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  • Rock in His Pocket: Reading Shadow of the Colossus

    - Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

  • What's genius is that the game offers a choice. The player doesn't have to be violent. A whole world exists to explore, full of nooks and crannies and grandeur. The game offers a loyal -- and actually rather bright -- companion in a horse, which the player can pet at will.

    Granted, the player has to find his or her own meaning in that world. The world does not exist for the player's benefit. It simply is what it is.

    The Experience
    If one were to abandon the beasts and take off in the world in non-violent exploration, what that world would offer to most players, unfortunately, is boredom. In games, meaning and purpose come from acting, from fulfilling tasks and progressing toward a preordained goal. Finding the best place to sit and look at the skyline is not the experience most people expect from a PlayStation game. They want mindless catharsis. They want to know they have a place carved out just for them and a defined series of tasks to fulfill in order to win. That's meaning.

    So the choice the game offers is not much of a choice at all: Either be content with nothing but beauty and your own liberty, or do your work and get your reward, however horrible it might be. At least you won't be bored, and when the game is over, you will have accomplished something.

    If the outcome is inevitable, what is the point of the central conflict between wanderer and giant?

    Mostly, having to choose enhances the emotional resonance of the choice itself, as whatever the player does, whatever violence he eventually undertakes, it is of his own volition. Because the player is at liberty to choose, the consequences and sense of morality carry more weight.

    The Method
    Nearly every design element is geared to convey either a sense of scope or a sense of intimacy. The game world is supremely node-based, to use Brian Upton's term, with an endless horizon and landmarks up the wazoo for navigation. There are a few paths, which primarily pace the approach to a colossus battle, and districts, which in combination with the horizon and landmarks orient the player. The edges that do exist serve mainly to encapsulate the node-districts (the tower area, forest, and mountain region) and give each its own sense of place.

    The central tower is visible at nearly all times. Save points are clearly visible in the distance and can be scaled (they take the form of small watchtowers) for a view of the surrounding area or maybe a glimpse of the next watchtower. Whenever the player defeats a colossus, the monster leaves a streak of light in the sky, another directional beacon.

    Height and distance provide a continual sense of perspective in relation to the game world, as well as a sense of belonging and ownership. As the hero climbs each landmark, he is in effect claiming them as personal discoveries.

    Although there's little purpose to most locations and no explicit reason to explore them, the node-centric design of the game emphasizes downtime or exploration. But the moment we as a player grow bored, the dominant landmarks remind us of the pending quest and tether our attention back to the game. The downtime helps to pace the action in a way that heightens the drama and immediacy of the battles, which are so overwhelming they require a recovery period.


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