Editor's note: It's ten years today - *gulp* - that Team Ico's Shadow of the Colossus came out in North America (we had to wait a few more months for the PAL release), and to celebrate the somewhat disturbing anniversary we're returning to Craig Owen's wonderful piece on a group of players in search of the game's secrets, originally published in 2013. Here's hoping that by the time the 10th anniversary of the PAL release rolls by next February we'll have something approaching a release date for its successor The Last Guardian...
There's a rocky outcropping right at the edge of the world.
It's not hard to find, though you must trot through caves and gallop across a desolate grass plain to reach it. The real question is why would you want to? There's no colossi to be found perched on this craggy jut at the southernmost tip of Shadow of the Colossus' Forbidden Lands. There's just a stunning ocean view, a thin grassy strip to walk upon, and a flock of seagulls quietly wheeling their way through the air below. It's peaceful, certainly, but so are dozens of other beautiful, tucked away corners of Team Ico's evocative landscape.
Yet Michael - better known by his username Ozzymandias - was stood here all the same, and he was doing something rather strange. He was studying the seagulls. Time and time again he'd load the game, steer Agro towards this postcard-perfect view, and then dismount from the steed. While Agro trotted away quietly Ozzy would carefully walk up to one of the many rocks overhanging the edge of the bluff. And he'd wait, watching the birds fly by.
And then Ozzymandias would jump into the sky.
Ozzymandias's journey to that cliff-face had started three years before, when Shadow Of The Colossus emerged.
"I'm pretty sure I just sat down and played the entire thing through front to back", explains Ozzy, who'd fallen in love with Ico and had patiently awaited the team's next game. "By the end, I was picking my jaw off the floor thinking they'd done it again, but it was mixed with this really intense sadness that after all this waiting and anticipation it was over."
So Ozzy turned to forums filled with likeminded, passionate devotees. At first he was looking for canny ways to defeat colossi faster, but he soon discovered something far more mesmerising. The hidden garden at the top of the Shrine of Worship, glimpsed during Shadow of the Colossus' final cutscene, was accessible in-game. This is Shadow Of The Colossus' biggest Easter Egg, teased by the mossy growths, handholds and ledges that weave around the exterior of the structure, but not actually reachable until you've completed the game multiple times. The Secret Garden, as it became known, is a final reward for the most dedicated of colossi-hunters: one last challenge and a glimpse of verdant green beauty in a starkly austere land. But it wasn't enough for Ozzymandias and his fellow fans.
"Are there other places you can get to?" Ozzymandias wanted to know. "What else is there?" he asked. "What else can you do?"
Even now, it's easy to understand why Shadow Of The Colossus kept so many people so enthralled. Playing through the game again, I'm startled by the sense of history that suffuses Team Ico's landscape. Crumbling ruins lead into bleak ash plains, empty cities and stunning, temple-ringed lakes. Everything feels like a secret in the Forbidden Lands, because the game utterly sells the idea that yours are the first human eyes to cast upon it for thousands of years. On my way to visit Ozzymandias' skydiving spot I get lost, and end up stumbling upon a sparkling grotto sealed off by the mountains surrounding it. It feels like a discovery, not least because Shadow Of The Colossus is coolly indifferent as to whether you find this stuff at all.
We're used to playing through spaces with purpose. Skyrim offers a landscape as large as SOTC's, as well as a wintry beauty of its own, but the homeland of the Nords is utterly crammed with function and padded with lore. Every cave has a quest attached, every NPC a task. There are no secrets in Skyrim, just one epic to-do list.
But in Shadow Of The Colossus all you can do is stare at a ruined shrine in the middle of a desert, and wonder what it's for.
Ozzymandias and the other secret-seekers had found a home on Sony's official forums, where they congregated in order to figure out where Shadow Of The Colossus's remaining secrets and Easter Eggs might be. Early speculation fixated on the idea that there was way to climb beyond the top of the secret garden, to the roof of the temple beyond. More ambitious secret-seekers hoped that, were the right requirements fulfilled, players could somehow unlock a secret ending to the game. And the most fanciful theory of all was that there was a hidden 17th colossus, somewhere in the Forbidden Lands.
Along the way secret-seekers unearthed tricks that aided their exploration of the game, many of which involved some clever exploitation of Shadow Of The Colossus's physics. Agro-launching is a crucial skill for any would-be secret-seeker to learn. Jump off Agro at precisely the right moment as the horse clambers up an incline and Wander will be hurled into the sky and, maybe, into hidden corners of the map. Other, more daredevil secret-seekers started launching off the colossi themselves, using the creature's attacks and animations in order to fling themselves to otherwise inaccessible part of the beast's lairs, or to simply defeat the monsters in record time.
Still, there was a scrappy, disorganised air to the early years of the secret hunt: "Someone had a theory, they would start a thread, nobody would be able to take it anywhere and it would sort of fade," Ozzymandias recalls. And then that changed.
Secret-seeker Ascadia-PSU had a theory that shifted focus away from the central shrine and towards another ruin to the north. But much more importantly, the man had a sales pitch.
Ascadia's thread explains his Theory of Intersecting Points in such comprehensive detail that it's hard not to be caught up in his enthusiasm upon the first read. Drawing from exposition at the start of the game, studious analysis of maps of the Forbidden Lands and some creative interpretation of arcane symbols dotted about the game, Ascadia concluded that Team Ico was pointing players towards the lair of the 11th colossus, Celosia, and a mysterious, bricked up the door. Behind this door was where the The Last Big Secret (as he coined it) would be found. The problem facing the secret-seekers was this: how to open it?
Many theories were tried. Celosia was the only colossus fought with an extra tool - a flaming torch. Flaming torches were used in Ico as puzzle-solving devices. This was a clue, surely? But no - no matter where players Agro-launched themselves to there was no hidden brazier to set light to, or lever to find. In time, the Theory of Intersecting Points fell by the wayside. But the thread survived.
At five hundred and fifty-nine pages that thread is an enduring tribute to the dedication and passion of the secret seekers. Started two years after the release of the game it still receives occasional updates today - because even after the Intersecting Points idea was abandoned Ascadia's detailed analysis and persuasive arguments turned his thread into the focus point for all subsequent secret-seeking. At peak, barely a page goes by without the discovery of a new glitch or a beautiful geographical find. And barely a dozen pages can pass without a new theory being mooted, eagerly seized upon and then left behind.
Inevitably, some theories were more desperate than others. "One thing that I thought would be key" recalls Ozzymandias, with an ever-so-slightly embarrassed tone "was the catacombs en route to the 16th [and final] colossus. Most of us recall the first big gaming Easter Egg as the one in Adventure where you find the dot in the catacombs and it opens a door for you", he continues. "So, yeah, I had a harebrained theory that I could run around in these catacombs pressing Wander against the walls and eventually I would find the dot, so to speak."
"I never found the dot," admits Ozzy. "There was no dot. So yeah, that didn't work. But everybody's ideas were going to these kind of places, because the lowest hanging fruit had already been eliminated." Other dead-ends included a mysterious, walkable piece of water on the south-eastern fringes of the map. Sadly, what at first seemed like an invisible bridge to parts unknown was soon dismissed as wayward collision detection.
Still, the secret-seekers did make some discoveries. Not the Last Big Secret, perhaps, but these quirky hidden features of the game are a reflection of their dedication. Someone found a beach eerily reminiscent of a similar piece of shoreline seen in Ico's closing scenes. Another player found two ponds with actual, animated fish hidden in the world. But my favourite find is the Lokis. There are birds flying all over the Forbidden Lands, and it didn't take long for players to realise that Wander could leap and grab them. But the secret-seekers found three special birds, unlike any others in the game. These giant hawks weren't tugged down by Wander's weight when players grabbed them - meaning they'd take players off on a flying, sightseeing tour of the surrounding landscape. But not, sadly, into a hidden colossus' lair.
"They were probably four or five times the size of other birds in the game," Ozzy recalls. "Their flightpath never changed, but it was exciting, and there was no doubt it was intentional. They must have been meant to be there."
It was a different set of birds that brought Ozzymandias to his clifftop, however. While other players were Agro-jumping into unintended corners of the map, many with half-finished textures and unreliable collision planes, Ozzy was convinced that, if there was a Last Big Secret to be found, then it would be uncovered by more legitimate means. What's more, he'd found a promising lead. Down at the southernmost part of the Forbidden Lands were a flock of seagulls whose flightpath, just like that of the Lokis, brought them for a tantalising moment within range of Wander's grasp. There just one problem: the player had to jump off the cliff first.
"I remember seeing them and watching them for like five minutes," Ozzy recalls, "before they'd make that split-second pass. I was watching them for an excruciatingly long time. But I knew the jump was possible. I don't know how many times I died trying to do it."
And then it happened: Ozzymanias jumped from the clifftop and grabbed a fistful of seagull on his way down. "I thought for sure it was going to take me to secret cave within which I'd find a 17th colossus that nobody had seen before," Ozzy recalls, laughing.
The bird carried Ozzy around for a short while, before his weight dragged them both to the ocean where they drowned.
By now, however, the quest for the Last Big Secret had entered a new phase. And the moment of transition can be marked precisely. Midway through 2008 a new user joined the Official PlayStation forums, and started posting strange clips containing impossible to replicate bugs - such as land-bound colossi flying through the air.
"Try figuring out how I do these things," he cryptically teased.
He was cheating. It turns out that an emulated version of Shadow of the Colossus runs askew, throwing up strange, sometimes useful glitches like sped up animations that could be used to access previously unreachable parts of the game. Pikol's work pretty much obliterated any remaining hope in long-nurtured theories. There was nothing behind the door in the 11th colossus' temple. There was nothing but glitchy, half-finished architecture above the Secret Garden, towards the top of the shrine. But by so thoroughly cleaning out the old ideas Pikol allowed a new kind of secret-seeking to start - more concerned with peering into every forgotten corner of the game than uncovering some transformative mystery at its heart. Pikol's biggest discovery was an entirely finished, textured dam - cut off from the rest of the map and seemingly cut from the game.
Nomad, whose blog showcases his masterful Shadow of the Colossus-hacking abilities and theorising, and whose images accompany this article, was one of the latter generation of secret-seekers: "[Pikol] showed what was possible via hacking - he could go anywhere he liked and it made me want to try," he recalls. Nomad was already an accomplished Agro-launcher - "I got up behind the towers in the Autumn Forest and could run around up there, people couldn't believe this had been missed all these years" - but his real passion was using hacks to explore the closed-off mountainous regions at the edge of The Forbidden Lands.
"Pikol and the others would never have done this," Nomad recalls. "It just didn't interest them, but to me it was the most exciting - there was never anything up there, just barren landscapes with trees and bushes, but they were vast and solid - Wander could walk there - which is really strange as in most games those kind of areas have no collision detection, but here they did."
Eventually, the hackers managed to track down official preview code for the game, and started hacking away at it to find secrets that had been cut from the retail game. At this point, the notion of a legitimate secret that players were 'meant' to find had been entirely abandoned. "I wanted to explore what was different [in the beta version]" hacker WWWArea explains, "and to find more lost beta stuff". He did - WWArea's finds include discarded beta items such as the Eye Of The Colossus, which, when used, would have allowed you to battle colossi with a camera angle fixed to their point of view.
I'm not sure there's anything left to find in Shadow of the Colossus. Eight years plus countless forum threads, blog posts and Youtube videos mean the secret-seekers have picked the game clean. These days, Nomad's more interested in finding out what's been cut from the game than secreted away inside it. His speculations on the nature of eight discarded colossi - what they looked like, how they might have behaved, and where players might have fought them - make for fascinating reading.
But does it bother the secret-seekers that they never found what they were looking for? Nomad is philosophical about the quest he was once a part of.
"It was the search that was the thing," he tells me. "I like to say it's like a Rorschach test, people imprint whatever hopes and beliefs they have onto the vast empty landscapes and see secrets that aren't there - they just hope they are."
Ozzymandias, meanwhile, looks back fondly on his cliff-jumping days, and admits that he always knew a big find was unlikely. Though, then again, this is the note we end on:
"You know what's going to happen when you publish this, Craig?" he tells me. "It's going to inspire people to search, and one of those people is going to find the Last Big Secret of Shadow Of The Colossus."