In ICO, Shadow of the Colossus and The Last Guardian, characters are forced to live with the consequences of their actions. Phrased this way and it doesn’t sound particularly shocking. Phrased as ‘death isn’t the worst thing that could happen’ and you begin to see something deeper. In recent media, writers are exploiting their audiences’ fear of losing the character they have come to admire. While this is an interesting and effective plot device, it is often overused. Fumito Ueda, the creator of ICO, Shadow and Guardian, changes things up a bit. Instead of ending the hero’s life, he decides to keep that hero alive. At a cost. Twisting that character’s selflessness so that it becomes his own undoing. Preventing him from protecting those he loves. And pulling him down into a world of mortality, weakness and loss. Through the sparing of a character’s life, players are made to feel just how weighty their decisions can become. [Spoilers below.]
In Shadow of the Colossus, a young man named Wander brings a sacrificed girl into the Shrine of Worship, a temple that stands in forbidden territory. Here he encounters Dormin and it is to this deity he pleads his case. Dormin says it may be possible to bring back her soul, but under one condition: slay the sixteen Colossi that roam the Lands. He warns Wander that the price “may be heavy indeed,” but the young man disregards it. Time and again he climbs the back of a magnificent creature to stab away at its vitals and watch as it crashes to the ground. As the giant corpse turns black, shadowy tendrils emerge into the air and surge into Wander’s body, painfully bringing him to his knees and rendering him unconscious. Over time his veins grow sickly. His skin turns a gray color. His hair darkens. However, none of these physical changes are apparent until it is too late. This is intentional. We only see what we do because it is all Wander can see and, this causes the aftermath to be all the more unsettling. He becomes victim to a curse, his motives manipulated and his body possessed when, all he wanted to see was the girl live again.
In The Last Guardian, the runic markings that cover the boy’s skin are less to foreshadow some hidden evil and are instead a representation of his vulnerability. Each time he is swallowed by a man-eating beast, the boy enters a dark space in which he witnesses disjointed visions. He cannot escape what he sees and when they end, he enters into oppressive darkness. His senses are severely muffled. His own heartbeat sounds like a distant, weakly thudding drum. Crowds of symbols clutter his vision. As he struggles to wake, they clear and a faraway light appears. Every effort dispels the runes and gathers the light closer to him. Eventually he enters this light and regains consciousness. Every moment is a challenge to overcome. He has been abducted out of his home and placed into a desolate valley. Possessed suits of armor chase him at every turn. Whenever he tries to find a way forward, he must traverse crumbling bridges, dead ends and narrow, cliff-side paths. Pretty much everything is beyond his control.
The boy’s powerlessness to alter his surroundings is precisely what makes the ending of his story so strong. After all that he went through—turning to a hostile beast for aid, forming with it an inseparable bond, working together to fight knights, running from the other man-eating beasts and, meeting the Entity behind it all—he is forced to turn his friend away. “There was nothing else I could do…” the grown boy narrates. “Reluctantly, I said the words.” For the rest of their lives, boy and beast live in separation. His village would kill the animal. And he could not possibly go back to the Valley. The best he can do is to share his story with the next generation.
The degradation that Ueda’s characters experience is not just of their bodies. It is also of their souls as, they deal with creatures and powers which transcend the physical. Wander ignorantly put his own soul on the line, damaging it each time a portion of Dormin’s essence invaded his body, inevitably sacrificing himself for the maiden. In Guardian, the boy’s spirit is nearly given over to the Master of the Valley on many occasions, most notably in the event of his kidnapping. Upon reaching the Tower, he witnesses what would have transpired if all had gone according to the Master’s plans. Beasts regurgitate children they captured into a bird-shaped Shrine, a structure which funnels them down toward the Entity’s disembodied essence. In exchange, the beasts are fed barrels of a glowing, blue-green liquid. Every child is encapsulated by this substance, creating the runic markings on their skin and keeping them in a trance. Their markings are glowing bright. But the boy’s are dark, his mind remaining free from the Master’s influence.
This is a story of blood and ink, as much as it is of pixels. — Nicholle Lamerichs
Between the stories of Shadow and Guardian, the greatest similarities occur when their characters are incapacitated by a supernatural power. The white tunnel that Wander enters is very similar to the light the Boy perceives and, the pillars of light that appear over each dead Colossus increase in number, just as the markings on the Boy’s skin grow more complex. Encountering the divine takes a toll. With repeated exposure, Ueda’s characters grow weak and sick, their lives repeatedly ebbing in and out of the world. He denies his characters the opportunity of death in favor of bringing them to their knees.
It all gets back to a wrestling for control, whether it be trying to gain control over difficult circumstances or, trying to escape another’s domination. Can fate be swayed? Or are all efforts chained, everything leading up to that one, inescapable moment? Unlike Ueda’s use of horns, the symbolism of degradation is more reflective of the character’s personal struggle. It represents their weakness, the challenges they face and, their fears (or what they should be afraid of, if they aren’t already). Their suffering is the result of reaching toward a power they could never have.
Below is a fan-made, hand drawn trailer for Shadow of the Colossus; its ending portrays an interpretation of the degradation Wander succumbs to…
Here is how to credit the images above…
- Image by IphisAria in Degradation and Mortality.
- Image by IphisAria; blog Epilogue ~ Those Who Remain, post Degradation and Mortality.
Unless credited otherwise, all PlayStation4 screenshots of “Shadow of the Colossus” and “The Last Guardian” (including header images) are my work.