The Colossus then walked straight into a column of the great Bridge; it stopped, hesitated, and tried gingerly turning around. This beast wasn’t ferocious at all! But I had to kill it. Dismounting and drawing my bow, I ran up and stood right in front of its feet.
First released in 2005 for the PlayStation2, Shadow of the Colossus quickly became one of the most beloved and critically acclaimed PlayStation titles ever created, given a remaster in 2011 for the PlayStation3 and an eventual remake for the PlayStation4 in 2018. With a moody atmosphere, lush orchestral soundtrack, beautiful storytelling, and a simplistic approach to the world’s design, Shadow is a true work of art.
THE STORY – Portrayal & Themes
The story of Shadow of the Colossus revolves around the determination of a young man named Wander. For reasons unknown, the life of his love was taken from him and he now seeks to bring her back. This is a simple premise but the consequences are truly stirring.
In the Prologue sequence we first see him riding through a mountain range. A forested vale yawns away, beneath and to his left and, far-off peaks glimmer in the silky moonlight. The journey is already perilous; there is a large gap in the road before him, too wide for any man to jump and, there is no other path forward. Should he turn back? His black horse, Agro, finds the distance daunting. She shifts nervously and begins backing into her own footsteps. Ignoring this, however, Wander grips the reins, gives a good kick and urges her forward, sending them leaping over the pit. Agro gains footing on the other side but she stops to look back—and shudder. Wander, on the other hand, has no second thoughts.
As the Prologue continues, it becomes evident that the young man has no other wish but to arrive as soon as possible. His destination is the Forbidden Lands, a wide peninsula in which no mortal is permitted to enter. He had heard tell of an Entity who can purportedly bring back souls of the deceased. His own people, mortal humans, offered him no help. So he must seek out the divine, the supernatural for aid. This verboten place appears to hold the solution.
As he gently lays the young woman down upon an altar, a dual, disembodied voice addresses him, commenting with interest on the sword he carries. It listens as Wander presents his case; at no time does the Entity outright claim it can return her soul but, Wander trusts it enough to believe it is capable. Then it laughs, “That maiden’s soul? Souls that are once lost cannot be reclaimed… Is that not the law of mortals?” Wander hangs his head. “With that sword, however… it may not be impossible.” Wander eagerly receives the terms of the deal; find and slay the Land’s sixteen Colossi and Mono’s soul will be given to her. The Entity proceeds to warn Wander that, in doing so, he may be forced to pay a heavy price. But Wander replies, “It doesn’t matter,” and so takes Agro to hunt down the first giant.
It is worthy to note that the game by no means lauds Wander’s choice. Rather, it questions it. When a Colossus is felled there is no triumphant theme. It sounds more like a requiem than a fanfare. Then, a glimpse of the cost that Wander must pay comes into view; Wander is subdued by a cloud of darkness and is suddenly rendered unconscious, only to wake up within the temple enclosing both Mono and the altar. This process then repeats each time he slays a Colossus. Repetition of the plot and a complete lack of minor enemies to fight during the long rides between Colossi make for a rather simple but, direct effect; it invites the player think about the context surrounding the world. Why are these vast fields and lush forests forbidden? It causes the player think about Wander’s motives and about the motives of the Entity. Is helping Mono really worth it?
If the game so questions Wander’s actions, why have the player act as him? Ueda-san prizes symbolism, morals and lessons; why not tell a story that warns people to consider the aftermath of their choices? This is a rather bold move on his part, especially in a world where people don’t want to hear that they always carry a measure of responsibility. This is fortunately, not the first time Ueda has featured strong morals in his video-games. ICO, his first title, is about a boy and a girl who must work together to escape a castle on the sea. No other videogame to-date has achieved its sense of concern and responsibility in the player that Ico has for protecting Yorda. It promotes a healthy, supportive, selfless type of relationship that many games dump in favor of inappropriate material. This achievement is more impressive considering that the two children are near-mute throughout the game.
It was actually from the development of ICO that Ueda created Shadow’s defining question, “Should winning come with a price?” His decided answer was, “yes.” If a story is going to concern the gamer, so much that the player’s concern is as great as that of the protagonist, the events of the middle of the story should have as great an impact as the story’s beginning and ending. In other words, reaching the climax should require that the protagonist not walk away unscathed—the player should have to really care. Ueda achieved this by making the repetition of finding and defeating Colossi a process that naturally evokes an emotional pain or, empathy from the audience, even if Wander is not already someone the players would relate to. He becomes relatable through a long and hard journey—much like how friendships in the real world form—and this gives reason for people to want to care. This is similar to the choice that director Dean de-Blois made when writing the script for DreamWork’s How To Train Your Dragon; the fifteen year old boy who decides to befriend a dragon ends up losing his foot while protecting the island. If the boy is going to be able to relate to his dragon—one who has lost a tail fin—he must go through an equivalent experience. It takes one to know one.
THE WORLD – Understated, yet Majestic
Shadow sports a rather simple design. If something ever became a distraction from the story or, ever started detracting from the atmosphere and experience, it was removed. If this meant limiting the weapons Wander used to a simple sword and bow, so be it. Many game-reviewers have referred to this style of Ueda’s as a “subtraction” design; any and all unnecessary elements are removed. In this way the final game returns to its original concept.
The look of the landscape reflects this mightily. In a The Legend of Zelda game, the player will find many smaller enemies—pig goblins and gel blobs, namely—between he and his goal. Defeating these smaller enemies usually yields rewards and bonuses that will prove helpful, if not invaluable in the challenges ahead. Not so with Shadow. The Forbidden Lands are empty, and the only living things the player will find are the Colossi, Wander, Agro, low poly-count lizards, and birds. The development team had initially wanted to include smaller enemies but, they found it took away from the Colossi. They also disliked the idea of requiring the player to leave a Colossus location if Wander had not yet acquired a special item. The player should be able to use his wit, not rely on specialized equipment. This is important; over half of the player’s time is spent riding through the Lands, not in fighting. Any choices made in the creation of these Lands would easily make or break the game. The long rides between each Colossus subsequently allow for a focus on Wander’s motives. If the player were distracted with racking up goblin deaths, where would this leave Wander’s drive to help Mono?
With this same attention to detail, each Colossus location was sculpted to best compliment the fight. At first, the player simply climbs a Colossus to defeat it. Later on, however, the player is required to utilize the terrain surrounding these monoliths. Ueda considered this to be like an “inverted Zelda puzzle.” While Link has to navigate a dungeon and solve multiple rooms, Wander has to navigate the furry back of a Colossus, and subsequently, overcome its own, unique challenges.
My favorite area of the Forbidden Lands is the northern of the two seacoasts, a region characterized by the most impressive, 360-degree panorama in the entire game. With the Shrine of Worship behind me, vast stretches of grassy plain yawn out into the distance. I cannot see it from here but, the great field eventually drops off into the sea, held back by a massive cliff. Blades of grass sway. Clouds and their shadows roll over the landscape. Kites soar overhead. The sea’s cacophony lures me from afar. Something snorts. Agro is trying to get my attention, swaying and nodding, waiting eagerly for me to mount. While I stand spellbound, my horse urges me to keep going. She can wait.
Not spilling the glistening dew,
the bush clover,
— Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694)
THE COLOSSI – Unique Creations
No two of the walking monoliths are quite alike. A method of attack may carry over from one to the other but, each has its own set of patterns and behavior. Some will attack on-sight. Others will wait around for you to make the first move. These changes in personality require the player to acquire information about the Colossi in different ways; running and hiding won’t always help and, neither will successive attacks prove useful.
I personally found the game-play mechanics of Wander’s stamina and health more essential to a battle than his own two weapons, the Ancient Sword and his bow. Health is in the form of a horizontal bar; as with any other game, it shows how much “life” Wander has before he will die. The Stamina gauge is a little more interesting. If (with the original controls) the right shoulder button is pressed and held, Wander will grip tightly to a Colossus’s fur. Should the player accidentally release this button too late, Wander will run out of stamina to hold on and he will fall to the earth, usually with enough of an impact to incur injury. On the other hand, if the player releases it too soon, the Colossus will shake him off. Each battle not only focuses on the way to reach and climb these monoliths but, they require impeccably careful timing. It is a thrilling and scary experience to watch as Wander barely reaches a ledge, having little to no breath left for a mistake.
The first Colossus is like the bipedal Minotaur from Greek legend. As Wander comes upon its expansive abode, two utterly massive feet sweep past him, easily dwarfing his human stature. It doesn’t notice him, so it takes trying to climb or attack the beast to garner its attention. Other Colossi impress the player in their own ways. Some swim the depths of dark lakes. Other fly silently above. Still others burrow through the earth and, a few chase Wander with lightning speed. If not fast, very furious. The voice of the Entity describes one with the following riddle, “Thy next foe is… An altar overlooks the lake… A guardian set loose… It keeps the flames alive.”
But there are crucial exceptions to this aggression. When I initially saw the Second Colossus smash through its stone barricade, I just knew that it would want to smash me next. Not so. If left unengaged, it would keep walking around, eyeing me with a curiously cocked head. It tried to step gently around poor Agro when it came up to her, looking down at the tiny equine speck, not sure how to move aside. The Colossus then walked straight into a column of the great Bridge; it stopped, hesitated, and tried gingerly turning around. This beast wasn’t ferocious at all! But I had to kill it. Dismounting and drawing my bow, I ran up and stood right in front of its feet. Its eyes turned red and it reared, exposing the vitals Dormin hinted at. An arrow loosed. The injured foot came crashing down, bent at the ankle, leaving the hoof outturned. I took my chance and jumped on. It was only moments later that I had scrambled up to its sigils and stabbed away, each time inflicting wounds that made the beast cry out in pain. With my last blow, the creature’s eyes went dark and its voice roared and sank into a dying groan. Slain, its great body turned black.
It made me feel guilty to slay these magnificent creatures. Each is not merely a beast to kill, nor an impersonal obstacle to remove. They all have an incredible life-like quality and, this makes it hard to believe they are not real, living animals.
I love how that initial moment of awe and terror when you first see a beast is quickly replaced by curiosity; surveying a creature and learning its nuanced movements and distinctive behaviors as you map out a path to the top make it feel like you exist inside of a nature documentary. It’s this illusion that they’re living creatures that creates an internal conflict in hunting and killing them, and Shadow of the Colossus twists that knife brilliantly.
THE SCORE – Intelligent and Dynamic
Before I really became acquainted with the world of video-games, I had not realized that orchestral soundtracks weren’t a commodity; e.g. the Zelda franchise did not feature any orchestral music until its second Wii title in 2011, roughly twenty-five years after the franchise’s debut. Just for the occasion, each copy of Skyward Sword came with a full-length symphonic CD. This title first exposed me to the world of Zelda so, it took me a little while to learn its music wasn’t the norm. Rayman: Origins followed suite in this orchestral trend that same year, as would Journey in 2012 and, RiMe in 2017.
But the music of Shadow is its own creature. It does not force any emotion on the player that feels inauthentic. Similarly, it is used to bring out or, in some cases, entirely convey what the visuals choose not to show. In the Prologue sequence there is a contrast between the choir and a forest’s absence of wind, a foreshadowing of the stillness of the Lands Wander is traveling to. And the swelling and rousing of the strings toward the end also serve as contrast from the loneliness and the more personal feel of the beginning. Here, Wander gains his first glimpse of the Forbidden Lands and, a measure of hope for Mono is restored. It is like the glimmer of a light long-prayed-for. Additionally, while Wander isn’t daunted by the Entity’s warning, the rising choir and organ evoke a concern for the situation as, it seems the music knows something that Wander is unaware of. Shadow, its spiritual predecessor ICO (2001), and its spiritual successor The Last Guardian (2016), are the only three games with which I am aware that utilize such an intelligent sense of foreshadowing.
Another area in which the score of Shadow is unique is in its battle themes. They are rather cinematic in nature and thus compliment the music of the story. Some emphasize the triumphant thrill of scaling a giant and looking out onto the vastness of the Lands from on-high. 08 The Opened Way is a stunning example. Petrifying fear quickly gives way to a strange, thrilling curiosity as this music surges into action. The music moves gracefully with the scene as if tailored for each second. 25 A Despair-Filled Farewell could not demonstrate this quality better. Though full of dread, I felt a spike of joy and satisfaction as the choir rose oh so smoothly to meet the uplifted wings of Avion, a god-like being.
The game doesn’t always play music, however. While journeying through the Forbidden Lands in search of the next stomping ground, Agro’s paced breathing and rhythmic hoof-falls are all the player will hear. Likewise, the ambient wind and waves are as close to a theme as the landscape will provide. This utilization (or lack thereof) of music gives the player a nice repose, allowing for balance between action and calm and, a moment to soak in the game’s contemplative atmosphere. From my own experience, this made the Lands too silent—uneasy even—for a forgetful, carefree attitude. I found an honest drive to fulfill Wander’s end of the bargain and, all that came to mind was what he continually dwelt on: seeing Mono live again.
Whether it be the 2005 original, the 2011 remaster, or the 2018 remake, Shadow of the Colossus remains one of the most intelligent, thought-provoking, beautiful, and tragic stories ever to grace player’s screens. With a unique simplicity, this stunning tale naturally brings players to share in the earnest of its young protagonist while, causing them to personally reflect on the consequences of his well-meant intentions. I am glad that such a nuanced storyteller decided to use video-games to share his profound imagination.
This article and its contents were written July 25-27, 2018 and printed here July 09, 2019. Revised July 14, 2019.
Here is how to credit the images above…
- Image by IphisAria in Giants Walk the Earth: A Look at ‘Shadow of the Colossus’.
- Image by IphisAria; blog Epilogue ~ Those Who Remain, post Giants Walk the Earth: A Look at ‘Shadow of the Colossus’.
Unless credited otherwise, all PlayStation4 screenshots of “Shadow of the Colossus” and “The Last Guardian” (including header images) are my work.