When Thunder Comes

After my third playthrough of The Last Guardian (as well as my going-on fifth of Shadow of the Colossus), something clicked. Through Ueda’s trilogy there are obvious elements shared between them, such as the appearance of horns or, an overarching degradation of a character. For example, Ico is a boy born with horns and in Guardian, everything under the power of a dark Entity possesses a pair that are glowing blue-green; in both, their breakage signifies the end of unconsented control over another, be it mentally or in the sense of a character’s destiny. (In Shadow both the Colossi and Dormin have them.) But I noticed there are some other themes shared which are much more subtle and, all the better for it. Unlike the recurrent inclusion of collapsing bridges, there is nothing pointing out the weather or, the momentary glimpse of the Shrine in Shadow‘s prologue. And this was why I did not initially see it. Because of their varying recession, I was able to examine each area of the story at my own pace.

The element that dawned on me was that of an impending storm. Petrichor. Darkening clouds, humidity, a rise in the breeze. Over the course of the story or, merely in the arrival of a game’s protagonist, I witness the rousing of a quiescent Power. I hear thunder…

Track 12 Flashback, by Takeshi Furukawa.

When thunder comes, a Colossus shakes the earth. When thunder comes, a magnificent beast soars into the storm. When thunder comes, shadows gain eerie awareness of your presence. Rather, of your trespass. You step onto hallowed ground and an Entity suddenly commands the scene. When thunder comes, the Deity is at work.

I say “deity.” Though each of the antagonistic powers of the games are nothing like the Greek’s Zeus or the Celt’s Thor, they are quite supernatural. Dormin’s reputation preceded him, regardless if he actually had the power Wander assumed he did. His booming, dual voice echoes within the halls of the Shrine, a sound among the most eerie and memorable of the game. By no stretch of the imagination does his presence need to be physical in order to be felt.

The “Master of the Valley” in The Last Guardian also possesses such an aura, but it is not directly encountered until the very end. In fact, the boy remains ignorant of the Master’s involvement until he meets it face-to-face and nearly dies in the process. Not once does it speak. Forever is it bearing down on the boy and his feathered friend. The hollow, possessed suits of Armor (Yoroi) are what physically pursue the pair. That and the Armored beasts who are especially dangerous. The Master’s control is mental and thus, widespread, not a physical domination such as that in Shadow and ICO. It is able to make physical extensions of its will via control of the knights and beasts. Dormin, by comparison, was unable to exert any influence beyond a poisoning of the Lands because his soul was divided and imprisoned. Dormin eventually gains a new body but is soon after defeated. The Master never takes on a physical form but, it seems to be all the more effective for it. The only thing limiting its expansion is its perpetual need for human children.

The two scenes that most closely parallel each other are the opening of Shadow and the mid-way flashback of Guardian. In both, a stormy sky appears before the Deity is seen. As Wander holds up his sword against the black apparitions pouring out of the floor, the sky grows dark and pounds with thunder, just seconds before Dormin’s voice enters. In The Last Guardian, the boy is put into a trance before being swallowed and carried off into a rainy night sky. Distant lightning flashes through the clouds. It is only moments later that the Master’s power is seen radiating from the Nest.

If the grand arrival of an Entity is marked by the onset of rain, their departure is similarly marked. Shadow‘s deity is sucked out of the Lands by a pool of light and Guardian‘s entity dies in a wrathful wind. Faint crackles of thunder close the last of the light and, the power exploding from the Master is a deafening roar. If the storm of its coming was not spectacular enough, the storm of its going easily makes up for it.

In both these examples there are the themes of gaining and losing control and, that despite any amount of power someone (or thing) has, they cannot avoid their ultimate fate. Many times over the course of Guardian, the young boy is made very vulnerable. He cannot face the knights by himself and needs to rely on Trico being there to protect him. Trico isn’t always around to do so, however. During a momentary separation, the boy runs into an enemy Trico, the very same beast that had forced them to return to the bottom of the valley. All he can do is run and hide. In Shadow of the Colossus, Wander is repeatedly dwarfed in strength and size. He flails with every step the giants take and, a single blow of their energy blasts can kill him in seconds. Unlike the boy, he is a trained warrior who has combat skills. Like the boy, his situation leaves him at the mercy of a hostile being.

On the other side, it is like the beings are completely at the mercy of the protagonists. The hundreds of soldiers and two dozen beasts the Master sends at the boy and Trico end up being all for naught. Likewise, for all of Dormin’s manipulation and scheming, he was only able to taste freedom for less than an hour or so. At times, you don’t really know who is in control. Many times the main character progresses by sheer luck, the boy for instance surviving claw swipes and cave-ins on multiple occasions. None of these miraculous events feel false, as if the designers got lazy and decided to cheat. Every detail falls into place; the story and the relationships in it come across as genuine. This is what makes the arrival of an Entity so powerful, so arresting. You know that the story in front of you is not your own, that you are merely being invited to see it as the main character did. But you still get the overwhelming feeling that the booming Deity is living and breathing and speaking to you. It makes you feel unsettled and, at times, desperate. These are the best moments in Ueda’s games.

Here is how to credit the images above…

Unless credited otherwise, all PlayStation4 screenshots of “Shadow of the Colossus” and “The Last Guardian” (including header images) are my work.

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