Shadow of the Colossus Analysis: All the World is but Lizards and Birds

So this analysis is painfully late, I know. I’d finished SotC sometime late October and had let the analysis sit there for sometime because I honestly did not want to write what I had to say, but here it is. As always, spoilers follow.

I really wanted to like Shadow of the Colossus, I really really did. Japan Studio has created such a reputation about themselves that to not enjoy their games sounds almost like someone saying they don’t like the work of Van Gogh. In that situation, people tend to blame your lack of taste rather then the artist’s. However after putting my controller down after the 25 something hours I had put into the game, I couldn’t help but feel like I only enjoyed playing a fraction of what the game had put me through.

The battles with the colossi were indeed intense and very involving and at these moments I enjoyed the game, but these battles are bookended by swaths of traversing barren, boring fields. You come across occasional interesting changes in scenery, but what can be said about a game whose only diversion from the main goal is collecting fruit and lizard tails? By the end I had to force myself to finish the game. Granted, the ending was a fantastic twist built up by subtle changes in the character, but it wasn’t enough. The game reminds me of “The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker” with its expansive yet plain environment, but in Wind Waker the potential to run into something unexpected or interesting is actually there; a random island, a new NPC, theres always the chance to stumble upon something else to do. SotC is simply a forward march through winding fields, with the occasional exclamation, “Oh, I’m in a pretty forest,” or “Oh, I’m in a pretty desert.” It is a sour disappointment. Ico was somewhat similar to this, but Ico wasn’t a 25 hour game.

Miles of terrain and nobodys home.

Apart from this downfall I can sing praise for what SotC did for storytelling in a video game. The character, known only as the Wanderer, seeks to revive a young woman who many would assume is his girlfriend (though this is never confirmed). He is promised this wish by a deity if he goes out and destroys these 13 colossi that sleep around the shrine the Wanderer has traveled to.

As the Wanderer defeats these gigantic creatures, a number of things happen that make you doubt the virtue of your task: Dark streams of energy erupt from the giants and bury themselves into the Wanderer, a disheartening melody plays as the giants fall to the ground defeated, an ever growing number of dark shadows stand over the unconscious Wanderer before he reawakens at the main shrine. The sense of creeping dread grows over the player as these events build on themselves and they see that the Wanderer himself becomes darker and more inhuman with each successive victory. At the climax the Deity’s true intentions are revealed, but it’s too late. In a slap to the face of cliche, the hero does not get a chance to battle the deceiving god, but is consumed and possessed by it.

This is quite the cold shower for the theme of love. The Wanderer’s pursuit backfiring on him so badly sheds a bit of light on his ignorance. The curse of the horns he is later reborn with serving as a symbolic reminder.

This kind of character isn’t new to video games, the well meaning fool whose obsession leads to the release of some great evil has been used as the catalyst for the start of many video games. It is however unusual to see this as the climax for a game, and even more unusual is the unexpected involvement of the player.

An attentive gamer could pick up on the clues revealing something amiss about his mission, but the clues are given in ways that are very unusual for a game. There’s no lore to look back on, no hieroglyphs or conversations that hint at the Wanderer’s folly. Indeed we know nothing of the Wanderer’s personality or how much he might know of the risks he was taking. He could have been completely aware of who he was helping escape, or completely ignorant.

The Tainting of the Wanderer

With each victory, the Wanderer becomes progressively sickly looking. Of course, ingesting black beams of energy can't be very healthy for you. (From fangamer.com)

The strongest clues are those the Wanderer never perceives. The shadows that invade and the progressive visual tainting of his body are disturbing enough visuals. But the music also works as a non-diegetic clue to the player that the felling of the colossi is something to be mourned, not celebrated. It gives me a sense of foreshadowing subtle enough to believe that SotC could have been a great bit of literature had it been a written piece like The Monkey’s Paw.

Sadly though, I think SotC stands as an example for why no one aspect of a video game can make up for the lacking of the whole. SotC’s storyline is indeed an engaging one when read aloud, but the time and toil to see the story play out is wasted in an environment that might have been visually impressive in 2005, but now seems archaic and barren.

SotC is not a graphics demonstration, it’s a game, and at the parts it’s actually engaging me like a game it’s fantastic! The washed out visuals feel like you’re looking through a foggy mirror back in time, the designs of the buildings and the colossi are gracefully intertwined. The colossi battles are each unique, interesting, challenging, and I loved figuring them out. The mechanic of grip strength used while climbing the colossi and the sheer sense of scale between the Wanderer and these giants were great. But these moments were too few and far between a landscape that did nothing for me. I felt no desire to explore, no great sense of discovery, it just did not engage me like I was hoping it would.

The sense of scale in the game is one of it's few graces. (From ign.com)

Shadow of the Colossus is a game for the game historians. It’s less like a painting and more like a cotton gin or printing press. A wonderful piece of ingenuity in its time, but virtually obsolete by comparison to what gamers have available for entertainment today.

— Next Analysis: Dark Souls! —

A long and difficult game, but extremely fun. Dark Souls, the spiritual successor to Demon’s Souls is already a few months old, and I’m a few dozen hours in with the end seeming far off. Hopefully this analysis will be up soon after the game’s completion.

Don’t forget to rate, comment, and subscribe! It lets me know you’re listening and I welcome the feedback.

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Posted on December 20, 2011, in Reviews and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

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  8. He said 13 colossi.

  9. The Empty Space is meant to give of an auroa of isolation and loneliness. The abundence of things to do would be a major digression to the theme.

  10. this game is cool

  11. this game is THE BEST.

  12. 25 hour game? You were using your sword light to direct you to the Colossi right? It should be closer to 10 hours if you’re not getting lost somehow. The game is an experiment in minimalist game design so it’s definitely barren by design. There’s nothing to do between bosses except look at your surroundings. Sounds like you’re simply just not a landscape kind of guy.

  13. This review sucks because the reviewer expected a Zelda game but dude: if you want Zelda, just play Zelda. Criticizing the Colossus’ world is like criticizing Megaman’s stage selection screen or Mario’s overworld maps: the landscape of SotC is not the game, the game are the Colossi themselves. The world is there to create atmosphere but besides of it you just need to focus on the colossi because they are indeed the levels. If horse travelling is not for you, that doesn’t mean the game is a “cotton gin”. It’s more like a toy you didn’t figure out how to make fun out of it and you see with dismay others enjoying it but you’ll never understand why.

  14. All of the things you complained about were intentional artistic choices (doesn’t mean your arguments aren’t legit though) by Team Ico. The lack of anything to do other than travel and fight the colossi is due to Wander’s determination (the one thing he has going for him) to save Mono and his single mindedness in completing this task. It is also explained in the story that this is a forbidden land and I think the desolation adds to the history and feel of the land. It makes it seem like this was once a land inhabited by humans (there ARE buildings/bridges), animals, and plant life, most of which has been banished or have abandoned the land a long time ago adding to the atmosphere. I also enjoyed the long sections of traveling to the colossi as it gave a nice contrast to the high action fight sequences. It also just helped my immersion as traveling so far and sometimes even getting lost in the world made me feel like I was almost just happening across the colossi and that made them seem more a part of the world instead of just traveling to a boss and fighting (essentially the whole forbidden land is available from the beginning which also helps).

    • That’s a brilliant point, but I suppose then the question is how much dead space is acceptable in order to give that barren feel to the world before the luster starts to wane and it simply becomes boredom. Ico is similarly sparce in distractions, but it’s acceptable to me as it’s only about a 4 hour game. SotC is quoted as a 16 hour game I believe, if I’m only enthralled for less than half of that 16 hours then is that a flaw of the games design or a flaw in my patience?

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