Shadow of the Colossus, or, “Oh man, WHAT HAVE I DONE?”

15 September, 2010 § 1 Comment

By turns tense, evocative, and downright cruel, “Shadow of the Colossus” (PS2, Team ICO, 2005) is a truly unique gaming experience. This is a game that is more an interactive tone poem about brutally stabbing massive, mostly beautiful creatures to death than a typical fantasy adventure.

Yes, every image from the game is this epic.

The highly unorthodox and mostly nonexistent narrative follows a young man, Wander, who carries a dead woman on horseback to a temple where a booming male/female voice tells him he must kill 16 Colossi across a forbidden and uninhabited land to bring the woman back to life. That’s the first fifteen minutes, but that’s also it in terms of story until the last hour. Favoring extreme minimalism over any concrete plot, “Shadow of the Colossus” forces the gamer into a place of contemplation and silence for much of the game, where they can uncharacteristically think long and hard about just why they do what they do.

Punctuating the serene and lonely nature of the game are the simply unbelievable battles between little Wander and the mammoth Colossi. Marked by the most impossibly epic soundtrack known to man, the player must outwit the Colossus, find their weakness, and stab them to death under a rain of pitch black blood. It’s a singular experience that’s equal parts scary, saddening, and satisfying. And you must do it sixteen times, each time significantly more difficult than the last.

It all may sound a bit barbaric, killing these huge creatures that are mostly docile and sometimes oblivious to their killer. And that’s the point. Take the somber and depressing “Colossus death theme”: what you are doing is something terrible and destructive. GOT IT YET, GAMERS?

Each Colossus’ death finds a weary Wander surrounded and incapacitated by black streams of energy emitted from the dead body. Don’t bother trying to outrun them; the black tentacles’ grasp is inescapable. Wander then wakes up in the temple he started in, fated to kill again and again without a choice. Long stretches of silence (music is only played during Colossus battles and in the temple) and gorgeous scenery provide eerie contrast to the violent battles with the Colossi.

These uncomfortable feelings aroused by the seemingly needless violence are eventually justified in one of the most shocking, cruel, and somber endings for any video game, ever.

[MASSIVE SPOILERS]

After killing the final Colossus and losing his only companion, his horse Agro, Wander speaks to the disembodied voice in the temple about raising the woman back to life. Instead, a group of knights on horseback find Wander and shoot him with a crossbow. As he struggles towards the woman, they tell him he has done a terrible thing and must be punished with death. So a knight stabs him to death, and not unlike a Colossus, Wander’s body (gradually corrupted black with grime and sprouting two mysterious horns on his head) gives out and spurts black blood.

Suddenly, he rises again, this time in the form of a massive Colossus. Colossus Wander attacks the knights but is too big to fit in the temple and languishes angrily. In a direct subversion of the entire game, the player is now a Colossus that is unable to kill its human attackers, doomed to the fate of every one of its kind in the most depressingly hopeless boss fight in video games. The knights retreat and throw Wander’s sword into a pool, which creates a vortex that sucks in Colossus Wander who disappears, screaming.

Suddenly the woman wakes up. Wander’s horse, alive, trots pathetically toward her with a badly broken leg. She nuzzles the horse delicately and walks towards the pool Colossus Wander was sucked into. Inside it she finds a baby with horns corresponding to Wander’s. She picks up the baby and walks alongside the horse into the desolate wilderness. Cue credits.

[END MASSIVE SPOILERS]

Sniff sniff… sorry, it’s just some Colossus blood in my eye. I swear!

With such an open-ended and downbeat ending, it’s little surprise “Shadow” has been praised for its brave artistry. A high number of gamers were so upset by their actions committed in game that many files were started but unfinished. And that’s the real beauty of “Shadow”: player complicity.

It’s easy to play a game like “Grand Theft Auto IV” and run about killing things. The death and violence is far removed from the actual player; it is, after all, fake. But a game like “Shadow of the Colossus” tricks the player into asking themselves morally uncomfortable questions: why do we kill in games? Is it some latent propensity towards violence that lies somewhere in each of us? Do we do it in games because we can “get away with it,” without real physical, mental, or emotional harm? Are we not monsters ourselves for doing these awful things simply because we can “get away with it”? Is it moral to kill many to possibly save one? How is it justified to destroy innocent beings for something nearly impossible?

The scariest part of the game’s (admittedly vague) message is the reasoning for killing the Colossi. The player kills mostly because they are told to. Sure, some of the Colossi fight back or outright attack Wander, but for the most part they don’t even acknowledge his presence. But Wander (and, of course, the player) kills the Colossi out of command from the godlike voice in the temple with the seemingly impossible intention of raising the dead. That many gamers, increasingly uncomfortable or disturbed with their in-game actions, actually stopped playing the game because it hit them so hard attests to what sets “Shadow” apart from games like “Grand Theft Auto” in its realistic depiction of violence. “Shadow” tears down the idea of “getting away with it” because it’s “just a game.”

“Shadow of the Colossus” stands as a testament for games as art: not only is the game beautifully designed and remarkably playable (despite the soul-crushing depression) but every moment is laden with deep emotion, like a Beethoven piano sonata. This is a massive game. Go and play it. Come over to my apartment in play it, if you like. But no matter what, play this game.

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