it to descend, then jump on it and stab it. All it does in response is dive back into the sand. We can fall off of course, and it tries to shake us off, but at no point in the fight does it ever really threaten us. It’s happy to simply fly around overhead. It is ok to kill these creatures to revive our lover?

Shadow of the Colossus is a work of art. It doesn’t rely on dialog, exposition, or story in order to convey its themes. Instead, it relies on the one aspect unique to video games: Interactivity. It creates a sense of loneliness through its world design, a sense of real trust through its control scheme, a sense of real loss by taking away that which we had come to trust in, and possible guilt by essentially forcing us to attack creatures that don’t attack back. Shadow of the Colossus is the kind of game that could never be adapted into another medium without losing much of what makes it so special. It really is interactive art.

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