Shadow of the Colossus Reader Review
If you were to ask me what I consider to be the most important single feature of a game that can mean the difference between a living, breathing game world and a lifeless collection of polygons, I would answer without hesitation:
This isn�t going to be an essay about flatulent video game characters or applications of digital scent technology, but something that is rarely talked about and which in my opinion can make or break the authenticity of a virtual world. You might think I�m exaggerating, and I am a bit, but it�s easy to underestimate the value of a stiff breeze. An artificial one, that is.
More about that later.
Shadow of the Colossus is Fumito Ueda and Kenji Kaido�s follow up to their seminal 2001 game Ico and it�s immediately clear that this game is dripping with the developer�s unique style and focused approach to design that made Ico so exceptional.
Design By Subtraction
Perhaps the best way to begin describing these games to someone who hasn�t played them is by talking about things that they won�t find in them, otherwise many of the staples of modern games might be assumed to be present when in actual fact it is their absence which most strongly defines Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. These games stubbornly resist classification, and not just in terms of gameplay - their unique look also defies description in familiar terms. They are truly distinctive works of unbridled imagination and single-minded design.
A fairy tale doesn�t need a context or a convoluted plot to be engaging, a journey doesn�t need to be interrupted by countless distractions to be meaningful, and the simplest goals can be the most rewarding. Ico proved this and rewarded the player with a profound experience that is still talked about in reverent tones. Shadow of the Colossus tests your commitment to this minimalist approach, and offers the player even greater rewards.
West Of Eden
It could be said of Ico that the space in which the story took place was the principal character, and the same is true of Shadow of the Colossus. In a typically understated and poignant intro sequence the melancholy mood of the game is established and we are introduced to the characters and landscape where the story takes place. If the hairs on the back of your neck aren�t prickling at the crescendo of this beautiful sequence you must be dead inside.
This developer�s seemingly effortless ability to move you and draw you into their world with the simplest of touches is remarkable - a character�s posture, a camera angle, sunlight streaming through a forest canopy, raindrops bouncing off a leaf, not to mention Kow Otani�s mesmerising orchestral score - and with just this short in-engine intro I�m already putty in their hands. There is more emotion and promise in those three or so minutes than in most entire games, and yet again I�m reminded how inadequate and misleading the term �video game� is these days.
As with Ico there�s no �where� or �when�, no background beyond what we need to understand the story, and anyone who�s played Ico will attest that this lack of context contributes to the game�s dreamlike quality which has effectively become Team Ico�s trademark. The absence of a wider perspective on the story has a magical effect on the experience, enhancing every minute detail and somehow stimulating a greater sense of immersion and empathy.
Etched Into Stone
For those of you who aren�t familiar with the simple premise of Shadow of the Colossus I�ll briefly set the scene and explain the gameplay. A young man has travelled on horseback to a forgotten peninsula, carrying with him the lifeless body of a girl. Nothing is revealed of their relationship to one another, where they come from or why she died. He reaches an ancient moss-covered stone edifice, the gateway to this forgotten place, through which a path leads him onto a long, narrow stone bridge spanning a vast desolate landscape. The bridge eventually leads him to a crumbling temple where he places the girl on an altar.
A cryptic narration (spoken in a fictional language accompanied by subtitles, like all the dialogue in the game) tells of a powerful magic that according to legend can bring back the souls of the dead, but that to trespass on this cursed land is strictly forbidden.
Several shadow-like figures appear and approach the boy, but they evaporate into thin air when he raises his sword. A disembodied voice speaks to the boy; it may be possible to revive the girl, but the price may be great. The sixteen idols lining the walls of this temple must be destroyed, and to do this he must defeat the sixteen colossi they represent.
Leaving the shrine on horseback and holding the sword aloft to reflect sunlight in the direction of your next task, you set out to track down the first colossus.
The Green Mountains Are Always Walking
The first time you see one of these things is an unforgettable moment. Every single one is imposing, yet strangely melancholy and perhaps even undeserving of their fate. The combination of superb design, art and animation bestows each one with a personality, and each of their haunts - whether it�s a windswept plain, an impossibly deep black lake, an ancient ruin or any of the other diverse locations - has a palpable sense of eeriness and antiquity.
Stripped down to basics the gameplay primarily consists of three distinct stages: locate the colossus, identify how to defeat it and then do it. Fortunately it�s neither as simple or as repetitive as it sounds. God is in the details.
Each colossus is effectively a puzzle, each requiring a very different solution. Some are straightforward and some more elaborate, often involving the surroundings to varying degrees, but all require that ultimately you locate their �vital� spot and pierce it to release its spirit until the colossus is slain. Usually there�s more than one vital spot, and these need to be attacked in sequence. Holding up the sword - as long as there is sunlight to reflect - will always guide you to your next goal, though this isn�t as easy as it sounds if you�re struggling for a steady footing on the shoulder of a giant while it�s trying to shake you off.
These encounters are never short of magnificent, and both the design of the colossi and the environments they inhabit are diverse and often breathtaking. Tackling them is a thrilling experience and one that�s entirely unique to this game, but although this in itself may well constitute an original and genuinely remarkable game, it isn�t the whole story.
The landscape in Shadow of the Colossus is huge, and without any restrictions on exploration - no invisible barriers, no progress-related barriers and no additional loading once you�re in the game - there�s an unrivalled sense of immersion. There are vast areas of stunning and diverse landscape that a player who simply goes where he needs to won�t ever see.
But what incentive is there to explore? Don�t expect to find any hidden treasure chests. When a game world feels this authentic - and despite the limitations of the aging PS2 hardware, incredibly beautiful - exploration is it�s own reward. The lure of a new view and the satisfaction of discovery is incentive enough. Fumio Ueda is clearly obsessed with authenticity, and he achieves this not by vainly pursuing photo-realism but by stubbornly refusing to cut corners where it matters. The result is a thoroughly believable virtual world whose simplicity is deceptive.
Lonely Rolling Star
Even more significant than the freedom or the vastness of the landscape is the overwhelming feeling of isolation that permeates every nook of this game and every moment spent in it. There�s very little life in the cursed lands, and this serves to emphasise the presence of what little there is - it�s hard not to stop and watch as a flock of gulls or a lone hawk passes by.
Sound is also used effectively, with the aforementioned wind being the prime example. Not many experiences in video games can come close to the simple, absorbing delight of sitting on a cliff top on horseback in Shadow of the Colossus, surveying the silent landscape and listening to the wind.
The wind�s pitch and character change according to your surroundings, and hair and clothing flutters convincingly - another example of Ueda�s attention to detail and obsession with creating a believable world. It�s surprising how effectively this replaces incidental music as a more natural way of varying the mood and atmosphere as you explore the diverse environments.
Having said that music does play a huge part in the game, and it�s hard to imagine any of the colossus encounters or cut scenes having half as much impact without Kow Otani�s beautiful score.
Talking about the story in any greater detail than I already have without giving anything away is difficult, and that�s perhaps an indication of its simplicity. However as I�ve already said sometimes the simplest fairy tales can be the most engaging, and it�s no exaggeration to say that Shadow of the Colossus illustrates how this medium is capable of rivalling any other when it comes to producing touching narratives.
Its simplicity is its genius; Shadow of the Colossus draws players in, takes them on a journey and communicates to them with a flair and apparent effortlessness familiar to fans of Ico. None of this game�s myriad accomplishments and innovations would be what they are without the thread of empathy that runs through the entire game - the player joins the boy on his journey, feels his despair, his isolation, his devotion and his determination, and when the story reaches its conclusion it is nothing short of breathtaking.
Be Not Afraid Of Greatness
Shadow of the Colossus is, to my mind, one of the finest video games ever created, and one that leaves a deep and lasting impression. Memories of places are so vivid that they feel like treasured memories of real places, and the sensations the game provoked are recalled with a sense of nostalgia, so that one of the few things almost as gratifying as playing Shadow of the Colossus is not playing Shadow of the Colossus.
The question of whether or not games can be considered an art form follows Fumito Ueda around like a bad smell, but with good reason. If Shadow of the Colossus isn�t a work of art then surely no video game is or ever will be.
I can hear the sound of the wind on the cliff tops now. I can almost feel it. Sometimes �video game� just doesn�t cut it.