When Shadow of The Colossus originally released on the PlayStation 2, it was a game characterized by an open spacious environment, gigantic brooding beasts, and a mysterious cryptic story. A story that was entirely relatable given its themes of loneliness and companionship, inferiority and dominance, and our willingness to do the wrong things for the right reasons. Shadow of The Colossus used a minimalist structure to convey a grand adventure and it is within the dichotomies that the game presents that meaning is found.
I played Shadow of The Colossus when I was thirteen, so about 10 years ago, and at the moment I had slain my first colossus, the game connected with me. It was unlike anything I had ever played before. It was the first time I had toyed with the idea that video games could be an artform. Not only a play experience, but an expression. And for that, Shadow of The Colossus remains as one of my favorite games I have ever played. Today, I don’t necessarily want to have ‘that’ conversation. I’m not concerned about “games as art” but rather, what is it about Shadow of The Colossus that makes it resonate with people the way it does as a work of art. More than anything else, what I believe the game does that vibes with those that love it, is it cultivates wonder within its world.
Shadow of The Colossus begins as the main character enters a foreign land with a lifeless woman, his horse, his sword, and his bow. We know nothing of the main character, Wander, and his relationship with the woman. We don’t know how she got this way. We don’t know why we’re here. We’re presented with mystery in every form and the biggest mystery that the game presents is also a mystery to Wander himself. What is the story behind this seemingly forbidden land that Wander has found himself in?
Team Ico, the developers of Shadow of The Colossus, keep this particular thread of mystery throughout all of their games. In The Last Guardian, the main character is as foreign to that world as the player is. Same goes for Ico. Shadow of The Colossus falls in line and builds a world that not only does Wander know nothing about, but that we the player know next to nothing about. And by the end of the game it gives the player not much more to really go off of. Team Ico spends no time trying to answer these questions. The answers don’t matter to the player or the player character. What matters to Wander is the critical path and saving this girl. For the player, the world is wonder-filled set dressing meant to backdrop this mission. We learn about the massive Colossi and we see ancient structures but the more we discover, the more questions present themselves. Questions like:
Who and what are these colossi? What is happening to Wander at the end of each fight? Is what I am doing good or bad? What was this weird empty land?
Shadow of The Colossus is a game that does, or at least at the time, did new things. It entered untrenched territory in its storytelling. At the beginning of this essay I presented multiple dichotomies that carry the themes of the game. The first one being loneliness and companionship.
Loneliness and Companionship: Throughout the game your character is alone. There are no characters to talk to aside from a spirit that communicates to you during certain periods of the game. Between the bouts with each colossus there are no enemies that interrupt your journey. Each of the colossi themselves give off a feeling of solitude and loneliness. Yet, your whole goal is to resurrect your companion. You’re also given a companion in the form of your horse, Agro. Your relationship with Agro is overstated with a button command primarily to call his name. You also have multiple ways to interact with him. He even accompanies you in some battles.
The loneliness in Shadow of The Colossus is complemented by sparse doses of companionship which makes those relationships mean more. Not only that, but this loneliness contributes to the wonder of the land. Why is this place lifeless? Your loneliness almost creates the feel of a Horror Game. Think of the feeling you had while playing Gone Home and compare it to Shadow of The Colossus. I believe there is something there when talking about the marriage of mystery and solitude.
Inferiority and Dominance: Conquering giants is the literal goal in Shadow of The Colossus. Conveniently enough, it also works out as a perfect descriptor of the game in a figurative sense. In Shadow of The Colossus, you set out to do the impossible. You play as a man. Not a super-hero. Not a Witcher. Not a Hero of Time. No, you play as a man with a sword and a bow and you set after beasts that outsize you greatly. You’re on an impossible mission. And yet, you conquer these colossi over and over again. Your inferiority compared to their greatness in size should keep you from making a dent and yet, over and over you exude dominance over these colossi to the point, where it becomes apparent that their swings and kicks are not only in attempts to kill you, but in self-defense. You’re nothing in comparison to these giants and yet, you exert a dominance over them that instills a sense of achievement and victory which leads me to the final dichotomy which is…
The Willingness to do the Wrong Things for the Right Reasons: Killing these colossi is immoral. The game never directly tells us this. We don’t know the history of the colossi or why exactly murdering these creatures is bringing back our loved one. Maybe her time was up on this earth and the natural course of the story should’ve been for her to stay dead, we don’t know. All of the circumstances around our actions are purposely left ambiguous. It is implied that our actions are bad from cues in the artistic choices of the game. Whenever we slay a colossus sad music is played as Wander is consumed by darkness. Throughout the game Wander looks more and more sickly. And then, there is the setup of the game which has the player in search of the 16 colossi which are all seemingly minding their own business… We take the role of a murderer… which the game balances out by making the incentive the life of a woman that the player knows nothing about, thus justifying the player’s desire for action and Wander’s motivation.
It is in what Shadow of The Colossus doesn’t choose to tell us which makes the game special. Yet, Shadow of The Colossus doesn’t just cultivate wonder by keeping information from the player. It does this by creating subtext that allows players to fill in those gaps by themselves. The game carefully picks and chooses what to say and what not to say. It also chooses to tell Wander’s story which isn’t necessarily the story of the world. The world is just where that story takes place. Shadow of The Colossus innovated on what a meaningful experience in gaming can be by cultivating wonder. And by doing this, cemented itself as a masterpiece.