Shadow of the Colossus, 10 Years Later

During the PlayStation 2’s era, I wasn’t quite as committed to gaming as I grew to be during the PS3 era.  I was easily distracted from whatever game I was playing by whatever the next game I wanted to play was.  If I could get my hands on that “more interesting” game, I did and left behind what I was currently playing, for good.

That’s why I barely started what is now considered one of the greatest games ever made, Shadow of the Colossus.  I got the game via trade probably 6 months after its October 2005 release.  Once I started it, I got to the part where you ride Argo (the game’s horse and sole companion) and that was it.  I maybe made it 15 minutes into the game and then something else stole my attention.

I can’t remember what it was that distracted me, but something did and I just never got back to SotC.  Thankfully, HD Remasters become rather popular and SotC made it to the PS3 with some uprez’d textures and a widescreen format.  I picked the game up off the PSN store for $5 and was determined to play it… but I never did.  I’m not sure what my excuse was this time around.

Fast forward to 2015 and I had the idea that it was time to finally play this game so I could sell off my PS3 and move on to my life with the PS4.  Not only did I finally play and beat SotC, it sparked a bit of a PS3 renaissance for me.  Now I’m backtracking and replaying some of my PS3 favorites as well as a few I’ve missed, but that’s not the point.

Upon starting SotC for the second time in my life, I was reminded of the beautiful intro where you, Wander, carry your seemingly dead girlfriend over a massive bridge into a temple, with hopes of bringing her back to life.  The game’s Wikipedia entry lists the girl as Mono and she is a “maiden” which I think was a decision made which allowed the gamer to make Mono whatever he or she wanted.  Was she Wander’s one true love, his sister or just a friend?  It feels like it was left open and it feels like that was done on purpose.  You put your meaning into the relationship between male and female, the game does not tell you what to think.

After an encounter with some shadowy figures, a voice comes from the heavens and bellows down the opening in the temple’s ceiling.  He tells you that if you can find and defeat the 16 colossus located in the forbidden land, you can bring your maiden back to life.  Of course this is a common trope within video games, but they way this trope plays out over the course of the game is anything but common.

For the second time in 10 years, I got to the point of getting to Argo and learning how to control him, I made my way to the first colossus.  A sword, which we later find out is stolen, guides you through the forbidden lands which surround the temple via a beam of light.  Follow that beam of light where it shines in the most direct path and there you’ll find the next beast you have to slay.

Argo is the only friend you’ll be seeing during your time in the forbidden lands.  For PS2 era graphics and physics, he moves pretty realistically, which was a must because a goofy, awkward horse would take your head right out of this game.  There would be no way to buy in to what the game is trying to do.  You’ll probably form some attachment to Argo if you do that kind of thing with video game animals and you’ll be on his back for a large portion of this game.  He’s your transportation and, at times, he’s your friend.

The game consists of really, really simple controls.  You are, essentially, allowed 3 actions at any time when on foot.  You can grab, attack or jump.  There is a health meter and a grip meter, that’s it.  You’re able to increase both by beating colossi and finding fruit on trees or lizards with shining tails.  When riding Argo there aren’t a wealth of different functions, you’re pretty much so just riding a horse with the option to attack from his back.

Boiling down a game and making it, in principle, a really simple game in a time when games were becoming less and less simple is an interesting choice, but it’s very much so a strength of this game.  There is no need to be able to do impressive stunts off the top of a canyon while the main character of the game preens for the camera.  Wander is not the star of this game.  The world and the colossi included in it are.

Upon arriving to the first colossus, I was impressed by the game’s scale.  Everyone’s seen screenshots of the game, but until you play it and finally climb them, you don’t really understand how massive they are.   It’s the video game version of the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls.  It looks big in pictures, but when you get there you’re set back in awe with how big it really is.

With the first colossus I finally had my taste of what this game was going to be about.  Climbing massive beasts and finding weak spots which allow you to kill them.  When they drop dead, you drop as well, with what appears to be their life-force being sucked into your body.  You wake, but only after being relocated back to the main temple which is, more or less, located in the middle of the game’s enormous map.  Over time, you can see Wander’s skin fade and eyes darken with each colossus he beats, worsening his state.

Each colossi is wholly unique and individual.  At times, they resemble creatures of the natural world.  Something like a bull, turtle or lizard.  Other times, they bear resemblance to creatures you’re more likely to find in any number of fantasy tales.  Regardless of what you think the inspiration behind the 16 colossi are, the games design is so striking and unique that you don’t look at one of these creatures and think “Hey, that looks just like xyz”.  Instead, you buy completely into the style of the game and you’re impressed more and more which each monster you defeat.

The first colossus is probably the easiest, which is a good jumping off point for the game.  It teaches you the basics of what you will need to do throughout the remainder of your adventure.  A lot of the gameplay consists of first climbing up these massive creatures just to find their weak points, which are highlighted by a glowing bluish oval.  You’re essentially in a platforming game but you’re using (moving) platforms no one could have imagined when  playing Mario back in the early 80’s.  Once there, you’re going to use that grip strength to hold on and wind up for large stabbing motions with your sword.  Sometimes you have to get a colossi to run into something so they fall, sometimes you need to fire an arrow into their body to get them to move where you need them.

Each and every colossi has their own body, movements and choice of land, air or sea.  They will not sit idly while you are holding on and winding up for sword strikes, sometimes you’ll have to fall and climb again just to get a few more hits in.  It was rarely frustrating, but there were a few times I kind of wished I could just get one more stab in vs. having to climb and ride again.

There’s no point to go too much further into who each colossus is and how to beat them.  They are all unique and so well designed you’re going to remember each and every one of them for years after you beat this game.  There is a reason this game is brought up when people make the argument that video games can be art (which shouldn’t even be a debate), the creature design is impressive.

Probably my only complaint about this game is that of the design of the 16th and final colossus.  While I felt every creature up to that point was at least somewhat conceivably from the natural world or organic to some extent, I did not feel that with the last boss.  This made my final battle somewhat annoying in that it wasn’t what I imagined it was going to be and maybe I was just wishing it wasn’t as it was.  The 16ht feels very much so like a machine and machines feel very out of place in this game’s world.  The overall end to the game was more than satisfying, however, which makes up for my slight disappointment in the last battle.

Not only is this game impressive in design, it’s impressive from a technical perspective.  When this was released late into the PS2’s life-cycle, bosses that made you feel the scale that this game does were not at all commonplace, if they existed at all.  Here, all 16 of the creatures are made on a scope larger than anything that came before.  We’ve seen bosses and games increase scale and scope during the PS3 generation (and carrying over to the current gen), but I’m not sure the world and feel of the colossi has truly been matched.

I’ve mentioned a few times that the world is part of the reason this game is as good as it is.  The world is really, really large with wide open plains which lead to paths to alternate landscapes.  You’ll discover temples, deserts and lakes throughout the forbidden land.

No matter where you go, however, you’ll be greeted by loneliness.  This game tries to oppress you with isolation and while that sounds like a downer, it isn’t.  That feeling of isolation, rarely seeing another creature other than birds or some small lizards, along with the wind howling all around you, bring you into the head of Wander.  There isn’t anything else to worry about but you and your horse.  That is, until you are 100 feet under a giant creature who wants to stomp your head in.  In a game without distraction, all you are allowed on your journey from beast to beast is the beautiful landscape and preparing for another battle that could leave you dead.

I think the feeling of isolation is one of my favorite parts of the game.  In today’s gaming world I have to worry about how many side quests I’ve picked up, where I am going on a map that has GPS directions to where I need to be or even a cell phone to manage.  I don’t even like being on my smartphone in real life at times, why the hell would I want to be on one in a game?

SotC destroys all that.  There’s no real objective other than moving from colossus to colossus in the name of saving your maiden.  You can go off to find fruit and those lizards I’ve mentioned, in order to increase your stats, but it’s not important to the experience.

After the 15th time I took to the landscape to encounter the last colossus I started to reflect on my experience like I never have before with a game.  I wondered to myself if maybe my life worked out the way it did because I wasn’t ready for this game when I was 23.  I wouldn’t have understood the despair and isolation the game presents.

Here’s where I do the worst of the spoilers, so if you’re like me and took 10 years to play this, stop reading now.

Once you meet the people on horseback who’ve entered the temple and once you’ve restored life to your maiden, you find yourself in an odd place… You return to your birth, quite literally… You’re a back to being a baby.

Typed out, that sounds kind of corny, I can’t lie.  But in practice and after experiencing all that came in the forbidden lands before, the way the story ends allows for a lot of that “emotion” I’m talking about to creep in.  Would you enter a forbidden land with a stolen sword that could very well alter the existence of your world as you know it?  Would you have gone through all those battles knowing that, yes, you’ve saved your maiden, but you’re more or less put into a time machine so any memory you have of her is forgotten?  To anyone who’s ever lost anyone important to them it makes you think… Would I do this to bring that person back?

That’s pretty heady for a video game.

Now, that’s not to say the game can’t be enjoyed on a basic level of getting a chance to run around killing absolutely massive creatures, but I think there is more to it that’s clicked with me and that happened only by living life and experiencing things I hadn’t at 23.  I know that sounds way too heavy for a video game, but there is an emotional response this game evoked from me that I’ve only really experienced with one other game, that being Journey.

Journey, like SotC, allows for the player to inject his or her meaning into a lot of what they experience.  Journey is more or less absent of any narrative and while SotC has more, it’s not by much.  I think that’s why this game is considered one of the greatest.  It’s above style, gameplay or even story.  It’s the ability to allow the video game medium, which has been far behind written word, music or movies, to sit in a part of the brain which makes you think and reflect.  It makes you apply your emotions to that of Wander and in the end… that makes this game an intensely personal experience unlike any other.

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