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
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
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 monstersthe 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 andgiven the length of
his journeyobviously 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 Sematarystyle
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 minimalismif 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 targetan
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
genrenot 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
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, meanwhilethough still a
corpseis 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 eleventhweird since all of the others exhibit such varianceand
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 Falloutwas 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 immenselythough 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
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 Colossusthere
are no other solutions to the problem, other than turning the game
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.
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