Fumito Ueda’s stories offer many an opportunity for stress. In Shadow of the Colossus, much of the young warrior’s time is spent finding, fighting and slaying sixteen, monolithic kaiju. He had come hundreds of miles with the hope of reviving a sacrificed maiden, crossing rivers, cliffs, mountain passes and swamps to get there. Encountering these Colossi make those travels look like nothing but, it is the only way. In The Last Guardian, a young boy is kidnapped and put face-to-face with a powerful, man-eating beast. It knocks him unconscious several times before his efforts to help are accepted. And, mere hours after their agreement to trust each other, the pair is hunted by ghostly armor and other man-eating beasts. Both protagonists are made quite vulnerable.
Despite this, these stories are known for their slower pace and, thoughtful, moody atmospheres. How come? Interspersed between the danger and the frenzy, Ueda provides areas of the landscape in which to find sanctuary. Enter a forest.
I remember spending a solid fifteen minutes watching the boy do nothing but sit quietly under a patch of trees. The breeze caressed the foliage so gently. A low-poly lizard scurried into the stone. Sigh of relief. Compared to the claustrophobic halls, this place seemed to breathe.
It was not until later that it dawned on me. I must have spent the last half hour or so evading possessed suits of armor and, trying to give commands to my giant, feathered friend. Working with Trico wasn’t so bad. It was my inability to fight back. A lack of control over the things and creatures around me. It seemed that Trico and the boy were as tired as I was. So, we all took a break.
The frustration experienced is all too intentional; by playing the game, you have agreed to the terms and conditions of stepping into the narrator’s shoes. Every emotion invoked in you is an emotion invoked in the character. If it means having to turn off the game and come back later, so be it. Struggling with the controls is Ueda’s way of making you feel like you are the boy working to climb and run. Even Wander, a trained warrior, is put in his place.
The most draining sequence in Guardian (apart from the ending, of course) is when you become separated from Trico. You nearly drown after trying to hold on for too long and, you end up drifting helplessly away, your senses fading. When you wake, Trico is nowhere to be found. The escapade takes you through crevices and over chasms that might have been avoided if Trico were there. But he isn’t. The temple-like halls are eerily quiet. You take your every step not knowing how, where, when, or even if you will be reunited. The nightmare doesn’t end before you are tricked into thinking you’ve met up with Trico; instead, the hostile beast who tried killing you before now pins you into corners.
“Think about the range of emotions this scene takes you through building on the relationships already established in the game, your friendship with Trico and your rivalry with the other beast. It’s sad, it’s scary, it’s lonely, manipulative, stressful, and then joyful finally… In any industry filled with power fantasies The Last Guardian is not afraid to disempower you.”
The sheer terror Ueda is willing to evoke in players is precisely what makes his moments of calm so beautiful. He approaches storytelling in the same way a composer approaches his music: with contrast. The danger needs to be offset by stillness. Stillness, likewise, cannot last forever. This is what made those fifteen minutes feel like bliss.
In Shadow of the Colossus there are several wooded areas to run into. One is darkly lit, forcing the sun to reach your face and shoulders in parallel beams. Beautiful, but it is laid out as a place to travel to, not rest in (it is introduced early on in the story while the player is entirely focused on conquering the next Colossus). Eventually, though, the player begins to grow weary of Dormin’s bargain, even if there is a thrill to each battle and, even if the wish to see Mono live again is an urgent feeling. This is what I like about the forest on the way to Colossus Twelve: it is a destination.
I come here to calm down because it doesn’t move. The Lands are continually blowing and breathing, restless and barren, ever stretching out into the distance with the rolling clouds. This wood is, by contrast, a shelter. A living temple hall. Cool waters flow through the underbrush as if made of smooth glass. The soil is rich and healthy. Blades of grass only move if I make them. In a way, there is a sense of control here that is absent elsewhere. I am able to choose when and where I go.
By including both open and closed regions of the landscape, a sense of balance is created for the game and, I have found that nothing else provides this so naturally. It keeps the atmosphere fresh, preventing things from feeling artificially confined or exposed. It also lends to the plot. If the character faces a challenge which works against their freedom, the set should reflect this. Guardian‘s ruins feature cage-like chambers that assault Trico’s mind. Suitably, there is no place for the boy to escape to when the beast turns hostile. In Shadow, the Eighth Colossus inhabits a narrow arena; there is only so far Wander can go to flee from the monster’s ranged, gaseous attacks.
Kow Otani’s ‘Prayer’ comes to mind. It brings the tense battle with Kuromori to a close, gripping the mood and hushing it down. Pillars in the Shrine are reminiscent of a row of trees, their stone covered by vines and roots, forcing the sun to shed into the hall as if through a canopy. I cannot rest here, however. Not truly. It is too cold, too large. The columns don’t seal off the back wall but, leave it open to the elements. And if you know what the ending holds, you understand what else dwells in there. But for the moment… as Wander slowly regains consciousness, witnessing dim visions of the maiden he loves returning to life, it is a much needed pause. Dormin even waits before revealing the next riddle.
My only gripe with trying to reach these green havens is that the journey comes at a cost. You have to earn being there.
It took me defeating eleven Colossi before I could reach that forest. A long while. Unless you have already played through the game or, watched over the shoulder of your sibling, you don’t know to step away from where the Sword directs. Shadow is both an open world and strictly linear. The thirteenth Colossus won’t wake from its age-long slumber if it is the seventh you need to defeat. Similarly, there is only one way to get through the ruins in Guardian and, trying to take an alternate route leads to capture by the valley’s army. Reaching a forest takes hours of blood, sweat and tears. Struggles abound but, real peace awaits. No other way makes it worth the while.
Here is how to credit the images above…
- Image by IphisAria in Enter a Forest.
- Image by IphisAria; blog Epilogue ~ Those Who Remain, post Enter a Forest.
Unless credited otherwise, all PlayStation4 screenshots of “Shadow of the Colossus” and “The Last Guardian” (including header images) are my work.