Though Ico became a critical favorite when it was released in 2001, it failed to become a bestseller. Only 700,000 copies were sold worldwide by the end of the decade. Fumito Ueda, the game’s lead designer, speculated that his “design by subtraction” ethos may have hurt its commercial success. In the early 2000s, games were typically promoted through still images rather than with gameplay footage. An uninitiated person would take one look at screenshots of Ico and see a game without a heads-up display, being led to wrongly believe that it was either incomplete or overly simplistic. Not helping matters was Ico being released in the face of fierce competition such as Halo, Metal Gear Solid 2, and Grand Theft Auto III. It wouldn’t be until much later that Ico received attention from the gaming sphere for being one of the first mainstream console releases to use the medium as an artistic expression rather than just to entertain.
Nonetheless, Mr. Ueda didn’t let this setback deter him and, along with thirty-four other staff members, began developing a new game in 2002. With the tentative title Nico, a portmanteau of Next and Ico, this team set out to create a sequel to their debut title. An early technology demo for their project surfaced in 2003 at the DICE Summit, an annual multi-day gathering of video game executives which is held in Las Vegas, Nevada. This clip depicted a group of masked boys with horns on their heads riding horses. Together, they were able to fell a gigantic, intimidating foe. Mr. Ueda later explained that it was easier to reuse the character models of their previous work’s title character until they had fully established the world they were about to create. Indeed, the biggest turning point for this new game’s development cycle came about from their decision to sever any overt connections with Ico. As Mr. Ueda judged that the ending of Ico was too final, he felt it unnecessary to produce a sequel.
Though Nico appeared on internal schedules for upcoming Sony releases, no official announcement was made. It wasn’t until late 2004 that a new title dubbed Wander and the Colossus emerged. The particularly astute observed several similarities to the concept presented at the DICE Summit, but gone were any connections to Ico. This was the game Mr. Ueda and his team had been working on, and a year later in October of 2005, it would see the light of day. Sony noticeably put far more effort into promoting this team’s sophomore effort than they did with Ico, advertising it in gaming publications, on television, and on the internet in what was one of the industry’s earliest viral marketing campaigns. It was even featured in the 2007 American comedy-drama film Reign Over Me. Adam Sandler, who became a fan when it was demoed to him, requested it to be put in a scene involving his character playing games to cope with the loss of his family. The scene in question wherein he played through it alongside Don Cheadle wasn’t scripted – they were fully immersed into the experience.
As a result of this publicity, Wander and the Colossus was a commercial success, domestically selling over 100,000 copies in its first week alone. Nearly 80% of the first Japanese shipment was sold within two days. While Ico fell into obscurity overseas, it didn’t take long for Western fans to embrace this game where it was renamed Shadow of the Colossus. Like Ico, Shadow of the Colossus deeply resonated with critics, who would praise it for giving the medium much needed artistic credence. Did this game five years in the making live up to its grand fanfare upon release?
Playing the Game
WARNING: Due to the nature of this work, spoilers are unavoidable. Proceed with caution if you are at all interested in playing this game.
The name of this story’s protagonist is Wander. He and his sole companion, his horse, Agro, ferry the body of a dead woman named Mono. The final leg of their journey takes them to an enormous bridge spanning above an expansive landscape cut off from the rest of the world. This domain is simply called the Forbidden Lands. Crossing the bridge leads them to a large building that dominates the center of the realm called the Shrine of Worship.
Entering the building, Wander places the lifeless Mono on an altar. As he does so, creatures spawned from the very shadows themselves draw near. When Wander unsheathes a sword, it emits an otherworldly energy, and the creatures dissipate into nothingness. A mysterious pair of voices belonging to a mysterious, unseen entity express surprise that Wander possesses the Ancient Sword. The young warrior deduces that the voices belong to a being named Dormin. He had come to the shrine on the end of the world having learned there exists an entity capable of controlling the souls of the dead. Mono had been sacrificed by his villagers, for they believed hers was a cursed fate.
Though expressing indifference toward the matter, pointing out that it’s every mortal’s fate to die one day, Dormin is unable to hide interest in the sword Wander carries. Believing that it might not be impossible to revive Mono, Dormin makes a deal with Wander. There are sixteen idols that line the halls of the shrine. If Wander is able to destroy every single one, Dormin will bring life back to Mono. These intimidatingly monumental statues are, in reality, effigies for creatures that roam the land known as the colossi. Killing them will cause their own idol to shatter. Before he sets out on his journey, Dormin warns Wander that the price for seeing this quest to the end may be heavy. With an unwavering resolve, Wander’s reply is laconic: “It doesn’t matter”.
Dormin sends Wander off on his journey with a piece of advice. Should he stand in a sunlit area and hold the Ancient Sword aloft, he will know where to go. Wander’s fate is now in your hands. As you press the appropriate button to make Wander raise his sword, eight beams of light emit from the blade’s tip – one for each primary compass direction. The beams converge and become their brightest when Wander faces the direction of a colossus.
As you use the sword’s compass feature, you may notice that this game has a heads-up display. The red meter on the bottom of the screen represents Wander’s health. Being that there is no inventory management in Shadow of the Colossus, you do not have to great lengths to restore it. If he takes damage, whether it’s due to an enemy attack or fall damage, all you have to do is get him to a safe place. If you wait a long enough time, his health will replenish on its own. There is also a rectangle with a sword icon in the center. This is Wander’s currently equipped weapon. He has two at his disposal – the Ancient Sword and a bow. The bow obviously has better range, but arrows generally do less damage to enemies. Fortunately, arrows come in an infinite supply, obviating the need to conserve ammunition.
The Forbidden Lands form a sprawling region through which a journey on foot would prove tedious. Riding on the back of his horse makes traversing across the land much faster for Wander. However, you will soon discover that you cannot bring Agro to some areas as you follow the beams of light to a rocky cliff face on the other side of the valley south of the shrine. Wander can grab onto ledges to reach otherwise inaccessible locations. This is where the third feature of the interface, the pink circle, comes into play. As Wander holds onto something, the pink circle begins to shrink. If it vanishes completely, he will lose his grip, causing him to fall. In other words, this graphic is a stamina gauge.
For those of you particularly versed in the medium, you may be familiar with how a basic game functions – particularly ones that provide role-playing experiences. The beginning portions such titles have a propensity of pitting you against incredibly simple foes. Rats are an inexplicably popular standby – especially for Western RPGs. It’s to the point where most games that use them tend to joke about it – even as the trope is played straight. Despite being subject to parody, it does make sense on a fundamental level. It brings to mind the saying that everyone has to start somewhere. Without relying exclusively on the game mechanics, it’s one method of demonstrating how much the protagonist has grown throughout their journey. This person for whom rats once posed a problem can now stand toe-to-toe with demigods and other beings from a higher plane.
Shadow of the Colossus dispenses with this notion entirely. When Wander makes it to the top of the cliff the first of the sixteen colossi is there to greet him. With only the bare minimum of context and likely before you’ve grown accustomed to the controls, you are immediately pit against a foe with the stature a typical late-game boss would possess. One could be forgiven for believing this to be an impossible task, as running up to the colossus and attacking randomly would prove futile. As it turns out, this colossus, Valus, is far less intimidating than it appears.
As Wander approaches his enemy, Dormin instructs him to shine the light of the Ancient Sword onto the colossus. If he does, a glowing sigil should appear on its forehead. This is the colossus’s weak point. Don’t think you can do any lasting harm to the creature by shooting at it from afar with your arrows. You may inflict some damage, but it will eventually prove futile; only the sword can slay it. Throwing the sword is out of the question, and because there is no higher ground from which you can jump onto the creature, there is only one way to reach the sigil: by climbing the colossus itself.
Wander can latch onto any part of a colossus’s fur and parts of its stone armor are effectively cliff ledges, allowing him to negotiate those as well. Valus has a weakness in its knees. Once Wander forcefully stabs it with the sword, the colossus will fall down, allowing him to make his way to its head more easily. When he makes it there, he must then stab the sigil with the sword. Holding down the sword button before stabbing will charge the attack. The further Wander’s sword arm is away from the sigil, the more damage he will inflict. The average player would be astounded when the attack proceeds to drain a significant portion of the colossus’s life meter. In no time at all, you will have won the battle.
At that moment, the creature collapses, shaking the very earth itself. Black shadows cover the colossus’s corpse. Several black tendrils emerge from the body and embed themselves into Wander, rendering him unconscious. When he comes to, he finds himself back in the Shrine of Worship. The voices of Dormin tell Wander of the next creature he must slay on his quest.
By this point, I’m sure most people would observe the silent, empty nature of the Forbidden Lands and question if there are any enemies to fight other than the colossi. If nothing else, some might wonder if there are any elaborate puzzles to solve like in Ico. The answers to these hypothetical inquiries are exactly the same: no. The colossi are the only living creatures in the game that pose a threat to Wander’s life, and the only puzzles to be solved universally involve finding the most efficient way to uncover then reach their weak points.
Keeping this in mind, the only way for Shadow of the Colossus to be salvageable, let alone good, would be if the developers put so much effort into the boss fights that the average player would be glad they constitute practically the entire experience. Thankfully, on that front, I can safely say they exceeded expectations. After a relatively easy victory against Valus, the player would likely hit a brick wall in the form of the second colossus, Quadratus. Attempting to use similar tactics a second time will prove futile as you will likely overestimate Wander’s grip strength. Due to the colossus’s slow speed, the battle is rather easy once you learn how to best time Wander’s attacks, but it’s a wake-up call for beginners.
The biggest strength Shadow of the Colossus has from a gameplay standpoint lies in its unpredictability. It’s to the point where even similar looking colossi will require vastly different tactics to defeat. With every new one, you will need to study their patterns carefully. Some of the colossi have multiple spots on their body where the sigils could appear. Occasionally, you’ll need to use the environment itself to gain an advantage. After spending most of the game battling colossi the size of skyscrapers, you might be taken aback later on when you discover one the size of a large ox. Then you’ll learn it’s the most dangerous foe you’ve encountered so far by a significant margin thanks to its blindingly fast speed.
It is from this development that though Shadow of the Colossus may lack traditional puzzles, they are very much present in how you choose to approach battling the colossi. The act of flipping switches and moving blocks wasn’t untoward in Ico, but they had the unintended effect of jarringly accenting the video game aspects in an experience that otherwise didn’t rely heavily on them. The colossus fights go a long way in making the problems presented to you feel more organic, allowing the story and gameplay to integrate more naturally than in Ico.
Around the third or fourth colossus battle, one could have difficulties fighting them. Either they inflict enough damage to fell Wander in one or two blows or he will fall off the colossi trying to climb them. Even if Shadow of the Colossus was an RPG, you couldn’t have Wander grind levels, as the colossi are the only monsters to be found. Luckily, all hope is not lost. On the way to the next boss fight, Wander may find fruit-bearing trees littered throughout the land. By knocking down a fruit with a well-aimed arrow and eating them, Wander’s life meter will increase.
Though the colossi are the only creatures capable of hurting Wander, they are not the only living beings to be found in the Forbidden Lands. Hawks continuously circle around Valus’s head. Ambient sound effects suggest the presence of more wildlife even if you can’t directly observe it. More importantly, many small lizards call this ecosystem home. By shooting one with an arrow and eating it, Wander will recover a few units of health. This is of an admittedly dubious utility, for Wander can only take damage outside of battle by falling from too great of a height. However, if you’re particularly perceptive, you will notice some lizards with white tails crawling around. If Wander successfully shoots these with an arrow and consumes them, his grip strength will improve.
One could get the impression that scouring the land for these small, fast-moving targets wouldn’t be a worthwhile task – even if it could prove valuable in the long run. The good news is that it’s not as difficult as it sounds. Progress is automatically recorded whenever Wander successfully fells a colossus, but there are also many shrines in the Forbidden Lands that act as save points. The areas around these shrines tend to be nests for white-tailed lizards – they sometimes reside on the edifices themselves. If battling the colossi constituted the entire experience, players would only ever set a direct course toward their destination. With these fruit trees and white-tailed lizards, the player is encouraged to actually explore the environment Mr. Ueda and his team so lovingly sculpted. Admittedly, hitting the lizards with the arrows can be irritating, but it’s not a terribly time-consuming task and the consequence for failure is minimal. What I like about this is that it gives players the option to make Wander more survivable in combat without actively forcing them to partake in it. Like the colossus fights themselves, how you wish to fulfill the task is up to you. Exploring the entire world in search of as many fruits and lizards as possible at the start of the game is as much of a viable strategy as doing so in increments between fights. However you decide to play the game, don’t be surprised if you find yourself taking the scenic route on the way to the next battlefield.
Analyzing the Story
Shadow of the Colossus saw is original release in 2005. Though it wouldn’t become apparent until a few years later, gaming was in the middle of a paradigm shift. The pioneering titles of the mid-nineties 3D revolution took after the final days of the fourth console generation wherein the story typically did not exist for a higher purpose than giving the protagonist a reason to be a hero, and by extension, the player a motivation to guide them to success. Role-playing games, particularly of Japanese origin such as Final Fantasy IV, provided a notable exception to this rule. In those games, it wasn’t uncommon to see stories with beats more advanced than “save the world from the evil overlord”.
Going into the twenty-first century, this began to change. Suddenly, the surprisingly powerful, introspective narratives that allowed JRPGs to go through a golden age began appearing in other genres as well. With The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Nintendo’s famed action-adventure franchise began establishing an engrossing lore that continued into the following decades. The success of Metal Gear Solid did a lot to popularize cinematics while proving that three-dimensional protagonists had a place in action titles as well. Ico itself demonstrated how much one can accomplish using only the bare minimum of context.
However, between all of these radically different approaches, the one that caught on in the AAA industry was desire to follow in the steps of Hollywood. These non-interactive vignettes were spliced in between rounds of fighting enemy soldiers, crafting experiences comparable to interactive films. While this approach worked for some time, its overuse led to a host of problems. Specifically, these narratives didn’t account for the implicit story told through gameplay. A character could be described by the narrative as benevolent and easygoing even as they commit multiple acts of murder as part of the game. Though the conflicting implications that arise from this technique wouldn’t be fully explored until a few years later, what Mr. Ueda and his team created comes across as a defiance of the path in which the rest of AAA industry was traveling.
While contemporaries usually made it clear who was good and who was evil, Shadow of the Colossus opts for complete ambiguity. The narrative never makes the relationship between Wander and Mono clear. The lengths Wander must go through in order to complete this quest implies Mono is very important to him, yet for all we know, she doesn’t even know who he is. Roughly halfway through the game, we’re introduced to a character named Lord Emon. He and his men are pursuing Wander to the Forbidden Lands for reasons that will be expanded upon in the final scenes.
If this ambiguity was limited to the cutscenes, it would be impressive in of itself. What elevates it from being a novelty to one of the medium’s most memorable narratives lies in how it manifests in gameplay. Though killing a colossus should give the player a sense of accomplishment, the melancholy musical cues render the feat surprisingly hollow. During the fights themselves, many scream in agony when stabbed and at least one actively backs away from Wander as he draws near. Only the odd exception actively tries to attack Wander, strongly implying the colossi are nothing more than exceptionally large animals acting on instinct. This by itself casts even more doubt on the entire situation. Are the colossi evil creatures or does Wander lack empathy as he systematically eradicates them all?
In a game with such minimalistic storytelling, it’s fitting that a lot of the best aspects are in the small details a lot of people would either overlook or take for granted. Wander’s running animation is noticeably hindered likely as the result of the weapons he carries with him. Furthermore, if you make him swing his sword at the air outside of combat, he stumbles slightly. Meanwhile, he has no similar problems using his bow, as he’s able to hit distant targets without making a mistake expected of a real-life novice. Despite never running out of ammunition, there is nothing to suggest Wander’s secondary weapon is anything other than an ordinary bow, hinting that it’s his own and he had a lot of practice with it. Conversely, as it is later revealed he did not obtain the sword legitimately, it stands to reason that he was never formally learned how to use one. Indeed, the only reason he is able to successfully use the sword against the colossi is because he doesn’t use it in an orthodox fashion, merely using it to stab the surface he is clinging onto. Therefore, one might draw the conclusion that he wouldn’t stand a chance against a skilled fencer.
Quite a lot of thought went into programming Agro’s behavior as well. To realistically represent a horse’s behavior, Agro will occasionally ignore commands, not turning even when you input the correct commands among other possible actions. In the words of Mr. Ueda himself, “a real horse […] doesn’t always obey. It’s not like a car or a motorcycle; it won’t always turn when you say ‘turn!’” On the surface, this would sound particularly annoying to deal with, but it doesn’t weigh down the experience in practice. It occurs so infrequently that most players would be led to believe they pressed the wrong button by accident. The most important thing is that Mr. Ueda and his team relented slightly so this aspect wouldn’t actively harm the gameplay. Considering Agro’s presence is required for a few colossus fights, this is highly appreciated. In fact, as a true testament to how much the developers succeeded in implementing Agro, the horse is considered by many to be the best character in the game. Every other character whether it’s Wander, Emon, the colossi, or even Mono are subject to any number of different interpretations, Agro’s role is unambiguous: a faithful steed to her master. There’s something endearing leaving Agro alone for a while only for her wander off to find a place to graze or a spring from which to drink.
Though there are many admirable things about this game’s narrative, the ending is when all of its brilliance is tied together. Emon and his envoy arrive at the Shrine of Worship as the final idol crumbles. Wander appears shortly thereafter, his skin and eyes taking on an unnatural, pallid color and two small horns protruding from his head. Emon declares that Wander has been possessed by the dead, and orders his cohorts to kill him. As Wander struggles to reach Mono, one warrior strikes Wander in the leg with a crossbow while another stabs him in the chest with a sword. A strange black substance gushes out of the wound in place of blood as his body becomes covered in darkness – mirroring the manner in which the slain colossi perish.
Before he dies, Dormin possesses Wander’s body, transforming it into a gargantuan shadow. Speaking through the shadow, Dormin explains that Emon’s ancestors separated their essence into sixteen segments to seal their power away for all of eternity. You actually play as the shadow colossus for a brief period, but no matter what you do, you cannot reach Emon or his men. The temple itself is far too cramped for the behemoth to maneuver around in. Compounded by the leg injury Wander suffered, he and Dormin are trapped in an unwinnable battle. As his men flee, Emon casts the Ancient Sword into a small pool in the back of the shrine’s hallway, creating a whirlwind of light that consumes Dormin. Wander returns to his normal form, but he too is unable to escape. As the bridge to the Forbidden Lands collapses, Emon hopes that if Wander survived, he will be able to atone for his sins.
It’s difficult to pull off an ending – especially in a video game – where an antagonistic force triumphs over the player-controlled protagonist. Being a video game, the antagonist winning signifies that player has lost and must start over. If the game can only end in the villain’s victory, a player would have every right to be irritated. Fortunately, Shadow of the Colossus avoids this problem. Everything that occurs in this game along with every character who makes up the small cast is up for debate. Though Emon would appear to be an insane person who sacrificed an innocent woman, he could have committed the act for entirely justifiable reasons rather than out of religious zealotry. Moreover, his dialogue suggests that Wander stole the Ancient Sword in order to revive Mono. With Dormin so quick to possess Wander’s body once he slew all of the colossi, one can reasonably believe Emon’s ancestors sealed them away for a very good reason. Perhaps you were playing as the villain the whole time. It is not uncommon for fans to interpret characters in any work radically different than how the authors pictured them, but in Shadow of the Colossus, doing so is outright expected.
What is particularly remarkable about all of this is how well it’s foreshadowed. With every colossus slain, Wander’s appearance begins to change as strange markings appear all over his face. Nearing the end of the game, the pattern they form is not unlike that of one of the many colossi he fights. He spent the entire story slaying them, and in a karmic twist, he ended up becoming one himself shortly before falling victim to the exact same weapon that he used to kill them. From the very beginning, Dormin warned Wander that the price for seeing his quest through to its end could prove dire, but he marched onward, unafraid or possibly uncaring about the potential consequences. It’s an interesting take on the typical plot involving someone making a deal with the devil in that the latter actually tries to talk the former out of it before realizing the extent of his determination.
The other aspect that prevents the ending from coming across as anticlimactic is how it doesn’t nullify your accomplishments. Despite Dormin’s own ambiguous morality, they did indeed bring Mono back to life. Following an injured Agro to a pool of water, she finds a baby boy with tiny horns on his head. She and Agro then head for a secret garden within the shrine as the screen fades to black. It’s heavily implied that this infant is a transformed Wander and because the eponymous character of Ico also has horns on his head, Shadow of the Colossus was potentially a disguised prequel all along.
Drawing a Conclusion
Though everyone walks away from a non-interactive work with wildly different stances owing to personal viewpoints, timing, and a litany of other factors, they are still, technically speaking, static experiences. With the exception of extended rereleases, films retain all the same shots, books retain all the same words, and albums retain all of the same tracks. There is often value in revisiting these works, but because you have no influence on the proceedings, you know how they will end. Meanwhile, one of the greatest appeals of video games is that everyone who plays one has their own story to tell when all is said and done. Even in linear games that only have one ending, the steps you take to get there are might vary slightly on subsequent playthroughs, leading you to discover new aspects each time. It is therefore fitting that while everyone who plays Shadow of the Colossus has their own story to tell, everyone who attempts to interpret the narrative of Shadow of the Colossus also has their own story to tell.
Mr. Ueda’s work has the honor of being one of the most influential titles of its time, popularizing the art game as a genre with its mainstream success. In a way, Shadow of the Colossus reminds me a lot of Dragon Quest V in that it manages to grasp a certain something a lot of other artists attempting to follow in its footsteps didn’t fully comprehend. While Dragon Quest V remains one of the best pathos-heavy narratives in the medium, only a select few can claim to have done justice to the brand of ambiguous storytelling Shadow of the Colossus pioneered. This is primarily because Mr. Ueda gave just enough context to give his audience a strong foundation on which they could form theories regarding its characters. All too often, I’ve seen a lot of people attempting this kind of story string random ideas together, hoping the fans would come up with the context for them. The key is that, staying true to his “design by subtraction” approach, Mr. Ueda knew full well which elements to keep, allowing them to play their part before letting the audience take care of the rest.
I can imagine some people not versed in the medium being impressed with the artistic merits of Shadow of the Colossus only to claim it’s a good effort for a video game. As a counterargument, I propose that Shadow of the Colossus is a profound artistic statement entirely because it has no qualms about being what it is. While the rest of the AAA industry attempted to follow Hollywood’s lead, Mr. Ueda clearly crafted this game believing in the medium’s own potential, carving out a path that had not been fully explored by 2005. Though it would take everyone else some time to catch up, and I feel it has indeed been surpassed in the years since its release, Shadow of the Colossus remains an essential experience for any enthusiast. When you decide to give it a chance, know that the narrative you experience truly is your own.
Final Score: 8/10