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  • Rock in His Pocket: Reading Shadow of the Colossus

    [08.23.07]
    - Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

  •  The Purpose
    More than that, the majesty of the world and the lack of a driving reason to progress lead the player to question the mission. When the player seeks out and encounters colossi, they are mostly minding their own business. Generally, it's the player who must pick the fight, and go out of his way to do so.

    But there's no rush, really. The dead girl is hardly going to become more dead. And the colossi aren't going anywhere. This mission is no one's but the player's. After a certain point, the game starts to feel a bit like jousting at windmills.

    Were the game a boss rush with a linear route or sequence of events leading to each encounter, the player would feel a driving sense of purpose. Of course he is meant to fight the colossi, as doing so or preparing to do so, is the entire fabric of the world.

    Ueda gives us liberty coupled with uncertainty. Clearly, the player is meant to progress and finish the game. Yet do we care? Must we care? And if we don't, then why are we playing? What other meaning does the game hold?

    Shadow of the Colossus is almost post-Campbellian in that the hero quest -- the framework that we normally think of as the meat of a video game -- is actively questioned. The player can subvert the quest and turn down the call to arms at any time.

    Still, the game doesn't abandon the quest structure so much as approach it at a different angle. There's only so long the average player can live with "but you must!" before caving in. Unless we stop playing altogether, we will ultimately surrender and accept our fate, similar to how the sword's plunge is more of a release than an act of aggression. For all the introspection it inspires, Shadow of the Colossus is about giving up and doing anything to escape emptiness, even being a false hero.

    The Details
    It's worth noting that what makes Ueda's game work, as far as it does, is its wealth of subtle details (which so many other games lack) that humanize the world and its population and make it feel genuine.

    One of the most significant details that most games skimp on is animation, but here, it's the soul of the game. The player, dubbed Wander by fans, is a gangly and awkward young man. He's uncomfortable wielding a sword. When he runs, he swings his arms and legs with abandon, occasionally tripping over his own feet. He has no idea how to jump, and nearly falls on his face each time he tries. The only place he is greater than inept is on his horse, bow in hand. And he can cling to things pretty damn well. He has a whole button devoted to clinging.

    The game's main button serves to interact with the horse -- call to it, spur it on, cling to it, bond with it. You can perform tricks like standing upright at a gallop. When you're off the horse, you can pet it, though it gets spooked by weapons.

    When you're on the horse, you don't have to touch a control. You barely have to steer. The horse is smart enough to keep you on course, even down a winding path, without running into a wall or slowing down more than is necessary. It's a loyal companion who will follow you to the grave.

    Curiously, the player is given a separate button to "use" the sword than to attack with it. "Using" the sword means holding it up to the sky, when there's sunlight, which reflects off the blade and forms a beacon, pointing the way to the next colossus. The sword, which is clearly not a part of Wander's normal life, considering how awkwardly he wields it, is what directs the player toward the next leg of the quest, keeping him on the path of action. The sword symbolizes the player's decision to choose action over inaction, to stay with the quest and move forward. This, alongside the sword's hold-and-release stabbing action (or inaction, as it were, since it's more of a reflex) shows us that the hero is driven by compulsion and not necessarily purpose.

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