The music feels like you might have saved someone you love, but you couldn’t save everyone you loved.
— Kō Ōtani
This music that composer Kō Ōtani describes is unique considering it was written to accompany a video game—not a film. Its opening piece, “Prologue: To the Ancient Land”, displays this uniqueness in that it stands out as an artistic overture. The last time overtures were commonplace was in the 1950s, an era where a vast array of widescreen epics called for equally lengthy scores. Despite the era’s fad-like obsession with giant soundtracks, however, only a handful of films come to mind that benefited from their inclusion.
In this way Shadow of the Colossus stands in contrast to the scores of games that surround it on the store shelf. It is highly artistic, featuring majestic cinematography and storytelling that is beautifully understated, elements one would expect from a high-quality film. On the other hand, the plot is simple, the storytelling poignant but delicate, and the morality painful, a combination usually seen in a novel or poem. The primary reason why Shadow has been described as “achingly beautiful” is because its story and visual presentation are coupled with an opus magnum. Sight and sound take equal part in carrying the narrative. Where one ceases, the other begins, the two overlapping in ways rarely seen.
Kō Ōtani describes how one of his compositions defies common expectation, “For example,” he says, “in the track “End of the Battle,” you would think the music would be triumphant after winning.” Instead, the music descends in overlapping half-tones, clashing and resolving in a watery volume of strings and voices. “[A]s a whole, this soundtrack has more in common with a prayer or a requiem.”
The second track, “Prohibited Arts”, is much like “End of the Battle.” The wanderer has traveled mile upon mile through forests, mountain passes and marshes in hopes of reaching the Forbidden Lands, a mysterious place rumored to have power to revive the dead. Now that he has arrived, he slides off the saddle and gently takes the body of his love into his arms, carrying her and the weight of his grief toward an Altar.
Already at the onset, Otani’s music may appear overly depressing. However, the score’s use of requiem-like themes was not done merely for the sake of creating a somber mood. Instead, it provides something for the story where the plot cannot be told through visual design. Where our eyes see one thing, our ears are being told to interpret. The requiem serves as the added lens through which we see events take place, giving our minds a guide-rail by which to asses the characters’ sense of morality.
A thread strung through the game’s narrative is one of virtue and abuse. Visually the player is shown a selfless young man who wishes to revive the life of a loved one, no matter the cost. Audibly the player is told that the circumstances are grave, the stakes high, and the options slim. As the story progresses, this same wanderer goes from being a hero to a monster, slaying mountains that the music portrays to be innocent. Then in an unpredictable turn of events, the young man is corrupted by the very being he made his bargain with, being turned into one of the giants he was so quickly slaying in the beginning. What does the music do here? It plays the same sorrowful lament for the young man that it gave the Colossi upon their deaths. As one YouTuber put it, “It turns the heroes into villains and villains into victims.” The hero loses his innocence by shedding innocent blood on behalf of another, and in the end becomes just as much a victim as the Colossi he felled.
It would be shortsighted to go on about Kō Ōtani’s score without mentioning its battle themes. Although describing them here may seem misplaced, it is because of them that the score has such a wide and dynamic library of emotions. The calm only sounds as still as it does out of a comparison with the chaotic. Furthermore, Ōtani’s battle themes are crucial in maintaining that uncanny sense of mystery and heaviness that permeates the story. This is due to two reasons. Firstly, when Wander is not fighting kaiju, he is riding Agro.
Her 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 made the Lands too silent—uneasy even—for a forgetful, carefree attitude.
Secondly, Ōtani’s battle themes reinforce moods insinuated in cinematics, utilizing motifs from the narrative’s most crucial moments. The scene where shadows come creeping out of the temple floor plays a track titled “Black Blood“. Its impression of a darkly veiled, threatening aura is revisited in “Grotesque Figures” and again in the flowing “Creeping Shadow”. The first moment the player hears that ‘sound,’ it is to say that Wander has trespassed into the one place he shouldn’t have, and for good reason. When it returns, it is during his first encounter with a Colossus. It is as if to say, “Look hard and well at what you agreed to do. You cannot yet see the cost of your actions, but I can. Be warned.” The player is continually reminded of what kind of tale this is and as a result, every moment, whether it be of despair or triumph, seems to march toward the dark price coming due.
I personally group Shadow‘s battle themes into four categories, fight, triumph, horror and solemnity. The first category ‘fight,’ is characterized by a sense of Wander on one side and the Colossus on the other, the two countering each other on near-equal ground (sometimes literally). “Grotesque Figures”, “A Violent Encounter”, “A Despair-Filled Farewell”, and “Gate Watcher of the Castle Ruins” are prime examples. These tend to bring out that sense of struggle within the player as they witness the power of the giants. What is the solution? Where is the target? How do I even reach this moving mountain? No one has gained an edge over the other, and at this point the player is still carrying that sense of uneasiness from their long time spent in silence when they were working their way through the landscape. They have brought the scale of the land with them in their mind and now they witness a living part of it–and all the majesty and power that it brings. These can make the player feel very human as Wander is pitted against the Colossi.
The second category ‘triumph,’ plays when Wander has finally solved the puzzle of a particular Colossus and is now able to scale its grand body. As the type’s name suggests, the tone of these themes is exciting and exuberant, emphasizing Wander’s gaining the upper hand. “Revived Power”, “In Awe of the Power”, “Counterattack”, and the march-like “Opened Way”, all fall under this category. These are interesting when compared to the overall feel of the game; as with the thrilling “Swift Horse”, these pieces let the player—if only for a brief moment—escape the bargain’s dreadful weight. They simply let the sheer power and majesty of the giants take the forefront of the scene. And how wonderful it is! For all the time spent in silence with the lands, this part of the score finally chooses to work alongside the excitement that has been building within. The rush of adrenaline bursts forth and the exuberance of the fight takes hold.
The third type of battle theme ‘horror,’ is just like what it sounds. Unlike the triumph themes where Wander has the high ground, these alert the player that he may be getting in over his head. The Colossi with which they play are often violent, if not especially swift. “A Messenger from Behind” and “Liberated Guardian” are the most frantic. In some cases however (as with the sixth Colossus), track “Grotesque Figures” counts toward this third variety with its slower tempo and strong, impending doom. Ōtani does especially well in broadening the mood. There is not just one ‘sound’ for the sense of horror, just as he created more than one ‘sound’ for the fight and triumph themes. There is the sharp, sudden horror that sweeps into the player without prior notice, as well as a gradual, devouring, almost-aching sense of horror that grows and grows and seems to swallow the moment in a seeping fog. In a way, this then merges with the last type of battle theme, ‘solemnity.’
The fourth and final flavor, ‘solemnity,’ is unique as it musically bridges the mood between battles and storytelling. They are characterized by very slow tempos, a sense of swirling, rising and falling, and dirge-like chords. “Silence”, “Creeping Shadow”, and “Demise of the Ritual” are beautiful specimens. Weighty yet effervescent, these are incarnations of the game’s atmosphere and very soul. They reflect the weight and sorrow Wander feels in his own being, as well as the warning the story has against him for heeding Dormin’s instruction. At times, Shadow ends up feeling not too dissimilar from Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke, and rightfully so. Both stories deal with corruption, whether it be abstractly as in one’s actions or, physically as in one’s body. Both stories also show mankind for what it is, that it is neither fully evil nor fully good. There is a great conflict between humanity, nature and the supernatural. Mortals take sides with or against the gods and, bloodshed is the result. Few characters remain that still long for peace.
I say again, the two elements which makes this score so unique is how the themes build on each other and, how music during battle sequences make reference to motifs used during cinematics. My favorite example occurs through the three tracks, “Grotesque Figures”, “In Awe of the Power”, and “Epilogue: Those Who Remain”. The theme heard between 00:13 and 00:45 of “Grotesque” is nearly identical to the theme heard between 0:12 and 0:37 of “Power” and, again between 3:40 and 4:00 of “Epilogue”. The first time you hear it, it is tense, dreadful and overpowering. The second time, in “Power”, it is heroic and thrilling. The third and last time in “Epilogue”, it is mournful. This theme has gone through all four categories of battle themes, even making it into the game’s final footage.
Another notable example is between the thematic backbone of the demonic bargain, track “Resurrection” and the piece that serves as its apex, “Demise of the Ritual”. These reveal the dark truth of what Wander blindly agreed to, featuring a rich choir, ominous bass line, crisp organ chords and clanging bells. They bring to mind the great, cavernous halls of cathedrals and, the spiritual weight of wrongs and transgressions. The very act of having entered the Forbidden Lands and the Temple feels sacrilegious.
Nowadays a lot of art tends to be positive, but in the past, art had a sense of decay to it. That’s something I like about this soundtrack.
— Kō Ōtani
In Japan, there is the saying, Mono no aware. “It is a Japanese term for the awareness of impermanence (無常 mujō) or, transience of things. This includes both a transient gentle sadness (or wistfulness) at their passing as well as a longer, deeper, gentle sadness about this state being the reality of life” (Wikipedia). Listening to Ōtani’s score reminds me of this tone in which poet Matsuo Bashō wrote his many haiku. In both Bashō’s poetry and Ōtani’s music, there is a longing for respite from the pain and tragedy of this world. At the same time, however, they both contain a sense of resignation and a forlorn sorrow because, they know that any effort to find this relief is futile. Happiness is frail. Also, while some actions can bring good, others only bring more hardship, even if they were well-intentioned. The young man’s goal to slay the Colossi and revive his love was a choice that left him scarred for life. He got more than he set out for and in several respects, the situation he landed in was worse than what he began with. Ōtani’s soundtrack beautifully captures these emotions.
“Men have dubbed those lands as ‘forsaken’, ‘accursed’. It seems the lifeforce of all that is around us disagrees, for that territory could not be any better. Nature was responsible for evoking every feeling possible during this adventure, from the loneliness of windy winding roads, to the anger of huge, thumping beats; from the sadness of a quiet lake serenade to the aggressiveness of the roar of the unknown; the happiness of a victory, and the disappointment with a defeat.”
— Square Enix Music (10/10)
“And so, here upon us, we have a monumental work that perfectly evokes solitude, fear, courage, and even hope. Few soundtracks have ever been this ambitious, especially those written for a video game, and even fewer have been this enjoyable and beautiful.”
— Sputnik Music (4.7/5)
“The use of the requiem throughout Shadow of the Colossus weaves a story that is not told through its narrative or mechanics. It turns the heroes into villains and villains into victims.”
Here is how to credit the images without attribution…
- Image by IphisAria in Ōtani’s Requiem.
- Image by IphisAria; blog Epilogue ~ Those Who Remain, post Ōtani’s Requiem.
Unless credited otherwise, all PlayStation4 screenshots of “Shadow of the Colossus” and “The Last Guardian” (including header images) are my work.