You are in control of a young boy, old enough to be in love but young enough not to understand consequences. The boy knows of a legend that says he can bring his love back to life, but he has to travel to a forbidden land abandoned by all but massive, obscure titans whose existence is unexplained. A voice in a huge temple tells him he has to destroy them in order to cast the spell, but all he has is a stolen magic sword, his loyal horse, and determination. The boy handles the sword awkwardly, falls when he tries to jump or even run too fast, and he perseveres even when it becomes clear that with each monster he kills, he loses part of himself. In the end, he becomes the voice, which was using him to free itself from this land, or it becomes him, and he brings his love back to life, but only after having sacrificed himself and all the creatures of the forbidden land in a fit of rage that destroys what remains of once beautiful ruins.
That’s the story you follow in Shadow of the Colossus. And it’s fine on its own, a small tragedy of innocence and hubris set in a game world filled with gorgeous music and landscapes strange and beautiful enough to warrant a few hours of sight-seeing. But there are two things that make this game something I would put on a shelf next to Great Novels and Poetry. The first is the art design’s ability to capture a perfect sense of lost and absent meaning. It’s a kind of heart-rending “purposiveness-without-purpose” as you explore an incredibly detailed world that offers no narrative background – it’s as if you’re wandering in a fantasy world as meticulously detailed as anything Tolkien could create without a single shred of history or even story to explain the wonders. And the second is what happens to you as you choose to keep playing, which is something like the same “purposiveness-without-purpose” but turned into a problem for why you stick with the game.
First, the design: everything in the forbidden land where the game takes place is in ruins. But there’s no sense to what these ruins once were. There are temples without idols or altars scattered around the land, huge coliseums that serve no discernible purpose, empty palaces with irrational floor plans, and structures that are simply unidentifiable. Of course part of this is just the game needing areas to climb, jump, and run through, or as environments for particular types of monster fights (like the tiered balconies in one huge underground amphitheater that let you jump on a giant’s beard).
But on their own, these spaces capture something essential about ruins: the abstracted sense of lost function and meaning, the full Romantic fascination with ruins that makes “Kubla Khan” and “Ozymandias” work because of what’s missing. It’s like Kantian “beauty,” that purposiveness-without-purpose, but this time with the added sense that something has been forgotten or even destroyed. The environment, for all its wonder and towering scope, is built on a quiet, nostalgic and ultimately vague sadness.
The giants themselves borrow this aesthetic. Each one is unique, unlike most games where “enemies” are repeated, and their form and even physical presence are completely purposeless in this world.
For example, you find the third colossus on a platform in the middle of a lake, which is accessible only via a terribly difficult climb up a winding ramp which you will, undoubtedly, fall from many times. The colossus is literally as tall as a skyscraper, perhaps some 40 or 50 stories high.
And when you find him, he’s lying in the middle of this circle with no obvious way he could have gotten there nor any reason for him to be in this spot. He can’t “live” here, he’s not protecting anything, he can’t do anything at all. And yet, he seems to be a part of the environment itself, not only because of superficial details matching the type of architecture, but also because, of course, he exists in a space in which you, as a game player, are supposed to discern how to beat him. Narrative sense gives way to the game sense, which of course abstracts away from any kind of meaning the story could have.
Each colossus has a similar relationship to their environment, being somehow “of” the area where you find them, but also completely frivolous and arbitrary. The world of the game in which these creatures live their alien life and the game-itself cross in ways that distort story-meaning and game-meaning, leaving you with this odd sense that you are in a place where irrational things happen for rational reasons…or vice versa.
And that goes back to the generic markers the game is playing with. On the one hand, of course, the game is supposed to be “epic.” The premise is that you only have boss fights, only Bowser or Ganon or whichever big baddy comes at the end of other games. There are no koopa troopas here, no random enemies to fight on the way to the end of a level. So that makes it feel very “grand” since every encounter in the game is supposed to be a huge payoff. And since you’re climbing 500-foot giants or jumping onto flying creatures the size of jetliners, you get that.
But, at the same time, there is nothing else “epic” in the game at all. There is no grand story-line, no world to save, no community to reintegrate. Your hero is a boy, not an innocent hobbit who will do good, but simply a selfish adolescent. And it’s pretty clear that you’re not doing this for any noble reason and that you’re actually destroying yourself and this world in the process. You get parts of the form of epic, or at least that sense of “bigness,” without even the pretense of any of the value that would go with it. The vistas you see and the world in which you may ride your horse for 10 or 15 minutes straight before coming to the next fight certainly have the feel and the scope that goes along with “epicness,” but it’s all that sense of the epic without the meaning, the purposiveness of epic without any purpose.
And that’s where we get to the second thing that makes this game great. It punishes you emotionally for playing it and makes you pay for that lack of purpose. That’s not to say it isn’t fun; it’s totally badass to bring down a massive monster with your puny little dude. But it also reminds you that doing what you’re doing in this game is in a very real sense wrong. The specific type of wrongness is vague: there could be some moral aspect to the boy’s selfishness that leads him to kill these creatures, some of which seem completely innocent and even bucolic when you first find them. But there’s also a strong current of self-destruction. Each time you kill a colossus you watch it die a dramatic death, and the camera slowly returns to give you control over the boy again. But even while you can control his movements, black tendrils shoot out of the colossus and will eventually shoot through the boy, no matter how quickly you run away. The boy awakens in the starting temple once again, only this time, there are black shadows looking down at the boy’s prone form, equaling the number of colossi he has killed.
Then, you watch another video of the idol representing that colossus collapse in the temple where you begin, and this majestic structure, the only one in the entire game that doesn’t begin as a ruin, is itself slowly ruined. There’s no question that the “voice” that tells you to do this is using you, but, since that is the game, you keep going. Fate’s a bitch.
And one thing that almost every reviewer has pointed out is how guilty they feel for killing the colossi, no matter how “fun” it otherwise is. And that guilt can’t help but make you reflective about why you continue to play:
So while you go through the ordinary motions that we associate with videogames – discern objective, eradicate opposition, return for reward – you’re engaged in a series of acts whose moral virtue is by no means assured. The supposed hero is assaulting majestic, sometimes docile, sometimes curious, sometimes sleeping creatures. They’re almost all portrayed in a sympathetic light at some point, and it’s hard not to feel disgusted at times for iterating Hollow Game Mechanic X by rote without any sense of the moral spectrum the acts inhabit. (Tycho from Penny Arcade)
And that comes back to the purposiveness question: the whole reason to play this game is because it’s cool to kill big monsters. But this game does its best to make you realize how ridiculous that is, both in terms of the story (selfish, gullible adolescent being played by malevolent forces) and in how it makes you ask whether or not you really want to be playing this game in the first place.
One of the best reviews of the game points out that it does offer you such a choice: you are free to explore the world and appreciate the incredible detail that they’ve put into the environment itself, even in places that have nothing to do with the fights, and that works as a kind of appreciative alternative to violence. But that can only last so long. There’s no feedback loop that rewards that in the game other than just appreciating scenery. And, in a game, you do things, or it stops being a game. So the real choice in this game truly is to play or not to play. But if you choose to play, you find yourself caught in a very troubling situation:
Shadow of the Colossus is almost post-Campbellian in that the hero quest — the framework that we normally think of as the meat of a video game — is actively questioned. The player can subvert the quest and turn down the call to arms at any time.
Still, the game doesn’t abandon the quest structure so much as approach it at a different angle. There’s only so long the average player can live with “but you must!” before caving in. Unless we stop playing altogether, we will ultimately surrender and accept our fate, similar to how the sword’s plunge is more of a release than an act of aggression. For all the introspection it inspires, Shadow of the Colossus is about giving up and doing anything to escape emptiness, even being a false hero.
You end up with a game that helps create this sense of wonder and suspension of disbelief by its abstraction from specifics. And then, at the same time, that abstraction starts to work you against the game so that the game starts to feel almost like an evil thing itself. In the end, that voice which turns the boy into a monster wasn’t a metaphor. That voice isn’t some spirit in a made-up world. It’s just you, the player holding the controller, realizing how awful this kind of game is even while you revel in it. You were the big villain all along, the end boss, and you won by killing the hero and destroying the world. The boy began as an avatar, just a character on the screen whose movements you controlled. But, by the end, you are a manipulator who has actively, steadily, and meticulously destroyed a creation that you found beautiful, engaging, and compelling. That, as gamers like to say, is hard core.