Shadow of the Colossus

5 years ago, my life changed forever. Little ten years old Nathan Hardisty was scampering about the house, and then decided to calm down like the little twerp he is. The latest issue of ‘Official PlayStation 2 Magazine’ had arrived and he opened it up with glee. Flicking through the pages, and with Doctor Who about to come on the tellybox, he saw a small preview feature of what would become, in his eyes, the greatest game ever created. An experience that would shape his thinking and his definition of life for years to come. All from a videogame.

Shadow of the Colossus.

Now Nathan Hardisty is fifteen years old. He’s an author for Platform Nation, working on three novels and a self-help book, got hundreds of articles under his belt. Everything’s fine. He’s said that historical accuracy in games will improve the full experience; that the greatest game design feature can be the sense of true aviation and that videogames as a collective industry will not be one with artistic merit; rather every game has the capacity to be a work of art. He’s also said that gamers are stupid in commentary and social empathy, said Ebert is right to say “games can never be art”, reviewed tens of titles, made a rant that Just Cause 2 is better than Heavy Rain and made hundreds of people angry in the same amount of time.

And I regret nothing.

I’ve commented massively about negative aspects of gaming, and I haven’t exactly shown my balance. Today this will be a more personal essay. This is about the greatest game of all time.

Some people say Call of Duty 4, same say Halo 3, others say Ocarina of Time; as you can already guess, I say ‘Shadow of the Colossus’.

After you’ve read this article I’d like to get your ‘GREATEST GAME OF ALL TIME’ and maybe elaborate on why. I may be taking it too far but if you write something similar I would gladly read it, I may promote it in a future post too.

Shadow is over 5 years old and yet the messages still stick with me. The emotional punches to the gut still have their bruises and marks.

I wasn’t expecting any of it; it started out like a lot of games for me. But it was a mystery, the magic of the game’s intro still sparkles with me today all because it told me nothing. It didn’t give me the names of the characters or where we were or heading, just a dude on a horse carrying his lost love.

Shadow is about loss and how far redemption can go; and how it can change us. It’s about a young chap called Wander, who wishes to restore the lost life of a young girl called Mono. He hears of a land of beasts, where wishes will be granted only for the greatest warriors. It is a forbidden land, but he journeys on his black steed (Agro) to enthral himself into the challenge. In this forbidden land he happens upon a temple housing sixteen statues, and the voice of a long gone God called Dormin, who will restore the life of Mono but only by his action of defeating sixteen Colossi; giant husks of metal and earth which roam the land.

The thing is; all of that was from memory. I’ve just checked out Wikipedia and more or less, that’s all there is. The beauty of Shadow’s story is not in the detail, but in the hints. It’s very simplistic and minimalist, but enough to keep you wanting more. It’s not about plot points or character arcs; it’s about bonds and how far you will go for love. Something which Heavy Rain attempted.

Journeying to your first Colossi is hard work, and requires Agro, the beloved steed Wander journeyed with. Agro is your only companion throughout the game’s length and it’s a brilliant gameplay device that it’s such a vast world, so you’re kind of forced into becoming attached to this character. That attachment will become challenged later on.

Your first Colossi is a gigantic fellow, one of mountainous height, and it’s only your first. Each Colossi is a walking puzzle, requiring you to seek out the weak points and climb the beast. The only instruments at your disposal are a bow and arrow and a sword. The sword, when held up, can guide you to your next Colossi with a narrowing beam of light. It can also seek out the weak points of the beasts.

There’s a raw sense of power and presence as you climb the first Colossi. The orchestral starts up, the roars of the giant become ambient. As you clamber about his flesh and fur, which flows in the breeze, you stab yourself up to his head. You might fall or trip, run out of stamina and fall of. It never feels like failure, just a way of slowing you down.

Once you puncture him too far, a giant spurt of oily liquid bursts out of the top of his head. There’s a choir and violin orchestral track, as the liquid becomes blue veins; which envelops Wander and blacks him out.

You walk up in the temple, with a dark creature looking over your body. Over the course of the game, more ‘Shadows’ appear standing over you corpse. I think I’m right in saying that a dove appears too.

As you go about the defeating of Colossi, sometimes with the help of Agro, it starts to seep in to you. The novelty of the scale, David versus Goliath, starts to wear thin and manifest itself into something else. A group of villagers are seen journeying to the forbidden land, to stop your evil plot. Yes, evil plot. What’s gradually happening across the course of the game is something seen in Mass Effect 2. When you do a bad deed in the space RPG, you maybe gain a new scar or your implants become more visible. In Shadow, after every Colossus, Wander becomes darker and more pale. It’s not just a visual trait, but near the end of the game, you don’t get the magical spark with Agro that you might have at one point.

The tables are turning.

The Colossi start defending themselves instead of attacking you, they run away and some are almost as small as Agro. It’s not just out of gameplay variety, but the subtle change is making you out to be the beast. These innocent creatures, which just so happen to be able to defend themselves, are all being slaughtered by you; all for your broken heart.

That’s a question I don’t know the answer to. Is it right to kill sixteen innocent beasts in return for the life of a young human girl? These animals operate on instinct but does their life need to be valued less than a human’s? It’s a conflicting moral proposition and you’re not given any leeway; for the better. Shadow’s big moral themes are not conflicted with ‘+5 paragon’ or just physical changes in the character, they are conflicted with the player. There is no reward for killing all the Colossi, other than the revival of a human girl. No super-weapon or extra ammo, no massive stamina changes. There is nothing, only the question.

That’s why I think that it’s very odd that there aren’t many games like this. By all means, have a reward but don’t like the question be blurred out to a ‘good’ or ‘evil’ answer. Make it sensible and right.

This isn’t all that Shadow has to offer, Shadow has so much more for it. Anthony Burch probably writes all about this better than I do; but I will add a few more pointers.

As you defeat each Colossus, some of the challenges do become bigger. There’s a giant sand demon that flies into the sky, and you have to grab on to its wings and climb around it while it’s still flying. It is an epic game about scale, but as I said, it’s about the role reversal. You become the haunted monsters that they apparently are. In fact, you actually do become a colossus.

There’s no point asking for you to avoid the spoilers, this is about the ending, but I will tell it anyway. If you want to experience Shadow on your own, be my guest and skip the next two-three paragraphs.

As each Colossus is defeated, more is revealed about the plot. The villagers who are coming to put a stop to your plans, they are the ones who (supposedly) imprisoned Dormin. Dormin was evil and beastly and did horrible things so they trapped fragments of him inside sixteen massive monsters. After you defeat each beast, the blue tentacles grab a hold of you.

The darkness, The loss of human life isn’t just in Mono, it’s in you. You are becoming Dormin. At the end of the game, after a massive emotional setpiece and the biggest Colossi: it all ends.

The villagers find you, awakened after the last battle. You wake up, as dark as ever, and they stab you. Wander does die. The wound heals over not with blood or a scabby liquid or anything humanoid, but with the same oily substance that has been gripping you throughout the game. Once it envelops Wander, it spreads out into a large beast.

Now you are Colossi. You are Dormin.

The interactive bits remain, you can punch the villagers, breathe out fire. The sequence doesn’t last very long but it does significantly matter. Eventually, the leader triumphs and sends the fragments of Dormin out back into the beasts.

There’s a fountain in the back of the temple, which I often explored. I didn’t realize its significance, but it’s how they separated Dormin.

You become a blob of Shadow, as the fountain whisks you away. This sequence is playable, but every step you push towards the still corpse of Mono, pulls you back. Wander reaches his hand out, as he is drafted into the pool of water. The doors shut close, Dormin has fulfilled his promise. Mono regains her life, and finds a small child in the fountain.

The traits of Dormin wasn’t just in the beastly tentacles, it was in Wander. It was in his actions, and so it stripped him of everything he had become. A lonely child fighting for his love, out of bitter self-pity.

Obviously this all hits your heart. The story between Wander and Mono, over the course of ten hours you’ve degenerated into a giant monster of hate; and it’s out of your own self-pity that these actions have taken place. Notice I’ve used personal pronouns. At the start of the game, you do want to see Mono revived, something must have gone terribly wrong. Wander has lost his love and so he must kill for it back. You must kill to bring her back.

Once again, I don’t know the answer to the moral conundrum, I don’t know if it’s evil. It is out of self-pity that Wander went about his ways, but was it the right way of doing it? He did save a young girl’s life.

I don’t know. But I know one thing.

Shadow made me cry.

It wasn’t at the ending, my cheeks were already stained with crying juice. It came just before the final Colossi, and it’s just thirty seconds of game that has affected me more than anything else in life. That includes every great film, every Peace Conference speech I’ve heard, every book I’ve read, every inspiring moment. These thirty seconds shaped me, they still hold today. Shadow taught me that through loss, we must prevail. Everytime I fail at writing an essay, I try again. The clichéd “At first you don’t succeed, try try try again.” Now manifested itself into something that has shaped my thinking and rational as a human being.

I’ve tried to say what messages that Shadow sent me, but it’s hard to put it into perspective. It’s exactly like a great book or film that changes your frame of mind, you just can’t put your finger on it. You can sort of say how it changed you (Shadow did help me deal with the loss of my great-grandfather), but you can never say it how it has changed you forever.

The loss I am talking about within Shadow is not the beautiful beasts following to their knees as their very life essence pours into Wander. It’s not some giant revelation about Mono or something else entirely; it’s the very value of someone else’s life. Not a human being.

Agro doesn’t always follow your orders when you beckon him with a whistle or a shout of his name. But he is always there. As you explore the vast canyons, derelict lands and the morbid architecture; the bond becomes real. You care for Agro, you care for his wellbeing. He matters to you as much as anyone in real life. But he’s a horse, he never speaks a word, he barely has any human traits apart from (possibly) courage and compassion.

That’s why, it breaks my heart when the inevitable happens.

As you journey to the final Colossus, you have to ride on the back of Agro across a bridge. It begins to collapse, Agro races forward but there is no hope, so Agro flips his head back; allowing himself to control you as you grip his reins. He throws himself forward and Wander flies to the end of the bridge, and Agro falls to his death. The sounds of the horse crippled my emotions, as I heard the thunder of a ‘thud’ against the ground.

I’m bawling like a baby.

Agro isn’t interesting, he doesn’t talk, he makes no interactive with the player other than being there. He’s the best damn friend I had in Shadow, and now he’s dead. I’m crying over a dead horse in a videogame. It’s almost weird to cry over a dead horse in a film. It takes me back to the scene on The Never Ending Story 2 or maybe 1, where the horse and a boy have to cross a swamp. If any of them gets sad, the swamp becomes like quicksand.

The horse begins to sink into the ground, and the boy has to hide his fear and tears, and put on a fake smile as he tries to pull the horse out of the ground. I didn’t cry at this but itself leaves a mark.

I cried over a videogame, a dead horse within a videogame. Do I feel proud that a videogame made me do this? Slightly. Do I want it to happen again? I don’t know, it might or might now happen.

Right near the end of Shadow, Agro comes limping up the stairs. Somehow he survived, to be greeted by a baby Wander and a living Mono. I was happy to see my best friend still alive, but for 30 minutes, he was dead.

That’s pretty damn powerful.

Shadow of the Colossus is a masterpiece and a collective form of what videogames can be. Beautiful, inspiring, life-changing. Games have so much potential and for this to be only exploited once, even from the vast amounts I’ve played, scares me slightly. You’ll get two life-changing/ thinking changing films (possibly) every year; but only one videogame to change someone’s life?

I don’t wish for every single game to be Shadow of the Colossus, but for just one of it to exist might… be enough. It’s unique in its power and how it potentially shapes the human mind, and maybe that’s all we should have. Maybe the greatest game, that changed your thinking, should be that. It should be on its own, and that should be the lasting legacy of videogames. Not the countless tales of epic ‘gamer changers’ but of a singular experience. When videogames go pear-shaped and all divulge into every one of the mainstream titles being about killing things (similar to comic books and superheroes), I won’t care, they’ve already changed my mind for the better.

What do YOU think?

(Thanks to Sarah Brannan and Scott diMonda for being awesome proofreaders)

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  • Brenton

    This does seem like a good game and I can tell you are someone who enjoys a story that unravel ad you play it more. The one game I do think you should play is Phantom Dust this to me is the best story that has every been in any game . You should try it.

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  • Shadow is amazing !

    You do realise that Sony is making the movie, right? I would like to hear how you reacted when you found that out haha!

    My girlfriend and I made a blog about the movie, check it out if you like,

    Matty K.

  • Volker

    I finished Shadow for the first time in 2009, since I didn’t have a PS2 back in the days. Now I’m working in the games-industry, somehow noticed the game and got curious about it. At colossus #2 or #3 I felt that I’m doing something that just isn’t right, I began to feel sorry for them. But as you’ve mentioned – there’s no moral choice. So I kept on killing and killing, learning that important lesson of “try, try, try” with every new one of it that took me hours to bring down.

    11 hrs or so later I, when the credits where running down the screen, I couldn’t stop shivering for hours. Days after, I couldn’t think about anything else than what I had done to these creatures. That lasts till today, I still catch myself thinking about the game a lot and trying to get every piece of information about it I can get. So tonight (it’s around midnight in Germany now), when I checked google-news, I found this blogpost. Thank you for sharing those thoughts, I found a lot of mine in them and far more.

  • A Dark Knight 2

    Awesome article! I put SOTC in my top 5 all time games: SOTC & ICO, Metal Gear Solid, Uncharted 2, Pac Man, and LBP. I actually really loved Heavy Rain though. 🙂
    This article makes me want to play through SOTC again.

  • Nedal

    the best game of all time for me would have to be well not a game but a franchise mgo the way the story is told and so on you feel attached to snake and in end of 4 not knowing if snake dies or not they dont tell you and you feel sad that you have been through so much with snake over the last 20yrs you feel that you want him to die so he can finally be at peace but you dont want to for loose a freind a brother a legend

  • JD

    WOW! It’s so good to see others sharing this sentiment, as I run into lots of (so called) gamers who have never even played this. Truly one of the greatest games ever, if you could even call it that. For me, one of the greatest entertainment experiences ever, if not the greatest. I have gone so far as to have written to Sony asking for it’s availability on PSN as my 60 gig fat (backwards compatible) PS3 died and I’m relegated to a slim. So far nothing. But if anyone wants to start the campaign, sign me up!

  • adra

    the greatest game of all time,I would say Okami. everything in this game is just beautiful, graphics, sounds, story, characters, the world, your’re powers, your’re weapons, everyting it’s just so emotional. i can’t explain exactly why but… …i don’t know, it just a Great game.

    and Shadow of the Colossus is certainly my second best game.

  • kane_1371

    nathan, i was and am one of those who criticised you, because you have shown everybody that you still have a long way to go for appreciating games in their finest.
    you say things that makes no sense really.
    but you are a real gamer.
    only a real gamer would share this emotions with shadow of the clossus, because you know how a gamer is graded these days.
    if you play anything else than shooters and football, you are a casual gamer [really sad]
    you showed me today that you do know what it means to share your feelings with a game, and only 4 games/franchises did that for me.
    ico franchise[in it’s finest possible way]
    MG(S) franchise
    fahrenheit & heavy rain franchise
    and WALL-E GAME, AS WELL AS THE ANIME (i just made a bound with him really fast)

    and i can’t say best game ever is this or that, but i say best franchise ever.
    and yes team ico franchise is the best ever

  • edutrl

    did you know that you can climb to the secret garden?and when you get there begin a new secret.`the last big secret`.the guys from sony already confirm that,but nobody solve this enigma yet.

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