Shadow of the Colossus

Review by Steerpike
January 2006


At last year's Game Developers Conference, Espen Aarseth and I discussed the fact that video games, despite having existed for three decades, are still rarely granted the title of "art." Roger Ebert's callous argument that games cannot possibly be art is based on the fact that if they were, someone familiar with cinema, fiction and games alike would have come forward and made a strong argument in their favor; a weak claim indeed, to say that a medium must not be art simply because no one has said it is. And yet even though game scholars are slowly gaining ground in their battle to have video games accepted as an art form, there are few titles they can point to that compare to the best of Welles or Peake.

But Shadow of the Colossus kind of proves that they can be; it deserves comparison to nothing less. Like great art, it is not flawless, and there are those who will not understand it, who will be unable or unwilling to commit to its emotional demands. For those who do commit, they're in for a treat the likes of which they cannot imagine.

Simply put, this game is so brilliant that it ought to be fined. Created by the same team responsible for 2001's critically acclaimed Ico, it follows a similar sort of theme and demands even more sentimental investiture than its predecessor did. Its elegant simplicity, its beauty, its unbelievable capacity to draw you in are without peer.

I have never played a game like Shadow of the Colossus, because there are no games like it.

The Girl on the Altar

From a scientific perspective, Colossus is a platformer focused on exploration and punctuated by white-knuckled combat between your character and sixteen immense monsters—the only sixteen encounters you'll have in the game. But its heart lies in its examination of the selfish human capacity to blindly do harm for the benefit of friends and loved ones without a thought for consequences. Any of us would strangle a puppy, murder ten strangers or burn the Mona Lisa to save the life of our mother, or husband, or son. Someone who didn't know our loved ones would call us criminal, but for the perpetrator it is a small price to pay. In the end, Shadow of the Colossus is an allegory for misguided perspective.

A young man travels for days across a lonely, beautiful landscape. Burdened by a large black package, he and his horse traverse sun-dappled woods, sandy deserts and rocky mountain gorges. Eventually the man finds himself at the foot of an immense stone bridge that stretches to the horizon. At the end lies a crumbling temple. Risking divine retribution for entering this forbidden country, the man rides to the temple and lays the cloth-wrapped parcel on a stone altar. It is a beautiful girl, obviously dead and—given the length of his journey—obviously dead a long time. Though the game's Teen rating and limitations of the aging PS2's graphics mean that the dead girl looks more like a mannequin than an oozing corpse, the point is nonetheless made. Boy lost Girl a while ago; too long to realistically hope to regain her without some Pet Sematary–style problems.

A towering voice booms through the temple. Dormin, an antediluvian force that has long slept here, demands to know why the man has come. Because of a legend, he replies: that this place holds the power to return a loved one to life. Dormin, intrigued by the young man's ownership of an ancient magical sword, offers a trade. Sixteen idols line the temple walls. Each represents a Colossus, a gigantic creature living in the land beyond the temple. If the young man will go out and kill every one, Dormin will resurrect the girl.

As watchers from without, sitting helplessly on our sofa, controller in hand, it's hard at this point not to shout at the man who laid the girl on the slab. Dead is dead, we want to say. Moreover, your girlfriend has been dead for like three weeks, and she's dead because she was sacrificed to save her from a cursed fate, from living a doomed life. As if that weren't enough, this Dormin guy obviously doesn't have your best interests at heart. The closest it comes to worrying about your well-being is a vague warning that the price of the girl's life may be very high indeed. The wrongness of this situation is deafening. But the man doesn't care. No price is too high.

And so you and your horse Agro set out into a lonely country, armed only with your sword and a bow, in search of Colossi to kill. Every victory brings you closer to your goal. But the battles are not easy; the Colossi are so impossibly gargantuan that you must literally crawl around on their bodies, searching for weak spots. Dormin neglects to mention that most of these creatures, massive and terrifying though they may be, are also regal, beautiful, magnificent, like living art. And though they will hurt you if given the opportunity, it is clear that for the most part they just want to be left alone. Indeed, many are far more afraid of you than you are of them.

Larger Than You Think

And therein lies the great emotional hook of Shadow of the Colossus. These are creatures that live alone in a vast country no one ever goes to. A couple of them are certainly belligerent and dangerous, but the majority are willing to live and let live. And most wrenching of all is how statuesque, how grandiose, how staggeringly ... colossal they are. Most are so enormous you'll barely reach their toes. They are monumental. Exquisite. Their graceful immensity, their ancientness, is what makes harming them so awful. Defeating one isn't a "victory," it's a crime, like smashing the Venus de Milo. Moreover, their visages don't encourage violence. Even the angriest are not slime-dripping fiends or nightmare monsters. They are animals.

A club the size of a sequoia slips from suddenly nerveless fingers as you deliver the coup de grace to the first Colossus. It emits a soft cry, a cross between moan and whimper, similar to the sound a dying person might utter. Majestic even in death, it stumbles a few steps and sinks so very slowly to its knees ... then, all grace lost, it does a horrible sudden face plant into the grass, sending a curtain of dirt a hundred feet into the air. It's not just that you must kill them; the difference in Shadow of the Colossus is that you must also watch them die. And it's excruciating.

There are a few that come straight at you with every intention of doing harm. But there is also the Colossus that shrieks in pain as you bring it to its knees with an arrow. There's an inquisitive horse-looking thing that never makes any effort to harm you at all. A couple are asleep when you begin your assault. Another, resembling nothing more than an enormous putting green with wings, is so frightened that it barely tries to defend itself as you clash in the air over a dark and haunted-looking lake filled with the moss-covered columnry of drowned buildings.

These battles are overwhelming. It can take more than an hour to bring a Colossus down, as you first identify the weak points, formulate a strategy and move in for the kill, often depending on the landscape to aid you. They are hectic and adrenaline-saturated. Dust kicked up by the enormous feet or claws dims the sun and reduces visibility as you dismount and dodge between legs thicker than Doric pillars. Agro's screaming whinnies as he gallops about, torn between terror and a desire to be with his master. Your tiny character clinging for dear life to a wounded Colossus as it blunders around, half-blind with pain, shaking its limbs in a frenzy to get you off.

Paradoxically, as bad as you're likely to feel about killing these stately beasts, you're just as likely to race out of the temple after the next one just to experience another battle. Shadow of the Colossus is conscientious minimalism—if there are only sixteen encounters in a thirty-hour game, those sixteen encounters had better be epic.

Big Sky Country

The world you travel in search of targets is as vast as the Colossi themselves. Utterly seamless, there are no loading screens during gameplay. The sword that so impressed Dormin has several unique qualities. In addition to being able to harm Colossi, it can focus sunlight and point you in the direction of the next target—an elegant way to offset the need for a radar or something similarly out of place. Just follow the light.

You'll spend a good deal of time wandering this forbidden country in search of your next Colossus, though your ambulations are neither boring nor unwelcome. You're all alone out there except for Agro, but the experience is breathtaking despite the lack of random encounters. Just exploring it, cantering around through its variant beauty, can gobble hours of play. The crushing emptiness of the landscape is another glittering facet of this game's awesome power.

Ico was a platformer in the Prince of Persia vein; an insensitive person would call it a jumping puzzle game. Shadow, though it has platforming elements, doesn't fall into an established genre—not even a broad one like "action." The best word to describe its play style is introspective. It is a muzzy, dreamlike world: very consciously crafted to leave you alone with your thoughts. Shadow of the Colossus can teach you a lot about yourself. Ironically, this game is much more about senseless cruelty than the Grand Theft Autos of the world. You are left for hours to ponder in solitude a cruel, complex, yet obvious question: how far would you go for someone you love?

And yet unlike Grand Theft Auto, where you always have a choice, in Shadow you do not. If you refuse to kill these creatures, there is no game. That was done quite intentionally; it asks you to do something evil and then forces your hand. You'd almost be justified in resenting it, but at the same time, that's the whole point.

If You Like to Watch

The landscape and Colossus graphics aren't the only visual treats. Animations are Prince of Persia-level spectacular, especially anything Agro does. Given the amount of time you spend with this horse, the designers did well to make him not merely a beautiful animal, but to make each of his movements fluid and lifelike. He seems bigger than any horse has a right to be, or maybe the protagonist is unusually small, but other than that he's a dark smudge of four-legged pulchritude.

Meanwhile, the battle scenes when you're actually on a Colossus are equally amazing. Great artistry went into your character's climbing, leaping and holding-on-for-dear-life animations, all of which bring that much more intensity to an already intense experience. Small treats, like the acrobatics you can pull off on Agro-back, are the butter cream frosting of an already delicious game. I wish Agro had a second gear (his speed settings are limited to "walk," "gallop" and "for the love of God, Agro, it's right behind us"). It would have been useful for explorers, since walk is too slow and gallop is too fast to enjoy the landscape. The same is true when you're on foot.

On the subject of Agro, he is such a sweet and brave animal that you will become hopelessly attached to him within just a few hours of play. Like Yorda in Ico, Agro is defenseless, uncommunicative, and doesn't really do anything specific, but you can tell that he has a big heart all the same. He is as much a protagonist as your own character. In quiet moments he'll crop the grass, or whicker and nuzzle you just as a real horse might. There's something very beautiful about horses and Shadow's designers captured that perfectly, while also instilling in Agro a personality and, dare I say it, humanity that makes you care for him. In many ways, Agro symbolizes the life the two humans were supposed to have led. At the same time, he is also obviously the brains of the operation; Agro can't speak, obviously; your character doesn't speak Horse and would ignore any warnings if he could. But it's clear from pretty early on that Agro thinks all this Colossus-killing is a bad idea, that trying to resurrect the girl is risky at best and potentially catastrophic at worst. The amount you come to love him is quite tangible, because you will sense that he, too, realizes that there's an awful price to be paid at the end of this. While your character doesn't care, Agro does... he's just okay with it because he loves you, as you love the dead girl.

You have to watch Shadow of the Colossus very closely, because much of the interim story is told in the graphics, not the narrative. Your character undergoes a marked physical deterioration as you advance; what had been a good-looking young man evolves into a scarred and ghastly apparition. The girl, meanwhile—though still a corpse—is becoming more and more radiant with each passing Colossus. There are millions of subtle visual changes that tell the story without the need for cutscenes. Frankly, though, this game is probably a little too subtle for its own good.

The Hope Diamond Was Flawed, Too

And it is not perfect. Shadow of the Colossus has its share of stains and gremlins.

All of the reviews are taking issue with somewhat icky camera and movement controls. The camera is not generally where you want it to be, nor is it particularly easy to maneuver, due to its annoying habit of wandering back to an inconvenient first position just when you've adjusted it to your liking. It's never infuriating but always mildly bothersome. Similarly, movement controls could be a bit more elegant. My other complaint about the controls is a personal one: in my opinion, "left" and "right" in third-person games should be always calculated from the perspective of the camera rather than the character. If you're facing the camera in Colossus and push right, you go left. Bugs me. Luckily, the game includes ample options to customize your control set, though it remains imperfect no matter how much you tune.

Perfect games are the worst kind, because the instant they introduce the tiniest flaw, you can't forgive them. Much of the magic of this game vanished when I encountered the eleventh Colossus, by far the smallest and easily the most maddening, with its incredibly annoying way of doing damage. The fourteenth Colossus is a carbon copy of the eleventh—weird since all of the others exhibit such variance—and that added insult to injury. And though they were clearly going for a Wagnerian sense of epic with the final Colossus, the climactic battle should have been a lot richer. It's not bad; they just failed to save the best for last. It starts out brutally (some would say unfairly) difficult and winds up simply frustrating. It may drive some players away, which would be a shame. So little story is revealed mid-game that you really need to see the end to decide for yourself whether or not the juice was worth the squeeze for our young protagonist.

Basically, what it boils down to is this: they tested the bejesus out of this game. They must have. The level of tuning that went into it is glaringly obvious. It was polished and polished and polished until it shone. Normally that's a good thing, but it also means that annoyances like the irksome camera and obnoxious eleventh Colossus were not oversights. The developers consciously introduced them, which angers me deeply. It's like they actually said, "Okay, we've got a perfect game, and obviously we can't have that. So what can we put in there that brings it down a notch?"

A Long Shadow

Shadow of the Colossus is heavily influenced by the Biblical story of Nimrod (try spelling that backward) and his wife Semiramis, though much of the allusive stuff is so incredibly obscure that it will probably be lost on most players. The ending especially may be difficult to understand if you don't remember your Sunday school. It also helps some to have played Ico all the way through. Shadow is billed as a "spiritual successor" to Ico, much like Fallout was to Wasteland, but the sharp-eyed observer would be more likely to call it a prequel.

In the end, we get to the deep complexity of theme in this game. Does it achieve its potential? That is ultimately a subjective question. The game is, in many ways, much like a Colossus: magnificent, epic, stark, beautiful ... and occasionally damned frustrating. It's very difficult to walk a perfect line between art and entertainment; too much of one means a sacrifice of the other. For about 80% of the game, Shadow walks that line like a laser beam, but it does drift now and then.

It is relentless in communicating its thematic impact, but then it waters that impact down with some plot tweaks in the endgame. I wish it hadn't done this, though I must admit that these decisions may not have been in the design team's hands. The point is still made, though, and one of the many beautiful aspects of this game is that you can completely ignore all of this theme stuff and still enjoy it immensely—though I would like to meet the individual callous enough to laugh at the death of one of those august creatures.

Killing as a method of problem-solving in video games is so common that we don't even think about it anymore. In most cases, if an obstacle is alive, the best way past is to kill it. And as in an action movie, very rarely do you pause to consider that the person or creature you just killed is dead. One day soon, a black sedan will pull up outside the cave where the creature grew up, and two grim-faced fiends will put a folded flag into its mother's tentacles and tell her that her son died protecting the Empire of Muxlox or the Conglomerated Association of Space Pirates or something, and that she should be proud. We never think about the funeral, or the creature's high-school girlfriend crying salty tears out of her many eyes. All of that seems silly. In a video game, if there's a creature, you blast it and don't waste a thought on its mom or girlfriend.

Shadow of the Colossus demands that you not only think about it but endure the agonizing last moments of frightened and dying things. And it cruelly rubs salt into the wound by forcing you to commit the murders. There is no "other way" in Colossus—there are no other solutions to the problem, other than turning the game off.

It is not an indictment of game violence. Its meaning is broader than that. Shadow of the Colossus reminds us that violence has consequences that ripple out well beyond the initial act. As Dormin warns at the beginning of the game, employing death as currency to purchase life can mean a very high price indeed. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: SCEA
Publisher: SCEA
Release Date: October 2005

Available for: PlayStation 2

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