Horned Vessels

In Shadow of the Colossus, the main character Wander is charged with slaying sixteen monsters the size of mountains, a monumental effort made in exchange for the revival of a sacrificed maiden. The most intriguing impression I gained from watching him find and kill these Colossi was how magnificent they were. Not just in the sense of seeing something so huge walk before my eyes but, to get the idea that they are really alive. It then feels wrong to kill them. They are too regal, too beautiful, to watch them fall and die.  [Spoilers below]

Sometimes I think that Wander is an intruder, that the Colossi are and always were natural guardians of the lands. So, it seems odd to think that they are not animals but, walking prisons. To believe the Colossi are centuries-old, sentient beings is not wrong. But to stop here would be like calling the tip the whole iceberg. With every detail presented of characters’ backstories, it just so happens that something bigger, deeper, and darker is happening. When you meet a Colossus, you meet the Entity with whom Wander made his bargain: Dormin himself.

Some hundreds, even thousands of years before the events of the game, Dormin’s body was slain and his soul divided into sixteen fragments, each housed within one of the Colossi. Whether the Colossi existed before his imprisonment is uncertain. All we know is that he now gives them a sense of life. They walk around and demonstrate differing levels of intelligence and aggression. Some run from Wander if attacked, while others try to shred him in maddening fury. These differing behaviors exist because Dormin is a dynamic personality. He wants to manipulate, jumping at the opportunity to get free. But he also maintains his composure, speaking in such a way that keeps the young man from suspecting anything. I sometimes think Dormin is toying with him; the Colossi that try to swallow Wander are inhabited by the same being that desperately needs to keep him alive.

The idea of vessels began all the way back with Fumito Ueda’s first game ICO, the story of a horned boy who is chained and left to die within a seaside castle. The castle monarch intends to sacrifice her daughter’s soul so that she can inhabit the remaining body, extending her own life. Shadowy apparitions roam about, mere fragments of what used to be human children, Ico’s horned kin; they posses just enough of their souls to act as servants, doing as the Queen bids and hunting down Yorda in the process.

ICO, Sony Interactive Entertainment (2001, 2011); sourced from the TeamICO Wiki

In Ueda’s third game, The Last Guardian, hollow suits of armor chase the unnamed protagonist, trying to pull the boy through doorways from which there is no return. The armor have no minds of their own but, collectively act on the whim of a greater, single will. Crushing the armor severs their connection with the mysterious influence, leaving them broken and scattered, utterly lifeless on the stone floor. Guardian‘s vessels are not nearly as dark as those in ICO but, they don’t have to be. Armored beasts, animals of the same species as Trico, serve as the boy’s most formidable obstacle. Under the same strange influence as the suits of armor, they are not physical but mental vessels. In the climax of the game, the boy reaches the Entity behind it all. Every encounter with a vessel is a steady climb toward the Master’s power.

Several Yoroi chase the boy in ‘The Last Guardian’

Shadow of the Colossus has the darkest and most dynamic use of vessels. As Wander slays the Colossi one by one, he absorbs the black tendrils that emerge from their corpses, becoming a vessel himself. Dormin’s need for Wander is twofold; Wander must stay alive long enough to slay all Sixteen and, Dormin needs Wander’s body so that he may exist and interact in the physical world. Shadow ends with Wander possessed, his body killed and Dormin reviving it under his own control. The warrior gains a pair of bull’s horns as a result.

In all three games there is a connection between horns and control. The boy Ico is born with a pair and is thus “cursed.” Soldiers from his village lock him away to die because they believe it is for the good of their people. He is controlled physically by his bondage until his coffin breaks open, allowing for his encounter with Yorda and their subsequent efforts to escape. Their journey ends with the Queen’s death and his horns being broken. In Shadow of the Colossus, though Wander is possessed by Dormin, controlling him both physically and somewhat mentally, he is freed by the cleansing Pool of Light. Dormin is pulled completely from his body but, his horns still remain. In The Last Guardian, the boy never gains a pair but, his giant, feathered friend does. The night that the boy is kidnapped, Trico flies into a lightning storm and is struck out of the sky. Crashing into structures on the way down breaks his horns and wings, severing the Master’s control from his mind and, enabling him to meet the boy. Over the course of the story, Trico’s wings heal and his horns grow back, despite increasing resilience against the Master’s power. The suits of armor and other beasts have the same blue-green horns that Trico has.

In Japanese the phrase ‘toriko ni naru’ means to be “spellbound” or “enraptured” by something beautiful. — Fumito Ueda

One of the multiple meanings behind Trico’s name is the concept of being imprisoned or, arrested by sheer beauty. Trico never gawks at the game’s amazing scenery but, he does freeze up in front of the many stained-glass eyes found throughout the maze. It takes help from the boy to remove them and calm him down. Another area where Trico’s will is suppressed is in the Cage rooms. Each time Trico jumps down into one as he follows the boy, waves of energy begin to radiate, making Trico hostile. Trico does not recognize the boy or, if he does, he cannot stop himself from attacking. It takes going through several of these rooms before Trico gains enough strength to resist their influence.

Horns are Ueda’s symbol of fate and its inevitability. Characters are permanently scarred. No matter what they do, they have no other option but to take the path before them, even if this means losing the person they most care about. Sometimes the enemy outright wins. In ICO, Ico he was able to free Yorda but, no-one was safe from the castle’s demise. In The Last Guardian, Trico and the boy repeatedly come very close to death—Ueda toys with the idea of killing them throughout the story—but they are allowed to live. Separated. Despite all that they went through, the boy was forced to give up his friendship with Trico.

I believe that the many vessels portrayed in Ueda’s trilogy are his way of grappling with the fear of losing control. His symbolism of horns adds a deeper layer, linking destiny with the power of the supernatural. It is very fitting for these haunting narratives.

Here is how to credit the images without attribution…

If an image has a caption crediting it to an author other than myself, use the information from that caption.

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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