To the notes of ethereal music, a boy named Wander rides alone towards an abandoned temple. On the altar he lays the lifeless body of a young girl, Mono, asking for her soul’s return; a plea that a mysterious entity Dormin is ready to accept. To see his wish granted though, he will have to slay sixteen colossal beings that roam the forbidden lands. An impossible feat, accepted with no hesitation – despite knowing that the price to pay may be a terrible one.
This is the beginning of Shadow of The Colossus, developed by Team Ico in 2005, though there is more to this title than that which meets the eye. Thanks to its immersive gameplay it became a milestone in the genre, inspiring many other video games after it.
An anti-hero’s tragedy
The story of Shadow of the Colossus follows in appearance a classic trope. A hero on a quest to save a damsel, fighting beasts to achieve this goal. And yet, when witnessing the defeat of the first colossus, such roles begin to stumble and falter. When Wander finally manages to vanquish the gigantic being there is no satisfaction in this victory. Instead, the music is sad as the giant tumbles lifelessly to the ground; making the player feel mournful towards the end of something sacred, whose death feels sacrilegious. And as black tendrils leave the body of each slain colossus to embed themselves in Wander, the sense of dread builds.
Most colossi do not even attack, fighting back only in defense. Detail is often lost, but that instills a suspicion towards the motivation of the protagonist. In such a light, defeating them feels senseless and unnecessary. And yet Wander, whose body is growing sickly, is too focused on his task to consider the consequences. The player will witness a theme reversal as the protagonist’s role shifts from anti-hero to antagonist, as what appeared to be a decision dictated by loves turns into a gesture of selfishness. Nonetheless, the finale of such a tragedy is not void of a glimmer of hope and redemption.
The sense of awe
Even with the limitations of the PS2 graphics, the ambiance in this game remains breathtaking to this day. From moonlit forests to deserted planes, the setting is meant to immerse the player from the very start. A soft world-building later expanded in indie like Journey and RiME. The game goes even as far as slowing down to favor the narrative timing, necessary to appreciate the surroundings; enhanced by the evocative soundtrack by Kow Otani. The importance of music growing to become a staple in emotional games, such as Gris. Everything in this world is immense; from the vast environments to the colossi, so gigantic that in order to fight Wander has to climb them. Thus the visuals play a key role in conveying this epic sense of scale, making the player feel all the smaller when faced with the literal magnificence of this title.
The mechanics of the game contribute too: having to travel on horseback to reach each colossus before moving to the next grants the player the time to take in the Forbidden Lands. Such journeys before each boss fight are peaceful, with no perils nor encounters along the way, with the only company of the loyal horse Agro. A simple yet effective way to build tension before the battle. Until the time when the protagonist will find himself once again in the shadow of these colossal foes.
Emotional storytelling in Shadow of the Colossus
Many elements are purposefully left open to interpretation: the characters seem to be part of a bigger story, of which only a glimpse is revealed. Nonetheless, while director Fumito Ueda’s narration is minimal, the story reveals great depth. Its static structure, gameplay limitations, and the absence of other elements of interactions do not hinder the gaming experience. On the contrary, they enhance the elements that are present, putting emphasis on the emotions evoked by the narration.
The design of the colossi is architectural, fit for their monumental presence, awe-inspiring among the minimal surroundings. Dialogues and lore are essential in their brevity and scattered throughout the story like seeds for the player to find and cultivate. Every element is balanced, creating a memorable gaming experience that presented the video game genre as an art form and inspired many different titles, from Breath of the Wild to God of War. Its beauty charmed even director Guillermo del Toro, who was influenced by the awe-inspiring aesthetic – inspiration that transpires in his fantasy movies such as Pan’s Labyrinth. The game won 2006 the Game of the Year and one Innovation Award at the Game Developers Choice Awards.