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  • Rock in His Pocket: Reading Shadow of the Colossus

    - Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

  •  Actually, the problem of disengagement starts before the game even opens to play; between the long and wordless approach to the tower and the start of the player's mission, there's a new bridge cutscene that yaks at length about the plot, about the player's quest, his destiny, who he will fight and why, and how the game is played. At least it's all in a made-up language, though even imaginary speech feels out of place here.

    More significantly, if any game should trust the player to explore and discover the game's story and nuances for himself, this is it. If Ueda wanted to point the player toward the first goal and hint toward a method for finding the beasts, a better solution would have been simply to place the sword in the player's way as he leaves the tower. Make it an obstruction.

    Picking up the sword for the first time, Wander could hold it to the sunlight and a beam of light would shoot out toward the horizon, pointing the way. There would have to be a simple and elegant way to inform the player of what button to press in the future, should the player wish to do repeat the action, but that all the set-up the game needs. The player (unless supremely unobservant) would then or eventually follow the beam out of curiosity.

    Distraction and Direction
    The plot dumps would be inane, if harmless, on their own. Yet the game does not reserve its condescension for the margins between episodes. Some of its most obnoxious moments come when the player can least afford to be distracted: in the heat of battle with a foe way too big for comfort.

    If the player takes more than a few moments to study a colossus for patterns and formulate a strategy, the game begins to scream. An enormous text box will appear at the bottom of the screen, obscuring the player's view, and hinting at nothing more edifying than, "EASTMOST PENINSULA HOLDS THE SECRET."

    The box stays on screen for what seems like forever, with no way of closing it manually. If the player continues to fail at the precise action the game expects him to, the box pops up again and again. This design decision on its own caused me to put the game on the shelf for more than two years. However much I like a game's ideas, I refuse to be a monkey boy, especially if a game screams at me -- especially if, in its concerted effort to patronize me, it causes me to fail at the very task it is demanding of me. Life is too short for that kind of frustration.

    If the game must have a hint system, make it optional, for example as in Metroid Prime. Why so few games follow that model is beyond me.

    Game designers never, under any circumstance, want their players to ask, "What am I supposed to do?" The question the player should ask is, "How can I do this?" The player should be focused on juggling the available options and working out the best course of action, not second-guessing the designer's intentions.

    If Shadow of the Colossus has a major problem, it's in direct communication of its ideas. The thematic hints and suggestions are expressive, yes. But to explain something outright, Ueda's only recourse is the text box or nothing at all. For instance, one of the first steps toward reaching the first colossus is climbing an ivy-coated wall. The game gives no sign that Wander can climb or that the wall is in any way remarkable beyond its inconspicuously green texture. Had Ueda noticed the possible hang-up, he would have thrown in a text box or some other clue that would have invited the player to jump toward the wall and hold the grip button.

    The problem really manifests in the colossus battles. Each is rigorously scripted, with a specific and correct course of action expected of the player. Occasionally, the context is sufficient to suggest a technique, as when a flying beast swoops at you when you shoot it, but then flies in a set pattern. Another example is an aquatic beast that surfaces in a set pattern. Other times, though, the player is left grasping at straws, trying to work out just what is expected. One colossus is only assailable if the player backs under an overhang and waits for the beast to bend far enough over that its beard dangles close to the ground.

    These are cute solutions. The thing is, they are overly specific, not particularly intuitive, and not well signaled. Discovering them happens by trial-and-error and luck, not triumph of mental or technical skill or even persistence. Time spent until the player happens to stumble across these solutions is completely wasted, as there's nothing else of importance to learn. Then typically the beast will shake Wander off once or twice, forcing the player to run through the same scripted motions over and over, making their tedium all the more obvious. Learn one arbitrary note and repeat. It lacks growth and reward.

    Mixed Messages
    Mired in the annoying and insufferable gameplay, Shadow of the Colossus certainly put me off, even though I admire the hell out of what Ueda is trying to do with it. The real problem is that it subtly affects the game's thematic balance. On its own, the world is idyllic and serene, while the game is hard and obtuse. With ambition, the player unlocks what darkness is to be found, but must put in a lot of effort to do evil or discover his own opportunities. Even if you know what to do, the tasks are time-consuming and arduous. Evil is a burden that players must bear on their own accord, lending all the more poignancy to the game's central dilemma.

    When the game specifically tells you what to do, where to go, and how to complete your missions, rushing you from place to place, it changes the tone dramatically. Whether you decide to take action changes from being a difficult choice to one that leaves you asking why you should take action at all. This question too will pass many player by, as they charge ahead to run through the motions, ride the roller coaster, as if this were other action game.

    Is the game less successful for its faults? Added up, I think so. The message is different. It's more pessimistic and a bit more obvious, I think. Without the blinking lights, the game would have been more about the subtle, narcotic appeal to evil (in the form of traditional video game motivation), compelling the player to destroy the beauty around him. Now it's more about whether the player is even aware enough to notice that he has an option other than evil, then how far and how long he takes that option before giving in to the inevitable.

    The new message is certainly valid. Perhaps it makes a more classically entertaining game. But Ueda missed the chance for something more unusual here. Still, I sure would like to see a director's cut of this game. Maybe in another 10 or 15 years?

    Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his dreams and his clutter. Sometimes when the sun hits the leaves outside his window, he remembers fond times that never were. He also likes ice cream.


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